All this heavy talk about angels, VCs, bubbles lately. I thought I’d go for a more tactical & practical post today. The art of the quick phone call.
I had breakfast with David Tisch the other morning in NYC. If you don’t know David he’s the guy who will be running TechStars New York starting in January. And that’s a great thing because I was really impressed with him. Surprisingly so.
He had a ton of great ideas about what he wanted to do with TechStars NY. I’ve agreed to come out in the new year and spend a few days with the entrepreneurs who join TechStars NYC (as well as Boulder). I love this program.
I’ve been running Launchpad LA (very similar to TechStars) for 2 years but I must say I had some great take-aways at breakfast from David who hasn’t even run his first group yet! I’m always impressed when people are wise beyond their years and felt like David was a kindred spirit.
One of the things we were chatting about was how many first-time entrepreneurs have grown up digital natives so have a really good intuitive feel for technology & design but don’t yet have the business basics down. This shows itself when people try to do an elevator pitch, send concise, actionable emails or have a quick phone call with you to ask for help. David said he wants to be sure his class is grounded in the business basics that will help with success–this is smart and I plan to copy him.
For example, Brad Feld told me that TechStars makes each company practice the 1 or 2-minute pitch the first week of the program. Whenever somebody visits a TechStars office they go around and meet the companies and hear these pitches. It gets drilled into each founder the need to have a pithy overview of their business and why it’s relevant. Smart. It’s one of the most common activities of an entrepreneur used in recruiting, marketing, sales, networking, biz dev, etc. I plan to do this with the next Launchpad LA class. If you haven’t read about Sam Jones and “dead magazines” it’s worth your time to have a quick read.
So I thought I’d blog about one of the topics we discussed at breakfast–the phone call. I’m not talking about a sales call, getting past the assistant or anything like that. I’m talking about simple and quick calls to your business peers, VCs or other players in your ecosystem.
How Can I Help?
Angels, entrepreneurs, VCs, bloggers and the like all get a ton of requests for “just 15 minutes” phone calls.
I’m OK with this. One of the more rewarding parts of my job is being able to help other people. It’s high in the gratification quadrant when somebody comes back and says that our chat made a difference in their business.
The truth is I think that it’s part of human nature to want to try and help others so you’d be surprised how many people will find ways to help if asked appropriately or by the right person.
So when a person calls me and we’re 10 minutes into the call and it’s not clear why they’re calling I’m usually thinking to myself, “What was the reason they wanted to call me in the first place? What are they hoping to achieve?” and mostly, “How can I help?”
Most people don’t get to the point and since the distance between my random inner-head mutterings and my mouth are too small and my ADHD too great, it often just blurts out of me like Tourette’s syndrome, “Let me just stop you there. How can I best help you?”
It’s what we want. It’s what you want. Let’s be explicit about it.
So here’s my advice:
1. You can start informally with banter – If I’m calling somebody I know a bit I usually try to start with a little friendly banter. If I know they like a sports team that might be a good start. If I saw their company in the press, heard that they saw somebody at an event that I know, they live in a town where a storm just rolled through–whatever. I think trying to humanize the call from the outset is good. When you jump straight into “sales pitch mode” it feels a bit strange.
Two things to watch for: 1) if you’re trying banter to build rapport but not “feeling it” then quickly shift to business. Some people just aren’t “chit chatters” and prefer to get on with things. I find that kinda boring, but I know some people are just wired that way. 2) some callers take this banter too far It starts to border on disrespectful of the person’s time or wasteful of your 15 minutes. Don’t be that person.
How long you go for is really a judgment call because there’s no right answer. If it’s somebody that I know really well and I confirm that they’re not rushing to do something else I might even take 10-15 minutes just to “catch up.” If it’s a general acquaintance it’s probably more like 3-4 minutes. If it’s a first time call you might try to keep it at 2 minutes or less.
So even if the person you called is really chatty don’t be undisciplined and let them talk too long. You have limited time on the call, presumably you called for a reason and you’re chewing up your valuable clock.
2. Let them know why you’re calling – When you’re ready to pivot the conversation your next line should be some derivative of, “listen, the reason I’m calling is … blah, blah, blah” 25% of people or less actually do this. They just talk and I’m not really sure why they called.
If you’re calling for a reason, the sooner the recipient knows the sooner they can help. If the clock runs out they’re not going to be able to help. Even if you don’t have a single “ask” I recommend saying something like, “listen, I’m going to make this call short. I don’t have anything I’m asking for, I was just hoping to get 10 minutes of your time to tell you what we’re up to so that the next chance we get to meet down the line you’ve got more of an understanding.”
3. Don’t hang yourself–One of the other big mistakes callers make is going “off to the races” talking about their business without getting any feedback from the recipient of the call. This is bad enough in person but I promise you if you do it over the phone the recipient will start to tune out. If you listen closely you’ll probably even hear the tapping of a keyboard. You can talk for a bit but then seek feedback and make sure the other person is “with you.” When I used to do a lot of recruiting we used to call it “hanging yourself” because people who talk for long periods of time without seeking feedback are generally not self-aware or good at human interaction. Don’t be that person.
4. Ask questions–The best trick for creating a two-way conversation is to ask questions. You can do this too early in the call and you can’t be an interview factory, but polite questions relevant to your topic are appropriate. It will help ensure that you don’t do all the talking. Plus, when you listen you learn more anyways.
5. Know what “the ask” is–If you’re set up a call with somebody then know in advance why you’re calling and what you plan to ask for. Don’t ask for four things or you’ll get none. Don’t ask for big favors unless you have a tight relationship. Don’t assume that this will be the one and only time you’ll ever talk to the person. If you cultivate a good long-term relationship through patience, persistence and reciprocity there will be many more occasions. So by all means have an “ask” but make it: obvious, easy for them to achieve and of a limited number–preferably one.
6. Stick to your budgeted time–maybe less–When you think of your relationship with the individual as a relationship you’ll build over time and over many calls, discussions, chats at conferences or whatever you’ll realize you need to be known for being respectful of other’s time. If you’re known as the person who’s always long winded you’re less likely to get the next few calls on the calendar. Less is better, I promise.
Now go pick up the phone and stop hiding behind emails. You build real relationships on the phone and in person. Good luck.
Reprinted from Both Sides of the Table
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. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.