I have been operating a small, part-time business for the better part of 4-5 years providing IT consulting, web hosting, and tech support. To top it off, I've been working on a business plan for over 3 years to turn this thing into a full time venture. All of this while being in college or working full time.
The mission & vision, without going into too many details, is to provide IT education, hosting & consulting services, and tech support to nonprofit organizations worldwide.
I'm getting close. And excited. And nervous.
Is it common for a startup to have an advisory board before its formal "take off"? Is it common for Venture Capitalists & others to advise on the planning process? I'm starting to jot down names & a job description for a potential Advisory Board I may decide to form.
I have several goals I would like to achieve by the middle to late part of this year (2012), but right now I'm a 1-man shop meeting with a friend twice monthly to go over my business plan. I need more solid advice and critical feedback in the phase in which I am.
Ironically, I work in the IT Department for a startup incubator led by a number of very smart and successful entrepreneurs. I would love to get their wisdom, but I have unfortunately discovered that its harder to get their feedback - and help - than I thought.
What are your thoughts? How do you seek the advice of others? Are there people out there who are willing to provide feedback, just for the sake of being helpful?
If one does formalize an Advisory Board, is it common to ask them for regular (say monthly) email communication rather than simply meet (at the entrepreneur's expense, of course) quarterly or semi-annually or however one decides to structure their advisory board meetings?
I am on the advisory boards of several startups, and I also have advisory boards for my own companies.
There are two models that I have seen work:
Mentor Advisory Board
A mentor advisory board is a group of advisors that are more experienced than you are in some area of your business.
You would do better to think about this as a list of advisors rather than a board of advisors, because in my experience, they don't act like a board at all. Only one of the companies I advise has ever convened a meeting of all their advisors. Most companies bring in a specific advisor for conversations whenever the advice is needed. For example, one of the companies I advise has an SEO expert on their advisory board. This person knows nothing about business, he's just an SEO bad-ass, so they ask him for SEO advice. They ask me for more general business advice since I've been running businesses for many years. There's almost no reason for me and the SEO guy to be in the same meeting.
Mentor Advisors each have their own reasons for being an advisor. Some are ego driven and like to pontificate to show how smart they are. Some are retired and need an excuse to get out of the house. I like to do it to "stay young", because most of the companies I advise are run by people in their twenties, and where else is a 42 year old going to get to hang out with twenty somethings and it not be creepy? :)
Of the 6 companies that I regularly advise, I have a teeny-tiny amount of stock options in 2 of them. I don't do it for the stock. I do it because I enjoy it.
All of the companies I advise got to "try me out" as an advisor before they asked me to join their advisory board. Some of them had known me through Capital Factory or because I was already a friend of one of the founders. One of the companies met me at an Austin startup event and asked if they coule meet with me to talk more in depth. We met a few more times, and then they asked me if I would join their advisory board. The chemistry between us was good, so I said yes. We had some extra space in my office, so they even moved in.
I prefer to do my advising in face-to-face meetings, but I also do phone calls and emails. Different advisors have different communication styles, and there is no one size fits all.
Peer Advisory Board
A peer advisory board is a group of business owners that get together as a group and help each other with their businesses. These groups are sometimes called Mastermind Groups or CEO Boards. They can be part of a formal organization like Entrepreneurs' Organization or Young Presidents' Organization or Vistage, or they can be assembled from other entrepreneurs you know or meet around town.
Over the years, I have been a member of a half dozen of these groups. Right now, I belong to two groups like this.
The nice thing about peer advisory boards is that you get to understand someone else's business up close, and you can borrow/steal whatever is working for them. In one of my groups, my buddy cherry picked the best processess from the other members of the group (recruiting, finance, project management, sales, etc.) and was able to grow his business from $1MM to over $5MM in just a couple of years.
Advisory boards are a great way to get honest feedback on your strategy and approach to your business.
As an entrepreneur, you should have your own personal advisory board. These are usually friends or former workmates that share a passion for entrepreneurship and building great products.
This "informal" advisory board can then turn into a full up board once you have a solid idea backed up with a plan.
The typical company advisory board meetings every quarter (sometimes every six months) to review the plans for the company.
Advisors do it for a variety of reasons. Mostly it's to keep their fingers on the pulse of new and exciting technologies and markets.
Almost always, they get stock in the company and their expenses taken care of. It's also common to send them an email for specific advice (which I have done with my advisory boards).
The structure of the board is entirely up to the company. How often they meet, what they meet about, etc. It's pretty loose in that sense.