I met a first-time founder at a dinner a few months ago who was eager to get some advice on her fundraising strategy. Always happy to share insight, I met her for about an hour during which she told me about her business and I helped her think through her capital needs in the near term. We said goodbye, and I assumed I'd hear from her occasionally with an update on how things were going.

A few weeks later, she asked if I could take a look at her new pitch deck. A month after, she asked to come by my office to discuss how to handle a new partnership. Later still, she sent a sales overview and asked for my edits.

I politely declined, and simply said I was unable to do ongoing advisory work for companies I wasn't involved with in an official capacity. She was miffed, and never responded.

People generally want to be helpful, and the startup ecosystem is built on mentoring and apprenticeship. That openness is easily taken advantage of, and far too many feel entitled to limitless help without giving anything in return, or confuse the outreach with relationship building.

Experts in any professional field - from doctors and lawyers to bankers and investors - make their living off know-how. Advice is their paid service. Just as you wouldn't text every medical question you have to the ER physician you met through a friend, you shouldn't expect limitless feedback on your product, help with recruiting, or reviews of NDAs without compensation. Advisory boards and consulting agreements exist for a reason.

Relationship building requires a balanced give and take. For everything you ask of someone, you give at least as much in return - you send someone a great candidate for a position they're trying to fill, and later they send you a potential customer introduction. Win-win.

You don't though have to, nor should you, build a relationship with every expert you meet. Sometimes you really do just need some basic advice, so structure your ask respectfully.

Limit the scope of your request

Be clear why you're reaching out and what your goal is. If this person gives you 30 minutes to an hour of their time, what can you realistically accomplish together? Don't ask for anything that will require significant follow up or additional conversation.

Do your homework

The worst thing you can do is walk into the discussion with only a general sense of what you need and of the person of whom you're asking help. Research the expert's background and read any of their existing thought leadership online. Make a list of specific points you want to cover, and bring whatever materials might be relevant for reference. If you're seeking advice on pricing strategy, don't show up with your unit economics all in your head.

Say thank you

Not just once right after the meeting, but again when you update them on how you implemented or adapted their advice to the problem you were aiming to solve. You'll be remembered for all the right reasons.

Published on: Sep 30, 2016