In the fall of 2011, my fledgling blog Cult of Mac had been growing steadily but I was in deep technical trouble.
Since launching the blog two years before, I'd had constant headaches with Web hosting providers. The site was constantly freezing and crashing. Readers frequently complained that it was slow. I went through several different hosting companies, all of whom said they could fix my traffic headaches, but didn't.
As a startup company, I didn't have any money, and good Web hosting can be complex and expensive. I even tried to create my own auto-scaling system that launched new servers automatically when there were spikes in traffic, but I could never get it to work properly. How can you have a successful blog when it keeps crashing? To make matters worse, more big news was coming out of Apple, the 4S was launching, and I couldn't risk my site not being able to handle the traffic.
That's when someone recommended that I set up an advisory board for my company. An advisory board is like free help—experts who get stock options or other non-monetary compensation in return for a few hours of advice or work a month. There are no out-of-pocket expenses, and it's a good way for the experts to network with startup companies.
Getting On Board
To find people who would be a good fit for my advisory board, I did a lot of asking around to everyone I knew or met. I also sifted through my LinkedIn network. I was surprised that within my circle of contacts I already knew many people who could help me in different areas. Turns out I know some lawyers, accountants, marketers and IT people, which is good, because I prefer working with people I know personally.
One key person I connected with Chris Slowe, who had helped build Reddit and who I knew from when we were both at the Wired.com offices. I gave Chris some shares of my company after my lawyer drew up a contract and figured out a vesting schedule, but this isn't necessary. Some board members are only compensated with the odd meal.
I made it clear to Chris that he wasn't expected to take on a managerial or liability role, but he went above and beyond anyway.
Chris performed some technological miracles. He set up several front-end servers and a heavy-duty caching system that kept the site up while it was getting hammered with very heavy traffic. It made an amazing difference to have someone on the team who really knew what he was doing. Most of my staff on the blog are editors and writers and we were all extremely frustrated with the constant tech problems. It helped me launch a sister blog, Cult of Android, which is running on the same servers.
Chris kept the blog alive long enough to get through the news hurricane. When the news quieted down, Chris discovered that the system I was using wasn't suitable for WordPress. I have since moved to PressLabs, a specialized WordPress host, which has miraculously proven to be cheaper and much better than my own jury-rigged system.
The Difference a Board Makes
For a startup company, it's extremely important to get expert help and advice. It's the difference between sinking and swimming. An advisory board is the best way to get expert help without paying a fortune in fees. I wish I had done it straight away. My most pressing problem was technical, but I also needed help with accounting, legal and taxes. Now I'm trying to find an expert for my advisory board who can help with business development, but that's another story.
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