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Interview with Ashley Brasier, Partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners

Ashley Brasier, General Partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners
"The individual culture of a board varies greatly. The best boards are efficient - they involve a pre-read, have a set agenda, set aside time for strategic discussions, and have a clear decision making process."

Bio

Ashley Brasier is a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners where she focuses on early stage consumer investing. Ashley is keen on backing founders who are committed to quality and take a craftsman-like approach to business building. Ashley says, “craftsmanship is a spirit; it’s a way of building and creating that compels the creator to care deeply for the people they are creating for.” Prior to investing, Ashley was on the product team at Thumbtack where she managed the Events & Weddings business. She started her career working with large Fortune 500 retailers in a management consulting role at Bain & Company. Ashley holds an MBA from Stanford University and a BA from Duke University.

Interview

With so many different portfolio companies in different stages of growth and success, how do you balance how much effort and persistence to put into each one?

I focus specifically on early stage consumer businesses – Seed & Series A. This helps provide a bit of focus, given that the fund itself covers early stage and growth-stage companies, as well as both consumer and enterprise companies. Within the consumer sector I’ve carved out a few different focus areas – consumer health/wellness, the aging population, and gen z / youth culture. 

We typically lead investment rounds, which means we are putting the biggest check into the round and often take a board seat. Given this, we are diligent about not over-committing ourselves and each individually only invests in less than a handful of new companies each year. We’d rather pick a few and go really deep vs. take a ‘spray and pray’ approach.

How do you balance your time between (1) sourcing quality prospect ventures (2) doing due diligence for prospective investments and (3) helping current entrepreneurs? Which of these are you comfortable outsourcing to principals/analysts and which do you absolutely have to do yourself?

For early stage companies, the investment decision is largely based on our evaluation of the team and market. Accordingly, there is not a ton of due diligence required beyond spending time with the team, doing reference checks, and evaluating market trends. For Series A companies we will take a deep look at the financial projections and may even build our own financial model, but this does not take more than a day or two. 

The majority of my time is spent sourcing. I usually have at least 2-3 days per week of back-to-back calls and meetings with entrepreneurs. It’s invigorating to hear the founding story and the pain point behind what they’re building. I love it when entrepreneurs solve a problem that’s unique to them – once they’ve faced personally and are passionate to solve for themselves and others.  

Working with entrepreneurs in the portfolio is my favorite part of the job. As a former operator, I love to brainstorm and problem-solve with our entrepreneurs. It’s fun to arrive at an insight that was non-obvious at the outset. 

Many GPs are good investors but don’t master one of the core skills – adding value as a board member. What do you think are some tricks to a productive relationship with founders? What should the culture be for the board and CEO for a quality relationship?

I think it’s important to keep an open channel of communication with the CEO and other key execs in a regular and consistent way. With one of my companies, we use WhatsApp to communicate between board meetings. We’ll drop in articles about competitors, share market analysis, and talk about key strategic decisions. With another company, the founder shares a google doc ahead of the meeting and board members comment with their opinion on key strategic questions ahead of time. 

The individual culture of a board varies greatly depending on the disposition of the CEO, construction of board membership (e.g., proportion of independents), and stage of the company. The best boards are efficient – they involve a pre-read (and potentially some pre-work), have a set agenda, set aside time for strategic discussions, and have a clear decision making process. 

Nowadays, mental health is more present than ever, with things like burnout, stress, depression, among others. What do you think of external intervenients like executive coaches, both for a founder and for a VC partner? Do they usually add value?

I’m a huge proponent of executive coaches – for founders and VCs. I had a coach when I was a young manager at Thumbtack and found my coach to be a valuable sounding board and guide when navigating new decisions (often people-related).

The critical decision is selecting the right coach. It’s best to find someone who is familiar with the industry and can understand and empathize with the daily pressures. Most coaches do free 30-min consultations, which are helpful to better understand ‘fit.’ I met with three different coaches before finding my long-term coach. 

How do you solve important conflicts with CEOs, such as lack of alignment on exits, strategy, or just the CEO being in denial about things like performance? Does the resolution begin with a private conversation or with involving other board members in a decision?

The relationship between the CEO and board member should be collaborative and productive. Often, decisions like whether or not to exit and how to exit are decisions made at the collective board level.

While these decisions can be contentious, it’s important to have an intellectually honest debate about the upsides and downsides of each option. While there may be disagreement, I find that decisions eventually converge towards an answer over the course of the conversation. That said, it’s important to make sure the right inputs are brought to the discussion.

Key Lessons from Ashley

  • Efficient planning and communication goes a long way in company-board relations. Properly planning and sharing the agenda before the meeting, and keeping communication open in-between board meetings helps create a stronger bond with the portfolio company leaders;
  • Align on key decisions on a board level. While there might be disagreement about things like strategy or exits, it’s important to openly discuss the topics from first principles to come to the best solution for everyone;
  • Vet a coach with the same diligence as you would a company. To make sure that there is a proper fit between you and the prospective coach, take advantage of trial sessions and make sure to prospect several coaches before settling on one;

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