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When Starting a Business, You Need a Brain Trust

5 tips for forming the group that's better than a board of directors


People starting a business after 50 are often told one of their first priorities should be putting together a board of directors of recognized experts in their field. But I believe that entrepreneurs who jump right into developing a board of directors are missing a real opportunity to test and fine-tune their ideas.

I'd recommend instead that you first assemble an informal Brain Trust to get honest feedback on the merits of your idea and business model before you go to market.

What a Brain Trust Can Do For You

A Brain Trust is a small group of trusted colleagues from different sectors who thrive on decoding problems and designing new solutions to foster rapid feedback. Speed is important to members of a Brain Trust because they’re volunteering their time. And it’s important to you so you can test ideas and build prototypes quickly if you need to pivot or redesign your business model.

(MORE: Starting a Business After 50)

Members of a Brain Trust are free to critique your plans because, unlike boards of directors, they have no fiscal responsibility for your business. They are particularly valuable in the early stage, but can also contribute to long-term, sustainable innovation in your organization.

Boards of directors, by contrast, are responsible for keeping your business financially sound. But they can also stifle creativity and drain energy as they exercise their fiscal control.

For the past six months, I’ve had an opportunity to work with three Brain Trusts. One, which I call The Kitchen Cabinet, is for my own organization, Senior Entrepreneurship Works, and the others are the Association for Managers of Innovation or AMI  and QED Training’s The Board You Cannot Afford, a thriving spin-off of Going for Growth in Ireland. I’ve also interviewed the founders of these organizations to learn why and how they created and use their Brain Trusts.

So, based on my experience and theirs, I’d like to offer you some advice on how to form, or participate in, a Brain Trust for optimal results.

Optimal Size and Use

Ideally, a Brain Trust should include no more than a dozen volunteers from different sectors or disciplines. The key is to get multiple perspectives and divergent viewpoints in order to create positive collisions, which generate new ideas and directions — the kind you’d never get if everyone shared the same perception or discipline.

(MORE: Secrets of Successful Business Owners)

Once you get these ideas, you then want to convert them into a positive force, including innovative action steps, which can be implemented, evaluated and assessed for impact.

The Kitchen Cabinet Brain Trust

My group’s Brain Trust, The Kitchen Cabinet, was spearheaded by Jeanne Sullivan, Co-Founder of StarVest Partners, a New York City venture capital firm, and dubbed by Forbes “one of the women VCs changing the world.” Sullivan is a huge fan of Brain Trusts (which she calls Boards of Advisers), saying that the biggest mistakes she’s made in business happened when she decided to go it alone.

"The process of working with a Brain Trust or Board of Advisers allows you to focus on two or three issues at a time, develop your capabilities and leadership style,” says Sullivan. “It prepares you to work effectively with a Board of Directors when that time comes."

The Kitchen Cabinet has just four members and we are looking to add others. Our four — two left-brainers and two right-brainers — have very different professional backgrounds, and the ideas and solutions they identify rise out of the creative tension. They meet once a week virtually; quarterly in-person.

A Brain Trust for Brainiacs

AMI is a global network of professionals who manage the innovation process within their respective organizations. It was founded by Stan Gryskiewicz, one of the original founders of the Center for Creative Leadership, and author of Positive Turbulence. The group was originally designed to be a creativity seminar for scientists to talk about their new inventions and thinking. But it has morphed into bi-annual, invitation-only sessions in which small groups of its 85 members discuss creative approaches to solve organizational, social and economic issues.

The goal of each convening is to push the boundaries of traditional thinking, or, as Gryskiewicz says, "to ask the 'what ifs' and force us out of our velvet ruts to explore future-perfect possibilities." I’ve attended AMI meetings and they always open my mind to new insights that can be applied to my work.
 
The Brain Trust With Irish Eyes

The Board You Cannot Afford was created as a result of Joanne Hession's participation in the inaugural six-month program of the Brain Trust known as Going for Growth, in 2009. Hession, who has advised the Irish government on getting the unemployed to become entrepreneurs and is co-author of Don’t Get a Job, Build a Business! is founder of QED Training in Dublin and Ignite Ireland.
 
She experienced the huge benefit of Going for Growth's peer-to-peer mentoring and convinced several members to form a group of their own to keep going beyond the six months. Hession's Board You Cannot Afford continues thriving today because, she says, "members feel free to discuss needs that they'd not be comfortable exposing to a traditional Board of Directors."
 
Its 10 volunteers are successful businesswomen who contribute creative ideas, solutions, and resources such as connections who can help make things happen. (I met Hession through one of those connections and, as a result, we’ll be working together to deliver senior entrepreneurship workshops in Ireland early next year.)
 
Hession attributes much of her success to her Brain Trust. To date, QED has trained thousands of entrepreneurs, and in November 2014, Hession launched "Ignite Academy," a hub in Dublin to help people start their own business.
 
Hession's Brain Trust inspiration, Going for Growth, continues to thrive and expand. It was founded by Paula Fitzsimons, another entrepreneurship leader in Ireland, to support female entrepreneurs committed to the strategic development of their businesses.
 
Top 5 Tips for Creating Your Own Brain Trust
 
Here are what these founders and I think are the Top 5 tips for creating your brain trust:
 
1. Start early. Create a team to vet your ideas from the get-go; don't wait until you have a business model. You need to introduce your idea to a variety of experts and encourage them to poke holes in it so you don't waste time creating a business plan for a product or service that isn’t viable.
 
2. Diversity is key. Try to include different ages, genders, backgrounds and areas of expertise. Innovative ideas and solutions bubble up when the people in the group have different perspectives.
 
3. Keep the insights confidential. Have all members agree to strict confidentiality rules to create a safe place for thinking out of the box and playing with new ideas. Establish a sense of collaboration and shared purpose to foster free and open discussion. Make it clear that if you break the rules, you're out of the Brain Trust.
 
4. Business is a priority. A Brain Trust session is not a social meeting; it’s a serious working session where each member is counting on feedback from people they respect. Establishing accountability is important. After a meeting, members should prepare a one-pager outlining what they’ll do next based on the feedback they've received and then report back on that at the next session.
 
5. Create an asking/giving environment. Brain Trust members must be willing to share ideas, information and resources. At every session, anyone who has an "ask" of the group must also be willing to "gift" a resource. This needs to be a win-win for everyone involved.

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