There are bookshelves filled with stories about company Boards in disarray that ousted the CEO over egos and direction. Tech startups are notorious for having dysfunctional Boards. Just look at Uber, where the Board members ousted the CEO and then some even resigned amid the chaos at the company. For example, Twitter, where the Board was so maladjusted it ended up cycling through 5 different CEOs in 10 years, whereas most Fortune 500 companies go through one Chief in that amount of time. Also, Apple, Google and countless other giants have had these problems--they are not immune to these issues.
Every first-time CEO makes a lot of mistakes. They are overzealous in some areas, and underperform in others. They focus too much energy on some aspects of the business, and leave others by the wayside. I've done some of those things, and have seen this with peers who are young entrepreneurs as well. But one area where I've been extremely lucky was in choosing my Board. I realized this after a recent Board meeting, when someone who's had several Boards of their own pulled me aside afterwards, and with genuine shock, said, "You have the best, most high functioning Board of Directors I've ever seen. People considered titans of industry are in this room, and yet no one showboats, no one bosses you around." Then, with relief, they added, "You have no idea how lucky you are."
So how do you, a first time founder and CEO, pick the right members to join your Board, and spare yourself the turmoil of choosing poorly? Below I've shared some of the lessons I've learned through this process, as well as the wisdom that was shared with me.
1. Bring in people who have worked with first-timers before
The single best piece of advice I ever got on choosing Board members was to bring in people who have worked with first-time CEOs in the past. Being a new entrepreneur is not a negative trait, it's just one that comes with different challenges than a CEO who has been around the block a few times (though they come with their own sets of provocations, too).
When you pick your Board members, you really want to choose people who are betting not just on the company you are going to build, but also on you as an entrepreneur. Board members who have worked with first timers before are acutely aware of the limitations of your experience and are much more eager to help you grow and develop -- through thick and thin.
2. Ask for help - on big things and small
Do not ask someone to be on your Board if you would feel embarrassed to ask them for help, or if you are too scared to tell them when things are going wrong. You are not going to solve a problem in a vacuum -- and if your potential new Board member has no patience for small things, they probably won't be patient with the big things either.
I will never forget calling my first Chairman, George, hysterical at 10pm on a Friday night because a new graphic designer had redesigned our product. All of a sudden, it went from something I knew intimately, to a product that seemed alien and foreign to me -- all the way down to feeling like the colors clashed. George understood the passion a founder has in needing to feel identity in their product. He was able to help me see the efficiencies of UX/UI design, and find the areas that could be tweaked so I could be fully behind the new design.
A Board member should be willing to spend time with you as a Founder and CEO on issues big and small. This was a small business issue but a large one for me. George spent two hours on the phone talking me off the ledge. This experience helped me to build a rapport with George, like training wheels for the real problems that would come later.
Look for Part 2 of this blog with three more valuable tips, which will be published next week.
About the Author
Zoë Barry is the founder and CEO of ZappRx, a healthcare technology company that simplifies the complex process required to order specialty medications. Since founding ZappRx in 2012, Zoë has raised $42 million in funding and the platform has been implemented into academic medical centers and large clinical sites around the country. In addition to ZappRx, Zoë is passionate about helping founders launch startup companies. She currently advises 3 startups, including MyLingo, Remy, and Metiri. Zoë was awarded Inc. Magazine's 30 Entrepreneurs Under 30 list in 2015, Boston Business Journal 40 under 40 in 2015, and Medtech Boston's 40 under 40 Healthcare Innovator in 2016.