Creating a Business Advisory Board

I've been spending some time this week thinking about the role my business advisory board has played in the first year of Floricane's existence as a business -- and what I might want to do differently with that group going forward.

At the end of January, I'll be speaking to members of theRichmond Chapter of the American Marketing Association about the concept of a business advisory board, some best practices and how Floricane's board helped me get through my first year.

It's not an understatement to say tha t the six people on my advisory board kept my business from collapsing last year.

I'm not sure where I first stumbled upon the idea of creating a small team to help my small business get focused -- maybe a magazine article I read early in the process of launching Floricane? But I didn't launch the business with an advisory council on my checklist. Its formation came much later in the evolution of the business.

I decided to start my own consulting business a few weeks after my job was terminated at Luck Stone Corporation, where I had spent 12 years building a broad range of skills in communications, strategy, project management and organizational development. At the time, it was pretty clear that I was on the front edge of a very large wave of layoffs sweeping the country, and the job openings were few and far between. Nikole and I made a decision to take the plunge just before Thanksgiving of 2008.

Several weeks later, I was having coffee with a long-time friend of mine, Sam Davis, a consultant for family-held businesses. Sam gave me several pieces of advice that morning, but there was one nugget that really landed with me.

"Start thinking now of where you want your business to be in five years," Sam told me. He went on to say that if I waited to plan for growth, it would be too late.

"if you're successful, at the end of your first year you'll be glad you planned for your growth," Sam said. "And if you're successful and you don't plan now, you'll be too busy to think about it later. If you're not successful, it won't matter anyway."

I immediately filed Sam's advice away as something I was too busy to consider.

And I was busy. I was scrambling, trying to network and develop a brand and a website and a visual identity. I was working for a small handful of clients, doing way too much pro bono work, and trying to figure out how to keep the ball constantly moving in a forward trajectory.

At the end of April, there was a lull. It was just enough of a lull that I got nervous, and a little lonely.

Although I'm an introvert by nature, I've learned that my best thinking comes when I can process outloud with someone, and when others are asking me questions that make me consider my own ideas from different perspectives. I began to think that a small group of advisors might provide some of that give-and-take. I also realized that I was becoming a bit less confident in my ability to actually run a business, and I hoped that an advisory group could help me be more effective in that arena.

I began to make a list of interesting people I knew. And then I started to think about who I really needed to keep me honest, and to challenge me.

My wife, Nikole, was top of the list. I knew that she needed to be part of the conversation for two reasons. First off, she had more of a stake in the success of the business than anyone else -- me included. As a stay-at-home mom, she was relying on me making good choices, and so was our daughter, Thea! But I also knew that Nikole's voice was important to have at the table, at least in part to ensure that the rest of the advisory group recognized that Floricane was as much about supporting my family as it was about building a business.

I also needed someone in the mix who knew me well -- someone who would call bullshit on me and keep me honest. That led me to invite Donald Jones and Stephanie Kirksey to the table. Donald is the Vice President of Information Technology at Luck Stone. More importantly, he was as good a friend as I'd made in my business life. He and I spent the better part of a decade coaching and mentoring each other. I trusted him and valued his instincts. Similarly, I trusted and valued Stephanie's perspectives, and knew that she would always see opportunity where I saw roadblocks. As the Vice President of the Greater Richmond Chamber, Stephanie has seen a lot of businesses come and ago, and she'd been among my top cheerleaders during the initial business launch.

I rounded out the group with my accountant, Tom Herr; Joe Ruiz, the husband of a good friend who'd started his own consultancy years ago; and Greg Moyer, the chief people officer at Snagajob. I knew the three of them less well, which I thought might help keep the group from becoming too chummy.

I'll fill in the rest of the story during my talk to the Richmond Chapter of the American Marketing Association on January 26, and provide some follow-up here. In addition to focusing on some best practices, I'll spend some time sharing a few train wreck moments from my own advisory board experience. I've invited my board to attend the January 26 session, and am hoping a few of them will chime in with their own observations!