Why Startups Need An Advisory Board & How To Build One
Assemble an amazing team of advisors to give your startup the knowledge and network it needs to grow.
We set up our first advisory board before we ever had a product. I’m going to share why it was so powerful for us and how we did it.
A startup can be a rewarding yet brutal journey where learning becomes second nature — an important mindset to adopt. It keeps you in a state to absorb new information. Entrepreneurs don’t have defined roles, tasks, or expectations set from outside sources. Experience is our friend; the more we have, the more effective we are at our job. Despite all the experience accrued, we don’t know it all. We’re faced with new challenges daily and play firefighter to the countless problems that come up.
Unfortunately, we can’t put out every fire. We need help.
Surrounding yourself with people who know more than you is a powerful advantage
This is where the advisory board comes in. A group of industry professionals, entrepreneurs, or investors who help guide the founders.
They provide earlier-stage companies with important advantages:
- Strategic and operational insight
- Trusted feedback source
- Contacts from an expanded network
- Credibility in marketing or raising money
So why doesn’t everyone have one? Because it’s hard work to build and even harder to maintain. If organized with intent, the advisory board can be a sustainable piece of your startup.
Here’s how, step by step:
Step 1: Identify specific areas of need that you/your team lack
Define it. Get crystal clear on where you’re struggling, how it’s hurting you, and what can help. Are you lacking a strategic or tactical edge? Is this a hard skill or a soft skill?
Here are a few specific examples:
- Building partnerships centered around community growth.
- UI/UX design and implementation of a marketplace app.
- Machine learning in a consumer social app; database build.
- Product pricing for third-party integration license.
It’s important to identify these specifics to target the right people.
Step 2: Outline skills/titles directly correlated with those needs
Build the persona of the person that best fits your needs. Where does this person work? Does their title matter? What about years of experience?
Following the first examples, here are the specific traits needed:
- Business development or partnership director at a community-centered company. They’ve handled the outreach, nurturing, and execution of large-scale partnerships.
- UI/UX experience focused on user-first designs. This person has led design teams who built beautiful products and their users validate that.
- Machine learning experts can be tricky, but my focus here would be looking for someone conscious of data. This person can guide us in considering what, when, and how our data would be used.
There’s nuance here in selecting someone, but defining expectations around experience can only help you know where to look.
Step 3: Define the advisory board’s purpose and structure
Give your advisory board some structure, rules, and goals. Though the advisors have agreed to participate, it’s on the founder to curate that experience.
Here are some basics to consider:
- Meeting frequency (Quarterly as a team, monthly 1-on-1s, etc.)
- Length of engagement (6 months, 2 years, etc.)
- Deliverables (introductions to investors, referrals during hiring, etc.)
- The end goal (get your app launched, raise a seed round, etc.).
You’re pitching the advisor to join and having a clear set of expectations will help them decide whether they can take on the role.
Step 4: Reach out to build your pipeline, connect, and follow up.
Start making your list. These are people you know and some you’ve never met. Advisors who join will have been those you’ve built rapport with.
Use the following tactics to get started:
- Initial contact: Be clear in your intentions, short, and ensure you’re making your value props known.
- Engage & build rapport: Engagement can be best performed through likes, comments, and posts of your own. Be the expert of your field and/or as curious as possible. Advisors want to engage with the engaged.
- Make it official: When an advisor is coming on board, treat them like you would an official team member. Sign the appropriate NDA, share docs, add them to the website, and make them feel at home.
It may take months to onboard an advisor from initial contact. Starting your search for advisory early can make a big difference.
Step 5: Rejection will be plenty, handle it with care
Finding advisors is no upbeat journey. You’re going to get a TON of no’s! However, a no doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
The person you’re speaking with may not be the person for the job but they may know someone who is or could want to join later on. Ask if you can add them to your updates email so they’ll stay in the loop on your progress.
You’ll find some people will still provide value through feedback and referrals without any official title. That’s perfectly okay. It reflects greatly on you as a founder. Keep those relationships.
Remember to be authentic
At the end of the day, you’re inviting in a wide range of personalities, backgrounds, and expertise that will be new to your venture. Don’t oversell what you do and don’t undervalue your worth. Ask for what’s fair, offer back value any chance you get, and build an advisory board you’d be happy to work with!