Thomas Clayton has started and run numerous high-tech startups in Silicon Valley. He is currently CEO of Bubbly, a social media startup backed by Sequoia Capital, SingTel Innov8, and JAFCO. The company is one of the largest VC–backed startups in Southeast Asia, having raised over $60M in funding.
We recently asked him to share some insight into starting, building, and funding a company across Asia in a four-part series here.
After receiving feedback that my recent series of posts on The Next Web was helpful to entrepreneurs and CEOs who were considering expanding their businesses into Asia, I wanted to take the opportunity to delve deeper into another area that I get a lot of questions on: Finding good mentors and advisors in Asia.
Every startup CEO and founder needs good mentors around them – no matter how many times they’ve been through the company-building process. The problem in Asia is that strong mentors are much harder to come by than in Silicon Valley. The variance in quality is vast and finding people that have truly been in your shoes before is no easy task.
Here are some simple steps to take that will hopefully help you build a trusted circle of advisors.
A good place to start is to make a list of the startup entrepreneurs that you admire or would like to emulate. This doesn’t mean you should scribble down names like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, or Elon Musk – it’s best to start off realistically. Think about people in your space that are based locally in your city. And try to think broadly.
List entrepreneurs that are at different stages in their careers with a variety of experiences. Consider some that are young and scrappy, older guys that have been around the block, as well as big names that seem like a bit of a stretch to make contact with.
Once you have a list of folks that you would like to connect with, it’s time to reach out. LinkedIn and cold emails are actually great ways to get a conversation started with entrepreneurs in Asia – just make sure that your message is short and pointed.
It’s important to keep your emails succinct because these contacts do not have the time to read lengthy emails that aren’t directly related to their business. If you bog down their inbox with a fluffy message, they are less likely to respond or read the entire email. Keep your messaging direct; it doesn’t hurt to blow up their ego a bit in there as well as long it’s not too sales-y!
The younger entrepreneurs might be more willing to help, as they are newer to the game and still place value on making new connections. Do not get discouraged if the more experienced folks aren’t immediately responsive and keep on moving down your list of contacts. You’re bound to get a response and squeeze into someone’s schedule eventually.
Although they are a lot busier and will not be available for a 24-7 mentor role, the older entrepreneurs have a ton of wisdom for you to soak up if you can get on their calendars. The big name entrepreneurs are great for company credibility and helping make further introductions – just don’t expect them to roll up their sleeves and spend a ton of time helping you out.
Avoid the leeches
In any business market, there are bound to be bad seeds that try to take advantage of your so-called inexperience. These bad businessmen claim to walk on water and ask for ridiculous amounts of equity and/or cash in exchange for their “advice.”
Unfortunately, these folks tend to prey on young, first-time entrepreneurs that do not know any better. The best way to avoid these types of people is to make sure the advisors are doing it for the right reasons.
Asking for equity or money upfront is always a big red flag. Quality mentors and advisors are those individuals that have achieved success and get fulfillment out of simply giving back to their fellow entrepreneurs and the ecosystem as a whole.
Another key indicator of a leech is someone who approaches you out of nowhere and wants to be your advisor. These folks typically had a long career at a large, big name company and are now unemployed and ‘consulting.’ The problem is there is a reason these people no longer have day jobs and on top of that, their past experience leaves them completely clueless to what it takes to succeed as a scrappy startup entrepreneur.
The best kind of advisor isn’t one who seeks out anyone and everyone to give advice to – they should be too busy for that. The typical start to a solid advisor/advisee relationship is one in which the advisee finds the advisor, and it’s a natural progression from there.
Date before you get married
Sometimes when entrepreneurs find a suitable advisor candidate, they jump into an agreement and give that advisor a big chunk of equity. All I’ve got to say is, “Slow down turbo!” Any good mentor will want to simply spend time with you and meet with you a few times before doing anything official.
Remember, you have to “try before you buy,” and keep your options open before committing to someone. Both sides benefit from taking time to build a working relationship, learn about each other’s styles, and be sure that they are getting something valuable from the time spend together. It’s crucial to make sure it’s a true fit.
Quality over quantity
The demands of building your own business are extremely high and you only have so much time, so don’t pile on advisors. Once you take on any more than a half-dozen mentors, there starts to be a diminishing return.
Focus on quality over quantity. Try to find people with a diverse set of experiences that complement each other, so you have insight into every direction your business can turn.
Keep it fresh
After a couple of years with the same advisor, the relationship starts to tail off. Don’t worry, this is only natural.
As your company starts reaching different stages of growth, you will want to tap new people with different experiences with those kinds of evolutions. New mentors and advisors also come in with an enthusiastic attitude and provide a fresh perspective that your company will benefit from.
Mentors and advisors can be an integral part of any business, so make sure you do your due diligence and stay dynamic to get the best people you need on your side. If you do it right, you will have created a number of mutually beneficial relationships that can help you throughout your entire career.