Asking for startup advice is a skill. You can teach yourself how to do it and you can improve with practice. I was very lucky to have had great mentors and advisors by my side when we startedWorkable. The most useful thing they taught me was how to ask for help, how to make it count, and how to give back. Learning this skill is a gift that keeps on giving.
For whatever reason, perhaps the exposure from Workable or this blog, I get a lot of emails from young startups, usually asking for advice on their business plan or fundraising. Cool. I love to hear new ideas and it feels great to help when I can. My time is limited, but I try to give 20 minutes to as many people as possible. Yes, it can be a bit tedious for someone who’s very busy, bu I’ve met some great people this way, I’ve found companies I ended up investing in and I’ve learned a lot.
I did notice though, that most people don’t know how to ask for help. So, here’s a little bit of meta-advice. A list of tips on how to ask for advice. It’s probably not the perfect list. But I promise you that if you do what I describe here, you will get way more value from each contact you make, and you’ll leave behind a good professional impression regardless of your business’ circumstances.
1. Be open and specific
Don’t be the guy who sends out a vague email saying “I’m thinking of some business idea and want to talk to you”. Talk to me about what? Do you want advice? Co-operation? Career mentorship? What are you up to? How do I know I can help? What kind of help am I expected to give?
When you send an intro email, be very specific about who you are, what you’re up to, and how you would like the other person to help. You can do this in two sentences. Watch this:
“Hi, we’re an early stage startup making recruiting software for SMEs and Steve suggested that you have a ton of experience selling enterprise software to small businesses. I’d like to show you what we’ve built and ask for your feedback on our marketing – we won’t need more than 20 minutes for an introductory call.”
It takes less than a minute to read this email and figure out what I’m asking for, if they can help and what they need to do to help.
2. Make it easy
Chances are you’re asking a person who’s busier than you are to set aside hard-to-find time to help with your problems. Make it easy for them to do so.
Make it clear you’re only asking for 15-20 minutes of their time at first. Say that you’re available at a time of their own choice. Offer to Skype or call them on their number of choice. Do NOT insist in meeting face-to-face for a coffee or at their office, unless they suggest it first.
Simply put, your attitude should be “if you have 20 minutes of your time that you’re willing to give to me, I’ll take it even if I have to call you while you’re walking your dog, hell, even if I have to come walk the damn dog with you.”
3. Show up
If you’re offered a meeting or call, take it. Duh? Who wouldn’t, you may ask. Recently I decided to allocate a time slot on Saturday afternoons for taking advisory calls like these. You’ll be surprised at how many people started declining or asking for a more convenient time.
If you can’t be bothered to follow through and show up, maybe you didn’t really need or want the help in the first place. Don’t give the impression of someone who’s prepared to waste other people’s time without being prepared to do their part.
4. Don’t give up easily
Busy people may take some time to respond. They may cancel or reschedule. Thisdoesn’t mean they don’t care or that they’re unprofessional. (so long as they dont’ overdo it)
You are not being disrespectful if you send a couple of reminders. You can do it politely and show you care and are willing to wait and try again. Of course, if someone says “I can’t” or ignores you several tries, then it’s time for you to get the message. But better send one email too many than one email too few.
5. Do everyone’s homework
The burden is on you to make the most of the meeting. If there’s some preparation to be made, do it.
Send some information in advance if there is something to share. Send the meeting request. Add the other person on skype and send a polite “ready when you are” notice 5 minutes ahead of time. Thank the person who introduced you. Read up on the other person on LinkedIn. If you have specific contacts to ask for, find out who he may know beforehand (social networks make this easy).
Try to make it so that the other person can walk into a call with almost zero preparation and waste not a single minute on the practicalities – so that all the time goes into what you need to get out of the meeting.