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.
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.
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.
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Photo Credit: Wikipedia