Every small business and startup needs advisers. They play a crucial role: part sounding board, part critic and part cheerleader. But a successful relationship between an adviser and advisee requires a proactive commitment on both sides. Without proper planning and communication, you are prone to set up your advisers for failure.
Our team at Behance has had a small group of advisers over the years, and we have struggled with measuring their impact and fully utilizing their willingness to help. Outside of Behance, I have had the opportunity to become an adviser to some new businesses that I'm really excited about. In short, I've been thinking a lot about the role of the "adviser" lately, both as a recipient and an adviser to other companies.
Here are some tips to consider.
When you're receiving advice
1. Select advisers based on areas of expertise
Every business needs a dream team, but you can't hire for every expertise you'll need. Sure, you may need developers and designers, but how about experts on your industry or people with relationships with certain prospects that you can't afford to hire? As you identify areas of expertise that you lack, consider who might be able to help.
2. State expectations upfront
It's best to have a contract that covers details regarding any form of equity grant or compensation as well as whether or not expenses are reimbursed. Some entrepreneurs explicitly state the frequency of meetings, phone calls and possibly the number of hours expected from a committed adviser.
3. Keep a candid exchange
Your relationship with your advisers should be constantly optimized through a candid feedback exchange. Entrepreneurs should ask their advisers the question: "How can I better utilize you to help the business?" Likewise, great advisers always ask the question, "How can I be more helpful to you?"
4. Have an exit strategy
Most entrepreneurs I know say that their "advisers" have less than a 50-percent success rate. Granted, great adviserships are a two-way street. That being said, it is fair to expect that some of your advisers will flake out, change industries, retire, or simply be too busy to help. As such, it's best to define up front what happens if either party decides that it's not working out.
When You're the Adviser
1. Private advice packs a punch
Fred Wilson, managing partner at Union Square Ventures, suggests that "advice given privately is taken more often than advice given publicly." Advice is not effective if the recipient is not receptive.
2. Underpromise and overdeliver
Author, investor/advisor and OPEN Forum contributor Gary Vaynerchuk makes the point that advisers need to perform. "Early on, when I was an adviser, I thought I could impact the businesses I advised in too many ways. Now, I try to underpromise and find specific ways to add value."
3. Believe in it
It goes without saying, but sometimes you may be tempted to lend advice despite your lack of excitement about the product. Big mistake. When you're an adviser, you're an investor (with your time and resources), and you should never invest in something you don't believe in. You get into trouble when you agree to serve as an adviser despite your reservations.
A great advisership, like any other relationship, requires energy, communication and commitment. Pursue advice, but with a commitment to do what it takes to set up your advisers to succeed.