Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

The Right Startup Advisors Are As Valuable As Money

Warren Buffett advises President Obama, image via Wikipedia

Warren Buffett advises President Obama, image via Wikipedia

If you are a new entrepreneur, or entering a new business area, it’s always worth your time to assemble an Advisory Board of two or three executives who have travelled that road before. You need them before you need funding, and if you select the wrong people, or use them incorrectly, no amount of money will likely save your startup. Even top executives rely on their advisors.

For perspective, you need to remember that boards of advisors, unlike directors, have no formal power or fiduciary duties, but rather serve at the pleasure of you the business owner. But they are not likely to stroke your ego, or be cheerleaders. They need to tell you the truth about you and your business, good or bad.

Using them effectively requires real effort on your part. If you give and ask for nothing, you will get nothing. Used correctly, they will be your best advocates to investors, and can save you from making major mistakes. Here are some tips on finding and using your advisory board effectively:

  • Select people who complement your experience. If your experience is primarily technical, get someone who has built a business. If your business is too small for a CFO, get an advisor with heavy financial experience. If the business area is new to you, find someone who has lived it. Balance is best.
  • Be specific on help needed. If you’ve chosen your advisory board members carefully, you’re asking busy, successful people to carve even more time out of their schedule to help you. Let each one know how you see his/her expertise – it may be insight on trends, organizational advice, or funding connections. Set a fixed term, like one year.
  • Formalize the compensation. Most advisory board members sign up because the want to help you, not because of the compensation. Yet you should offer a reasonable monthly fee and/or some stock options to show you are serious about the position. If you want out-of-town members on your board, you reimburse the travel expenses.
  • You need to drive to process. It’s smart to schedule a monthly Advisory Board meeting, with a formal agenda, as well as informal communication to keep everyone on the same page. Advisors can’t help you if they only hear from you once every six months. They expect you to initiate specific requests, rather than having to ask for updates.
  • Respect their time commitment. For a business executive, nothing is more annoying than a poorly run meeting where the presenter is unprepared, rambles, and wastes time. Make sure every meeting is facilitated well so that concrete action steps, deadlines and assignments result. Have someone take notes so that decisions are recorded.
  • Recruit the best for your real Board. Your Advisory Board is a pre-cursor to your Board of Directors, a bit further down the line. This is your chance to test commitment, chemistry, and contribution for that more formal position. It’s a great networking opportunity to expand your connections to include all their connections as well.

On the other hand, if you find your Advisory Board is a burden on you, or you find yourself hiding things from them, then you have the wrong people, or you are letting your ego get in the way. Members can provide a mirror so that you can see your company as experts see it, as long as you look in that mirror with eyes wide open.

If you are looking for someone to fill an operational gap, or to do product design, it’s usually more productive to look for a partner, employee, or consultant. These can help you when you don’t know what you don’t know, or to create what you don’t have.

If you use your advisory board to feed your ego, or correct your mistakes, you will likely be disappointed. Worse yet, your image as an entrepreneur will be damaged. That will inevitably spread through networking across the business community. You don’t need that kind of help.

Written by Martin Zwilling

user Martin Zwilling Founder and CEO,
Startup Professionals

Martin is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and angel investor. He is the Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners.

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