Small Companies Benefit From Outside Advice The input of an advisory board can be invaluable to the success of your business--and you don't have to run a Fortune 500 company to benefit.

Gayle Martz worked for years to solve a big problem for peoplewho want to travel with their pets. As founder of Sherpa's PetTrading Co., Martz not only designed stylish, lightweight,ventilated pet carriers, but she lobbied hard to convince majorairlines to allow small pets to ride in the passenger cabin.

"I saw people squishing their animals into hard plasticcases and came up with a great idea," said Martz, a formerflight attendant and passionate handbag collector. She designed thefirst carry-on bag to transport her own dog, a Lhasa Apso namedSherpa. Now the company manufactures several different pet totesfor use around town or in the air.

When she needed help to improve and expand operations at her NewYork City-based company, she turned to Susan Stautberg, founder ofPartnerCom Corp. Stautberg, a former journalist and publisher,creates and manages advisory boards for big and small clients. Inrecent years, she's created boards for Avon, Avis, Swissoteland Cigna. She's currently creating a special advisory boardfor the United Nations. While the U.N. sought internationalbusiness leaders, Stautberg recruited a group of pet-loving, highprofile professionals to guide Martz.

"The advisory board can be your trip wire," saidStautberg. "An advisory board can alert you to new companiesanywhere in the world that can wipe you out."

Stautberg, whose clients fondly describe her as a "walkingRolodex," first figures out what type of help a business owneror executive needs to build their business. Then she handpicks anexperienced, prestigious group willing to work for a small fee and,possibly, free products.

Martz said she needed financial guidance and a good publicrelations strategy. So Stautberg recruited several high-profile petlovers, including public relations veteran, Lou Hammond, founder ofLou Hammond and Associates in Manhattan.

"I wanted to support Gayle and what she does," saidHammond. "I'm a great dog lover-I think dogs are betterthan humans."

Hammond, who has a miniature Dachshund named Presto, suggestedMartz send New York gossip columnist, Cindy Adams, a bright redSherpa carrier for her dog. Even if Adams never mentions the bag inher column, she probably uses it to tote her dog around town.Hammond also provided Martz with an invaluable list of 75journalists who cover dog-related topics. Hammond said she was anatural choice for Sherpa's advisory board because promotingpet-related stories is one of her personal passions.

"When we opened a hotel with pet menus, we got the biggest(press) pick up in America," said Hammond.

Marsha Firestone, president of the Women Presidents'Organization, a national group for entrepreneurial women; AmyKopelan, founder of Bedlam Entertainment, a conference and eventplanning firm; and Carolyn Chin, an experienced media andcommunications executive, also serve on Sherpa's advisoryboard.

"The board has been a very good thing for me," saidMartz, who recently hired an operations manager. "Having anadvisory board makes you accountable."

Martz said Sherpa's Pet Trading Co., with eight employees,will soon be marketing its bags to Europeans.

Susan Shultz, author of The Board Book: Making Your Corporate Board aStrategic Force in Your Company's Success ($35,Amacom), said having an advisory board is a "great firststep."

"An advisory board can focus on strategic issues and notget mired in the details of operation," said Shultz, addingthat informal advisors are not liable legally or financially forthe decisions they help make.

But if you manage a rapidly growing business or are about to gopublic, Shultz suggests forming a formal board of directors.

"We tend to think of boards for the Fortune 500, but thereal value is to smaller and family-owned businesses," saidShultz, president of SSA Executive Search International in Phoenix."A good board is your best single strategic advantage. Theycan help you avoid making fatal mistakes." A strong board ofdirectors may also open doors to your company. For example, Shultzrecently recruited the outgoing general counsel for McDonald'sto serve on the board of a small, New York Stock Exchange firm thatfinances fast food restaurants.

"Now that board member is bringing the company to theattention of McDonald's," said Shultz.

She said a strong board of directors may also help you attractbetter employees and investors.

"Boards are a pivotal success factor for all companies,especially small ones," said Shultz.

Serving on an advisory board can also be good for your career,according to PartnerCom founder Susan Stautberg.

Here are some good reasons to participate:

  • Serving on a board can build your network with access toexperienced and articulate leaders.
  • Board participation can help you innovate, which can create newwealth for the company and individual.
  • Serving on an advisory board can be more stimulating than acorporate board because members are chosen for brainpower, notposition
  • Advisory board membership can build relationships withdecision-makers at the company.
  • Advisory board membership may increase your comfort level ifyou are chosen to serve on a corporate board.
  • For a free copy of Jane Applegate's Small BusinessOwner's Check Up and other resources, send your name andaddress to: Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, NY 10803.

    Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist, author and founder ofSmall BusinessTV, a global network for entrepreneurs.

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