Does your startup need an advisory board?
What is an advisory board and how do you recruit, inspire and leverage one?
In the early days of building your startup, you need every advantage possible to help you make a product users want, grow your business, and find key partners. A solid strategy for achieving these milestones (especially when you’re lean and mean and working by yourself in your basement) is assembling an advisory board.
Having access to a team of trusted subject matter experts who generously offer you advice, perspective, or opinions is a superpower; one that can help you navigate big decisions with more confidence.
But what is an advisory board? Do you really need one? And if so, how do you go about assembling one and setting expectations?
What is an advisory board?
An advisory board is a group of individuals hand-selected by you (the founder) whose purpose is to offer advice and help the company succeed.
An advisory board is different from a formal Board of Directors.
These advisors are strategically selected based on a needed skill, expertise, or network that fills a void in the company. Maybe you need savvy marketing help and a sharp, legal mind. In that case, a marketer and an attorney might be good people to sit on your advisory board.
Why are advisory boards useful in early-stage startups?
Assembling an advisory board early can offer quite a few tangible benefits. An engaged, educated advisory board can help you:
- See things from different perspectives
- Feel more confident in your decisions
- Learn more about your industry
- Offer you introductions to sales leads, future employees, or investors
- Establish credibility with external audiences
Putting together a group of smart, well-connected experts can be especially helpful for entrepreneurs navigating legacy industries like healthcare, insurance, or finance.
Who should be on your advisory board?
It’s important to build a diverse advisory board filled with professionals whom you trust. Every single person on your board should be someone:
- You deeply trust
- You already know or have thoroughly vetted
- With differing skills, experiences, and/or expertise than you
- Who will challenge you and not just agree with all of your ideas or opinions
- Who is willing to do the work, stay engaged, and find ways to add value to the company
In general, building an advisory board should be about building strong relationships and networks; not about trying to look bigger or more successful than you are to external investors or prospective partners.
What is the commitment for joining?
There are no real “rules” when it comes to setting up your advisory board. Some boards meet once quarterly as a full team, while other founders prefer to meet one-on-one with each advisor once a month for coffee.
However you decide to set yours up, make sure you’ve given it some thought and have clear expectations that you can communicate when speaking with prospective advisory board members. Logistics sound minor, but it’s important to have a vision in-mind so you can ensure everyone is on the same page.
How do you ask someone to be on your board?
Similar to asking someone to be a mentor, you can formally proposition someone to be an advisor with a phone call, email, or even in-person conversation. Just make sure the person you’re asking already knows you and has a strong understanding of your business.
Also make sure you are getting signatures on any necessary documentation (e.g. NDA/confidentiality provisions, length of agreement, and any compensation details).
Dos and don’ts of starting an advisory board
- Be willing to offer equity or a fee in exchange for their time
- Be clear with the commitment and expectations
- Ask permission to use their name and image in your marketing materials, pitch deck or on your website
- Be respectful of your advisors' time and find ways to express your appreciation
- Ask them for clear help that’s aligned with their expertise
- Make sure they are still relevant as your company grows and pivots (as your company and needs change, make sure your advisors do too)
- Expect them to help you forever for free
- Name-drop them if they haven’t given you explicit permission to do so
- Work with a bunch of other people who think and look just like you
- Invite just anyone to be on your board
- Ignore them or lose momentum
- Expect them to be fully available and at your beck-and-call
Creating a diverse, helpful advisory board can be an incredibly powerful tool, especially in the early days of building your company.
Investors love to see a robust, committed team of experts who are all invested in a company’s success. Building an advisory board is a great tactic for demonstrating your influence and making your team seem bigger and more experienced than it is (esp if it’s just you for now).
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Elyse Ash is a marketer, creative, writer, speaker, founder and loud laugher. In her free time she enjoys playing with her kiddos, going to new restaurants, reading and pretending she’s into yoga.