Why Your Small Business Needs an Advisory Board

Imagine having a circle of trusted experts you can call on when you have a question or need advice for your business. That's what a board can do for you.
March 05, 2014

A board of directors: It's not just for big business anymore. Small-business owners know it's important to have an inner circle of trusted advisors to whom they can turn.

"Who I go to depends on the issue," says Laura Benson, founder and owner of Jeanne Beatrice, a market-basket designer and seller. "I have a creative director, executive coach, publicist, bookkeeper, accountant, customs broker, close friends, a 12-year-old daughter and a husband—all of whom I trust, and all of whom are on my board of directors. I could not have made it this far without them."

But how do you find these individuals—and when you do find them, what can they really do for your business?

The makeup of the board is multifaceted, and so is the method. From online forums to the counselor next door, the small-business board of directors, it turns out, reflects not only the increasingly digital and mobile life of owners, but is still also about trusted confidantes in the brick-and-mortar world.

The Digital Boardroom

"My boardroom is simple: I am constantly discussing business ideas and talking with trusted partners," says Adam Nowlin, owner of Watson + Nowlin, an Internet marketing firm. "It just depends on the medium I use to do so."

That is, before the Internet, small-business owners could look for board members through their chambers of commerce, and perhaps tap the accountant and the company lawyer for advice on current challenges and next steps. It was all about the community that you could reach with your feet or a phone.

Now, however, small businesses exist in at least two places at once: the physical community in which they do business, and also a virtual community of online resources and netizens. And that has changed everything when it comes to boardrooms.

"There are many business relationships I have started online," Nowlin says. "So talking to someone over email, Google Hangouts or LinkedIn messages happens just as often as picking up the phone does. At the other end is still someone who has earned my trust and respect."

Some Things Never Change

"I met all my board members via email, not traditional networking mechanisms," says Amy Baxter, CEO of MMJ Labs. "Friends told me, 'you need to meet so and so,' and introduced us via email."

But then, Baxter says, something traditional happened. The introductions via email led to meetings face to face.

Her board was born, and she says it eventually included "the director of HCA Healthcare, head of a huge pharma-consulting firm, and a head of a $100M-device company."

That tells us something interesting about the boardroom and the digital age. While networking and potential candidates may be newly and powerfully facilitated by e-communications, for some owners, the missives have to get to that handshake moment—in real life.

"Although I do most of my work online," says Hilary Hamblin, president and CEO of Momentum Consulting, "I've chosen local, brick-and-mortar advisors because I want to be able to see the person giving me advice."

Is a Board Right for You?

Why should your small business start working on an advisory board of its own? Here are some possible advantages:

Boardrooms augment your core competencies. As a small-business owner, you may not have the deepest experience in every needed space. Setting policies surrounding details such as record-keeping, financial analysis, recruiting and retention … your performance on all these tasks can benefit from highly focused professionals in exactly those spaces.

Experienced board members help you to avoid old mistakes. As you guide your small business from startup to its midlife, building a boardroom of professionals who've already faced similar problems to the ones you're going to encounter can save you professional heartache when it comes to how you tackle growth challenges.

Your board is a simplification tool. Faced with a business predicament, you're likely working on the problem with all your emotional and professional concerns fully in play. A trusted coterie of advisors can help force you to simplify complications. Just explaining the business challenge to your board can create the kind of breakthrough in which the answer becomes apparent to everyone.

With the power of the Web and the advice of business owners who've created their own boardrooms, the approaches and advantages of bringing on board even more wisdom and expertise is hard to ignore.

Reach out, meet new candidates and make your small-business boardroom an instrument for progress. Challenges will arise; that's the nature of business. With your board at your disposal, however, you won't have to face the big problems alone.

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