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Forbes: It’s Never Too Soon For Serious Startups To Add A Chairman

Moira Vetter

July 30, 2017

(As appeared in Forbes.)

Peter Bell today was announced as the new Chairman of Redwood City-based Progressly. Progressly is an Operational Management Platform that unifies people, processes, and performance to allow customers to cut costs without relying on IT.

Bell, an early employee of EMC, is a veteran entrepreneur and an investor focused on cloud-based innovators. I spoke to him about his new the role with Progressly and the challenges of board-level leadership in the startup space.


Integrating a chairman into key decisions

Bell said 20 years ago he had an entirely different perspective on what board leaders—particularly chairmen—do. Many assume chairmen are exclusively for big companies—sitting in a boardroom and pontificating. He doesn’t like the word ‘chairman,’ in part because of those false assumptions.

According to Bell, ‘I don’t know everything, but I’ve seen a lot. I really like Nick Candito, the co-founder, and CEO of Progressly, and I’m impressed with what the company is doing. My role is to care deeply when he calls and give him my best advice.’

Bell repeatedly talked about liking and caring about the individuals you work with. The human connection is critical to establishing the trust for high stakes or high-stress decision-making. He sees a parallel between supporting a founder and raising a teenager. According to Bell, ‘You have to give them your best advice, and hope (and help ensure) that they have the right framework to make their own decisions.’

He sees a parallel between supporting a founder and raising a teenager. According to Bell, ‘You have to give them your best advice, and hope (and help ensure) that they have the right framework to make their own decisions.’

In practice, the right chairman is there for the entrepreneur and the company in any way that can add value. More specifically, there is a defined role for a chairman:

  1. The role of fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders
  2. The role of strategic support of the company through the support of the executives

To handle item number 1, Bell focuses on item number 2.

Often the most critical area of support has to do with talent acquisition and team building. At the startup stage, particularly in rapid growth, every hire is a huge decision—culturally and financially. Advice on the qualities, credentials, and contributions of core staff are the most important input a chairman can offer.

Beyond building the team are the efforts to connect with core customers and help hone the go-to-market strategy. In this regard, the chairman may open up a channel of prospective customers from his or her known contacts.

A chairman, while enthused about the effort, is an anchor to reality. Chairmen help ensure that corporate strategy rises above the ‘big dreams’ phase by helping connect alliance partners and influencers to a realistic growth opportunity. In this way, chairmen can help prime the pump for future fund raising.


When is the right time for a startup to add a chairman?

While many assume you must be in business for some time before you get serious about a chairman, Bell says most businesses should act sooner. It’s at the early stages that decisions are the most critical and why he appreciates having connected with Candito early.

Bell says he and Candito get together ‘formally’ once a week and he speaks to Candito regularly, for an hour, here and there. He feels it is essential that there is a tight and comfortable relationship between founder and chairman.

 He believes his accessibility to Candito is critical for when something of importance needs to be bounced around. And whether a company has an actual chairman, an advisory board or an informal mentor, Bell says it is critical for the founder to have a lifeline for day-to-day operational insight and advice.

What does a chairman look for in a startup or entrepreneur?

It’s one thing as the entrepreneur to be on the hunt for a chairman that will add to their business or the perception of their leadership position. It’s another thing for the business to actually be attractive to a prospective chairman.

According to Bell, things that make an entrepreneur or a company stand out to prospective leaders include:

  • Is the CEO stellar, constantly innovating and growing the firm in alignment with the vision?
  • Is the mission strong and does the current team universally believe in it?
  • Who are the other stakeholders? Are the initial investors, early customers, and early alliance partners still on board and in alignment?


Progressly is excited to have Bell’s talent at the table

Progressly co-founder and CEO Nick Candito pointed to Bell’s specific experience in claiming new markets. ‘Peter brings unprecedented insight and experience with growing businesses in rapidly expanding markets,’ he said. ‘He also has a deep understanding of why the working world needs a platform like Progressly so badly, which makes him passionate about our mission, and passion goes a long way.’

Entrepreneurs often find business people to belly up to the bar. From my interview with Peter Bell, there is something more personal going on with Progressly.

The best way to get people on board with a venture—and to stay focused through the ups and down—is through personal experience and mutual passions.

Are you working to sow the seeds of content, intrigue, and interest among successful entrepreneurs and investors? Have you identified the most important executive influencers and advisors for you business future?

Maybe it’s time for you to consider your own Chairman…or Chairwoman.