I’m privileged to be the CEO of a startup that is now in the growth and expansion phase. Not so long ago – seems ages to us! – we were two co-founders putting together a vision and trying the market out, always with an eye to going global.
Fast forward 18 months, two series of fund-raising, a couple of patents, a rapidly growing portfolio of customers, a great team and two global areas of operations, and we run our business differently. We are now a growing business, with big ambitions and a vision that seems achievable.
It’s very interesting to see how the management of our business has evolved accordingly. We are at that perfect stage of growth where decisions are still made quickly and agility prevails. And we are also in that stage where advice and guidance from experienced professionals is crucial to help us reach our targets.
Talking with fellow entrepreneurs, I am sometimes surprised to find out they dread their board meetings; not to mention the shareholder meetings they try to avoid by any possible means! The comments I sometimes get are along the lines of: “You stand there, being criticised, blamed for everything, questioned” or “It’s like being under attack for half an hour”.
It’s very strange to me as I clearly have another experience. The one thing we have discovered, thanks to our chairman, is that involving the shareholders in your venture is essential for a successful journey. You can even get more from them than what you get from your board.
Shareholder meetings can be fantastic! But to be fruitful, you need to be well prepared. Here’s my take on shareholder meetings.
Why shareholder meetings are incredibly valuable
It is a semi-informal forum, so speech is less constrained than during a board or a general meeting. There is a loose agenda, which is essentially an update from the management team, but most importantly there is a Q&A session.
As the company’s CEO, it helps you assess whether you are able to answer the questions people who trusted you with their money may have; whether you are able to reassure them with your vision or convince them of a new direction; and, above all, it helps you get feedback, guidance and help.
A board is a control body that ensures the right decisions are made, progress monitored, objectives achieved and so on. It is a very down-to-earth entity in charge of steering the company in the right direction. It’s extremely useful, sometimes difficult, but mostly operational.
A general meeting is a very codified gathering. It’s almost scripted and offers little room for general discussions.
But a shareholder meeting is a best-of-breed gathering. Take the best of the two previous assemblies (all your shareholders, not just board members AND operational view and strategy) and add a more informal format. This is a startup shareholder meeting. Priceless!
How do you prepare for such a meeting? Here are my tips:
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Like any good public session, the more casual it is, the more prepared you should be!
Prepare for a useful, serious and documented discussion. Know your facts! It’s your company and your shareholders. If anything, they will need to feel that you control your business and its destiny; that you stand by your decisions and can explain them; that there is a rationale behind your actions.
So get your facts together.
Know your attendance. Your shareholders are generally very busy people and quite often successful professionals. So show your consideration. Know who is coming, what they have done, and what they are doing for you. Don’t be a stranger.
Prepare your talking points. You have plenty to say, great! But say it clearly and concisely, in an orderly fashion. Don’t drill into details, but don’t hesitate to provide anecdotes that will make your story more compelling and relatable.
Target your message. Do you want to get ideas about a strategic decision? Get the buy-in for a change? Detail your (good or bad) results? Just define your objectives and, once done, focus your message around them.
Last, but certainly not least – make your investors comfortable. They own part of your company, so they should feel at home. Get some finger food and drinks. Prepare a nice, cosy and trusting environment. If you are still a small company, you can afford this simplicity. Go ahead, enjoy it – hopefully, it won’t last!
2. Tell a good story with truth and transparency
Let’s be honest: no startup or young business is perfect. It simply doesn’t exist, even if we read incredible ‘overnight’ and ‘magical’ success stories in the news.
Because if everything was so perfect, chances are you wouldn’t even need investors to back you.
So don’t pitch them a Dreamland vision of your startup – it’s not going to work. That would only damage your credibility – which is probably the worst thing as a CEO – and erode the trust of your investors. And to recover from that, if it’s even possible to, will take lots of time and effort.
Tell the truth and don’t be over-dramatic. State the facts. You probably have plenty of good things to say, so say them! But also say the less good things. Explain your analysis; propose a mitigation plan and deadlines to monitor the results.
Your investors have trusted you with their capital. They don’t want you to fail. But they have a right to know the truth about their investment and you shouldn’t deny them this right.
Chances are that if you have difficulties, they will try to help you rather than blaming you. So grab that chance.
Tell a good story, but tell a true story. Simple.
3. Have your team in the meeting
Have as many of your team as possible at that particular time in the meeting.
Firstly, it is thanks to your team that you have something to show and tell. Take this opportunity to praise your team where relevant. Your people will feel awesome about it, your investors confident, and at the end of the day, it’s only fair!
Secondly, it shows your team what’s going on in with the business. It shows them that you are not grumpy from time to time just because you are a total pain. It gives them some context. And that is VERY important. Chances are your team work hard – harder than most people can possibly imagine. Working for a startup, they are probably not that well paid. But they believe in your company’s vision and potential.
So show them they’re not alone. And that in turn you are not “playing startup”. That you are managing money given by actual people and that you owe these people results.
By doing this, you will end up having a team more committed than ever, prouder of their achievements and eager to do even more. Win-win!
4. Realise you need help
If you have identified issues, chances are you need help. If you haven’t identified issues, you definitely need help! And if you think that you are cruising towards your objectives, then you can probably do much better and much more!
On these grounds, simply acknowledge that you need help! There is absolutely no shame in that. Again: your shareholders trust you. Not because you are a ‘know-it-all’ – they wouldn’t trust you in that case. But, indeed, because as a CEO you should have the capacity to always look for the best, strive for efficiency and improvements.
So take the incredible opportunity of a room full of seasoned professionals, keen to see your venture succeed, to ask for help. It can be on anything (“Would you have a point of contact in this company?” “Would you know how best to…?”).
It will help you. It will make your shareholders feel involved (rightly so) and it will show everyone in the room that your venture will succeed only if it’s a collective play.
5. Tell them your plans
Hopefully, you have plans for your business. If you don’t as a CEO, then revert to point 4 above and ask your shareholders for the name of a good CEO that could help!
But if you do – and you most likely do! – tell them. Do not sweep anything under the carpet; they’ll find out sooner or later.
Tell your plans in the open. Yes, you may get questioned, challenged, or even shouted down. But isn’t that exactly what’s best for your plan’s consolidation? You may be about to make a big mistake and one of your experienced investors has been there and done that. How sweet would that be (after the bitter taste of criticism)?
Or they may simply agree with you, and in that case, you have support. And as a CEO, support is always good!
So either way, tell people your plans. You will feel much better about them, one way or another.
That’s it from me. Of course, if you share my luck to have a great chairman, get him/her involved as well if possible. They represent the credibility of your board and company and will be invaluable to making your shareholder meetings efficient and enjoyable.
Stephane Ibos is Co-founder and CEO at Maestrano