President of Y Combinator, Sam Altman. Brian Ach/GETTY IMAGES for Tech Crunch

What can a board member do for a high-value startup?

Nishat Kurwa May 11, 2015
President of Y Combinator, Sam Altman. Brian Ach/GETTY IMAGES for Tech Crunch

When the anonymous sharing app Secret shut down recently after taking around $35 million in investment in its first year, it sparked an open conversation that touched on current frothy conditions in Silicon Valley, where high financing rounds and valuations have been getting more attention of late.  (Secret’s valuation rose $60 million over just four months last year, but this pales in comparison to Uber, which is growing so rapidly that it might be on its way to a $50 billion valuation). A Google Ventures investor was quoted saying Secret raised too much, too soon. He later wrote that it’s inadvisable for companies to sell stock too early

In an unrelated series of tweets, the president of the influential startup incubator Y Combinator presented a different view on today’s startup financing scene, but one that also began on a cautionary note: “I am deeply uncomfortable by the continued phenomenon of startups raising multi-million dollar seed/Series A rounds with no board member.” 

We wanted to know more, so we asked Y Combinator’s Sam Altman for some details: 

What’s the purpose of investors also serving as board members for the startups they inject money into?

An outside board member provides discipline and rigor.  If the company knows they have to present to the board once a month, everyone is focused on making sure things are moving in the right direction.  If there is no board meeting to act as a forcing function, there is less urgency.

Also, board members can often talk the founders out of their own (often healthy) delusions.  Delusions are good in some cases but not when a company is getting close to running out of money.  The board provides an important guardrail in cases like these.

 When did you start to see a shift away from that arrangement becoming the norm?  

I started to see the shift about four years ago.  It started with the start of party rounds (lots of investors writing small checks and no one single investor taking a board seat).  Then it got worse when VC firms started doing large seed rounds; they stopped taking board seats too.  It’s a case of being very aggressive and trying to participate in more companies than they have bandwidth to help.

What can potential investors do in this environment to balance out responsibility for a startup’s performance?

 I think that this is an easy problem for investors to fix — they can just return to their previous practice of rolling up their sleeves and helping companies. 

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