Every place and every industry has them: the people that feed off of the industry without adding any value.
They are human leeches, but they're not after your blood. It's far worse than that. They're after your time, money, and potential -- and for first-time founders, the former two are usually in short supply.
There are a lot of these leeches in the startup space, and it's often because first-time and inexperienced founders are easy prey. Most new founders are unsure of their idea, or lack the specific skills, capital, or team to execute on it, and as such are usually intimated, and in an overall state of uncertainty. A charming helping hand -- even without anything of value to offer -- is going to be more a sink of your energy than making the mistakes yourself.
Here's how to catch these time sinks -- and prevent them from devouring you whole.
Leeches take on many forms, but they have some characteristics in common, regardless of what they look like or what they say.
They're irrelevant. They have never really accomplished anything or what they did was 15 years ago and has no relevance to what a founder is working on
They take before they give. They'll likely be looking for compensation for little or no productive action or meaningful contribution to the company. Sometimes this takes the form of an advisory or retainer to make meaningless, inappropriate introductions to other people or potential partners. In many cases, the leech will ask for both money and equity in the company.
They make you feel like you need them. Those who are spiteful about having missed success will often bring down those around them to make themselves feel larger. A leech will make the founder feel inadequate, and paint a picture of failure for the entrepreneur -- unless, of course, they accept the leech's help.
They are constant critics. There's a difference between the advisor who makes you ask questions about your business and the one who questions everything you're doing -- or planning to do. The former makes your thinking clearer. The latter pays no attention to your judgment of right or wrong and isn't being helpful -- they're just sapping your energy.
They want to be seen as connected. They'll name drop like crazy early and often, with stories of accomplished people exaggerated beyond recognition. The worst of them just make things up.
They play at "master of all trades." The leech will claim to have a broad range of expertise so founders perceive their value and contribution to be more valuable, but they also avoid being pinned down into one area of expertise -- so that it always seems like they're doing something somewhere, despite having little to show for it.
They fear showing their results. Think there's a leech in your midst? Offer them compensation strictly based on performance, results, or business impact -- and watch them recoil. Why? Because they're not actually making any impact.
They're always doing, never done. They'll seem to be very active in the startup community, working on "various projects," and claim to work with a number of "other professionals" -- but watch their other involvements and things they claim to have been working on for a while. Has he or she shipped anything lately, hosted anything for founders, or made any meaningful impact on the business of another founder, according to the entrepreneur herself? Probably not.
They're demanding of your time - especially before you pay. They'll ask for meetings constantly and communicate incessantly for you to "formally engage" -- that is, pay them -- but all you'd be doing is paying for silence. Once booked, they'll finally back off. Talk about a deal with the devil.
How to Prevent a Leech from Latching On
Founders, here is how you can prevent a leech from burrowing into your company, sucking up your time, and leaving you financially and morally poorer.
First, make sure you perform your due diligence. Anyone associating with your company and your team in any capacity, but especially if you will be compensating them in some way, must have their claims validated, their skills checked for competency, and their reputation checked with other mutual contacts. Ask for references from past clients, above all.
Next, make sure you set clear expectations. Put your collaboration in writing, with concrete expectations and timeframes in place, and an understanding that if the expectations are not met, the relationship will end. Ideally, tie financial disbursements to product or growth milestones.
Make sure you're engaging for specific expertise when appropriate, rather than for broad "mentorship," and that this type of help is exactly what you need right now. Don't even think about giving up equity without demonstrated results and a mutually agreed-upon benefit from a long-term relationship.
Last, move fast. Get through things as quickly as possible, and dive into the work. Time with leeches will feel productive, but it's actually a huge waste of time. A real advisor will want to get a deal complete and start getting their hands dirty immediately, not to waste time on a third coffee meeting of the week.
Of course there are advisors, mentors, service providers and alike that are good people and companies founders should engage with to help them move the company forward, but beware the leeches that can become such a distraction, waste of time, and waste of money that they jeopardize your ability to build the company you envision.
If you catch a leech in your midst, deal with them as you would a real parasite -- with impunity -- and get back to work.