When founding a tech startup, there is no shortage of important decisions to make.
The good news is you don't have to do it alone.
Experienced advisors who have "been there, done that" are a valuable resource to help support you in navigating the often confusing world of tech entrepreneurship.
Neither a board member or employee, advisors are uniquely qualified to provide a level of no-holds-barred guidance that is hard to match. Because, let's face it: Pretty much every other stakeholder involved in your company will have a biased opinion about what you should or shouldn't do!
Conversely, most advisors are seasoned entrepreneurs who genuinely want to give back to the community. Thus, with no ladder to climb, advisors can lend invaluable assistance to a variety of common situations:
- Need some advice on how to handle co-founders who aren't pulling their weight? Call your advisor.
- Come across an unfamiliar legal situation? Ask your advisor.
- Want an introduction to a potential client? Yep, you guessed it.
With that said, not all advisors are the same. Most can be divided into two categories: Hands-on mentors who have built their own companies from scratch, or senior industry professionals with significant expertise (and contacts) within your vertical. Ideally, you want to be in contact with both types.
So, how do you go about finding these key individuals?
Unfortunately, there isn't exactly a "Startup Advisor Yellow Pages." And, even if there were such a thing, finding an advisor who would agree to work with you would take more than a phone call. The advisor-founder relationship begins like most others in life — meeting via a warm introduction and bonding over common interests over time.
Let's dig into where to find potential advisors for your tech startup, and how to evaluate a good match.
How to Find Top Advisors for Your Tech Startup
1. Take Inventory of Who You Know
It sounds cliche, but start within your network.
Too often, startup founders waste significant time and energy chasing semi-famous entrepreneurs, instead of tapping into their existing network. Stop and think about this for a moment: Would you rather have an advisor who has the time to catch a regular cup of coffee, or one who is routinely booked up months in advance?
Interestingly, your knowledge gaps can often be better filled by lesser-known names with direct experience in your industry. For example, say you're trying to scale a cryptocurrency app. A lesser-known advisor with direct experience in bitcoin would be infinitely more valuable than a "Big Name Advisor" whose knowledge of cryptocurrencies is limited to the latest news headlines.
If you are lucky enough to know someone within your current network, that's a great starting point. But be aware that developing a founder-advisor relationship takes more than one conversation.
"In my experience a great advisor relationship takes time & context to build. At DataFox, looking back, our advisors were all warm introductions where the original intent was to ask a smart person for advice on a specific challenge or issue, rather than to solicit an advisor relationship from the get-go."
One way to begin building that relationship is by reaching out to the person and reminding them of your mutual contact.
Tell them about your startup and ask them if it would be alright for you to ask their advice on a specific problem you are dealing with. Keep this message short and clear — most of the time, the person will say yes. From there, it's simply a matter of acting on their advice and reporting back your results. Rinse and repeat a few times, and you may have yourself an advisor.
With that said, if you can't identify any potential candidates within your network, it may be beneficial to join a community of tech entrepreneurs.
Check out RocketSpace's tech ecosystem. Get a free day pass.
2. Reach Out to Industry Thought Leaders
While we always recommend tapping into your existing community first, there are some instances where it makes sense to reach out to someone with a little more clout. If your startup is at a more advanced stage, with significant traction and seed funding, an industry heavyweight may be both interested in your project and able to provide significant support.
High-profile advisors can often assist founders with the kind of PR and connections that catalyze amazingly fast growth. The good news?
The process of approaching an industry thought leader is similar to approaching an acquaintance within your network. The key is to find a mutual connection whenever you can (a person is best, but a shared interest also works), ask a focused question and focus on how you might provide value to them during your initial approach.
"I’m fortunate to work with great founders who clearly knew what they needed from me and how our relationship would work. Perhaps more importantly, those founders took the time to do their homework on me and understand what I could bring to the table.
Our conversations were productive as a result. But I’ve also been approached by startups in verticals that are completely out of my area of expertise. On top of that, their verticals were those I had no interest in learning about."
Beyond targeting an advisor with direct experience in your vertical, set your sights on someone who appears to complement your strengths and balances your weaknesses. While this isn't usually the sort of thing that can be determined up front, it's worth noticing as you begin deepening relationships with potential advisors.
3. Evaluate Their Past Experience
Considering advisors are often granted equity in exchange for their time (between .01 and .25 percent is common), accurately assessing the value of their past experiences is important. Guy Kawasaki has a helpful list of questions designed to help evaluate potential advisors and separate the "contenders from pretenders."
Understandably, it can be tempting to latch onto any seasoned entrepreneur who shows interest in what you're doing. However, it's unlikely that a highly qualified advisor will advertise themselves as such, and approach you on LinkedIn. More often than not, these types of partnerships with generalist advisors prove harmful in terms of unfortunate financial, legal, and structural mistakes that significantly impede progress.
Beyond ensuring this person knows their stuff, you should evaluate how flexible they are in adapting knowledge gleaned from past experiences to present-day situations.
As First Round partner Phin Barnes notes:
"As you ask them about their past experiences, are they always going back to previous examples of their accomplishments or are they talking about how they’d leverage their experience to move your company forward? It’s important to know if they’re going to be able to synthesize what they already know with new situations, or if they are constantly going to be saying, ‘Well, this is how we did it before.’"
Partnering with an experienced advisor who is insightful enough to see your startup's unique strengths and opportunities within the marketplace, and adapts their strategy to your company, is imperative. Ultimately, you want someone you genuinely like and feel comfortable with.
The bottom line: Do NOT settle for an advisor who has little to no previous experience in what you are trying to accomplish!
Choosing Your Perfect Advisor
Ultimately, the best advisors for tech startups:
- Have direct experience within your vertical
- Understand your startup's unique vision
- Are genuinely interested in seeing you succeed
However, just because someone is "the best" doesn't necessarily mean they are right for you. The founder-advisor relationship requires 100 percent transparency, on both sides, to be effective.
The best way to find a potential match is by tapping into your current network. Building a strong network of tech-centric friends and acquaintances is key to getting the warm introductions that often turn into long-term partnerships.
If you're still in the process of developing your network, we invite you to check out RocketSpace. Our international tech campuses help top tech startups grow, network, and build a strong community.
Come see if the RocketSpace community is the right fit for your tech startup: