There are countless parallels between political life and start-up life: a scrappy team working doggedly for something they believe in, a fundraising lift that often seems insurmountable, an unshakable sense of urgency to avoid losing (figuratively or literally). Entrepreneurs could learn a lifetime of lessons from campaign operatives, and political staffers would be well-schooled by time spent at a startup.

One of the missing links, though, is the Kitchen Cabinet. The term originated during Andrew Jackson's presidency, when he dismissed much of his formal Cabinet and relied instead upon the advice of longtime allies. In politics today, it's a collective of trusted outsiders who are a sounding board, support system, and unofficial surrogates for a politician or elected official.

Sounds like an advisory board, right? Not always. Too often with startups, advisors are sought for their cache or experience that would bring credibility to the venture. The credibility factor is important for getting press and garnering funding, so it is important to keep pursuing marquee names for that. But at the end of the day, CEOs need people around them with whom they can be 100% candid about their most intractable problems--without risk of damaging the relationship. It's a Kitchen Cabinet because it's informal, but it's still a business relationship.

Here are four ways to get started on building your startup's Kitchen Cabinet:

1) Acknowledge your weak points.

CEOs of small companies have to wear a hundred hats, and thus are expected to be good at everything (while also being an inspiring leader). Be really honest with yourself about what you're not good at. Fundraising? Sales? Motivating teams? Those are the skill sets you want to surround yourself with.

2) Start with people you know well.

Your Kitchen Cabinet isn't the people you want to build a relationship with (as advisors may sometimes be); they're people whose judgment you trust implicitly--and who know you well enough to always be forthright and direct.

3) Think outside the box.

While people in your industry will understand more of the nuances of your day-to-day business, hearing diverse perspectives will better equip you to make tough decisions. Consider people you admire whose professions may be far afield: school principals, scientists, corporate leaders, athletic coaches... and so on.

4) Seek out (supportive) contrarians.

Yes-men (and yes-women) don't do anyone any good. Surround yourself with people will challenge you, play devil's advocate, push you to consider the optics of the situation--all while staying rooted firmly in your corner. Words like honest, direct, and candid should come to mind when choosing your Kitchen Cabinet. No formal presentations, no decks or Excel spreadsheets: these are the people you pick up the phone and call when you need a gut check, a brainstorming session or, occasionally, a cheerleader. These are people to whom you can, without hesitating or hedging, admit failure, and then talk through how to mitigate it.

Similarly to how you would engage traditional mentors or advisors, it is critical to build a two-way street relationship while finding ways to support and add value to your Kitchen Cabinet.

Allyson Downey is CEO and co-founder of weeSpring, a startup that helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby. Her entrepreneurial spirit dates back to elementary school, when she had a face-painting business for birthday parties, and it's carried her through roles with Random House, Eliot Spitzer, and Credit Suisse. She has an MBA from Columbia Business School, an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts, and a BA from Colby College. She serves on the board of Democracy Prep Public Schools. Follow her @allysondowney @wee_spring

Published on: Oct 8, 2014
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