Advisors: facilitators, not cheerleaders

When people ask me what I think the role of startup advisor is, I often liken it to the on played by some of the great professors I had in college and grad school.  While I count many of them among my friends now, at the time they did two important things for me: removed barriers and created opportunities.

The reason I specify the difference between the advisorship of then and the friendship of now, and a great deal of why I’m writing this post, is to argue against a model of advisorship that I see increasingly in startups today.  Perhaps because part of their personal reputation is now tied to the startup, advisors get so invested in the success of the people they advise that they start pushing from behind instead of clearing the way ahead.  And I know it is a problem because I am one of the people who does it.

Advising shouldn’t be about motivation.  In academia, the big difference between college and high school is that in college, you are expected to come with the desire to learn.  That has actually eroded a bit in recent years, as at least some colleges become more like an extended high school, but certainly in grad school, the idea is still that you provide the motivation and the school (and your advisors) clear the runway.

My father is fond of saying “Luck is opportunity acted upon”.  And that’s the primary purpose of advisors: to create opportunities that motivated startups can act on.  That means introductions, bizdev, recruiting, expertise, and the whole host of things that advisors are used to providing.

What it doesn’t mean is chasing startups around to act on those opportunities.  While a good advisor removes barriers to make it as easy as possible (good intro emails that setup the connect, being clear about why you think an opportunity is worthwhile, etc.), it is ultimately up to the startup to act and take control of their own destiny.  Advisors shouldn’t be cheerleaders or engines or any kind of motivational force – they have a specific, practical role and the should take that responsibility seriously.

Let me blunt the edge a little bit.  Being an advisor doesn’t excuse you from being a human being, and if someone is having a bad day, you still have a responsibility to care and to help.  What I’m trying to argue is that there is a big difference between getting someone over the hump and becoming the reason they do things.  Just like bad parenting means pushing your kids into things that more about your wants than theirs, bad advising means acting as a proxy CEO.

Adopting this approach means that some startups will fail that you could have forced to succeed.  But that is only true in the short term: ultimately, if you’re acting as proxy CEO, they’re going to fail when you’re not around anymore.  Some startups should fail, no matter how much you like them, no matter how much you like their idea.  Be a courageous advisor and respect them enough to let them be in charge of that failure, while giving them every chance to make it.