Should You Really Sit on Other Boards When You’re a Startup Founder?

Posted on Aug 15, 2012 | 19 comments


I recently read Brad Feld’s thought provoking piece encouraging founders to sit on the board of another startup company.

I found it thought provoking because I’ve always believed startup founders need extreme focus on only their company to succeed.

We live in an era where the press espouses the entrepreneurs who have five startups. I’m not one who has subscribed to the “superman founder” narrative.

So I was intrigued by Brad’s post. You should read the post in its entirety – it’s a great learning piece. But for now, the summary is:

  • You’ll extend your network. 
  • You’ll view a company from a different vantage point. 
  • You’ll be on the other side of the financing discussions (a board member, rather than the CEO). 
  • You’ll understand “fiduciary responsibility” more deeply. 
  • You’ll have a peer relationship with another CEO that you have a vested interest in that crosses over to a board – CEO relationship. 
  • You’ll get exposed to new management styles. You’ll experience different conflicts that you won’t have the same type of pressure from.

That’s a pretty compelling list. So I thought a bit more about it. And I think Brad’s 100% right. But I also agree with his warning,

“I usually recommend only one outside board. Not two, not three – just one.”

I have seen this first hand at awe.sm (coincidentally, a company in which Ryan McIntyre from Foundry Group is also on the board).

We have Ian Rogers, the CEO of Topspin Media on our board. I think it’s been tremendously helpful to us because the founder of Awe.sm (Jonathan Strauss) has a mentor who is going through similar issues but is a few years ahead in terms of company development. I’ve always wanted to work with Ian so it’s been a great experience for me, too.

In some ways I see it like the development of kids who learn more from watching their older siblings than by learning from their parents. And the outside director adds a “non investor” point of view. I personally like to see this board member invest pocket money in the company so they at least have shareholder empathy from having written a nominal check.

But I’ll bet that the experience has been great for Ian, too. In the ways that Brad has described, Ian has been able to see the board dynamic from a perspective more distant than having to be the person on the hook presenting his results.

I’ve seen similar great results from having Josh Jacobs on the board of RingRevenue.

So I’m going to follow Brad’s advice. I’m going to start suggesting that some of the startup founders I work with take a board seat at another startup. I think we’ll all benefit.

Side note: Image is of “team awe.sm” – it seemed a better image than any of the cheesy stock photos of a boardroom. Why are they always so bad? Ryan Carson made me promise not to do it.

update: new team awe.sm photo!

  • Blcarey

    Great post… I think most founders need a little more seasoning and broadening of horizons so that they can be better executives for their entire team (even if its only a handful of people).

    I would have given you more stars but I’m not sure how to do that in Disqus yet.

  • MikePmalai

    Agree. I also think a CEO needs to be smart about what sort of startup they join so they can maximize both their value as a board member and their learning/development.

    At what point in a startup’s life would you encourage the founder/CEO join another startup’s board? Should they take a “redshirt” and only focus on the company for the first 1-2 years?

    Would you encourage them to join a startup in a similar situation or one that is possibly 1-2 years ahead of them (from a funding / growing pains perspective)?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think they shouldn’t do it for first 2 years of company. And then join a board LESS developed. Need to be able to add value to CEO

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    I agree that the value to the CEO is there.

    The first time CEO doesn’t by definition always bring enough value to another board to take one of those precious spots?

    It’s gotta cut both ways or course.

  • dlloyd

    Completely agree. One of the most important lessons I learned by being on another board can be the challenge of keeping a board grounded/connected with the business (things change fast). When you are only in a board meeting monthly or quarterly you can quickly loose perspective, the CEO needs to bridge that gap.

    The value piece is critical to the other points if your going to make a meaningful contribution besides simply taking up air space. The first step could be an advisory board (leveraging specific domain expertise) versus a formal board.

  • http://twitter.com/BTrautschold brian trautschold

    very interesting perspective – i am a cofounder (not ceo), but feel ceo’s – especially first time founders like myself – would have trouble juggling a young (sub 3y.o.) startup with the demands & needs of multiple co’s.

    i definitely feel it would be tremendous learning experience, but at least for young founders like myself – a better approach may be seeking out other new founders/ ceos to mentor or just engage in weekly discussions in addition to being mentored by some more seasoned founders.

    the aspect of the nominal buy in is not trivial for the lean founders as well…

  • http://jonathanhstrauss.com/ Jonathan Strauss

    I can confirm that having Ian on our Board has been amazingly valuable to me as the CEO! He has been an incredible mentor to me in a way that would be much more difficult if he didn’t have the ongoing exposure to our business that he gets from his Board participation. And he has also been an ally to me in Board discussions helping to represent the company perspective to investors and find common ground on issues that I have approached differently from Mark and Ryan (though those are few and far between ;-) ).

    Also, the awe.sm team has grown quite a bit (and gotten new t-shirts) since that photo :-) : http://www.flickr.com/photos/31454690@N00/7350711084/in/pool-awesm

  • http://twitter.com/iancr ian c rogers

    Thanks for including me in the post, Mark. Your assumptions about my participation are right on.

    It’s definitely been a positive growth experience for me. Seeing the dynamic from the other side of the table is important perspective. I thought I understood the dynamic before but the insight you get from *feeling* it through experience simply sticks more.

    Time commitment is definitely an issue, though. I feel like I’ve been a mediocre board member and could add more value if I had more time. I’ve said no to boards including advisory boards as a result of this experience, too. I’d rather say no than say yes and suck, even if I’m passionate about what the company is trying to tackle.

    Thanks for having me, Awe.sm board.

  • http://twitter.com/msuster Mark Suster

    In our case Ian was nominated by Jonathan (the founder of awe.sm) and therefore plays the important role of non-investor, board member coach. I think it has benefitted both because Ian is a few years ahead in development and able to coach Jonathan through leadership issues with more resonance because he’s doing it daily now.

    I think it’s in addition to independent / industry directors – not as a replacement.

  • http://twitter.com/msuster Mark Suster

    advisory board can help, sure. but for a founder who will gain experience through sitting on another board – I think being on an actual board is the only way to truly get this unique perspective because you’re dealing with the most critical issues that pop up between investors / management

  • http://twitter.com/msuster Mark Suster

    I believe there are issues with balancing priorities – for sure. Which is why Brad recommended (and I agreed) – one and only one board

  • http://twitter.com/msuster Mark Suster

    and Ian is far less self righteous ;-)

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Thanks for the clarification Mark.

    In that case, like the idea a lot. In fact, and I’m professionally biased as an Advisor to boards, I like the idea of non-board structured participating roles.

    Benefits everyone I think!

  • http://www.digitalocean.com/ Moisey Uretsky

    After building a successful company for 9 years, looking back on it, the advice of serving on another board would have been extremely helpful specifically for the reasons Brad mentioned.

    Getting a larger social network, seeing another business tackle issues would have certainly helped our business as well, and now years later I finally realized the huge impact that the right advisers can have.

    Having other really talented entrepreneurs in various stages of their careers that you can call and just discuss things with it is immeasurably valuable.

    It’s essential to always spend time learning.

  • Tom Berryman

    I agree with all of Brad’s points and with yours as well Mark. I’ve been in four venture-funded medical device companies over the last 20+ years (two as CEO, one as founder) and still find that I learn a lot participating as “the operating guy” board member of another venture-funded device company for the last six years. On your thought that one should put a little of their own money in: I’ve done it, and then watched it get washed out when the company had some hiccups and had to do a down round, and all through this I’ve noted that the vc’s aren’t writing any personal checks themselves. Seems your advice might be good for everyone around the table.

  • http://influitive.com/ Abdallah Al-Hakim

    a very good complementary post to the one Brad Feld posted. I hope this trend catches one as I believe it brings value to all parties involved

  • http://www.leadershipquantified.com/ Leslie L. Kossoff

    I’m good with both your change of mind and Brad’s position, Mark – but with one proviso: timing. Depending upon how experienced the founder is, it can be too easy to see being asked to be on the Board of another company – let alone serving – as part of the cachet of being an entrepreneur. That’s okay if it happens when his or her venture is well enough advanced to have a multiple focus…but not before.

    As VCs, if you guys are going to support this direction, you’re going to have to steward your founder/CEOs all the more carefully to ensure that among those who don’t realize the time and thought investment required, that it really is the right time for them to serve.

  • http://twitter.com/iWishforapp iWishfor

    I also agree that I wouldn’t want to sit on another board at this time while trying to balance family and a new startup. However, having someone on board who has some experience in starting a startup from the ground up has really allowed us to get ahead and stay away from the usual problems startups have. So having someone as a mentor or advisor is really valuable to a new startup.

  • http://www.appfluence.com/ Appfluence

    Very interesting discussion. I’m only a first time founder and probably don’t have the experience to validate this, but I have to say having Ivan Lee from Loki Studios sit on our board of mentors (we’re a StartX two-term company) added a tremendous amount of value to our meetings. It’s very useful to be able to bounce ideas off of someone who’s been there only a few months, not decades, before you.