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

Posted on Oct 13, 2011 | 143 comments


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.

  • http://taskera.com Deboprio (co founder, taskera)

     I agree with you  mark, my comment was NOT about you or ANY particular person. Just wanted to let known that it is all about the value perception of the meeting.

  • http://www.mac-live.com Shane Mac

    It’s all about perception. You can have lunch with whomever you want, so long as they perceive you as important enough. Focus on that, not the lunch. :)

  • A Close

    I’d agree with the social observations.  All good info.

    I think it could be added, that the “short” coffee date is not only to protect the senior exec’s time, but also the time of the entrepreneur.  There’s only 24 hrs in a day for everyone, I think senior exec’s are just more experienced to that fact.  If a young entrepreneur is looking to build a successful company, he’s got less time to waste than most.  It would be a shame to organize a lunch with a VC, only to find out in the first 10 mins that their investment strategy wouldn’t encompass your startup.  (plus you gotta pick up the tab!)

  • http://twitter.com/timothypost Timothy Post

    Culturally, VERY American… nobody works harder than Americans but it also raises that age-old question, “Do you work to live… or live to work?” A matter of personal preference to be sure but, nonetheless, critically important for entrepreneurs to understand from the beginning.

  • http://www.desmo.org Stefan Portay

    This is a great post, and thanks for adding the International disclaimer. Being French born myself, and having worked in Sweden the last year, it’s very casual to take lunches with high executives or fika breaks (very long coffee breaks that can sometimes last up to 2 hours). When I moved back to the US trying to introduce myself to various industry executives and influencers, I made that common mistake of asking for lunches or dinners. Thankfully I learned quickly, and it very much is about quick 30minute breaks. I once got the attention of somebody I had been trying to get a hold of for months, and said we could meet right now if I could come to the airport and chat before his flight departed!

    On a side note, I am family friends with Thomas Keller and would love to take you to The French Laundry or Bouchon in LA :)

  • Anonymous

    I despise Skype, but this is exactly the type of meeting that is perfect for Skype.  I’m not in the position to be a investor, but I do mentor young developers that have just graduated from school or friends of friends that are transitioning in their careers.

    I setup a 10 min Skype call where I go over the standard Scrum standup meeting questions:
    1) What did you just complete?
    2) What are you working on next?
    3) What are you stuck on?  What do you need help with?

    Then I finish with small talk based on something they posted to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn.

    BOOM!

    10 minutes and done.  And I can stack 3 or 4 Skype calls in a row and then get back to writing code.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    French Laundry is overrated –  Saison (SF) or Sawa (Santa Clara) is on me *any time* 
    http://www.chuckeats.com/2011/08/25/sawa-bay-area-sashimi-heaven/
    http://www.chuckeats.com/2011/06/01/saison-sf-embers-ash/

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    I’m a senior in college, and I had the blessing of being able to meet with Mark just a few weeks ago — so this is one data point of Mark carving out time to meet with people of all levels. 
     
    Why I agree with his post here:
    As someone who was on “the outside looking in” to the technology world just 2 or 3 years ago at small Clarkson University in middle-of-nowhere NY, it is *exactly* advice like this that has helped me find my way (interned at my dream startup, Hashable, this summer: http://blog.hashable.com/2011/05/02/for-the-love-of-hashable-welcome-john-exley/). I can’t program or design (yet anyway, haha), so I think it can be tougher for someone of my skill set to ‘demonstrate with hard proof’ (i.e. lines of code or a portfolio of designs) that they would be a valuable hire for a startup.

    However – one way in? People. Relationships. 

    I was so convinced that if I could learn from people ‘out of my league’ from afar, then find ways to help them, then persistently jockey for meetings and/or calls with them, I could eventually put myself in a position to build trust with them to a level where they would be comfortable in vouching for me. 

    BSOTT became the go-to read for me as I researched this world like crazy – frankly because Mark writes long, very detailed, “do this//don’t do that//how-to-win-specifically//this is the way _____ works” posts. And, there is no ‘sugarcoating of advice’ on BSOTT. 

    So this is what I don’t understand: how is spelling out the etiquette for ways to increase your chances of winning hard-to-get meetings (especially with people who may have an enormous impact on your business) NOT super helpful? Advice that will help less experienced/credible people like me to understand how to properly respect successful people’s time (and then actually get a face-to-face meeting!) is valuable. Very valuable. ESPECIALLY so if this advice is an unfiltered depiction of ‘life in the real world’, as it appears to be in this post. 

    ******
    HOW I was able to meet with Mark: read BSOTT religiously since Feb ’10 (and did so ‘publicly’, e.g. tweeting the posts) —> followed Mark closely on Twitter —> watched almost every episode of This Week in Venture Capital (sometimes while folding clothes or doing dishes or shaving so I could kill 2 birds with one stone, lol) —> tweeted the episodes of TWiVC —> researched all of Mark’s Quora answers to understand his philosophy —> found a way to do a favor for Mark (*while chasing an internship with Hashable this past January, wrote this TWiVC summary for him on BSOTT: http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2011/03/01/the-guy-who-took-on-google-and-now-linkedin-mike-yavonditte/) —> tried to establish a bit of trust by writing a good summary and then securing the internship with Hashable —> found way to TechCrunch Disrupt in SF by helping produce YouNow.com’s launch —> tweeted Mark that I’d be at TC Disrupt, waiting in line to shake his mind and meet him in person —> Mark offered to meet in person instead —> he delivered on his promise, also encouraging me to finish school and graduate (advice my dad was GRATEFUL to hear when I enthusiastically told him about the meeting over the phone that night). 

    My plan? For relationships – form lines, not dots. For meetings with more successful people – don’t ask for lunch meetings, offer to bring coffee to their office for quick 30min meeting. And of course: read BSOTT, a lot.

  • http://berislav.lopac.net Berislav Lopac

    Great, Mark, lets go grab a bite at the French Laundry then!

    Now, does anyone want to buy a healthy kidney? ;)

  • http://blog.ideatransplant.com Jan Schultink

    Lunches are not for asymmetrical pitching (I need something from you), but could be good for delicate negotiations (we need to solve this together).  

  • http://www.fiftybyfifty.com/lifeoffarhan/ Farhan Lalji

    I’d also add, make sure you know exactly where you’re going and respect the other person’s time – GPS + traffic = nightmare (from first hand experience).

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    I agree Dave. I was thinking – you ask for lunch, get a ‘no’ and then ask for coffee.

    The moment someone say’s ‘No’ is a ‘moment of power’ from Cialdini’s school of thought. :) 

    That said, Mark – Would you have time for lunch sometime? :D

  • http://twitter.com/parakanet Paraka.net

    This is formidable!

  • Anonymous

    The “status” issue is exactly why LetsLunch measures each user’s reputation. This helps both parties gauge the relative value of each lunch. In my experience the best lunches are the ones you least expect…serendipity is a beautiful thing.

  • Adel

    lol

  • Scott Goold

    Mark is writing this for entrepreneurs who may be a bit unsure. He’s giving us inside info and it makes sense to me. Even more so for people who don’t know how to approach it. He’s calling it as he sees it and it’s consistent with what he says on This week in VC. If I’m thinking about arranging some meeting, a bit unsure of how to approach it and don’t want to stuff it up then this post is going to give me a lot of confidence. Great advice – thanks Mark!

  • http://twitter.com/hariath Clelia Thermou

    In my family we say, you don’t know somebody unless you see him/her during the lunch/dinner! This indicates how much more personal is a lunch/dinner than a cup of coffee.  So maybe not so suitable for the first meeting 

    Useful advices Mark :-) 
    thanks

  • David

    Why on earth would anyone want to do lunch? I hate lunch meetings, it takes too much of my time away and it’s damn annoying trying to eat your food and get a real discussion underway. Lunch is for friends and colleagues not for business meetings in my view.

    Occasionally I get asked for lunch from VCs (why I don’t know – perhaps on a research mission) and if they’re an interesting VC I’ll accept for networking purposes but I really don’t value lunch meetings that much. 

    On the other hand I’ve had some really cool invites from investment banks and LPs. I attended cricket at Lords (the big India & England match this summer). As you know cricket is an all day event, so several pimms and pints  later I had a fun experience and had plenty of time and a relaxed social atmosphere in which to really talk business (which usually requires the latter two components to get down to the nitty gritty).

    I would suggest to Entrepreneurs that they think more creatively when extending an invitation to meet with someone for whom they are seeking something from. Find common interests and exploit these. It’s also amazing what a pint or two of bitter can do to facilitate the male bonding phenomenon! Just don’t over do it :-)

  • Anonymous

    Good post.

    I like the crowd sourced editing!

    jh

  • Anonymous

    This seems like a set of sound practices. Here is another one, if it’s not about you, don’t write in the first person.

  • http://twitter.com/spencerrascoff Spencer Rascoff

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. 

  • Adel

    Is that true: Headquartered In America – We’re the only leading Augmented Reality Software developer headquartered in the U.S.?

    No other companies in the USA?

  • http://www.dailydoseofdo.com Amy Do

    Great post and so true! Lunch and dinner are valuable time slots, particularly for a first date. Many times, I’ve suggested coffee because it’ll be a win-win for both parties – more focused, start of the day and a more environment with less interruptions. 

  • http://twitter.com/joshuabaer Joshua Baer

    This is excellent advice Mark – I’ll be sending everyone I work with to read this.

  • http://twitter.com/ricardodsanchez Ricardo D. Sanchez

    I agree with most of your advice. However, I do believe that new startups should feel free and empowered to invite more senior people to coffee or even a quick lunch, if a senior person feels this is too forward perhaps they are not the person I want to meet then. I recently invited the CEO of a very successful startup in Austin for coffee and he agreed to, he spent an hour talking to me and it was great!

    Also, you forgot to mention that is also OK to invite senior executives for lunch if you work for them! for example, if you are a developer working at Facebook, you should feel empowered to ask Zuckerberg for lunch, right?

  • http://twitter.com/erichter Eve Richter

    I love this. Thank you so much for articulating it so well. I also have limited time and a lot of meeting requests, and I find first-meeting lunches awkward on numerous levels. I much prefer to start over coffee, and save lunches (which are coveted and rare spots) for deeper relationship-building.  Thanks again for this great article.

  • Jerry Flanagan

    Basic entrepreneurial etiquette. A side lesson we all need to keep in mind.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    Hi Mark, On a completely different note.. 
    I just went ahead to do one of the MBTI tests myself. Did you do 1 of the tests online? Or did you go to a MBTI trainer et al?

    What about anyone else who reads this and has a view? :)

  • Asa

    For me, lunch is a time to decompress and gather my thoughts. Sometimes it’s with people, but,having to deal with folks all day I would prefer it to be alone (I guess this does make me a grouch). It gives me my second wind for the afternoon.

  • http://socmediafin.com Joyce Sullivan

    Excellent and practical tips for ‘networking rules of engagements’ for coffee / drinks / meals. thanks, Mark.

  • http://twitter.com/MissSuccess Sakita Holley

    Great insight, Mark. And so happy you mentioned “the art of the ask.” I find that a lot of people miss the mark with that one.

  • http://twitter.com/alissajean alissajean

    Thanks for this, Mark!  As someone in the early stages of my professional development, I’m still learning the art of networking and appreciate the “inside perspective” you share here.

  • Mrs. Suster

    And may I add, don’t ask a busy working mom with very small children for early breakfast meetings! Someone with school age kids post-drop off time is fine.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

    I like offering to bring lunch or coffee.  If I’m going to get 30 minutes of your time I need to ADD 30 minutes to your day.

    Also being opportunistic, like when you needed a ride at TC disrupt.  If I was in town I would have been first in line to pick you up.

  • Priswell

     I tend to agree. I have read (and enjoyed) the book “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferazzi, and while I  see the wisdom in some of what he says, I’m basically an introvert and prefer my meals as time to recharge for the rest of the day.

  • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

    A-freaking-men! Thank you for writing this. Not only does drinks/dinner interfere with family time, but lunch is in the middle of the day. Which means I’m more than likely going to be interrupted from my focus and that doesn’t make me a fun lunch date. If someone really wants a meeting with me, they should suggest they get themselves a road bike, meet me on the Chicago lakefront at 5 a.m., and see if they can keep up. Too much? 

  • John Greathouse

    I have had lunch with Mr. Mark Suster and I can prove it: http://infochachkie.com/lunch/

    Sorry Mark, I couldn’t resist the cheesy self-promotion opportunity. 

    You are (again) spot on. I swam at lunch time during my startup days – the last thing I wanted to do was entertain a stranger…

  • http://twitter.com/chrisyeh Chris Yeh

    It’s for precisely the reasons you outline that I insist that anyone who wants to meet me get on a phone call during drivetime first (exception: someone introduced by a trusted friend who insists I have to meet the person).

    This allows me to screen the person during a time that might otherwise be unproductive.  The length of my commute also gives me an easy way to end the call.

    When I do meet, I usually meet at my office and book the meeting so that my next meeting is no more than an hour later.  Again, the goal is to limit the potential time sink and give me an acceptable reason to kick people out.

    In contrast, when you do a sit-down lunch, you’re at the mercy of so many different elements, including traffic and service speed.

  • http://sawickipedia.com/ todd sawicki

    Gender issues matter for sure – especially in digital media where there are lot more females then other internet/tech sectors.  I am constantly reminding myself that as an almost 40 something guy – I can very easily come across as the creepy old guy.

  • http://twitter.com/entrepreneurdan Daniel A. Bernal

    Wanna get some lunch.. oh wait. I don’t have much time either.. :)

  • Anonymous

    I try to keep my meetings quick, but especially when I am doing customer development interviews, I usually just prompt that we are at and that it is ok if we call the meeting there. Do you think that is enough to let people out of a meeting if they don’t want to continue? Nobody seems to take it, but when I have a few meetings where I am really learning I don’t like going over the allotted time because I want to get that follow-up later.

  • http://stephenrice.eu Stephen Rice

    On the other hand, not spending two hours fixing bugs and selling whatever it is you make is going to hurt your company eventually. It’s not all glamorous lunches with people who give you money (on the expectation that you’ll give them it back, with interest).

  • http://stephenrice.eu Stephen Rice

    It’s not quite as impressive as that. That only says it’s the only “leading” company in its industry which is headquartered in the US. There’s presumably others but they’re not classed as “leading”.

  • Audreywiggins1

    Very enjoyable yet important read. Thanks.

  • http://stephenrice.eu Stephen Rice

    If you just want to get lots of work done in a short space of time you might as well sit around a table in someone’s office and leave out the food. 

    Business lunches are social occasions and they generally need a fair amount of time. 

  • McClure

    Doh!

  • Anonymous

    Holy shit, get over yourself and live a little.  I could never remember all those bullshit rules.

    It’s like you think you discovered — worse invented — sex.

    [For the record, my generation did.]

    I’ve been in business longer than most people on this blog have been alive and have never heard such nonsense.

    People are just people.

    Don’t buy into this self importunated bullshit.

    Just be natural and let the chips fall where they may.  A bit of sweat popping out on your upper lip, lad?  Guess what, it happens to everyone and it’s no big deal.

    In the old days, we used to play golf.  It was way more fun.  Nobody gave a shit whether you shot 68 or 108.  You just talked your way around 18 and got sunburnt.

    Be damn nice to everyone on the way up, cause you may meet the same folks on the way down.

  • Todd

    this French Laundry place sounds like something I need to check out…

  • http://www.desmo.org Stefan Portay

    Great story John! I myself cannot program or design (yet that is) and can totally relate with your experience.

  • http://getabl.wordpress.com/ markslater

    are you serious? you break lunch down like this? 

    this is really scary.