Yesterday I read an article entitled “Why I Don’t Want to Have Coffee With You”, in which the author writes that he doesn’t have the time or the desire to simply “have coffee”. While I empathize with some of the author’s justifications for his position, I was disappointed at the hard line he took on this. Personally, I prefer a completely different approach to professional requests for coffee, lunch, etc.
When I started in this business some 16 years ago, my market value was limited. As a young buck with no college degree, almost no experience, and few contacts, I wasn’t the type of person that most people would go out of their way to hire. I had a lot of enthusiasm and aptitude, but with little in the way of actual experience, my options were limited. I had to take whatever I could get to start building my skills and my résumé.
Although it was well outside my comfort zone to do so, I reached out to others in the industry who appeared to be successful. To my surprise, some of them actually talked to me. Not all of them did, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many successful technical professionals were willing to sit down and visit with me to hear about my ambitions and let me ask them questions about their success. A few of them gave me really good advice about how to actively manage my career. Later, some of these folks ended up being colleagues or clients, and in a few cases, friends.
As I built up my experience, I continued this tradition, actively engaging some of the folks whom I admired in technology and business. But a funny thing happened along the way – others started reaching out to me for advice and counsel. I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud the first time someone asked me for career advice, because it sounded silly at the time. However, I’ve found that if you know just one thing, there’s always someone else who doesn’t know that one thing and might benefit from your experience. So I happily accepted requests to help out others in the same way I was helped during my green years.
Later, as I matured in my career, I saw this come full circle. In agreeing to these casual requests to meet, I had – somewhat accidentally – built a network of others in the technology business, and a few of those relationships paid off as casual contacts were converted into employees and clients. However, even in cases where my coffee companion didn’t turn into a formal business associate, I (and they as well, I hope) benefited from having shared time discussing our experiences and perspectives. If I’ve learned anything from all this, it’s that a fruitful business relationship doesn’t always require an inked contract.
So, having revealed some of my history and bias in this matter, I’ll tell you why I do want to have coffee with you.
1. People are my business.
By trade, I am a technical consultant. However, if my focus were just on the technology, I would be out of business. The truth is that I’m not a tech guy – I’m a business professional who knows how to use technology to solve problems. To solve those types of problems, I need to understand those pain points, which usually cannot be fully diagnosed with a database script or an automated process. These problems have to be articulated, and more often than not, I must put forth a lot of effort and analysis to ask the right questions so I can get to the root of the problems. My business is understanding people, and the fact is that having coffee with you will improve my interpersonal and communication skills. When I ask about where you are in your career, where you’d like to go, and what you think you should be doing, I’m honing my craft – remember, I’m in the people business – which will help me on my next client, and the one after that.
2. It’s a small world.
More precisely, it’s very big world, but the circles in which we travel tend to overlap a lot. The person I have lunch with today might be the one who knows someone who will ask tomorrow for a recommendation for a business intelligence consultant. On the flip side, the person whose coffee invitation I reject might soon start a new job with a Fortune 100 company in need of exactly the services I offer. Both of these people will remember me, and my acceptance or rejection will help to shape their perception of me. When I accept your invitation to coffee or lunch, since I’m a people person (remember the prior bullet?), I’m optimistic that I’ll make a good enough impression that you’ll remember me positively and call on me, or perhaps refer me to someone else in your circle.
3. I’m returning a favor.
Yes, I’m returning a favor, but chances are good that you weren’t the one who extended me the favor I’m repaying. As I mentioned, there were numerous others who helped to guide me when they had no obligation or prior history that required them to do so. Whether you call it karma, the golden rule, or simply paying it forward, I’m trying to help people in the same way that others helped me. In some cases, I’m going out on a limb for someone who will never directly become a business associate, but that is not the only metric I used to measure the success of these types of meetings.
4. You offer a fresh perspective.
Too often, businesses – and technical businesses in particular – spend a lot of time in silos. In the echo chamber inside of an organization, ideas can sound incredible when in reality the product or service being built could be something that nobody really wants. When we meet for coffee, I’m going answer your questions and offer whatever counsel I can, but I’m probably going to casually bounce an idea or two off of you as well. Further, getting an outside opinion helps me to better understand industry trends. Do you think this cloud thing is going to stick around? What are your thoughts about the next version of Windows? Are you having a hard time finding good people to hire? I’m not just making chitchat when I ask these questions – your perspective will help me understand the technical and business ecosystem in which we live.
5. You might someday become an employee, client, or business partner.
Notice that I didn’t say that there’s a good chance we’re going to ink some kind of deal. We might do business together. If I’ve learned anything as an independent consultant, it’s that you can’t always predict where business relationships will come from. I’ve seen deals that were practically guaranteed end up falling apart without explanation. I’ve also seen business materialize out of seemingly insignificant encounters. I’m not building a business to be successful just in the short term, and while my spending a half hour at Starbucks with you might not pay off today or even this year, chances are good that one of those lunch/coffee dates I accept today will pay off down the road.
Now, I am a realist. I recognize that because of time constraints and logistics, I won’t be able to fulfill every request I get to meet up. I agree with the author of the article above that client work does come first, and I concur that one shouldn’t neglect family responsibilities to abide every request to network. However, since I don’t have a crystal ball to know who will and who won’t contribute to my business, I’m not going to arbitrarily refuse a coffee invitation simply because I don’t see an immediate return on my time.