The traits of a great Startup Advisor

The two things I love to do most are advise founders & their teams plus close complex financial transactions. I love those things so much that I created SurePath Capital Partners so that I could do them all day long! It’s been just over two months now since I launched SurePath and it’s going better than I ever imagined. As I’ve settled into this new role, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a great Startup advisor. Here are my thoughts.

It’s very common for startups to add advisors. Those advisors come in all shapes and sizes. Most advise on the side while they do something else. That can lead to inconsistent experiences. Ironically, the more prominent that person is, the more disappointing the experience is. With rare exceptions, if you have some A list startup celeb advising you, you might get some great intros, but they will be too busy being their fabulous selves to really engage.

Another common pitfall with advisors is signing up the person with one big win. Often that person’s advice consists of telling you what worked at that big win. But you can’t just copy. The context is different every time.

In my humble and completely biased opinion, here are the traits that I think the best startup advisors needs to have:

Broad & diverse experience: It’s only from going through multiple companies, winners, losers, down markets and upmarkets that you can be a great advisor in good times and bad. You need multiple data points, and the pattern-matching ability that only comes through being in the trenches for a long time.

Client orientation: I began my career in public accounting and spent 6 years in professional services. I grew up career-wise having clients. Whether you started off in consulting or some other services industry or whether ‘service’ is just a core value, this client orientation is must if you want to offer great advice.

An important aspect of a client orientation is that it’s never about the advisor! I have listened to prominent, “twitter famous” advisors blather on incessantly because they love the sound of their voice. That’s just painful. No matter how experienced you are, it should never be about you. It’s always about the client.

Objective: The best advisors have no personal agenda. They simply help you sort through the issues and offer up unbiased thoughts and answers. This is a common criticism I hear from founders regarding investors. It’s not that they don’t trust their investors. But they are aware that while their investors bring great advice and experience, they also manage a fund and have to deliver returns. That can sometimes compromise objectivity.

Another element of objectivity is not getting caught up in the drama. Startups are full of highs and lows. Often in the same day. The best advisors are sympathetic to that but don’t get caught up in that themselves.

Solutions first: It’s not all that valuable to raise issues or problems without also offering up potential solutions. The last thing a founder needs is more unsolved problems.

Anticipation: If you have deep experience and you have a client first orientation, you’re likely going to think of issues and opportunities before your client does. That’s magic.

Coach: The most prominent tech advisor is Bill Campbell, who is known as “the Coach”. He was a football coach before going on to coach Steve Jobs, Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz and many other prominent execs. The thing with coaches (vs. advisors) is they help you arrive at the answer yourself rather than just tell you the answer. That is so powerful.

So, that’s my recipe for a great advisor. Am I missing anything?

  • Jonathan Denner

    This post operationalized beautifully what constitutes a good Advisory Board. Thank you very much!

    Just one point from my point of view: reciprocal Sympathiezwischen coach and founder.

  • R Stewart Thompson

    This is a great article Mark! Mentoring should be like investing, pick the right one by doing your research and making sure other entreps associated with your mentor confirm that they get great feedback. Love the story about Coach too, great example.