How To Become A Tech Startup Advisor While In A Full Time Corporate Role

advisor career cxo startup Aug 12, 2020

Becoming an advisor to a tech startup is a great way to enhance your leadership experience, lift your personal brand and add variation to your day-to-day corporate role.

While people with past startup experience, either as founders or early employees are a logical addition to a startup’s advisory board, having people who are currently in corporate roles brings diversity and an insider’s perspective, especially if the startup is selling business-to-business (B2B).

In this article I discuss how to position yourself for a Tech Startup Advisor role and highlight what it is and what it isn’t.


#1 Be Clear On Why You Want It

Having clarity on why you want a Tech Startup Advisor role will help set the right expectations and shape who and how you approach this. There are good reasons and not good reasons for taking on this role.

Good Reasons:

Intellectual Challenge and Growth Opportunity

Advising startups will certainly challenge you intellectually and provide a personal and professional growth opportunity. There is an endless list of challenges the founding team will face which you can act as sounding board across product/market fit, setting company culture, market segmentation, marketing, sales, legal, customer success, partnerships, hiring, leadership development, fund raising, acquisitions and divestments.


Exposure To Cutting Edge Technology & Innovations

Corporates can be slower and more risk averse in developing and adopting new technologies. Working with a startup will certainly give you an opportunity to get closer to the latest technologies and innovations. The speed of progress and thinking will certainly have a positive impact in your day-to-day corporate role.

Enhance Your Personal Brand / Profile in Startup and VC Community

Being associated with a company can help lift your profile. This will not only help with your corporate career but also any future opportunities to work with startups and venture capital investors. When positioned right your association with the startup should also enhance their profile.


Not Good Reasons:

Credibility To Later Become A Non Executive Director Of A Listed Company

If joining the Board of listed companies is your ultimate goal, then a Startup Advisory role is not your next best move. Listed companies have a different cadence, governance and risk profile. A better path would be to join the Board of a Not For Profit or Community Association.

Get Experience To Start Your Own Startup

While you will get a high level glimpse of what it’s like to run a startup business, your exposure will not give you the real depth and insights of the day-to-day.

To get real startup experience you should find a way to take on an operating role inside a startup either as a full time thing (which will have a massive impact on your short term remuneration) or as a side hustle (assuming there is no conflict of interest or restrictions with your corporate role).

Make More Money In The Short Term

Startup advisory roles don’t pay cash.

Some companies will offer Share Options / Stock Options which will be vested (earned) over time. You should not take this role if you are hoping for a short term addition to your income.

 
#2 Do The Groundwork

The groundwork is all about how you position yourself and your connections.

Position yourself in a niche with a specific value proposition

To improve your chances of being appointed as an Advisor to a Tech Startup you need to stand for something and offer specific value. So position yourself in a niche where you already have experience, insights and connections.

For example:

  • If you are currently the CIO of a mid sized Financial Services company then it will make sense for you to join a #FinTech as an Advisor as you understand the highly regulated landscape.

  • If you are currently Head of Data Analytics for large multinational it will make sense for you to join an #AI or #IoT Startup as an Advisor as you have inside knowledge of implementation challenges.

  • If you are currently in an Enterprise Sales or Business Development Leadership Role for then it will make sense for you to join a Startup that sells B2B and will benefit from your enterprise experience.

Build relationships with founders and investors (Angels & VCs)

Reaching out and connecting with startup founders is an obvious step.

You should also consider doing this with Angel Investors and Venture Capital Partners. They are always looking to connect their portfolio companies with people who can help with progress.

When reaching out to founders or investors, have your ‘niche & specific value prop’ (as per above) ready at hand so you can help them see who and how you can assist.

 

#3 Get Started In Creating Value - You Don’t Need A Formal Appointment

Generally:

Lift your profile and be considered by the startup and venture community by creating value through your insights which are aligned to your chosen niche and value proposition (as per above).

Here are some things you could do immediately:

  • Create content on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook etc (aligned to niche and value)
  • Document your experience as a buyer of startup services
  • Document key points of a conversations, insights or progress without giving away any sensitive content
  • Provide a customer’s perspective or view that will be beneficial for the startups you hope to attract one day.

Specifically:

For the founders and companies you hope to join one day in an Advisory capacity, ‘act as if you have the role’ :

  • Share articles that will help them (from partners, competitors, industry analysts)
  • Make connections / introductions (highly valuable)
  • Check in and ask how’s it going? (talking to someone helps)

As you ‘act as if you have the role’ you should also be highly aware to read the signs that your attention and support is being greeted with appreciation (engagement from the founders are a good sign of this) as opposed to you are coming across as a stalker and nuisance (your messages being ignored are a good sign of this).

 

#4 Set Clear Expectations For All

It’s completely reasonable and encouraged to be open about your intention to become a formal advisor to a startup.

Given you will be part of the (extended) team it's important that both sides have an opportunity to get comfortable.

So an approach is:

  • Confirm prior your interest in becoming a formal part of the advisory board and your compensation expectations (i.e. participating in Stock Options / Equity Options)
  • Agree that for the next 3-6 months you will ‘act is if you've been given the role’ as a form of ‘trial’ for both parties to get know each other and for chemistry to happen;
  • Then get on with creating value

 

#5 Make Sure It's A Good Fit For All

The evaluation period is not just about you being a good fit for them but it's also an opportunity for you to assess the founders (and the broader team of employees, investors and advisors).

Form your views on :

  • Do you get along with the broader team?
  • Are the founders coachable? (do they take hard / critical feedback well)
  • Do they do what they say they will do?
  • Are they self aware enough to know when they are out of their depth and need help?
  • How are customers responding to the founders and the company?

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