In 2011, my co-founders and I were looking to get into a market we knew little about: foreign investment. We saw an opportunity in helping Chinese investors find projects in Latin America (my home continent), but we had a few obstacles to overcome: Neither of us knew Chinese or had any experience in international finance.
Our solution? Get a rock-star board of advisors to provide expertise and connections. While having an advisory is often a necessity for startups (us included), nabbing a stellar team isn't easy.
For companies just starting out, here are a few tips on how to get advisors and best practices for leveraging your board:
Navigate your network. Like I mentioned, finding the right advisors isn't easy. How do you wrangle in top-notch people to work for free?
It was frustrating at the beginning. We met with more than 200 investors (we counted) who gave us a lot of great contacts and insights but no advisors.
After failing to nab advisors on the investor front, we started to navigate our personal networks. This is where we struck gold. Our classmate from our graduate program at Babson College made an introduction to our now most-trusted advisor. If we had just cold-called him, I am sure we would have been ignored.
Turn to your clients to become possible advisors. If a board member has been on the client side of your industry, he or she is likely to know many of your potential customers, what they care about and give you direct access to them.
Leverage your current advisors to get new ones. The first time I talked to a top executive of a Latin America investment bank he said, “Call me only when you have something." Not exactly the warm “welcome to the industry” greeting I was hoping for. After we got a few Chinese investors on our advisory board, the banker's tune changed.
Not only did that same banker happily accept a seat on our board, but we also were able to get a former minister of Chile to advise us. While we weren't forking over cash for these advisors, they realized their involvement could provide a great network opportunity for personal needs.
Related: How to Build an Advisory Board
How do you leverage your current advisory board? It is easier said than done. These people are busy, so don't expect all, if any, to just leap to your rescue when you need to attract more advisors. You really need to nurture their relationships. Here are some takeaways on what worked for us.
- Give back: Help them out when they could use a hand. Go out of your way to provide assistance in tasks like setting up a meeting with contacts or volunteering to provide advice to another startup in their portfolio. The best part? The more you do it the more they will help you.
- Name drop: Like it or not, name dropping helps. Starting out you aren't going to have all the answers, so to have an advisor validate your company can open up doors. When speaking to potential advisors, make sure to mention who is on your current board and provide contact information if they would like to follow-up with them.
- Offer updates: They give you their time, because they believe in you and care about your startup's vision. Provide your board of advisors with, at the very least, a monthly update stating your progress, accomplishments, goals and struggles. That way you let them know their advice is valuable and how they can continue to help build your company. This creates the perfect opportunity to ask for feedback, along with any introductions you may need.
Keep in mind when building your board, look for advisors that can offer the most to your startup. I recommend getting advisors that worked at companies similar to yours and building a diverse board that is strong in different areas.
What has been your experience in forming a board of advisors? Let us know in the comments below.