This mentoring role was named as the prime attraction by 37% of the 160 non-execs surveyed by Directorbank.com, the on-line database for venture capitalists seeking senior executives for start-ups and management buy-ins. Another 20% cited the opportunity to build something from nothing as their main driver, while about 15% said capital gain was their biggest motivation.
Colin Smith, previously FD and then chief executive of Safeway, now chairman of a nascent food industry internet business, took part in the survey.
He backs up the finding. “It’s terrific fun working with enthusiastic, motivated young people and personally rewarding to be able to add value through your advice,” he says. “I had worked in conventional retail for many years and wanted to expose myself to the new things that are happening.
However, even though you have to get your mind around new business models, a lot of the challenges for these companies are old economy challenges – making sure you have the right management, making sure you have a grip on how the business is marketed, cash control – things that are the typical reflexes of the experienced businessperson.”
However, non-execs in new economy businesses have their own anxieties too. Around a third of Directorbank’s survey respondents said raising later stage funding was their prime concern. The next most common worries, both named by 24%, were the difficulties in managing an inexperienced board, and the fact that the non-exec role took up more time than had initially been anticipated.
“The time factor depends on the stage of development of the company concerned,” says Smith. “The business I am working with is seeking primary funding and that means a lot of effort is going into the development of the business plan presentation. There are lots of visits to potential funders and then, when the right funder is identified, you have to stand by and respond to the due diligence process. Once that’s out of the way you have to deal with the legal issues. I guess that at the moment I’m spending 30-40% of my time on this (dotcom), and this week probably 50%, but that’s fine because it won’t always be like that. But you do need to be there to support the team when they need you.”
“In the dotcom the grey-haired chairman becomes the father figure for the 32-year old CEO,” says Jonathan Hick, chief executive of Directorbank.
“There are lots of phone calls in the evening saying, ‘Help, what should I do here?’ You get drawn in much more than the traditional non-executive. If you already have four or five non-executive directorships, then you should probably stay away from a dotcom as your last one – you’ll get drawn in.” Hick estimates that while a traditional non-executive role might take up one or two days a month, a similar role in a dotcom could easily soak up one week a month.
Nor is a dotcom role appropriate for everyone. “You need to have a lot of patience,” says Hick. “You need to be tolerant because it can be frustrating dealing with inexperienced people. You also need to have the common touch and be willing to roll up your sleeves and get back to the shop floor.
You may have been working in a plc with thousands of employees and lots of minions, but in the embryonic dotcom there may be just five or ten employees. You may even find yourself looking at a VAT return.”
Dotcom financial rewards are also unpredictable. Hick says that someone building up a non-exec portfolio might expect to earn around #100,000 in fees from directorships. The portfolio could include a number of traditional plcs, each paying #20,000-#30,000. Alongside that, a new economy role could be more interesting, but would probably not deliver the same cash return. The non-exec chairman may receive minimal or even zero fees, but gamble on share options coming good instead. If the dotcom flies, that could work out extremely well, of course.
Returns aside, Smith is enjoying one big benefit from working in a new economy environment. “The guys seem so focused and motivated; there’s not a hint of corporate politics,” he says. That sounds like bliss.
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