How to get meetings with people too busy to see you

Asking, “Can I have coffee with you to pick your brain?” is probably the worst possible way to get a meeting with someone with a busy schedule.  Here’s a better approach.


Jason, an entrepreneur I’ve known for over a decade, came out to the ranch today. He was celebrating selling his company and just beginning to think through his next moves. Since he wasn’t from Silicon Valley, he decided to use his time up here networking with other meetings with VC’s and company executives.

I get several hundred emails a day, and a good number of them are “I want to have coffee with you to bounce an idea off.” Or, “I just want to pick your brain.” I now have a filter for which emails get my attention, so I was curious in hearing what Jason, who I think of as pretty good at networking, was asking for when he was trying to set up meetings.

“Oh, I ask them if I can have coffee to bounce an idea off of them.”…Sigh.

I realized most entrepreneurs don’t know how to get meetings with people too busy to see you.

Perfect World
Silicon Valley has a “pay-it-forward” culture where we try to help each other without asking for anything in return. It’s a culture that emerged in the 60’s semiconductor business when competitors would help each other solve bugs in their chip fabrication process. It continued in the 1970’s with the emergence of the Homebrew Computer Club, and it continues today.  Since I teach, I tend to prioritize my list of meetings with first my current students, then ex-students, then referrals from VC firms I’ve invested in, and then others.  But still with that list, and now with a thousand plus ex-students, I have more meeting requests than I possibly can handle. (One of the filters I thought would keep down the meetings is have meetings at the ranch; an hour from Stanford on the coast, but that hasn’t helped.)

So I’ve come up with is a method to sort out who I take meetings with.

What are you offering?
I’m not an investor, and I’m really not looking for meetings with entrepreneurs for deal flow. I’m having these meetings because someone is asking for something from me – my time – and they think I can offer them advice.

If I’d had infinite time I’d take every one of these “can I have coffee” meetings. But I don’t.  So I now prioritize meetings with a new filter: Who is offering me something in return.

No, not offering me money.  Not for stock.  But who is offering to teach me something I don’t know.

The meeting requests that now jump to the top of my list are the few, very smart entrepreneurs who say, “I’d like to have coffee to bounce an idea off of you and in exchange I’ll tell you all about what we learned about xx.”


This offer of teaching me something changes the agenda of the meeting from a one-way, you’re learning from me, to a two-way, we’re learning from each other.

It has another interesting consequence for those who are asking for the meeting – it forces them to think about what is it they know and what is it they have learned – and whether they can explain it to others in a way that’s both coherent and compelling.

Irony – it’s Customer Discovery
While this might sound like a, “how to get a meeting with Steve” post, the irony is that this “ask for a two-way meeting” is how we teach entrepreneurs to get their first customer discovery meetings; don’t just ask for a potential customers time, instead offer to share what you’ve learned about a technology, market or industry.

It will increase your odds in any situation you’re asking for time from very busy people – whether they are VC’s, company executives or retired entrepreneurs.

  • Lessons Learned
  • Wanting to have coffee is an ask for a favor
  • Offering to share knowledge is a different game
  • Try it, your odds of getting a meeting will increase
  • And the meetings will be more productive

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53 Responses

    • Awesome point Steve, me and my initial investor often have what we call a two way discussion. I’m always surprised but he says he learns quite a lot of new stuff from me despite hes far more successful. We’ve just launched the investment side of our business Entrepreneur Handbook and its far easier to get meetings your right when you can offer something mentally in return! Because at yours and theirs stage whose too bothered about money, well atleast as first priority.

  1. Thank’s Mr. Steve for write down this. now i know why i can’t get those meetings that i want. Now I will be adapt that way bcause is the more productive for both sides and as you say it forces me to think deeply about what i know and what i can offer too.

  2. Amen and Hallelujah! You’ve got to give to get. Everytime someone sees you coming they should think, “How good! Here comes (insert your name here). Every time I see him/her something good happens. I learn something new or I get a new idea or I get introduced to someone I need to know or I get a new customer, etc.” Ask yourself (and communicate directly) before each critical interaction (like getting a discovery meeting) why it will be worth the other’s time to meet with you. What are you bringing of value to them? I don’t care if you’re 18 years old or 80 years old, you can find something to offer in exchange. Tell it more, Brother Steve!

  3. Thank you so much for this, Steve! I’ve always been an open, sharing, teaching, helpful inspirer (others word, not mine) and it has caught up to me! Doing some of the best work of my life right now that is not currently being done elsewhere, and that folks really like. My requests for coffee, a meal, a bit of my time are through the roof, and I appreciate the good attention but simply can’t say yes to all – this concerns me and have set priorities for meetings related strictly to my project. But I’m curious and want to continue learning. Your suggestion is a perfect solution. As always, thanks for your grounded and thoughtful insights. Best, Sara Day

  4. Great advise – just wish I had read this piece a couple of hours earlier here on the east coast!

  5. Very good point Steve and thanks for sharing it. I am often on both sides of the fence, filtering coffee requests and asking for them, so this is a great tip that I will use immediately.

  6. Thanks Steve, such a great timing!

  7. Hi Steve – Where are ex-colleagues on you hierarchy? We used to work at ESL. I reached out to you. Got radio silence. Since ESL spawned a lot of great people, thought there would be an opening. Guess I was wrong. IMO, ex-colleagues, particularly at cool companies like ESL, have special dispensation. They do for me! Cheers, John

    • read the post.

    • Sounds like you are asking for a favor instead of offering to exchange information. And I will be really bold and mention you did it with a victim mindset/language.

      • Michele. Yes… I’ve seen even C-level execs hang out their shingles and proceed to go at “finding work” with a hat-in-hand, please-do-me-the-favor-of mentality. At that point, they need to be helped to see that they’re not actually a charity and that their knowledge, experience and abilities all (still) have value to others. Also they might have to come to see that if the person they’re presently on the phone with doesn’t see that worth, other people down the contact list will.

        Other people will, that is, unless the caller/writer gives the impression that they have nothing to offer. When people do that, I think they probably know themselves best, trust their judgment, thank them for calling and close the conversation.

  8. Thank you for all your insights. Your tips are easy to remember and improve my game.
    Please send this sentence back to your copy editor: “Since he wasn’t from Silicon Valley, he decided to use his time up here networking with other meetings with VC’s and company executives.”
    Thanks again.

  9. Love this – thanks as always, Steve, for paying it forward.

  10. Steve, what you have described here today is the “new” way successful sales people must sell today. Basically, if you don’t provide some value to the prospective client don’t expect any in return. The “feature, function and benefits” sales training of yrs ago is no longer relevant. One must give a good reason(provide value) for the other person to make time to listen to your proposition.

  11. Great post, Steve. Here’s a couple tips that have helped open doors for me:

    1) If the person you’re seeking help from has written a book, always read it before reaching out for further advice. This simply sends a message that says: I respect your intellect and time.

    2) Invest time learning about their interests and learn something intriguing that will get and keep their attention. Ideally, not the topic you want to discuss. Something close to their heart that they want to discuss.

    3) Become friends with their friends and add value to their social circle. Stay on their radar: social, blog, etc. I may or may not be practicing this right now..

    4) Build your brand. People are visual creatures. Make sure you’re building and maintaining brand equity equally across all social channels and public facing websites.

    • Nima you are on point. Funny how I have shared the same message on #BBSradio going on 5 years now and yet still see the same questions around what you mentioned.

      Some acquire knowledge, others put knowledge into action.

      • Thanks, Michele. I followed you on Twitter. Tweet me a link to your bbsradio station and I’ll check it out. Keep in touch!

  12. Many who wrote on this subject suggest to follow a “What’s in it for me?” rule, e.g. think about what the person receiving an email would be interested in and write from that point of view. I think “pay it forward” mindset encourages more genuine, less sale-driven attitude and would produce even better results. Love it!

  13. Reblogged this on Founders, Startups & The American Dream and commented:
    Great article by Steve Blank on how to get meetings with people too busy to see you. I posted tips that have opened doors for me in the comment section of his blog. What’s worked for you?

  14. Reblogged this on Chika's Blog and commented:
    Great post on getting meetings with people that are “too busy”. Ultimately, you have to increase the value to the point where someone has added incentive to meet with you.

  15. Is this something on which your busy peers tend to agree with you?

  16. Steve, thank you for the advice. As a young entreprenuer, I am currently working on networking, so this could not have come at a better time.

  17. Reblogged this on THE BETTER MAN Inc..

  18. Steve,
    Thanks for another insightful posting. I am regularly connecting with players above my weight class and I appreciate your advice. Your perspective on sharing resonates with me.

    When requesting a meeting I work hard to provide some value to the other person in advance. A few actions I find effective range from including a recent article of interest, connecting the other person with someone who may be of interest to them (prospective account, prospective partner, prospective investor, etc) and finally I think sending an interesting book to those you want to connect with can be a very helpful intro.

    More effective & interesting meetings comprise idea exchanges rather than solely advice take-aways. As always thanks for leading the lean movement and please keep an eye out for the book I sent!

  19. Thanks Steve, Great advice. Additional twist; I have found that even though I offer good reasons to meet & the person I want to see is interested, he/she is often short of time. Then I offer to drive them to a meeting or the airport or even get on the plane with them when they are travelling next. That´s how I got to see Tom Peters many years ago, flying & having breakfast with him on a prikvate flight from San Carlos Airport to San Diego at 4 a.m. Cheers, Sven

  20. Thanks for these tips Steve. On the money as always.

    I’ve summarized the best advice for wannabe VCs, referencing this post and others. Check it out at

  21. I like how the focus is about value, not money. I have found that providing value without expectation of return yields fruitful relationships. The relationships then lead to the returns.

  22. Steve,

    You make great points.

    I have spent over 20 years in technology sales, engineering prior to that, and one of the hardest things to do, especially in this environment is to get a first appointment.

    There is a book “The Challenger Sale” which talks about the need to educate your customers, giving them information that they don’t already have. Minimally, quantifying anecdotal evidence to establish a compelling reason to meet or move forward with your offering. Obviously a lot of work goes into this including Marketing working closely with Sales. In using this methodology or strategy I have seen demonstrably better results in my own efforts.

    Over the years I have done quite a bit of mentoring and have found I get as much if not more out of it than do those that I mentor.

    My insights and experience have led me to founding a start-up working on some of these same issues. I want to thank you and a host of others for all you do to get information out there, much of which is free.

    Steve Blank ( Four Steps to the Epiphany, Start Up Owners Manual)
    Eric Ries Lean Startup
    Ash Maurya Lean Canvas
    Alexander Osterwalder Business Model Generation
    Stanford ETL Series

    Thank you.


  23. Thanks, Steve. It’s so ironic to hear your thoughts on this. Yesterday, I had a great conversation with a potential customer with whom I let know at the beginning of our call that in return for asking questions about his pain points and needs, that I wanted to share my learnings of Lean Startup and Customer Development methods. Sure enough, the conversation flowed nicely from there, and being an entrepreneur himself, he appreciated what he got out of it.

  24. Great post Steve. Whenever I hear the comment, “can I pick your brain?”, a voice in my head says “because I want to pick your pocket”. The “pick your pocket” comment was given to me by a business consultant that I followed. Her response to the comment was not as kind as yours. She would say something like, “I am happy to meet with you to discuss your questions. My brain picking fee is $200/hour. When would you like to meet?” This was said with a smile but it let the person know that advice has value. Generally, the person asking then offered to pay, give something of value back or went away if they simply were looking for something for nothing. Your suggestion is much more kind.

  25. This can work for people in different organizational levels. As an American grad student doing a quarter in the U.K. at Manchester Business School, I emailed the Manchester City Mktg Director to try to talk about soccer/football marketing. Once I told him I had worked in American sports, he wanted to use the time to learn from my work experiences as much as I wanted to learn from his. Made for a great conversation.

  26. Great advice. This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings from one of my early mentors, Zig Ziglar. “If you help enough other people get what they want, you can get what you want”.

    In my experience whenever I’m selfish and just think of what I need, people can tell and avoid contact, and then neither of us end up getting what we wanted.

    Whether it’s Christianity, Twelve Steps or a meeting with a VC the theme is always the same, being of service to others allows for a mutually beneficial two way communication.

  27. literally just tried it now and it worked like magic. A VC who I never met, saw his ted talk on MOOCs and online education. I loved it, and pinged him on twitter to share my insights about online education in emerging markets. He replied and we exchanged a couple of thoughts!

  28. Thanks Steve. Another great piece of practical advice. To me it feels like I’m having a coffee with you and picking your brain every time I re-read parts of The Startup Owners Manual or scan the super comprehensive list of startup tools you have on your website. You have not only provided me with a roadmap and a framework to explore new frontiers but along with the writings of Mark Suster, Fred Wilson, Eric Ries and Alexander Osterwalder your advice has been a constant guide and inspiration to keep going. Love your work.

  29. This advice has allowed me to slow down and rethink basic things like

    -Do I really need this meeting

    -What do I have to say that is valuable

    However the best part of this advice is that it forces you to think of the lessons learned as well as how to help others.

    Thanks Steve!

  30. That approach sounds very reasonable, yet I see another opportunity to deliver more value to the people seeking your advice, and there’s also an opportunity for you to break new ground with a new model of mentorship…

    Clearly, there’s not enough time to meet with many more folks than you actually do, so a different approach might be necessary if different results are desired. You (and others in similar situations) could host monthly peer-to-peer knowledge exchanges over the phone.

    The key is finding a way for it to scale– whether you have 30 or 300 or 3000 participants. Yes, 300 people can listen to a broadcast conference call, but I’m suggesting something different– something where everyone is a participant rather than a listener. The only tool that I’ve seen which does something like this is Maestro Conference (I have no connection to the company– I’ve just enjoyed being a customer when I helped run remote participation for the 2011 NASA Information Technology Summit).

    That tool (and perhaps there are others like it) lets you break out a very large number of callers into small groups– this way all these entrepreneurs could be invited to virtual roundtables of 3-5 other participants where they can get (and give!) feedback to each other in a small group setting. You would have the freedom to pop in and out of any of these groups through the Web interface.

    Heck, entrepreneurs like myself would probably be happy to pay $20/yr to be able to participate on monthly calls like this. The toughest part about the initiative would be finding the people who want to participate, and you’ve already got that one figured out.

    I wish something like that existed.

  31. I’m curious if anyone has tried this approach with re: to job hunting. Could you email the hiring manager and say, “Can we talk about why you’re hiring for this role over phone or Skype and in exchange I’ll share with you all about how I learned how to do XX ”

    XX = “A pain point mentioned in the job description.”

  32. Great post! Love the idea of trading ideas whilst time is the commodity!

  33. I appreciate the emphasis to think about “what’s in it for them” when requesting someone’s time for a coffee meeting. The way you word it makes you a Matcher in Adam Grant’s lingo (author of Give and Take), when the Pay It Forward community has been built by Givers.

    Maybe the Give 5 Minutes approach (how do you hope I can help you and let’s have a 5 minute call) is a more giving first step to decide if spending more time over coffee is warranted. It certainly feels more generous than only meeting with people who can express what they will teach you back before you will give them your time.

  34. Great approach. I think people should always be learning from each other. What I have done at past events is I give an entrepreneur homework.

    When they ask for my card and say they are going to email me to set up a coffee, I ask what it is they do, then give them a topic or similar company to research. I ask them to include in their email how they are differentiated or how they have approached a specific challenge. The task is generally something that may take 15 minutes and it requires them to invest a bit of time before sending me a note.

  35. Intriguing post, Steve. I also appreciate many of the comments people have chimed in with so far. I have a question, though: when turning down a vague request for coffee and general brain-picking, how do you articulate the “no” in your response? And for those of you receiving a large number of requests, how do you handle the sheer volume arriving at your doorstep? If we’re talking about the importance of paying it forward, I think this point is key.

  36. Reblogged this on Nick Hortovanyi's blog.

  37. Very good post. In seeking to become a published author, and after spending a year of my life perfecting a book series, I’m learning quite quickly that nobody actually gives a shit unless in someway reading my book can be of service to them. For instance, everybody wants to make suggestions and give me their input, but very few are willing to spend their time actually reading it.

  38. I’d modify the formula a little. Instead of “in exchange I’ll tell you…” I’d go with “perhaps you would be interested in hearing all about what we learned about xx.”
    I would not want to turn a favor into a quid pro quo. If someone is doing me a favor, I would prefer to acknowledge that. Also, once you offer something in exchange for the meeting, you run the risk that your request will be considered based on the value of the exchange only. (Of course, if you wouldn’t get the meeting otherwise, your lost nothing.)

  39. This is awesome. I’m doing a webinar on meeting/choosing a mentor, and I will be including this (and crediting you) on your insight. Thanks, Steve.

  40. Excellent advise that will come in handy.

  41. Reblogged this on The Future Is Here.

  42. Probably the best article I’ve ever read on getting meetings with hard to reach people. My hat’s off, Steve. Excellent -s small work of art in its simplicity. Thanks for sharing, I will use this moving forward.

  43. Hi there,

    I need an advice from you guys, I want to ask for a very succesful businessman for an informal meeting. I know the gentleman personally and he’s also a relative to my dad- now I do not know what to type in the text message that I want to send to him.

    I use to send him my business plan late last year but he kept on responding my emails through text messages and saying he wil assist me in the new financial year.

    Now I want to send him a message asking to meet and discuss business, earlier on I was asking him for suppoprt. Now I think he does not take me serious and suppose hence I want to meet him in person.

    As much as he did not offer enough attention to my latter request, I understand he’s a busy man who attends world economic forums around the globe. And I am not ready to give up, this could be my tunnel door to business growth and success.

    Please assist me!

    I will text him now just after I finish typing this message- your advice will be meterialised for the attempt. “Education never waisted.”
    Your advice is highly appreciated.
    Thank you in advance!

    Kind regads
    Clerence Mahlatse Ramatsetse

    South Africa, Johannesburg
    Germiston 1401

  44. I have found that my success in the business world is due to the fact that I follow the careers of those who are more successful than myself. I have been following the career of Mark Hurd for the last few years now, since he has taken over at Oracle. I have also been impressed with this leadership and ability to turn a company around. I have closely following his statements at OpenWorld 2016 and I am excited for what he has in store. Here is a link to am article about OpenWorld 2016:

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