"I would be a success if only I had the right connections." I've heard this complaint over and over. It's as self-defeating as saying, "I could have had a great business, only I didn't have any customers." In both cases, the answer is the same: Go out and get some!
There's a lot of great advice about how to do just that in Susan Shapiro's Only as Good as Your Word, a book devoted entirely to mentorship. Shapiro is a poet and memoirist so her mentors are literary types. But her advice about how to make the connections that matter apply just as well to anyone in any career, and especially to aspiring entrepreneurs.
Wish you could enlist the kind of powerful mentors who can help you reach your loftiest goals? You can. Here's how:
1. Go where the action is.
Shapiro started life in Michigan, but as soon as she was able, she relocated to New York City, the center of the publishing world. That's where she met nearly all the mentors who helped her along the way. Admittedly, New York is expensive and Silicon Valley is worse. And even if it were affordable, it might not be feasible for you to move there.
But even if you can't or don't want to relocate, look for opportunities to visit the places and events where potential mentors might be. Attend a conference--always a great way to meet all kinds of people--or plan a pleasure trip to a hot location and then ask for a quick meeting while you "happen to be" in town.
2. Don't act entitled.
"Don't assume somebody will assist you out of benevolence or awe, or because you're so incredibly cool and special," Shapiro advises. Instead, as she points out, keep in mind that successful people are almost always incredibly busy. Chances are they won't have time to bother with you unless you make them really like you. So first and foremost, be likable.
3. Look for personal connections.
Yes, Warren Buffett would probably be a great mentor to have in your corner. But unless you have a personal connection, sending a blind email or letter to Buffett is unlikely to get you very far.
The mentors who are likeliest to help you the most are those that have some personal reason to wish you success. That might be because you have friends or colleagues in common, went to the same schools, come from similar backgrounds or have some other connection. One of Susan Shapiro's mentors was the late poet Harvey Shapiro--they weren't related, but she used their shared last name to create a bond.
When you reach out to someone based on a personal connection, make sure you put that information right up front--ideally in the subject line of your email. Start by talking about yourself and your wonderful project and the recipient may not read down to the paragraph about how you were referred by a good friend.
4. Do a little research.
Before you ask someone for help, learn what you can about him or her. If you can refer to a pet project, book, blog post, or presentation, you'll start out on your prospective mentor's good side. A few minutes of searching and perusing social media may tell you that your target is especially interested in saving the rain forest, or has backed a new product, or plays the banjo. Knowing these things may help you connect as a person, and not just someone looking for a favor. And it will show that you're serious enough to put in some time and effort.
5. Give before you ask.
Shapiro recalls how an acquaintance called her. She had a new book out and he began by apologizing for having missed her several readings and book party. Then he proceeded to ask her for a valuable contact. She apologized herself and said she was too busy to help him just then. "He might have saved the day by simply saying, 'I just ordered your book from Amazon. Can't wait to read it,'" she adds.
If you're asking advice, introductions, feedback about your business idea, investment or anything else, you should always be looking for ways to give as well. Shapiro advises showing up to events--preferably with friends--bringing gifts, sending congratulations when warranted, and treating for drinks and meals. Donating to your prospective mentor's favorite charity is always a good idea as well.
6. Respect your prospective mentor's time.
"I would love it if you would check out my new app." I get this kind of email all the time. Even more often, I get a request for an introductory conversation with some executive or other. In each case, it seems like a small and completely reasonable request for my time. In the aggregate, it's impossible to say yes to everyone, so I generally say no.
This is one reason why meeting prospective mentors at a conference or other event is a great idea--they're already there so you're not asking for an extra investment of time. If you can't do this, then do everything you can to use your target's time with maximum efficiency. Mention any personal connection right up front, along with full information about your project and the help you're seeking. If you leave a phone message (which I would never recommend as a first point of contact), include your email address and mobile number for texting. If you send an email, include your phone number in case the recipient would prefer to call.
7. Flattery will get you everywhere.
Saying how much you liked someone's book, blog post, or video interview will always get you more attention than if you just ask for a favor. Even from me--though it's an old PR trick that I've long ago recognized to begin a pitch by saying you liked one of my stories, I always do open those emails whereas I don't open most others. As Shapiro says, "Though I'd usually ignore a total stranger's request...I answer nice fan letters from anybody who appears sane."
8. Start with an easy request.
Don't make the mistake of asking your prospective mentor to invest/introduce you to a bigwig contact/sit on your advisory board when you first make contact. You want your initial request to be something very easy to say yes to. "Can I send you a little information about my project?" is usually a fairly safe place to start.
9. Share only relevant information about yourself.
Don't make the fatal mistake of going on and on about how wonderful you and/or your project are. "One executive I know says if the first lines of the cover letter contain three 'I's in a row, the answer is already no," Shapiro notes.
Yes, you must blow your own horn so that your target understands why spending time on you would be worthwhile. But only include information that's likely to really matter to him or her. Y Combinator invested in your startup? Definitely mention that. You graduated Phi Beta Kappa? Unless contacting an academic, keep that to yourself.
10. Don't brag about your failures.
It's surprising how many people begin their pitches by saying how many times they've been rejected, Shapiro says. Yes, it denotes tenacity which is a good thing. But if you tell people you've been rejected 50 times, they will inevitably wonder why that is. Instead, reframe your failures as near misses, or look for the small successes within them. (Maybe your product failed but you did a good job of getting it to market quickly, for instance.)
11. Look for chances to return the favor.
Any time someone mentors you or does you a favor, keep your eyes open for chances to give back. This might mean promoting product on your blog, promoting their next event on your social media, or even investing in a pet project of theirs.
Another way to pay back is to pay forward--by becoming a valued mentor yourself. No matter who you are, there are people who could benefit from your advice and assistance, whether newcomers to your industry, interns, entry-level employees, or students. So extend yourself because it's good karma. It's also unfair to expect to receive if you aren't willing to give.