Tied at the hip, VC’s and entrepreneurs take large risks together. VC’s invest in startups with minimal tangible assets and no certainty about the product’s viability, market size or customer adoption. Entrepreneurs face all that, and add one more risk to their list: the bad board member.
The Bad Board Member
I had coffee last week with one of my ex students. 30 months ago he raised a Series A venture round from two name brand Silicon Valley VC firms. It was early in the day, but he looked tired. “I need some advice about my board. I get along great with one of the VC’s, but the other one, Bob, is making my life miserable. Nothing I do is right in his eyes.” He looked pained as he continued. “We never had any personal chemistry, and it’s gotten so bad in the last six months, our board meetings are just hell. They consist of Bob beating me up regardless of whether the results are good or bad. I can’t tell if he’s trying to get me to quit, fire me and bring on a new CEO or is just a miserable human being.”
My antenna went up when I heard that Bob was his board member because the senior partner who led the investment said he was too busy to take another board seat (and right after the closing had assigned Bob to take the seat for his firm.)
Uh oh, I thought. I lived through this one. Admittedly, my ex student was quirky, bordering on eccentric, but he had a long and successful track record in Silicon Valley delivering complex products before he went back to get his MBA. He was a great engineering manager and recruited, hired and inspired a world-class team. This was his first CEO job. He said that Bob described him to others on the board as the “crazy aunt you hide in the closet when the guests come.”
We went through the status of the company, and at least from the outside it sounded good. In fact it sounded great: three major versions of the product shipped, multiple iterations and a few pivots under their belt, revenue was growing even faster than plan.
“Well you just need to talk to your other board members and ask for their counsel,” I offered. “I did! I’ve talked to the other VC and he told me it’s a problem that I just need to work out with Bob.“ Hmm, this wasn’t sounding good. “Why don’t you go back to the partner who led the deal and ask for his advice?”
The look on his face told me I knew what the answer would be. “Why do you think I’m having breakfast with you? I did just that, and do you know what he said?” I sat there thinking I knew exactly what the senior VC said because I had heard it myself when I was an entrepreneur. “The senior partner at the firm said he wasn’t going to get involved in “chemistry” issues.” Sounding both sad and frustrated he said, “What do I do now? I built a great company, and I think I’m being set up to be fired.”
The VC Lemon Law
Every Venture Capitalist I’ve heard talk about founder/board member problems treats them like they only happen in other funds. “Great VC’s in brand name firms don’t have these problems” is the line I hear.
The venture capital industry is in denial.
The problem is as bad in large brand name funds as in the smaller firms. While most board problems arise from founder performance issues, naiveté or disagreements about strategy, a number are created by bad behavior on the part of a board member. Yet while a VC can remove a founder who misbehaves, there is no corresponding recourse when a VC is the source of the problem.
Astonishingly, there’s no professional standards in the venture capital industry that acknowledges this problem even exists. Not only does the industry lack a code of conduct, but individual venture firms lack avenues for founders/CEOs to bring these problems to light. There’s no ombudsman or 3rd party in a firm to hear an objective review, and no remedy to deal with a partner’s bad behavior. (And why would there be if the problems are only with the founders.)
The rationale seems to be rooted in both tradition and math. Like doctors VC’s tend to bury their mistakes. If a partner screws up a single company in a portfolio it’s not the end of the world since they have 20-30 companies in a fund. If a single partner has a consistently terrible track record, he or she just won’t be invited into the next fund. But in the meantime this bad board member has left a trail of broken companies. When it comes time to understand individual partner performance, information asymmetry is at play – like bad doctors, knowledge about a partner’s performance is limited—and entrepreneurs rarely have a say in the matter even if they do have some knowledge.
Finally, there’s more than a whiff of noblesse oblige at play. If firms believe that VC’s always act responsibly and the problems are always with the founders, they don’t need to worry about bad board member behavior. They can continue to pretend it never occurs.
The reality is that the VC business has expanded from the clubby group of 20 or so firms that sat on Sand Hill Road 40 years ago into an industry of ~400. My hope is that they realize that with that expansion comes a different set of responsibilities.
- Most Entrepreneur/VC clashes arise from founder performance issues
- Infrequently the cause is bad behavior from a board member
- Currently founders have no recourse
- After 40 years of growth the VC industry still operates with “small club” rules and mindset