These two immigrant entrepreneurs got instant credibility by using American advisors. Find out how they did it…..and how you can too.
What’s one of the most effective ways to get a business off to a strong start? Bring in top experts and business leaders as advisors. Chris and Natasha Ashton, founders of the $40 million pet insurance company Petplan USA, realized early what a big credibility builder this could be. As immigrants from the U.K., they also knew that teaming up with Americans would help them to speed the learning curve about how business is done in the U.S.
But with few connections when they came to the U.S., they had to work hard to build relationships with the people who later joined their board of directors and veterinary advisory board. Here are three strategies they recommend to other entrepreneurial immigrants who would like to build a powerful brain trust.
There are few better ways to get a business off to a strong start than bringing in top experts and business leaders as advisors.
1) Be Bold About Asking For Introductions
Meetings with influential business people aren’t likely to happen by accident, especially when you are new to a country. One way to meet business leaders is by attending local events or talks for entrepreneurs, perhaps at a university or business group, such as the chamber of commerce, in your area. Chris Ashton took this approach. When he found out that Vernon Hill—who founded Commerce Bank and led it until it was sold for $8.5 billion—was speaking at a student program at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he tried to sign up for the gathering. To Chris, Hill seemed like someone with a lot to teach entrepreneurs like him.
But the school told Chris he could not attend the student event, because he had already graduated from the MBA program. So Chris asked the school’s entrepreneurship program if he could meet Hill for lunch. “It turned out he had a gap in his schedule at lunchtime,” says Chris, who had the opportunity to meet Hill for a private lunch with two members of the program.
Result: Chris had a more than ample chance to talk with Hill about his business. Afterward, the pet-loving bank founder began offering Petplan USA’s insurance to his employees as a benefit.
They also knew that teaming up with Americans would help them to speed the learning curve about how business is done in the U.S.
Of course, keeping in touch with business leaders you meet at such events is essential, as they aren’t likely to come to you with an offer to share their expertise. In January 2008, when Petplan USA was in a high-growth phase, the Ashtons realized they needed a great advisor. They invited Hill to a meeting, where they talked about their research into the size of the marketplace. “He became more and more interested in the opportunity and the huge potential growth market,” says Chris. Hill became chairman of their board of directors in April 2008. He also led a group of investors who got involved.
2) Build Relationships with Experts You Already Know.
When the Ashtons’ cat, Bodey, got sick, the veterinarian who treated their pet was Dr. Ken Drobatz, a highly regarded professor of critical-care emergency services at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital at University of Pennsylvania. The couple kept in touch with him afterward, seeking advice as they grew their business. When they later invited Drobatz to join their veterinary advisory board, Dr. Drobatz was already very familiar with their venture and aware that the couple was responsive to his previous suggestions. He has become one of their most involved advisors. “He has talked at trade shows on our behalf,” says Chris.
One way to meet business leaders is by attending local events or talks for entrepreneurs, perhaps at a university or business group, such as the chamber of commerce, in your area.
3) Respect Your Advisors’ Time.
“The kind of people you want on your board are very busy, successful people,” says Chris. Typically, they won’t expect you to pay them. They will usually come on board on a voluntary basis because they see a business advantage to doing so, whether it is a chance to invest early in a promising company or a way to network with your other high-powered advisors. While they may enjoy helping you with business strategy or an area, such as accounting, in which they have an expertise, don’t expect them to be available for constant phone calls about the daily decisions you must make as an entrepreneur.
To make the most of the time they have with their advisors, the Ashtons schedule meetings with them in advance for every couple of months or so, and communicate with them by email otherwise. This keeps the advisors’ time commitment to about 10 hours a year or less—and still gives Petplan USA ample opportunity to tap into their expertise.