Truly, no one is self-made.
Yet, you hear statements like “I made it on my own” which is not true in real life. I have realized that in order to build a successful business, surrounding yourself with the right support network is crucial.
This is because no matter how “self-made” you are, at one time or the other you needed help, someone’s network or their recommendation to get what you needed.
Your networks and connections to an extent determine how fast your idea will scale in the market. For example, Jason Njoku openly spoke about the roles that mentors have played in his business; I believe this is one of the critical ingredients responsible for his business growth. So, it is far better to seek help through mentors and advisors than to do it on your own.
AN ARMY OF STARTUP ADVISORS
We need advisors at every stage of our business (when we are frustrated, clueless, making progress, doing deals, hiring or firing). To drive this point home, here are 3 examples of how the right advisers can help a startup.
Jan Koum, the founder of WhatsApp (the largest instant messaging platform in the world with over 1billion active users) was frustrated with the app and almost gave up in its early days. He had the privilege to have an advisor named Acton who encouraged and advised as well as (probably) helped to raise the first investments for the business.
Iyin Aboyeji struggled with Fora; an online education startup he founded, thankfully, with the guidance of Jeremy his mentor, Fora pivoted to Andela, a company that went on to raise a series B of $24million recently.
While Mark Zuckerberg may be at the center of the stage, it is important to understand that Facebook might not be successful without the critical roles played by his advisors like Sean Parker, early investors like Peter Thiel and even Mark’s dorm mates in Facebook’s early days.
Mark Zuckerberg (founder, Facebook), Snoop Dogg and Sean Parker (founder of Napster and first President at Facebook)
NOTE: A common theme to the 3 stories is that what started as a mentor-mentee relation later ended with them working with each other
ADVISORS, MENTORS, ANGELS, INVESTORS: Are they the same?
While there are (sometimes, big) differences to these four roles, the common theme is that they are individuals (or institutions) who are expert at something that you are not; hence they are in position to give you advice in this area.
Before now I have used them interchangeably, now let’s differentiate them.
Angels (early stage investors) and investors put money in your business while advisors and mentors are providing advice to help you grow your startup. It is also important to note that there is a thin line between mentors and advisors.
To put it in context, mentors tend to be more focused on you, while advisors are usually more focused on your company. Advisors provide services in exchange for a portion of your company, while mentors merely ask, “How can I help you? Hence, these relationships can be instances of informal discussions like this tribute note of Victor Asemota to those that influenced his choices or it could be a formal arrangement where you have codes/ethics guiding the relationship.
WHAT VALUES DO MENTORS BRING TO YOUR STARTUP?
Mentors and advisors can give a lot than what money can buy for your startup.
Right media exposure for your startup.
Due to their extensive media connection, advisors can open doors of media coverage for startups. A media advisor like CFA can leverage his media arsenal to give coverage to your startups as well as offer guidance.
A simple endorsement can improve the credibility of your startup. This endorsement can be a simple tweet, an email to their network or a post, (like this one about BalogunMarket).
You can enjoy passes to high profile events, or get introductions to help you sign big accounts with contacts you can’t reach on your own.
Help you to get your business on track.
Hiten Shah shares how his advisor “whipped” him to profitable revenue model by speaking frankly about how he should do the business better. A good advisor will sometimes go as far as help you with pricing model and brainstorm ideas to improve your competitiveness. And a lot more.
HOW SHOULD YOU GO ABOUT CHOOSING AND REWARDING YOUR MENTOR NETWORK.
As I noted earlier, your mentor relationship can be casual or formal. You will do better by opting for a formal advisorship model.
To get the best from advisors, the first step in this direction is to evaluate yourself (and team) for possible areas of weaknesses that you seek to grow. This evaluation will help you to choose advisors in 2 critical areas, which are:
1. Advisors with Domain expertise
These advisors/mentors will help you in your business, with the marketing, sales, intros to your customers and partners.
Typically, you should seek mentors in the same industry as choice (especially with more established “traditional” businesses). For example, a hyper-local logistics startup can leverage mentorship of a VP logistics at Dangote, Agofure Motors or NIPOST (DHL, FEDEX etc) in order to understand how the market works. While this looks like a tangent at the surface, you will realize they are solving problem in the same space.
Such mentors will flesh out the areas of business with which you’re least familiar. This will ensure that your business can grow in every aspect—not just the ones you and your employees know.
2. Influential mentors/advisors
These mentors will “intro” you to VCs, bloggers and help with the startup side of your business which can include growth marketing, legal etc. Typically, you leverage this mentorship networks when you know you need their services but could not afford to pay them on full time basis (or they are engaged elsewhere).
How do you reach out to your advisors?
You should only approach advisors who you believe would be passionate about your idea. Unfortunately, they are typically busy and highly successful, so you need to win their confidence that it is worthwhile sharing their time with you.
One of the best ways to get high profile advisors is “paying it forward”.
Alex Turnbull, the CEO of GrooveHQ advised that, “if you wanted help, be helpful”. A proven “shortcut” to building relationships with busy, successful people is helping them with specific areas of their business. Alex even shared one of such emails that he got from a prospective mentee which led to him mentoring the person.
You need to remember that great advisor relationship takes time & context to build. It is much like dating, hence, your approach is important. Scott Belsky shared insights from 4 leading entrepreneurs about finding and keeping the right advisors for your business.
- When you are starting out, ensure that you have up to 10 and 15 target advisors that can potentially help your business. These people could be known to you already or you can use social networks like Linkedin, Angelist, Facebook or Crunchbase to connect with these individuals. In case you are not directly connected to the person, you can get introduction from a person both of you are connected to.
When you connect with potential advisor, be prepared. For example, if you are meeting in person at event, ensure that you give a simple, memorable elevator pitch and request for a coffee/followup meeting (Guess what, conferences and events are some of the best places you can meet potential advisors 🙂
To get the best from mentors, always ask them specific questions and give them enough context when asking for their help. The CEO of DataFox shared the template of he uses to engage his mentors via their monthly advisor update email.
- The Founders’ institute has a simple framework and agreement template for startup advisor relationship that you can adapt.
What’s your reward plan for your advisors?
So, what do you plan to “pay” your mentors and advisors?
While you might not need to pay your mentors (or role models), it is different with advisors. “Advisorship” is much more than a mentorship as there is an implied sense of expectations and reward.
The role, compensation and legal relationship with your advisors should be clearly spelled out to address issues leading to disappointment and frustration. Here are 14 tips from 30Under30 and ReadWriteWeb on how to go about creating your startup’s board of advisors.
It is typical for companies to grant stock options to advisors which are usually vested over a period of three or four years. Founder Dating recommended 1% equity to advisors, depending on the stage of the startup.
As an advisor, you also have to do your due diligence about the startup you want to advise to prevent scam founders from soiling your name. Another concern is that you will probably make more money charging consultancy fee instead of owning equities in startups that might never takeoff – like Neil Patel found out.
So then, what is the motivation for you to be a startup advisor?
Actually, advisorship is a win-win for both advisor and the startup. I agree with Asemota that “….contrary to what most people believe, mentors and advisers actually gain more from interacting with startups than the entrepreneurs themselves. Engagement is important”.
This explains why I recently started mentoring some startups on platforms like Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEEP), while I am also directly advising 2 other local startups in addition to my full-time day job. This is because the more I share my expertise in growth marketing strategy with these early stage startups, they better the quality of value I can give.
I believe many startups in Nigeria need mentor and adviser figures like Sim Shagaya, Jason Njoku, the Jobberman mafias, Victor Asemota, Tomi Davies and several others that space might not permit me to include.
We need these mentor figures to grow the startup ecosystem.
What do you think? Please share in the comment and help get the word out.