Startups commonly give 0.5% equity or more to attract an experienced advisor (see related article titled “Compensating an Advisor”). Sometimes after a few months they find themselves wondering if they are getting the value they expected for the amount of compensation provided. This article focuses on things you can do to ensure you are extracting maximum value from your advisor throughout the duration of their engagement.
First and foremost, you must realize that it’s your obligation to extract the maximum value. In other words, don’t expect your advisor to send you an email that says “Hey, we haven’t talked in a long time. Is there anything I can do for you?” Instead, you will need to be proactive about engaging your advisor. Let’s dissect this a little further into specific things you can do.
In my article titled “Compensating an Advisor” I suggested that activity level was one of the key determining factors that should drive your decision on compensation. Hopefully you discussed this with your advisor before signing the advisory agreement with them. If so, then your advisor should know how often you want to meet with them in person and what level of email correspondence or phone calls are expected with the engagement. If not, then you need to have a discussion to come to agreement on what’s reasonable.
Life as a startup involves plenty of chaos, which means times flies by and many important things get ignored in exchange for focus on important things. If you’ve agreed with your advisor that you will have regular (weekly, monthly, etc) interactions, get them on the calendar as a recurring event. If a conflict arises, just reschedule for a different time.
Don’t Dominate the Conversation
When interacting with your advisor, 50% of the conversation (or more) should be represented by your questions and the responses from the advisor. Of course you’ve got to set the stage and give sufficient background. But if you do all the talking, you haven’t accomplished anything. The only way you gain value from the interactions is to give the advisor a chance to impart their knowledge, recommendations and insights. The stage-setting information you provide should lead to one or more questions.
Notes and Action Items
Take notes during the meetings with your advisor. Lots of ideas and recommendations will be discussed that are too important to rely on memory. Following the meeting, list out any action items for both you and your advisor. Email these to your advisor shortly after the meeting.
Meeting Agenda and Purpose
Don’t show up for an advisor meeting unprepared. Instead, think about what you want to accomplish. I have a standard meeting flow that I often recommend. It goes something like this:
- Yippee’s, A Ha’s and Oh Shit’s – A quick recap of accomplishments, discoveries and disappointments/setbacks since the last meeting
- Action Item Recap – Action items were taken during the last meeting (potentially for both the company and the advisor). Conduct a quick status update on them and engage in follow-on discussion where necessary.
- New Discussion Items – What new things do you need to discuss with your advisor? Each month or quarter this might also include a review of financial or operational results.
Making Specific Requests
Don’t be shy asking your advisor to do specific things. Maybe you want them to interview a favorite job candidate for an important position, maybe you need introductions into a potential strategic partner, maybe you need help preparing for an important sales call or maybe you and your co-founder are encountering conflict with each other (see related article titled “Avoiding Co-Founder Conflict“). Whatever it is, if it’s important and your advisor has the skills/experience to help, ask them. While doing so, make it clear you are asking them to do something specific and put it on the action item list.
This is especially important if you have multiple advisors and find times when they are giving different advice. As a founder in the startup, it’s ultimately your decision what to do. But if at all possible, try different things and take advantage of the nimbleness and flexibility that comes with your early stage. If one advisor says A, another says B and the company was thinking about doing C, try them all. Get into Lean Startup mode (order book here) and think about ways to quickly validate or invalidate A, B and C. Sometimes it’s not possible but you’d be amazed how many times it’s possible to try 2-3 things simultaneously and learn a ton in the process.
Again, it is your obligation to extract the maximum value from your advisors. I hope these ideas give you a place to start. Let me know what other techniques you’ve used successfully.