Building a Winning Advisory Board for Your Startup (Part 2)

The following post is written by Garrett Eastham, Co-Founder of Edgecase and Chief Data Scientist.

Step 2: Leverage your advisors correctly and efficiently

Building your advisory board is only half that battle. Once you’ve put together the best set of individuals you can find, you need to learn how to leverage them effectively in order to get the most benefit for your business. For those who have worked within a board of directors dynamic, a key thing to remember is that your advisory board is less like a board and more like an extension of your executive offsites.

  • Schedule meetings far in advance: This is important! Your advisors are likely much, much busier than you – perhaps growing their own businesses to the next phase. Remember to work with their assistants weeks / months in advance so they don’t have to dread your “Can I get some feedback?” text message.
  • Bring them well-structured problems: A benefit of having specific types of advisors is that you can do a lot of work ahead of time to segment specific problems into key areas that your advisors can tackle independently. Not only will your advisors be more effective if you bring them clearly articulated problems and desired objectives to discuss, but you will also find benefit in working to put structure on your business issues as your organization grows.
  • Consider hosting an advisory board meeting: While I do not advise trying to restrict advisory board meetings to a strict schedule; it can be helpful on occasion to get several of your advisors together for a broader, cross-discipline discussion. They also might appreciate the chance to meet and network with the other thought leaders you’ve worked so diligently to assemble.

Step 3: Empower advisors to help you both win

Inherently, your advisors have relatively low incentive to dedicate time to you and your business’ problems. The hour they spend with you undoubtedly has a high opportunity cost as they forego customers issues, sales calls, or product brainstorms to help you break through the mental barrier. Thus, it is absolutely pivotal that you learn how to create incentives that make them excited to get to that hour you’ve scheduled together on a Friday afternoon.

  • Align their incentives with yours (financial and emotional): Aside from providing equity-based incentives (make sure you do proper contracts and everything), many entrepreneurs forget the emotional motivations that most advisors have for wanting to spend time with you. For many of your industry veterans who have already built successful businesses, they will never have the same early experiences building companies again as their networks will already be in place; however, they often love sharing in your emotional ride (think of them like grandparents who get to share in the joy of helping you raise your children). Remember to capitalize on this and make every email, meeting, or text full of energy and excitement – even if it’s not good news – because great entrepreneurs love rising to the occasion and want nothing more than to share in the excitement of overcoming challenges together.
  • Make it easy for advisors to connect you to their network: A lot of what you will ask your advisors for is often email introductions to people within their network on your behalf. While this can sometimes feel like asking for handouts, you can turn this around by thinking of ways to turn the introduction into a chance for your advisor to strengthen that particular connection as well. It doesn’t take more than a strategically crafted email and an understanding of your advisor’s own goals to allow them the chance to kick off an email correspondence with an old former client by introducing them to your business while also creating a new lead / opportunity for his own sales team.

It takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to build a great business; however, I think the old adage “it takes a village” seems more apt to describe the entrepreneurial process. As an entrepreneur, you will always be focused on building the right team around you, and that process can start from day one and zero employees by focusing on building the right advisor support team around your idea.

Building a Winning Advisory Board for Your Startup (Part 1)

The following post is written by Garrett Eastham, Co-Founder of Edgecase and Chief Data Scientist.

When I left my full-time job as a product manager at one of Austin’s fastest growing companies to pursue my life dream of building a successful enterprise marketing technology company, I knew next to nothing about how to go about doing such a thing. I had about twenty grand to my name and a personal runway of less than 10 months to figure it out. In less than a year, I had raised $3.5 million in venture backing, built a team of seasoned ecommerce executives, and signed on our company’s first IR100 client. None of it would have been possible if I hadn’t spent most of that year developing a winning advisory board.

As a new entrepreneur (especially if it is your first venture), the single highest leverage task you can perform with your time is identifying, pitching, and developing key advisors. An advisory board serves several purposes, however, all too often entrepreneurs treat them as names on slides and people to hit up for investor contacts when it’s time to fundraise. The best advisory boards – ones that are carefully crafted and honed – will function as an extension of your executive team (and if done correctly, one you probably could never afford at market rates).

A winning advisory board will serve multiple purposes. They will help you evolve both your business idea and your business model in ways you would have never imagined. They will introduce you to your first cohort of potential customers (who will close at a statistically above average rate). And they will help connect you to that rockstar engineer who otherwise wouldn’t even respond to your tweets. But for this to be possible you must build your advisory board wisely.

Step 1: Seek the right mix of advisors for your problem domain

One of the most common mistakes I see young entrepreneurs make is naively asking the first notable entrepreneurs who take their coffee meeting to join their advisory board. While these folks will most certainly be flattered, the best ones will advise that you first consider the particular skillset and make-up that you want at your table.

Above all, let your problem domain dictate the requirements for your advisory board. All lasting businesses solve real, tangible problems for customers, and much of what you accomplish from building a business comes from learning how to adjust to the needs of a particular market’s response to how you solve these problems. Once you identify the core problems you want to (someday) solve, focus on building a mix of types of advisors.

  • Industry Leaders / Veterans (Ideally Entrepreneurs): Some of your best advisors will be existing successful entrepreneurs within your target industry. At Edgecase, I have had the immense fortune of working with many of the early Bazaarvoice executives – including Brett Hurt, Sam Decker, Michael Osborne, and several others. As a young entrepreneur attempting to build a SaaS company selling to the enterprise ecommerce market, I could not have asked for a better set of minds to debate ideas with and learn the inside secrets from. If you’re concerned about whether a seasoned entrepreneur will take your call, just remember – aside from being boldly persistent – these types of people are typically personally invigorated to meet impassioned entrepreneurs as it can often remind them of their own personal experience in starting their businesses.
  • Technical Experts: Depending on your problem domain, it will likely be necessary to seek particular expertise when building your product or offering. As a business trying to solve a particular market problem, you will need to bring some new insight or IP that does not exist; therefore, you can get significant leverage by seeking out key product managers, designers, developers, or data scientists. You will likely not be able to afford them at the start (or possibly ever) and therefore, landing these types of people can help bring your product into a different competitive landscape. Great examples of this type of leverage are notable scientific advisory boards – like the one that has been built at Helix – where the difference between solving a market problem and successfully selling that solution depends on your ability to convince the market that you are technically capable of pulling it off.
  • Customers (Existing & Potential): Every business founder will engage with customers at some point – ideally every chance they get if they’re doing their job correctly. Adding customers to an advisory board is a great way to get honest feedback that might be held back otherwise in the traditional customer relationship. For those selling into the modern enterprise, it’s great to have high-profile potential customers on your side (such as a key executive for the top brand in in your industry); however, do not think that doing so guarantees that company as a client. In fact, you will most likely not have the big fish customers on board early on – it’s often just too risky for a large enterprise to trust their assets with an unproven enterprise, no matter how strong the executive champion. Don’t worry though, you’ll spend plenty of time courting and closing those big fish while trying to move from Series A to B.
  • Market Thought Leaders: Many entrepreneurs get so focused on customers or product development that they forget there are often extra-market factors that reside outside of that otherwise important interaction. Every industry – whether consumer, small business, or enterprise – has market thought leaders that its constituents respect: analysts, famous bloggers, celebrity Instagrammers, etc. While having these individuals on your advisory board does not guarantee you a place in the next Gartner Magic Quandrant, it can go a long way in showing providing an important 3rd party voice in customer / product interactions.
  • (Possibly) Investors: While it might seem like a straightforward benefit to have folks that could write you a check when the times comes on your advisory board, keep in mind that these individuals are already strapped for time running from one board meeting to another. Also, most investors are spread across different product categories and industries (typically because they invest in patterns of business models versus specific markets); therefore, their impact will not be as significant when you are in the formation phases of determining just how to win at a given market (read – finding product market fit). On the other hand, if part of your problem domain is to figure out how to apply a new business model to a legacy market problem (think Uber / Lyft on consumer transportation), it can be invaluable to find an investor that has a particular passion around certain kind of new / emerging business models – like on-demand, SaaS, PaaS, etc.

(Stay tuned next week for Building a Winning Advisory Board for Your Startup :Part 2)