In the last few years of my career, I’ve increasingly been involved in meeting people. This often involves requests or offers for recommendations, introductions, and so forth.
I’ve learned to be very careful about making or accepting such offers or requests, and I’d like to share my current thoughts about that with you, because a lot of trouble can come of a seemingly innocent request or offer.
The Stakes Are High
“Martha, that’s so great that you are starting a business in the diabetes care industry! You should really meet my friend Jack. He could be extremely helpful to you, and I am sure he would appreciate knowing about your startup.”
Does that sound so dangerous? Believe me, it is. A lot is on the line for you, Martha, and Jack. Consider:
- How well do you know Martha? What if you’re wrong about her business? If you introduce her to Jack, things might go wrong. They could turn out to be competitors. Or perhaps Martha is doing something that Jack thinks is unethical or is the wrong way to treat diabetes.
- How well do you know Jack? Is he really going to be helpful to Martha? Does he want to be? Does he have time to spend with her?
Factors such as these mean that you are putting your relationship with Jack at risk. You may wear out your welcome and Jack may not want to be your friend anymore.
You are also risking your relationship with Martha. It sounds like this is a new relationship, so you’re on tenuous ground here; the risk of a misstep is high. If it’s more established, then you may be at lower risk, but the damage to you is potentially higher.
You are, finally, putting Martha and Jack at risk in various ways. You’re imposing on Jack’s time and potentially risking his reputation, and ditto for Martha.
A seemingly innocent offer to help is actually writing a metaphorical check against the Relationship Banking Account you have with Martha and Jack, and asking them to extend credit to each other as well. Since they don’t have a Relationship Bank Account with each other, the credit they’ll extend to each other comes out of your accounts with them. If it’s not a productive match, then that withdrawal becomes a bounced check.
In my experiences over the last year or so, in particular, I’ve been introduced to a lot of people with management experience, a desire to find companies to invest in, and so on. Most of the time, courtesy obliges me to have a phone call or meet them for a meal or similar. Very few of these meetings have been truly helpful to either of us. I’m not saying anyone wasted my time, but I’ve ended up talking to dozens of people and the only outcomes have been pleasant conversations.
Offering Versus Asking
The above scenario is when you offer a favor. You can see how much is at risk in that scenario. Consider how much more is at risk when you ask for a favor, such as an introduction. You are asking your friend to broker a meeting with someone from whom you presumably also want to ask some favor. “Do me a favor, would you, and ask your friend to do you a favor so I can ask him to do me a favor?” It should be obvious how much credit you’re asking everyone to extend everyone else. You need to treat this with great care, because again if things don’t work out, you are not the only one who can get hurt.
Likewise, if you’re the one who’s being asked for an introduction, consider the consequences. If I said yes every time someone asked me to introduce them to a friend of mine, soon I wouldn’t have any friends. I need to know all of the people well and be pretty certain that there will be a positive outcome for all of them and myself.
This often means that I might need to check with my friend and see if they’d like to meet. Or, instead of putting them in touch with each other directly, I might just send the asker’s contact information on with a brief note. Or if I don’t have enough relationship built up with the person who’s asking the favor, I might need to explain that to them. This is certainly a more positive way to build my relationship with them in the future.
In general, you need to have earned the favor with the person from whom you’re asking it. Otherwise you risk ending up with a negative balance in your Relationship Bank Account.
Now I’m going to share a few examples of when things have gone wrong, as sort of case studies. These are all real stories, and names have been slightly abbreviated although sometimes the parties don’t deserve protection.
The Pushy Investor
It is true that “ask and you shall receive.” If you don’t ask, nothing happens. But if all you do is ask, you end up persona non grata pretty fast.
In 2013 Kyle (my co-founder) and I were fundraising from venture capitalists. A particular investor, Max G, listened to our pitch and said he’d like to follow up on it by calling our advisors, one of whom is at a large company. The next thing we heard was this email from the advisor:
“Phone call just ended. I think he was more interested in figuring out what technologies my employer is interested in which wasn’t the purpose for the call.”
That never went any further as far as fundraising/investment went, but not too long after that I got an email from Max G:
Subject: Quick Ask
One of our fastest growing software companies is looking for a VP for training/educational services. Who are the rock stars in the open source world that you can recommend? Are you at liberty to tell me who the best from […] is? I can keep my source confidential.
Translation: he’s asking me to help him poach from someone I respect highly. Unfortunately, I did not think of it that way at the time. My first thought was that I could help a friend get a dream job, which is something I have done several times in the past. So I responded. Not in a way that I feel badly about now, but still, I wouldn’t do it again. (How much would you bet that he wrote an email that started out, “Baron said that you and I should talk…” ?)
Radio silence for a while.
Then, another email from Max G:
Subject: Company you should look at
[investor] and [name-drop] recently backed a high-profile entrepreneur who most recently […]
It is super early (pre-product), but we’re eager to connect with some of the best people in demand gen to run the concept by. […]’s name came up at […]. Could you run this by […] to see if he’s open for an intro? Would love to make the connection with him.
I never replied. Max G already had a negative account balance with me and I never should have let it get that far.
Moral of this story is to be careful when someone asks you for a favor, lest you end up granting it and then wishing you hadn’t, as I did.
The Veiled Sales Request
I got a connection request on LinkedIn from someone named Paul S, whose request said:
We are a startup having developed a reactive programming based backend service [database-specific details followed]. We are interested in your feedback on this and some new products we are working on. Can we please set up a time on Webex for next week.
I have often enjoyed giving feedback on products and their marketing position, both to companies developing the products, friends trying to figure out what products they need, investors doing diligence, etc. This sounded almost like that, but something made an alarm bell go off. I responded:
Can you be more specific what kind of feedback you’re looking for? My expertise is fairly narrow.
The reply from Paul S:
Our target market is database developer and architects and from your profile it looks like you have lots of experience there. We are keen to get your feedback on the usability of our product for these audience and the language we ought to use to reach them. Also we are working on a new product and keen to get your feedback on that.
Hope that helps and you can spare 30-45 minutes and see what we can show you and give us some feedback.
The guy didn’t even have the decency to comply with my request and be honest that he was going to give me a sales pitch. I disconnected from him on LinkedIn.
The Shotgun Blast
Someone named Nick emailed me this through LinkedIn:
Could we please talk tomorrow, We started […] in EMEA and I would appreciate a call?
The thing is, the company he mentioned is someone I have a long and good relationship with. So even though this request was out of the blue, there was no context or reason why I’d want to comply, I had no idea what he wanted, etc I was reluctant to just mark it as spam. If I ignored him, I would potentially be offering some offense or lack of grace to that company and my relationships there, however slight, even if nobody could really blame me for declining.
I opted to write back:
Happy to talk, but I’d like to know the topic first.
Nick responded that he was just looking to get to know me, and later in his message mentioned that he is looking around for a job in management and sales. I replied that we are too early for that. But I’d never hire someone with such poor communications skills for a job like that anyway.
The Request To Promote To My Friends
We use a company called Intercom to embed a contact widget in our app. I haven’t really been all that thrilled with the product; it’s not bad, but it’s not amazing. This is relevant, because while I was asking them to fix bugs for me, they implemented a new feature instead:
Intercom definitely had not earned my recommendation. What was more irritating, and continues to be, is that the feature itself is buggy. I had to email them and ask how to disable it, because it kept showing on every page load. After following their instructions, it continues to reappear every now and then.
They are being very foolish by continuing to show me this request. It’s pushed me more towards the point of leaving them and going to a competitor.
The moral of this story is that you had better earn the recommendation you ask for.
Requests For My Address Book
Once upon a time, I was looking to add my existing network to my LinkedIn account. I thought, sure, I’ll give them my Gmail login, why not? I’ll just revoke it and change my password right afterwards. No harm there, right?
Then I learned what they did with that: LinkedIn is “breaking into” user emails, spamming contacts – lawsuit. And even after I deleted all of the imported contacts from my account, I know they still have them, because they continue to show me “connection recommendations” for people who don’t have LinkedIn accounts and whose names and emails are distinctively the same as the information from my address book.
I will never again do something like this. I will never again install a LinkedIn app on my phone (because it requires access to my contact list). I do not trust LinkedIn. It is a vital tool for my professional work and career, but still, I’ve come close to deleting my account out of disgust and anger.
I similarly distrust many other services that have anything to gain from getting access to my contact list, and that keeps me from installing a lot of their apps on my phone.
Moral of the story: yuck.
The Favor Followed By An Awkward Moment
I’ll end with a story where I was in the wrong.
While Kyle and I were fundraising I asked someone who had been very helpful to me in the past for introductions to a couple of top-tier investors. This person knows my work very well and has great stature in the industry. He could make a strong representation that we were interesting to investors. His introductions were very helpful.
Later I hired one of his employees – someone who lived practically next door to me, whose wife had a close relationship with my wife. The last thing I wanted to do was burn any bridges for him; what if he got a better counter-offer, or decided at the last minute not to join? So although I normally would have said something to his boss at some safe point, I opted to stay completely out of it.
I then got an email from his boss, to the effect of, “I don’t mind that you hired my employee. But after all I’ve done to help you, I think I deserved the courtesy to hear about it from you first.”
He was right, and I learned a valuable lesson from that. This was a delicate situation, but I should have gotten advice on it. In hindsight I wish I’d waited for the all-clear from the new employee and given this person a call as soon as the new employee said it was OK.
Moral? Well… I’m still sad about this one. The moral is sometimes you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.