Knowing how to approach people in regards to business is a vital skill in the tech world. You basically have to convince people with far more experience, clout and resources than you that you matter enough to take up their time. Sadly too many n00bs believe that successful professionals are waiting with bated breath for someone below them to come and ask for help. That thought process has nothing to do with reality.
I receive on a constant basis more requests than I can keep track of for help, and to offer me the “opportunity” to support the latest random idea to pop out of the head of a n00b. Newbies have believed the lie peddled to them by the establishment that the world is waiting excitedly for the next kid with no experience, expertise or resources with some great idea. They are so enamored with the belief that the idea is what’s valuable they end up wasting time and irritating the very people they may need support from in the future.
The first thing to keep in mind when approaching others about business is that their time is valuable. They could be doing a lot of things other than talking to you or reading your email. They could be working on their own ideas, hiring/ firing employees, streamlining workflow, or possibly taking a nap. (You may laugh, but my naps are important to ME.) So if you’re going to approach someone figure out what it is you want to ask for, and why they should care. If you’ve done zero research about the industry you’re trying to break into, zero research into what’s required to build a product, and zero research into why the person should care then why should they talk to you? Everyone knows that YOU need something, but what does the other person need? You need to offer them something of value.
Once you figure out why the other person should care about you and your project you need to find an appropriate way to contact them. I can’t tell you how many emails I delete without reading. To be clear I’m not doing this to be pompous, but rather as a matter of course. There are so many emails I flag to read later, but then by the end of the week there are too just too many. Emails I genuinely meant to read and followup on get dumped so that I have half a chance of getting to the new ones coming in. Random “I need help” emails are as close to “spam” as you can get. When speaking or emailing someone you need to make the communication personal to them. “I’m doing XYZ… I think you would care because of ABC… and what I need from you is MNOP…” I can look at that and see why I should care, and then decide if I do. Frankly there’s still a 90% chance the message will get dumped, but you’re doing better than a 100% chance of being ignored.
The next thing is to keep your communication short, unless the person you’re talking to asks for more. People truly write me books in the form of email. I pull up someone’s random essay and just blank out. I try to care, I want to care, but my eyes just don’t focus and I let out a subtle groan. Maybe a better person would take the time to figure out this diatribe, but I never said I was a great person… Keep the message short and to the point. If the person is interested they’ll ask for more, if not then at least you’re not annoying. Just as I delete piles of emails every week I also ping some people for Skype calls and spend an hour dissecting what they’re talking about. If the person cares they’ll offer to talk over a cup of coffee, or Skype. Once they make the offer you know that they’re actually interested, and you’re more likely to get something good out of the encounter.
The final thing is to followup. Business is like dating in a lot of ways. If you act too needy then people think something is wrong with you, but if you’re too aloof people forget about you and go on to other things. If you go to an event judge how many contacts the person made and then estimate an appropriate time to give them from when they’ll be able to respond to you. If I meet someone at a Meetup I’ll ping them in 1-2 days. If I meet someone at CES I’ll hold off for 3 weeks. You want the person to be able to think about you and what you need with a clear head. If they get back to you try to secure a time to talk as quickly as possible. So if they say they’d be interested in meeting/ talking then respond with a time that is a few days away. They can then get back wth what works for them. If they don’t respond followup with an email after a week. Then 2 weeks, and then 3. If after 4 emails you hear nothing back then give-up. Not everyone is going to care about what you care about, and the last thing you want is for your email address to be permanently labeled as spam. (No one ever gets out of the Spam blacklist once they go in…)
These are some things to keep in mind when approaching people about business. I always find it odd how many people think I have a reputation for not helping people when in fact I help a lot of folks. The thing is I help the people I’m interested in helping. There are only so many hours in the day, and dollars in my bank account. Your job is to prove to me what you’re offering is more interesting than a nap in my hammock, it’s not my job to defend why I’m taking a nap…