The Three Types of Startup Advisors You’ll Find: The Dad-type, the Mom-type, and the Grandpa-type.

If you are doing a startup, just starting as a side-project or profitable and on its way to unicorndom, as a founder you are bound to encounter many advisors on your journey. These interactions come in unstructured and structured ways: the coffee with a friend of a friend who’s an exec at a Fortune 500 to an entrepreneur who is a formal advisor on your board. They come with different names as advisors, partners, mentors or just friend.

Over the last decade, I’ve had my fair share of advice received. I’d say I had more than 1,000 lunches, dinners, coffee, drinks or plain meetings with advisors. There is no certification or requirement to be an advisor. When people seek you to give an advice, you become an advisor. There is one commonality among all advisors: they don’t have to live with the consequences of their advice. That’s why they are different from employees. Employees (you and your team) need to actually take the advice, make it happen, live with it and if it fails, you can’t blame anyone but you. Advisors, on the other hand, never get the blame, as it probably should be, and, worst of all, don’t have to live with it.

Mentor whiplash is a real thing and you can read this post from Fred Wilson and follow on by Brad Feld on what to do about it. Go on, I’ll wait here.

Being on the receiving end of that whiplash (and probably on the sending end as well), I can tell you there are three types of mentors you’ll encounter. Each provide their own value, and possibly the same person might personify more than one type in a single meeting, but being able to identify which type of advisor you are talking to will help you do a better job at understanding the true value of that advice.

(Despite the fact that I use gender stereotypes on the categorization of advisors, this is not about gender)

The Dad-type Advisor

The Dad has the answers. He knows best. He’ll tell you exactly what you need to do and when. He’s the one who sees you drilling a hole in the wall and yells from the other side of the room “That’s nowhere the hole should go, it should go here” and he grabs the drill from your hand, drills it and breaks a pipe.

He’s more experienced than you and by the sheer nature of his experience he has to know best, right? That’s the person that will give you answers, even when you asked no questions yet. He (or she) will tell you how to run your business, how to price your product, which features to add, who you should hire and which partnership to pursue with no lack of confidence.
Turns out that the Dad Advisor is wrong, most of the time. But the conviction and precision of their advice makes it hard to ignore. The only way this advice is valuable is that if you think as “this is what this person would do if he was running the business” and not “this is what we should do”. Then, it’s on you to unpack why this person got to the conclusions they’ve got to and use that as a data point to make your own decisions.

The Mom-type Advisor

The Mom won’t give you answers. She’ll ask you questions. She’s like a therapist that knows if she tells you what she thinks without you being prepared to hear it you might take it at face value or you might ignore it completely.

The Mom Advisor will help you figure out a framework to find the answer. She will help you decide what’s the best way to prove or disprove a hypothesis. She will answer most of the question with “it depends” and it will drive you nuts because you really just wanted a black-and-white answer.
The Mom Advisor has incredible clarity that this is your path, not hers. It’s not about what she would do, but it’s about what’s best for you and where you are on your journey. Sometimes there is a right answer, but most of the time the answer you pick is the right one.

On the other hand, with the simple stuff, she’ll give it to you straight. Don’t cheat, be happy, follow your heart, be kind, eat your vegetables. She knows the simple stuff just needs to be taken care of and dwelling on it won’t make or break your business. Need payments? Use Stripe. Need Retention Analytics? Mixpanel. Where to store source code? Github. Sure, there are dozens of options, and her answer on those won’t be wrong because they won’t make or break your startup. She knows exactly when she’ll give it straight (when it doesn’t matter) or she’ll help you find the answer (when it does matter).

The Grandpa-type Advisor

Ah, the Grandpa Advisor. We like them so much we’ll even pay to listen to them talk. That’s the advisor that instead of giving you answers (Dad-type) or asking you questions (Mom-type), will tell you a story. It’s their personal war story. Sometimes (always?) a little embellished, but what a good story it is. You ask them about your Series A round strategy and they spend 30-minutes telling their story of raising that Series A. In the end, it might not even have any direct value or relation to what you need, but you’ll love it anyway. And talking with advisors like that, a picture starts to paint itself right in front of you.

When Ben Horowitz wrote The Hard Thing About Hard Things he didn’t set out to write an advice book. He set out to write his story in the hope that people would find it valuable. The same thing about Dan Shapiro’s Hot Seat — Startup CEO Guidebook. It’s not as much a guide as a collection for first-person stories on being a first-time CEO. We love Grandpa Advisors so much we pay to go to conferences full of them and listen to them talk about their stories on how they found their co-founder, how they got acquired, how they negotiated their first million-dollar contract that changed the story of the company, etc.

(Side note to event organizers: If you want to create a successful conference, let speakers tell a personal story that relates to the conference topic.)

If there is one thing that we can all learn from religion, is just plain advice or life-lesson (business-lesson) doesn’t work. It has to be embedded within a narrative, a human story that we can relate to, directly (empathetically) or indirectly (sympathetically).

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.