BY Mark Suster in Both Sides of the Table||
OK. I know with a title like that I’m going to subject myself to people thinking I’m just being a grumpy, exclusive VC. That’s not the point. It’s honest advice so please judge once you’re read the post. And despite getting flamed (as expected) in the comments section – this isn’t about me. I meet plenty of people at all levels and whatever status. I’m not hierarchic. This is meant to be a general primer. It’s not about ME !!!
Meals or coffee are a great way to build rapport with other people and since I’m an ENTP I love breaking bread as much as the next guy. But there’e a time, a place and a way to do it as well as “the art of the ask” that avoids you looking like a rookie.
[update: yes, this is very US specific. It does not necessarily apply in other cultures or countries]
Here’s my advice:
I got an email from a young, super bright entrepreneur today. A guy I would love to work with – maybe even hire myself. I intro’d him to the COO of a growing tech company about maybe working together. They had never met. He responded by emailing the COO and asking him to lunch.
Here’s the deal. Busy execs hate lunches. They are time sucks. Sure, they like to occasionally meeting good friends for lunch, important contacts for them or group lunches. But somebody they don’t know? Not so much.
Same with dinner. I get emails all the time from people asking me on a first date and saying, “how about if I buy you dinner.” I hate to sound jaded but unless you’re taking me to The French Laundry (OK, I’m in then) a dinner is an obligation, not a pleasure. Why? I’ve had way too many nice meals in my day. Just look at my waistline.
But more to the point – a dinner out is a night I don’t get to spend with my kids and family. And given that I travel enough and have dinners with portfolio companies, etc. enough I value every night with my family.
And if you think this blog post was specifically targeting YOU because you asked me to lunch – it isn’t. I have nobody in mind. It’s just that I saw this exchange today and I know that some younger people could use some times on what is and isn’t appropriate.
So what can you do? And when is lunch or dinner OK?
1. First date, speculative meeting: I always recommend you ask for coffee. And better if it’s at their offices if you’re asking for the meeting. “Hey, can I bring you a coffee and get 30 minutes of your time at your offices next Tues or Wed? I promise I won’t overrun my time.” And don’t. You become an easy second date to accept.
2. First date, high intent: Let’s say you have a meeting with somebody you know wants to meet you. Let’s say it’s for biz dev purposes, or you’re pitching investors, recruiting, or it’s a sales meeting – whatever. Then you can more easily just say, “How about if I swing by your offices next Tues / Wed” and leave the shorter 30-minute time unit out. I wouldn’t mention length of time until you’re there. You might get an hour. Awesome. You don’t have to be sheepish about short time because you know they want to meet you.
My rule: if you’re asking for the meeting, you travel. If I meet somebody super senior – even if they’ve asked me for the meeting – I still travel. I want them to be the least amount inconvenienced. I want the meeting. I want it to be easy for them to have it. I’m the primary beneficiary.
Actually, if a super senior person from industry asks me to breakfast or lunch I’m never offended and usually accept when I can. That’s my personal acceptance level.
3. Follow up: Sometimes it’s OK on a follow up to ask people to your office. This is best when there’s a reason for a site visit. It can be great for second VC meetings. I always prefer at your office so I can kick the tires. It’s great for sales meetings where you can show your prospects what kind of organization you have. I like board meetings at your place so we can pull in other team members and hear from them.
4. The Cheeky ask: As I said, I’m a big believer in social settings for meetings. You can break through that awkward “we’re across the formal table presenting” attitude. Break bread. Talk about more than just biz. So often I’ll ask people, “Hey, do you have time for a quick coffee? Or how about we meet first thing in the morning and grab a quick breakfast?” I have asked the polite question that gives them the easier option but thrown in “the cheeky ask” for a meal.
People often ask like, “can I buy you a cup of coffee or a quick drink after work?” I like that. I usually accept the former – except when I’m travelling. But you don’t make the person feel like you’re too forward by going for a drink.
But what about lunch, Mark? Are you really that grouchy?
No. I actually love the right kind of lunch meetings. Here’s where it’s OK
1. You’re already dating. If you know the person well – in whatever capacity – then lunch is fine. But I like the approach of asking for a meeting first but adding “or if you’re open any days for lunch I’d love to buy you a quick meal” so it’s easier for them to just accept the former.
2. You’re peers: If you’re peers and a lunch meeting would be much more acceptable. If you’re both startup CEOs at about the same level – no harm in asking. If you’re both VC Associates – no biggie. If you’re both partners in a VC firm – no biggie. If you’re both well capitalized CEOs and you’re just looking to build a deeper relationship / networking – usually fine.
3. Fortuitous times: Sometimes you notice that you’ve gotten a 12.30pm time slot for a meeting. It never hurts to throw in, “hey, I noticed that we’re meeting at 12.30. If you don’t already have lunch plans, perhaps we meet over a quick meal?”
4. People traveling: Often when people are traveling they’re more open because they don’t have a family to get to see. When I’m in SF or NY I do breakfast, lunch & dinner meetings every day. I would be open to a first date being breakfast and a second date being lunch. I’m more likely to say yes to dinner for either people I know OR groups of entrepreneurs that I meet en masse. I’ll often schedule a 10-15 person dinner and ask a local entrepereneur to bring people for general networking. On these occasions I always pay. But when I travel I’m a social machine. Meals, meals, meals. I find many other people are, too.
5. Group dinners: It’s always appropriate to invite people to group networking dinners. People may say yes or no but they’re often flattered to be invited. I like to think about the peer group I’m inviting and whether they’d want to meet everybody else. I invite some senior people, some junior people doing big things. You can definitely ask senior people to dinners (VCs, senior execs at companies, etc.) It won’t seem awkward. My recommendation is to bagsie a senior “anchor” person and use their name in the invitation. People go to dinners to meet other interesting people. So having somebody that people want to meet is a great way to start.
By all means “lunch.” But keep in mind whom you’re meeting, the appropriate levels, the likely business of the person, how well you know them and whether it’s appropriate to even ask. And if you’re slightly out of your league in asking then start with a soft ask, “how about coffee” following by a cheeky, “if you’re open for breakfast or lunch maybe we could grab a quick bite.” You’ll notice in every ask I use the word “quick.” It feels like less of a commitment.
Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Read more about Mark.