HR Tech and Advisory Boards
Dwane Lay
December 21, 2015

The Tradition of Advisory Boards

There’s a long standing tradition of HR tech companies creating advisory boards to help them guide their company.  This has been especially visible over the last few months, and I’ve had several clients and contacts asking about our board, how we use them, and what value they add.  The answer is really simple.

We don’t have one.

It’s not that we haven’t thought about it or discussed it.  We did.  We had long discussions over it, and as a team made the decision that there wasn’t value to us adding a board.  There are good reasons to have an advisory board, I think.  Here are a few of them, and our perspective.

Product Direction

The obvious (or at least the most often mentioned) benefit of an advisory board is, well, advice.  Getting input from thought leaders or industry insiders on what is coming next, what should be developed, and what will be important in the next year are often critical to product success and a clear roadmap.  Start-ups need this direction to make sure the rock of idea(s) on which their church is built is enough to sustain them.  Without this input, companies are often forced to abandon their ideas…sorry, PIVOT…to raise funding and stay in business.

Our product is built on three pillars.  The first is our own knowledge of the system and how it works.  We’ve been building tools for twenty years, and we use our own product.  We have a list of ideas that we know will make our software, and thereby our lives, better.  Second is the voice of our own clients.  I’ve often said that our best ideas come from them, and they find ways to adapt our highly configurable product to their own needs.  If you check back through our blogs, we’ve several posts talking about this, and how some really great questions have led us to inventive solutions over the years.  Finally, our development team is continuously looking at ways to improve the system plumbing, using the latest tools and technology for building and collaboration.  We not only pay a lot of attention to technical debt, security, and stability, but our team is on the leading edge when it comes to the tools we use.  You can be sure when a tool like Github or Slack shows up in the news, we’ve been using it for months already.

Functional Knowledge

Outside advisers are also brought in to fill functional knowledge gaps.  From our perspective, there’s a definite trend in HR Tech of too much tech, not enough HR.  Most of the vendors you see fit into this mold.  Ideas appear the market with questionable application, or even tools built for a different function that are being shoehorned into HR.  When you lack the perspective of having been in the trenches, it’s hard to understand why HR and IT are not the same, and why they need different tools.

We’ve been thoughtful about the way we’ve assembled our team, and have made sure to include former HR practitioners and leaders in the mix, both on the operational and the product side.  We don’t need to ask for outsiders to help us with this because we’ve brought it inside.  Where it belongs.

Networking and Introductions

The most common reason to bring on a board, and the least discussed, is to simply make introductions and act as an extension of the sales team.  This becomes very evident when you pay attention to those who sit on multiple advisory boards while they also review products or services offered.

Reputable writers will tell you when they are being compensated for promoting a product,
or when they are denigrating a competitor of one of their clients. 

But that isn’t always done, which is why the source of that content should always be considered.  Outside of this, it’s very common for board members to have an “introduction” quota each month as a metric to earn their board pay.  This is a marketing function, and is an accepted expectation of an advisory board member.  That doesn’t mean it is wrong or shady, just not always evident to the target audience.

We’ve never been a fan of paying for leads, and we think our product stands on its own.  Our clients introduce us to their friends, and we’ve even been brought into new companies by our clients who changed roles.  On top of that, our sales team is well-regarded and we work hard to build relationships with HR.  We work with the SHRM community on our No Kid Hungry fundraiser each year, we speak at conferences (and not about our product!), and we are a certified content provider for HRCI.  That’s the right way to network, we think.

Brag Factor

There is a certain cache involved in having well known influencers backing your company.  Who wouldn’t want to have William Tincup, Trish McFarlane, John Sumser or Kyle Lagunas saying wonderful things about them?  (Back to that full disclosure thing…they are all friends and wonderful people, and I’ve probably worked with all of them at some point.)  If the best and brightest want to work with you, that must mean something.  While there’s truth to that, it’s also true that most board positions are paid.  And those costs, like all others, are at some point passed along to the customer.  Just like giant booths or swinging parties at a big conference, the money has to come from somewhere.  And if you are a client, that means it’s coming from you.

Is there value in doing so?  It depends on the company and the context.  I’m sure many companies would tell you it’s been great for them.  For us, though, it’s doesn’t meet our goals and our vision for how we operate.  We prefer to stay focused on making the best product possible, providing great service, and building a platform to make HR better, stronger and faster.

Advisory boards can be a great thing.  They just aren’t a great thing for us.

One Comment to "HR Tech and Advisory Boards"
  1. Bill Boorman says:

    Dwane,
    You make some good points and as you say, you don’t need or want any outside help. As someone who sits on or leads 7 advisory boards I can share some thoughts from my perspective about what makes advisory work and what doesn’t. The sales quotas you mention are applied to some advisors, I have never worked on this basis, because that would make me a salesmen rather than an advisor. I am aware of advisors who are paid for introductions or sales, I decline such contracts because this leads to biased advice in my opinion, the same as I wouldn’t enter in to partnership agreements for promotion or affinity sales.
    When it comes to advisor remuneration, this is usually structured in two ways, part payment for time, and part share options, to give some shared investment in the future success of the business. Members of any of the advisory boards I lead are selected to provide a specific area of expertise from technical, to marketing to adoption. I look to advisors who mix advisory with client work delivering to companies who represent the user base. On my part, I work on a minimum of two client projects a year, currently Naspers and Bank of Ireland. This keeps thinking current with real challenges. It is unusual to be able to keep advice current without delivering work in the field you advise.
    I agree 100% on disclosure, where I raise a solution I work with as an adviser I always declare this. I also list all of the companies I work, or have worked with on both my LinkedIn profile and bio. This should be standard practice for all advisors, although I am aware that for some this is not common practice. The same rules applied to advisors should also be applied to analysts (who are advisors by a different name), and events who offer pay to play. The argument over active HR folk being advisors will rage on, although contracts often prohibit this, which means that in reality advisors are usually consultants from the field rather than those in active service.
    I can only speak on my part, but if I didn’t believe advisors add real value, I wouldn’t work as one.
    Bill

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