You’re Not Important to Me but I Want To Meet With You

If you’re a busy startup founder, you’re likely delegating the task of scheduling key meetings about things you want/need to your admin. This is a mistake.

That’s because the dialog you have in setting up the meeting is actually the first part of your meeting, not some clerical task. Treat it this way and you’re much more likely to achieve the objective you’re hoping to. Here’s why:


A few weeks ago I got an email from a VC friend asking me to talk to a founder at one of his startups. The founder had sent him a note, “We’d love to partner with Steve on getting his frameworks and templates from his books – The Four Steps and The Startup Owner’s Manual – onto our product. Can you connect us to him?”

I told the VC, of course, and sent an email to the founder suggesting a couple of dates.

In response I got an email from him telling me how busy he was, but his admin would coordinate some dates for us…

If this doesn’t strike you as a red flag of a relationship that was broken before it started, and an opportunity wasted, let me point out what went wrong.

Who’s Doing the Ask?
Outside of a company there are two types of meetings; 1) When you want something from someone, 2) When they need something from you.  This meeting fell into the second category – a founder wanted something from me and wanted my time to convince me to give it to him. Turning the scheduling over to an admin might seem like an efficient move, but it isn’t.

What Message Are You Sending?
A startup CEO handing me off to an admin sent a few signals.

First, that whatever his ask was really wasn’t that urgent or important to him. Second, that he didn’t think there was any value in forming a relationship before we met.  And finally, that he hadn’t figured out that gathering data in premeeting dialog could help him achieve his objective.

Instead, skipping the one-on-one dialog of personally setting up the meeting signaled to me that our meeting was simply going to be a transactional ask that wasn’t worth any upfront investment of his time.

Why, then, would meeting be worth my time?

What Gets Missed
When I was in startup, I treated every pre-meeting email/phone call as an opportunity for customer discovery. If I wanted something from someone – an order, financing, partnership, etc., I worked hard to do my homework and prepare for the meeting.  And that preparation went beyond just finding mutually agreeable meeting times.

 Early on in my career I realized that I could I learn lots of information from the premeeting dialog. That initial email dialog formed the basis of opening the conversation and establishing a minimum of social connectivitywhen we did meet.

I always managed to interject a casual set of questions when I was setting up a meeting. “What type of food do you like? Do you have a favorite restaurant/location?” If they were going be out of town for a while, ask if are they traveling on vacation? If so, ask “where?” And talk about the vacation.  And most importantly, it allowed me to confirm the agenda, “I’d like to talk about what our company is up to…” and telegraph some or all of the ask, “and what to see if I can get ….” Sometimes this back and forth allowed both of us to skip the meeting completely and I got what I wanted with a simple email ask. Other times it laid the foundation for an ongoing business relationship.

The key difference with this approach is in understanding that the dialog in setting up the meeting is actually the first part of your meeting.

Of course, in a company with 1,000s of people, it’s possible that the CEO is too busy to get on email or to call someone whose time he wants for every meeting. However, CEOs of major corporations who are winners will get on the phone or send a personal email when there’s something that they want to make happen.

Lessons Learned

  • The dialog in setting up the meeting is actually the first part of your meeting
  • Don’t miss the opportunity
  • If you want something from someone, don’t outsource scheduling your meeting

22 Responses

  1. I find it confusing that the founder of a startup even has an admin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was thinking the same thing. I find actually rude that you ask for an audience with a CEO and turn to say again that you will schedule it in. Bad first impression!

      Like

  2. There is a lack of etiquette in business communications, either in person, on the phone, or by written correspondence. I am appalled by the lack of manners by store cashiers and clerks. I am even more disappointed by senior executives who fail to take a minute to respond to emails or calls. I return all calls and emails within 24 hours, even when I am traveling. It is MY responsibility, not my assistant’s.

    Like

  3. This sounds like the ask was not from the founder, but from the VC who is worried the founder is wasting the money and wanted you to educate the founder and help her/him re-focus.

    Like

  4. Hi Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience. This is a really good lesson! “The dialog in setting up the meeting is actually the first part of your meeting.”

    I’ve been setting up lots of meetings for my clients. This is really true.

    And I agree with your “CEOs of major corporations who are winners will get on the phone or send a personal email when there’s something that they want to make happen”.

    I noticed real leaders reply to you. I think that’s why they became leaders.

    all the best,

    Nobu

    Like

  5. Fantastic insight, Steve. The same thing also happens INSIDE corporates… I am never sure, if people are arrogant or just mind-less…

    Like

  6. Great post Steve. I couldn’t have said it better. I have told countless founders this exact same thing…and just yesterday was telling one of the partners in the context of setting up fundraising meetings for a VC firm..

    Hope you’re well.

    John

    >

    Like

  7. 100%. I have been saying this for years and people tell me I’m being old school and anti-tech. Don’t ask me for something and then tell me to fill out a form (same idea as adding an admin on the chain)! Amen, Amen, amen! 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼

    Now I’m going to send them this post. 😂😂😂

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  8. As with many of your business insights, it seems obvious in hindsight, but, it’s an error that gets committed countless times every day. Your point about using the initial contact as the the start of the meeting (and the relationship) is exactly on point!

    Like

  9. Dear Prof. Blank, I was hoping to get in touch with you. What is the best way to reach you?

    Like

  10. Been there. Had that done to me, Steve. Excellent article.

    I hope all is well with you and yours. I truly appreciate all that you do. Thank you.

    Best always,

    Wesley A. Whittaker

    Writer

    C: 810-397-7466

    Like

  11. Steve, Thank you for sharing this exchange in your recent post, re value of people’s time, cultivating relationships and “customer discovery”.

    Like

  12. Could be hubris but traditionally that was disrespectful, period!

    I want to meet you too but my introversion is the biggest obstacle even if you grant audience. In this case I suspect the admin is the mouthpiece of the company. I would have worded the request to specify that or to come along with the admin as
    buffer.

    However if I won the other side I’ll insist the CO shows up if forget it as a show of dominance. And then ask right in the face “who in the spawn of clinical laziness do you think you are”

    GHOXX 👀

    Like

  13. This behavior is so rampant in business, not just the startup culture. “I’m too busy” translates to “You don’t matter as much as I do”. Here’s the truth in the matter though. That person is actually afraid that they don’t matter, and so they create a false front. On the surface it makes no sense, but deeper down you can see that it is a coping mechanism based on their perception of being in a dog-eat-dog world. Poor bastards!

    Like

  14. Its a sad reality. I think startups do this whole admin thing to show that they are at some level “proffessional” . The whole notion of having an admin I guess, they feel, puts an impression that their business or company is at some level. As in it increases the value of their business in the sight of the CEO. In some cases I dont think its deliberate, but overall its a bad way of approaching meting, I have to agree.

    Like

    • Agree with you 100% as many use it for a status symbol. Some use the admin person for assistance to take care of the mundane stuff that steals time from them in their leadership and daily tasks. Some day, I plan to hire an admin assistant but at present, I am good to go. I do not think I will tell a person to contact my assistant to setup a meeting though.

      Like

  15. This is a really excellent observation and commentary on leadership and tied also to exhibiting hugh enotional intelligence. Steve – thank you.

    Like

  16. Hi Steve, I have written to you personally about MobileArq a couple of times and haven’t received a response. 🙂 🙂

    Like

  17. I couldn’t agree more, Steve. I have never understood why people who want to either sell something or get a favor will delegate that down to an admin or a consultant (“my client / CEO / boss is super interested in talking to you”, but apparently not enough so to reach out directly). Of course fine to delegate to admins to actually book the meeting if need be, but not for the first outreach. In a similar vein, I’ve made three guidelines for myself. I know these sound curmudgeonly, but they have become necessities:

    1) When I get calls from consultants or interns acting on behalf of their client / boss asking for benchmarking discussions or to “hear how we do things at Columbia”, I will happily do the call and be helpful, but only if their client / boss also joins the call. Amazingly, about half the time it turns out that the client / boss decides it was worth the consultant / intern’s time to speak with me, but not If it required them to carve out the time to join as well. A good indicator for how meaningful the conversation was likely to be.

    2) When someone reaches out to me to “learn more about XYZ”, I always first send them to the various online sources where my views on those topics already exist (videos such as https://vimeo.com/266135774; PPT decks, etc). That way, when we meet, we can focus on questions, next level discussion, or disagreements, rather than me rehashing what I’ve already said publicly. I’m always surprised, however, how many people just let the ball drop. Apparently, they are happy to just bullsh*t on the phone for an hour, but but if doing so means doing some homework first to have a productive conversation, then not. A helpful screening tool for time-wasting calls.

    3) If someone who wants a favor or connection books time with me and then cancels / reschedules twice, I generally won’t allow them to rebook the meeting a third time unless there was a super compelling reason. Hard to justify continually reshuffling the calendar for a meeting that apparently wasn’t a top priority for the other side.

    My two cents…
    Orin

    Like

  18. No wonder Steve Blank is so furious! How else can you describe such a moronic behavior by a “going-nowhere-in-a-hurry” CEO?

    I see their inflated egos all the time. But to me, not taking the meeting with Steve was equivalent to a high-school physics teacher being too busy to meet with… Albert Einstein. Wow, so much hard work grading the students’ papers. No time for frivolous distractions…

    But you don’t have to be a great singer like Ella Fitzgerald to relate to her iconic lyrics of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Occasionally, all of us are equally dumbfounded to see how much such words apply to a demented reality around us – see: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/wisdom-intelligent-advice-how-turn-gatekeepers-ceos-asset-feldgajer/

    How else can you explain the arrogance of not hearing back even a single word from a CEO of a struggling enterprise after approaching him/her via email & proposing a viable solution to get them out of their predicament?

    A similar situation exists in the world of VC/CVC and Private Equity funds. Most of their Managing Directors (MDs) won’t return your call, or an email, and will not even look at any pitch or a business plan without a “warm introduction”.

    For years they presumed that if the entrepreneurs aren’t clever enough to figure out how to be introduced to them via a third party, then surely they don’t have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in the real world.

    But here is the rub: a good CEO or MD at VC/CVC/PE fund should never be overwhelmed! Such leaders must have learned years ago how to delegate. And if they didn’t, oh, well…

    So, instead of IGNORING good advice or a pitch – a progressive CEO should rely on a competent staff member and AI technology – to separate a truly “cold call” from a warm one.

    When a warm call is made, it usually follows prolonged research on CEO’s challenges. It proactively identifies the pain points and explains a good fit. Based on the caller’s knowledge and experience, and often the AI tools utilized in such research – the CEO fits the profile!

    Next time, if you don’t hear back – assume the following: you’re dealing with an incompetent narcissist or with a mediocre organizational structure. And I’m not even sure which one is worst. My advice: move on …

    After all, there is no excuse for ignoring a warm call or an email. There are plenty of good AI tools available today to transcribe the voice mail and then use NLP to identify the value proposition. CEOs & MDs not doing so, are negatively impacting their company’s brand and long-term survival prospects.

    So, to all the buffoons that are still waiting for Godot – I would like to offer a simple revelation: good advice or an excellent pitch may still reach you via a referral, but such a gene pool is not too impressive. Learn how to use AI to separate the wheat from the chaff – and the world is your oyster.

    Like

  19. I really enjoyed this read. It reminds me of people that want to connect with you and do not realize that the first connection sets the tone. I continually get the “Hey lets connect” message and then the automated response is them trying to sell me a service. A total turn off as it shows that my connection is not important for a business growth relationship in the building BUT for a possible quick buck (or attempt at it).

    Like

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