Advisors are great for startups. They can provide your startup with guidance on a wide range of topics and typically take a seat on your startup’s advisory board.
But sometimes a person who gives your startup infrequent, casual advice will broadcast to the world that he or she is an advisor to your startup in an “official” capacity — which is (shocking) news to you and your co-founders. Awkward.
How did this “advisor” turn into a creeper?
The Genesis of the Startup Creeper
Most startup founders do a tremendous amount of networking. Through this networking, a founder may become acquainted with someone willing to provide some expertise, advice and/or connections. Most of the time, startups and the “advisor” have no problem with this unofficial, undocumented relationship. The startup isn’t looking for routine advice or time from the advisor, and the advisor isn’t looking for anything from the startup (e.g., cash, equity, geek cred).
But occasionally this “advisor” makes his or her role unilaterally public creating the awkward situation.
A founder will typically find out when someone he or she knows in the startup ecosystem tells the founder, “Hey, [Startup Creeper Name] told me he was an advisor to your startup.” Or maybe news of the official relationship is on their Twitter or LinkedIn page. Regardless, this “official relationship” is news to you and your co-founders. The casual advisor relationship has now turned creepy.
I got married before the Myspace/Facebook era, but I imagine this is something like going on a first date and coming home to find your date’s Facebook profile lists them as “in a relationship with” you. Creepy.
Don’t Lead Them On
You lead on a startup creeper by continuing to either solicit or accept their advice and connections. You may think they’ve been giving some decent advice, but you don’t really know why they are hanging around — or you are trying to figure out their angle. At this point, you have both failed to bring up the status of your startup-advisor relationship.
No matter how you arrived at this point with your Startup Creeper, you have 2 choices:
(1) Make it official and offer them a position on your advisory board.
If the initial shock wears off and you are OK with it, immediately sign up the advisor to an advisory board agreement. Anyone providing more than casual advice should be signed up to an advisory board agreement — especially someone receiving confidential information regarding your startup and/or identifying themselves as an advisor.
This is an important task because the advisory board agreement will most likely contain provisions such as a nondisclosure of confidential information, inventions assignment, and a no conflicts rep & warranty. Your advisor will likely be privy to various inside info regarding your startup and it is to document that he or she cannot use it for someone else’s benefit, or more importantly, to the disadvantage of your startup.
(2) Kick the Startup Creeper to the curb, in the most tactful way possible.
If you are still feeling slimy after the initial shock wears off, then you need to wrap up the relationship in an expeditious manner. Difficult conversations are a part of business and this type of situation presents a great time to tackle your (likely) first one.
But do so without burning a bridge — no matter how creepy the advisory relationship is. Communicate in private, and opt for in-person over telephone conversations. If you cannot meet in person, choose telephone over email. Don’t forget to thank them, because they did share their expertise, time, and/or connections with your startup. And the situation would likely not have reached this level of awkwardness without leading them on in some capacity. Now, maybe they can shift their focus on another project or startup.
There are tons of great startup advisors out there (although they are hard to find). People want to help your startup and that’s a good thing. But you have to manage these relationships, before they turn into awkward situations like the Startup Creeper scenario.