Most people in business dream about getting a call from Warren Buffett.
It happened to my friend--or rather, an associate at my friend's investment firm, Third Avenue Management. A decade ago, this associate was concerned about a proposed deal made by a company that the firm was invested in. He asked a series of pointed questions on a conference call with the management team. Other analysts and investors were on the call. And unbeknownst to everyone, so was Buffett.
After the call ended, Buffett rang up the associate and left a voicemail. At first, he thought it was a prank call. He later verified it was indeed the billionaire founder of Berkshire Hathaway who had called to commend him for some careful work on the company. Lesson learned: You never know who's listening or watching what you do.
I wasn't so lucky. I had to spend years trying to get Buffett to speak to me. That was the mandate when I first joined Bloomberg Television--nab the first interview with him for the network. And in my quest to do so, I learned a few things about what it takes to get anyone--even the world's third richest person--to speak to you.
1. Have a credible background.
Let's just call a spade a spade. I was able to call Buffett's office because I already had the backing of a global media organization. I was legit. The same for you when you cold-call someone's office--be prepared to explain your status. Are you with a large firm? A recent grad? Do you own your own business? Anything you can use to underscore why you're important and why anyone should spend a minute talking with you is critical.
2. Don't expect calls returned.
Many people feel dejected if they don't hear from someone after several attempts. I've faced this many times and for the first year, Buffett would always decline any requests for an interview or not answer at all. People call back only if they want something too and if you aren't providing that for them, then they most likely won't answer. It's OK. Just remember that more times than not, they've seen your requests--they just don't have any reason to reply. I've sat down with many CEOs who tell me about people who've reached out to them for this or that or show me emails from various strangers asking about one thing or another. They do see much of the communication, even if they don't reply. You don't want to make yourself a pest, but look at this way: If they really don't want to talk with you, then at some point, they'll make that known.
3. Be a net giver.
One of the things that helped is my sending Buffett articles that could inform his everyday life. I knew he was a voracious reader and consumer of information. So anytime I saw something that could strike his fancy--be it a piece of news about his favorite sports team or a report on the Chinese economy--I sent it along. Whenever the network did any pieces on him, I sent those pieces, too. And I knew I was starting to get somewhere when his assistant would call or email asking me for more information.
4. Watch/consume as much information on the person as you can.
Do your homework. Read up on the person you want to pitch to and stay on top of his or her comings/goings in the press. It's amazing to me how many people approach what might be their most important meeting ever without any preparation. They just wing it and it shows. I made sure to set my Bloomberg terminal on to notify me of any news alerts associated with Buffett and his companies. It helped me understand his world better and how I could tailor my approach. I "read in" every day. That helped set the stage for a much better conversation should the day finally arrive when I would sit across from him.
After years of pursuing, Buffett finally agreed to an interview. I knew it would happen after he sent me a note by mail that he appreciated one of the stories I sent him. Here is one of our interviews from Sun Valley. We've done half a dozen or more interviews over the years at his Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, his office in Omaha, and here in our New York studios. It's been the beginning of a fruitful relationship with him, his CEOs, and even his children, including his eldest son, Howard.
So whenever you think you're never going to exercise those six degrees of Kevin Bacon and get to the top dog, just remember the tips above and, who knows, you might find yourself getting a call from Warren Buffett.