Recently Mark Suster wrote a great post on how to use people’s time wisely. I could not agree more. As anyone in Boulder will tell you, the best thing about Boulder is the humility of its community. Everyone is open to meeting anyone else. It’s one of the things I love the most about being here and fundamentally believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep the community flywheel spinning.
As Trada is one of the bigger startups in Boulder now, I get asked to meet a lot with people about their ideas, startups, sales plans, and funding strategies. In general, I love doing this. I think it’s a privilege that anyone thinks I have something of value to share. Some weeks I have 5-8 meetings that have nothing to do with my business (if you want to find me it’s a safe bet to show up to Ozo or Jill’s at 8:30am on most weekdays). Some weeks it’s the other way around. After 100s of these meetings, some awesome, many painful and most in between I put together a little do and don’t list of my own. Some of this is a follow on to Mark’s post and some is an extension of what Brad Feld wrote a while ago about asking for his time. I’ll make the same caveat that everyone else who writes this kind of post makes: while some of these may sound petty and frankly some may sound like rants (who the hell does this guy think he is!), what I’m really trying to share is how to engage someone without creating unnecessary friction so you get the most out of their attention and time.
- Ask the person how they like to meet
I like breakfast. I like it because it gets me out of bed early and it allows me push the start of my day off a little bit. I can think about your questions and challenges much better if I haven’t slid into thinking about mine at the office yet. This is why I dislike meeting people for lunch and almost always refuse after-work drinks and/or dinner. I’m in my Trada zone the minute I step into the office. This sustains until I crawl into bed. Some people are the total opposite: they covet their morning time and are happy to take a break at lunch. The point is – ask the person what they prefer and respect what they tell you. It’s frustrating when I say “I’d like to do breakfast” and someone incessantly asks me to “Go have a beer” with them. A little fact about me: I don’t drink during the week, not even a beer. I save it for the weekend.
- Come to me
There is a great scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David and George Costanza get into a long debate over who should drive to the other person’s office across town in LA for a meeting. In the end the meeting (and proposed TV show they are discussing) goes up in smoke because they both dig their heels in on this. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked for my time and then said “Can you come to Denver?” While Denver and Boulder are not that far away (25 miles), the commute depending on the time of day is about 1 hour. If we meet for an hour that’s 3 hours of my time, 2 totally wasted on driving, that you’re asking for. This should probably be rule #1 as it completely boggles my mind when people ask this.
- Be on time or verify undeniably that you’ll be late
Showing up 45 minutes late and then saying “You got my email, right?” is about the quickest way for me to lose interest in anything you want to talk about. Things happen – to me as well. Quite a lot in fact as my schedule is usually a battlefield these days. The point here is if you are going to be late, undeniably verify with the person that they understand this and that it still works for them. An email shot into the void of the Interweb is not sufficient. You must get a response. A simple trick – make sure you’ve got someone’s phone number for a meeting. That way you can text them if you’re late – it’s the easiest way to get a quick response. And if you’re late, change the pace of your meeting to keep up with the original timeline. I usually have back to backs all day so if you’re 30 minutes late don’t assume I can stay for another 30 minutes.
- Make it easy for me to find you
I meet 75% of the time with people I have never seen before. It’s amazing how hard some people try and make it for me to find them. Nothing is more fun than walking around a restaurant or coffee shop asking “Are you Bill?” Seriously, tell the hostess your name and my name or send me a text that says “I’m in the corner by the book shelf” or “I’m wearing a white hat”. It’s the little things.
- Respect people’s calendars and make it easy for me
Please send me an email with 3-4 times that work for you not one at a time. So many conversations go like this: “Thursday is fine”.. “Nope 10:30 doesn’t work, earlier”.. “Nope can’t do 9:30 either..” Just send me some times to pick from. And if I can’t do it then push to the next week, don’t try to ply me into moving something to meet you.
- Respect when people are not in meeting mode
Trada is an incredibly demanding business as we’re growing so fast. I also have 3 other boards that I sit on. These are my first through fourth priority when it comes to work. Depending on what’s going on with them, sometimes I simply am not in meeting mode. For my own sanity I have to declare months as “me-time” and shut down non-Trada stuff. It’s useful to understand people go through these cycles and not to get offended when I ask to meet a month or two from now. I have my own responsibilities and personal life too which sometimes I need to fiercely protect.
- Have an agenda and pace yourself
Chatting with people and getting to know them is fine and quite fun sometimes. But please have a storyline to our meeting. What do you want to talk about? What do you need? Who do you need to meet? Have an ask; and go ahead and ask it. That’s why I came – I’m expecting it. If I got paid for dispelling wisdom with no context I’d just sit on the street corner and ask for change (which is about all that my wisdom is worth these days!)
Related to this is asking how much time someone has. Almost always when I meet someone at 8:00am I have a 9:00am meeting (Jill’s is 1 block from my office so I need 2 mins to make it). If you have an ask, please do it at 8:20 not 8:55. I’ll push my 9:00 if I’m totally engaged but please don’t depend on me doing that. Asking the real question you want to ask at 8:55 just makes it awkward for everyone involved.
- Don’t ask for things until you are ready
I’m a big fan of networking. The minute I hear you talking about something that I think someone can help you with I’ll mention them. That does not mean that you should go home and write me a list of everyone I mentioned and ask for an email intro. Pick and choose some easy ones to get started. The busier the person I’m might introduce you to, the more credibility I’d like you to have. I’ve had meetings with people who have basically no idea what they want their startup to be who send me follow ups asking for introductions to 3-5 VCs. That’s just not going to happen. Align your ask-list of people with where you are in the process. I love getting emails that say “Can you introduce me to X now. In the future I’d love to meet Y but I need to do some more homework first”. That’s a smart networker.
- The ‘Reach’
Always make the ‘reach’ for the wallet. Let’s leave it at that.
- Follow up
I don’t want or need praise and thanks, but I do appreciate it when someone follows up and lists the things we talked about, the people we discussed sharing intros to and anything else relevant (“here’s that article I mentioned”). More than anything this helps me get context when we meet again in 6 months which often happens and many times is a delight.
- Don’t ask for another meeting until you’ve made real progress
I am more than happy to meet with people multiple times, but please base it on having made some progress. It’s frustrating to offer your time again, show up expecting to hear about progress and new issues, and then hear the same story as before. If you do that, you’ll likely get my more unvarnished responses to your questions. Be prepared.
To conclude: Be bold about asking for people’s time. It’s probably the #1 way I learn – by talking to people who have gone before me. I am always pleasantly surprised that most people will give you 30 minutes of their time, especially in the tech world. But you can definitely be smart about it.
As a final thought consider this: A long time ago I was in the restaurant business and someone once asked me, “Who’s the first and last person you interact with at a restaurant?” I said right away, “The hostess!” thinking I knew where they were heading. Well the actual right answer (for many places) is the valet. The point is, don’t screw up the open (showing up late without letting me know) or the close (not performing the basic social etiquette of offering to pay for the bill). If you follow the rest of the rules you’ll become a master networker in no time.