Which Four People Can Best Help Your Startup Right Now?

Which four people can best help you move your startup forward in leaps and bounds?

Do you know how to find them?

It’s worth stopping to take a few minutes to think about this.  The success or failure of your venture depends on it.

The key to success in any business is the people who are supporting it.  Not the technology, or the business plan, or even the founders.  All of those are necessary, yes, but not sufficient for success.  For success, you need key people around you rooting for your startup, opening doors, making connections and taking a punt on your idea.

This is true for all businesses, but especially for startups.  Startup founders are climbing steep mountains of challenges at every level – lack of resources, inexperience, operating in maturing markets, lack of track record.  That means external supporters, advisors and advocates are even more important, no matter how good your technology or how much your customers love your product.  It’s why a good accelerator like TechStars can make all the difference to your startup.

Finding the very best people to support your startup will make the difference between low-level success and knocking it out of the park.  It’s imperative that you go out and find those people, right away.  Your time is limited, so you need to find people who are better than average by a factor of hundreds.

So, what are the criteria for selection?  Three things:  Excellence, Experience and Alignment.  Find the people who are really top of their field, who have been through the stage you are going through (e.g. idea-to-beta, or beta-to-investment, or revenue-to-scale), preferably several times, with success.  Not necessarily in the same field or with the same technology, although that can help – more important is excellence.  This person can help you get “from here to there” much faster and with fewer avoidable hiccups sapping your energy and squeezing your cashflow.  Most importantly, a really world-class advisor will help you see much further, so you might change your current “there” (based on what you know and think is possible) to a much more ambitious “there” (based on what they know and think is possible).  They’ll also help you find a way to get there in three steps rather than eight.  See how this is all multiplying exponentially?  So that’s Excellence and Experience. Now on to Alignment.

Alignment is absolutely critical.  It’s two-fold: values and timing.  First you need to know your own five values that are your drivers for success.  They are different for every person and for every project.  Mine are “kind + big + pioneering + creative + open” in that order.  Yours will be different (if they are the same as mine, send me your CV).  Everything I do is filtered through those values to find alignment.  Not 100% alignment, but 80%+.  The second part, timing, is critical and less predictable.  The person you want to support you has to share your values and have some reason they want to help you right now.  There has to be something in it for them, based on what they are trying to achieve at this moment in their life.  Luckily, once you are clear on your values and shout them out loud, wear them on your t-shirt and on the stickers on your MacBook Pro, the people who are aligned to you will emerge incredibly fast.  There’s nothing more seductive than meeting someone who shares your passion, your vision and your mission.  They will in turn connect you to other people who share your values, and some of those will be potential partners because their timing matches or complements yours.

Now, back to the four people.  Why four?  Well, you need:

  1. someone who can help you operationally (that ‘from here to there” expertise I mentioned above),
  2. someone who will boost your resources (for example providing support in kind, desk space, paid work to buy you more runway, or help pull in some pro-bono favours from their friends),
  3. someone who will advocate for you in the right circles (potential clients and investors, press, thought leaders),  and
  4. someone who will just be a damned good friend to your project, stay positive through hard times and cheerlead/kick your ass back into line when you’re flagging.

Think of it like top level competitive sports: you need a coach, a sponsor, a publicist, and your best friend cheerleading from the sidelines. If the first three all roll into one person, that’s great, but they don’t need to and it’s better to have more people on your team.  Add to those some specific advisors (e.g. technical/legal), and you’ve got a great advisory board good to go.  You only need to meet with them once a month, or once a quarter, or have an ad-hoc call with a specific query, for their input to move you forward.  One or two of them you’ll spend a lot of time with.

Now, back to my second opening question – do you know where to find them?  Actually, this bit is super easy if you know what you’re doing.  Take a big sheet of paper and a fat pen and write down all the people you admire – everyone from your entrepreneurial Grandma to the Dalai Lama.  Another big sheet of paper – scribble down all the projects you wish you had done yourself (for me, that’s things like Kiva, Change.org, Singularity University, Bitcoin).  Find the trends and the alignments with your values.  Then pick a few people and contact them.  Ask them for advice.  Show them the beauty of your product, the vision of your company, and the strength of your passion and drive.  Ask them to help you, or to connect you to someone who might be able to help you.  Talk to the people they talk to.  Map your network.  Map the ecosystem around your technology, your problem space, your customers, your ambitions.  Map around your values.  A simple excel spreadsheet with a few headings is enough to keep track of all this.  Obviously, follow people on twitter and connect to them on LinkedIn.  Most of all, don’t be shy to approach busy, brilliant people and humbly ask for their advice getting you “from here to there”.  Don’t be shy to ask again if at first (or second or third) they don’t reply.  Follow up their suggestions.  Thank them for any input and keep them in the loop as you make progress.  If you can’t meet them, research what they have done and copy it.  Learn from their writing and their achievements.  Support their current projects, be a cheerleader for them. Find a way to help them, and they’ll be more receptive to your request for advice.  What goes around comes around.

In summary:

  • Focus on Excellence, Expertise and Alignment.
  • Find your Four:  coach, sponsor, publicist, cheerleader.
  • Map your ecosystem, and don’t be afraid to contact the people you most admire, to ask their advice.

We wish you the best of luck.   If you have comments or would like more advice on this, please contact me via the Contact Us page.  If you found this post useful, please consider sharing the link with friends:  bit.ly/iF_four

Best wishes from London,