about.me started as a four person company…with 26 advisors.
When Ryan Freitas, Tim Young and I founded about.me, we met with all of the people we respect and trust, sharing our ideas and helping to build a community around the product we wanted to create and the company we wanted to build. Somewhere in the middle of these meetings, we got in the habit of inviting these people to become advisors. We weren’t always certain of the ways in which they would be able to help, but we loved the idea of bringing people we respected around the table of a company we were creating from scratch.
When we reached 26 people, many of our contemporaries started to think I was losing it. Why did we have so many advisors? Nobody does that. They were right but then again, why not? So our response to them was simple – when you bring intelligent, credible and inspirational people into the fold in a way that makes sense economically, you not only receive their blessing and advice in return, but you also gain credibility…and from there the potential for magic happens.
Advisors Can Help Set the Tone for How Your Product is Used and Lead to Early Adopters
One of the best things about advisors is that they can act as your initial user base. When we launched, the first pages our potential new users were interacting were created by people on our advisory board, including people like Kevin Rose, Veronica Belmont, Om Malik, Matt Mullenweg, Dick Costolo, Lindsay Campbell, and so on – people who were very credible in the social web and understood how to participate in it. This was the group that understood that believed in us as founders and the vision we shared for our company, which meant that they also understood what a beautiful about.me page should look like and achieve. It completely set the tone for what about.me looks like today.
Because we created an initial user based with advisors, we were also able to extend into their networks and reach a group of users we never would have thought we could reach so early on in our company’s existence. Often, social products in the Valley can exist only for the Valley itself, but by inviting advisors into about.me who had broad reach and diverse networks, we were able to cross over to an entirely new audience. As an example, Om Malik has 1.38 million Twitter followers. Those 1.38 million followers live in San Francisco, Indiana, India and most every spot in the world. Om Malik has an amazing about.me page. Om Malik introduced 1.38 million people to the possibilities of our platform. That’s powerful.
Of course there are two obvious questions about this strategy: How much does it cost? And, what if I don’t have access to anyone who is high profile with a network that has a powerful reach?
How Much Does It Cost?
Our 26 advisors ended up owning about 2.75% of our company. Economically, by virtue of having so many advisors, we were forced to make the equity grants smaller for each person than what we is considered the norm. Typically, a startup allocates 1.5% – 3.0% of its equity for advisors. We granted each of our advisors a very small piece of equity, somewhere around 1/10th of a point in the company. Anticipating some push back, we made their option grant fully vested shares, which took all the friction out of the deal and shifted the conversation from “what % of the company am I getting” to “that’s great, happy to help out”. In hindsight, that’s a smart deal for everyone involved. The advisors aren’t burdened with unclear expectations on what they’re supposed to do, and they get compensated no matter what happens. On our end, we benefitted from 26 different brilliant minds, all with various backgrounds and expertise, regardless of the degree they were able to commit time to our company.
How Do I Create an Advisory Board Without Access to High Profile People?
This strategy is not about getting the most connected or influential people around the table; it’s about getting your community of people around the table—people you want to have involved in your company because they are potentially going to give you a nugget of an idea, broaden your reach, and, most importantly, endorse your vision. It could be someone who only has 112 followers on Twitter, but that’s 112 more opportunities to reach new users than you had previously. You have to start somewhere. In this case, you could technically have 100 advisors and give them of a 1/10th of a 1/10th of a point. It’s about harnessing your community to generate broader awareness that crosses outside of wherever you’re based so that you can eventually reach mainstream users, and then even move abroad. Not to mention that, if you don’t have access to someone who you consider “high profile,” it never hurts to ask for advice or help – you’d be surprised at how far it gets you.
When you look at about.me today, we have a platform with millions of users who are located in every continent, and we got there very quickly. That is powerful to us. Very few companies can say that, and it’s something we’re extremely proud of. We have our 26 original advisors to thank.
As we enter into the next phase of about.me’s growth, we’re beyond excited to welcome a new group of advisors, including Tony Hawk, Melody McCloskey, Michael Mina, Brooke Hammerling, Gary Vaynerchuck, to name a few (the complete list is here: http://about.me/about/advisors). If our experience with this group is anywhere near as transformative as our 26 original advisors, they’ll help us to reach an even more diversified audience that really is the most magical ingredient that makes up our company. We truly believe any company or person can achieve this same success; it’s all about inviting people who inspire you and whom you respect to be a part of your vision.