Customer Advisor Board: Early-Stage Hack to Getting Your First Customers

As a founder and former CEO, I'm delighted to see so many Alchemist Accelerator portfolio startups executing highly engaged Advisor Councils (AdCos) when acquiring their first 10 paying customers. Yet most startups fall short of scaling their AdCos beyond a few influencers and MVPs. This is a critical mistake.  

Active AdCos drive you to deliver more customer-focused products while creating momentum in the form of champions, stakeholders, thought leaders, communities, and loyal customers. Think of your AdCo as part of your startup's secret sauce, helping you scale quickly from Council (10-50 people) to Community (50-100 people) to User Conference (100+ people).

As you embark on your customer development journey, an AdCo can serve as an enticing carrot to attract smart and talented individuals with the pain points you've outlined. Joining an AdCo comes with personal and professional perks—from new skills development to high-quality peer networking. Those joining AdCos recognize these benefits, but they'll become your first customers for two additional reasons: first, they really want the product you're working hard to deliver, and second, they want to help you succeed (and have funding to budget to do it).

Qualifying early AdCo members is important. You want individuals that are

  • Thought leaders with deep experience and knowledge about the problem you are working to solve

  • Open and willing to co-build a solution with you

  • Able to access budget and have decision-making authority to buy

Prioritize Your AdCo

There are benefits across the business to establishing and scaling your AdCo:

  1. Product: Ongoing customer-focused product feedback

  2. Sales: Demand Gen (SQLs) of qualified leads and referrals

  3. Fundraising: Venture capital (VC) due diligence during your current or next round

Product: Build WITH Customers Not FOR Customers

AdCos instill a customer-first mindset while providing a critical product feedback loop. Product decisions and team scrum/sprints shift from sharing “I think” to “they said, they want, and they need” inputs.

Data and insights from your AdCo need to be meticulously recorded and then shared “in their words.” At hiQ, we always found the devil was in the details. You should plan for your AdCo members to spend a full day alongside your engineers, data scientists, and product team members in structured round tables, breakout sessions, and panels.  

Power tip: Host your AdCo meeting at a Council member’s location. Enterprise companies have conference rooms that can seat more than 20 people, and often, the organization will provide the drinks and snacks.

Sales: Advisors Become Champions, Then Customers

Your AdCo is one of the tools in your demand-gen and pre-product sales arsenals, and a measurable outcome of establishing one. AdCo members need to be in your sales pipeline as they move from Advisor to Champion to Customer to Reference and Referral. You'll be able to quickly qualify which Advisors will become champions and customers. They're the ones that will write the internal business use case for budget approval because they can’t live without the product(s) you are building. They'll be the ones standing on stage next to you when you officially launch.

Power tip: Use a pending AdCo meeting to close a late-stage deal. Prospects enjoy talking with customers before they sign, so have them sit next to each other.

Fundraising: The Best 2 Hours VCs Spend on Due Diligence

AdCos will scale with your customer growth, and VCs will notice. VCs think in terms of product market fit. This is validated when they walk into a packed ballroom full of clients, prospects, analysts, and job applicants—all wanting to be part of what you're building. There's no better and bigger moment for you and your employees then having customers on a main-stage talking about your product and how it saves them millions of dollars.

Power tip: Invite VCs to Council meetings as soon as possible. Their calendars book up a few weeks out.   

About Darren Grant Kaplan

Darren Kaplan is the co-founder and founding CEO of hiQ Labs (www.hiqlabs.com), a data science company, informed by public data sources, applied to human capital to make work better. Mr. Kaplan is an Alchemist Accelerator mentor, working with Augmented Reality, Cyber Security, and HR enterprise SaaS startups.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.