Building Your Input Circle

Entrepreneurism doesn’t exist in a void, and neither should entrepreneurs.
Illustration by Paddy Mills

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.

At every stage of a business — from initial concept through startup to established enterprise, and even to selling the operation — a smart entrepreneur seeks input and advice. The question is, where do you turn to get good advice that is informed, objective and well-considered?

I’m not talking about professional resources that any business needs to have — like external accounting, legal, financial and so on — I’m thinking more like people who can brainstorm and offer reality checks and general guidance.

When assembling an advisory team, there are several choices to make; the first being how formally will it be structured. Larger, more established operations may organize official advisory boards and have structured meetings with regular meeting days and times and formal agendas.

At the other end of the spectrum, some entrepreneurs have an informal coffee-klatch group, where conversations flow freely, and subjects arise spontaneously. These can produce some very creative thinking but may overlook issues and questions of immediate importance. And if the faces around the table change considerably from session to session, valuable continuity gets lost.

Each entrepreneur must decide what type of advisory group s/he needs. However, some structure is generally useful, even if it is no more than setting up the discussion topics ahead of time and keeping the conversation substantially focused on them. Similarly, once the group has been assembled, the members should remain reasonably consistent.

The next big question is, who are the people who become your advisory group?

There are several obvious talent pools that virtually all of us have to draw on. Each has its advantages – and its caveats.

Many people launch businesses with input and support from immediate family members. As advisors, obviously you know them and they know you, and (hopefully) you trust each other implicitly. However, family dynamics are invariably complex, and none of your family members can possibly be unbiased. Whether it’s your mother who has doted on you forever or your brother with whom you competed constantly, everyone has a personal filter influencing their input.

Even more challenging is bringing your life partner into the equation, for all the same reasons. So, you have to ask yourself if the deep knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses is a good enough reason to risk the biases and even potential damage to the relationships. What if you don’t like the advice you get? Or you decide not to follow it? Are you going to create problems by asking some family members but not others? There are a lot of mines in this particular minefield.

The next circle of possibilities is close friends. You again get the advantages of trust and personal knowledge. You almost certainly have a wider circle to choose from and can invite people whose viewpoints you particularly value and perhaps even have relevant experience and expertise. There are still risks to the relationships, but most people are less emotionally invested in their friendships than their family ties.

Mentors such as professors or leaders at businesses where you previously worked are another potential source. They likely have relevant business knowledge, and you have previously had an advisory relationship with them. As long as you are not treading too close to any professionally competitive lines, people from this sphere can be excellent assets.

Other possibilities include additional professional contacts, people you volunteer with (proven givers!), and others you know well enough to trust with your inside business information. Ultimately, some mix of people from these various circles, ideally a diverse set in every way, will give you the best set of advisors.

The final — and also first — person to consider in this is yourself. Do you trust people to tell you the truth? Are you willing to listen to, and can you consider objectively, things you may not want to hear? Can you compartmentalize relationships when needed?

Remember, the best advice in the world is useless if it falls on deaf ears.


Keith Twitchell’s blog, “Neighborhood Biz,” appears every Thursday at