Editor's Note: The following is the fifth 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.
So you’re advising entrepreneurs. Ostensibly, you’re imparting your wisdom and experience to help someone else find success and avoid pitfalls. You give yourself a nice pat on the back. You feel good. But all too often, this scenario doesn't play out. Advisors make common mistakes and the relationship is less beneficial that it could be or just goes sideways.
Advisors listen up. Avoid these common pitfalls that can send the relationship into a tailspin.
Don’t go MIA. If you are unsure about your schedule or know you can’t carve out time to regularly meet with and respond to a founder, don’t sign up to be an advisor. It isn't fair.
I realize everyone gets busy but have the courtesy to tell an entrepreneur it’ll be a crazy few weeks. Beyond that it’s lame. Either don’t do it in the first place or step away if unforeseen circumstances occur.
Keep in mind a day or two -- or even a few hours -- might not feel like a lot to you, but if an entrepreneur is grappling with something it can feel like a lifetime. Make sure you can be responsive. It is that simple.
Don’t sugarcoat it. Remember that you’re more of a coach less of a cheerleader. Provide encouragement whenever you can but never at the expense of honest and constructive criticism. If something doesn’t work, doesn’t look good or seems like a bad idea, always say so. You’re not doing anyone any favors by avoiding open and candid feedback. Whatever awkward or uncomfortable conversations you may have will be much more useful than friendly ones that gloss right over the problems.
Don’t force introductions. Advisors and mentors often love connecting people. But resist the urge to overdo it – don't push too hard. (Sometimes advisors will still do this just to prove their worth.) At the end of the day time is the most valuable resource, so if an entrepreneur says "no" you have to leave it there and let them prioritize.
Don’t forget to set expectations. Outline important guidelines with your mentee at the beginning. Explain how you like to work, how meetings work best for you, what medium of communication you’re most responsive on and so on.
Also, you should lock down things like how often you’ll talk to each other, what areas of expertise you can offer, what he or she can expect from you on a regular basis and what your schedule looks like. It sounds basic, but it’s very helpful. On FounderDating, we encourage advisors and entrepreneurs to do this before (and in conjuntion with) signing an agreement around equity.
Don’t make it all about you. The most useful advice you can give is tailored to a founder's current concerns and situations. It’s easy to fall back on your own experiences and tell stories of your own failures and subsequent successes but make sure it truly applies. Ask yourself, is this really the same situation? And is very useful to your mentee unless it relates directly to the problem at hand?
A lot of advisors make this mistake, and the best way to avoid it is to: 1) make sure you’re really engaging with and listening to your advisee when he or she explains a current challenge or struggle and 2) ask questions. Feel out the issue. If you have a story that may help, tell it. Just keep things focused on her journey as an entrepreneur, not just your own.
The easiest way to avoid these mistakes as an advisor is to put yourself in the entrepreneur’s shoes. If you’ve had your own startup, who were the best mentors you had and how did they help you step your game up? You’ll likely find that the best mentors made time for you, set clear expectations, listened to what you have to say, introduced you to helpful people, honed in on your current challenges and balanced encouragement with honest criticism. By being this kind of advisor, you’ll help a young entrepreneur pave his or her way to success while learning some new problem-solving strategies yourself.