Reflecting on “Creating Value” and Reaching Out to Others
A couple weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Poornima Vijayashanker of Femgineer. We spoke about startup failure, resilience, new opportunities, and networking. During the course of our conversation, we discussed the notion of reaching out to others — particularly the idea of reaching out to influential people in one’s network “without a reason.” It occurred to me recently that there is a massive difference between reaching out to someone in a tactless way and building a bridge with someone to facilitate dialogue and potential partnership in the future. Let me explain.
Poornima and I both expressed to be fans of the mantra “create value for others before asking for it for yourself” — a notion that I was opened up to and drawn to through following Chris Sacca and others. Part of what the mantra espouses is the belief that doing things for other people leads to people wanting to do good things for you in return. It underscores the idea of good karma and proving one’s worth rather than just saying it. Sometimes, actions do truly speak louder than words.
But it also presented a challenge the more I thought about it. In my mind, part of creating value for others is recognizing the importance of their time, and treating it, as Mark Cuban would say, as their most precious resource. That understood, what if you want to get to know someone simply for the opportunity to get to know them? What if you don’t (yet) have a company or idea you want to pitch, or a fund round you want them to lead, or even an intro you want them to make for you? What if it really is as simple as identifying someone whose personality has an impact on you and wanting to cultivate a relationship with that person?
In short, how do you build your Minimum Viable Network without alienating the very people you hope to forge connections with?
“Don’t Ask to Pick My Brain Over a Coffee Meeting”
Investors (and others) always say “don’t ask me if we can meet for coffee so you can pick my brain.” I’ve heard it numerous times from influential investors whom I respect. However, it didn’t match up with the private interactions I’ve had with a few influential investors myself (who shall remain unnamed to protect their inboxes). So, how do I have multiple standing offers to meet with some important people just to grab a coffee and chat — talk music — talk politics — talk relationships?
I put in time to get to know them beforehand. Before any coffee meeting was ever discussed.
I believe that when influential people say, “don’t ask me to meet for coffee or to pick my brain,” they’re not really saying “I’ll never have coffee with you.” (Though, as with all generalizations, there are always exceptions).
What they’re really saying is, “I won’t meet with you if I don’t know you.”
You Build a Minimum Viable Network Through People Knowing You
So what does “knowing me” mean?
Sometimes it means that someone in their network has recommended and vouched for you.
Other times, though, it means that they know we might share similar musical taste, a similar sense of humor, similar worldviews, and/or similar values. They’re articulating a desire to meet with people who’ve put in the time and effort to cultivate a relationship prior to the coffee meeting; time speaking on Twitter, helpful feedback on projects, and certainly time cultivating agood reputation amongst the other people in their network.
This is how you get that coffee meeting that it appears no one ever gets. Be real, be engaging. If you share a similar musical or movie taste with someone you want a relationship with, let them know. Post funny gifs, make references, lurk in conversations and make great observations — show that you have things in common on a human level outside the work paradigm.
This is how great networkers build great relationships.
Then, when you do have a specific idea you want to pursue, fund, or are seeking feedback on, reaching out to these people will be so much easier because a rapport has already been established. Not every good relationship needs to begin with a double-opt-in intro (though this is certainly one of the best techniques). It is possible to build great relationships on the backs of numerous coffee meetings where you just shoot the breeze with a sought-after investor — but these will take much more time and care.
Be prepared to be patient, and always reciprocate good karma with good karma. Be humble in valuing someone else’s time, and it will speak louder than any idea you try to pitch in the moment.