Getting advisors on board: a few practical tips

One of the kinds of help you get in a startup comes from advisors. It makes sense: getting an experienced person to be tied to your company and help you out when you’re stepping in a path they’ve already taken is smart, and well worth the price.

It’s not an easy task: an advisor is a pretty vague term pertaining to anything from just having some big name on your newco’s website to someone actually being hands on with the product or the executive team. Accordingly, approaching potential advisors and compensating them is a repeating issue. As I’m being approached more regarding advisory positions in various companies, I’ve noticed a few common pitfalls in the way this matter is being handled by entrepreneurs.

First, the initial communication. It’s always best to get introduced through a mutual connection, but sometimes it’s impossible. I’ve had some success in cold emailing advisors, potential customers and so on – on LinkedIn and with other means, and most messages I get do not comply with a few simple rules of structure:

  • Have a short and meaningful title (i.e. not “Hi”).
  • Start with an explanation of why you’re emailing this person, with an emphasis on their interest (leading with praises of your achievements and following up with how I can help you is not appealing).
  • Explain what you do succinctly. No one is going to read a wall of text, a long presentation or look through 5 minutes of video tutorials. If the value isn’t immediately clear, you have bigger problems than getting an advisor.
  • Given a brief explanation of where you think this person could help. Again, use language that creates interest: instead of “It would really help us if you could work on setting up our xxx function” use “I thought you’d be interested in providing your feedback about what were doing”. Language that hints to limited engagement will get you more responses.
  • Refer to something they might get out of the engagement. This can be a hint to proper compensation but can also be an offer to exchange knowledge, whatever you feel is right for your negotiation tactics. I always prefer an upfront offer.

Second, be respectful of their time. Coffee is better than lunch. A short phone call is better than coffee. If what you’re doing is interesting to them you’ll get the second meeting – when someone asks for lunch right out of the blue, I get the sense that they’re more into schmoozing than doing. My time is limited, and so it the time of anyone you’d want as an advisor.

Last, have an ask ready. When the meeting is done, don’t ask what the advisor can do for you; if you don’t know that in advance, you shouldn’t have turned to him. Have a few options for working together relatively defined with a ball park of compensation attached to them, and be ready to negotiate. Failing to do that makes you look unprofessional and might make you lose the opportunity – anyone worth having as an advisor has very limited time for engagement.

Getting an advisor on board isn’t very easy. Follow these steps and you have a better chance. Remember – word travels fast, and especially with high profile individuals, even if you can’t get them on board you want to make sure that you engage with them properly. I would be much more inclined to take an introduction or even work with a team that’s better focused on how and when I could help them.


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