Having great mentors can make a huge difference for you, individually, as an entrepreneur. I’ve never had a mentor, but looking back I’m certain it would have been very helpful. Even today. Mentors are there to help you, and by extension (potentially) your startup. But even if your startup fails, or you’re not going where you want with your job, etc. a mentor is still there adding value.
The same should be true with advisors. Advisors are there first and foremost to work with you as the founder of a company. Your Board of Directors is different. They have other responsibilities beyond helping you (as tough as that may sound.) But advisors are yours – you should pick them, and consider them mentors and friends that have your best interests at heart.
But the reality with advisors is that they’re often low quality and not particularly helpful. There are “celebrity” advisors that attach their names to projects, but don’t really do much. These might help with some buzz and momentum, but it won’t be sustainable. There are also advisors that commit a small amount of time but then do nothing but make promises and platitudes.
If your advisor doesn’t really understand your business (or you as a person – strengths, weaknesses, etc.) then their contribution is likely to be filled with common platitudes about startups and running businesses. The same sorts of things you can read elsewhere…Having said that, being told something by someone can be more effective than reading it, but still, this isn’t really enough to add significant value.
A lot of advisors are brought in to make introductions. And this can be extremely valuable. But again, if the advisor isn’t really committed, then how meaningful are the introductions? If someone is doing advisory work for 50 startups … are they really contributing value?
Pick your advisors carefully. Build a relationship with them beforehand, get to know them as professionals and people. Be demanding. Advisors are busy people, and they’ll forget promises they’ve made quickly if you’re not constantly stoking the flames.
And don’t assume you automatically have to give up equity in your startup either. I’ve seen this in a few cases; meetings between potential advisors and entrepreneurs are setup, and the advisor basically says, “Give me X% of your startup and we can work together.” Um, no. That’s not how a relationship is built, and it’s an unprofessional way for advisors to work. If an advisor is proving his or her value, you’ve built a relationship over some time, things are going well, then you formalize the relationship. Giving options or equity to advisors makes perfect sense – but you’re not obligated to do so out of the gate.
Advisors are people. They have the same motivations, goals, psychological issues, fears, phobias, etc. that you have. And they’ve got big egos too. You attract the best advisors based on personality fit, value they actually bring (not promise to bring), and through your understanding of what makes each individual advisor tick. Figure out what will convince someone to be your advisor, and pitch that.
Be wary of promises and platitudes. Take your time building your advisory network (or board, or team). But once you’ve got an advisor, make sure you get as much value out of them as you can (being respectful of their time, and making sure they’re getting enough out of the relationship too!) You need to be proactive with advisors – they won’t come knocking on your door asking if you need help – so go through their LinkedIn networks, figure out who they know, figure out how they can help, ask, be persistent, and reward them as the relationship strengthens.