According to Get2Growth estimates, there are 1.35 million tech startups now operating. And, according to Bloomberg’s Justin Fox, 2020 is proving a banner year for new startups, driven in part by Covid 19 related employment losses. A majority will not succeed; failure estimates are typically around 90%. But some will succeed and become going concerns, and a few others may rise to the extraordinary level of “unicorn.” Even in failure, startup experience has tremendous value. Many ailed startup veterans will lick their wounds, learn from their mistakes, and bring their valuable experiences – what and how to do and not do – and relationships to their next entrepreneurial venture. And in their second or third try, they succeed.
By no means are startups only in the tech world, though it’s the iconic space for freelancers and digital freelance marketplaces. I talk regularly with a wide range of new startup businesses in the freelance space, and see freelance growth in almost every industry, from law to medicine and surgery, marketing and PR, sales, customer service and success, oil and gas exploration and production, executive coaching, yoga and massages, and education.
Each of these startups – and hundreds of others – has the potential to benefit from the wisdom and experience of advisors and advisory boards. There are several reasons why companies create advisory boards, seek the counsel of outsiders, and are willing to incent these advisors through financial compensation, equity, or both. For example, one startup Canadian energy company had a superior capability in finding and extracting oil in a certain geology of Western Canada. On the suggestion of one of the company’s advisory board members, the company mounted an initiative to identify similar geologies internationally. Doing so led to a significant discovery that doubled the company’s value.
I sit on a number of advisory boards, and I’ve found them a powerful and cost efficient way for company leaders to get helpful perspective by experts in areas that are important to the CEO and the future of the company, whether in strategy, tech, finance, or culture. Effective advisors give leaders the information they need, not necessarily what they want to hear; it is a credit to the openness of the CEO when they seek that advice. So, I was impressed when I read that Cybrary, the largest online cybersecurity career development platform had formed an advisory board . I also noted that the startup had brought on board four advisors, each a leader in a commercial or technical aspect of the cybersecurity and IT industry. I liked the thoughtfulness by which CEO Ryan Corey had selected the advisors. Here’s what he said:
“The quartet collectively brings diverse knowledge and skill sets with backgrounds in executive leadership, academia, research, information security, artificial intelligence (AI), industrial control systems (ICS) security, cybersecurity risk management, cloud security and more.”
“We’re thrilled to have these industry experts join our Advisory Board to provide strategic guidance to help us elevate our training programs and support the millions of instructors and students using our platform to further their education and advance their careers,” said Ryan Corey, CEO and co-founder of Cybrary. “Their insights will be critically important to furthering our platform development and continuing to innovate at the highest level to help bridge the cybersecurity talent gap at scale.”
But, advisory board participation is just as valuable an experience for part- or full-time freelancers as for the startups or mature companies they support. Here are six good reasons to join an advisory board:
1. Trying out entrepreneurship. An obvious benefit of joining an advisory board is the chance to participate in the kind of discussions that will help a strong freelance to decide whether or not becoming a company founder themselves is a strong personal ambition or goal. It can provide a very “real” version of the experience of the CEO role if the advisory board focus includes advice to the leadership team on issues of strategy, growth, financing, and change management.
2. Growing professionally and as a leader. Not only can an advisory role provide a glimpse of entrepreneurship, its likely to help individuals test their career interests, and help them build enterprise leadership skills. For example, one freelancer I met recently shared this story: “I joined an advisory board as the tech advisory expert, but with the intention of deciding whether I wanted to lead a startup and take the CEO role. After a year as an advisor, I realized that the CEO role wasn’t for me, but I was excited by the potential to be CTO or CPO, which after moving to a cool startup, I now am!”.
3. Learning a new field or industry or a new approach to the field or industry. My first experience as an advisor was serving as non-executive chairperson of an oil pipeline technology company in Calgary. It wasn’t my area, but a great way to learn a new industry. In turn, my lack of expertise in the industry but strategy knowhow helped the leadership team by asking the “naïve” questions that helped them set a unique course of action. These days I’ve joined a new freelance platform advisory board to learn about the potential of blockchain in the industry.
4. Building your network. An obvious benefit to joining an advisory board, or acting as an advisor, is the chance to build your network. For example, there are several organizations like Advisory Cloud that provide a market for companies seeking advisors and potential advisors seeking companies.
5. Investing/make money. Don’t count out the opportunity to make money as a result of advisory board service. In one of my advisory roles, the imputed value of my shares to date far exceeds my expectations. Remember, startups fail more often than they succeed. But, sometimes you are able to catch the brass ring.
6. Giving back. Finally, advisory roles are a chance to give back. Your experience and expertise may be exactly what the company needs to create a great new product or service, expand into new geographic markets, or provide career opportunity for promising and enthusiastic individuals. That’s worth something!
Interested? And, if so, how does one get an advisory role? Here are three easy paths. First, and always, check in with your network. As a freelancer you are in contact with companies that may value your participation as an advisor, or colleagues that are aware of similar opportunities and, with the right connections, might recommend you. It’s easier for obvious reasons to get a gig as an advisor to a startup or SMB (small and medium sized company) than to a giant corporate, but don’t rule the big companies out; there are often opportunities to advise at the business unit level, or the division or functional level, e.g., advising on digital transformation in tech, on the new marketing, or building a more effective HR organization. Second, contact organizations like Advisory Cloud that are in the business of connecting you with advisory opportunities. Many cities have exchanges of this kind, and many executive recruiting firms like Roland Berger and Egon Zehnder in the EU, and Russell Reynolds and Korn Ferry in the US are other sources of opportunity. In addition, check in with local universities. Startups by recent alumni may also be looking for advisory help. Third, do your homework and identify startups that interest you and contact them. Never hurts to cold-call.
Advisory roles are an attractive and can be a lucrative way for freelancers to grow and develop themselves and their business. For other ideas, read my Forbes article: “Ten ways you should be using freelancers more strategically” or my book Agile Talent.
Viva la revolution!
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