Startup Company Boards

Startup companies need good boards. But they often don’t have them.

There are many reasons. First, there really aren’t that many experienced people willing to serve on a startup company boards. And those that are experienced, skilled, and bring a lot of value, generally want to be compensated, which startups can’t really afford.

VCs will serve on boards, but generally when their fund owns 15% or more of the company, so their compensation comes from the fund and the upside from a huge amount of stock.

In contrast, individual angel investors usually only own a very small (<2%) of a company and there is no ready mechanism for their co-investors to compensation.

So.. what makes a good board member? Many startup CEOs believe that the most important factor in choosing a board member is industry experience. I disagree. Industry experience is valuable on an advisory board, but needs to be resident in the company. Some degree of industry experience is, of course, beneficial. But, the following experience is more important on a board:

  • Experience on other boards for high-growth companies;
  • Having been through financings of various sorts;
  • Experience in acquisitions and IPOs to understand the inflection points and needed metrics;
  • A good rolodex relevant to the company;
  • Good chemistry with the CEO and other board members; and
  • A willingness to be direct and outspoken about the company, even if that position is unpopular with management and the board.

To get good board members, a startup company must be willing to compensate board members (as they do management). I’ve spoken with a number of angels and angel groups around the US and found that board stock compensation seems to vary widely. On the West Coast (primarily the Bay Area) and Boston, compensation seems to follow the VC model – no additional compensation is required. However, in much of the rest of the country, options are generally routinely given.

I’d recommend the following package for a pre-A round company: 1% of fully diluted stock, vesting over no more than 2 years. Shorter vesting is generally a very good idea for board members in order to make sure that board members don’t try to act to save their board position rather than do what is right for the company. Of course, if the company is already financed and has suffered the dilution to do so, then the percentage would be less.

I believe that the Angel Capital Association, the Kauffman Foundation, and/or a university business school should conduct a survey on this.

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