Startups

Setting up a management board for success with Dave Easton

Comment

David Easton, Partner at Generation Investment Management
Image Credits: Generation Investment Management

Viewed from the outside, board selection and corporate governance can seem like a bit of a black box — particularly at a startup. Generation Investment Management partner Dave Easton spoke at TechCrunch Early Stage about how to build a board as a founder, and specifically how to build a board you can live with. Easton’s own ample experience serving on boards as both a full member and as an observer, as well as Generation’s focus on building sustainable, ethically managed, mission-driven businesses helped peel back the curtain on the murky topic of good governance.


On the composition of boards

Easton noted that many boards end up overcrowded — in terms of both the number of people and also the background of those present. Mixing up the type of board members you have managing your corporate governance is key, he said, especially as a company grows in size and maturity.

In terms of fields, the sorts of things that we find that often go wrong is when your board is stacked full of investors. I think investors are great — I’m an investor. I think there are super useful things investors do. But five investors is not very useful, right — it’s just more people who will generally think the same. So a typical thing that we’re doing when we come in is, we’re saying we’re not taking a board seat, we’re gonna give our board seats to an operator — someone who actually knows what they’re doing. When you’re in the earliest stages it’s probably fine to avoid operators and just have one or two investors. Particularly operators who come from, like bigger company backgrounds, they’re not necessarily so helpful when you’re getting product-market fit. But as you get bigger and bigger, you know, operators start to trump investors, and we think boards need to move more heavily in that direction. (Time stamp: 09:34)


Don’t put settled topics up for debate

On the subject of what should actually take place at well-run board meetings, Easton said that one of the most common pitfalls he’s encountered is when management sort of performatively offers up subjects for debate. It’s something that’s easy to do, but it also ends up not only being wasteful of the time of those present, it also leaves a bad taste in basically everyone’s mouths.

The thing I most commonly see go wrong here is where people are having the wrong discussion. And that really starts from management teams not making it clear when they already know the answer. So a number of times I’ve been in board meetings where management present a whole section, and they asked for the board’s feedback — but actually, the last thing they want is the board’s feedback, because they already know what the answer is. And that’s pretty frustrating for the management team, because they know the answer. And so they hear people who know a lot less than them debate it for a while. And then dawns on the board members that actually, management already know what they’re gonna do here, so what was the point of that? (Time stamp: 11:44)


Keep open lines of communication to avoid dysfunctional boards

Easton said that one way you can avoid going down the “bad path” when it comes to boards is to set up regular checkpoints and opportunities for both board member self-reflection and for feedback between management and the board. Keeping those lines of communication open and consistent can help identify potential trouble spots before they become actual problems.

Running regular board surveys, which you can find plenty of examples of on the internet, can be incredibly easy and quick. And having the board reflect on their own performance is really important. The other thing to say is that mutual feedback is also really important. So having time [ … ] for the CEO and the board member to sit down and give proper mutual feedback, meaning the board member saying whether the CEO is doing well or badly, and also the CEO saying the same for the board member — that is unbelievably rare and unbelievably powerful when it happens. (Time stamp: 16:21)


Vanity boards typically don’t work in your favor

During the audience Q&A, one thing that came up right away was the question of vanity boards. We’ve all seen splashy announcements of celebrity X or personality Y being assigned to a startup’s board, and it rings of “stunt casting” most of the time. Eaton basically agrees that this is almost always a bad look, and further suggested that you can achieve a lot of the same aims with other mechanisms, like creating advisory positions for these people.

I’m not a fan of vanity boards. In general, I would see them as, more often than not, red flags. So people are going to be board members in name only. It’s two things: One is you don’t actually get the purpose of a board, which is to have real debate and real discussion among people who genuinely want to ensure the long-term interests of the company and its broader stakeholders. So for me, it’s a bit of a red flag. And there’s generally other ways you can get that. (Time stamp: 19:51)

Read the transcript here.

You can also check out other sessions from Early Stage here.

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

1 day ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

1 day ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo