Why your advisor isn’t more helpful (and how to fix it)

by Eric Marcoullier

This kid has raised $19M for poopybutts.com, btw.

Since we sold MyBlogLog to Yahoo in 2007, I’ve regularly been asked to advise startups. I’ve agreed several times and I’ve brought on advisors to help with the companies I launched after.  I’ve found the experience to be a mixed bag on both sides of the table. If you’re thinking about becoming or bringing on an advisor, maybe you’ll find this series useful.

Advisors only work as hard as a CEO drives them

If you only remember one thing about this article, remember this.  You may harbor fantasies of an advisory board magically grinding out business development introductions while you sleep, like well-heeled Keebler elves, but it ain’t gonna happen for two reasons:

  1. Advisors have their own priorities
  2. Advisors don’t know what you need help with

Your advisor is probably still employed.  She is either an executive at a major company, running her own startup, investing professionally, managing a non-profit… she’s focused on her own goals.  And since she’s been successful, she’s probably old enough to have a family, which is what she’s thinking about when she’s not thinking about her business.  Plus, she advises three other startups.  So the odds are virtually nil that she’s thinking about your company, other than the occasional “I wonder what’s up with YourCo?”.

One way to solve this is to hire her and make your company her primary focus. That would be awesome. But let’s assume for now that you’re not ready to bring on the current SVP Sales for Allied Widgets as your new salesperson.

BEST PRACTICE: Advisors respond best to direct stimuli.

In just about every case that I’ve ever asked for something specific — an introduction, product feedback, executive coaching — my advisors have responded.  And every time I’ve waited for my advisors to come to me bearing self-motivated gifts, I’ve been disappointed, and deservedly so.  If you need something, ask.

BEST PRACTICE: Be very specific in your requests.

Before you reach out to your advisor, take a moment to prepare.  Figure out exactly what you need and how you can make the process as efficient as possible for him.

If you need an introduction, your advisor is going to want to know why you want the connection and he’ll probably ask for a brief paragraph he can forward for context. Don’t make him ask. Just write it up in advance and say “can you please forward this information to so-and-so?”

If you want product feedback, ask specific questions.  Without guidance, your advisor is liable to play with your new release for a few minutes and move on.  In most cases, it’s better to direct him to a specific feature with some added context so he can quickly evaluate and respond.

The same thing with strategy feedback, coaching, whatever… give specific context and ask for specific feedback.  Broad requests that take a lot of ramp up are going to get a vague response, at best.

BEST PRACTICE: Schedule regular meetings with your advisors.

While at Gnip, I asked Mashery’s Oren Michels to be an advisor.  He’s been president, COO and CEO of a host of technology companies and he’s incredibly knowledgable about contracts and fundraising. Plus, we always have a blast at SXSW.  I was honored when he signed on.  Does it surprise you that both times I raised capital for Gnip he didn’t find out until after I had already signed the paperwork?  Do you think Oren might have been useful in helping me negotiate those contracts?

There’s a reason why most CEOs do a crappy job of keeping their advisors in the loop — we’re just as busy as they are.  In the moment, we tend to forget that we have these fantastic resources available.  Before we know it, months have gone by and our advisors have no idea what’s going on with our companies.  They’re no longer in a position to offer help, even if they want to.

Figure out a rhythm that works for both of you and schedule meetings in advance.  The frequency is completely up to you, but it should probably be at least as often as your board meetings.  Take the opportunity to review your business with him and look for ways that he can help.  If you can’t spend 30 minutes once every four-to-eight weeks with someone talking about your company, either your business is in trouble or you’re a bad match for your advisor.  This way, you’ll never have to hear your advisor say “you did what?” again.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Natty Zola September 19, 2011 at 9:11 am

Great post Eric!


Eric Marcoullier September 19, 2011 at 9:17 am

Thanks, amigo! And might I suggest that you schedule a catchup with *your* most excellent advisor shortly :)


roj September 20, 2011 at 11:01 am

solid solid post. hope all is well eric!


Christopher Austin September 20, 2011 at 11:16 am

Nicely said Eric! I might mention that it also applies to your board of directors, investors, and dare I say it, your lawyers (when looking for something beyond contract drafting).


Eric Marcoullier September 20, 2011 at 11:21 am

Truth! Although we’re lucky enough to have lawyers that we love to hang out with :)


Rex Dixon September 21, 2011 at 7:55 am

Eric – This new marcoullier.com certainly rocks, read the two posts you have on the series you are writing. Excellent stuff! Also, love that you spent some time on this new design, very eye catching and easy to use – and not just another blog. Keep it going! – Rex


Drew Meyers September 22, 2011 at 11:25 am

Good advice Eric. I’ve done a few consulting gigs, and I can absolutely say this holds true.


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