Strategic Advisors – How to find the right one for your start up?

Today we see a lot of people positioning or marketing themselves as advisers on sales , operation and strategy and providing retainer and other forms of transactional advisory to start ups and small companies. One can definitely see a value in such services in oft repeated scenarios where experience helps make judicious decisions upfront because the cost of making up for the mistakes is lethal in a lot of cases for these start ups . One can often see start-up company founders take on the Sales, finance and Operations role on top of the strategic decision making role only to fail short at one or more of these responsibilities to the determent of the company , and this is where getting the right advisor on board helps these start-ups. These advisors not only provide mentorship but bring relevant experiences to help these start-ups make very critical decisions.

Hence it is very important to choose the right advisers, who play a part in the journey and I have seen that too often these advisers don’t have the depth or understanding of the industry or role and relate their total years of experience as the panacea for all the advice they pour. Company founders and managers need to very carefully vet the advisers as a lot of these roles get started because of acquaintance or known references and when expectations are not met things turn very sour. How do you then evaluate and judge a person who can unequivocally add value to your endeavour.

Please look at the following aspects as a framework to make this decision.

  • Understand why you need an adviser and vet it out with a few colleagues and mentors because it could be that you just don’t have enough helping hands to execute which then becomes Operational cost /hiring decision.
  • Make a list of activities/goals you expect from the adviser and be as detailed as possible. Abstract or 10,000 feet level objectives can lead to problems of gauging the value created.
  • Most advisers who are confident about adding value will be okay with this approach and if someone balks at it you know this person may not be the right fit.
  • If you know the adviser personally get another individual to assess them as relationships sometime can gloss over key evaluation criteria.
  • If it’s an unknown person check their profile since a lot of them are the Manager types from Service companies where they would have picked people management skills but not skills on technology vision , domain or how to solve a business problem. The 2K euphoria created a lot of these managers who did not or could not, go beyond the paper / tool pusher role.
  • If you are familiar with development levels theory or have read the book Systems thinking you don’t want an Adviser at level 3 because he/she knows to follow the process not how to develop capability or collaboratively define and implement organizational objectives for sustainable success
  • Beware of Sales and strategic Advisers who don’t want to work based on targets – They may be a super star reference but most likely will not create any value for you unless you define the goals upfront because they got their just because of the process and are at Level 3 of following the process.
  • If possible make sure they have skin in the game as that really helps make the most of the relationship both ways
  • If they have been an entrepreneur assess what part of that experience will fit your gaps. An adviser needs to have breadth and depth in equal parts and help Surface and Resolve Conflicts within your think tank or the decision making process

When picking an adviser following some of these lines of thinking and conversations could help

  • Can they form and explain their opinions in an area related to your domain?
  • What critical decisions did they take or what was the biggest mistake they made. Why did they do what they did? What would they do differently?
  • Find their areas of expertise and present an issue/topic which may be of a slightly different kind.
  • Can they apply their thinking/experience to solve a different problem? Most advisers can follow a set process – can they adjust, to a tweak of the problem? Refer Development level theory point above.
  • Do they have string network they can bring to be leveraged
  • What is their strengths? Can they be good at either sales or technical leadership and what do you need
  • Does their style work with yours?

Once you are ready to take them on board its important to follow a process

  • Give them goals based on timelines
  • What can they do in 3 months or 6 months?
  • Set the time you expect them to spend and importantly communication checkpoints.
  • Do they have a good communication style.
  • Look for the 6 C’s – Concise, Clear, Caring, Current/Relevant, Consistent and Constructive STYLE.

I personally feel the search costs of finding the right adviser in this crowded market is the same as finding the right developer though there are plenty you see on Naukri kind of portals.