Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

The Key To Getting Meetings With Insanely Busy People

Here's a hint: It doesn't involve the words "pick your brain."

Steve Blank is a popular dude: He came to Silicon Valley in 1978 and has been part of the entrepreneurial hustle since then, though he's now turned from running companies to teaching at Stanford and other techy schools. As you may imagine, he gets a lot of requests from young guns seeking sage wisdom, peppering the man with requests to "pick his brain" or "bounce an idea off" him.

His response to such canned what-can-you-do-for-me inquiries? Sigh.

Why? It's an appointment pickle, he explains:

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."

Why does that appointment pitch work? Because instead of it being a one-way encounter with the guru, the meeting becomes about two-way knowledge sharing.

It goes both ways.

So when we approach wise folk like Blank, we need to bring what we've learned about our corner of life to them. Sallie Krawcheck, the former Merrill Lynch head, says that she's had some of the most enriching business relationships form with entrepreneurs who are decades younger than her, since they lend diversity to her network.

Blank's insistence on the two-way street resonates with us because, as a psychologist might say, it follows the norm of reciprocity—that feeling that any exchange should be made with equal value to either side, which is thought to be the foundation of moral codes.

We see it all the time: If you pay 10 dollars for something, you want 10 dollars of value in return; it is also why unrequited love sucks so bad and the Code of Hammurabi is so cold but weirdly satisfying. As with physical beauty, we dig the symmetry.

As askees, then, we need to figure out what we're going to share. So in this way, doing non-superficial networking well requires deep reflection.

[Image: Flickr user Don Burkett]

Add New Comment


  • This article really doesn't cover the most important part of the issue. Communication! How does Steve Blank give such one-way requests a polite, but firm, "no" without running the risk of offending people? Or does he just ignore people without response?

  • Bo Bandy

    ReadyTalk has been nationally recognized as a "best place to work." As a result I seem to get a lot of requests from people who want to meet once for coffee and then ask me to recommend them to our HR department. Not only am I getting nothing in return, but they expect me to vouch for them. I think I'll start sending them to this article.

  • Natarajan Shanker

    Somehow it sounds too far-fetched. If I send my director a 1:1 meeting request saying I'll tell him what I learned in exchange for meeting with me, that will just sound weird. He could mistake it for attitude.

  • Robert Moran

    Common sense to the max. I like that. Give back is a good thing. R. Moran, CEO, Parsing Data LLC

  • Erika

    I love this article. Thank you, it is the single hardest part of my job. Getting the meeting!
    Erika, VP Resource Director of Habitat for Humanity

  • gbacoder

    And the know the person and what he wants. Not everyone will want knowledge ;)