One thing I’ve found over 20 years of working with startup founders is that when it comes to starting a business there are many people who want to offer you advice. Building a startup is absolutely a team effort, and as you become more successful, you’ll find that there are even more people who want to give you advice. People want to work with winners and be a part of something big. As the opportunity becomes more obvious, you will attract more individuals with thoughts and advice.
This impulse comes from a good place, but it pays to be wary. Everyone likes to solve problems, but only a few people can really help you solve yours especially at the beginning. After all, no one knows really what is driving you but you.
Choosing your advisors
Advisors help you think strategically about your business in ways you may not be able to on your own. Almost always, behind one person’s or company’s success is some sage advice and help along the way. Your board members and investors should be doing this anyway, but the great thing about advisors is that you can have as many as you want, without the complications that bringing extra board members or investment can have. Board members and investors come with a lot of overhead – board meetings, governance, economic questions. With advisors, you can have just as meaningful conversations without any other constraints and because advisors will be more arms-length there is less emotion.
So who do you choose? Think about the areas of your business you want help with. For example, if you need input on scaling sales – ask the best sales leader you know. Try to find out what questions they ask in sales meetings. You could even ask if they would be willing to interview your next sales hire. Or say, if you need to up your game in security, then target a great CISO.
How do you find them? As a founder, you’ve probably done a lot of networking. Don’t be afraid to tap into your network and get referrals You could even cold email people. Part of your job as a startup founder is to build the community your company needs to be successful.
Compensating your advisors
Advisors who ask you for payment in exchange for help aren’t advisors: they’re consultants. Consultants are great too, but it’s a different relationship. You are scoping an engagement and expecting specific deliverables (or you should). Most advisors don’t work on a cash basis because they genuinely want to help and they likely have an independent career. After all, it’s their practical experience that you are trying to harness. But nobody wants to be taken advantage of so the best thing you can offer an advisor is equity. If they’re helping you, they must believe in you, so a little stock would be of real value. It might not be after the first conversation – see if things are working first. And keep the vesting schedule short and simple (two years or less) and keep the grants small. Your advisors aren’t employees, and you need your equity for your team.
How to ask for advice
The most important thing about asking for advice is to properly frame the problem and issues. Advisors typically have even less time than you do. Demonstrate you respect the relationship by being clear about your request and frame the conversation for an efficient interaction. Be concise about the problem. In many cases, this can even have a clarifying effect for you.
Few people ask for advice when things are going well. So it is normal and expected to reach out when you’ve got a problem. Seek out multiple views — not because anyone advisor’s thoughts might be wrong, but because the combination of conversations will give you a broad perspective and allow you to make informed decisions on actions. Getting different perspectives allows you to build a big picture, while also weeding out obviously bad advice. Each conversation will build your confidence with the problem. Don’t expect crisp answers from advisors either – as likely the problems you are raising are complicated. It’s these conversations that will bring you clarity in the decision-making process.
Think of the advice you’re getting as inputs, not a complete roadmap of decisions and actions. None of your advisors knows exactly where you’re going to take their input and then chart your own path forward.
When to ignore the advice
Don’t blindly take any advice. I have met too many founders over the years that took some venture investor’s advice or some successful executive – only to realize it was terrible. Just because someone was successful doing something – doesn’t mean they have all the answers even if they present themselves as knowing them. You’re coming from a unique set of circumstances made up of your own life experience, the company you’re building, the market you’re going after, the point in time you currently exist in. It’s possible to learn other people’s lessons from the past, but just copying is usually a mistake.
Secondly, be careful with advice that suggests dramatic changes to your business. Your advisors aren’t in the daily details like you are. They’re not thinking about your problems 24/7 like you are. When dramatic changes are advised, take some time and think through whether that truly is the direction you want to take because major changes are not reversible without a lot of pain. It’s easy to suggest dramatic change, but it’s much harder to execute and deal with the consequences.
Lastly, be aware that everyone has an angle and some bias. Auditors, bankers, and venture investors all have potentially great advice; just realise where they’re coming from and what has informed their perspective. Everyone forms views from their experiences. If someone had a venture investor take advantage of them in the past, they might tell you not to trust investors. Maybe that is true in your case – but it’s likely more complicated and obviously would have big implications for your relationship with investors. If someone hired a VP of sales off Craigslist successfully, they will naturally tell you to do the same. When people have success, they want to pass it on and tell you why. But it doesn’t always apply to your situation. Learn to develop a filter for when an advisor has a hammer and everything they see looks like a nail.
If you choose not to take someone’s advice, make sure to tell them you respect their opinion, and let them know why you’re going another way. There’s nothing more frustrating for advisors than to spend time on founders and then feel they’re not being listened to—or worse, that they weren’t understood. They are not on your payroll – so showing respect for their time means closing the loop with them. It should not mean that you have to follow their direction.
Advisors can and will help you grow your business. Every successful company I can think of was a massive team effort. That is part of the fun of building a business. Growing a startup requires a team and the right set of advisors are an indispensable part of that team.
This article originally appeared in Disruptive Live.