A strong relationship with a technical advisor can benefit all early-stage founders who are building technology product, whether you are using a contractor, off-shore team, or full-time staff. And in later stages, a technical advisor can continue to be a trusted ear for you, and a useful resource for your own technical team.
Through my work as an independent advisor, and with organizations like Mass Challenge, Founder Mentors, and NEVCA’s Critical Mass, I’ve been a compensated advisor (cash and/or equity) to at least a half-dozen startups, a pro-bono advisor to a few dozen, and an occasional advisor to hundreds.
Finding A Technical Advisor
You want to find an advisor who has deep technical experience, especially in areas you care about (big data? user-generated content? mobile applications?) But skip techies who are coming to you with an agenda. You don’t want them pitching their pet technologies, but rather offering the best solution for your unique business.
Often, you can reach out to strong technical leaders (CTOs usually) at other startups in your area (or remote, doesn’t much matter if the communication skills are strong). Pitch them on your idea, let them know why you need their help. A genuine interest in cultivating the best technical operation you can goes a long way towards making us want to help you.
Also, take a look at communities like Founder Dating to find strong tech leaders who are looking to engage full or part-time with new ventures. Most of my full-time roles began as technical advisor relationships. You never know, but you might even find your next great co-founder if things work out.
Make The Most of an Advisor
No matter how you find an advisor and choose to structure an advisory arrangement, here’s some advice from an advisor’s perspective on how you can get the best out of us.
Show a genuine interest in the tech and execution side of your business. We get excited by your entrepreneurial curiosity, and we’re proud of the tech and product experience we bring to the table. Ask us questions, dig in deep. We’re here to discuss with you, not to lecture at you. It’s not useful for anyone if we are spoon-feeding generic answers across the table.
Do your homework. It’s demoralizing to be asked questions that Google can answer faster and more completely than us. Don’t ask “How do I set up a Google Apps mailing list?” until you’ve taken a swing at it. If you come prepared into a conversation, it’s more productive and enjoyable for everyone.
Ask “Why” Since you’ve done your homework and have a sense of what your options are, we’re happy to tell you which option is right for you. Unfortunately, not nearly enough of my advisees follow up with “why?” You should want to know why that’s the best option for your business or for your team. Why should you want to know?1 Because of teach a man to fish…, and because your tech team will respect you more if you understand the why.
Teach Us Back. We’re not working with you for our health, or because of a community service court order. We think you are smart, interesting, and have something to teach us too. Make sure this relationship is a two-way street, and don’t be surprised when we turn the tables and start picking your brain in return.
Stuff to Avoid
Here are some lessons founders and I have learned the hard way. Heed these pitfalls and everyone will get more from the relationship.
Stop Pitching Us. You wouldn’t believe how many times I sit down for coffee with an advisee, only to have them spend 45 minutes telling me all about how the business is progressing, what the latest product ideas are, how much money they are definitely going to raise, and why it’s all going to change the world. There’s a time and an audience for that, but you’ve just wasted a whole meeting with someone who was there to help you, and you’ve gotten no value out of it.
Don’t get defensive. We are spending our valuable time helping you out because we want you to succeed. We aren’t a competitor, we aren’t your boss, and we don’t have a hidden agenda to sink your idea. If you succeed, we look good and we’re proud to be associated with your success. Take our advice for what it’s worth, and then implement it or not. You are running the show here, no need to get defensive.
Don’t be excessively legal. Okay, so that doesn’t mean be illegal, of course. Rather, don’t start shoving NDAs and IP Assignment agreements at a technical advisor early in the relationship, or ever for that matter. Tech people are the most skeptical bunch when it comes to politics and legal mumbo-jumbo (we incorrectly believe we would never use such litigious instruments if we were in your shoes). If you do want to stamp an agreement to protect both parties, keep it simple. Check out the Founder Institute’s FAST for a good starting place.
We’re not your code monkey. If you are secretly hoping that you can get your technical advisor to fix your team’s code, or to build some part of your app in their advisory hours, put that thought aside. I had an advisee who actually asked me to re-install Windows on a laptop in their office, a task I thankfully managed to side-step. Many advisors will be happy to establish a separate consulting agreement if you want to pay us by the hour to get more hands-on. Keep those two parts of the relationship separate and everyone will be happier.
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