I’ve heard a lot about startups having advisors, but as Cledara is my first time as a founder, there was a lot to think about before I set out trying to find advisors to help. For something that is so common in startups, there were so many questions I had along the journey of planning, engaging and, ultimately working with Cledara’s All-Star team of advisors.
I hope that by sharing those questions and how I think about answering them, it will help other startup founders speed up the process of finding their own advisors.
1. Why do I need advisors?
The founding team can’t know it all. The gaps can be filled with great people that believe in you and your idea and can help you learn and navigate through those waters you are not familiar with. As you go along, you’ll ideally be able to hire a great team to fill in those gaps and help you scale, but early on you’ll need to find other ways to access that expertise. The best advisors usually just want to pay it forward or give first and help others succeed by sharing their own expertise and can really help accelerate an early stage company.
2. What relationship do I want to have with advisors?
I want a relationship of trust, openness and honesty. As a Founder, I want to be able to share everything with my advisors as if they were family, so that I can get the most value out of the time we spend together. I want to be able to agree and disagree openly but respectfully and I want them to tell me those difficult things that I may not like to hear but that are necessary to succeed.
3. How can I select the right advisors?
First, I had to think about my shortcomings and the types of people that could help with that. Second, I wanted to find people that had advised startups before in a structured way and so I looked to communities like Techstars that are well known for heavily curating their mentors and tracking mentor NPS scores from startup founders. Finally, I wanted advisors that I could work and communicate effectively with.
4. Where will I find them?
Getting great mentors is all about hustle. You need to reach out into your network to find people that can help you out. Ask your friends, look for a company you admire and see if you can reach out to any of the execs in the area you need help with. If you’ve worked before then you’ve got a professional network to try and there are dozens of startup events in every city where you can find people that can help.
5. What is the best way to reach out?
What worked for me were warm introductions. Just like finding investors, the best way is to ask someone you know to connect you with that person you would love to have in your advisory board. I was lucky that 100% of the people that I targeted to be an advisor responded and I’ve managed at least one discussion with all of them. What was really great about it, is even for those that didn’t become advisors, each and every conversation helped me in some way.
6. How many advisors do I need?
Not too many, not too few. I’ve tried to get one advisor that can help me in each of the core areas of the business, plus someone that has a lot of experience in working with early stage founders to help me out on more general things. This has meant 6 advisors, but I’ve found that to get the most out of my advisors requires time and preparation therefore I don’t think I could be effective with too many more.
7. Do I optimise for expertise or network?
I originally thought this was an important question. From what I’ve seen so far, I think those with expertise correlates pretty closely to those with a great network, but all things being equal, right now we’re about executing and so having someone with expertise that can unblock something for Cledara seems most helpful.
8. Why would they help me?
Many people have been helped in their career or their business to achieve their success and are now happy to help others that are dedicated to achieving their success. There is no harm in asking if someone is willing to help. As my mum used to say, you already have the ‘No” now you should go and get the “Yes”.
9. What will I ask them?
It helps if you have selected that person as a potential advisor for what they can contribute and not just to have another name on your deck. If you’ve thought about areas you need help and you’ve approached people based on where you think they can help, the right questions to ask will be obvious. I spent a lot of time thinking about this before each meeting and wrote a plan for what I needed to cover in each. This meant doing a lot of research, especially for the early meetings – understanding in detail what they’d done in their career and what they’d talked about in the press so I could ask very specific questions about how they solved certain problems.
For example, one of my advisors is a fintech founder that managed to do a particularly great job of product validation before launching. We spent a lot of time on exactly how he did that as that has been one of Cledara’s core focuses.
10. How do I engage with them once they say yes?
As I mentioned earlier, I want a family like relationship. I want to be able to reach out from time to time just to explain how things are going and know they are there when I really need something. This will of course be different for each founder and you just have to find the right way for you. I also try to send a regular short update to everyone about the progress made since the last update and what I hope to achieve in the next few weeks so they can follow along, feel part of the team and hopefully be my advocate in the market.
11. What value do startup advisors bring?
If you choose carefully, a lot! I can tell you that only during the first introduction meetings I had with my advisors, I already improved the way I communicate my vision for Cledara so that people can understand it much fasted, refined the product – especially the MVP and learned a lot about the gaps in data that I needed to fill before I spoke to investors.
12. What if they have a different vision about where the company should focus?
It is important to understand why they have a different vision. We can be very attached to our own original vision and it is key to be able to take distance to assess if that original vision is still the one to follow or not. The way I did it was try to drill into what they were saying by understanding the why. Very often, I found the thing they said was a proposed solution to some deeper insight they had about the product, the market or the strategy. Getting to the ‘why’ meant it was easier to get to the common themes across advisors and work out how I should change the way I thought about Cledara, or if it was something to be mindful of going forward.