One benefit of taking venture capital is that your VCs often introduce you to influential people.
Famous founders, eminent executives, interesting influencers, and so on.
These intros are cheat codes that can supercharge your startup if you use them properly. Often, these connections take the form of short chats at a dinner or via Zoom. They are usually rushed affairs that exist between elevator pitches and sit-down meetings. I’ve overheard dozens of these conversations and have a few tips on how to get the most from them.
🏆 Focus on a goal
99% of the time, you should be trying to impress the person so they’ll:
1) Be open to setting up a meeting in the future (or at least returning an email).
2) Forward your info to someone in their organization who can buy your product.
This person isn’t going to solve a problem that’s bedeviled you for 15 months in 15 minutes. You’re not going to get a life-changing piece of advice that will alter the trajectory of your startup and/or career. Just try to get one node deeper into this network.
An email from a CEO saying “take this meeting” is an unmatched sales lead.
The founder of a famous consumer brand saying you “should meet…” is a massive win.
Your singular focus should be making such a positive impression that you get such a referral.
🗺️ Have a plan, take the lead
If your VC has created a forum to meet with an expert, you must drive the interaction.
Introduce yourself, and dive in — have an opening question and plan for the meeting. It’s a sociable setting, but not a social call.
🪡 Tailor your pitch
Unless the person is *deeply* familiar with your field, be sure to tell your story in a way so they can understand your industry dynamics, its jargon, and the competitive players.
They can’t help you if they don’t understand what you do.
📔 Read up on the person (if possible)…
VIPs often have pat responses to popular questions. Try to evade their media training by framing your queries, so they understand you know the 101 level answer already. It’s flattering and is more likely to get a helpful response.
🗣️ …But don’t waste time on small talk
Try building rapport, but don’t waste too much time citing the experts’ story back to them.
Spending time demonstrating your knowledge of their personal trivia, or talking about contacts in common, distracts from the primary goal.
🎭 Show & tell
If you’ve got a product, show it off — especially in Zoom settings. A 30-second demo can answer a thousand small questions and put the expert in a better position to engage with you on the substance.
⭐️ Highlight any 3rd party validation early
Has the NYT mentioned you? If so, note that.
Important partners? Tout them!
Have you raised a lot of VC? Funding is an easily understood, cross-industry lingua franca.
External affirmation wins converts and saves time.
🤝 Act like a (potential) peer
Don’t be overly familiar, but don’t act like a starstruck admirer either. You’re presumably in the position to meet with this person because you have a high degree of potential. Senior folks want to get to know the next generation of talent.
↩️ Follow their lead
Experts often spend time with emerging talent because it helps them understand where things are going. Get a sense of where this person’s curiosity lies and attempt to frame your discussion around it, rather than reverting to your boilerplate pitch.
🤯 Ask questions that the person can answer
“Which of two brand names do you like better?” is a good question.
“How should I interview a CFO candidate?” is excellent.
“Can you adjudicate a complex interpersonal beef between co-founders?” less so.
💡 “Real” questions > hypotheticals
Pose a question you’re wrestling with — right now.
The answer likely won’t be 100% right, but seeing how they approach it will illuminate your ultimate response.
A much better use of time than some formless philosophical inquiry.
🍷 In vino veritas
Sometimes, the best use of meetings like this — especially dinners — is to learn the hidden lore of your category.
Informal chats are valuable ways to learn about the rivalries and slights that have shaped the industry in which you work.
The last and most important bit of advice is to follow up.
If the person offers to make an introduction or has questions, be sure to follow up, ideally with supporting materials, a forwardable email — and effusive thanks. Hopefully, it’ll be the first of many interactions.