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Launching “Calm Boards”: Advisory boards optimized for calm companies

Written By:
Sibi Murugesan
September 1, 2021

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For the past few months, we’ve been testing out a new offering: Calm Advisory Boards (“Calm Boards”), a better way for founders to build strong working relationships with expert operators, centered around their company's unique needs.

Today we’re excited to announce that we're expanding the Calm Board offering to any Calm Company Fund portfolio company that is interested. We're big believers that strengthening the ties between our founders and our growing network of mentors will drive outsized results for all.

But why did we build this?

Classic VC boards are broken

Having a Board of Advisors is nothing new. In fact, many VC-backed companies have a Board— a curated group of leaders that (in theory) provide guidance and support to the founders as they grow the company.

But in practice, we hear horror stories about how they actually operate, stories like:

  • Founders deliberately stating exaggerated numbers at board meetings because they're afraid of being honest.
  • Board members with zero operating experience sharing how to build a product or company.
  • Unit economics being more important than company health, so founders are pushed/mentored into unsustainable growth.

Traditional VC boards are also notorious for being only results-driven—if you don’t magically hit “20% growth Month-over-Month,” you could be ousted from your company!

Building a company is hard enough. Founders don't need the constant pressure from controlling investors telling them what to build; they need aligned advisors who meet them where they are and support them in building how they’d like.

Designing a calm company-friendly board

“What if there were a better way to do this?”

That's the question that's led the Calm Company Fund to build the SEAL investment vehicle, Founder Summit, and Trailhead.

And we applied the same question to the traditional Board of Advisors. Questions like:

  • What if advisors started by learning what success looks like for the founder and then figured out how to get there?
  • What if sustainability and mental health played important roles from the start, not just when things got hard?
  • What if they didn’t tell you what to build, but worked with you to figure out what’s next?
  • What if they had relevant founding/operating knowledge in the industries and areas where you needed the most support?
  • What if they couldn’t push you out of your own company when things look bleak but increased their support to help you weather the storms?

All of those “what ifs” led us to build Calm Boards: advisory boards with 2 – 5 experienced mentors with relevant expertise, centered around the founder’s needs to build the calm company they want.

Testing Calm Boards out with 6 companies and 20+ mentors

Every new offering sounds like a great idea until you actually test it. To determine if this idea could work, we ran a semi-structured 6-month beta test with 6 of our portfolio companies and 24 mentors within the fund.

We gave them just enough to get started so we could test out the biggest assumptions:

  1. Founders will see real value being created through their board, both quantitatively (i.e., improving metrics set by the founder) and qualitatively (i.e., founders generally feeling less overwhelmed).
  2. Mentors will engage without any additional incentives (e.g., no extra equity, voting rights, per diem for meetings, etc.).
  3. The infrastructure we built will ensure that boards can get to working together faster and more seamlessly

And the results were promising:

  • Founders were excited to build with a group of experienced operators as the advice they provided was personalized: the board knew their tech stack, their goals, how they build product, and more which meant that everything shared could readily be activated on.
  • Mentors were more than willing to help. They know what it's like to feel alone, and are excited to support the next generation of founders by making sure they don't make the same mistakes.
  • The infrastructure we built—private spaces for DMs, group chats, hosting files, templates for meetings, guides on how to run board discussions—created a container that enabled the boards to run smoothly and (largely) independently but there's plenty more to be done.

With a laundry list of ideas, we crafted v1.0 of Calm Boards. And today we launch it out to the world!

Some FAQ

As with any launch, there are lots of questions that we've heard from participants. Here are the most common ones + our current viewpoints:

  • "If the board has no real power over the founder's decisions/actions, then what's the point?"

That was a big question we had, too. But we were pretty surprised by how responsive the founders were to board member suggestions.

Will that scale to every board? Probably not. Our "founder sweet spot" for a Calm Board seems to be related to the stage we invest in: revenue is starting to come in regularly and they are adding structure, scaling up, and looking to the future.

  • "What do board members get out of it?"

Financially? Nothing (unless they are a mentor & investor in our fund).

Beyond that? The range of answers goes from "I know the questions they have because I had the same ones" to "I'm basically retired so I have the time and know-how" to even "I just like to help."

Our board members are the type of founders we love to work with: low-ego, little talk, lots of action so that's a pattern we'd like to continue watching as we increase the mentor pool to serve on our Calm Boards.

But it should be noted that at least one board member drove so much value that a founder struck up an official advisory position with additional equity. Which is very interesting...

  • "So it's basically like a mastermind of founders/operators helping a company? That's not very new..."

Yep! This is far from a clever idea; just something we'd love to see more of in this space. What we're trying to do is help our founders get a foundational layer of support tailored around their needs, supplemented by our infrastructure. The additional focus on accountability supports us as well as the founder, which is a nice-to-have.

In practice, Calm Boards become a new layer to triage how we approach our platform offerings as a fund. Founders can now start by turning to their Calm Board first and then (if needed) move out to our private Slack, to 1:1s with our team, tactical closed-door workshops, and everything else we offer to our portfolio companies.

How Calm Boards operate

So how do they actually work? The process is pretty straightforward:

  1. Founders send us their needs around key areas (e.g., technical development, marketing, HR and management, etc.) while mentors share their backgrounds and expertise.
  2. We match founders to relevant mentors to form their Calm Board.
  3. From there, we provide tools to facilitate the experience:
  • A private Circle space for boards to discuss, send DMs, share board decks, plan meetings, etc.
  • Board deck templates that draw in best practices from 100s of board decks
  • Direct access to the Calm Company Fund team for board agendas, tips on how to manage a board, and more.

What’s next?

Beyond opening up Calm Boards to our portfolio, we're also inviting YOU to join us as a mentor! You don’t have to be accredited or invest to join us; all we’re looking for are talented founders and operators that are willing to step in to engage with our companies.

We'd love to have more folks join our mentor pool as we know that sometimes the necessary experience/background won't be found in our current mentor network!

Interested? Drop in your info and we’ll be in touch.

Have suggestions on how to improve Calm Boards? Feel free to DM me on Twitter or send me an email.

Let's support even more calm companies together.

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