The best time-saver ever

A few months ago, I quoted Mark Suster’s advice about How to maximize your chance of getting a meeting or call with someone. In the notes to that post, I recommended that when you’re trying to fix a meeting with someone,

Suggest at least three possible times in your initial email. This maximizes the chance that one of them will be convenient, and they’ll be able to say “yes” without further iteration.

I personally try to implement the best practices I write about, and over the last few months I’ve consistently adopted that recommendation.

I can honestly say that of all the best practices I’ve written about in A Founder’s Notebook, that simple recommendation has saved me more time and hassle than any other.

How to maximize your chance of getting a meeting or call with someone

Edited excerpt from Never Ask a Busy Person to Lunch. Here’s Why by Marc Suster:

Never ask a busy person to lunch. Busy execs hate lunches. They are time sucks. Sure, they like to occasionally meet good friends or important contacts for lunch, or do group lunches. But somebody they don’t know? Not so much. Same with dinner — a dinner out is a night I don’t get to spend with my kids and family.

So what can you do? “Hey, can I bring you a coffee and get 30 minutes of your time at your offices next Tues or Wed? I promise I won’t overrun my time.” And don’t. You become an easy second date to accept.

Notes:
(1) If you want to get a meeting or call with someone, make your request specific, attractive and convenient so they can accept it immediately:

  • Time: Suggest at least three possible times in your initial email. This maximizes the chance that one of them will be convenient, and they’ll be able to say “yes” without further iteration.
  • Location: Suggest a location that’s convenient for them. In his suggestion above, Mark uses “at your offices”.
  • Duration: Specify how much time you want, keep it short, and don’t overrun.
  • Agenda: Be specific about what you want to discuss by listing questions.
  • Appreciation: If you can show your appreciation by offering something for them, do it. In his suggestion above, Mark suggests “Can I bring you a coffee?”.

(2) Cf. (i) How to request a meeting — Steve Blank, (ii) How to request a meeting — Scott Britton, (iii) How to request a meeting — Aaron White.
(3) On specifying an agenda: Why you should demand an agenda for meetings, and how to do it — nicely.

If you have to have group meetings, do them like this

Edited excerpt from The Anti Meeting Culture by James Whittaker:

Get the right attendees and be aggressive about it. Invite people who can contribute and when people sustainably fail to contribute, un-invite them.

Make coming and going kosher. Halfway through a meeting and you realize you can’t contribute or don’t need to be there? Leave. Hold meetings in open areas where coming and going is more natural and fuss-free. Or remove the chairs from the conference room and stand up. You’ve just made the door easier to get to.

Big agendas mean lots of time switching topics. Too many decision points means too much debate. A long list of topics ensures that some people won’t have a stake in some topics and that’s a poor use of those people’s time. Single purpose meetings are the best: this is what we are here to do, now let’s use the meeting time to do it.

Multiple presenters — the more, the less merry. Each one has to do their little warm up and wind down and each must pay the technology tax of switching laptops and dorking around with display settings.

Follow up a scheduled meeting with scheduled work time. If a meeting has a purpose and requires action to be taken (like any good meeting should), schedule time immediately following the meeting to take that action.

Build an anti-meeting culture within your organization. Every meeting is useless until proven otherwise. Meeting organizers need to be put on notice: make this meeting meaningful, it’s your job.

Notes:
(1) A key reason bad meetings persist is that there’s no feedback loop from the attendees to the person running the meeting. Nobody asks the question “Was this meeting a good use of your time?” The solution is to do this.
(2) Re. Get the right attendees and be aggressive about it — cf. The optimal number of people in a meeting is…
(3) Re. Make coming and going kosher – see The antidote to bad meetings.
(4) Re. Meeting organizers need to be put on notice: make this meeting meaningful, it’s your job — cf. How to stop regular meetings from clogging up your time.

Startup founders’ most common mistake in meetings — and how to avoid it

Edited excerpt from an email I sent to a founder:

The most common mistake I’ve seen founders make in external meetings is to use up most of the meeting telling the other person about your idea, your product, or your company. I’ve done this countless times. You arranged to meet with the other person because you wanted to get their input. But then you found that you did most of the talking, and by the time the meeting ended, you hadn’t got what you wanted from them.

There are two reasons this happens. First, as founders, we’re passionate about our idea, so once we start talking we often don’t stop. Second, we want feedback, and to get that we feel we have to describe our product and company in detail. However, this often leaves little time for the other person to give us feedback we want.

Here are five tips for how to ensure you leave enough time in a meeting for the other person to give you the input or feedback you want. Before you read them, let me say that it’s far easier to give this advice than to live it (I’m actually bad at this stuff). Having said that, I wish that someone had given me this advice early on:

1. Make your key goal for the meeting to get input from the other person. Keep that goal in mind during the meeting and as you’re preparing for it. You might find it changes your behavior in unusual ways.

2. Send background information in advance. You’d be surprised at how willingly people will read material in advance. This increases the time efficiency of your meeting with them, since you no longer need to convey that info in the meeting. A tip: Don’t send generic marketing material, or your standard slide deck for investors. Write a brief overview of your company specifically for the person you’re meeting with, and do it in the body of an email to them, not as an attachment. You’ll find it will be more relevant, will sound more genuine, and shows that you care enough to put effort into the meeting. Rewriting a description of your startup periodically also helps to hone your message and clarify your thinking.

3. Before the meeting, write down questions to ask the person. Many founders tell the person they’re meeting with about their product and company, and then think that a great question is “So, what do you think?”. But it’s actually a lousy question. It invites an overall evaluation of your startup, and that’s not helpful to you because it’s not granular enough or actionable, and can create a confrontational dynamic in the meeting. Instead, come up with a list of specific questions before the meeting. Topics can include user need for your product, your market, your business model, sales, distribution, marketing. In which area does the person you’re meeting with have the most experience? Consider sending them the questions in advance, so they can think about them.

4. Ask at least one great, open-ended question. See How to ask great questions, and the other entries in the section on Asking Questions and Listening here. Asking great questions is an invaluable skill which will not only help you in this meeting, but can be transformative for your startup.

5. Set a target for what % of the conversation you want the other person to be talking. Remind yourself of that target during the meeting, and it will focus you on getting as much information out of them as possible.

Notes:
(1) See also Why you should demand an agenda for meetings, and how to do it — nicely.
(2) Cf. the sections “Be explicit about what you need from people” and “Tips for writing emails to get things done” in How to get stuff done.

Two benefits of walking meetings

Edited excerpt from Why Walking Helps Us Think by Ferris Jabr:

When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.

Edited excerpt from Why Walking Is Important for Your Health by Ronesh Sinha, M.D.:

If you look at parts of the world where people live the longest, they aren’t doing intense daily cardio workouts, running or cycling countless miles, or attending bootcamps. They simply walk, stand, bend and squat more throughout the day, and do much of it outdoors. Nearly all of the health risks I see in my patients can be improved by walking more steps. Studies show that walking lowers blood sugar and triglycerides after meals, lowers inflammation, modestly lowers body fat, lowers stress and improves immunity, prevents falls in the elderly and increases longevity.

Notes:
(1) See also the other benefits of walking meetings.
(2) Buy a Fitbit for all your employees, and invest in Nasdaq: FIT?

The antidote to bad meetings

Edited excerpt from I Prefer To Leave Early by James Altucher:

Next time you go to a party. Maybe even it’s a political party. Or a charity event. Or a dinner. Or a conference call. Or a sales meeting.

Do this:

Find the most valuable, fun, creative thing you can learn as quickly as you can. The one thing that will add value to your life. Hone in on it FAST. Learn something.

Then leave.

Even in a sales meeting: if you learn from the customer, the customer will buy from you.

Notes:
(1) Thank you Eli Hoffmann for the tip.
(2) I’m not sure how to apply James’ advice in practice. If you get something valuable from a meeting, how do you know it’s “the most valuable, fun, creative thing” you could have got? Should you leave immediately, or stay and see if you can get something better?
(3) An alternative rule: When you’re in a meeting, ask yourself if you got something genuinely valuable during the last 5 minutes. If yes, stay for another five minutes, and repeat. If no, leave.
(4) Important to note: Genuinely valuable includes “I meaningfully helped this person”. It’s not always about us.
(5) How can you apply this without being rude? What should you say as you leave?

Why you should demand an agenda for meetings, and how to do it — nicely

Here’s the email that Seeking Alpha’s head of bus dev, Guy Cohen, sent to someone who requested a call but gave no agenda:

Hi xxx,

Would be happy to chat – can you provide details around what you’d like to discuss? This way I can make sure:

1) I’m the right person for you to be speaking with.
2) I can be prepared and make the meeting as efficient for the both of us as possible.

Best,
Guy

Notes:
(1) Accepting requests for calls or meetings with no agenda can waste time, because in many cases the meeting is irrelevant or unnecessary. Once someone emails you the agenda, you can often continue (and even finish) the discussion by email. Email is far more efficient than a meeting or phone call, because you can reply to emails whenever it suits you.
(2) Guy’s approach can also be used for meeting requests from people inside your company: “Happy to help — can you provide details of what you want from me at the meeting? That way I can make sure I can be prepared, and help you in the most effective way possible.”
(3) Lesson for people requesting meetings: follow Aaron White’s advice.

How to stop regular meetings from clogging up your time

Edited excerpt from Adam Bryant’s Corner Office interview of New Relic CEO Lew Cirne:

Whenever I meet a CEO, especially of a large company, the question I invariably ask is, “How do you manage your time?” That’s the most important question a CEO can ever ask of themselves. It’s our most precious asset, and I don’t think you can be successful in this role without being very thoughtful and deliberate about it.

One of the things I do on a quarterly basis is to review the standing meetings on my calendar, and every one of them ought to be able defend itself. The point is not to keep going to that meeting just because you always have to go. I think it’s a great practice to say, “OK, we meet every Thursday on this. Does it have to be these people every Thursday? Why?” I ask myself that question, and I encourage my managers to question their calendars, too.

Notes:
(1) This applies to all managers, not just CEOs.
(2) Cf. Brad Smith’s two key indicators of what we view as important.

How to request a meeting — Steve Blank

From How To Get Meetings With People Too Busy To See You by Steve Blank:

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 “ask for a two-way meeting” is how we teach entrepreneurs to get their first customer discovery meetings: Don’t don’t just ask for a potential customers time, instead offer to share what you’ve learned about a technology, market or industry.

Notes:
(1) Is this is good advice for people taking meetings? At least one smart VC who saw this thinks not: “Feels very self serving or mercenary for the person who must get something in return. It takes away all possibility for serendipity by subjugating networking or serendipitous learning to pre-conceived notions.”
(2) But perhaps it’s still useful advice for people requesting meetings. If you have something to offer in return, mention it in your email. As Scott Britton said, “Signal that you’re going to provide value”.

How to request a meeting — Scott Britton

Excerpted and organized from How To Ask Someone For a Coffee Meeting by Scott Britton:

There are effective ways to go about asking for coffee that make people more likely to meet with you:

1. Intro context: Give the reader context of who you are and how you found them. It’s always beneficial if the context of how you “found” them demonstrates support, eg. reading their blog.

2. Specific context why you’re reaching out: Asking for someone’s time without indicating why doesn’t make anyone want to help you. When you specify why you want to get together provides context on how you can help them, signals that you’re not out just to take someone’s time, gives them the option to help via phone or email.

3. Recognition that they’re giving you their time: When you signal to them that you acknowledge their time is very limited and valuable, they appreciate it. It indicates that you recognize they’re giving something up and that you’re likely to grateful if they did.

4. Limited time commitment: “I would be very grateful for 20 minutes”. Establishing a limited commitment makes people more likely to meet with you. Everyone has 15-20 minutes to give.

5. Make it convenient: “I’m happy to meet you at the most convenient location/time for you.”

6. Signal that you’re going to provide value: The best way to get someone to make time for you is to demonstrate that you can add value to their life.

How to request a meeting — Aaron White

From Want a Coffee? A Brief Guide for Neophytes by Aaron White:

When reaching out to ask for a coffee meeting, be immensely specific about why you want to meet, and what you hope to get out if it. If the reason is only as good as “let’s connect!” don’t be sour if they pass / forget about it. That kind of “just saying hi” serendipity is best for parties/networking events you both happen to be at, not worthy of asking someone to carve out a new slot in their schedule.

The more specific you are, the more value you’ll get from your potential coffee-partner. If you communicate a clear possible path for the conversation, coffee partners who can’t provide value will self-select out, but even then if your ask is clear, it will make it so much easier for them to forward you to the right person. And if they do take the meeting, they are far more likely to show up prepared & ready to help.

Notes:
(1) Cf. How to request a meeting — Steve Blank.
(2) Cf. How to request a meeting — Scott Britton.
(3) As someone on the receiving end of meeting requests, I’ve found that this advice from Aaron White is the most effective.

How to help people make introductions for you

Excerpted from Introductions and the “forward intro email” by Roy Bahat:

If you ask me to introduce you to someone, I’ll sometimes say: “Please write me an email I can forward to them.” You’d be shocked how often I get back something unusable. Here’s what I mean when I ask for a forward intro email. A good forward intro email:

1. Says why you want to be introduced.

2. Includes its own context — enough about you or your startup so that the receiver understands what’s being asked. Always helpful if it includes what’s special about your startup, increases the likelihood the person will want to meet you. Attach a file if you think it makes sense (a deck, longer summary, screenshot).

3. Uses only as many words as you need — the receiver is going to glance at the email, and decide whether to talk to you. A recap of other things we talked about when we met distracts.

4. Sounds like you — I really have zero preference about whether you’re formal or loose, so emoticon away.**

5. Starts a fresh chain, with a fitting subject line, for each introduction — if you write a forward intro email as a reply to a long string between us that costs me time. Subject lines like “Forward intro email for Karin” also cost me time to fix.

Notes:
(1) Roy is a VC, and he’s probably writing about making business introductions for his portfolio companies. But his advice is equally valuable for other types of introduction, such as introducing someone looking for a job to a potential employer.
(2) The key insight: think about what the email looks like to the person it’s forwarded to, not the person doing the forwarding.

The open meeting

From Founder productivity hack: The open meeting by John Gannon:

This is a great hack for founders but also for any busy professional who gets a lot of inbound requests to network over coffee, drinks, etc. By adopting this hack you still get to meet interesting people and help people out but you don’t stress out your calendar in the process.

— Set a consistent weekly timeslot (I recommend 2 hours) and location that can accommodate at least a few people for a meeting. Could be your office, a big coffee shop, a bar…doesn’t matter just as long as there is space for people to congregate.

— When you get requests to meet for coffee reply to the person let them know that you will be available at the timeslot/location you selected. You should also let the person know they should email you the day before to let you know that they are coming.

How to end meetings

From How to End Every Meeting by Ev Williams:

End every meeting with a “closing round.” In a closing round, you go around the room and give everyone a chance to comment on the meeting. There is no discussion or back-and-forth allowed. People tend to talk for less than 30 seconds (often a lot less), so you could close a large, 10-person meeting in less than five minutes.

The closing round is worth doing, because it gives everyone, in a sense, a “last word”—the chance to get something off their chest that they might otherwise carry around or whisper to their colleagues later. It creates more mindfulness about what just happened—and how things might go better next time. And it lets you know where the group is at emotionally, as well as potential issues to follow up on that weren’t strictly part of the proceedings. Above all, closing rounds are usually fun and positive.

Notes: (1) This provides instant feedback for the person running the meeting. Feedback loops are highly valuable. (2) I’m not a fan of meetings of more than 2 people. Better to avoid large meetings altogether than fix them. Here’s why.

Walking meetings

From Where I Work: I’ll Take Walking 1:1s Over Office Meetings Any Day by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner:

I started doing walking meetings early last year at the suggestion of a colleague who used them as a means to reduce meeting room scheduling issues while getting some exercise at the same time.

LI: Why did you set up your space this way?
Got tired of sitting indoors all day.

LI: How does your view impact the way you work?
It’s energizing to get outside for a 30 minute walk a few times a day. In addition to the obvious fitness benefits, this meeting format essentially eliminates distractions, so I find it to be a much more productive way to spend time.

Notes:
(1) Walking meetings are one of Bill Tranchard’s three ways to manage your energy better
(2) Walking meetings are consistent with the principle that the optimal number of people for a meeting is two.

Celebrating wins starts with staff meetings

While celebrating wins is hard but important, I know from personal experience that founders can be particularly bad at it. So this description of how LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner runs staff meetings was helpful:

Weiner also kicks off these weekly staff meetings a bit unconventionally with “wins.” Before delving into metrics or the business at hand, he goes around the room and asks each of his direct reports to share one personal victory and one professional achievement from the previous week. This ritual infuses these meetings with positive energy from the start. Otherwise, Weiner notes, they have a tendency to devolve into a round robin of complaints.

The optimal number of people in a meeting is…

The optimal number of people in a meeting is two. That’s because it’s easier to understand and work with people one-on-one. You can give them your full attention, and you get their full attention. In contrast, when you meet with more than one other person, your mode of interaction will drop to the lowest common denominator appropriate to the people you’re interacting with. As a result, the effectiveness of a meeting is in inverse proportion to the number of people in it.

The superiority of one-on-one conversations to group conversations is particularly pronounced when you’re trying to think deeply about a challenge or problem.

What to do in situations where there are multiple stakeholders involved in a decision? Where possible, I try to break down group discussions into a series of one-on-one conversations, led by the “owner”. It sounds like a lot more work, but it’s actually more effective and time efficient than group meetings. And one-on-one discussions are more enjoyable. They become impromptu water cooler chats, walks together, or phone conversations.