Some people say the age of experts and human advisors is over since everything is searchable. I disagree.
How much time have you spent on Google trying to learn about something tricky, like how to create an employee stock options pool, how to file a patent, or which business model will work best to convince venture capitalists? After a few hours of diving down one of these rabbit holes, you’ll probably just want to speak to an expert who could easily guide you to the right solutions in just a short session.
Since I have been a maniac question-asker and advice-giver my entire life, I learned a few lessons to share.
1. Reaching out for advice is the first step to winning supporters.
The key difference between my two failed startups and my successful exit was that I learned to ask for help. I remember the turning point in my successful startup was when I cold-emailed the Assistant Secretary General of NATO for advice on our security-tech competition. To my surprise Marshall Billingslea’s secretary replied to schedule a meeting in Brussels. In the meeting, we discussed the initiative, and then Marshall said THE phrase that changed my career: “How can I help?”
Marshall became the first public supporter of our cause. He connected us to many people, but his leadership position at NATO gave us the credibility we needed for our idea to gain traction.
The rest is history: we grew the company to 20 employees, gave out over $5 million in prizes during our technology competitions, and were successfully acquired by the industry leader, InnoCentive, from the USA. Never hesitate when asking an expert for advice – it can lead to amazing things!
2. Keep your advisors engaged for meaningful relationship.
Soon after I returned from Brussels, I sent another cold e-mail to Ted Schlein, a partner at one of the premier venture capital funds in the world, Kleiner Perkins. We invited him to hear more about the Global Security Challenge during our trip to Silicon Valley. Just as before, his secretary replied and a few weeks later, we met with Ted about getting high-quality judges to bring credibility to our competition. He was not only willing to help, but became an informal advisor for our startup.
We kept checking in with him a few times a year initially to learn from his advice, but then I made the big mistake of letting the relationship slip a bit for a couple of years.
Years later, I mentioned him as informal advisor during a pitch for the Conquer-Paralysis-Now Foundation, and this mistake came back to haunt me. We were competing against the firm which was in the early stages of acquiring us, so winning was crucial. During the final presentation, I mentioned that Ted Schlein was one of our informal advisors, not realizing that the Foundation’s board had a prior relationship with Ted. When that Board Member remarked, “Hey Simon, I talked to Ted last week and mentioned you…,” my heart sank. What were the chances that Ted Schlein remembered me? He must have done at least 10 IPOs, 40 M&A deals, met with hundreds of startup CEOs in the 2 years since I had last spoken to him.
Luckily, the Board Member continued: “…and Ted told me to say ‘Hi’ and that you two should catch up again soon.” Ted was gracious enough to rescue me from an awkward situation, but it taught me a valuable lesson: that the world is a very small place, and you should invest a lot of sweat and effort to keep your important advisors engaged with your business in a meaningful way.
3. Even your competitors can give you great advice.
In 2011, our startup had become a solid, little company in the U.K. Both our staff and turnover had grown by 100 percent in just one year. This excitement was short-lived, as we heard the news that our three biggest competitors had raised quite a bit of venture capital: $7.5 million by InnoCentive, $11 million by Kaggle, and $4 million by ChallengePost. We immediately held an emergency board meeting to discuss the situation. It became increasingly clear that, due to our business model and limited time frame, it would be nearly impossible to raise such a large amount of money, especially in Europe. It was truly a bunch of miserable weeks.
A few weeks later, I connected by chance with angel investor Barry Libert via Twitter. He offered to speak with us and give us some advice. What made Barry such a valuable connection was his position on the board of InnoCentive, my biggest competitor. Barry was able to help us identify our strengths and weaknesses.
Then, he introduced me to the CEO of InnoCentive, Dwayne Spradlin. I met Dwayne in Brussels a few weeks later, and I hit it off with him from the start. In speaking with him, I discovered that InnoCentive had raised money, in part, to increase its European market share, and enter the premium segment — and my little startup could help them achieve both goals.
InnoCentive had successfully acquired our firm less than 9 months later. I have no doubt that Barry’s advice was instrumental in our successful acquisition.
Giving advice can produce unexpected returns.
I recently put a friend of mine looking for information about energy markets in touch with another friend from a German energy startup. My startup buddy asked me: “But what’s in it for me?” I know from past experience that the “Whats-In-It-For-Me-Attitude” is a roadblock to forging relationships that can pay off in big ways in the future. However, I am a big believer that giving free advice can lead to even more impactful outcomes than receiving.
For instance, we once got asked to meet with a U.S. government agency called TSWG, which was looking for more international security technologies to fund. We met with the agency team in DC, invited them to our London event, and provided them with an overview of the top applicants — all for free. We provided them with a great deal of access to our resources and knowledge without expecting anything in return.
After the event, the deputy-director of TSWG, Jeff David, said to my cofounder and me: “Thanks for this great initiative. This was fantastic. We saw so many international technologies that we normally would not see at TSWG. Can we sponsor your prize from now on with $500,000 annually?” Janeen and I turned to each other, had a quick sip of our beer and then said smilingly: “Hell yeah!”
Giving advice and knowledge for free pays off — believe me!
Simon Schneider is a compulsive startup founder from Germany with a mixed bag of successes and failures. He is currently CEO of Zyncd.