Sometimes it really does pay to play the field before settling down. To see what's out there, who you click with, and which relationships prove the most beneficial. And ditch the idea of a "type." When it comes to relations with advisors—just as in love—we've found you'll only limit your opportunities that way. It's far better to spread a wide net.
Look around the table at a Blu advisory board meeting and what you'll see is the result of our own "dating" process. It's comprised of died-in-the-wool environmentalists, technology experts, educators, and business people. Our board reflects a lot of the same qualities a college admissions officer seeks in an applicant: well rounded, passionate, and dedicated. Above all, we set out to create a diverse group made up of people who are in tune with our company's ethos. So we shopped around.
Faced with the question of how to set about identifying and wooing people who will make a real difference on our board, we worked to establish relationships first. We dated around before committing, inviting prospective members to get an inside look at what we do, to visit our factory, to meet our team. We thought carefully about benefits, formalizing the process of joining the advisory board, and emphasizing the deep involvement we were looking for from every member. And then it was time to make the first move—to ask some of these smart, energetic people to give us a try.
We did not ask all those with whom we built successful relationships to join us, however. We all know that not every partnership that has that "spark" can go the distance. Keeping in mind our mission to build a diverse and vibrant group, we extended invitations only to those we deemed a truly great fit.
But finding the right match is really only the beginning. You could select the perfect mix of advisors, but if the relationship isn't nurtured—in big and small ways—you're doing yourself, and your board, a disservice.
The key to long lasting board relationships? No surprise here. Communication.
Most people "get" the formal side of communicating with their board members. Board meetings, quarterly e-mails and the periodic snail mail communication, are of course invaluable. But the real key is consistency.
But like many young companies, we did not at first recognize a vital truth: that fostering a deep and continual feeling of involvement in the workings of the company is crucial to the success of the board (and, in turn, of the company). Once we started going beyond just sharing periodic, polished, “board-ready” materials with our advisors, and began including them in Blu's everyday successes we saw a more active and engaged group emerge.
It really can be the little things that matter. For example, now when we ring our office's "sale bell," signaling that a Blu Home has been sold, our advisors get a call, too. And thanks to the easy and genuine efforts of our CEO—for whom it is second nature to pick up the phone in a free moment to talk to one of our advisors about a possible sale, an upcoming event, or other goings-on around the company—our advisors are well aware that we care about and value them and their role.
Nurturing relationships this way creates a group of people who are not advisors in ceremonial name only, but who are trusted members of the company with a stake in its success. In other words, true partners.
Regardless of communication, some partners are naturally more active than others. At times we find our board operates on the 80/20 rule, with 20 percent of the members providing 80 percent of the relevant help for the company. But it is deeply gratifying to see the most active advisors take the company's mission on as their own, truly becoming champions for Blu.
The original hope was that innovation and collaboration would grow more easily from the diverse mix of passionate personalities and perspectives we had put together. But the payoffs have been farther-reaching than we ever could have anticipated. Eschewing a board comprised of 100 percent hardcore "business" people in favor of a more "liberal-arts" approach, has lead to juicy and unexpected benefits, including new market opportunities and connections to funding.
One of our board members, selected for both his environmental expertise and his deep commitment to our mission, brought with him connections to regional conservation groups, which are looking toward judicious green development. A market opportunity was born. This taught us that choosing unique advisors who care about your company can make your business aware of and well positioned for valuable new business opportunities.
Similarly, we have seen again and again that the people who want to invest with and help grow a company are not only the top venture capitalists you might imagine, but also those who are connected to the "soul" of the company. When you reach out for dedicated advisors who are not necessarily contacts for investment, links to huge funding possibilities can be a happy—if surprising—byproduct. Take the expert in environmental policy and business that we pursued for his innovative ideas, who serendipitously pointed us to an opportunity for investment from a source we'd not known anything about (a personal connection of his). When an advisory board member feels deeply attached to the mission and ideals of a company and in turn brings this enthusiasm to his or her own network, the rewards can be huge.
To us, an effective board of advisors is an eclectic one that is allowed to share in the excitement of the growing company. In organizations that are fast finding their niche and picking up steam, the milestones along the way are opportunities for connecting and celebrating with the people you've chosen to bring into the company's most trusted inner circle. And in return, they will pay you back with ideas and enthusiasm that might move your company forward in astonishing, unforeseen ways.