Building Relationships instead of Networking

Updated: Sep 10, 2018

There are lots of opportunities for startups to go out and network, meet new investors, advisors and potential customers. As part of this a lot of people are often told to refine their elevator pitch ahead of these events. The concept of elevator pitch is an odd one, literally it is supposed to be what you would do if you were stuck in an elevator with the person you wanted to work with and you had to sell in 30 seconds why they should. The aim of an elevator pitch is supposed to end in a big ask of “so, would you consider doing X”. If that sounds strange that’s because it is! It’s like asking someone to buy a house in the first minute of the house inspection. So I have started giving the rogue advice of not elevator pitching but being a un-pitcher. A un-pitcher is someone that builds genuine relationships and contacts by not pitching. Anyway here are some tips which might be helpful.


PITCHING STARTS BEFORE YOU MEET SOMEONE

The average number of touch points to a sale is 5-7 before someone makes a decision. If you are a startup you are probably trying to sell your product to an end user. Would you ask someone who you don’t know to try and make a decision on the spot in 2 minutes (even if that decision is to try out the demo). No, so don’t ask investors or customers to do that on the spot, in the first time you meet them. For both, a good chance to pre-pitch someone is to follow them on Twitter, Linkedin, blogs or wherever they may hang out and start interacting. Leave some genuine comments, thank them for their thoughts, start building rapport. In the same vein, LinkedIn cold mails which ask someone to look at your deck are the elevator pitches of the social media world. If you are going to DM someone, start with a genuine thank you for sharing your thoughts and a considered response like “I experienced this exact same issue with my company and I was able to use the technique described to do X”. That is much more likely to get a conversation going. When you do meet someone in person, that should be at least the second or third time that you have interacted with them.


DON’T STALK, BE COOL

You are going to really want to track down the person that you know just needs to hear your pitch at the conference. I’ve heard advice go so far as to say wait around after they get off the stage, or if you see them in the bathroom or a line for coffee walk over and make sure you get their attention. That’s also kind of weird, if someone pitched you in the bathroom most people would probably want to leave. I think there’s a key difference between if the investor or customer says “i’ll be hanging around these drinks afterwards come up if you want to chat” to going and trying to interrupt someone walking through the conference. Building a relationship is all about frame of mind, if people feel like they are being sold to the mental walls go up.

I’d recommend trying to chat to key people in a more social environment (networking drinks) or in a regulated one (the investor says please come up and talk to me). If you do and other people are talking to the person, be polite, wait your turn and when your turn comes be genuine and have a normal interaction


YOUR OBJECTIVE IS TO GET THEM TO A MEETING, NOT TO SELL

So now you are talking to the person, I often ask startups to start with something about the person, not your company or yourself. Introduce yourself, tell them you enjoyed their speech/blog/thoughts etc. At this point, people generally try to launch into a prepared pitch about why your company is changing the future of electronic socks. A good un-pitcher can indirectly spark interest in the company without sounding desperate. Examples of the best people are those who can make the investor ask the questions rather than vice versa. As in you may say “wow your point on X was really insightful. When we surveyed our two large enterprise customers they all agreed wholeheartedly. They were really pleased when we changed our pricing model”. The natural question from the investor, is “ok that’s interesting what’s your business”.

Instead of saying your prepared 1 minute presentation the true power of an elevator pitch is to say here in one line what is your business and what isn’t your business. It has to be simple enough they get it, and not too out there so that there is some frame of reference.

“We are a startup building an AI based personal assistant for education. It’s like Siri or Cortana except we do X, because we have our own data training set which we gained from Y. We’ve been doing it for 18 months now”.

That sentence tells an investor a number of things in under fifteen seconds.

  1. What it is, it’s a startup for education. The investor will have some idea that the TAM is big

  2. it relies on AI, so the investor will have a view that it is a technical product which will have strengths or weaknesses

  3. It’s like Siri or Cortana, so the investor can quickly think if they have anything in the portfolio that looks like this already, or if they have any reasons why they hate or love the idea

  4. It has a value proposition of X, and you have a proprietary data training set which you got from Y

  5. You have been doing it for 18 months now, which means it is likely to be early stage, have little revenue and probably will need some money now or in the near future

That is the essence of a good un-pitch. Simple, meaningful and you haven’t asked for anything.


GIVE VALUE BEFORE YOU GET VALUE

If there starts to be some positive interaction on your business at some point one of you will need to leave the conversation. The ask to help you should not be the last thing that the person hears from you. In fact the call to action is just to catch up one on one at a better time in order to see how you can help them. Just as investors spend a lot of their time helping startups pro-bono or mentoring, any good entrepreneur knows you have to give value before you get value. An easy and positive call to action is saying “can we exchange cards, I would love to see if I can help one of your companies / assist you with refining your thesis on this sector / see if I can connect you with another person in my network who I think would be interesting to you”. Any good investor who catches up with you and likes your company is going to ask you, “how are you funding it, and let me know if there’s an opportunity to speak at the relevant time”. You therefore don’t need to tell them that you are fundraising now and that’s why you want to speak, in fact that is the weakest argument for wanting to speak. Probably a related point to this is that the best startup founders are networking and building relationships way in advance of funding needs. The best time to close a funding deal is when you don’t actually need funding. If you actually need the funding, then the entrepreneur has little leverage in getting a good deal. So start networking at least 6 months in advance of when you actually need funding if you can.


FOLLOWING UP SHOULD BE EASY, NOT HARD

Once you have someone’s card, wait till an opportune time (i.e not immediately after meeting them) to follow up. I’d wait until the conference is over at least because people will be stuck with a backlog of a heap of emails, and maybe even 24-36 hours after so that the investor is a more relaxed state of mind. Remember if you created a good impression and you are adding value, you are likely to not be forgotten and have a positive path to connecting. Your email to the investor should be no more than one paragraph. It should summarise your conversation that you had and what you are following up on.

“Hi Jason, it’s Matt from X, we met at StartCon in the networking session on Thursday, and we had a great chat about your portfolio company Y. I’m dropping you a note to see if I can assist Y with anything as my Company X has great contacts in the Z sector and could be an opportunity to work together.”

The next part of the email should specify a call to action but not be a hard sell “If that’s still of interest, then very happy to come to you at a convenient time to have a coffee and chat further. Let me know if there’s any slots which make sense for you over the next couple of weeks or if a call would be easier”. Note that the objective is to make it as easy as possible for the investor to see you. Don’t go for a face to face or nothing. A call in the week after is better than a meeting in 3 weeks when the momentum has died.


The only part of the email which should reference your materials is the end of your email an again should not be a sell. “Just thought you may be interested to see a short presentation about what we do (attached) which may give you a better idea of potential opportunities. I don’t plan to go through this deck page by page if we catch up, but it might be a good context for you or Company Y”.


The deck should be no more than ten pages and not be under an NDA or not be a link to something (i.e attach as PDF). That is somewhat of a controversial view in startup circles but i generally err to the side of “if telling me what you are doing renders it useless, it’s not a great idea”. Re attaching via DocSend, I’ve seen this a lot especially in the US and it is really annoying for the investor if viewing on a mobile device. Again, you need to do what seems right but I’d almost say that there seems no reason why you can’t have a generic corporate brochure that you don’t mind people having without an NDA and that you don’t care if that stays there if the person doesn’t invest (it’s free advertising and you never know what will happen!)

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