Setting up an advisory board was one of the first (and best) things I did right after we set up Superconnectors as a company. The group of 7 carefully selected individuals has already brought us countless extremely valuable pieces of advice that have propelled us forward.
However getting started with your first advisory board is a learning curve. How hard is it to start an advisory board? How do you get people to commit to help you, especially when you don’t have money? Who do you ask? And how do you get the most value out of it?
My first advisory board member
It was an early morning in the summer of 2014, I found myself standing in line at the airport in Madrid. I had just visited my girlfriend, (now my wife), and was filled with a mix of excitement and optimism. I was 25 at the time, and we just took Funk-e, from a team of two to a thriving company with 20 employees.
However, as we continued to expand, I knew we needed guidance to prevent us from spinning out of control.
As I waited in line, my eyes landed on a familiar face. It was the founder of a board game company in Rotterdam. He was actually one of our first clients. I couldn’t resist approaching him and struck up a conversation. He seemed genuinely interested in our progress, so I poured out all our plans for expansion and the challenges we were facing. Despite my enthusiasm, he saw through the surface and recognized the underlying concerns in my eyes.
His gaze spoke volumes, conveying a sense of understanding and assurance. If his look could speak, it would say, “It’s tough, my friend, but everything will work out in the end.”
He shared anecdotes from his own entrepreneurial journey and drew parallels between my business partner and me and his own dynamic with his former partner. It was a brief encounter, but it left a lasting impact on me.
The very next day, I mustered up the courage to write him the following email:
How nice to speak to you again and to hear you are open to share stories of how your company grew over time.
After 5 years of entrepreneurship we are filled with ideas and questions that we would love to compare to your similar experiences.
Since my co-founder is basically a younger version of you and based on your stories I sound a lot like your business partner, we would love to plan these meetings together.
I understand the meeting will take place in a while but as proof of our sincere enthusiasm I will give you updates on key milestones in the months to come (no spam, I promise!)
Let’s meet at this restaurant, and lunch will be on us!
Also in the future, we might not be able to pay a fee for your level of seniority, but we are happy to barter our services for your time 🙂
Thanks you and we can’t wait to meet!
As we had no investors and all our money was tied up in the business, this was the only way for us to access the external perspective we desperately needed.
Evolution of the advisory board over time
This advisory board member in particular ended up meeting with us for many years and still is a special person i call from time to time when I have a difficult decision I am making as an entrepreneur.
As my company changed and I changed as an entrepreneur, we also got help of different people over time based on the challenges we faced. And also the value of the advisory board changed.
Initially, my advisory board members provided the much-needed mental support that every entrepreneur craves. They were there to listen, offer guidance, and provide reassurance during challenging times.
Over time, the role of our advisory board evolved. They became our entrepreneurship coaches, pushing us to think critically, challenging our assumptions, and helping us hone our leadership skills. Also by now, our advisory board with superconnectors even serves as a small focus group, that helps us validate ideas or find gaps in a market, even with a warm introduction where necessary.
With their guidance, we were able to make more informed decisions and avoid costly mistakes.
So, to answer some of the questions I started off with:
Is it hard to start an advisory board?
No, you will be surprised how many entrepreneurs are more than happy to make time in their calendars to help out younger peers by sharing their experience.
Getting people to commit without payment?
Money is often not top of mind for these people, but they do want to feel like their time is valuable to you. Be consistent with your updates and prepare the meetings very well. Have clear questions and send materials in advance.
Also, even if you don’t have money to pay high consulting fees, you can always pay respect to their commitment by organizing something thoughtful for them. Organize a dinner, pay for lunch or fly them in for a trip to your city if they are remote.
Who do you ask?
First of all think of what perspectives are fundamental for success?
For us that was different perspectives in the event business and people that were successful in their respective fields.
A few examples are: how do great tech festival organizers think? How do you get the right partners for an event? How do you build a great event franchise (like TED, Fuckupnights or pecha kucha), how do governments think when it comes to startup events? And how do superconnectors think?
Then first look back who you know in your own network, friends and family that can be a good starting point, but only if they also fit your future target.
Otherwise think back of people you met a long time ago.
Otherwise just cold contact them through a well written personal contact request on LinkedIn (don’t copy paste the same message to multiple people).
Finally, how do you get the most value out of it?
Keep a clear rhythm for your meetings, my personal preference is quarterly meetings. This doesn’t put too much pressure on time for your advisory board members.
We also have 7 in total for superconnectors, so it’s also ok if they cannot make it so on average we will always have 3-5 people attend a meeting.
A mistake I made in my fist advisory board meeting for superconnectors is that I spent 75% of the hour talking and sharing updates.
The next meeting I came up with something that allowed me to flip that around. I use 25% of the meeting to share updates (I also share the slides before the meeting) and the other 75% of the time sharing dilemmas.
For instance : do we grow to more cities in the Netherlands or do we add more global cities to our calendar? I put a 7 minute timer for each dilemma and the discussions and perspectives are super valuable.
This allows us to share 5-7 very specific questions and immediately make informed decisions.
Don’t even think, do it
So If you’re considering forming your own advisory board, I encourage you to take the leap. Identify individuals who can offer diverse perspectives, align with your values, and possess the expertise you need. Craft a compelling request, and take it from there.
Remember, the right advisory board can be a game-changer for your startup, providing the guidance and support needed to thrive in a dynamic and challenging business landscape.
So don’t think, do it.