How to Recruit the Right Advisors for Your Startup

You've convinced a bright and well-funded candidate to join your advisory board. Shortly after the celebratory Americanos, the relationship starts to sour. Meetings are missed. Promised introductions stall and the arrangement slips into borderline resentment.

How do energetic relationships turn so quickly into stalemates? And what can founders do to see a better return on recruiting investments? 

Where it All Goes Wrong

You’re destined for a “Netflix purged my favorite movie” type of heartache when choosing to ignore details. It’s essential potential members are clear on the expectations under which they're being recruited. This means having serious conversations about what the role means for you and your business. 

I get it: why run the risk of losing a networked startup vet by coming off as demanding? Honestly, you're just happy they want to be a part of the team. 

Here's the problem. When we invest in seeking someone out for help there are expectations. With an advisory board, it could funding, deliverables, connections or advice you’re looking for. But you expect something out of the deal. So before "clinking" those Americanos it’s important to talk through your needs. Make sure you're on track to get what what it is you're looking for. Then exercise those empathy muscles by inquiring into their expectations and vision. Only after this should you make the big ask.

Without the right expectations and agreements, you stand to really be in trouble or put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of by ruthless or greedy startup advisors.

Know what to look for: 9 Startup Community Personas that drain the time & money of real founders 

Inspire Your Conversation

Details you might walk through when courting new advisory board members are:

First: the type(s) of contribution. Be honest, what contributions to you or your business do you hope to see? Think of it this way: if there was only one thing you could get out of the relationship, what would it be? Being anything but upfront about this is what leads to disconnect and disappointment.
Next: the amount of participation. Talk about the level of participation you expect. Is it enough for this person to show up at scheduled meetings? Or do you harbor secret hopes of support at events? Maybe coffee sit-downs every now and again?
Last: the total time commitment. With a busy schedule comes, well, less availability. Seems obvious, yet it’s always overlooked. An important thing - possibly one of the most important - is to talk about is how much time you need. Start by deciding how often you expect the advisory board to meet. Figuring this out first makes it easier to understand the minimum expectation of time.

Get Your Ducks in a Row

An “expectations conversation” won't be effective if you don’t understand the purpose, role and function of your advisory board. Is it an alternate option for those who can’t serve on the governing board? Or a think tank for individual experts? Maybe a hybrid of the two? What kind of issues will you present and what will members do with them? Will there be any decision-making? Or is the focus on making recommendations? 

Create a charter if it helps. Just get familiar enough to explain what you want and need with laser precision.

The Big Picture

You might wonder why an attorney would care so much about recruiting. It’s pretty simple. The more clarity potential members have, the less likely there is to be a dispute down the line. In other words, honest and direct conversations from the start can be a risk management tool. 

Stories of major disputes with advisory board members exist. That many advisory board members receive some form of compensation (equity or even cash) can make things even hairier. Manage this by having those conversations around expectations. Once every one is in agreement, put it down into a contract. 

The most efficient way to see a return on your recruiting investments is to work backward. Define what a "return” looks like for you then clearly communicate that by talking about your expectations. If someone doesn’t agree with your expectations that shouldn’t deter you. Nor is it a failure. You avoid "losses" by finding this out before everyone invests too much time, energy or money.