The Startup Advisor Cheat Sheet
All startup teams need help. The good news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. The bad news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. How you recruit and work with your advisors is critical as the right advisors managed properly can really have a powerful impact on your business.
Many startups that I work with like to build as impressive a list of advisors as they can. When talking with founders about advisors, I usually focus on two things:
- Making sure the advisors augment the skills lacking in the current team
- Formalize the relationship with the advisor and compensate them according to an objective standard
The Team’s Needs
Look at the needs of your business over the next six months to a year and then look at the skills of your team. You will have a lot of gaps. Start to think how an advisor can fill some of those gaps. Some teams will need help figuring out BizDev or do pricing of their products. Some will need help with higher level technology decisions-or someone to interview a CTO candidate/co-founder. Some teams have all the necessary parts but lack a little “gray hair” or folks with the battle scars of doing business a long time. Some teams lack the network to raise money and some teams lack domain experience. (Which I question why are you in that business in the first place.)
You need to find advisors who can augment your team with skills, experience, and connections. If you are all PhDs in astrophysics and are building a related startup, you don’t need the head of your University’s Physics department or even a Nobel winning Physics on your advisory team. You will need some people with business and fundraising experience. Also, don’t try to go get famous people to be an advisor; I know that Mark Zuckerberg is not meeting with you monthly and won’t add much value except for the coolness factor.
The good news is that there are a ton of people out there willing to give you advice. The challenge is keeping the advisors engaged.
The Dreaded Conversation: How to Formalize and Compensate an Advisor
Your advisors mean well and want to help, but they are busy people. You need to set the expectations up front as to what kind of advice you need and how often you will be asking for it. If you don’t have this conversation with your advisor, you run the risk of some very misaligned expectations, leading to a bad experience for both sides. Typically for companies that I advise, we usually have a call once month or every six weeks. But when something comes up that I am uniquely qualified for, the frequency is higher.
You also need to formalize your relationship with you advisors! This is important for several reasons, but the first is legal liability. If overnight your company is worth billions and your advisors have been informally advising you without a contract, they may think that they are due a large stake in your company and sue. Another reason to formalize your advisor’s relationships is that by formalizing it, they will take the relationship more seriously. So many companies ask me to advise them, but the ones I say yes to and have a formal agreement with, I feel more obligated to make the time for. An easy way to lock down an advisor is to use one of the standard Advisor Contracts. I have used this one several times.
Lastly, you need to compensate the advisors in order to keep them engaged. If your advisors want a huge chunk of your company or a salary or stipend, they are not the advisors for you. Use the following matrix to determine how much to compensate the advisor with. First determine what stage your company is at: idea, startup, or growth. Idea is usually pre-seed, startup is usually Seed stage, and Growth is typically a Series A or later. (I explain the stages of funding here.) This is important due to the amount of risk your advisor is taking. Then determine what kind of advisor you are signing up: Standard, Strategic, or Expert. I know that these are kind of vague, but they usually line up pretty easily. Make a proposal and then use the equity number in the box. This should be a standard and non-negotiable. If the advisor tries to negotiate away from these numbers, don’t have them as an advisor. They should not be in it for the money/equity, the compensation is more of a “nice to have.” They should be advising you because they want to.
Lastly, have a vesting schedule and a way to easily remove the advisor. Typically you have an advisor for a year or two, depending on the need of your team. For example, if you lack a technical team at the idea stage and engage with an advisor who is very technical and expected to help you recruit and hire an CTO within a year, you probably only need to sign that advisor up for a year or two. Then make room for other advisors in other domain areas.
Advisory Board vs Board of Directors
What is the relationship between a Board of Directors (BOD) and your advisors? Nothing. More importantly, your board members are responsible for the governance of the company and legally liable for its execution, while your advisors are responsible for nothing and legally liable for nothing. Your directors have high engagement, often meeting in person several times a year. Your advisors are less engaged and often engaged via email and Skype.
You should update your advisors (and investors) with a bi-weekly or monthly email: explain the good, the bad, the ugly since the last email communication. At the end of the email put in the ask, or what you want your advirosrs to pay attention to or what you need from them. While your advisors may only skim over the updates as they come in, at your next call, the advisors can review those emails before the call and make the call more efficient. You won’t have to spend the first 10 minutes of the call updating the advisor on what happened over the past month. I love getting these emails, it shows me that the companies that I advise are organized and understand proper time management.
My Experiences Advising
I’ve advised many companies over the years. I’ve been asked by many more than I’ve said yes to, I only say yes to companies that I can add value, are in an exciting space, and the founders are awesome people to work with. (Now that I am an investor, I say no to almost 100% of the asks to prevent a signaling issue. I did, however, recently agree to become an advisor to a company where my skills made me uniquely qualified to help.)
What was my experience like? Some companies rarely contacted me. Some contacted me randomly, usually when they needed some specific advice. Other’s scheduled a regular phone call. I’ve done it all: lots of general strategy, accelerator application advice, fundraising tips, team compensation, interviewing CTO candidates, make introductions, M&A advice, and sitting in-between founder breakups. I’ve even pretend to be Paul Graham and asked them YC interview questions.
Some of my companies have had exits, sometimes the money from my shares was great; one exit was small and paid for an awesome dinner and night out with the team. One company I advise recently shut down and I helped the founder find a new gig. All my experiences were worth the time I put in and lots of fun.
Lastly, I learned a lot advising, as much as I taught the founders!