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April 21st, 2011
Terrible drivers doing dangerous things. I must be back in L.A. That's not a joke by the way -- I saw two rather dangerous things just on the drive home from LAX tonight.
"So what brings you to New York?" said my parents oh so elegantly. I was in New York because I met a couple of investors in a film financing related startup who thought my background / work as an advisor might be useful to one of their portfolio companies. A couple of meetings later -- they asked me to fly out to meet with the CEO and attend one of their board meetings.
Let me digress for a moment. When I had lunch with my parents earlier today, they asked me a question that a number of family members have asked me in the past. (I should note that almost none of my friends or even professional acquaintances have ever asked this of me which I do find interesting.) They asked, "How do you get these advisor positions?"
I'll step back for a moment and give a little context. Many startups -- at least in the tech world -- have two boards: a board of directors and a board of advisors. The board of directors obviously is primarily involved in governance/strategy and is comprised of the CEO, maybe a co-founder / senior staff member, and the lead investors in the company. The board of advisors is typically composed of "famous" people. When I say famous, I mean that these people are primarily lending some sort of brand value or, potentially, connections. Mark Suster actually has a great post on a lot of the (typical) downsides of an advisory board [link]. This is not my role. I mean, factually, it's not my role. I'm not famous in the tech world (or in the broader business world -- i.e. I'm not CEO/COO/etc. of some well-known company) and I will sometimes even explicitly tell startups before I start working with them, "You should assume that I will not make any introductions on your behalf." Obviously this doesn't turn out to be true, but I state that upfront just so they're going in valuing my role as an actual advisory role.
So what is it I actually do as an advisor? The short of it is that I work to provide value to the CEO. It would be easy to make it broader and say that I'm providing value to the company -- and I sometimes interact with senior staff, investors, and board members -- but my primary interaction is with the CEO. I help on anything from larger, strategic issues like raising a new round, direction of the company, product development to very tactical things like even reviewing copy for a sales video. I like to keep it broad because, in my view, if that's what's important to the CEO right now, then I can make myself available to help.
Of course, part of my role is also to raise issues that I see that I'm concerned about (though I obviously keep that on the lower end and only for things that I find particularly concerning). I've previously been offered board seats which I turn down. Even though it's outwardly more prestigious (look, I'm on the board of directors!) -- I find the work much less rewarding. On the board, there is a governance component to it (i.e. the CEO reports to the Board) -- whereas in an advisory capacity, my role is to help the CEO do his/her job to the best of his capability. I can serve as a 3rd party sounding board to any decision that he/she is weighing and even help navigate interpersonal dynamics, board tensions, etc.
So then the question is, why me? Why would they hire me as opposed to someone [fill this in with: older, more experienced, previously had a bigger title, more well-known, etc.]
I've never asked this question explicitly to the startups I work with, but here's my guess. The first reason is not a lot of people do this -- I have a handful of former colleagues from Google who have taken on advisory positions. There aren't a lot of them -- and usually they're also investors in the company (I am not an active angel investor) -- but just like anything else, once people start hearing you do something, it sort of builds upon itself. Here's the second reason. Regardless of who you are -- unless you're being picked because of some perceived brand value or ability to make introductions -- there's going to be a meeting. And in that meeting, there's going to be a discussion and you (in this case me) will have to prove that I actually have something worthwhile to say. After all, these companies give me equity in their company -- and a non-trivial amount of equity at that. They further have to think that I'll have something worthwhile to say on some regular basis. I wouldn't say there's a lot of pressure on me in this meeting -- but it's not super easy. Most of the time I don't have a lot of information on these companies -- at most, their website. I probably don't have advance access to their financials, investor deck, or board decks.
Now, before I go further -- there's obviously a very significant amount of social proof that also occurs. I already advise two startups (both funded by Google Ventures and both of those introductions were brokered by my friend at GV) -- so when I meet someone new and say that I do that and those are the companies I work with -- even without a warm introduction, that's usually enough to pass that initial bar. Of course, there's still a jump from that to being hired on, but it helps a lot.
On a side note, I may actually advise a 4th startup soon. I was asked by the co-founder of a startup that I like quite a bit to join as an advisor. They're very different than other startups that I work with (either formally or informally) -- this startup is pre-funding, they don't even have a board of directors yet, they're in retail (which I love), they're already profitable despite only being in business for 3 months, and they're growing quickly. In short, the type of questions that I'll be helping with will be much different than what I've worked on in the past. They've already proven demand for their product -- they just now need to figure out how to scale as quickly and efficiently as possible. I really like the co-founder I know and I'm excited by where they're at and where they might be able to go. That one isn't closed yet (I have to meet the other co-founder) -- but hopefully that'll get done too.
I will say this about my lunch with my parents -- at least for my Dad, he showed more interest in my work with startups than anything that I've previously done professionally or academically. Maybe it's inherently interesting. Maybe it's a world that's totally foreign to him. Maybe it's just plain bizarre to him that I get to do this work now. I don't know -- but certainly quite an unexpected side benefit.
This trip did have a little bit of melancholy to me though. The work I do with startups is purely for fun. It's intellectually fascinating and the most rewarding work I've done in my business career. That being said, I'm trying to make a career for myself in entertainment (more specifically as an actor though I obviously have a number of projects that I either direct or produce.) Losing out on that audition that I mentioned in the previous post was a real bummer. It's a good role and frankly, it was a good role for me. I've definitely auditioned for roles that I know I'm not quite right for -- maybe too old, wrong look, wrong vibe, etc. Obviously I give it my best shot (I remember one role where I had an 8-year old son -- I did what I could to look older :) ) -- but there are roles that make more sense for me than others. That being said, I can't sit around my apartment waiting for the phone to ring either. Maybe if the phone rang more often I could do that, but otherwise, in the words of my manager, "You have to go live your life." So that's what I did. By the way, this is a little inside baseball, but that casting office was UDK -- so that's why it's kind of a bummer. Even if I didn't get that role, I'd love for that office to see me and hopefully call me in on a regular/semi-regular basis.
While I was in New York, I also met up with the editor of my doc, Erik. I really enjoy working with him -- very thoughtful and he just feels very seasoned to me. He's got great ideas and is committed to making the best film possible. I frankly try to sop up as much as I can from him when I'm there -- I learn a lot talking to him and that's really quite a privilege. 
We spent quite a bit of time talking about the narrative arcs of each of the 3 primary storylines and what remaining shoots we might need / would be ideal to get. This is a follow-up to an earlier meeting we had, after which we got a number of additional pieces of footage -- all of which clearly has made whatever the film will end up being a much stronger piece. He also had a slightly updated version of the storyboard notecards he laid out earlier:
This will change drastically over the next couple of months. We actually talked about how best to tackle the next couple of months. Erik's style varies from film to film -- but his preference for this film is to tackle it in acts: I, II, and III. He wants to cut Act I -- and then we get together to review. Then Act II, review, then Act III -- then we'll have an initial screening primarily composed of doc folks -- this will mainly be editor friends of his and probably a handful of director/producers of docs that we know in New York. We'll get a ton of feedback on what's working / what's not -- revise, and then probably do a set of screenings in New York in L.A. for more feedback and probably widen the audience a little bit to include not just industry folks but also some lay people as well to get a broader sense of how it's playing and to hopefully fix as many of the remaining problems as possible. This will probably be 2 to 2+ more months? We also spent a fair amount of time strategizing in terms of the best way to roll this out / market it / etc. The way I described it to him (in terms of festival submissions / getting it sold), "It's ok if we get a lot of no's -- I just don't want people not to know about it." 
On a separate note, there was a particular shoot that I was hesitant to do that he was immediately gung-ho on. He noticed my hesitancy and asked me why. I paused, thought about it, and replied, "It's probably laziness. We had a list and this wasn't on it." Obviously this is unacceptable and as soon as I verbally expressed it, I knew we were going to try and get this shoot done (I still have to obtain permission). But that's one of the big benefits for me at least to having someone you can bounce things like this off of -- sometimes it's not so obvious when you're in the weeds of something so to have someone to talk to is huge. (and in the startup world, one of the benefits to having an advisor or advisors.)
So we'll see -- there's still a lot of work between now and then. When people ask me my goals for the film, I say, "To make the best film I can make and to get it seen as widely as possible -- and in that order." I just hope the best film I can make is a good film :)