4 min read

How To Find Advisors For Your Startup

Everyone wants mentors and advisors, but few of us actually manage to get them. This article is about my approach to finding advisors.

My biggest success with finding advisors came once I shifted from looking for an all-round mentor, and instead zeroed in on people who could help me with specific problems. For example, it's much easier to find an advisor who's an expert in building sales teams than it is to find someone who can mentor me across all domains.

Reaching out

If it’s a new domain for me I’ll typically do a bunch of online research before reaching out to possible advisors to get enough context that I can ask pointed questions.

Once I have some idea of the space, I start looking for experts. I'll find these just by browsing LinkedIn, typically searching for employees or founders who are in the role I'm learning about. e.g. If I'm learning about sales I'll look for people with titles like VP sales, Director of Sales or Sales Manager.

It's best to find people who are only a few years ahead of you in their career. If you're a startup building your first sales team then there isn't much value in talking to the VP Sales at Hubspot. That person might be very accomplished, but they wouldn't be able to relate to your situation and challenges. Instead, find someone who helped scale a sales team at a series A comapny.

I usually identify 5-10 people who are a good fit and reach out to them on LinkedIn. The response rate will vary wildly based on the quality of your outreach. I spend at least 10min researching each person - reading blog posts they've written, looking at the companies they worked at and what they do in their spare time.

The worst message you can send would be something like "I'd love to buy you lunch to pick your brain". There are several problems with this message:

  1. Nobody likes having their brain picked.
  2. The ask is too broad and doesn't explain why you're reaching out to them specifically.
  3. The time commitment is open-ended

Instead, be specific about what you're struggling with, explain briefly why you think they'd be able to help, and ask for 20min of their time. In my experience, these sessions always go longer than 20min.

Before a chat

I spend 30min write down a set of hypotheses. Essentially these hypotheses are what I’m expecting that particular person to say, based on what I understand about them and the problem I'm dealing with. Writing these hypotheses down is an excellent way of thinking through the subject matter and aids you massively when reflecting on the conversation. It gives you the opportunity to be surprised, rather than just nodding along.

Having the conversation

The advisor should be talking 80% of the time. It’s essential to give her some context, but don’t overdo it in the initial chat.

Asking Googleable questions is a surefire way to irritate the advisor. When you find yourself asking broad questions like “How do you raise funding for an early stage startup” your alarm bells should go off. There are hundreds of amazing articles, books and videos that answer questions like that. A better question would be much more specific to the advisor you’re talking to, like “How much traction did you have when you raised your first round? What kind of questions did investors ask you about your customer base at the time?”.

One counter-intuitive thing I've learned is that you should not use these conversations to get advice. Instead, use them to learn about what the other person did. It sounds weird at first, but here's why it works:

  • It’s unlikely your advisor has enough context to give you proper advice. So to avoid getting bad advice you'll need spend most of the time getting them up to speed instead of learning from them.
  • If you focus on their experiences then they don't need much context. And afterwards you can simply relate their stories to your context.

You should strive to understand their world as much as possible, not to get advice on yours. After the chat you can reflect on what they said and determine what actually applies to your situation.

In terms of mindset: I found it best to assume that most of what I think is wrong - and my job in the chat is to find out where I’m wrong as quickly as possible. When you encounter an idea that seems counter-intuitive or wrong, lean into it. Remember, you don’t need to actually implement any of what they're talking about. So don't be afraid of entertaining crazy-seeming ideas.

I usually take a few notes during my chats and would recommend you do the same. However, be careful of focusing too much on note-taking and not enough on the conversation. The flow of the conversation is critical and you want it to feel natural.

A bonus to aim for is examples of pieces of work. For instance, if they’re talking about an operations report that’s critical to their business ask if you could get a copy. There’s often so much knowledge embedded in pieces of work!

Closing the advisor

If the chat goes well and you want another, then you need to close her. Don’t ask her to be your advisor - that’s a big commitment and you'll likely get a no. Here’s how I approach it:

  • Tell her that you found her feedback super useful - pointing out specific things that stood out to you.
  • Ask if she’s willing to talk again in a month or so.
  • Send a follow up email thanking her for her time, summarising what you learned and confirming the next time you'll chat.

Afterward the conversation

When writing detailed notes I like to separate the facts (things the person said) from the lessons I've taken from the conversation. I use this separation because I like to refer back to the facts every now and then and have found that as I gain more experience I see the facts in an entirely new light.

I find it takes a few attempts to understand the landscape of any particular field well enough to have really great conversations. So if you fumble the first times - just keep going.