KoiTip #05 - Create an Emeritus Board

Successful ventures will need an exceptional management team. That's what we discussed last week. But your startup has a young team without a lot of experience or a track record that will impress people. What can you do?

Create an "Emeritus Board" of advisors. Ask some of the best and brightest people in your field to join an advisory board for your company. This will give you three things

  • access to expert advice when you need it
  • possible access to introductions to potential partners and prospects etc
  • the credibility and clout that comes from having well-known people on your advisory board

The ConsentCare story

Several years ago I advised a healthcare startup called ConsentCare. They help surgeons take a "fully informed consent" before an operation - in other words to explain to the patient, using a web service, all the risks and issues around an operation before their patient consents to it. There were a number of very sensitive medical ethics issues involved, and also the danger that being a very small company, that they would not be taken seriously by the big players in the healthcare industry.

I advised their CEO Dr Martin Young to set up an "Emeritus Board". Through his connections in medicine he soon recruited a number of eminent authorities in the field. Then he went a step further. After reading Dr Ramphele's book Laying Ghosts to Rest he phoned her office for an appointment and said "I understand that Dr Ramphele has a keen interest in medical ethics. We're a small startup but we already have X, Y and Z advising us, and we would like to ask Dr Ramphele for her help as well". We met with Dr Ramphele soon afterwards, and she said she would be honoured to serve as the chair of our board of advisors. With her endorsement we were also able to sign up Jody Kollapen, the Human Rights Commissioner for South Africa, as well as several other prominent people.

This was an enormous step forward for the company. They were able to draw on some of the best minds in their industry, and equally important, the board's tacit endorsement of the company gave them tremendous credibility (the names of their Emeritus Board members were prominently mentioned on all their marketing materials).

Some guidelines

No legal implications. Firstly, stress to the people you invite that your "Emeritus Board" is purely an informal board of advisors, with no legal status or implications. In these days with the increasing risks that company directors bear, no one wants to take on any role that could make them legally liable in any way.

No meetings. Important people are very busy. Stress that there will be no meetings of your advisory board. When you need advice, you will request this via email or a telephone call, or in exceptional circumstances, will work with their secretary to arrange a short face-to-face meeting with the member at a time and place that suits them.

Dominos. Plan who to ask, when. Seek to secure the backing of some prominent people first, and mention their support when you recruit others. Once ConsentCare had some significant support they approached Dr Ramphele, and once she was on board, other key people were very open to serving with her.

Thank you's. It is not necessary nor probably appropriate to offer payment to your advisory board members, but sending each of them say some good wine at the end of the year is a nice touch.

You need a good cause. If your company exists just to make money, people are unlikely to give their time and name to your efforts. You need a deeper cause to draw people in - either to help a team that comes from a disadvantaged background to overcome obstacles and/or to help a venture that is going to improve the world. In other words, you need to be working...