“This is a guest post by Aron Solomon, Senior Advisor at MaRS.”
I’m more convinced than ever that great advisors are an essential part of the recipe that makes great startups. They may be cloaked behind the daily magic that startups do, but you can count on the fact that great advisors are an integral part of a successful startup team.
I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what I think is and isn’t a great startup advisor, but I wanted to ask the opinions of some entrepreneurs from startups I genuinely like and respect.
Ben Zifkin, founder and CEO of the seriously awesome and proudly Canadian Hubba, said it beautifully.
”The minute someone says to your startup “this is how you NEED to do it” pack your shit and go.”
For a bit of elaboration, I asked Hubba’s COO, Howard Lis, for a few words. It was easy, as I stood directly in front of Ben and Howard as they were trying to get back into their office.
“A great startup advisor doesn’t profess, they think through the issues with us as a team. And a great startup advisor recognizes and communicates their limitations.”
I totally agree with the limitations piece. I’ve known a fair number of advisors (mostly in Silicon Valley and Scandinavia, actually) who are really reticent to admit when they’re close to in over their heads. The great advisors I know and work with every day are quick to share when the light is turning yellow. Self-awareness of when we’re out of our depth as advisors is important, but pales in comparison to actually communicating this to our entrepreneurs.
There’s also an important point here about learning moments. Sometimes advisors are put in positions where they’re asked to advise in areas that challenge their competencies. These actually may very well be areas in which the entrepreneur needs to develop their own depth of knowledge and level of comfort. Sometime this is where that fine line resides between being an advisor and a consultant – two beasts of very different color and consistency.
Rami Alhamad, co-founder and CEO of Push is very specific about what – or more precisely, who – he sees as a great advisor.
”What’s a great startup advisor? Everything that Kerri Golden is. She checks in exactly when we need her to, she’s always supportive, super-detailed, and always follows up. Maybe most important she’s never, ever condescending. We’re always treated with great respect.”
Respect is one of the top things on my own list. Some of the amazing entrepreneurs I’ve had the good fortune to advise have transitioned from one project to the next. If the advisory relationship is strong and the level of comfort with the advisor is high and how they communicate is based upon authenticity, the relationship often continues and is a catalyst for the success of the new venture.
It’s hard for me to think of someone who sees more ventures than Michelle McBane, Investment Director of the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund. For Michelle,
”Startups should be have ongoing, not occasional, advisors. What I see a lot is companies spinning around because they’ve received tons of advice from different folks. You need to put in place a process where you can filter advice and put things into motion. You really need advisors who complement your gaps and never sugar-coat their advice. Also, I feel that many CEOs need a CEO coach. Someone you can talk to who isn’t affected by what you say. And, please, work with credible people who are passionate about what you’re building. If that’s not there, I wouldn’t take the time to engage with them.”
I love what Michelle said to me as we were walking together at the end of our chat:
”The great thing about programs such as FounderFuel is that it’s an opportunity for a vetted network of advisors and startups to date a bit before they decide if they want to spend more time together. That’s remarkably valuable.”
And if you think that a great advisor is valuable for a “regular” startup, imagine if you founded and ran a startup that walks the razor’s edge between the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds.
That’s what Anisa Mirza does. The co-founder and CEO of Giveffect, the only crowdfunding platform built for for both charities and corporations, believes that great advisors help Anisa achieve her startup’s goals
”A great advisor supports yet challenges you. A good advisor is passive – they tell you what you need to know. But a great advisor is much more of a coach. They’ll encourage you and push you and still be supportive at the same time.”
Finally, here’s a summary of some more of my own tips on how startups should work with an advisor. They’re shiny and well-condensed for the camera. An easily-digestible mind snack.