When I was a small child, I heard about Dale Carnegie's book, How to Win Friends & Influence people.
I figured it would be an improvement over my somewhat different strategy for Losing Friends & Alienating People which might be a story for another day.
Unfortunately, the book story was out of copies, so I bought his earlier book on salemanship which was based on his course which I had never heard of. Despite having no interest in sales, it was the only thing that they had by him so I bought it.
The main lesson of the book was the three step system
- meet lots of people
- ask everyone
- someone will buy
A version of this got me through my academic and professional life prior to starting a business. That version was
- meet lots of people
- ask everyone
- someone will know
And that worked for me for decades, until I started a business and needed to adapt it yet again.
- meet lots of people
- ask everyone
- someone will know someone
I believe that the biggest stroke of luck that many of us have is a fortuitous introduction and the biggest obstacle is the lack of such an introduction. The “chance meeting” stroke of luck is incredibly important and one of the four areas of “luck as a learnable skill” that has been well researched.
It's not my subject for today.
Nor is the “how to network” that is taught commonly and badly as part of meeting lots of people.
Rather I am dedicating today on how to get that introduction and even more on how to not get it.
When I introduce someone to a potential investor, supplier, or earlier adopter, I don't need to know that will turn into a deal or relationship. What I do need to know is that the people will be happy that I introduced them to each other.
This means that I have to know what type of an introduction would be useful to you. Most requests for introductions and in fact descriptions of projects are so vague that I can't figure out how to make an introduction or otherwise be of help. Getting over a somewhat broader version of this vagueness problem is one of the four learnable skills of luck. For the general populace is a problem of talking about things that matter rather than wasting all the time in small talk; but for startup companies, it is not sufficiently understanding the customers, investors, distributors, acquirers, journalists, and such that you need. To make an introduction I need to be able to figure out exactly who it is that you need to talk to.
Think of this as a variation on theme of the elevator pitch.
During the question time at the end, I will invite you to present that extremely short pitch with hopes we can quickly optimize it.
But now, I am going to turn to the main body of today's talk. Things that stop me from introducing people even when I know who to introduce them to.
Each of these happened with real start up companies looking for funding or early adopters.
They all happened in a single week.
It wasn't an unusual week.
Failure to acknowledge calendar invitations.
If I make an introduction, that almost always leads to a follow call, meeting, or these days video call.
That means coordinating calendars. If I don't believe you can handle a calendar, I can't introduce you to someone. If you don't acknowledge the calendar invite that that I've sent out, it's a black mark. Whether it was an automated system, or a text, or an email, it's a black mark.
Even if you show up on time to the actual appointment, it's still a black mark.
Not following explicit simple instructions.
My calendly asks “Please, when practical, email copies of presentation well in advance to …”
When the document arrive five minutes before the meeting as a linkedin message, or a text message or anything other than email, it's two black marks.
Not keeping commitments.
If in email you promise data the next day, and after I send three email reminders over the course of two weeks (all of which generated read receipts) and it is still another week before I get the data which turns out to be be incomplete…
… all of which happens without any pro-active warning that you will be late or that the data is incomplete …
… and when I was so naively silly as to promise the data to the board member of a fortune-50 company that could be your first early adopter…
It's more black marks than I can count. (One of which is against me, myself — bad Russell; bad Russell.)
Failing to correct inconsistencies.
When your pitch deck has major numeric inconsistencies …
… that aren't corrected in three successive practice pitches …
…. and are large enough for any investor to discard your pitch and write you off forever …
It's a very big black mark.
Having an embarrassingly bad video conference environment.
When the lights are behind you in zoom are angled such that your face is entirely in shadow…
… but the lights shine directly in my eyes to the point that I move another window over the part of the screen …
… or the ceiling fan in the background is distracting enough that I have to cover the camera window entirely …
… or the audio is so bad, the instead of asking substantive questions, I have to ask you to repeat yourself …
I can't set up a video call introduction for you. It's a big black mark.
Failing with attention to detail.
Slide numbers that are out of order.
Numeric columns that are left aligned rather than right aligned.
Color choices and font sizes that I can't read over zoom (and perhaps would fail at even in person).
These are correctly, so only a small black mark as long as they correct by the time I talk with you next. Of course if you don't fix them, then it become a big black mark.
(Many people feel this way about spelling mistakes on slide decks. They bother me, personally, much less.)
Setting up a meeting under false pretenses.
When you set up a call saying that you want advise or for me to be a mentor or on an advisory board, and you ask for introductions to investors and/or for a personal investment from me, it's a big black mark.
Or when you set it up offering to help one of my companies find new customers and instead you want to be a supplier to them.
Or when you set it up to talk about my research and you want to sell something to me.
Or worse, when you get me to make an introduction on such a false pretext and I fall for it. (Silly, trusting Russells).
After I told you aren't ready, asking for an immediate introduction anyway
A company that is two years away from an institutional round wants a spot in an accelerator for companies that are within six months of qualifying.
A company that has no real customers wanting to pitch to an investor that needs 4 months of 20% month over month growth.
A company with no revenue wanting venture debt from a lender that requires three years of profitability.
These eight touched a single week.
So today rather than asking the question that I begin the variety majority of my meetings with early stages companies with, which is
How can I be most helpful today?
I will instead ask
What can we do to make it easier for people to help you in general, and to help you by way of introductions in particular?
We have time for questions and/or examples elevator explanations that we can work to optimize.