Greenhorn Thoughts on Finding Advisors and Mentors

No man is an island, and neither is a startup. If you've taken up the task of starting up a company, then you should absolutely be seeking out others to solicit help and feedback from.  Often this leads to the recruitment of advisors and thus the formation of an advisory board and the building of that infamous page on every website with famous or important people from your industry listed as company advisors. 

When you're first starting out, thinking about how you're going to get advisors can be intimidating and overwhelming.  It's always better when you Keep It Simple, so I'd like to show you why this isn't as hard as you think and you should think broader than a few advisors.

Last week there was an awesome post on The 99 Percent about How to Find (and Keep) the Right Advisors For Your Business. It's an awesome post so I encourage you to go read it before proceeding.

{Note: this post is inspired by awesome advice I got from Sean Lindsay (aka- Mr. FounderMentors)  and a discussion shortly thereafter with a confused young Boston entrepreneur)

So now that you know the thought process for advisors, I'd like to add some thoughts:

1) Don't just look for a super advisor for your website; talk to every smart person you can

When you're setting out, every small victory matters, so don't limit yourself to only seeking out who you think is the absolute perfect face and name for your website's advisor page.  There are tons of people who have worked in the industry of your startup that can provide valuable "in the trenches" advice and insight.  Should they become members of your advisory board? Probably not, but you should be talking to a lot more than just your advisors to expand your vision and industry knowledge.

2) Smart people might just know your target advisor

If you only focus on getting those home run names on your advisors page, you'll find yourself overwhelmed and confused about how you'll get them involved and how you'll get that magical introduction that will get your startup on the advisors radar. However, if you instead start talking to many people in your industry, you'll not only learn more, but you'll likely find that those smart people can provide a warm introduction to your target.  Especially when it's a person of status, who likely gets hundreds, if not thousands, of emails every day, you need help getting to the top of his inbox.

3) Finding smart people to talk to is just a click (or tweet) away

Not sure who the "smart people" are in your industry? That's where Twitter, LinkedIn and Google can help:

  1. LinkedIn - Search your connections and those of your friends for people in industries and companies that are of interest to you.  Then look at that person's connections to see who you both know and ask for an introduction.
  2. Google - Search topics that you're looking for help with and see who is talking about these topics on their blogs and other tech sites.  If the results are from a local tech blog like BostInnovation, look at who is commenting and try to find ways to talk to them.   
  3. Twitter - Don't have any easy way to get an intro to someone? If they're active on Twitter, an easy way to get started is just to @reply them with a question. You can also try engaging them based on something they tweet and building a mini-virtual relationship before asking to grab coffee.

4) The best person to talk to may not be the CEO

The CEO is like the quarterback at a startup. They get a lot more of the credit (and blame) for what happens at the startup, and that doesn't necessarily make them the best person to talk to for advice.  Often some of the best advice you can get will come from employees at a startup who are in the trenches every day interacting with customers and building the technology to make those customers happy.
 
It's always exciting to get to meet a CEO, but they have overloading inboxes and usually a million distractions. Meanwhile, that key marketing employee that is feeding summaries to the CEO is actually much more suited to the discussion you may want to have and has 1/4th the email to sort through and 1/10th the meeting requests.  And remember: if you still want that intro to the CEO...they're a great person to give the intro!

5) Don't get married on the first date

If you're worried about how to ask if someone will be your mentor or advisor, stop.  Your focus should be on getting the best advice possible.  Meet with as many people as you can to get a feel for your industry and advice on tackling the challenges you're struggling with most. As you progress, stay in touch with and continue meeting with the people you find most helpful.  
 
Sean Lindsay framed the process well when he told me that, "anyone can give good advice once. What you want in an advisor is someone who you find continually gives you more good advice every time you meet. Once you have 3-4 good meetings you can talk about formalizing the relationship."  By then, it will be a natural process working with that person and very easy to ask them to join you as an advisor.
 
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One of the hardest things when you first set out to start a company is to avoid becoming overwhelmed. It's very easy to make mountains out of mole hills and get scared about what you're trying to accomplish.  Break it down into as small a pieces as you can and ask people who have done it before and you'll find the going much easier.
 
In the case of finding an advisor, breaking it down just means talking to as many smart people as you can and continuing the conversation over time for the ones you like.  Following that pattern, you may just wake up one day with a whole bunch of great advisors.
 

What is your advice for finding advisors and mentors?

 

Helpful Plug: If you're a Boston entrepreneur and need help with getting connected to good people to help you with your startup as potential mentors or advisors, apply to Founder Mentors, an awesome program that matches new founders with local veterans interested in helping. Learn more at http://foundermentors.com

Discussion

Advice appreciated

This was actually really helpful to me.  I've heard people say find a mentor / partner.  I've mostly just been talking to anyone I can.

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