Who’s Your Who’s Who? Getting the right people involved in your startup

A lot of times, when I see a startup’s advisory board, it’s a skippable slide.  You’re a vertical search for Play-Doh and you have some guy that owned a toy store for 20 years as an advisor.  That’s a yawner because their are probably 50,000 people just like that guy around.  It’s nothing special to get him involved, and while he has some domain expertise, it’s not so unique that he gives you an innate advantage—nor can he get you any doors opened that you couldn’t get yourself.  Now if you had the inventor of Play-Doh or the Chairman of the Play-Doh corporation, that would be something, because now you’re talking about people who have relatively unique experience and the ability to command unparalleled influence and respect in the market. 

When I first started Path 101, I made a list of who would be the ultimate people I’d like to get involved in the company as angels or advisors.  The founders of any of the big job boards were tops on that list, so I immediately looked up what they were up to now and did my best to network my way to at least a conversation with guys like Richard Johnson, who was the Founder of Hotjobs. 

That turned out to be important, because the more people I talked to in the jobs space, the more people wound up asking me if I had ever spoken to Richard and what he thought of the company.  Had I answered that I had never met him, that would make it seem like I didn’t have the ability to make the connections I was going to need to push the company forward. 

Investors do that all the time.  They leverage their network for second opinions and to try to provide help to portfolio companies.  I’m often sending companies that I meet to the best networking contacts that I can think of—but in reality, even though it rarely happens, I’m always thinking that the folks I send them to are connections the company should have already made. 

So, if you’re a startup in the fashion space, you should have already talked to the founders of Gilt—and actually that’s probably where I should have gotten the recommendation to meet with you in the first place.  When successful industry folks send me a company, in a way, it already derisks the competition question.  It means that the big gorilla in a space probably doesn’t initially see you as competitive, but that you’ve got something that people who should know what they’re talking about believes will get you to success. 

So who’s your ultimate “Who’s Who?” list of people you’d like to get involved in the company either as advisors, investors, or just champions?  Don’t wait until you raise money or even have your product launched to have a dialogue with them.  They’re undoubtedly the best people you can possibly get feedback from on the viability of your idea, what the customer pain points are, and what will sell in your market—and whether or not they might ever want to buy you or eat your lunch.  I’m going to eventually go to them anyway for due diligence as well, so best that they know and understand your story firsthand—and that you’ve sold them on it.  Also, if in fact you do get them on as angels, it provides the company with a nice validation on the market side.

So who’s who?

Here’s a list of the types of people you should be checking off:

  • CEOs of companies that you want (or need!) business development relationships with
  • CEOs of companies that you’re in possible competition with (Hey, you never know)
  • The very top of the heap of pundits and thought leaders in your industry, including top industry analysts
  • Financial backers of the most successful company in your space
  • Original founders of the most successful companies in your space

Also, convincing top industry folks to champion your cause should conceivably be a helluva lot easier than driving $10 million dollars in revenues or signing the business development deals that will get your product the distribution it needs.  If you can’t sign up an advisor to a deal where they get a little equity in your company for a quarter call and a quickly returned phonecall, how are you going to ever hire that rockstar developer away from Google or sign that tipping point deal?  It speaks volumes if you’ve already hustled and hacked your way to the right people versus sitting on the sidelines without having tried.  You’ve not nothing to lose and everything to gain!