Never Ask a Busy Person to Lunch. Here’s Why:

Posted on Oct 13, 2011 | 143 comments

Never Ask a Busy Person to Lunch. Here’s Why:

OK. I know with a title like that I’m going to subject myself to people thinking I’m just being a grumpy, exclusive VC. That’s not the point. It’s honest advice so please judge once you’re read the post. And despite getting flamed (as expected) in the comments section – this isn’t about me. I meet plenty of people at all levels and whatever status. I’m not hierarchic. This is meant to be a general primer. It’s not about ME !!!

Meals or coffee are a great way to build rapport with other people and since I’m an ENTP I love breaking bread as much as the next guy. But there’e a time, a place and a way to do it as well as “the art of the ask” that avoids you looking like a rookie.

[update: yes, this is very US specific. It does not necessarily apply in other cultures or countries]

Here’s my advice:

I got an email from a young, super bright entrepreneur today. A guy I would love to work with – maybe even hire myself. I intro’d him to the COO of a growing tech company about maybe working together. They had never met. He responded by emailing the COO and asking him to lunch.

Oy vey.

Here’s the deal. Busy execs hate lunches. They are time sucks. Sure, they like to occasionally meeting good friends for lunch, important contacts for them or group lunches. But somebody they don’t know? Not so much.

Same with dinner. I get emails all the time from people asking me on a first date and saying, “how about if I buy you dinner.” I hate to sound jaded but unless you’re taking me to The French Laundry (OK, I’m in then) a dinner is an obligation, not a pleasure. Why? I’ve had way too many nice meals in my day. Just look at my waistline.

But more to the point – a dinner out is a night I don’t get to spend with my kids and family. And given that I travel enough and have dinners with portfolio companies, etc. enough I value every night with my family.

And if you think this blog post was specifically targeting YOU because you asked me to lunch – it isn’t. I have nobody in mind. It’s just that I saw this exchange today and I know that some younger people could use some times on what is and isn’t appropriate.

So what can you do? And when is lunch or dinner OK?

1. First date, speculative meeting: I always recommend you ask for coffee. And better if it’s at their offices if you’re asking for the meeting. “Hey, can I bring you a coffee and get 30 minutes of your time at your offices next Tues or Wed? I promise I won’t overrun my time.” And don’t. You become an easy second date to accept.

2. First date, high intent: Let’s say you have a meeting with somebody you know wants to meet you. Let’s say it’s for biz dev purposes, or you’re pitching investors, recruiting, or it’s a sales meeting – whatever. Then you can more easily just say, “How about if I swing by your offices next Tues / Wed” and leave the shorter 30-minute time unit out. I wouldn’t mention length of time until you’re there. You might get an hour. Awesome. You don’t have to be sheepish about short time because you know they want to meet you.

My rule: if you’re asking for the meeting, you travel. If I meet somebody super senior – even if they’ve asked me for the meeting – I still travel. I want them to be the least amount inconvenienced. I want the meeting. I want it to be easy for them to have it. I’m the primary beneficiary.

Actually, if a super senior person from industry asks me to breakfast or lunch I’m never offended and usually accept when I can. That’s my personal acceptance level.

3. Follow up: Sometimes it’s OK on a follow up to ask people to your office. This is best when there’s a reason for a site visit. It can be great for second VC meetings. I always prefer at your office so I can kick the tires. It’s great for sales meetings where you can show your prospects what kind of organization you have. I like board meetings at your place so we can pull in other team members and hear from them.

4. The Cheeky ask: As I said, I’m a big believer in social settings for meetings. You can break through that awkward “we’re across the formal table presenting” attitude. Break bread. Talk about more than just biz. So often I’ll ask people, “Hey, do you have time for a quick coffee? Or how about we meet first thing in the morning and grab a quick breakfast?” I have asked the polite question that gives them the easier option but thrown in “the cheeky ask” for a meal.

People often ask like, “can I buy you a cup of coffee or a quick drink after work?” I like that. I usually accept the former – except when I’m travelling. But you don’t make the person feel like you’re too forward by going for a drink.

But what about lunch, Mark? Are you really that grouchy?

No. I actually love the right kind of lunch meetings. Here’s where it’s OK

1. You’re already dating. If you know the person well – in whatever capacity – then lunch is fine. But I like the approach of asking for a meeting first but adding “or if you’re open any days for lunch I’d love to buy you a quick meal” so it’s easier for them to just accept the former.

2. You’re peers: If you’re peers and a lunch meeting would be much more acceptable. If you’re both startup CEOs at about the same level – no harm in asking. If you’re both VC Associates – no biggie. If you’re both partners in a VC firm – no biggie. If you’re both well capitalized CEOs and you’re just looking to build a deeper relationship / networking – usually fine.

3. Fortuitous times: Sometimes you notice that you’ve gotten a 12.30pm time slot for a meeting. It never hurts to throw in, “hey, I noticed that we’re meeting at 12.30. If you don’t already have lunch plans, perhaps we meet over a quick meal?”

4. People traveling: Often when people are traveling they’re more open because they don’t have a family to get to see. When I’m in SF or NY I do breakfast, lunch & dinner meetings every day. I would be open to a first date being breakfast and a second date being lunch. I’m more likely to say yes to dinner for either people I know OR groups of entrepreneurs that I meet en masse. I’ll often schedule a 10-15 person dinner and ask a local entrepereneur to bring people for general networking. On these occasions I always pay. But when I travel I’m a social machine. Meals, meals, meals. I find many other people are, too.

5. Group dinners: It’s always appropriate to invite people to group networking dinners. People may say yes or no but they’re often flattered to be invited. I like to think about the peer group I’m inviting and whether they’d want to meet everybody else. I invite some senior people, some junior people doing big things. You can definitely ask senior people to dinners (VCs, senior execs at companies, etc.) It won’t seem awkward. My recommendation is to bagsie a senior “anchor” person and use their name in the invitation. People go to dinners to meet other interesting people. So having somebody that people want to meet is a great way to start.

In summary:
By all means “lunch.” But keep in mind whom you’re meeting, the appropriate levels, the likely business of the person, how well you know them and whether it’s appropriate to even ask. And if you’re slightly out of your league in asking then start with a soft ask, “how about coffee” following by a cheeky, “if you’re open for breakfast or lunch maybe we could grab a quick bite.” You’ll notice in every ask I use the word “quick.” It feels like less of a commitment.

  • Roham Gharegozlou

    Mark one day I know we’ll meet, I am going to thank you profusely for the amount of common-sense advice you’ve dished out on your blog. It’s useful for me, but I’m especially grateful that every other person out there is reading it too. 

  • Dave Pinsen

    All of this seems like common sense.  I’m surprised you’d get so much push back on it.

  • Roham Gharegozlou

    Right. Ideally the FIRST thing you do is find the right technical cofounder who can more than hold down the fort while you’re gone. 

  • Matt Williams

    I’m talking more a social initial meet up (pitch, networking, general get-to-know type setup).

  • TheCLong

    Nice blog.  Lunch and dinner are social times, or they can be time outs for the person you want to see/meet.  Imposing yourself on another to share this time is a social event rather than a business one.  Tread with care.  I think that’s the point Mark is trying to make.  It’s all about respect.  Gaining a meeting during business hours is one thing.  Lunches and/or dinners are a whole different subject.  If in doubt, you are not in control.  Deal with it.

  • Guest

    As an American back working in America after the March 11th earthquakes, and having spent nearly all of the last decade working in Tokyo, I disagree that “nobody works harder than Americans”.  That attitude falls in line with high school tests in which Americans are the most likely to believe they did well on the test, but are far from most likely to have actually done well.

    You are free to disagree, but that is my honest opinion.

  • Gary N. Davis

    I found that sticking to a formulaic schedule would tend to make me prone to miss opportunities. Formulas are fine, but stay aware of tip-offs that signal possibilities you may not have thought of. You might wind up with a bigger BOOM!.

  • Mordy Kaplinsky


    I don’t know if you’ve had a bad experience but it seems that @msuster:disqus never treated you ill, so letting out your frustrations on him is counter productive.  If you’d like too pitch him this is the advice he is offering to best get his attention and respect.

    If you worked with him before or he is familiar with you the dating game has changed.  My suggestion is think of your comments as dates and try not to ruin it before you even get her on the phone.

  • Mordy Kaplinsky


    You realize that this post goes against the principles of MAD MEN.  Any opportunity for a liquid lunch :)

  • David Smuts

    How can moms/mums handle looking after children and at the same time run a business or organisation or a even hold a full time job, I seriously don’t know! I could never multi-task like that :-)

    Hope you check in from time to time Mrs S- look after our man please- he’s doing a great service and we’ll keep telling him to go to bed when we see him blogging or tweeting at 1am.

  • David Smuts

    In our family we say, “you don’t know somebody unless you see him/her 3 pints later”!

  • MatchLites

    Honestly I hate to say it, but this article is right on.  I myself have to be reminded by my wife to eat and even then I still forget.  I grind all day and just get caught up working and perfecting what God blessed me with.  I am not a big shot VC but my time is super duper duper duper important to me and my family.  

  • Stephen Rice

    Absolutely. I’m always very impressed by people who start their business on their own because it’s a vast amount of work to handle alone. It’s not lunch *or* bug-fixing; it’s lunch *and* bug-fixing.

  • Ashton Simmons

    I never thought about it this way.  Great article.  Makes sense.

  • Ken Seville

    What would you think about the lunch you wanted was delivered to you as part of the meeting? Since time is a major consideration, would it be more of an incentive if the person asking for the meeting was accompanied by the food you wanted? This is an interesting idea to me, it wouldn’t take much to cook up a quick invite app. that asked what you wanted and from where, integrated with Google calendar for example. I have to think that this would take the hassle out of, and potentially enhance,  meeting over lunch.

  • Josh Ingram

    Thanks for keepin’ it short… forgive my snark. I feel that what you are saying is eminently practical stuff and can be learned over time—through mistakes. It’s posts and thoughts and direction like this, when presented winsomely that help people along in these wiredrawn social matters. More power to ya!

  • Matej Golob

    I’ve posted over 300 lunches on my, many of them business lunches, many of them with very busy people. If you have a good story behind, it’s easier to get the lunch date. And it helps if it’s in Europe :)

  • TP Mullooly

    I found your post through LifeHacker.  This resonates with me, as I began in sales way back in the 80’s an could not understand why no one could break away for lunch.  Now, as a three-time business owner, I could not even imagine blowing a hole in the middle of my day like lunch.  

    I think the worst offenders are those who do not know me, but email me, with an invite to meet them somewhere for lunch.
     — Delete!  

  • Jim Riley

    To lunch alone is career suicide.

  • Beau Carlisle

    There was so much abbreviation that I couldn’t follow all of what was said.
    What is a VC?
    I’m possibly way out of my league here.

    I personally don’t invite people to lunch that I already know. It’s a time waster and once we’ve met once or never met it doesn’t matter to me, I can still build a relationship.
    My company sells multiple lines of products. However, we still manage to make time to speak to more people.
    I would invite my clients and potential clients for family picnic, bowling or golf before I would do lunch/dinner. It’s wasteful spending.
    I’m a CEO and I don’t meet people for lunch at expensive places even if they are willing to pay.
    Let’s go grab a burger at the local Burger Shack is more like it. I’ve worked too hard at building a business from scratch and know that frivolous spending is how this country got into the mess we are in now.
    I will not be a spendy CEO. Operating in the Black is where it’s at.

    Beau Carlisle, CEO
    Enterglobal, LLC
    ETG Solutions, LLC

  • Phil

    Amen! We’ve all got enough calories thanks.

  • Jim Haughwout

    I found this post really useful, having been on ‘both sides of this’ (i.e., trying to reach out to others and trying to respond to requests to meet up — some polite, some presumptuous). What I love best about this is that it works universally across cultures: For the US, ‘getting coffee’ is a great, low-commitment ‘first date’; for much of the rest of the world (where learning who a person ‘is’ is fundamental), it provides a ideal balance between formality and informality to connect. Thanks, again!


    Mark, can I buy you a cup of coffee? i have a new idea you may be interested in.

    JoeCRead more:

  • Michael O Church

    You don’t know me.

    Of course I don’t know you, except by this one post– one that hasn’t enticed me to read more of yours. All I know of you is what you choose to write. Do I need to explain that that’s how the Internet works, and that you’re judged here on what you write and not the entirety of your existence?
    there are protocols.

    Passive voice alert! Whenever someone says, “there are protocols”, that’s a sign of a lack of imagination. It’d be one thing to say, “I don’t like it when people do this”. That’s be fine. Have the courage to admit to what you don’t like instead of hiding behind “there are protocols”.

    You don’t like lunch, that’s fine. Myself, I don’t like 3:08 pm, because that’s when Hank got ambushed in Breaking Bad. Fuck 3:08 pm, seriously. 3:07 and 3:09 are fine, though. 

    Asking for lunch before you’re established your relationship is wrong.

    See, this is the kind of obnoxious, entitled attitude that makes me ill. If you said you didn’t like when people do that, that’d be one thing. If you said, pragmatically speaking, that it wasn’t the best strategy for getting investor attention, I’d agree with you completely– it doesn’t work. Saying it’s “wrong” just makes you sound like an entitled kid, like your on your first day at a new school and don’t like all the house rules they use when playing Magic cards. 

    I think most people learn, after some time, that people loathe business meetings without stated agendas. I agree that it’s bad business etiquette to ask for a meeting without stating a purpose for it, especially if there’s a power relationship involved. But I’d never say that a person who hasn’t learned this lesson is “wrong”– just naive and undeveloped in social skills. 

    And the chip on your shoulder.

    “Chip on your shoulder” is just a way of calling someone a prole. Again, have the fucking guts to say what you mean. Call me whatever you want (I’ve read enough of your writing to know you can’t crack the top-10 for the best insults directed at me, but give it a go) but at least show that there’s something to ya. 

  • Michael O Church

    I’m going to preempt the expected grammatical retort and edit the above: “like you’re on your first day at a new school”. My bad. 

  • Dellas

     I made that common mistake of asking for lunches or dinners. Thankfully I learned quickly.

  • Michael O Church

    The one time I worked in a startup, it was at one that didn’t deserve funding (it was badly run and I left) so I’m not being bitter. I do, however, have intense contempt for people (in any social system, not just business) who base their opinions and decisions on those of others’, because such people are essentially redundant and therefore completely useless until they evolve the capacity for original thought. That could take millions of years; I say stop feeding such people, reduce our ecological footprint, and give this planet a break. 

    No one denies that there is some degree of a “herd effect” in VC and people as expensively educated as they are ought to know better. If VCs were legally forbidden from talking to each other and had to make original decisions, we’d have a better world. Some VCs are good, some are not; but the attitude that many of them have is off-putting. To be fair, the best VCs don’t seem to have that arrogance at all. It seems like the really good ones are busy working, and it’s the hangers-on who get high on the gatekeeper thing. It’s like a prestigious school where the status associated with being there is most important to the bottom 25% of the students. 

  • Mordy Kaplinsky

    You may not like the system but the fact is a system will be put in place by the person you are trying to reach out to, seeing as they are busy by nature and need to prioritize.  If you don’t agree with the system the players put in place, you simply cannot partake in the game.  That said if you somehow manage to hustle a player into a lunch or something else “above your station” without pissing them off you will earn their respect as a hustler.

  • Anonymous

    If the entrepreneur asks the COO to lunch, and the COO is too busy, the COO should just say “Hey sorry I’m too busy at that time”. This is the sort of thing the English language was made for.

    Don’t discourage people from reaching out. Oy vey.

  • txtface

    Spot on! And, of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch either.

  • Jworrell

    good article.  Everyone should read this just to understand the best way to handle lunch appointments.

  • Mark Essel

    Expert advice on the ask, good stuff Mark.

  • Peter Kadas, Dr.

    Such a post is priceless for an entrepreneur outside the States pitching VCs in the States. My biggest fear is that due to cultural differences I’ll look an awkward rookie even if I’m a charming and convincing personality in my own cultural circumstances. There are hundreds of pages about the term sheet, I could write one by head by now, but this advice is like it was given by a local mentor. Thanks Mark, I hope more such posts are coming.

  • chrisabraham

    Yes, first date is always coffee. Only second dates plus are more. Maybe a before work pastry with coffee but it needs to cut off at 30. Also, first date could be over coffee at his or her office just so as not to inconvenience. Bring coffee from outside and ask his/her assistant how s/he takes the coffe (I painted myself into a gender-neutral corner)

  • John Verba

    But it’s might also be impressive if you’re the guy who has a friend take him to lunch — a friend who’s built and sold a few multi-city companies — who asks you if you’d mind some advice that he also gave to an architect friend, and then advises, “John, you have to decide if you want to do the work or run the company”…

    Impressive because in one sentence, the friend has told you the determining factor behind most solo (mostly B2B) practitioners’ “roller coaster cash flows”; they plow some ground, sow some seeds, water the plot, fertilize it, weed it, give it sun, have a couple dozen seedlings shooting up, and then: One watermelon ripens and they grab it and run off. And then they “have work,” and might not market again until they run out…even years down the road. But they left a whole promising harvest to whither. And they return, at some point, to relatively barren ground.It’s an approach that, yes, we can make work. And even be impressed by…but…

    …the guy who’s built companies is only saying what he knows: If you really want to build and own a company, your job will be building and owning the company. It’s not a job you do in your spare time when there’s “no real work.” That’s called, “filling your practice”…mostly with whatever random, paying opportunities come in the door…and no real branding, marketing, or growth plans…and no franchise-level system of operations. But with a lot of encouragement from busy people in the same boat, impressed by our bailing skills.  ;  )

  • Stephen Rice

    In my defence, I just meant it’s difficult to manage all the separate roles needed to make a company work by yourself. I’ll happily defer on the effectiveness of doing it like that.

  • John Verba

    Well, you’re generalizing at *this* point, but the headline and lead-in were framed as *absolutes* in order to provoke a response. In this case, to read.

    In comparison, “Presenting the 9 Most Common Scenerios in Which There’s Absolutely Nothing Wrong with Inviting a Fellow Professional for a Bite,” lacks a certain zing.

  • John Verba

    “Leading” shows up on so many small business websites in situations where you can literally ask the CEO, “OK, help me out here. How are you ‘leading’? Is it…sales? Staff size? Um…square footage? Press acclaim? Ah…alphabetically? The industry softball league?”  They’ll say, “We just thought it sounded good.”

    “Leading,” to many small business owners, has to actually mean, “not left behind.” If they had a story about an actual dominant advantage, they certainly wouldn’t try to get it across by using “leading.” They’d provide the evidence, and the reader would then reason out: They’re out in front and innovative.

  • John Verba

    Stephen. Yes, I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was addressing your singular mindset. I mean, you can go up and down any blog like this and see pretty familiar understandings and mindsets. And if you’ve known a lot of people who’ve taken businesses from one person to 20 or more, you know that the things they finally did that made the difference were the last things their peers wanted to do…and the last things they, honestly, wanted to do. Delegated. Got funding. Reinvested earnings. Got on the phone. Got known. It could be a bunch of things, but it’s what few ever really do.Basically, they started acting like the people they wanted to be, and doing unusual things in search of those unusual results. And they found they then had to handle the pushback, because they weren’t doing “what most people would do.” Etc. Etc.

    They had to not mind being on the outside looking in on their own creation. So there’s a bit of a price to the millions. But that’s as you’d expect.

  • Kevin Adler

    Thanks for the article, Mark. Very helpful. I’ve just moved to SF, and some of these protocol questions are not always intuitive. I added your blog to my favorites tab, and look forward to more.

  • Anne Web Agent

    “The art of the ask”” LOL! I love that! Yeah, i never really thought about it as a big deal. I’m not one who gets disappointed easily by being rejected but this post gets you thinkin. Its about thinking of other people besides you. About making everyone have a great time and not just a few. :) thanks for sharing

  • Neil

    I stopped at “look at my waistline”.
    If I ever get so fat and cynical that I resent lunch invitations please just put me out of my misery.

  • Roscoe

    I was going to comment but it’s below my societal level to do so.  No hard feelings — that’s just the way it is