Working with early-stage startups: top tips for Advisors & NEDs

Working with early-stage startups: top tips for Advisors & NEDs

For many portfolio professionals, stepping into the startup world means entering a very different environment from their executive days. Gone are the complex and multi-tiered structures and practices of established companies, replaced with smaller teams, new responsibilities,  and different objectives. To make sure you are adding maximum value to an early-stage company - whilst simultaneously supporting your own career growth - it’s important to understand the qualities and behaviours you’ll have to possess.  From managing your relationship with founders and leveraging your network, to leading on strategic planning and accountability, the role of a startup advisor or NED is a varied one, so we’ve compiled some top tips to help you navigate working in the early-stage space.

1. Understand the Startup's Vision

It’s crucial to Invest time in comprehending the founder's vision, mission, and goals from the very start of working with a startup. You should start with the end, striving to understand their long-term objectives will help you to be able to support them by collaboratively mapping key milestones and actionable steps to achieve them. 

It’s equally important to constructively challenge their plans and even their vision and aims. If, after reading their business plan and financial models, you think their goals and means are unrealistic, it’s your responsibility to highlight these and work with them to create a more robust and defensible strategy. It’s also important that you not only understand their vision, but that you also believe in what they are trying to achieve and know that you are able to add value to their growth journey. Your buy-in should not be limited to the internal workings of the business, so look beyond the business plan and financials, to consider wider factors that could affect the startup’s success, such as market share, customer base and competitors. 

Realising the vision that a founder has for their business is a journey you will be on together so make sure you are fully onboard with their aims and be ready to help identify and navigate any challenges that might lie ahead.

2. Build Trust and be a sounding board

Establishing a strong relationship built on trust and rapport with the founder is paramount if you are to succeed in your role as a startup advisor or NED.  The single most important relationship you will have is with the founder, and you will frequently need to act as a sounding board for their ideas, concerns and strategies. Providing constructive feedback and alternative perspectives to help them refine their approach is crucial, as is acting with confidentiality, patience and empathy. Many advisors and NEDs act in a mentoring capacity to founders, and it is important to remember that this guidance and advice must be dispensed in an objective way. That’s not to say you shouldn’t get to know your founder well or understand what makes them tick, but you must help them to overcome challenges in a way that supports the long-term aims of the business by challenging them and helping them to see the bigger picture.

You should also extend this patient, trustworthy and supportive attitude to other stakeholders, both internal and external. From the senior leadership team and staff within the company to external parties such as investors, customers, suppliers and partners, it is your responsibility to be a trusted figure who instils confidence and embodies the values of the organisation. 

3. Stay Strategic

In an early-stage startup, there are a number of spinning plates and it can be easy to get dragged into operational matters that are, strictly speaking, not within your remit. Leading the day-to-day running of the business should fall to the founder and their senior leadership team, leaving you free to draw on your experience and expertise to offer advice, support and guidance. Be very clear from the get go about the scope, aims and outcomes of your input and set out that your contributions will largely be providing oversight to drive the company's long-term success, not its operational delivery.  Your priorities should include identifying key milestones, prioritising tasks, and developing a roadmap for growth.

Even if your founder is stretched and appealing for help in day-to-matters, it is important that you don’t blur the lines - remember, you are no longer working in an executive or c-suite capacity and to stray into that territory would threaten your ability to deliver on the strategic guidance that is the core of your role. In this situation, offer advice based on your expertise and experience which the founder themselves can enact to overcome the particular challenges. Remember, nose in, fingers out! 

4. Offer Industry Insights

One of the main commodities for any startup advisor or NED is the deep knowledge and insights they can bring to often young and relatively inexperienced founding teams. Very early-stage businesses in particular will likely recruit advisors who have experience in either the same industry (or a related one) to their businesses. Not only should you be drawing on your past experience, it is important also to stay up to date with latest trends, market dynamics and competitor activities. For time-poor founders, having someone to report macro developments and report on possible strategic responses can be priceless. 

5. Leverage your network

In the same way that your past experience will be immensely valuable, the professional contacts and network that you have built throughout your career could be a massive boon to any startups you work with. Few early-stage founders will have a sufficiently extensive network through which to find support, so your little black book of contacts could prove priceless in providing solutions to their challenges. As the business grows, you may be able to leverage your network to help fill skills gaps within the leadership team, bring in further advisors or NEDs to lighten your load, and even make introductions to investors or other strategic partners. 

And don't forget to keep building your network throughout your board level career by attending industry and ecosystem events, demonstrating your expertise through blogs, webinars and panels, and being active on LinkedIn and other online platforms. Not only will this benefit the companies you work with, it could also be the perfect avenue to further board level opportunities for you through referrals and recommendations.

What support is available to advisors and NEDs working in Startups?

At Connectd, we know that portfolio professionals working within a startup might not have other advisors or non-executives to support them. Our pool of expert mentors have deep experience working in the early-stage system and can provide support and guidance to anyone embarking on an advisory career. Alongside mentoring, our Transitition to Portfolio programme provides CPD accredited learning to boost your board level skills, and a guaranteed advisory placement to out your knowledge into practice. You can learn more about the programme here.

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