No-one knows everything that is required to build a successful company. It’s impossible. That’s why successful founders build a team of experts and advisors around them in order to fill the inevitable knowledge gaps.
Attendly is my second startup, so I have built up some skills scars over the last few years which make me expert adequate barely competent in a lot of things:
Marketing, SEO, analytics, copywriting, product management, insomnia, sales, capital raising, beer drinking and persistence. All the standard stuff.
HINT: a founder has to be good at a lot of things.
Admittedly though, there are areas of the business in which I need help. If we are really going to knock this startup out of the park, I knew I’d need an advisor or two to join us on the journey.
What would the advisor do?
To be honest, we just wanted help with inbound marketing.
We approach inbound with a heavy focus on content, and over the last eight months we have been experimenting with a range of styles, strategies and techniques on our blog. Sure, we have had some great successes in that time, including:
- Frontpage of Hacker News more than five times
- Top of a well trafficked sub-reddit
- Made the Moz Top Ten for August (over 250,000 subscribers)
- Backlinks from the Wall Street Journal, VentureBeat and GigaOm
- Conversions (yes we do care about them!)
But something was always missing.
It felt like we were constantly throwing shit against a wall to see what would stick. When something did stick, we were never quite sure why it did nor how to repeat it.
I wanted an advisor who would slap some sense into us.
Getting Joanna Lord from SEOmoz on board
May as well get the best right? They don’t come much better than the JLord.
(She doesn’t know I call her that. If you see her, don’t say anything okay?).
Joanna Lord ticks all the boxes: currently the VP of growth marketing at SEOmoz, having previously spent almost three years in charge of new customer acquisition. Super smart, deep expertise, successful in her own right, still “in the trenches” and incredibly well connected.
She seemed perfect, but at this stage I didn’t know the answer to three critical questions:
- Would she believe in us and what we are doing?
- If given a startup problem, would she give good advice?
- Did she have the time to help us?
First things first, lets just try and get on her radar.
I actually saw Joanna speak at a Hackers and Founders day in San Francisco late last year, but being a socially awkward penguin I didn’t go and say hello.
So I had to go in with a cold email, which is traditionally the worst way of getting someones attention. Gotta stand out somehow.
This is the subject line I went with:
Now if you are going to tell someone you make epic shit, you have to back it up. I knew that Joanna was a superstar content marketing person, so I shared some of the stuff we had already produced.
(I’ll let you in on a secret. I heard her use the phrase “epic shit” in her talk at the Hackers and Founders Day, so I knew it was going to resonate emotionally. I wasn’t just randomly swearing Dave McClure style, although that might work just fine for you).
Her reply came within 48 hours and was full of smart, well thought out advice. Pretty sure I did a happy dance.
You don’t want to rush these things, however. The second email can’t be “Thanks for your reply, want to be an advisor”? You have to get to know each other over a period of weeks, if not months.
Joanna needed to know we’re competent and credible, and we needed to know that she would have the time to work with us. Over the next few months we continued to trade emails without the promise of anything in return.
Not a single email reply took more than 72 hours.
After three months of emails and advice, I was happy she was going to be awesome sauce. I wanted the Jlord as an advisor.
So the big moment had come. Should I call and ask officially over the phone? Should I fly to Seattle and take her out for coffee before begging her to come on board?
Nah. Lets just send another email:
Following that email, we did end up jumping onto skype for a lengthy chat about where we were headed, and how I thought Joanna could help. She thought about it for a few days, then gave me an answer of “Hell yes”!
Final happy dance.
I got to that “Yes” because I put in the time. I picked the right person for us, and then evaluated her performance as an advisor before making an offer.
So you want to find an advisor
If you feel like you need to find an advisor for your business, I want to try and help. If I had written down a specific set of criteria before commencing our advisor search (I didn’t), it probably would have looked something like this:
1. Aim as high as possible
The world is flat, so the best advisors can be based anywhere
2. Fill a knowledge gap
Get someone with a super specific set of skills that if applied correctly, will fundamentally change the trajectory of your business
3. Ignore the name
Don’t shoot for a celebrity or a “big name” in the startup world. Focus more on how much time the advisor can spend with you.
4. Sell the story
Make sure they want to be an advisor because they believe in you, not because of the equity
5. Test them
Make sure they first give valuable advice for free, with the promise of nothing in return.
6. Go for people in the trenches
Pick the skill you need, then find someone who is still doing that skill day in, day out, as part of their job. Stay in the trenches.
The journey is long young grasshopper
I know that landing a single advisor doesn’t by itself guarantee success. Over the next few years we are going to have to continue to build amazing product, produce exceptional marketing, and work out how to get from small to big without falling over.
It’s not going to be easy, but getting someone of the calibre of Joanna Lord on board has tipped the odds in our favour just a teeny bit more.