The good stuff we want in an Advisor

by Santosh

When I heard the ex-CEO of TeamOn, a Startup I had worked with, was due to quit his position at Research in Motion and start out on his next venture, I sensed an opportunity to learn more about the early days in a Startup. Shirish happened to be with the same RIM office as I did; I went up to him to let him know that I too planned to quit to start a venture out of India.

Shirish graciously accepted my request to give me an early start. Even though we agreed that the business environ in India was fuzzy (for him too), I learned from him about the early financial mechanics in a startup.

I believe that an advisor is a specific role in a Startups life. The basic idea behind good mentorship is similar to the idea of an Oracle, or a prophesizer. An advisor could echo what you may already know deep down, helping you quickly realize and manifest your thoughts in the present. This ability to see ahead and put it down in words is necessary in the constant battle against the uncertainty of a Startup.

Although Shirish’s advice was sound – I discovered later that I had asked of him the wrong question. The real challenges my first venture faced were with successfully navigating the Business landscape in India. As the realities became clear, the significant questions that surrounded it had more to do with the creation of value for partners and customers.

Timing and some operational involvement on the part of the advisor is important. I don’t believe there is such a thing as uninformed advice, there are just opinions. Any normal discussion requires that participants put forward theories, counter-examine evidence to support, destroy or change these theories in order to gain leverage over a problem.

If your advisor has done a startup under similar circumstances, he will also highlight which problems need to be solved first. For instance, is there a significant risk, or assumption that the Business model depends on in order to succeed?

When faced with difficult decisions, or evidence of the failure of a model, my natural Entrepreneurial spirit seeks out hope and tends to drift towards denial. At such times, I rely more than ever on the honesty of my advisory board. Often, the very idea of having to explain out a situation, or draft an e-mail explaining a scenario to a mentor helps crystallize thoughts rapidly. The greater the stakes, the greater the possibility that emotions could cloud my judgment. Mentors can help precisely measure a response to a situation – should I react aggressively? Should I be patient? Should we stay entrenched?

Imagine having a conversation with your teacher where you need to explain the basics of geometry every time you refer to a complex step in your calculations. Our thought process with businesses are similar. After a series of experiments, you arrive at a set of logical conclusions and assumptions that help you in making your next decision. With that in mind, it pays to not have to walk through an entire logical chain to bring others up to speed.

This points to an important prerequisite, advisors are naturally in love with what it is that you are doing (or building). Recently, an advisor we are working closely with, integrated our Indian language product on his blog for all his visitors to use. Another advisor introduced our software to his network in Hindi, using the software to write the introductory e-mails. On both occasions, we were blessed by their personal endorsements of our hard work. This would not have been possible if they did not already believe in what we were doing.

Since then, our confidence in mentorship has grown exponentially. I listen closer, follow up on every little thing and make it a point to think through every perspective even if I my gut or experience may not immediately agree with it.

As you have probably realized by now, getting all of the above with one mentor is impossible. As a Startup CEO, your responsibility lies with ensuring that you can accommodate more than one mentor. A good mentor should also understand this and not preempt the possibility of another mentor replacing them when the situation demands.

Summary:

  • Advisors are in love with what you are doing.
  • Advisors are honest.
  • Advisors are accessible.
  • Advisors have success habits that you want to emulate.
  • Advisors are fantastic rainmakers and visionaries.
  • Advisors and you are constantly aware of what to expect, and what not to expect from the relationship.

~ Santosh

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