Thoughts On Bringing Your Employees Into Startup Board Meetings

One of my blogging rules of thumb: if confronted with the same question several times in a short period of time, turn it into a post. So since several Homebrew founders have recently asked about bringing employees into Board meetings, here’s my answer (sans the crazy gesticulating you get from me in-person). As background, Satya and I are believers in the value of Boards post seed funding because it gives founders what we think of as ‘leadership momentum.’

  • In general you want to keep Board meetings limited to Directors, official Observers and your lawyer (in Silicon Valley most lawyers will attend your Board meeting and serve as secretary without charging). Even when you invite others in, remember to leave time at the end for a Directors-only wrap up in case there’s any administrative matters that need to be approved (such as employee stock grants).
  • Bringing in team members to demo, speak to a specific issue or other reason is fine. Do this spur of the moment only on extreme occasions – better to add to the agenda and let the person know in advance. I’m definitely an advocate of giving people the chance to talk about their work. Nothing can be more frustrating than having your work represented by someone else since you weren’t allowed in the room. This is a corrosive element at large companies that doesn’t need to be part of startups.
  • Make sure the invited attendee doesn’t over-prepare. People want to do a good job and especially if they haven’t attended one before a Board meetings can sometimes be thought of as a BOARD MEETING!!!! A chance to shine or impress investors. We stress to founders that seed stage Board meetings are about dashboards and discussions. Not fancy slides, not decision making, not pontificating (by founders or investors!).
  • Timebox the specific topic and once done, restore the room to its original composition.
  • Founders should prep the Board as to what they want to impart upon the employee. Use us to deliver a message – usually a supportive one – but be specific on what you want the outcome to look like. That said, I don’t believe in surprise attacks. Don’t say “Tim has been slacking off, I need you to ream him at the Board meeting.” If you’re having a problem with Tim, and you’ve already conveyed this to him without improvement, I’m happy to 1:1 with him if necessary but a Board meeting is not the right setting. I am happy to emphasize the importance of a deadline or goal to an employee – turn it into something constructive and make sure sense of urgency/commitment is high. [again, we’re talking early stage companies]
  • Don’t get in the habit of inviting exec(s) into the Board room consistently just to make them feel included. This is a trap for two reasons. Firstly, your normal operating environment should be created to solve this inclusion. Inviting someone into a Board meeting as a looksee isn’t a solution. Instead look at what’s going on in your day-to-day that’s making someone feel distant from decision making. And how to share the Board materials/feedback/discussion with the entire team. Second, once you hit your A round of financing, your Board room dynamics will change and you’ll have to disinvite these employees. Although it’s logical to you it can still feel like a slight – “what, I was ‘in’ and now I’m ‘out?'” (sidenote: this happened to me as an employee once).

Ok, I think that’s most of my standard response to this question. Thoughts?

Let’s Meet: How to Prevent Big Companies from Wasting Your Startup’s Time

“Big companies most effective asymmetric warfare tactic against startups: requesting endless meeting.” That was the tweet which started a funny back and forth of corporate-speak that Pando’s Michael Carney summarized in Shit Big Companies Say. My original quip was prompted by a lunch with a friend who works at a BigCo CorpDev and often meets with startups. She’s awesome – very smart, understands BigCo very well – but seemed surprised when I suggested she was probably underestimating the time impact of these meetings on startups. “But usually it’s just a 45 minute or hour chat and we don’t ask them to prepare anything,” she said. Hmm, that’s kinda like sitting down in a restaurant and assuming the amount of time you spent eating is all that goes into making a meal, forgetting the total effort it took to gather, prep, cook and serve.

It’s usually innocuous. BigCo isn’t trying to harm the startup. There’s actual interest from a product manager, executive or other stakeholder to speak with the company and understand whether there might be a relationship to create. But while it’s true 100% of consummated partnerships started with a meeting, it’s also true 100% of discussions which went nowhere started with a meeting. As a startup, figuring out how and when to engage is essential to not losing focus and driving the process towards a desired outcome. Some thoughts:

  • Don’t Take the Meeting Unless You Know What You Want Out of It: You don’t actually have to meet with BigCo, especially if they won’t tell you what the goal/agenda is, who will be in the room, etc. Just stay head down and keep building.
  • Make Sure Right People Are in the Room: If you’re meeting with Facebook, it’s not about insisting Zuck attend but you want an informed decision maker in the room – a lead engineer, product manager, business or operations manager. Someone who isn’t just summarizing what you said and relaying back to the team but someone who you can engage in a discussion of where your market in going. If you get stonewalled on this request, ask what data/information can you provide in advance to make it worth this person’s time to attend. Or attempt the end around – get in touch with this person via a mutual friend and say you were invited to come present to someone at Facebook but would really like this person to be there too. You may piss off the person who contacted you in the first place, but if it’s just “hey, I asked a mutual friend for advice and that friend reached out on my behalf” then it’s less risky.
  • Unless You Know Goal & Prepare for It, Make the Meeting Less Formal: Don’t half-ass it but don’t over-ass (?) it unless you are trying to produce a specific outcome. That’s to say, if it’s just an intro meeting, don’t spend that week asking your design lead to make pretty slides and your eng lead to get a demo ready. Waste. Of. Time. Turn it into a meal or walk n’ talk instead to remove the ‘presentation’ aspect. That said, if you’re trying to accomplish something in particular, don’t just storyboard the meeting, but also start to think about follow-up and the cadence after. Use the momentum of a meeting to push push push. Don’t let them say “thanks for coming in” and just walk away.

and lastly….

  • Turn Every Meeting Into a Recruiting Opportunity: Get the contact info of everyone in the room. You never know when you might want to reach out to them to join your company.

The Five Most Important Decisions of My Life Thus Far

I visit each morning to type “birthday!” onto friend’s profiles as appropriate. Earlier today I also noticed a post from a friend celebrating his 5th wedding anniversary. “One of the best decisions I ever made” was a partial description of the nuptials. Made me think – what are the most important decisions I’ve made in my life thus far?

1. The decision to have a child

Prior to marriage, my wife and I had discussed our views on family. We clearly both wanted children but as we got down to business later, I dragged my heels. What if I wasn’t a good dad? Could I be successful in my work and my family – where would I get the time to do both as well as I wanted? It also so happened that conception was initially more difficult due to my lazy sperm. But I knew I was just afraid and that fear wasn’t fair to Caroline or, ultimately, to myself. So we went forward with an IVF and very quickly found ourselves with a great little kid that makes every day more meaningful and interesting.

2. The decision to marry Caroline

I was a  serial monogamist but always found my relationships hitting walls – sometimes at three months, sometimes six, etc. The furthest I’d gotten before was ~15 months. With Caroline there was never a wall, never a hesitation. Relationships in my mind aren’t about finding the perfect person randomly. It’s about finding a special person at the right time in both of your lives. We’ve been together for 14 years and married for 10 of those.

3. The decision to *not* stay on Conan O’Brien

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my career path, especially the “what ifs” – I love what I’ve had the chance to work on and where I’ve ended up. BUT the most dramatic split in my career tree involved not trying to stay with the Conan O’Brien show, where I’d been working my senior year of college. Note – I’m not saying it was right or wrong to have left – this isn’t ‘best’ decisions, it’s most important decisions. Staying with Conan could have unlocked an equally interesting path fulfilling creative pursuits but it almost certainly wouldn’t have led my into tech, google/youtube, homebrew, etc.

4. The decision to restart therapy in 2011

I was pretty confused the second half of 2011. No longer running product at YouTube, a pregnant wife, physical pain from some repetitive strain injuries in my arms/hands. Blah. I’d tried therapy earlier in my life and it was helpful for a particular phase. So I returned to it with a new psychiatrist and he helped my find lots of clarity. It’s something I continue to pursue because I’ve found it to be like training – you stay with it, through ups and downs, for maximum results.

5. The decision to go to Baghdad in 2009

It would have been easy to turn down the chance to visit Baghdad in 2009. There was a war going on. None of my family members were particularly enthusiastic about it. Work was busy and this would be a week away. But I went. And it was amazing. It’s become a reference point for me about how saying “yes” to things always leads to better, more interesting possibilities than no. And how there’s a positive momentum you build when you lean in, when you take risks.

So there you go. I wonder how these might change looking back five, 10, 50 years from now….

“Your Site Has a Cadence:” The Best Blog Post from 2012 You Never Read

Eugene Wei is either great himself or has a solid nose for greatness or maybe both. He’s done product stints at Amazon and Hulu before ending up at current Flipboard gig. His personal blog, Remains of the Day, is reliably interesting but there’s a post from 2012 that I revisit quite often. It’s called “Your site has a self-describing cadence” and is about flow, specifically repeat visitation. What causes people to come back to your product and at what intervals. Notifications, alerts, emails, etc are all tactics. Eugene’s post is more subtle.

This morning I was talking with an exec at YouTube about where the site stands today in a competitive media landscape. When pundits poke at YouTube for weaknesses it’s usually about stability of partner ecosystem and monetization. For me those are kinda red herrings. Google has a checkbook. If they ever want to “solve” monetization they can via brute force while ad products and sales channels mature. No, for me the great challenge YouTube continues to face is its inability to build a meaningful cadence with the figurative 80% of its audience. 20% of viewers are hardcore true believers who check in multiple times a day when their favorite creators have posted new videos or to join the discussion threads. But the mainstream user struggles to “visit” YouTube. Sure they hit the homepage and search. Sure they hit the watch page via a tweet or embed, and then fall down the Related Videos rabbit hole. Goodbye 60 minutes of your life! But they don’t come to the site religiously at specific intervals to do much of anything. YouTube isn’t a place they reliably start their day, check quickly at lunch time, and surf to (or thumb) while waiting in line or drinking tea.

Look, to some extent we should all be so lucky as to have YouTube’s *problems* – the scenario I describe above still results in One Billion MAUs and it’s my assertion that YouTube still has the best shot of any tech product to one day convert every human with internet access to a 30 day active. Look, if you have internet access and I can’t get you to watch one music video a month, something is wrong. But given all that, I look at it as a failure from my days on the YouTube product team to have not solved ‘cadence’ and a struggle of the team after me that they went so hard after a personalized feed and didn’t do more to evolve why and when people visit YouTube

What would I want to see on my YouTube Homepage aka why would I visit YouTube frequently?

  • The Water Cooler – what videos are making headlines today and why? Context can be provided by tweets or snippets/links from sites where they’re embedded. Back in my day the engineers wrote a cool db query which looked for YouTube embed links getting major traffic from a list of high pagerank news and entertainment sites. We essentially saw the web curating daily YouTube playlists. This and many other tactics exist to get a small number of fresh videos at regular intervals which are being hosted on YouTube but talked about primarily outside of the site.
  • Personalized Recommendations (But Not Like Today) – YouTube has always biased towards relevancy, not recency. For example, let’s say that I’m a Guns n’ Roses fan (I am!). It has always felt more likely that YouTube would suggest I watch Welcome to the Jungle than a more random but freshly filmed cover of that song by some kid with a banjo. Now it’s true, the official music video is the more relevant answer (not to mention awesome) but it’s, what, 25 years old? I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m happy perhaps to watch it now, but I’d be equally happy to watch it a month from now. When you show it to me on the homepage, I totally lose any sense of urgency that I need to return multiple times a day to make sure I don’t miss great stuff. Instead do something like this – preserve state and say “Hunter, since the last time you visited YouTube 67,000 videos have been uploaded. Here are the four we think you’ll enjoy.” Coming back multiple times a day while the algorithm is playing recent needle finder in the giant YouTube haystack? THAT feels like cadence.
  • My Subscriptions – yes, encourage me to subscribe to YouTube channels but this in and of itself is not a cadence because it’s largely people uploading videos at random intervals. Sure the best YouTube stars have managed to figure this out – eg upload a new video every day at same time – but the majority of other channels just toss stuff up there whenever, too much or too little for me to figure out. So yes, get me to create a direct relationship with the brands and personalities I care about but you can’t rely on this alone to drive cadence, and that’s probably the largest misunderstanding IMO of recent YouTube strategies.
  • What My Friends/The People I Follow Are Watching – YouTube would be better if I could sync my Twitter account and let YT show me tweets from the people I follow which contain a YouTube link. I don’t even know any more whether this is Twitter ToS complaint (is it? If you show/embed the whole tweet? Or do you still need to show entire feed, not just tweets with video links)? But any, wherever the graph comes from – and I don’t believe it needs to just be (cough, cough) G+, social is not about discovering great content necessarily but about creating discussions around content. Oh that’s cool, I didn’t know my friend Steve liked Judas Priest also. Or, WTF my friend Steve likes Judas Priest? Interest graph has never fully equaled social graph so let’s not force it, but use this as a smaller bucket of content to help me reliably know what I’m going to get when I visit the YouTube homepage.

So there you are, cadence. It’s an incredibly powerful and under-leveraged word when we talk about product usage. Thanks Eugene for emphasizing that and hoping we can see YouTube’s cadence solidify in its next phase of life.