They may never have enough time, enough energy or, occasionally, enough money, but the one thing entrepreneurs often have in abundance is advice.
If they’re a small-and-medium business (SMB) that has been funded through venture capital or angel investors, for instance, part of the deal may require them to pay close attention to how those people believe the firm can most quickly achieve growth objectives.
Then there is all the other advice, some of it unsolicited and maybe even unwanted -- from former co-workers, friends and family members. Even if they’ve never run an SMB or held a senior business leadership position in their lives, they may think they know exactly what an owner should do.
At a certain point, entrepreneurs know they have to make the best judgement calls they can, but they may still wish they had someone knowledgeable or wise whom they could bounce ideas off of, or ask pointed questions. After all, if they are using tools like Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud and Service Cloud, they have lots of data to draw upon, but might like to talk certain issues out with their “inner circle.”
As your business takes off, here are a few potential mentors and advisors that could offer the kind of trusted counsel you’re going to need -- and what specific areas you should broach with them:
SMBs sell products and services to customers, but not always on their own. Sometimes what they’re offering works well with the products and services of another company, with whom they develop reseller agreements or other alliances. There are also partners for whom you are the customer, because you use them as a supplier for some of the things you need to maintain operations.
Although partners have their own vested interest in the success of their organizations, they may have worked with a number of firms similar to your own, and noticed some ideas that worked (or didn’t). Look to these kinds of advisors when you’re entering a new market or trying to grow your share of wallet within particular customers and segments.
Chances are, the first sales of the average SMB came from someone they already know. It could be a former co-worker, a family friend or other personal connection. These are great sources of feedback, in part because customers have absolutely no reason to be anything but blunt about their needs and how well they’re being served by the market -- including what your company is selling them. Turn to these partners when you’re trying to ensure you have the right product-market fit to address common pain points, what kind of buying process other customers might go through and what may accelerate or delay a final buying decision.
SMBs may not be able to afford expensive research reports produced by industry analyst firms, but that’s not the only way to tap into their expertise. Start by asking intelligent questions when you hear them speak in keynotes or panel discussions at industry events. Comment on their blog posts or things they’re sharing on social media. Even if they act as a merely occasional “virtual” advisor, connect with these experts around things like the spending habits within your target market, what may be influencing adoption of certain product categories (good or bad) and so on.
When you’re growing enough to hire other staff, you don’t just want people who are simply competent at a particular set of tasks. You want people who have the talent to learn from their experiences and feed their insights back to you, whether formally or in casual conversations over the course of the day. As an entrepreneur there will inevitably be certain subjects that may be off-limits with team members, of course, but look for advisors here who can give you good feedback on the operational aspects of your company, things that can boost productivity and effectiveness as the business gains new customers.
Sometimes journalists might seem jaded, grumpy and always on the lookout for negative stories, but most media professionals are genuinely interested in business stories that show what successful entrepreneurship looks like. If you’re fortunate enough to be covered or profiled by the media in some way, develop a strong enough relationship with a reporter or editor to tap into their insider’s knowledge of similar companies in the market, or other data and research that isn’t always available to the average SMB. These are also potential advisors on things like whether your marketing strategy is resonating with your target audience, or how you’re positioning yourself and the company from a branding standpoint next to competitors in the same field.
Until recently, no one would have ever thought of technology as something that could advise anyone. Even the most sophisticated analytics tools required users to connect some of the dots on their own. Artificial intelligence is a great leap forward from that perspective, for a number of reasons. First of all, tools like Salesforce Einstein are always-on, meaning they’re still learning about the company even when you’re asleep or on vacation. Second of all, AI is far faster than human beings at assimilating and synthesizing data from multiple sources to discover trends and patterns that can solve problems or identify opportunities.
Unlike any human advisor, AI is also completely free of any self-interest or clouded perspective that might make SMB owners question what they’re being told. In that sense, consider using AI to not only offer guidance, but to double-check against some of the advice you get from other members of your inner circle.
Whomever you include in your inner circle, always make sure to look for opportunities to show your gratitude or provide some kind of value back their way. A good advisor doesn’t just offer a listening ear -- they can directly help entrepreneurs take their companies from good to great.