So, You’re A Startup — How Do You Build Your Advisory Board?

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  • CEO and Co-Founder of >Alio — working to improve the lives of those with chronic conditions through non-invasive wearables


    When you’re building an advisory board, it’s important to consider who you are looking for and how they can help bring your vision to life. Let’s dive in.

    Your first draft picks: Who are they and why do they matter?

    Although it would be nice, an entrepreneurial mind-set is not all it takes to get a startup running and off the ground. Early-stage organizations have the benefit of wise counsel in the form of their advisory boards, as well as strategic partnerships to help shape their approaches, narratives and go-to-market strategies.

    In the early days of building out a board and set of advisors, I’m sure you are already looking for a group of people with industry expertise and know-how. However, while those are desired attributes, the best advice I can give you is to find personality types that lend themselves to patience, flexibility and nerves of steel. Those may all sound similar or even overlapping, but that is actually the point. You need advisors who believe in your mission and vision, but who have the experience to guide you through the startup rollercoaster as your mission and vision come to life.

    In addition to fortitude, the ability to recruit is critical for board members in an early-stage startup. You need people in your corner who are well-connected with both the talent you need and the investors you want. A solid and well-established advisory board gives you connections into areas you may not have had visibility into and leaders who have faced the challenges you will face. They also have the ability to bring people to the table to keep you going. The cost of a bad hire in an early-stage startup is immeasurable. Board members who have access to talent and not merely other investors are worth their weight in gold.


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    The teenage years don’t have to be awkward.

    Your initial tenacious group of industry veterans have gotten you this far, but what’s next? Foundational activity for an organization requires a specific set of expertise. You’ve managed to get your feet under you, you know who you are, you know which crowd you fit into and how you can make a name for yourself — but how do you grow up?

    This segment is not to say you need an entirely new board at each phase of growth, but rather you should look to expand your board as your needs change and evolve. Your early-stage supporters are those who can help you troubleshoot and navigate challenges — be they recruiting or capital related.

    The next era or phase of your advisory board is one that really lends itself to your bench depth. What gaps in expertise might you have in-house that could be remedied by a seasoned board member? The types of people you want to bring on at this stage are those with experience in commercialization, scale, growth and navigating implementation challenges and regulatory considerations.

    It is important to note that a solid advisory board is not a council of yes-men/women who are poised mostly for cheerleading. You need a board with a very diverse set of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds. If you build an advisory board resembling the rest of your competitors, you are doing a disservice to yourself in establishing your value proposition. 

    Consider a diverse group of board members — not just investors, but also economists, patient advocates, clinical professionals, physicians, advocacy groups, etc. The more well-rounded the perspective of your board, the more well-rounded your approach can be. Establishing a board that doesn’t follow the same old game of who’s who actually reinforces your convening power as an organization. You become capable of bringing together a unique, diverse and mindful group of tenured individuals who can clear obstacles out of your path. 

    Turn the pirate ship into a navy.

    Early-stage startups are notably scrappy and “building the plane as they fly,” but there’s a critical moment when you need to convert the scrappy “make-do” crew of startup pirates into more of a polished, organized and regimented navy. Your board is actually one of the best ways to help set the tone and tenor marking this transition. 

    Being realistic about the gaps in some of your functional expertise is essential in rounding out your board. You have now nailed your initial challenges with product development and market fit, but now what? Recruit people who are experienced in navigating the regulatory challenges you will soon face, or bring on someone with extensive commercialization experience and deep industry relationships.

    This phase is also when it is best to bring in people who not only understand the space you operate in but have a proven track record of being able to reshape or influence the way the industry works. Sure, having an “insider” who knows how the system works is great, but you need a board with an equal understanding of the opportunity to do things differently. Often in health care, there’s tension between operating within the confines of existing guardrails while also introducing new ways of thinking about things like reimbursement models, care delivery, remote patient monitoring/telehealth, etc. These are difficult waters to navigate, but done well, your board and advisors can help you unlock the full potential of your organization and chart your course over each step of the journey.

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