Editor's Note: The following is the first in the series "Advisory Board 101" in which Jessica Alter, the CEO and entrepreneur behind FounderDating -- a people network for entrepreneurs -- provides insight and shares advice pertaining to the intersection of advisory boards and startups.
For entrepreneurs starting out, getting people to join your advisory board can be challenging. With only an idea, a prototype or a small customer base, it is no cake walk convincing mentors, experts and professionals to give up their time to help launch your startup dream. Yet, these people can play a vital role in moving your company full speed ahead. Not only do they provide business advice and are able to fill in some of your weak spots (sales, finance, marketing, you name it), but they also act as a crutch by offering emotional support.
But what’s the most effective way to find them and once you do, how do you get them to say yes?
Here are five tips:
Do your homework. Often entrepreneurs will go after people they know or people whose names they know. Yet, neither of those reasons makes that individual the right person to advise your company. (Sometimes bright, sparkly objects are little more than a distraction.)
Instead, focus on what you really need. For one, think about the areas you need help in. What areas of expertise do you want this person to have? Maybe you pursue people, because they understand your industry and can help you navigate it. It could be because they are well connected and willing (willingness is key) to introduce you to the people you need most. Make a list of people that can be really helpful to you.
Resist the urge to just reach out to people who have a recognizable name and don’t have any real time to spend with you. Sure, it’s a nice ego boost and might look pretty in a presentation, but their yes rarely provides any ongoing utility.
Tell them why you want them. Before we expanded FounderDating to connect entrepreneurs and advisors, we spoke with hundreds of advisors. We always asked them, “What makes you say ‘yes’ when someone messages you?” The number-one reason was they understand why you want them. They want to be interested in it and know that they can be helpful. So make sure you do your homework on what you hope to get out of them. Otherwise, it’s really not worth their time.
It doesn’t hurt to mention people you might know in common in your first message as a way to break through the noise but that alone will not get you a yes.
Have an agenda.Time -- it’s the most precious of commodities. So when you do get a potential advisor to respond to you and take a meeting, a Google hangout or Skype, always make sure to have an agenda. Have a concise way of explaining not only what you’re working on but also what you’d like to talk to them about in the meeting.
Of course you have more than one problem but find one or two to focus on so you can start to work on something together and they can begin to feel like they are actually helping you.
Use the rule of three. As we always say, don’t propose before you really know each other. There’s a rule in writing (and management consulting) to always construct reasoning in threes. And this approach also applies to your advisory board. Don’t ask someone to be your advisor during the first conversation. (It’s totally fine to make it known that this is the goal.)
The advisor-advisee relationship is a personal one and you need to be able to form a rapport with one another over several meetings. While you’re not spending as much time with them as say a cofounder, you still want to be sure you have chemistry and they’re looking to ensure the same. Use the rule of three: Have at least three meetings before you ask them to make an ongoing time commitment and sign an advisor agreement. (Note: If you do want them to be an involved advisor please still have them sign something.)
Show progress. I don’t mean business progress, although that is definitely positive. Show them your time with them is paying off. That you went away, thought about the discussion and are coming back with next steps and questions. Better yet, show them that you’ve implemented a strategy you’ve discussed and examined the results (good or bad). Advisors want to see their time isn’t being spent in vein. While thanking them is great, it’s much more powerful (and fun) to see results.
Advisors get involved because they want to help talented entrepreneurs create awesome companies. But that’s not enough. They want to know the why, that they can help, there is chemistry and you’re coachable. Convey these messages and you’ll build a great (and useful) team of advisors around you.
Related: How to Build an Advisory Board