Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Startup Technology Advisor

In my post, Technology Roles in Startups, I described some of the different ways I engage with startup companies such as CTO Founder, CTO, Part-Time CTO, Acting CTO, Consultant, Advisor and Advisory Board Member. The last two categories are quite variable on their own and there’s quite a bit to those kinds of engagements as they often are not as well defined. I thought it was worth capturing a bit more about Advisory Roles, Advisory Boards and particularly Technology-Oriented Advisors – who are often thought of a bit different when it comes to those roles.

Actually, if you look back, advisory boards came from being Technical Advisory Boards where the advisors were primarily professors, researchers, experienced practitioners where the startup had a high degree of technical complexity and needed a brain trust. Now, most often technical advisors are part of a broader advisory board. I take on these roles periodically, but before any startup engages me or anyone else as a technology advisor there are some other considerations.

In Why assemble an advisory board?, Chase Norlin talks about the normal reasons that Founders / CEOs form advisor boards for early stage companies:

  • Recognized industry thought leaders add immediate validation and credibility to the venture at a stage when there is typically none;
  • Advisors can open doors, make introductions, and assist with strategy and business planning;
  • Advisors add value in making introductions to sources of capital, or serving as a due diligence reference during fundraising;
  • Advisors know people and people know advisors, it’s that simple. The more third parties talking about your venture the better.

My experience as and with Technology Advisors is that their networks are very different and may or may not match with the introductions you want. This relates to the distinction that Alexander Muse raises in Advisory Board Compensation for your Startup between what he calls normal advisors and super advisors. Before engaging a Technology Advisor for the purpose of accessing their network – make sure it’s the right network.

Dharmesh Shah captures the role of advisors more simply in Startups and Advisory Board Members:

First, lets summarize the two most likely reasons you would put someone on your advisory board (one or both of the following apply):

  1. Advisory Value: The person you are inviting has experience and knowledge and can act as an advisor to your startup.
  2. Brand Value: The person you are inviting has “brand” and credibility. By placing them on your advisor board, you are hoping that some of that credibility will rub-off on your startup.

For Technology Advisors, I would add that there’s an implied value that they help check off the box that says – this can be done technically. During investor or third party partner due diligence, it is sometimes really valuable to have someone who has credentials and personal presence who can make technical questions go away. Of course, that means that the person needs to be engaged deeply enough that they feel comfortable saying it can be done.

Mark Suster - Should Your Startup Have an Advisory Board? who is often the contrarian, talks about some key issues that he and other CEOs often encounter with advisory boards which are good cautions.

1. Not enough time.

2. Not enough wisdom.

3. Too much effort.

4. Expensive.

One of the suggestions Mark makes is to get investment from advisors. That’s something I’m not going to do. My investment is my time.

Other good articles to read on setting up Advisory Boards:

One of the points that almost all of these posts make is that most advisory board members are not doing this primarily for the compensation or to get rich at the end of the day. Because of that, you also need to understand what the motivation is for any potential advisory board member.

Again, it’s really important as a founder to be clear with your prospective Technology Advisor (Advisory Board Member) to be clear about what you want/expect from them. And don’t confuse having a CTO with getting an Technology Advisor. There are a bunch of specific responsibilities that I described in Technology Roles in Startups that an Advisor will not be able to get into in any depth.

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