Thursday, February 21, 2008

Take their advice

You can even semi-formalize your relationship with your early advisers. Consider putting together an advisory board filled with people who have already reached the goals that you aspire to, even if they don’t have the potential to become customers. If you can’t connect with the right people with expertise in your industry, seek out wise folks with business expertise in other areas, or a solid image in general. Maybe a senior manager with the company you just left would be interested in serving on your board. After all, your success will reflect favorably on her.

Tell your advisers what you expect from them and how much (actually, how little) of their time you’ll require. Never waste their time. Hold meetings regularly, perhaps over lunch, but infrequently. When the money starts rolling in, you can be more elaborate, if you want, by taking your advisers on a weekend getaway. But don’t pay them. You want objective advice. You want people who will tell you what you need to know, not necessarily what they think you want to hear. You want them to be unencumbered by the promise of stock options or other biases.

Types of practical advice to seek from your advisers:
- How logical is your business plan
- How best to approach others in your industry
- Thoughts on how long sales cycle is likely to be (from the time of your first appointment with
the prospect to the sale)
- Realistic expectations for generating customers
- Examples of what worked for your advisers when they started in business

Your objective with the advisory board, besides the priceless advice, is to establish in future prospects’ minds that you’re receiving regular input from reputable business minds. The idea that a bevy of well-known decision makers is willing to take the time to advise you on a recurring basis will mean a lot to your prospects. They will know that your adviser’s time is a powerful investment in you.

You can tell your prospects, for example, that even though you don’t have the level of experience enjoyed by your competitors, you receive advice from those who do. The time your advisers spend as your sounding board will engender peace of mind with your first prospects almost as much as a long list of customers.

Your advisers should help you willingly because they believe your success will increase the success of your industry or the business climate in general. Who knows? Some of them may become your customers. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened. But that shouldn’t be the main reason you form a board.

You don’t have to have a Fortune 500 executive on your advisory board. Heck, you don’t even have to have an advisory board. You can ask one or two people to serve as senior advisers. When they agree, immediately put their names prominently on your web site, letterhead or other marketing materials. As long as your advisers
1) will increase the level confidence among your prospective customers and
2) can offer objective advice, nobody should be off limits as a potential advisory board member.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tap the brains of wise people (without paying them)

Develop some of the credibility you need. When someone chooses to be your customer, she will prove her infinite wisdom, right? The wisest people in your industry are those who boast a long record of success. Some are your competitors, but many more are potential customers. Contact some of them, but don’t worry yet about turning them into customers.

Your immediate goal is to learn from them.
Imagine Lucas has a new ATV that he never drives because he’s afraid he will wreck it. He wishes he could think of a way to drive as fast he wants on the ATV, while guaranteeing it will never roll over. One evening, as he ponders his dilemma, Lucas watches his pet hamster speed across the living room carpet in its plastic ball. Eureka! Lucas says to himself. He will create a large plastic ball big enough for his ATV to fit inside. No matter how fast he drives, the ATV will never tip over. Better yet, Lucas figures a lot of other ATV enthusiasts would buy such a ball. Lucas builds a prototype and decides to call his contraption The Bubble Over. He’s pretty sure he’s a genius, and believes he can sell millions of Bubble Overs.

Lucas is business-savvy, so he wants to prove the practicality of The Bubble Over before he spends a lot of money manufacturing it. He gets in touch with Carl, the owner of the local ATV dealership, to ask if he can pick his brain. From research, Lucas knows that Carl has been selling ATVs for 25 years and that he is well respected in the industry because he understands what ATV owners want and need. Sure, Carl says to Lucas’ invitation. He is always willing to hear about new products that might benefit his customers. Like most of us, Carl loves it when people ask, “Can I get your advice on something?”

Lucas brings his prototype of The Bubble Over with him to the meeting so that Carl can try it. Based on Carl’s feedback, Lucas starts to get an idea of how well the marketplace will receive his product. Carl also offers suggestions on how Lucas might make The Bubble Over better. As Lucas starts a relationship with Carl, he is also starting to show that he is committed to solving a problem in Carl’s industry. He knows Carl’s experience is the most important thing he can tap into at the beginning of his venture. Simultaneously, Carl is turning into Lucas’ prospect. If he should become the first distributor of The Bubble Over, his good reputation in the ATV industry will make it easier for Lucas to land subsequent customers. Lucas has just taken a big step toward credibility.

Because Lucas is a smart guy, he wants feedback from lots of people in the ATV industry to ensure he’s getting an adequate picture of the potential for his product. Therefore, he contacts other ATV dealers, too. The first words out of his mouth when he calls the other dealers are, “You know Carl, right? He’s been advising me…” The other dealers will be happy to offer their input as well. Every bit of feedback Lucas receives helps him better understand the viability of The Bubble Over. As he improves his product and prepares it for market, he’s also building a sales pipeline.

You can probably find plenty of movers and shakers in your chosen industry that can offer you advice on the viability of your business, particularly if you demonstrate an interest in providing a new or better solution to their problems. Nothing is more freely given than advice, especially when the results of the advice may help the adviser as much as the advisee.
“What do you think?” are sweet words that your advisers (first prospects) will love to hear.