Apr 28 2022

Open Expense Policy

I wrote a post the other day about innovating employee benefits practices, and I realized I’d never documented a couple other ways in which we have always tried to innovate People practices. Here’s one of them: the Open Expense Policy, which I wrote about in the second edition of Startup CEO in a new chapter on Authentic Leadership when talking about the problem of the “Say-Do” gap.  Here’s what I wrote:

I’ll give you an example that just drove me nuts early in my career here, though there are others in the book.  I worked for a company that had an expense policy – one of those old school policies that included things like “you can spend up to $10 on a taxi home if you work past 8 pm unless it’s summer when it’s still light out at 8 pm” (or something like that).  Anyway, the policy stipulated a max an employee could spend on a hotel for a business trip, but the CEO  (who was an employee) didn’t follow that policy 100% of the time.  When called out on it, did the CEO apologize and say they would follow the policy just like everyone else? No, the CEO changed the policy in the employee handbook so that it read “blah blah blah, other than the CEO, President, or CFO, who may spend a higher dollar amount at his discretion.”

When we started Return Path, we had a similar policy. It was standard issue. But then over time as our culture became stronger and our People First philosophy and approach became something we evangelized more, we realized that traditional expense was at odds with our deeply held value of trusting employees to make good decisions and giving them the freedom and flexibility they needed to do their best work.

So we blew up the traditional policy and replaced it with a very simple one — “use your best judgment on expenses and try to spend the company’s money like it’s your own.” That policy is still in place today for our team at Bolster. We do have people sign off on expense requests that come in through the Expensify system, mostly because we have to, but unless there is something extremely profligate, no one really says a word.

Similar to what happened when we switched to an Open Vacation policy, we had some concerns from managers about employees abusing the new un-policy, so we had to assure them we’d have their back. But do you know what happened when we implemented the new policy? We got a bunch of emails from team members thanking us for trusting them with the company’s money. And the average amount of expenses per employees went down. That’s right, down. Trusting people to exercise good judgment and spend the company’s money as if it was their own drove people to think critically about expenses as opposed to “spend to the limit.”

I don’t think in 15+ years of operating with an Open Expense policy that any of us have had to call out an employee’s expenses as being too high more than once or twice. That’s what the essence of employee trust is about. Manage exceptions on the back end, don’t attempt to control or micromanage behavior on the front end.

Apr 26 2022

7 Habits of Highly Effective Boards

(This blog post was first published as an article in Entrepreneur Magazine on April 15.)

Creating strong boards can help propel a board forward. Weak and ineffective boards hold a company back.

As a CEO, one of the most important (yet overlooked) tools in the playbook is building and leading a board of directors. Throughout my 20+ years of entrepreneurship, I’ve led four companies (including Bolster, where I’m a co-founder and CEO today) and served on eight boards. I’ve learned that strong boards can help propel a company forward and I’ve also witnessed how weak and ineffective boards can hold companies back. Mediocre or mismanaged advice, plus lack of accountability, can do long-term damage to a business as well.

Drawing from personal experience and anecdotes from dozens of Bolster’s client CEOs, here are some tried and true “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Boards.”

Habit 1: Begin with the board in mind

A lot of CEOs treat board curation as an afterthought, which means that boards tend to consist largely of who happened to be in their network at the company’s inception: investors. CEOs also tend to treat their boards as a distraction or an annoyance. Both of these lines of thought are problematic. 

Boards should be viewed as a CEO’s second team (along with their management team), as a strategic weapon that helps the company succeed and as an opportunity to bring new voices and perspectives. Research has shown the more independent and diverse a board is, the better it performs.

Habit 2: Be proactive about board recruiting

Devote as much focus to building a board as to building the executive team. This process is time-consuming and can’t be delegated to anyone else. Aspire to reach people who may feel out of reach. Asking someone to join the board is a big honor, so that ask becomes a good calling card. When recruiting, interview as many contenders as possible, don’t be afraid to reject those who aren’t a good fit and have finalists audition by attending a board meeting. Source broadly, too. Diversity is really important for many reasons; challenge any recruiter, agency or platform to surface diverse board candidates.

Habit 3: Keep your board balanced using the Rule of 1s

Whether it’s a three-person startup board or a seven-person scale-up board, it should include representation from all three director types: investors, management directors and independents. A few basic principles on board composition that work well are what I call the Rule of 1s: First, boards should include one, and only one member of the management team: the CEO. Even if co-founders or C-level managers are shareholders, don’t burn a board seat for a perspective that you have access to regularly. Second, for every new investor to the board, add one independent director, which is the biggest opportunity to introduce external perspectives. If your board gets too crowded with subsequent funding rounds, ask one or more investors to take observer seats to make space for independents. And don’t be afraid to change your board composition over time. Companies are dynamic and boards should be, too.

Habit 4: Cultivate mutual accountability and respect

While a board might seem intimidating, work past the power dynamic and push toward collaboration and mutual accountability. To ensure board members are prepared for meetings, keep commitments and leverage their networks, set the example by demonstrating preparation, consistency and reliability. By regularly delivering pre-read materials to the board several days in advance, the board will build a new habit. By soliciting feedback from board members after each meeting (and even offering them feedback), you’ll show the board that you’re listening. Over time, they’ll lean in, too.

Habit 5: Drive intellectually honest discussions

Even on the healthiest leadership teams, it can be scary to disagree with or challenge a sitting CEO (after all, they are still the one in charge!). But this power dynamic flips in a boardroom, which gives that group a unique opportunity to push and challenge business assumptions. While it may be tempting to look for board members with softer dispositions, it can be more beneficial to have tough, direct board members who aren’t afraid to express their opinions, but who are also good listeners and learners. My favorite discussions are conversations where I’m pushed to consider a different direction. It helps get more done, surfaces better ideas and increases the effectiveness of the company.

Habit 6: Lean in on strategic, lean out on tactics

Even board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful. Getting operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area. But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business: economics, competition and ecosystem. This is an easy habit to reinforce in meetings. If board directors drift toward getting too tactically in the weeds, that’s great feedback to offer after the meeting.

Habit 7: Think outside the box

Good board members understand all the pieces on the chess table; great board members go one step further and pattern match to provide advice, history, context and anticipated consequences. This is an enormous benefit to CEOs focused on the minutiae of the day-to-day, particularly if a business operates in a trailblazing industry where many of the rules may not yet be written. As a CEO, if you’ve never seen something first hand before, it’s hard to get clarity and external perspectives, which is why it’s crucial that great board members bring pattern recognition and “out-of-the-box thinking” to their role.

At the end of the day, boards are there to support and direct a company. There’s no perfect formula, but by implementing these steps with a few healthy habits, CEOs can cultivate strong, dynamic boards for their companies.

Apr 21 2022

Innovating People Practices Through Benefits

Sometimes the work we do as CEOs, leaders, management teams is glamorous, and sometimes it’s not. But it all matters. One thing we tried to do at Bolster this past year is to really amp up employee benefits. The war for talent is real. The Great Resignation is real. Sometimes startups like ours have natural advantages in terms of attracting and retaining talent such as being made up of letting people in on the ground floor of something, having small teams so individual impact is easy to see, being mission-driven and full of creativity and purpose, and having equity to give that could be very valuable over time. But sometimes startups like ours have natural disadvantages around recruiting like having less certain futures, being relatively unknown to potential employees, being unable to pay huge salaries in the face of the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and having limited career path options since the teams are so small.

My co-founders and I have always been big believers in innovating People Practices. We did an enormous amount of work around this at our prior company, Return Path, which has been pretty well documented and we feel was very successful. Things like our People First philosophy of investing in our team, an extraordinary amount of transparency in the way we ran the company, a sabbatical policy, an open vacation policy, a peer recognition system, 360 reviews (I’ve written about this a lot, but I don’t have a great single post on it – this one is good enough and has some links to others), and an open expense policy.

Most of those things, when we started doing them 20 years ago, were revolutionary. We had our own version of the then-infamous Netflix deck even before we saw the Netflix deck. But today, many of those people practices are more common, not quite table stakes, but not exactly unique either. So this year when we set out to do our annual retrospective and planning process, we decided to try to innovate on a fairly standard topic for people, employee benefits. Although there’s not a lot of room for innovation on this topic, we are doing a few things that new and existing employees alike have told us are noteworthy, so I thought I would share them here.

We started by getting the basics right. We have a good solid health plan, dental plan, vision, transit benefits, etc. And we are paying 100% of the basic plan and allowing employees to pay more for a premium plan. That’s not the innovative part.

Next, we decided to max out the HSA contribution. HSAs and FSAs are some of those things that people don’t really think about, or they think “oh that’s great, employees can set aside health care expenses pre-tax.” But employer contribution to them matters, especially because the plans are portable. So we are giving people whatever the legal limit is towards their HSA, something in the neighborhood of $7k/year for a family plan or $3k for an individual plan. This is real money in people’s pockets, and it takes away from fears and concerns about health and wellness.

Next, we decided to begin addressing two things we felt were always weird quirks or inequities in benefit plans. One is the fact that employees who DO take advantage of your benefits program essentially get a huge additional amount of compensation than employees who DON’T because they are on their spouse’s plan. So we decided to give all employees who DON’T use our benefits program a monthly stipend. The amount doesn’t quite equal what we would be paying for their health insurance (which varies widely for employees based on single vs. family plans), but it’s a material number. So those people who aren’t on our plan still receive a healthcare proxy benefit from us.

Another (and the final thing I’ll talk about today) was instituting a 401k match, but doing so with a dollar cap instead of a percentage cap. Percentage caps FEEL fair, but they’re not fair since the company ends up paying more money towards the retirement plan of the people who earn the most money and who presumably need that benefit the least. The IRS tries to help do this leveling with their nondiscrimination testing, but that doesn’t come close to achieving the same outcome because it’s about employee contributions, not employer matches. By instituting a dollar cap, we are making the statement that we value all employees’ retirements equally. Incidentally, this simple change is proving to be very difficult to implement since our systems and benefits providers aren’t set up to do it, but we will persevere and find workarounds and get it right.

Investing in our people is critical to who we are as a business, and if you take your business seriously, it should be in your playbook as well. Benefits sound like a dumb area in which to innovate since they’re very common across all companies other than the percentage of the premium covered…but there’s still room for creativity even in that field.

Feb 9 2022

Introducing Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures (and their back story)

This is another big week for us at Bolster. On the heels of the announcement we made last month about our Series B financing, we are now announcing the launch of a new program called Bolster Prime and a new venture capital fund called Bolster Ventures. These are important steps in Bolster’s evolution and in the fulfillment of our mission, what we call internally our “Big Idea,” which is to empower the innovation economy.  

The roots of Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures pre-date the founding of Bolster. In our prior lives, the Bolster founders worked together to scale up a business called Return Path and also 

worked as advisors and mentors to numerous early stage founders and startups. One of the things we noted in our very first post, now part of the About Us section of Bolster.com, was:

After exiting Return Path [the company where our founding team worked for many years], we wanted to do for others what we did for each other as a seasoned executive team. We wanted to know: “How could we help other CEOs, executives and boards bolster themselves to go the distance and scale with their organizations?”

While the founding team was exploring potential business opportunities that allowed us to make a bigger impact on the world, Silicon Valley Bank and High Alpha Innovation were together envisioning a platform to help VC-backed portfolio companies more effectively navigate the complex world of executive talent needs. When our three groups came together, we realized we shared a vision to build a company that puts people first in all aspects to drive high-growth businesses.

I’ve never written before about those other “potential business opportunities” that our team was exploring along with our prior investment syndicate, Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures, Greg Sands from Costanoa Ventures, and Brad Feld from Foundry. The one our team was particularly excited about was a concept we were calling at the time “Venture Acceleration Partners.” The key points in the pitch deck we created were:

  • There is a gap in the market of investors adding “management” value to portfolio companies between Accelerators/Incubators/Studios at the low end and Private Equity firms and very large VCs at the high end. What about the middle?
  • “The middle” consists of venture-backed companies that are neither early stage nor mature. They are typically founder-led, often by a first-time CEO with new or incomplete management teams who need a lot of mentorship/development, and with a diversified cap table of firms that don’t own operating or consulting practices to help guide the scaling process.
  • These companies tend to have consistent and stage-unique challenges around scaling execution across every aspect of the business.
  • By creating an advisory firm made up of seasoned operators, we can quickly identify the risk areas and provide mentoring, guidance and execution to management teams for defined periods of time to keep them on the right track and increase their companies’ performance.
  • We want to create a firm that has enough skin in the game to have long-term relationships with management teams…and that doesn’t charge (much) for services because incentives are aligned as a co-investor.

Our original deck envisioned a firm that was sort of a hybrid of a “McKinsey for startups” and a venture investor. When I shared that pitch deck (and two other ones I’ll save for another day), with my long-time friend Scott Dorsey from High Alpha, he responded by sharing with me a related pitch deck he was working on with corporate partner Silicon Valley Bank out of the High Alpha Studio for a talent marketplace. We immediately looked at each other and said “we should put all of these ideas together with this founding team, High Alpha and SVB, and the Return Path investors, and change the way startups connect with talent.” That’s what we did, and we almost immediately started building the first part of the Bolster business, which was the talent marketplace.

About six months into our journey building Bolster, I was talking to Brad and reminded him that I was interested in bringing the Venture Acceleration idea to life now that we had a vibrant talent marketplace up and running at Bolster. 

Standing up a new program of this magnitude with limited resources at the same time as building a new venture capital firm from the ground up, on top of a still pretty brand new startup – that felt like a tall order, even for a large and senior founding team like ours. We needed another senior leader to join our team. 

Brad’s visceral response in this conversation was a very clear, “you should hire Jenny.” Enter Jenny Lawton. Jenny is someone I’d known peripherally for many years as a mutual friend and colleague of Brad, but we weren’t particularly close. We agreed to meet for breakfast at a diner halfway between our houses at a time in the pandemic when there wasn’t a whole lot of in-person meetings going on. 

As Jenny’s written about this week, it was the right call at the right time – we had a full meeting of the minds about the role mentorship plays in supporting entrepreneurs, the unmet needs of entrepreneurs even with all the support out there from accelerators and investors, and the desire that both of us had here in the back half of our careers to, as Steve Jobs would say, “make a dent in the universe.” Jenny’s experience as a multiple-time senior executive and startup advisor (including four years as the COO of Techstars) was a perfect match for us. She joined our team pretty quickly, first fractionally (the Bolster way, right?), then full-time in the middle of 2021. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. Working as part of the Bolster leadership team this past year, Jenny has spearheaded the creation of Bolster Prime, from selling and mentoring the first few clients personally, to designing the curriculum and programmatic learning, to figuring out the right positioning and pricing to developing the recruiting strategy for the program. We’ve worked together and along with the rest of the team at Bolster to bring in an amazingly talented group of experienced former and current CEOs and other senior operators as our first group of mentors.  Any entrepreneur would be lucky to have one of these mentors in their corner. We’ve now raised a venture capital fund as first-time fund managers from our own investors and our program’s mentors, all of whom believe in the power of Bolster as the next generation platform to help empower the innovation economy. 

Most good ideas swim in a sea of comparables. There are now a handful of other firms out there that combine advice for entrepreneurs with capital. But we believe our model, with thousands of Bolster Member CXOs already on board, is unique. Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures, powered by Bolster’s on-demand talent marketplace, is here to help early stage founders reimagine the way they scale up their leadership teams, their boards, and themselves. We are changing the way the startup game is played. Come take a look and see what’s in it for you.

Jan 18 2022

The Blackjack Table

I lived one of my favorite metaphors last week as we announced the closing of Bolster’s Series B financing and had our first post-round Board meeting, and I realized I’ve never blogged about it before: that raising rounds of financing is like having a good night at the blackjack table.

When I go to Vegas or AC — and admittedly I haven’t done that in several years — I usually start playing Blackjack at the $5 table. It’s lightweight entertainment, low stakes, good way to warm up and remind myself how to play. If I start winning and accumulating a bigger pile of chips, I move to the $10 table. Rinse and repeat, to the $25 table and the $50 table. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a $100 table, and I assume there’s a somewhat tense and scary back room somewhere with higher stakes tables. As I progress through an evening, it’s more fun, but it’s also more stressful.

Raising successive rounds of financing has the same feel to it.

You’re playing the same game as you progress from Series A to Series B to Series C. You’re still CEO of your company. You may be playing with different strategies, more or less aggressive. But it feels different. It’s a little more stressful. Every bet is a higher percentage of your net worth, upside as well as downside. Expectations are higher, and external expectations are more noticeable.

What if blackjack isn’t going so well? If I am doing so-so, I just stay at the $2 table, and ultimately get bored with treading water. That’s probably the equivalent of running a company that’s just going sideways. I won’t go deep on extending the metaphor to a bad night of blackjack, but I’m sure it has a lot in common with down rounds and ultimately things like Chapter 11. Those loom large in lots of situations, too, but they’re not where my head is today!

Dec 21 2021

Excellent Resource for Effective Board Leadership

I’ve written a lot about Boards this past year related to Bolster’s work in helping founders/CEOs build great boards:

But more recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Board effectiveness, as I’ve been working with Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani on a second edition of Startup Boards, which will be published in mid-2022. And in the middle of our feverish writing and editing, Reid Hoffman sent Brad a great document which I want to amplify here:

Some of these rituals are more important than others (or at least more widely applicable), but they’re all worth reading. I am definitely going to start incorporating some version of the “Dory and Pulse” ritual into my meetings to make sure we’re covering everything that each director wants to cover in meetings (or answer smaller things ahead of time).

Thanks to Reid for this great contribution to the world of Startup Boards.

Dec 16 2021

Top 3 Mistakes Later Stage Founders Make

Last week, I blogged a podcast riff I did about the biggest mistakes early stage founders make and what to do about them. Here’s a summary of part 2 of what I said about later stage founders.

  1. Misreading Product/Market Fit or a lack of Product/Market Fit. Misread it high, and founders end up dumping money into sales and marketing too soon. Misread it too low, and you can fire a good sales or marketing team when it’s not their fault!

    On the high side, Product/Market Fit isn’t just coming from a healthy CAC/LTV ratio or by good early adoption. Early adoption can come from a small group of Visionaries (here I’m channeling Geoffrey Moore’s Technology Adoption Lifecycle curve from Crossing the Chasm), so understanding how extensible your early adopter crowd is — and how easy it will be to reach the next batch of customers and the next batch and the next batch — can be costly to get wrong. The opposite is also true. It’s easy to get caught up in a wave of enthusiasm around early Product/Market Fit and then determine that a slowdown in sales is a sales problem, when in fact, you either didn’t have true Product/Market Fit beyond visionaries in the first place…or maybe you had it, but the market changed over time, and it slipped away. Product could easily be the culprit here, not Sales or Marketing. You have to constantly go back and re-test your assumptions and lean canvas with the market as products mature and more substitutes and competitors are available.
  2. Throwing people at problems. It’s so easy to do this. Building automation, designing new business processes, and implementing new — or worse, changed over — systems are hard, expensive, and time consuming. So yes, sometimes it makes sense to just hire that extra person or two in something like account management or accounts receivable/collections instead of investing in process. But do too much of that, and you will drown in your cost structure.

    Founders have to learn to embrace the tear-down. Remember, you’re an entrepreneur. You’re creative. You like to invent things and disrupt things. That includes things you yourself built! Better to tear down an existing process or system and replace it with something quantum leaps more efficient for scale than to throw people at problems.
  3. Believing that they and they alone must continue to drive their culture forward. Cultures are truly hard to scale.

    But there’s a trick to scaling them. The trick is to stop doing the work yourself, and partner with your HR/People team to build your cultural touchpoints (values, artifacts, etc.) throughout your employee lifecycle so that everyone in the company (NOT just HR/People) becomes a cultural steward. Recruit and interview against your values. Onboard people with founder sessions on values and culture. Bake those things into performance management and compensation.

I’m sure there are so many other top mistakes for later stage CEOs/founders. What are the ones you’ve encountered?

Dec 9 2021

Top 3 Mistakes Early Stage Founders Make

I just did a podcast recording the other day for someone who asked me the biggest mistakes founders make and what to do about them. I divided my response into “early stage” and “later stage” founders. Here’s a summary of what I said about early stage founders.

  1. They cling to a “good enough person” or someone who is a good performer but a weak cultural fit because they either feel beholden to that person for their output, or worse, they’re actually afraid of losing them because they’ll miss a milestone or maybe trigger some other departure.

    The “what to do” of course is to have courage and make the change! I wrote an essay years ago in Brad Feld and David Cohen’s book, Do More Faster, entitled Hire slowly, Fire quickly, in which I compared a poor cultural fit to a cancer that can infect the whole body of your company. A “good enough” person obviously isn’t quite that toxic, but someone like that can still prevent you from achieving your potential. In either case, the faster you realize what’s going on and make a move, the better off you are.
  2. They get the balance wrong between “leading with vision” and “listening to customers”. Both are important for founders, but you can’t do too much of either. It’s really easy to get led to a too-narrow Product/Market Fit definition that has you building something awesome that only a dozen customers will be excited about That said, founders also have to listen if enough potential customers people say no. Your vision could just be too far ahead of the market.

    You have to get around this by constantly checking your enthusiasm with a mix of cold hard logic. Lots of market traction is great — but is all that traction coming from the same type of customer? Have you run your idea or wireframes by different segments, different buyers, different sizes of company (if B2B) or lots of different demographics (if B2C)? Are all of them equally enthusiastic and willing to buy? A complete lack of market traction when you’re sure your vision right is equally vexing. If literally everyone is saying “no” or worse, some polite but noncommittal version of yes, are you working to shape the vision, or at least shape how you articulate it? Sometimes your vision might be right, but your messaging might be off. Try different ones on for size.
  3. They focus on fundraising and valuation over business fundamentals. Especially in this day and age, it’s really easy to get caught up in the “more money” hamster wheel. Raise, raise, raise. Finish one round, immediately start working on the next.

    In the end, business fundamentals matter — no fundamentals, no business (e.g., no next round). More than that, spend more time caring about your customers and learning and telling stories about how you made their lives better with your product or service. That’s more important to your next fundraise than just blowing through one round of money to get to the next.

Next week: the later stage founder answer (link won’t be live until 12/16/2021).

Dec 2 2021

When it is Time to Hire Your First Chief Financial Officer

(This is the second post in the series…the first one on How to Engage with Your CFO is here.)

What comes before a full-fledged CFO?  Lots of startups have nothing more than an outsourced bookkeeper or one junior staff accountant.  Sometimes a founder or a founder’s spouse even steps in on this front.  As startups scale, they are likely to hire a more senior accountant, maybe an AR/AP/Collections staff member, or even a Controller or VP Finance.

Depending on the complexity of your business you might be able to hold off on hiring a full-time CFO, but if you have any of these signs then it’s time to start thinking about bringing someone on board. One sign is intuitive, and it’s just the feeling that you’re concerned about cash. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night and that’s what’s on your mind—not just that you’re running out of cash, but that you aren’t clear on how much cash you have and how fast you’re spending it. Is it concerning that you’re tight when it comes to payroll? Are you getting calls from vendors about late payments? Are you way under market in compensation and trying to overcome that by offering equity or “perks” to attract top talent? These are all telltale signs that your financial situation may be under duress, and a full-time CFO can be a solution.

 Another telltale sign that you might need a CFO is more tangible: Are you spending too much of your own time managing fundraising, debt, investors, and cap table questions and issues? If you are in the weeds with the financial reporting, either fixing what’s there or creating a lot of things from a blank slate, then there’s an obvious problem, and solution.

 Another sign that you need to hire a full-time CFO comes in the form of things you can’t answer. If your board asks you about some small-to-mid-level analysis or metric like CAC, customer profitability, margins, or ROI, and you don’t have a great answer that’s a signal that your finances are out of control. And if you can’t figure out how to get to an answer, that’s even worse.

 Of course, you don’t have to wait until these telltale signs emerge before hiring a full-time CFO—it’s also possible to have a discussion with your current finance person and figure out together what their career path could be, and what their aspirations are. If your finance person aspires to be CFO but doesn’t have the skills (yet) consider bringing on a fractional CFO. A fractional CFO may be the way to go if your business model is simple…some combination of a limited number of complex accounting issues, a limited number of customers or invoices or transactions, and an insignificant difference between the income statement and the cash flow statement.  If what you need is someone to oversee a gradually growing team, a slow-paced implementation of higher-order systems, basic financial analysis or modeling, or the occasional fundraising event, a fractional CFO may get the job done, for several years. A fractional CFO can also mentor your current finance person in the realities of the CFO role, and they can help you find a qualified CFO who will be a good fit for your company.

While there is no fast and easy answer about when to hire your first CFO, there are some telltale signs that point to that direction and if it’s not in your budget, consider a fractional CFO to help get things under control before you really do run out of cash.

(Posted on the Bolster Blog here)

Nov 24 2021

Offsites in the age of COVID

I attended two offsites in the last two weeks – both great in terms of seeing people in person.  Interesting how differently they handled COVID protocols, although they were different groups with different vibes.

One was a CEO conference for one of my VC’s portfolios.  There was a huge emphasis in all the pre-conference comms about COVID.  And lots of testing.  We all got mailed a very sophisticated in-house PCR test ahead of time to take and photograph/upload, complete with chemical reagents and some kind of centrifuge.  Then those of us who flew in for the event had to do an on-site rapid test before entering the opening reception and even had a side room to sit in for 15 minutes while we were waiting for the rest results.  Once in the room, everyone was super awkward at the beginning.  Should I wear a mask?  Do I shake hands?  Hug?  Wave?  Bump elbows?  But once we got into the flow of the meeting, people were more relaxed and interactive…even some close talking.

The other was my company, Bolster – our first ever “all hands” meeting in person (we started the company just 18 months ago and have people in multiple locations).  The COVID topic was almost nonexistent.  We only have 25 people, and everyone is vaccinated, no one is immuno-compromised, and the couple of people with young and unvaccinated children are very much not on lockdown (that could be more regional – I see that more in NY than in CA).  We simply asked people to get tested before they come on the honor system and then told people when we got there that people should do whatever they were comfortable doing in terms of masks and contact, no judgment.  There was no awkwardness that I could tell at all.

In terms of the meetings themselves, both were great – it was fantastic to be live with other humans!  While there is a lot to be said for the efficiency of 15 and 30 minute meetings on Zoom, that pattern of work can’t be 100% of your year.  It doesn’t allow for serendipitous hallway interactions or highly effective design collaboration like whiteboards and post-its do.

What neither group nailed was blending people actually at the offsite with a few people who didn’t want to, or couldn’t, attend in person.  That’s got to become the norm for offsites going forward, for sure.  Videoconference software or hardware/software combinations need to get better at supporting the hybrid environment for sure, but so do meeting facilitators.

All in, while I’m looking forward to traveling less in the future, there’s much to be said for meeting in person from time to time and figuring out how to optimize that time.

Oct 28 2021

I’m Having a Blast at Bolster — Here’s Why

Someone asked me the other day how things are going at Bolster, the new company I started along with a bunch of long-time colleagues from Return Path last year. My visceral answer was “I’m having a blast!”  I thought about it more after and came up with five reasons why. 

First, I am working with a hand-picked group of people. My co-founders, I’ve worked with for an average of 15 years – we know and trust each other tremendously. And for the most part, the same is true about our cap table. Almost everyone else at the company is also someone multiple of us have known or worked with for years. That may not last forever, but it makes things so much easier and almost friction-free out of the gate here. 

Second, this is the “second lap around the track” for a few of us on the founding team in terms of starting something from scratch, and even those at the company who haven’t done a raw startup before are super experienced professionals and many have worked in and around early stage businesses a lot. All this combines to cut down our error rate, reduce anxiety, and speed up the pace of work. More friction-free or at least low-friction work.

Third, after a 20-year run at Return Path, it’s great to start with a clean slate. No mountains of tech debt and legacy code bases. No installed base of customers with contracts or pricing we no longer like or offer. No institutional debt like a messy cap table, legacy people issues, leases for offices we don’t want or need any more.  This also points to low friction as part of what’s going on…and while that’s a theme, the next two areas are different. 

The fourth reason I’m having a blast at Bolster is that I love — and really live in — the problem space we are working in.  When we started Return Path, I was deeply familiar with email marketing and the challenges faced by our client set and had a good vision for the early product.  But as the years went on, the product got geekier and nicher — and even when it wasn’t, I was never a USER of the product since I’m not an email marketer.  In fact, at our peak of 500 people, the company employed one email marketer and therefore had one user of our own product.  At Bolster, we have three user personas — Member, Client, and Partner.  And I’m all three of them.  I’m constantly in the product, multiple times a day.  I’m deeply familiar with all angles of the executive search and board building process.  It’s MUCH better to be this close to the product, and the same is true for many of our team members.

Finally, the thing I was really worried about with starting another company from scratch — moving from a leadership role into an individual contributor role — has been nothing short of fantastic.  I love working with clients.  I love talking to members.  I love advising and coaching CEOs. I love being a pretend product manager.  I love writing marketing copy.  It’s just great to be on the front lines. (I still love working on strategy and leading the board and engaging with people internally — but those are things that never stopped being part of my day to day.)

I was trying to think if there’s some priority to this list. Almost all of these items are or can be made to be true in your second+ startup. But while four of the five can theoretically be true in your first startup as well, I don’t think it’s quite the same. So I’d have to weight “second lap around the track” a bit higher and also note that during your second lap around the track, hand-picking your team and cap table, appreciating a clean slate, and appreciating individual contributor work are that much easier and things you can appreciate a lot more as a repeat entrepreneur.