There is a new movement around tools for managing your calendar. My favorite is Reclaim, but there are many others. They provide help running meetings, rearranging them, and avoiding them.
It’s great that these tools exist. The calendar is the least improved area in the average office worker’s life in the last few decades. My particular bugaboo is that calendar apps don’t know that you exist as a physical person, so they are perfectly willing to let you schedule two in-person events five minutes and 3000 miles apart. Any other kind of application would see that as a catastrophically brain-dead bug, but somehow the tools we use to arrange our lives don’t.
But… Something always struck me as off about these new tools. I didn’t want to use any of them. I’m a tool junkie, so this is pretty weird. Even Reclaim took me a while to understand and fit into my life. It was obvious these tools weren’t for me, but why not? Who were they for?
They’re for front-line workers: Developers, accountants, SREs. I used to be one of those. I’ve certainly been yelled at enough by them for putting meetings on their calendars.
But I’m not one today. I haven’t been in at least a decade.
My employees at Puppet used to say they hated meetings (I’m sure they still do, they just don’t work for me any more). I would tell them: Replace “meeting” with “collaborating with my team-mates” and say that again, eh?
So yeah, I have a different perspective on meetings.
Not that I think they’re all awesome. But for me — and most other leaders and managers — meetings are how we do our job. The life of a manager is built around communication. Much of it can be unscheduled, and ideally asynchronous. But a lot of it needs to be direct, synchronous, interactive.
That interactive time is much less efficient than, say, email, which means managers have to schedule their time carefully to ensure they get everything done. And of course, employees hate it when a manager shows up at their desk unannounced and asks for time. They want that meeting scheduled, too.
So a manager’s day is built around meetings, and there is a new crop of tools to help with them. What’s not to love?
Well. The tools are built by and for people who hate meetings, and often who aren’t very good at them. Instead, I want tools for people whose job is built around meetings, and who know they must be excellent at them.
Managers do need help. Not nearly enough of them are actually good at the mechanical parts of their jobs, including managing meetings. But these tools are mostly about avoiding or constraining them. They’re for the people asked to join, not for the ones calling them or running them.
I hope these tools do well. I want there to be a mature market of great tools in this space.
But even more so, I hope to see a parallel mature market for tools to help make better meetings. The average employee suffers from all the meetings they have. If managers were better, there would be fewer meetings, and the ones remaining would be better.
Seeking a round of funding is about the most miserable thing I’ve ever done. Truly. Fundraising was less pleasant and more demeaning than anything else I did at Puppet. But Clickety’s final (abandoned) round was uncomfortable in a new way.
Two different investors asked me the same question:
Why are you fundraising if you hate investors?
The question caught me flat-footed. Mostly because it’s such a stupid one.
I don’t love working with real estate agents. I feel like I’m being scammed. Even if I like my own agent, I usually don’t like the other one. I’m uncomfortable the whole time.
But in the US, it’s way harder to buy or sell a house if you don’t use an agent. And even if I went without, the other side of the party probably would hire one. So, I use a real estate agent. And I work with the agent on the other side at the same time. You want the house, you use the system.
And when I buy that house? I ask my banker for a loan. It’s not because I love bankers. It’s because I need help buying the house, and he’s in the business of helping people buy houses. Seems pretty straightforward. It has nothing to do with whether I like bankers, banks, or the mortgage financing system.
The legal system is similar. I actually do like a lot of lawyers. But… god, not all. And the way lawyers often work is stupid. I don’t actually think lawyers designed modern legal documents as a form of job security, but it sure looks like it sometimes.
But when I need to work with complex contracts, I hire a lawyer. It doesn’t matter whether I like lawyers or the US contract system; I have a job that demands legal help, so I go get it.
There’s a huge difference between all of them and venture capitalists, though: Bankers, real estate agents, and lawyers don’t demand that I act like I like and respect their industry. But VCs don’t just want me to start a great company. They want me to like and respect them for trying to make money off the work of me and my team.
Why was I fundraising from VCs?
To paraphrase Willie Sutton (maybe?), because they’re the ones with the money. If I want funding for my company, I need venture capitalists. What does it matter how I feel about the venture industry?
If you’re an entrepreneur today, there is no other source of capital. You can either bootstrap, or raise money from VCs. There are a few firms experimenting at the edges, like Calm, but they have a minuscule amount of money compared to the venture capital industry.
Yes, I could bootstrap. I’ve done it before. But it took four and a half years. I’m not as patient today as I was when I was 29. I also thought it made sense to start this company as a CEO and product manager first, rather than as a programmer. (In retrospect that was a mistake.) That made it impossible to bootstrap. I needed a team.
This question is just offensive, though. Its implication is “you should not raise money from investors unless you are willing to show respect and appreciation for the money they give you”.
Why? The world famously hates bankers and lawyers, yet continues to work with them. Why does this field get to demand our respect, when others don’t? Finance, especially, is just here for the money, and everyone – them included! – knows it. We just have to convince them we’ll help.
VCs are gatekeepers
Investors display their power by demanding your respect. They don’t invest in people who don’t show fealty to their image of themselves.
It’s how banking used to work: Some people got money, and some people didn’t. Fundamentals had nothing to do with it. You had to be in the right network, have the right skin color, the right class. Eventually bankers realized they made less money when they only loaned it to their friends. (And the US government forced them to back off their discrimination a bit.)
Most investors today will tell you to just “play the game”. This is what they mean: Participate in our discriminatory process, and show us proper respect. This is why you usually need a warm introduction to even be allowed to pitch them.
But I raised money within it, many times, because that’s where the money is.
Hate the Game, not the Player
No, I don’t hate investors.
But I do hate the world of venture capital. It is fundamentally flawed. It incentivizes behavior I can’t stand, and quashes behavior I find respectable and moral.
For what it’s worth, I also hate the larger finance industry. It’s not like venture is some rare target for my ire. There’s a reason I’ve never considered working in finance. (Well. There are several.)
Venture is an amazing engine for creation and invention. But it mostly invents stuff I wish didn’t exist. And it does not seem to be able to solve the problems that matter most to me or the larger world.
People appear to hear my dislike for their industry and think I hate them, personally. I can’t do much about that. I respect and like some investors. I dislike some others. But I generally have no particular feelings about a given individual.
That being said…
I don’t tend to respect investors.
Being a venture capitalist doesn’t automatically disqualify you from garnering respect. But it also does not automatically deserve it.
In the 1980s, finance was at its peak. People made ungodly amounts of money ruining the lives of thousands and thousands of people. And they were held up as heroes of business. We’ve largely learned that stripping financial assets is maybe not something we should be proud of. These people still get rich, but we have learned not to lionize them.
Is the modern venture investor as heartless and shameless as a PE investor from 40 years ago? Generally, no. (Although there are definitely exceptions.) But like those 80s wolves of Wall Street, VCs have found a money-making edge, and they’re ruthlessly exploiting it.
I’m just not that impressed.
I can see why someone would read that disregard and disrespect as hate. Especially given the power dynamic: I’m asking them for money, yet I’m not showing “proper respect”.
My banker didn’t demand I “play the game” when I applied for a mortgage. He just needed evidence that I could afford the house I was buying, and that it was worth what I was paying.
Being autistic means I’ll never be able to “play the game”. It’s literally constructed so only the in-crowd can join. I can mask for a while. But it takes hundreds of meetings to raise a round. Most people in the meetings look the same, dress the same, went to the same schools, and ask the same questions, yet think they’re special geniuses. And most of them give the same answer (“no”). It becomes hard to hold a facade.
It’s not a choice, or a lack of skill. It’s a hardwired neurological limitation. You might as well ask me to be taller, or have a lower voice.
For better or worse, I’m not sure it matters now. My personal limitations are likely to prevent me from trying to raise money again. But I hit those walls in large part because of how harrowing fundraising is.
Will I do it again?
My experience at Clickety tells me I’m unlikely to run another venture backed startup.
It looks like I’m already a bit of a pariah, which might explain part of why it was so hard to raise. (Not that I don’t deserve some of that reputation.) It’s not about to become easier for me. The older I get, the less I can handle gatekeepers. And I was already crap at tolerating them when I was younger.
My health — both physical and mental — would need to significantly improve. Running a company is stressful enough. Raising money was too much.
I won’t rule it out. I know my future is going to look different from my past. I have a lot of healing to do.
But I still believe in the power of software to make people’s lives better. And venture capital is a fantastic source of acceleration. I hope to continue to work with founders, and intrinsically that means working with investors, too, sometimes.
I also love solving problems. I hope to help others do it. But I won’t rule out trying to solve some problems on my own.
And maybe one of those solutions will be so good they can’t ignore me.
Most industries are dominated by monopolies. How we enforce antitrust law explains far more than you might think.Photo courtesy of BP Miller.
My first monopoly was AT&T.
I lived on a commune until I was eight. We didn’t have toilets, but we did have phones. We didn’t own them. It was a commune, after all. But they were in our house and we got to use them.
When we reentered “normal” civilization, we still didn’t own our phones. AT&T did. This was 1984, the same year Congress broke them up. I was more confused than injured by their power. Capitalism was new to me. Every single thing in our house was ours, for the first time, except that one. We had to lease it from Ma Bell. Even weirder, the lines in our house were apparently not ours. (I mean. We were renters. But you get the idea.) We had to pay to attach other objects to ports in our own house.
This confounded me. “Some… outside company I’ve never heard of makes rules about what we have in our house?” Yes indeed.
Thankfully, it didn’t last. With five siblings, we needed but could not have paid for those extra phones.
My second monopoly was Microsoft.
They had complete dominance of desktop operating systems and software (the Office suite, plus Outlook/Exchange for email). I went to Reed College, so I exited school as a Mac user, in the middle of their dark days. In hopes of avoiding Windows I tried everything else: BeOS, Linux, Solaris, you name it. No matter how fast I ran, I was often stuck on Windows at work because, well, everyone was.
Microsoft abused its monopoly heavily and freely until being taken to court. Microsoft’s abusive behavior is usually discussed in terms of its effect on the web. But I’ll never forgive them for Outlook. It taught multiple generations of people to do email incorrectly. To this day, the average business user is incapable of having sophisticated discussions over email because Outlook trained them not to.
Ironically, Microsoft itself likely only exists because of Congressional antitrust action against IBM. The government eventually withdrew its case against Big Blue, but not before convincing it of the importance of leaving room for others.
The Paradox of Antitrust Choice
Kids coming up today are lucky. They have so many monopolies to choose from.
Of course, I don’t actually mean “choose”. You pretty much have to use all of them. Google for search, Facebook for social, Amazon for e-commerce and cloud infrastructure, and Apple for hardware and apps worth paying for.
Tech is absolutely rife with monopolies. (And monopolists.) But the industry itself is largely in denial about that. “We’re different!”
The last month has highlighted this. Congress has dragged the richest, most powerful tech founders and CEOs in to testify. More importantly, a Judiciary subcommittee has produced a huge report on concentration in the tech industry.
I’m going to focus on that last link, from Ben Thompson. He makes a throwaway comment:
consumer harm, which is the de facto standard for antitrust in the United States
The article itself is interesting and informative, as most of Ben’s writing is. But this small line shows that Ben is in a box that limits how he thinks about antitrust. And if he can’t see out, few others are likely to.
I think he should. I think you should. I think everyone should.
America doesn’t have a tech monopoly problem. We have a plain old monopoly problem.
Ben works hard to explain that the tech monopolies are natural because of what he calls Aggregation Theory. He implies this makes their monopolies more acceptable, even inevitable. He accepts there is abuse, but a very narrow definition of it. Even if his theory is sound (which I am not convinced of), it doesn’t explain the rest of the monopolies that plague us.
Something else does.
The “consumer welfare” standard is not the law
Ben is right that US antitrust law focuses on consumer welfare. That’s pretty much the work of one person: Robert Bork. His book, The Antitrust Paradox, successfully rewrote the history of American antitrust enforcement. Gone were concerns about competitive markets, or any discussions of the downsides of market power. Nope. If prices are low, it’s good. That’s it.
He didn’t get any new laws passed. He just convinced our country to enforce them differently.
Yes, consumer welfare is an important input in the laws themselves. But there’s far more to it, including a healthy focus on market power. Yet Bork managed to gut everything else with one book. (To be fair, there were a lot of rich and powerful people set who became even more so once he won.)
To be clear: The laws themselves have not changed. Only how we enforce them, within the government and the courts.
It is impossible to understand antitrust enforcement in our country without accepting this fact: We have strong antitrust laws and are choosing not to enforce them. They have been gutted by an extreme interpretation, and fifty years later, nearly every industry demonstrates the ruinous consequences.
Revisiting Consumer Welfare
Bork successfully reframed the downsides of market power, with a lot of help from the Chicago School of Law. But there have always been people fighting back.
Lena Khan produced the seminal work in this category, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox. She lays bare how powerful Amazon is, and how useless consumer welfare is as a means of assessing monopoly abuse. Its impact has allowed her to carry the flag even further.
In particular, she was part of the team that ran that Judiciary subcommittee hearing, and produced the related report.
Yes, her argument - and thus at least partly, the argument made by Congress - is that Amazon and its peers have too much power, and they are abusing it to gain even more.
But more importantly, she’s arguing that you cannot have a conversation about market power without also talking about standards other than consumer welfare.
That’s what Ben Thompson (and Ben Evans) and all the other tech commentators need to understand.
The argument is not really whether one of these companies is a monopoly. It’s what standard we should use to assess their behavior.
Do we let Bork decide, and use a light hand and generally tolerate heavy concentration of power?
Or should we follow the original intent of the laws, focusing more on encouraging a competitive landscape and a market free from companies that are too big and too powerful?
The Tech Monopoly Minefield
Every tech founder I know builds their business around the reality of these monopolies. If you’re in e-commerce, your business is defined by the space Amazon leaves you. You don’t necessarily have to be on Amazon, but prepare to be attacked if you’re not. If you’re in social, you have to ensure Facebook doesn’t want your business. If you make apps, you can only make or sell them the way Apple lets you.
I expect most founders and investors don’t even realize how much we’ve given up on doing because of these monopolies (and all the smaller industry heavyweights, like Salesforce). We talk big about agile startups outwitting the big players, but… that only works if they can’t choke off your suppliers, outbid you for engineers, or take hundreds of millions in losses to destroy your company.
What could we build if we didn’t have to fear so many big players?
I’m still haunted by that AT&T phone we didn’t own.
I could not be happier that the government is finally revisiting our antitrust standards. And honestly, I’d rather they make mistakes in regulating the huge players than not regulate them all. We’ve seen what five decades of almost no action results in.
Like everyone, I love fast cheap shipping. But it’s not worth destroying independent retailers over. Honestly, I can’t stand using any of Facebook’s products, but maybe I could if they were stand-alone instead of part of a soulless corporation bent on domination.
I believe in the free market. But none of the markets I’m interested in are. They’re all dominated by players so large, so powerful, that our only choice is to work with or around them.
It’s long past time to get rid of the consumer welfare standard, and bring back to true antitrust enforcement.
Privacy expectations are changing. How will companies change with them?
Photo courtesy of Tobias Tullius
Change is coming to how tech companies handle privacy. Everyone is going to have to adjust, but new startups are caught in the middle: Be as useful as the companies built in the old world, while following the new rules.
Today’s dominant tech companies don’t care much about privacy. Many of their businesses couldn’t exist if people were careful with their data. Facebook only survives if people are willing to share widely and publicly. Google’s ad engines feed on reams of public data.
Privacy will matter far more to new companies. Google has taught companies the cost of sharing their data publicly. Consumers are slowly waking up to how pernicious Facebook’s data practices are. And the laws themselves are changing.
Regulation is already happening at the state level, and internationally. You might not want federal legislation, but state by state rules would strangle growth of new startups.
I know some say government can only create problems, not fix them. I am not so cynical. The creation of the EPA is a great example of government taking industry in hand and making the world better. I am eager for Congress to take privacy as seriously.
The Business of Privacy
But I’m not a legislator. I’m a builder. I’m more interested in understanding how people’s behavior will change, and what that means for the products I’m creating.
For some, the future of privacy is already here. DuckDuckGo is thriving (despite its silly name) on promises of providing great search without all the tracking. The Brave browser is growing for similar reasons.
But how big is this change? Will the average person in the next decade expect to retain privacy, demand companies respect their data? (I originally wrote “computer user” here instead of “person.” With the smartphone, there is no difference.)
Or will privacy concerns continue to be like security concerns have been for the past decade: the domain of the few, the nerds?
But it’s also a business question. What kinds of companies thrive in the current privacy framework? Will they thrive in ten years? What about a world with little privacy? Which companies might do better if people cared more about it?
It’s worth elaborating on what I mean by privacy. Google and Facebook have very different definitions, for example. Facebook’s business is built on promising as little privacy as possible, and delivering even less. They share your data with pretty much everyone. Google just uses your data internally. They don’t share your browsing history; they just use it to market ads.
There are far more companies out there like Google than Facebook. Everyone shouting “data is the new oil” is advocating for Google’s business model: Collect a ton of data and profit off of it. It might start as your customers’ data, but if you collect enough it, and tie it all together, it becomes your data.
By policy, these companies (usually) care more about privacy than Facebook does. They rarely sell or share your data. This is better. But privacy isn’t restricting data to only a few trillion-dollar companies. It’s sharing my data with people, not companies.
It’s instructive to look at one company offering less privacy today than in the past: Microsoft. In the old days, all of my documents sat on my computers. My email ran through servers run by corporate. Microsoft could never have gotten to any of them.
Now it’s all “on the cloud.” What does that mean? Microsoft has it. They might not be sharing it with others, but they’re certainly looking at it. Oh, maybe individuals aren’t. But their programs are.
This can be good. Usage data can help vendors improve their software.
But mostly, it’s bad. These promises of better software tend to be hollow. I don’t want better ads. I don’t want your algorithm picking what I see. And I certainly don’t want machine-learning recommendations based on a statistically average user.
People are beginning to see the downsides of handing all of their data to companies. They know that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon have too much power. They are changing their privacy expectations. Not just the nerds, but average people.
But how much? How fast?
The Cloud Conundrum
Privacy in the modern era is a special quandary. The cloud is pretty great. No synchronization. No management. Easy sharing.
No one wants to give that up. Yet today, cloud usually brings severe privacy compromises.
Do I try to build without the cloud, enabling more privacy, and try to compete with what might be less functionality? Or do I build on the tools everyone else uses, where a lack of privacy means there’s little limit to what I do?
Is there a world where you get all of the benefits of centralization, of the cloud, of being online, but don’t have to sacrifice your privacy? Can you be in the cloud, but keep your own data instead of letting a company put it all into one bucket?
I think so. For many cases, I don’t even think it will be that hard. It will just require thinking differently. It will require new answers, maybe slightly harder ones. But not whole new forms of math or science. Something attainable and reasonable today.
As a founder and investor, there still might be big downsides. It might mean you can’t be the next Google. The next Facebook. Or even the next Salesforce.
It might be that a company is worth less if it does not exploit your data.
What if ethical, privacy-conscious companies stay small, and unethical privacy-destroying companies get to keep growing? There is precedent. Prior to the creation of the EPA, an industrial plant would be committing fiscal suicide to spend money reducing pollution.
I worry about this. I’d sure love to see better behaved companies get rewarded with growth. But that’s certainly not the world right now.
Of course, this is partially why we need new regulation. The rules need to change. There was a time when big business just dumped all of its waste in the local rivers. It was cheap. Why should they care if it killed people and ecosystems? Gotta protect shareholder value! But then the rules changed. Nixon (!) created the EPA, and now we take it for granted that industrial players are forced to protect the air and water at least a bit.
The rules will matter less if enough people change. If you stop buying from companies who abuse your data, they’ll stop doing it. If the next Facebook can’t be built off of your data, then someone will need to find a new way - and hopefully a better one! - to meet your needs.
But maybe those businesses won’t be quite as big. Or get there quite as fast.
Are you ok with that? Is that a reasonable trade off?
It is for me. Facebook didn’t make me a billionaire. I’m not at risk of some other data-centric company making me rich. I’m not investing in companies that collect and exploit your data.
But a lot of people are. A lot of our industry is built on the idea that access to this data is good. Many companies could work without it, but choose not to.
Take the smart home, for example. My smart thermostat is in my house with me, right next to my phone. On the same network. But how does my phone configure it? Not by talking directly! No. My phone contacts cloud services, which then contact my thermostat. Why? Partially because it’s easier. But mostly it’s about data.
There’s no chance Google would have bought Nest for $3.2B if that data weren’t available.
Maybe Nest would be a better company if it were more concerned with making better devices instead of extracting our data. But I don’t think Google would be as excited about that other company. Investors like the multiples that all that data gives them. And product people like what the data allows.
Like industrial effluent, this data is toxic. Dangerous. I’m afraid of what’s being done with what leaks out. I’m afraid of all of the bias. I’m afraid of businesses built on my lack of privacy, my lack of boundaries.
My Bet on Privacy
My new company assumes people will care more about privacy than they have. I expect I’m giving up some long-term potential by doing so. There are things we can’t do as a result. Things that our competitors might find easy to do.
But we’ll be able to make promises no one else can. And we’ll find new ways - hopefully better ones - to solve our customers’ most important problems.
Even writing this frightens me a bit.
I’d love to believe that promising privacy would make my company more valuable, make it easier to raise money. I know it will make it easier to hire people.
Some users will choose us specifically because of our privacy model. But how many? And will it be enough?
Why and how my team built board reports instead of PowerPoint decks. Fifty pages, less work than slides, and more valuable.Image courtesy of Drew Beamer.
Board meetings are a critical time of communication and reflection for a company. You have to share enough information that the people in the room can make existential decisions about the business. Yet most CEOs I know share only slides (the “board deck”) with their board.
This is a huge mistake.
People who worked for me at Puppet claimed I hate PowerPoint or Keynote. Nope. I use them myself when presenting on stage in front of a large crowd. But they are a horrible choice for communicating without a talk track, and are incapable of conveying large amounts of information, or anything of detail.
Don’t trust me? Ok, how about Edward Tufte , The Godfather of information design, who partially blamed them for the Columbia space shuttle explosion:
These [NASA] review boards examined what is probably the best evidence available on PP for technical work: hundreds of PP decks from a high-IQ government agency thoroughly practiced in PP. Both review boards concluded that (1) PowerPoint is an inappropriate tool for engineering reports, presentations, documentation and (2) the technical report is superior to PP. Matched up against alternative tools, PowerPoint loses.
What’s that you say? Running your business is easier than shooting rockets into space, so you are fine dumbing down your communication? You’re not in great company.
Bezos revealed that “narrative structure” is more effective than PowerPoint. According to Bezos, new executives are in for a culture shock in their first Amazon meetings. Instead of reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a “six-page memo that’s narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns.”
There’s a much better option right in front of you.
For most of my time running Puppet, we prepared a board memo: A text document written in normal English, with supporting images and charts. It averaged between 35 and 55 pages in length.
It worked great.
It took less time to prepare, and conveyed the state of our company more effectively. I recently shared my last board report, from 2016, with a friend, and he protested, “This is an SEC filing, not a board report!”
I’m not sure if our process is a fit for you, but hopefully it will at least inspire you to find a better solution than slides.
I used to be like you. Well. I never walked through slides in the meeting. I always drove a short (3ish items) agenda. My goal was discussion, not presentation. But I did start out using a deck.
I still cringe a little at the thought. But one of my startup principles is “Innovate only when necessary.” Your business requires a certain amount of breaking new ground. But don’t add risk by doing something unnecessarily new. If I avoided everything I thought was dumb I’d never get anything done.
Everyone else did board decks. My team was used to them. 🤷♂️ Sure, we’ll give them a try.
I hated it.
We spent too much time, on the wrong work, and did a poor job in the end.
Wow. The team spent so much time on fonts. And arranging images. What, exactly, is this adding to the board meeting? I understand: An ugly deck makes us look bad. But it seemed like we were spending a third of our time prettifying something instead of actually communicating.
There’s a good reason it was so hard to make them attractive: We had a ton of information to convey. We had to include detailed information about sales, marketing, engineering, and operations. The reader needed to quickly gain a sense of what was working, what was not, and what the vectors were around the company. No amount of picking fonts and rearranging images could deliver that understanding with PowerPoint.
So one quarter we ran an experiment. It was early on, only a year or two after our first round.
I gave each member of my team a choice: You can produce slides, or prose (i.e., plain text, using full sentences and paragraphs). Unsurprisingly, sales and marketing picked slides, and engineering and services picked prose.
What a stark difference.
The prose was done faster, communicated more, and just felt so much better.
Experiment over, prose won, we switched.
I don’t remember exactly how the process evolved. I do remember where we ended up, six years into using producing what we called board reports.
We did all the writing in Google Docs. We could all work at once and not step on each other’s toes.
I would build a skeleton of the report: Write out each section heading (“Summary”, “OKRs”, “Product”, “Marketing”, “Sales”). Then I’d use a comment to assign each section to the relevant executive. They’d either produce the text themselves, or do so in partnership with their team. Sales, marketing, and finance would include a lot of charts and graphs; product tended to stick to prose with a couple of diagrams or screen shots.
As people filled out the document, I played a few roles.
I spent most of my time assessing when someone was done. I’d read through people’s work and mark something that was insufficient, unclear, or missing with a comment in Google Docs. These are easy to spot even when scrolling through a fifty page document. As people worked, they marked their progress as done or ready to review. A completed section was easy to recognize: All comments and suggestions were resolved.
In this way, I could scan a large document and instantly see where work remained to be done.
My second job was overcoming a shortcoming in Google Docs. Or maybe a lack of training of office workers. Docs has built-in headings, and if you use them, your document is visually consistent, and auto-generates a table of contents. However, most people who worked for me never used the headings. They’d make a headline bold and increase the font size. So I had to go through the entire document and correct the markup. This was probably a quarter of my time.
By the end, I delegated this to a senior copy-editor who we trusted to see the entire document in process.
My last major role, and the only one that resembled the work of a CEO instead of an editor, was to ensure we were telling a single, coherent story. I’d write the summary to set the key messages. Then as I assessed everyone’s work, I pointed out inconsistencies or gaps. Most of this simple editing: Ensure all of the text used the same voice (first person plural, usually). It involved plenty of strategic work, though: tying company goals to team performance, ensuring the whole story was told, and asking everyone to cover the ‘why’, not just what happened.
You can guess this process triggered a few tense side conversations as I dragged information to light.
That, in the end, is the real point of the board report: Make sure we all understand the true state of the business. The writing was more important than the reading. It was on me to ensure we did the real work, rather than just packing it with information without saying anything.
I usually spent about four hours on it. Again, on a fifty five page report. My team each spent 1-3 hours. I did have the odd executive here or there or spend more like four or five hours on their part. We also never invested enough in automated reporting, so I’m confident some parts of the org had to work harder than I’d like to admit to generate their charts.
We targeted completion at least a couple of days before the board meeting. I’d share it with the board as a PDF. A couple of times I tried sharing it as a Google Doc (copied, so they can’t see the edit history), in hopes they would ask questions that could drive the agenda. It never got much engagement so I stopped.
Without a board deck, what did we actually talk about? I mean, without slides driving every minute, don’t you lose track?
No way. I ran a tight ship. But we measured time in half hours and big topics, not individual clicks.
My board meetings were usually three hours long. I’d spend an hour with just the board discussing high level status of the business and team. Then we’d take an hour and a half to cover our agenda, usually with portions of my team in the room. Then we’d spend half an hour at the end again just with the board, discussing what we learned and what we expected to do about it. This is when we also assessed individual executive performance. By the end of my tenure we also had a few minutes set aside for just the board, with me absent.
This process created space for deep conversation in the meetings. Everyone who read the report (which was, well, nearly everyone) was caught up on the business. They were fully prepared to discuss the three topics. And we had no structured flipping of slides to get in the way of discussion.
After the meeting, I edited the report as needed then sent it to the whole company.
Usually this involved removing just a line or two. Sometimes it was larger surgery, and others no changes at all. Mostly I cut out discussion of personnel changes, or removed sentences that required more sensitive, political phrasing than I practiced in these reports.
The end of this cycle ensured everyone involved in the company was up to date on, well, everything. Goals, status, progress, weaknesses, strengths.
I don’t know if everyone should use this process. I know many people were raised by American business to think slides are the best form of communicating. That’s a hard habit to break. I won’t even judge you if you use slides during the meeting to display the agenda and schedule, and maybe key images.
Slides are perfect if you want to tightly control the message, and not leave much room for hard questions.
But if your goal is to do real work in board meetings, skip the deck and write a report.