Startup Advisors: The Good, The Bad And The Commandos


A version of this article previously appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

During the early part of the 20th century, New York City’s Tin Pan Alley was the epicenter of American popular music. During its heyday, Tin Pan Alley musicians devised an inexpensive yet effective method to obtain free, expert advice – they played their  songs to elderly doormen.

If the doormen could hum or whistle the tune after hearing it once or twice, then it was deemed suitable for release. Ultimately, this simple assessment became known as the “Old Gray Whistle Test” (OGWT), a reference to the doormen’s preponderance of gray hair.

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The same factors that led to the effectiveness of the OGWT are relevant to an entrepreneur’s assessment potential Advisors.

Responsive – Doormen provided accessible and timely feedback. Minimal effort should be required to communicate with your Advisors.

Price – Doormen participated in the OGWT pro bono, in exchange for the psychic rewards associated with influencing the pop culture of their day. You cannot buy your Advisors’ love, so do not try. However, nominal equity grants are appropriate to reward your Advisors for their time and attention.

Passion – Doormen were passionate and knowledgeable about popular music, which motivated them to accommodate the musicians’ ad hoc requests for no pay. Avoid dispassionate Advisors, as they typically seek consulting relationships in which you trade your money for their time.

Relevant Expertise – Doormen’s knowledge of popular music enabled them to provide valuable, actionable advice. Focus on your Advisors’ practical experiences, not their notoriety.

Motives – Doormen’s motives were pure and their feedback was honest. If they thought a song sucked, they would say so. Your Advisors must likewise be comfortable telling you when your initiatives suck.

Focus – The musicians focused the doormen on the area in which they were able to add the most value; determining a song’s originality and marketability. You should similarly solicit input from your Advisors within their respective areas of expertise. This will minimize suggestions that are not based upon first-hand experiences.

Group Think

As is typical with most advice, the doormen’s counsel was highly subjective. As such, Tin Pan Alley musicians relied on a cadre of doormen. Emulate this approach by curating a small group of Advisors with overlapping specializations (e.g., sales, finance, product development, etc.). This will result in multiple points of view that you can distill into a single course of action.

Commandos Need Not Apply 

Tin Pan Alley musicians were spared unsolicited advice, as they initiated the interactions with the doormen. Unfortunately, even the most well-intentioned Advisors sometimes provide gratuitous and unhelpful “assistance.”

Commando Advisors are guilty of particularly egregiously behavior. They parachute into a situation unannounced and, without fully understanding the facts, toss around a few advice grenades. They then depart (often abruptly), not to be heard from again until their next unwelcomed visit.

Mitigate such unproductive interactions by discouraging impromptu visits. Advisors will typically respect this request if they are regularly updated. Such updates should ideally be done via regularly scheduled emails, rather than through ad hoc, one-on-one conversations. In addition, limit your Advisors’ access to your non-executive team, as a Advisor’s random suggestion is too often interpreted as a high-priority initiative by junior employees.

Door Opener

Just like the Tin Pan Alley doormen, your Advisors should offer thoughtful, timely, succinct and focused advice. Who knows? If you properly cultivate these relationships, your Advisors might also open a few doors for you.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about cats on rainbows or that killer burrito I just ate.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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Follow John’s Startup Oriented Twitter Stream. He promises to never Tweet about sunsets, kittens or awesome burritos.

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