Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Building An Advisory Board For Your Startup

Ross Mayfield has great post on "Advisorship" which I'll piggyback off of and discuss some approaches to building the best board possible for a startup. An excerpt from his post:

In this post, I'll describe the origins of Advisorship, what it takes to run an effective Board of Advisors and the benefits, how to handle conflicts of interest and best practices for disclosure.

Building a Board of Advisors is one of the first tactics any startup should employ. Initially, this construct was used by startups with a high degree of technical complexity with Technical Advisory Boards largely with experts from academia and research. Companies increasingly employed Business Advisory Boards to help them with business development and strategy beyond the activies of the Board of Directors. During the bubble, Technical Advisory Boards also played a role in driving sales and partnership.
(full post)

Not everyone is a Ross Mayfield or another well-connected entrepreneur to gather the leading thinkers and practitioners within his or her space. Especially if you're at the concept stage, it takes resourcefulness and persistence to build a solid advisory board.

I agree with Ross that this is one of the first action items for most startups because advisors adds credibility, practical advice, and can help in your fundraising and partnership efforts. I see advisors in three buckets:

Celebrity Advisors
These people are well known public figures can help add a lot of visibility and good public relations for your startup. Of course unless it's a music related startup, Flavor Flav might not be the best person versus Bill Bradley or Oprah Winfrey. Since most public figures would not easily lend their name to a new venture, it states that they trust to you.

Credibility Advisors
These are well respected academics or professionals directly or indirectly related to the market you are targeting. Not every entrepreneur has a network that reaches former senators, sports stars, or world leaders. This is a bucket most entrepreneurs should be able to fill through their professional or personal network. Start with people that know you well and expand to people that know good friends of yours who would vouch for you.

Eight years ago during my first startup, ViewPlus (a video-on-demand service), we initially went for the low hanging fruit (easy access not low professional status) to build credibility since we had none. We pitched my former professor at Columbia University, Michael Crow, who happened to be the Executive Vice Provost (number three man on campus), advised in the founding of In-Q-Tel (CIA's VC arm), and started the university's innovation system of managing their intellectual property. Luckily he liked me from my graduate school days and understood our product and vision, so he agreed to help us out. Another target was one of my co-founder's father, which wasn't as easy as it seems. He was the former head of South Korea's NASA and former CEO of a large computer company. He said "yes" after some begging, "Please, please, Mr. Chang... Peter will start being a good son."

So once we got the first couple advisors to join it was a little easier to pitch and ask others. A spotty snowball effect. We did experience more rejections than commitments, which you get use to in the startup world.

Practical Advisors
Last bucket are people who can be high level executives/experts/thought leaders or just middle managers/small business owners, and are the people that will provide your team the most day-to-day operational advice and insights.

If you don't have a good network within your targeted space, I would recommend attending industry conferences. While conferences can be hit or miss, they are a place to meet industry leaders and pitch them face-to-face. Even in today's world of online social networking, facetime is still important in gaining the trust of people outside of your personal network. I remember attending a few cable TV and satellite industry conferences for ViewPlus, and I would scan through the speaker list for potential advisors. Next I would attend the session they were speaking at and if I liked their presentation and thinking, then I would hunt them down and pitch them.

Nowadays, online professional relationships can occur through sites such as Linkedin, OpenBC, or Go Big Network. I would just be cautious and have several conversations with the person to gauge their thinking, ability to solve problems with you, and their tolerance level for ignorance or the hundreds of questions a new or young entrepreneur would have.

Lastly, asking people to become advisors for your startup is a great time to practice your pitch to investors. The smart ones will ask similar questions investors will ask you, so use this time well.

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