In career networking or mentor-seeking, ‘a quick cup of coffee’ is a common pitch. It can be a good one- I’ve met some great folks over coffee. I’ve hired some, others have hired me, and I’ve arranged for them to hire each other a time or two. And I’ve often learned a thing or two or made a solid friendship connection.
That said, there is some occasional bad coffee networking going around. At the risk of being called an elitist yuppie prick, I’m going to field some gentle suggestions on how to make your coffee-ing more successful.
1) Make sure your target is relevant. I work for a company that has something to do with video. However, I’m in marketing; I don’t hire producers, PAs, editors, etc. My company makes software too; but I also don’t hire software engineers. If you want to pick my brain about our upcoming production schedule, or our code base, you’re going to waste both of our time. Find someone closely related to the function you wish to learn about or work in. The company’s ‘About’ page, or a good LinkedIn search, can help you identify the right person. It doesn’t have to be the highest-ranking person, either…everybody has a vested interest in bringing on talented co-workers.
2) Make it easy for your coffee target. In The Start-Up of You, Reid Hoffman offers the sanest advice in the world; offer to meet near your target’s office, or even at their office. Not to get all status-y, but you requested the meeting; they didn’t. Asking for a favor, and then compounding it by asking them to drive across town, seems foolish. (It can work the other way; in courting a desirable candidate, I may offer to meet near their location to signal that I value the meeting highly).
3) I don’t care who pays. If you happen to be at the register first, I suppose it’s nice if you offer to pay. But I can afford coffee and clearly find you interesting enough to meet with. So if I got there first and already bought my own coffee, don’t make a deal out of it or try to turn it into “lunch next time.” Just don’t. Meeting strangers for career purposes already has a touch of the awkward that does not require accentuation. The goal of this coffee-ing thing is to sit down and chat, so let’s get to it.
4) Speaking of getting to it, get to it. I notice this a lot when I’m networking with folks who happen to be between jobs. Their timescale and mine are different. I work at an insane pace through the week and then rush home to see my family for a few hours. (No complaints, I also love what I do). At thirty minutes, I probably need to be wrapping up. Your life may not be moving at that pace at the moment, but mine is. I want to help but I have to be efficient in doing so. This also shows the importance of being on time, or a bit early.
5) Don’t Talk like Human Middleware. People coming out of large companies who want to join startups or early-stage companies often suck at describing how they can add value. Too often it’s “human middleware” that amounts to optimizing processes that feed other processes that liaison between different parts of the organization that are liaisoning with other organizations. Strip everything out of your story except the parts about how you build a product, gain attention in the marketplace, sell a product, or keep a customer happy. If none of your stories can boil down to this, you may not be an early-stage company kind of person. Nothing wrong with that.
6) Make your request specific. “Picking your brain” or “just chatting about your business” are not very compelling reasons. Want mentoring solving a tough problem? “I’m trying to figure out how to position a product” is a much better ask than “pick your brain.” Want career advice? “I’m wondering how I can demonstrate that I can manage teams” is a good question. Want a job? “I want to learn about your growth and hiring plans because I’d like to work there” is far, far better than “Looks like you guys have a real cool business, I’d love to chat about all the cool things you do that are so cool.”
7) If you’re pitching me as a client or partner, be upfront about it. I have walked out of a coffee meeting that started as “I’d like your take on the market” and turned into a sales pitch. No bueno.
8) What goes around comes around. Other people will ask you to meet for coffee too. Do it if you possibly can. If you can’t, explain politely why without any guilt.
There is a lot of other advice out there on this topic. The problem is, most of it is crap that advises you to “offer value” or pile on flattery when it’s unnecessary. Just ask for help and connection respectfully. The people you are asking have more desire to help than you could possibly know, and also have less time (if they want to see their children grow up) than you might expect.