Learn to Say "NO" to Meetings

Posted on May 17, 2010 | 44 comments


As a startup entrepreneur you’ll have many demands for your time.  Especially if you start to have a degree of success or build a high public profile.  Everyone will want you to speak at conferences.  Service providers will want to get to know you.  Potential employees want to “get together.”  VC’s will want to learn about what you’re up to and later stage VCs will have their 23-year-old analysts call you to tell you how interested they are in your company.

The problem is that the scarcest resource in any entrepreneur’s life is your time.  Yet we all feel guilty not doling out time for anybody who asks – especially if we were introduced.  I know!  I feel the same way.  I’m trying to embrace my inner “NO” a little more in my life.  One simply can’t take every meeting.

So a friend recently wrote me for advice.  He said,

“I need some advice on something. I keep getting requests from people to meetup, give advice, requesting jobs, etc. How do I basically tell people “I’m sorry, I don’t have time” in a nice way? How do I punt on people?

I’m getting better at it, but it becomes difficult at times.”

I told him it was best if he had a standard line he could send out when he gets these kinds of requests.  I suggested something like the following

“Thank you for writing to me – it’s nice to hear from you (or meet you) via email.  Fortunately [my company] has started to take off in ways that I couldn’t have imagined just a short time ago. Unfortunately that means I don’t have as much time as I used to have to take meetings with people.

I hope you’ll understand.  I’m now under a lot of pressure from my board to deliver against some pretty ambitious goals.

I do try to get to tech social events from time-to-time so I hope we can catch up there.  Hope you understand.”

If you feel you need to take the meeting but it’s not really a productive one for you, I suggest the following:

1. Make your meeting times really short and do so explicitly – “I’d love to meet.  I’m super busy at work these days but I’d be happy to carve out 30 minutes of my time to see whether I can help.”

2. Plan meeting in your office. Cafe’s take too much time in ordering, etc., plus it’s impossible to ask somebody to leave your table after 30 minutes.  True, you can get up and say you need to go, but it’s somehow more rude when you’re in a social environment.  Plus, if you’re giving up 30 minutes why also give up commuting time?  Obviously if they’re asking for the meeting the social etiquette is that they come to you.

3. Consider asking to limit it to a 22 minute meeting – this six minute video was simply brilliant.  It argues for 22 minute meetings.  I totally agree!

4. Schedule sometime right behind the meeting - the easiest way to make sure that your meeting doesn’t over run is to simply schedule a meeting or other activity behind it.  If it’s an internal working session you can still have a colleague come and pull you out of the meeting.  Politely warm the presenter before they start, “I’m really sorry.  I just wanted to let you know that I have a meeting exactly 30 minutes after this one.  I just wanted to tell you up front so you’d pace yourself.”

As a VC I struggle to say “no” to meetings.  I simply get too many intros from great people.  But it’s my job to take meetings. If I were in your shoes I’d embrace the power of “NO” more often and GSD.

UPDATE: In reading Mark Solon’s comments below it made me realize one thing.  I need to emphasize one point better.  I’m not saying “no more meetings” but rather “no, to more meetings.”  Meetings are, as Mark points out, a way to explore and serendipitously discover things.  But if you live in a major metropolis such as the Bay Area, LA, NY the sheer number of people who “just want coffee” is mind boggling.  Take meetings – just be judicious.  Thanks, Mark!

  • http://twitter.com/arelt Arel Tsalach

    Mark, great advice.
    Would you consider a Skype video call meeting instead of a face to face meeting when time is limited or there might be other limitations etc? Have you done that before?

  • http://twitter.com/arelt Arel Tsalach

    Mark, great advice.
    Would you consider a Skype video call meeting instead of a face to face meeting when time is limited or there might be other limitations etc? Have you done that before?

  • http://pupeno.com J. Pablo Fernández

    I presume this problem falls in the category of problems we want to have, like how to balance the server load, and how to hire people.

  • http://pupeno.com J. Pablo Fernández

    I presume this problem falls in the category of problems we want to have, like how to balance the server load, and how to hire people.

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    The topic has the potential to run into territory covered in one of your other posts (Don't be a Grin Fucker), but I'd agree strongly with the sentiment about avoiding meetings.

    Actually I'd go further and suggest that the refusal of meetings is not something that should be limited to “successful” entrepreneurs or VCs. Meetings are the opposite of work (or at least in many cases they are). The excellent Rework book (by Jason Fried) covers that in more detail.

    The only other tip I could add would be to ration the total amount of time you're prepared to schedule for meetings in a given week. Be strict with it. It certainly helps me prioritise. I use a mechanism that doesn't just apply to meetings for establishing whether I should be doing something or not. At the risk of plugging myself, it's here: The 5Cs. I'd be interested in any criticisms of the concept.

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    The topic has the potential to run into territory covered in one of your other posts (Don't be a Grin Fucker), but I'd agree strongly with the sentiment about avoiding meetings.

    Actually I'd go further and suggest that the refusal of meetings is not something that should be limited to “successful” entrepreneurs or VCs. Meetings are the opposite of work (or at least in many cases they are). The excellent Rework book (by Jason Fried) covers that in more detail.

    The only other tip I could add would be to ration the total amount of time you're prepared to schedule for meetings in a given week. Be strict with it. It certainly helps me prioritise. I use a mechanism that doesn't just apply to meetings for establishing whether I should be doing something or not. At the risk of plugging myself, it's here: The 5Cs. I'd be interested in any criticisms of the concept.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Mark…thnx for this.

    There is nothing more valuable than our time and nothing more respectful than giving a focused piece of it to people who are or could be important to you.

    I'm in agreement…putting yourself out in a short controlled manor to the right people sets the scene for a million more productive phone or email or blog conversations.

    This is true most likely in life and work.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Mark…thnx for this.

    There is nothing more valuable than our time and nothing more respectful than giving a focused piece of it to people who are or could be important to you.

    I'm in agreement…putting yourself out in a short controlled manor to the right people sets the scene for a million more productive phone or email or blog conversations.

    This is true most likely in life and work.

  • http://www.highway12ventures.com Mark Solon

    Great post (as usual) Mark. Yes, I agree that too many meetings drains our most precious commodity, time. However, as a corollary, I'd suggest another approach to meetings for entrepreneurs. Set up 1-3 hours a week and have a series of 20 minute meetings, all back-to-back to reduce interruptions. Don't be afraid to take them, but go in with a plan and ask for help. Ask for intros to potential customers, potential hires, etc. By eliminating meetings, you greatly reduce the opportunity for serendipity to strike…

  • http://www.highway12ventures.com Mark Solon

    Great post (as usual) Mark. Yes, I agree that too many meetings drains our most precious commodity, time. However, as a corollary, I'd suggest another approach to meetings for entrepreneurs. Set up 1-3 hours a week and have a series of 20 minute meetings, all back-to-back to reduce interruptions. Don't be afraid to take them, but go in with a plan and ask for help. Ask for intros to potential customers, potential hires, etc. By eliminating meetings, you greatly reduce the opportunity for serendipity to strike…

  • steve pelletier

    I generally believe that most folks are ”over- meetinged” and this advice is useful .

    What do you think about internal meetings and the ease at which they can suck productivity out of a day? Perhaps you have already given a clue: keep the meetings short (30 minutes or less, as Dominoes Pizza used to say).

    Do you have any other ideas on how to best manage the number of internal meetings?

    Thanks
    Steve

  • steve pelletier

    I generally believe that most folks are ”over- meetinged” and this advice is useful .

    What do you think about internal meetings and the ease at which they can suck productivity out of a day? Perhaps you have already given a clue: keep the meetings short (30 minutes or less, as Dominoes Pizza used to say).

    Do you have any other ideas on how to best manage the number of internal meetings?

    Thanks
    Steve

  • startupguy

    Mark,

    Great advice.

    Now that my company is so busy with focusing on sales, marketing and actually building a business the time doesn't exist for meeting with everyone or going to all of the conferences. I go to a few events per year and stay a few hours so I can get back to work. Those who linger at the confrences and are at every single one can't possibly be building good businesses.

    To go one step further customer meetings are also important to prioritize and keep short and direct. Meetings should never take longer than 30 minutes and if things progress in the meeting let things go beyond the time frame.

    Regarding VC's I have turned down many meetings and will only take a meeting with a partner directly when I do take the meeting. Don't be worried to turn people down if they get pissed off they aren't the kind of people to do business with as they will never respect your time.

    Back to work.

  • startupguy

    Mark,

    Great advice.

    Now that my company is so busy with focusing on sales, marketing and actually building a business the time doesn't exist for meeting with everyone or going to all of the conferences. I go to a few events per year and stay a few hours so I can get back to work. Those who linger at the confrences and are at every single one can't possibly be building good businesses.

    To go one step further customer meetings are also important to prioritize and keep short and direct. Meetings should never take longer than 30 minutes and if things progress in the meeting let things go beyond the time frame.

    Regarding VC's I have turned down many meetings and will only take a meeting with a partner directly when I do take the meeting. Don't be worried to turn people down if they get pissed off they aren't the kind of people to do business with as they will never respect your time.

    Back to work.

  • koreausbusiness

    I wholeheartedly agree about the need to get stuff done. There are way too many distractions in the day.

    Meetings are the proverbial two-way street though. Your saying “no” to meetings can easily turn into people saying “no” to your meeting requests. The entrepreneur may need meetings for 1) funding 2) hiring 3) customers. The investor may need meetings for 1) funding 2) hiring 3) building the next fund.

    Meetings are not implicitly bad, but many meetings are simply badly organized and unnecessary. First you have to ask why you need to meet and what the purpose/value is. You need to set the agenda and time, then stick to the plan.

    I plan my week knowing that I will need to either take meetings or request meetings, so I block off a few hours as open. I only setup meeting times for 30 minutes max. I stick to the schedule and any topics that need further discussion or input is left for another time or a phone/email follow-up.

  • koreausbusiness

    I wholeheartedly agree about the need to get stuff done. There are way too many distractions in the day.

    Meetings are the proverbial two-way street though. Your saying “no” to meetings can easily turn into people saying “no” to your meeting requests. The entrepreneur may need meetings for 1) funding 2) hiring 3) customers. The investor may need meetings for 1) funding 2) hiring 3) building the next fund.

    Meetings are not implicitly bad, but many meetings are simply badly organized and unnecessary. First you have to ask why you need to meet and what the purpose/value is. You need to set the agenda and time, then stick to the plan.

    I plan my week knowing that I will need to either take meetings or request meetings, so I block off a few hours as open. I only setup meeting times for 30 minutes max. I stick to the schedule and any topics that need further discussion or input is left for another time or a phone/email follow-up.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Mark. Great points all. In fact, just updated my post referencing you in the last paragraph. I appreciate that without this clarification my message could be misinterpreted. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Mark. Great points all. In fact, just updated my post referencing you in the last paragraph. I appreciate that without this clarification my message could be misinterpreted. Thank you.

  • http://springboard.com amirmc

    I've found that phone calls work very well for me. It's quicker than writing emails and a phone call still feels like 'work' to both parties i.e less random chit-chat than you would have at a face to face meeting. Usually 10-15 minutes is more than enough.

    Obviously this doesn't replace every meeting but I've found that most 1-to-1 interactions are usually ok by phone.

  • http://springboard.com amirmc

    I've found that phone calls work very well for me. It's quicker than writing emails and a phone call still feels like 'work' to both parties i.e less random chit-chat than you would have at a face to face meeting. Usually 10-15 minutes is more than enough.

    Obviously this doesn't replace every meeting but I've found that most 1-to-1 interactions are usually ok by phone.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    `A great point and an interesting perspective as always. I do find the last sentence to be humorous though, but only because when I watch/read/listen to other Entrepreneurs or VCs in the valley they encourage those who are up-and-coming to simply call them up “just for coffee”. I always assumed that they would be entirely overloaded with requests, but they never made it out that way. Perhaps they are hoping their audience will bother someone else, or maybe they aren't as popular as you are.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    `A great point and an interesting perspective as always. I do find the last sentence to be humorous though, but only because when I watch/read/listen to other Entrepreneurs or VCs in the valley they encourage those who are up-and-coming to simply call them up “just for coffee”. I always assumed that they would be entirely overloaded with requests, but they never made it out that way. Perhaps they are hoping their audience will bother someone else, or maybe they aren't as popular as you are.

  • Mehdi

    37Singals new book, rework, has a great write up on this under “meetings are toxic”. They are mostly talking about group meetings in a company rather than 1-1 stuff. This is an older version from their book “getting real”

    http://gettingreal.37signals.com/ch07_Meetings_

    The best way to hit it home is this: 1 hr wasted in a meeting with 10 people is not just 1 hr of productivity lost, but a loss of 10 hrs productivity for the company.

  • Mehdi

    37Singals new book, rework, has a great write up on this under “meetings are toxic”. They are mostly talking about group meetings in a company rather than 1-1 stuff. This is an older version from their book “getting real”

    http://gettingreal.37signals.com/ch07_Meetings_

    The best way to hit it home is this: 1 hr wasted in a meeting with 10 people is not just 1 hr of productivity lost, but a loss of 10 hrs productivity for the company.

  • http://twitter.com/jcflash80 Jonathan Chin

    Great post Mark. I agree with J. Pablo Fernandez, at the end of the day too many meeting requests is a good problem to have. As a VC and/or entrepreneur, how often are these serendipitous meetings you take more opportunistic than “important” meetings?

  • http://twitter.com/jcflash80 Jonathan Chin

    Great post Mark. I agree with J. Pablo Fernandez, at the end of the day too many meeting requests is a good problem to have. As a VC and/or entrepreneur, how often are these serendipitous meetings you take more opportunistic than “important” meetings?

  • http://starttowonder.blogspot.com sjain

    Mark, Google Spreadsheets/docs, goto meeting or other online collaboration tools are a great way to help people save time. Since the changes can be seen by someone else real time.

    In case someone needs to meet you just for social contacts then its a different thing, but if he/she needs your advice, both of you sitting in comfort of their respective offices and collaborating via online collaboration tools and phone will save you lot of time and you can also do something else if for some moment you feel the meeting is dragging on and on for no reason.

    Though i am not super busy like you or get requests for meetings all the time but still i save lot of time using the online collaboration tools.

  • http://starttowonder.blogspot.com sjain

    Mark, Google Spreadsheets/docs, goto meeting or other online collaboration tools are a great way to help people save time. Since the changes can be seen by someone else real time.

    In case someone needs to meet you just for social contacts then its a different thing, but if he/she needs your advice, both of you sitting in comfort of their respective offices and collaborating via online collaboration tools and phone will save you lot of time and you can also do something else if for some moment you feel the meeting is dragging on and on for no reason.

    Though i am not super busy like you or get requests for meetings all the time but still i save lot of time using the online collaboration tools.

  • http://twitter.com/addictivemobile addictive mobile

    After 3 years of c level WPP meeting overkill i built an iphone app designed to deal with meeting fatigue – along with buzzword bingo, word of the day and a time waste calculator, the killer app is the ability to schedule a fake call – giving you a reason to politely exit a time wasting meeting. And it also has a daily tip to make meetings more productive. http://bit.ly/8Q9a0m BB and Android versions coming soon

  • http://twitter.com/addictivemobile addictive mobile

    After 3 years of c level WPP meeting overkill i built an iphone app designed to deal with meeting fatigue – along with buzzword bingo, word of the day and a time waste calculator, the killer app is the ability to schedule a fake call – giving you a reason to politely exit a time wasting meeting. And it also has a daily tip to make meetings more productive. http://bit.ly/8Q9a0m BB and Android versions coming soon

  • http://www.soundadvicesales.com Phyllis Nichols

    Mark,
    I like the email idea. I also like taking a “meeting” by phone. It works well for me, but not always for others who are not a comfortable with calls.
    I do have a suggestion to offer as well that may be useful to you and others here. I enjoy meeting with others, and it leads to business offers and new opportunities. I've started using a meeting day. When requests come up, I say – sure – I have time on May 20 or June 18. I am scheduling a number of meetings that day and have several 45 minute time slots. What works for you?

    This is working well, and allows me to say yes more often. It also allows me to plan much better. You could always do this for just 1 morning a month, or whatever your schedule permits.
    I appreciate the insight from you and others and how you handle this.

  • http://www.soundadvicesales.com Phyllis Nichols

    Mark,
    I like the email idea. I also like taking a “meeting” by phone. It works well for me, but not always for others who are not a comfortable with calls.
    I do have a suggestion to offer as well that may be useful to you and others here. I enjoy meeting with others, and it leads to business offers and new opportunities. I've started using a meeting day. When requests come up, I say – sure – I have time on May 20 or June 18. I am scheduling a number of meetings that day and have several 45 minute time slots. What works for you?

    This is working well, and allows me to say yes more often. It also allows me to plan much better. You could always do this for just 1 morning a month, or whatever your schedule permits.
    I appreciate the insight from you and others and how you handle this.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    I still wrestle with this problem quite a bit — to help solve it, a few of us started a weekly happy hour (we think of it as 'office hours') where we get together every Thursday night at a local bar. There's no agenda or speakers — rather, it's just a place where we all swing by, when we can, on Thursdays at 6:30. Sometime 5 show up, and sometime it's 50. It helps that 4 or 5 of us are regulars, so there's always someone there to act as 'host' to newbies. But, it always gives a polite way to say 'no', but still provide some time to be available, and to make introductions, etc. It's funny, but even this aggregated 1-hour quickly becomes a burden (some weeks you just don't feel like it), but a quick tweet can usually let folks know. In Seattle, we call it Hops and Chops (http://www.hopsandchops.com and @hopsandchops) — we got the idea from Portland's Beer and Blog event (http://portland.beerandblog.com/) hosted by Rick Turoczy and others.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    I still wrestle with this problem quite a bit — to help solve it, a few of us started a weekly happy hour (we think of it as 'office hours') where we get together every Thursday night at a local bar. There's no agenda or speakers — rather, it's just a place where we all swing by, when we can, on Thursdays at 6:30. Sometime 5 show up, and sometime it's 50. It helps that 4 or 5 of us are regulars, so there's always someone there to act as 'host' to newbies. But, it always gives a polite way to say 'no', but still provide some time to be available, and to make introductions, etc. It's funny, but even this aggregated 1-hour quickly becomes a burden (some weeks you just don't feel like it), but a quick tweet can usually let folks know. In Seattle, we call it Hops and Chops (http://www.hopsandchops.com and @hopsandchops) — we got the idea from Portland's Beer and Blog event (http://portland.beerandblog.com/) hosted by Rick Turoczy and others.

  • http://www.hypedsound.com jonathanjaeger

    Yes, that's true. They opt for sending emails back and forth so you can get to it on your own time, rather than carving out chunks of your own productivity time. Problem is, you can't utilize in-company chat software and email to discuss things with outsiders (who are probably strangers). Great book, though. I recommend it, and it's a quick read for those who are busy and don't have much time.

  • http://www.hypedsound.com jonathanjaeger

    Yes, that's true. They opt for sending emails back and forth so you can get to it on your own time, rather than carving out chunks of your own productivity time. Problem is, you can't utilize in-company chat software and email to discuss things with outsiders (who are probably strangers). Great book, though. I recommend it, and it's a quick read for those who are busy and don't have much time.

  • http://startupdojo.org joesunga

    I was going to write a comment here about the infamous Hops and Chops, but it seems like you've already done it Dave. :)

    As a person who's met a lot of great folks at Hops and Chops — it's definitely a good alternative to taking tons of coffees with a lot of different people.

  • http://josephsunga.com joesunga

    I was going to write a comment here about the infamous Hops and Chops, but it seems like you've already done it Dave. :)

    As a person who's met a lot of great folks at Hops and Chops — it's definitely a good alternative to taking tons of coffees with a lot of different people.

  • http://startupdojo.org joesunga

    As a bizdev person who probably does set up a good amount of meetings, I'm pretty good at setting them up if they are truly necessary

    (1) Having time constraints, which keep the meetings focused
    (2) Try scheduling phone meetings — sometimes you don't need to meet in person. There's a lot of hassle meeting at a brick and mortar area sometimes. And for what I do — I rarely meet the partners we connect with.
    (3) Set an agenda, so both parties know what they're getting into.
    (4) Always send a follow-up — surprisingly enough a lot of people don't. For me this is a good thing because it helps justify the meeting for me and give me and the other person what the next to-dos are (if any).

    If you're trying to get a meeting with someone (who clearly doesn't have time) — try to make it as easy as possible for them.

  • http://josephsunga.com joesunga

    As a bizdev person who probably does set up a good amount of meetings, I'm pretty good at setting them up if they are truly necessary

    (1) Having time constraints, which keep the meetings focused
    (2) Try scheduling phone meetings — sometimes you don't need to meet in person. There's a lot of hassle meeting at a brick and mortar area sometimes. And for what I do — I rarely meet the partners we connect with.
    (3) Set an agenda, so both parties know what they're getting into.
    (4) Always send a follow-up — surprisingly enough a lot of people don't. For me this is a good thing because it helps justify the meeting for me and give me and the other person what the next to-dos are (if any).

    If you're trying to get a meeting with someone (who clearly doesn't have time) — try to make it as easy as possible for them.

  • hegranes

    When I first read this, I discounted its relevance to me — figuring that I'm less than two weeks into our beta launch and that EVERY meeting COULD be meaningful… Just a few days later, I've already realized how screening meetings and saying no is crucial. So demo at the Open Angel Forum — obviously I said hell yeah to that. But whether to go to every networking event or dinner that I'm invited to, I'm not so sure anymore.

    One comment mentioned the prospect of serendipity, and I think that's the rub… What is the best way to screen whether or not a meeting is worth your time? I'm often surprised what comes from some meetings that I thought would have provided little value…

  • hegranes

    When I first read this, I discounted its relevance to me — figuring that I'm less than two weeks into our beta launch and that EVERY meeting COULD be meaningful… Just a few days later, I've already realized how screening meetings and saying no is crucial. So demo at the Open Angel Forum — obviously I said hell yeah to that. But whether to go to every networking event or dinner that I'm invited to, I'm not so sure anymore.

    One comment mentioned the prospect of serendipity, and I think that's the rub… What is the best way to screen whether or not a meeting is worth your time? I'm often surprised what comes from some meetings that I thought would have provided little value…

  • Shanghai Dude

    I met Mark yesterday after he did a speech in Shanghai. I asked him if we could meet and he politely put me down saying he didn't have time.

    It is great to see people practicing what they preach.

    P.S He gave a great presentation!

  • Shanghai Dude

    I met Mark yesterday after he did a speech in Shanghai. I asked him if we could meet and he politely put me down saying he didn't have time.

    It is great to see people practicing what they preach.

    P.S He gave a great presentation!