CHICAGO — “Where do I begin?” is among the most common questions startup founders ask at The Hatchery’s food business incubator. Answering this deceptively complex question is made even harder by the volume of information available to entrepreneurs. Finding the right answers means asking the right questions of the right people. That’s why it’s essential to build a trusted group of advisers early on. To set up a strong advisory network, startups must first identify their needs and then take a targeted and personal approach to connecting with potential mentors.
New brands often seek advisers before they know what help they need. Instead, startups should first clarify their brand’s vision and who they want to be, said Jeni Britton Bauer, founder and chief creative officer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
“Ninety-nine percent of the questions people ask, they will figure out on their own,” she said.
This self-guided growth refines brands’ strengths and challenges, establishes credibility with mentors and allows startups to ask targeted, specific questions.
Confident founders should aim to find advisers who don’t just validate ideas but give honest feedback. Seeking the archetypal older, wiser mentor may not be the best choice for emerging brands who may gain better insight and support from peers at similar stages of development. Reaching too high above your level will not get engagement, explained Ms. Britton Bauer, as more mature businesses may not relate to a startup’s needs.
No matter where the guidance comes from, entrepreneurs need to trust their advisers. This can be a tough mental transition for founders who are programmed to protect their concept.
“A lot of entrepreneurs are highly skeptical of sharing information,” said Ashley Thompson, chief executive officer of Mush Overnight Oats.
However, startups must divulge the necessary details and context of their challenges to receive accurate guidance. Ms. Thompson’s advisers include her well-known investors, RXBAR co-founder Peter Rahal and “Shark Tank” judge Mark Cuban. Each offers different guidance, but their shared values mean they speak the same language.
Seeking assistance should also be a two-way street. Rather than chasing potential mentors at trade shows or firing off “I’d like to add you to my network” messages, talented entrepreneurs should reach out with something to offer, said Lisa Curtis, co-founder and CEO of superfood brand Kuli Kuli. Ms. Curtis “did pro bono consulting, competitive landscapes and store audits,” for a brand she admired — and received valuable mentorship in return.
With their access to retailers, data and audiences, industry leaders have many resources to offer. To avoid startups getting lost, “the gate to these resources shouldn’t only swing one way,” Ms. Curtis said. Small brands should be able to access a larger brand’s resources while retaining their autonomy.
As the first founder to gain funding from Kellogg’s venture arm, eighteen94 Capital, Ms. Curtis knows mentors also benefit from advising brands.
“You can learn so much from the beginner’s mindset that you lose over time,” Ms. Thompson added.
In our rapidly changing industry, all brands need to keep up with evolving consumer habits and expectations. Ultimately, a successful advisory relationship relies on trust, measured guidance and a personal connection.
“You need to find someone who’s devoted to you,” said Ms. Britton Bauer, whether it’s a peer, leaders in other industries, or hired professionals. At the same time, mentorship and good advice are subjective. Startups should hone their entrepreneurial instincts and, above all, let their gut be the guide.
Natalie Shmulik is the chief executive officer of The Hatchery Chicago, a food and beverage incubator.