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. I want to have coffee with you.
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.
Why I Want To Have Coffee With You
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. I want to have coffee with you.
Nice post, Tim. I’ve been guilty too often of thinking I “didn’t have time” for getting together with folks for coffee. A couple of conversations over coffee and dinner last week have me re-thinking that. Appreciate the reminder of why it’s important to be open to sitting down with people, even if they don’t necessarily have anything to do with your immediate success.
Thanks Andrew. Time is always the most critical commodity, so it may not be possible to agree to every meeting, every time. However, the longer I do this, the more I’m convinced that networking (including one-on-one coffee conversations) is part of my job, not just something I do if I have spare time.
I agree with you 100%. I’ve even Skyped with people who wanted career advice since we didn’t live near each other.
Great post, and I agree. I do turn down people, but I also make it a point to try and meet new people, or make time for someone when I travel.
Thank Steve. There’s really no predicting what might become of a brief meeting like that, so I accept as many requests as I can reasonably manage.
Totally agree with you. I read the post you are responding to earlier today, and while I get what he was trying to say, his delivery sucked. As a ‘strategic partner matchmaker’, I work hard to find people who will benefit from sitting down and having coffee together. Everyone is busy, but if you’re strategic about it, it works wonders! I’ll be sharing your article with my network. It’s great!
I’ll have coffee with anyone, anytime. Meeting is absolutely key to maintaining relationships. Conversation is interesting. And coffee is good.
Lunch is slightly more sacred, but I can generally be convinced.
As for the author of that article, I don’t want to have coffee with him. He sounds like a complete **** <– insert your favorite term here.
Adam, I agree. Life is better with company.
I agree completely, except that I try to substitute coffee with “lunch down the pub” whenever possible. Especially in a smaller market, these kind of contacts and interactions are invaluable.
Paul, I agree. “Coffee” can be lunch, dinner, a baseball game, or any number of things.
Not all of us are extroverts. Even if I agree to have coffee with you chances are that within a week I won’t even remember your name. I’m reasonably good in communicating with users and get better with time. But having coffee just isn’t my cup of tea.
We’re in the process of spinning up a server in CenturyLink’s cloud, and I noticed in email signatures that the sales tech engineer was based in Phoenix and I knew exactly where his office was. As I knew I’d be in Phoenix in a few weeks, I asked him if I could buy him lunch at Honeybear’s BBQ (not expensive and very good BBQ). He agreed, we met, and had a great time. Discussed a few tech things, I got some invaluable info on their system that just didn’t come up in the calls, and now I know another cool tech in Phoenix.
No, you may not be able to have coffee/lunch/whatever with everyone who asks for your time, but I’m a firm believer in pay it forward and sharing knowledge. And though I don’t like overt networking, it’s good to meet people and develop acquaintances with.
I have to disagree with Adam Mechanic’s characterization of the other article. He simply laid out the circumstances under which he WOULD have coffee with you – and the “over the phone” option makes a lot of sense for some people. Granted, it’s not as “good” as face to face (no body language, etc) but it can still be effective.
I work from home, 10 miles from the nearest city which means a 20 minute drive each way. Coffee (or in my case tea) would be at least 1 hour out of my day, and more for lunch. Although if we met at Taco King it would be well worth my time just for the food! :>) If someone wants coffee with me I’d be honored – so long as they are willing to travel to a convenient location (which I hope they would, since they are asking for a favor).
Everyone has priorities and parameters, and I think we’d do well to remember that, and avoid name calling just because someone else has different ones than our own.
I couldn’t agree more Tim! Love your write up, and really enjoy your point about not being a tech guy. That’s a different way of thinking but one which I agree with. Let’s have coffee sometime you are in Austin or I’m in Dallas!
Thanks Jim. It’s important to remember that we’re business problem solvers first, with our technical ability as a secondary (but still necessary) attribute.
Thanks for sharing, Tim. I’m in a very similar position when you had first started out. I started seeing the need for BI solutions for the company I was working for at the time and it forced me to take online classes and countless hours browsing on stackoverflow.com to learn how to move data from the entry point to the reports from multiple sources. It forced me to learn how to use SSIS and SQL Server on-prem and Azure. Now when I share how reporting can help business owners in a conversation and then show them some demo’s, they almost always want my information and have also become my clients. This blog post reinforces this idea. I enjoy sharing the general info about reporting regardless if they become my client or not, but because I know how helpful reporting is for business, the product basically sells itself. Thanks for sharing, Tim. I’ve been reading almost every blog you’ve shared so far and save them for reference.