With David Quantrell, Chair and Board Member

Building Effective Boards and the Operator Chair

With David Quantrell, Chair and Board Member


  • Europe has CEO’s who want to go the distance
  • The role of Practitioners on the Board
  • The Board’s evolution with funding rounds and growth
  • The right time to appoint a Chair
  • Setting up tech founders/leaders for success

Setting the scene

It was a pleasure to talk with David Quantrell about his road to becoming Chair of a number of tech businesses. After starting in the long project world of defence, and a return to school, David has gone on to two IPO’s, four company sales through to running a large division of an IT giant - he’s worked with well known names such as Box, McAfee and HP. All of this experience he now uses in his Board and Chair roles with a number of leading European tech companies, helping shape and solve the problems of growth and scale. It’s fair to say that David is a well respected figure in European tech, hence wanting to hear the story of how he arrived here, and how he sees the future of European tech. It’s a fun and educational listen, especially for founders and leaders trying to evolve and develop their Board as their business grows!

My five goal plan to Head of Europe

When I first moved into sales, I moved out of a technical environment. I was inspired by people who set their vision and direction. I reviewed my five goals for the year and, back in those days,  I had a briefcase and on the inside of my briefcase would be my five goals. For example, where I needed to be and what the milestones were in a three year plan. I did that for the first part of my career, right the way through to when I took my first Head of Europe role. From then on, the directions have opened up and there’s been so many possibilities. I then set my goals to be more about what I wanted to develop in myself that year- it’s changed a little bit. It was a blend of being driven in the early stage to get things done and then more driven by what my skills and qualities were, and how I could add value. It was always the left field opportunity that came in that was the most exciting. I didn’t see them coming!

The pull of the commercial world

I suppose it was an accident. I left school at 16 with no qualifications, so I actually had to go back to night school. I got my qualifications and then did my technical degree, and all I wanted to do was design stuff. I was a hardware engineer, so all I wanted to do was design leading edge stuff and be involved in that. I did it for two years and I was designing Naval Weapons, radars. These were 12 year projects or whatever time it took to see them through, but I suddenly realised my horizon was not that long. I also realised how fascinating I found the commercial world. We were selling ships to people with fully configured systems and very complex sales cycles. I just thought the commercial world was fascinating! At that point, I decided that's where I wanted to go next.

Early career inspirational leaders

Throughout my career, in each of my roles, I've had people that I looked up to and admired. In my early stage, there was one sales leader there that inspired me. He was the archetypal sales leader of building a team and motivating the team the whole time. I was the youngest guy in the team, and if you had a problem, you had to go figure out how to fix the problem, take it to him, and he'd review it with you- if you ever went into his office with a problem, he threw you straight back out! To me, he came through that education route, which was very disciplined, very structured, and he brought that to bear, but at the same time, had an inspirational air about him.

At each stage, I found people that I thought were interesting, and they weren't always my boss. The more senior you get in your roles, quite often, the person you find inspirational is not your boss. But, certainly in that stage as I made the commercial step, he was a tough leader. He was a tough boss, but it really teed me up for the job roles ahead. I actually had lunch with him about three years ago and I hadn't seen him in 10 years- it was great to catch up! But, thank goodness for people like that to put the time in and put the effort in.

Stepping up to larger leadership roles and responsibilities

I always wanted to be at that level. As soon as I moved into the commercial world, I wanted to be at that level. I started the sales in Daisy Systems, we ended up in Chapter 11, through an acquisition that went badly wrong. Then from that ended up in Intergraph, and there were a variety of people in Intergraph. Intergraph did everything from tracking systems on missile weapon systems that were deployed in the first Gulf War, to electronic design systems. There was a contracts manager in that company, and probably in some ways, the most dull person you can imagine. He was really logical and I learnt so much about the commercial world from that guy.

Between sales at the beginning and then working through Intergraph, I was picking up skills from different people. Chapter 11 was a fantastic education! We had a management company come in, and the one thing that you get from those companies is they are super focused. They're working through a process of trying to get this thing into some kind of order, and you've got a relatively limited time to get it done. I used to spend my lunchtime talking to these guys, and figuring out:

  • What are you doing today?
  • What's the plan?
  • Where are you taking this stuff?

When I had my first European job at Clarify, I joined a company where there were four of us in Europe, and there were no customers. It’s integral to figure out what you're going to do. You've got lots of time as long as you do it by the quarter. We built the team out and we went through the first 10, the 50, and then the 100. We took that thing from zero to about 100 million in just over four years. Then I got the shock, because we sold it to Nortel, and I stayed with the business. Suddenly, I ended up running a division. Nortel was a $40 billion business in Europe at the time, and I'm on the management team with a bunch of guys who are 15 years older than me and I'm running a division. We acquired four companies and then we had our user event down in Barcelona. So, you're the keynote for the whole event, with 5000/6000 people in the audience. I had never spoken to people at that scale before. There's a whole other bunch of learning to go through at that level. I was very fortunate to have a couple of people around me to steer me through it. I had a coach for the first time in my career, particularly around trying to present to those bigger audiences (which still isn't my forte) but she was great. She had worked with politicians and big folks in the industry. That was another layer of skill sets, and that's the way it goes; you end up layering on these skill sets as you go through it.

The rise of Europe and it's Founders

The reason we worked for US companies was because they were exciting. There's a nucleus of tech, and we got excited about it. There were inspirational characters that actually had a lot of discipline to them too, and that was a big part of it. I just see in Europe, and particularly in the UK right now, that there has been a massive change. The expectation now in Europe of building businesses is not ‘let's get a couple of cycles in here and flog it to an American business’, we actually have:

  • CEOs who want to go the distance
  • Businesses that are credible
  • People who want to go take and learn the discipline, and go all out for it

We had a lot of lifestyle businesses in our time in tech, and it wasn't for lack of looking at businesses in the European sphere that I stayed in US businesses, it was just that they were more exciting. But, there's been a shift. There's an opportunity now from a funding perspective, as I don't think we've ever seen the level of funding before that you see today. Also, there wasn’t the understanding of tech that there is now. When I made my first trip to Silicon Valley, I got off the plane, and I got in the taxi cab, the guy asked me which company I worked for and all we talked about from then on was stock. This taxi driver knew all about stock in Silicon Valley. The UK hasn't been like that. But if you look at my son and his friends, they're all talking about, which stocks? How should we be investing? The mindset has changed. We have the technical prowess, and there's great opportunity. We've got people who really want to go ahead and make something global. We've got the funding in place and the expectation in place from the market in Europe and the UK to make it work. In that background, I just want to see where I can add value and see if we can build some of these big companies. Any help I can be doing that, that's what I want to do for the rest of my time in the working environment.

Operators on Boards and the value add

Typically, you have practitioners on the board and the vast majority also have investment experience. Typically, UK boards are made up of folks who are trying to build the risk profile and manage the downside. There's been a significant shift, particularly in the tech boards, that we're now putting more practitioners in place. It shifts the mentality because we are on that far part of the risk curve, in terms of the businesses. But, that's what tech is about! We should understand why we're there and how we build.

I did a course recently with the IOD, and one of the instructors described how it's all about “nose in, fingers out” as a Director. Now that is true, if you're a non-exec Director of public boards. In an early stage tech company, you're probably a bit more fingers in, and less of an independent. Your role really has to be in helping shape things in a fairly detailed way, thinking ‘how do we implement these plans?’, rather than just sitting looking at a strategy and letting people get on with it. Over time, it shifts and we’ve seen that over time in Boards.

Developing Board skills for each stage of the journey

You need very different characters and you've got to be very precise about who you want on your Board. To me, now, there's lots of advice available. You can go to lots of places to get advice, which can be transient. So, you can go and apply a piece of advice to a very specific situation, your board is something different to that, these are people you want to live with for a period of time- that's super important.

A pre-Series A has a very different set of skills. To me, that's the area that I would be weakest and simply because you are in many ways, still working through some of the product iterations. It's not so much about product market fit, you are looking, in many cases, for the technology and the potential solution. Plus, you want to play a lot of games around: does this work? Does that work? And for some companies, that is a very extended period, depending on the complexity of technology that can run for a number of years. The last thing you want in your environment at that point, is someone who's saying, “Well, how are we going to sell tomorrow?” So, you've got to be really cognizant of the stage, as you move into Series A/Series B, it's really about 'can we now get that to customers in a repeatable way?' That is a different skill set. That is a very special area, that kind of repeatability, where you really have to be getting very smart people around it, you've got some thesis about what the market is, and you've got to be able to go on create black and white out of the grey in terms of what the market space is.

I've seen in many situations, people coming in and trying to use an old recipe. You've got to figure out whether that is the same situation. You have to figure out what the real customer base is. It’s important and you've really got to focus on it. Build a sales team and take them with you, and then move into the scaling process. That's a whole different phase again. Now, that's very prescriptive, and some people go the whole distance. I'm not very good at the early stage, but finding fit, scaling, that's where I fit. I can take that a long way, I ran billion dollar businesses where we've been growing really fast. But, you have to decide what those people are.

On your board, you want people who can help you at each of those stages, and then it's down to a mix of things. For a board, you want people who can either add some skill set, so that could be:

  • How do we build a finance?
  • How do we go for funding?
  • How do we drive compliance?

It could also be the operational skills, it could be the network, and in certain businesses, that network piece is super important in the first stages. It's picking off which are the phases you're at, and then try to match that up with people you actually like working with, because your board don't go away. When formalising your board, obviously Series A, then you start to take people forward with you and you've then got to be cognizant of ‘do you need to add something?’ Or, be very sparing with people you add to your Board, because they are there for a period of time.

Setting the character of a Board around Founders with a tech background

Try to balance off the various skills, because you will end up with your investors, and still probably many of them have not been operators, but they will have an opinion. Then, you'll have, as you say, technical people that you want for a very specific reason. The character of the board members is important. As well as that go-to-market skill set, you want to look at the characteristics of the individual. If I'm an individual that's struggling to move down to the operator position, and I'm sitting on a board, that can be super destructive, particularly with a founder who's taken this through the really hard days. They've done all of that. Sometimes you can bring in people who are still trying to be operators, and think they know how to run a go-to-market and they want to impose- you don't want that. This is a journey for the leadership team too.

In a number of the businesses I'm involved with, we've actually brought in very specific coaching for the founders. I've had the pleasure of working with some interesting founders, for example Aaron Levie, CEO of Box. When I joined he was around 25 years old and he raised more money than I've ever raised. Aaron had 100 goals with 150% of the energy all day long, driving that into a real strategy you could build and repeat and scale was an interesting journey. But, the whole team went on it. That's the same with the board, you want people who not only can consider the operations, but actually ‘how can I help you get people alongside you that will help you go on that journey?' Also, knowing when to just be quiet.

Aaron just had a knack of meeting everyone in Silicon Valley. He met with the CEO of Microsoft, just after the transition had taken place, and his whole thing was he wanted to get the ability to get box referenced from inside of Microsoft products. My immediate reaction was, ‘don't waste your time! Experience says, it's not going to happen’. That would be the most stupid piece of advice I could have given him. He stayed at it, the whole change of regime in Microsoft, the open environments meant that we did get the hooks into the tools. I think that's true when you're working with founders. You want to find board members that can bring skills that can actually be complimentary, but not trying to run your business for you. At the same time, who know when to be quiet because I think that's a hard skill, especially when you've driven people and ran businesses.

Board evolution and the Chair’s role

You've really got to think about what you need now. It's not an easy set of discussions to have, but you want a board that is contributing, and more people in the room. It's like an exponential curve, the more people you have in the room, the more you get delayed, the more opinions that people want to have. So, you want to have a compact board that is fit for purpose. I actually think some of the guidance on boards in the UK is superior to the US. We're quite good now looking at board makeup and board effectiveness. There's a lot of guidelines around that now, if you apply it in, not just a mechanical way, but if you apply it in a way of just looking for, ‘what are we really trying to achieve here’, and therefore, what's the contribution around the table? That is where you have to get to every couple of years.

You really have to sit back and have that strategic view of looking at where the board is and where it needs to be, which means your chairman is super critical, because they need to be able to galvanise the team around that. They need to be able to facilitate the hard discussions, and really shape it through. Again, with US companies, a lot of times in the mid stage private companies, there's less kind of involvement from a chairman. It depends, a little bit, on the shape, but I think we have a more mature view of a chairman in that stage of business in the UK than perhaps in the US. Later on, it develops, but it's not unusual in the States to have a CEO and a Chairman in the same role. I believe it is actually good to have the division responsibility. So, have a great Chairman that can work with you but also be prepared to take a step away.

I did a little bit of work many, many years ago with Brendon Mooney over at Kainos, look at the way that the business has grown. That is a great business, we look at the Chairman, John Lillywhite, who has been there from very early stages, and just had the maturity to take that business all the way through in the early days and has seen it grow. He only stepped down probably a year and a half ago. So, you would hope that you might be able to get a chairman that can take you the distance like that. But, you really want to be able to think that through the function, just as you would with a management team, and then have the sensible discussions with the minority investors to say, if you haven't got an additional set of function skills, we're going to ask you to step away.

When is it time to appoint a Chair?

It’s helpful to have a Chair from a fairly early stage, as long as you have the right Chair. It is helpful in terms of shaping the business and having that thought process, and the reason I say that is because it is easy in the early stage of a business to have a lot of advisors. The great thing about advisors is you can ignore them if you want to, the Chair should bring a little bit more. If you put someone in a Chair position, you're going to want to at least take reasonable consideration and have a dialogue where you can be pushed around a little bit on some of these things. Once you really start to have a solution, you really want to start thinking about having somebody in that business, because it will help you shape it. But again, be super careful about what stage in the technology area. I think in the early stages, you really want to have someone who has some skill of operating the business. In many cases, you have this discussion about an Exec Chair, non-Exec Chair, and there is no distinction in the law between those two things. The reality is, it just means you get a bit more involved from time to time.

In the early stage, quite often, you are more involved having very detailed discussions about certain things. Then, great CEOs pick that up,get their people on that and we move on, because it's the lack of skills in the business sometimes that you're actually making up for as you get a bit further on. Really, it's starting to get some of that discipline around the overall business, or getting some structure around there and then it frees up the team to do the more creative stuff. A Chair can often be helpful to pull you up into the strategy and see if you're holding yourself accountable at that level. It varies, but I think the earlier the better that you have someone that you can bounce those ideas off, but actually hold you accountable to some extent.

The Director role at a Public vs Private Company

Clearly our personal liability, although that doesn't change as a Director to some extent, it's more visible and there's more structure. You are really accountable to the external shareholders in all the decisions you make. But, the clarity of the communication to shareholders, the clarity of the way that you report just has to be a lot more structured and a lot more regulated. So, getting that overall model in place for the business, and bringing that predictability. The discipline of reporting, the time you get to put into some of the compliance and oppose efforts, it's just higher by definition, as opposed to a private company. Although there is a big push now to see more of that discipline, moving into the private sectors to some extent, it will never be to the extent of a full on public company. They’re probably the major differences.

What’s next and what’s exciting you?

I am really happy with what I'm doing at this point. I really love the teams I'm working with and I probably have room for one more to work with. But, I want to see them go through a journey, I want to see them build value, do something that they will be proud of in the future. This is a lot about what you want from working life, as well as delivering results. You've got to be able to look back and say ‘I really enjoyed that experience’, and I still have teams who come back and do that. That's a big part of what I get excited about.

The other side that I get excited about is not so much any specific technology, but I am just super excited about the opportunity we have, particularly in the UK right now because that's where I'm focused. We have just this intersection of a bunch of opportunities. We've got some great universities and technology over here, we always have had. We never exploited the technology to the best, but with the combination of the new skill sets coming in the founders who've been on a journey, we have a phenomenal number of unicorns compared to the past. We're painting that road for the future. We have an opportunity like we haven't had before in this industry in this country, and what we do in the next five to ten years will really dictate what goes on after that. A lot of the people in Silicon Valley doing some of the bleeding edge stuff didn't grow up there, so we've got to become a hub that people want to really go to because we can build technology companies and we can go and build to scale. I'd love to see a route that we took more of them public in the UK. There's a lot of work to do on that. There's very few that have gone through that route, but to get them out, get them public and really scale it from a European perspective would be phenomenal.

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