I am a young entrepreneur just getting off the ground with my own startup. I have been told by several people that I should have an advisory board.
Can you tell me what that is, what would it do for me, and how I should go about creating one?
Dear Advice Needed,
Is it too obvious for me to tell you to ask the same questions of these several people who are telling you to get a board? There is a good chance that they will have an interesting point of view. But of course, I have one too.
There is what I consider to be a universal law that informs my response to this. I learned this from one of my mentors, Thomas Leonard, and 25 years of experience have proven him right: “Anything worth doing is worth getting help with.”
So. Yeah. Get yourself an advisory board. Choose the smartest people you know who have a wide variety of business and professional experience and your best interests at heart, and rope them into helping you. Be clear about what the commitment is (how many hours a year, for example) so people know what they are getting into. Successful people love to help young up and comers—some do it because they are genuinely kind, and others do it so that when you are crushing it they can boast that they had a hand in your success. Some people will say no, and that’s OK.
But here’s the thing: once you get them, use them. I have been asked at least three times to be on someone’s board, had my name appear on their websites or stationery (back in the day when we used to put actual letters in the mail to communicate), and then was never asked to attend a single meeting or review a single business plan. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Here I was, all dressed up and ready to help, and I heard not a peep.
So you will want to brainstorm, possibly with your folks, how to structure your interactions to get the most out of your support crew. Advisory boards can be used to:
- give professional advice (or direct you to someone who can)
- provide insight
- engage in creative problem solving
- play devil’s advocate
- challenge you
- celebrate your success
- and—maybe most important—keep you from making mistakes they have made. Pragmatic people take a special kind of pleasure in helping others avoid mistakes that have cost them dearly.
Maybe the biggest advantage of an advisory board is that a regular meeting, with commitments around deliverables for discussion, is an extremely powerful form of accountability. I highly recommend that you set up quarterly or bi-annual conference calls far in advance. (Use a platform like Zoom so everyone can see each other—it is way more fun.) And please note: it’s important that you prepare for these calls. There is nothing quite as motivating as telling a group of people you respect that you will have a copy of your business plan or your latest financials in their inbox 48 hours before the next meeting. You are much more likely to get the job done, even if you have to pull an all-nighter, if the alternative is showing up unprepared and making excuses. The more you treat your board like a group of professionals for whom time is the most valuable resource, the more likely they are to show up and add value. And the more your board shows up and adds value, the more professional and accountable you will be.
There are a hundred ways to go about this, so you need more expertise than I can provide. The book you want to get is Game Changing Advisory Boards by Hawfield and Zaepfel. It provides detailed checklists of everything to think about and excellent examples of ways different companies have built and leveraged boards.
I also recommend that you look into Michael Gerber’s work. He has spent a lifetime understanding entrepreneurship and has a bunch of books and a website devoted to helping entrepreneurs. http://michaelegerbercompanies.com
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