When I say that I didn't know anyone, I mean it in the most literal sense. I didn't know a single person. No one to call or email. Every connection I had was involved in the IT consulting community, which believe it or not, is drastically different than the startup community.
So, I did what any truly lost entrepreneur would do and took 250 coffee meetings in 400 days. I went from being alone to building an active community of people I can always rely on for my career and personal growth.
If you're looking to build a network, and enjoy coffee, here are my three top tips--along with the help of two other relationship experts--on how to create a professional network using coffee meetings:
1. Find and befriend the super connector in your community.
The first decision I made to get connected in the Chicago tech community was to get involved with the community leaders, also known as the "super connectors." Instead of working from the bottom up, I wanted to work from the top down.
This is easier said than done. Busy people don't want to become busier. They need help from people that can add value to them.
I got involved by offering my services for free. I offered to help with development, marketing, and writing. At the time, I wasn't that good at either of these, but it was good enough to break me in.
Lesson: Start from the top. Find out what help the super connectors need. Offer your help.
2. Get great at asking for coffee.
Some people are always open for coffee, some need a strong reason, and some people simply don't meet with strangers regardless of how strong your ask is.
However, If you don't ask, you'll never get the meeting.
Here is an example email that I'll send to someone I want to meet because they are interesting.
Subject: Hi, John--Coffee in Chicago?
Hi, John--I'm a big fan of your work. I've learned a lot from you, and I've been able to incorporate so many of your tips into my career.
Can I buy you a cup of coffee next Tuesday? I know you're busy, but I would love to share my story with you and also figure out a few ways that I can help you. I'll come by you.
It needs a story about why you would like to have coffee with this person. I'm not saying you have to stroke their ego, but it helps.
If it's for business, I'm usually more direct and tell them exactly how I can help them.
Here is what Amy Dordek, managing director at Chicago-based sales firm Growthplay, has this to say about asking for coffee meetings:
"As a result of the mentoring that I do--especially with women startup founders or young women professionals--I do get asked for coffee more than I ask. I'm grateful and honored when people think to introduce me. When I do ask for the meeting, I offer the reason for my request, what I believe will be in it for them and what I hope to accomplish.
"My requests may sound like this, 'Susie suggested that we meet because of (a particular reason) and thought it would be mutually beneficial for us to connect. I'm available later next week and would love to host you at my office as we have great coffee!'"
Deborah Knupp, another managing director at Growthplay, talks about how to make it easier for the other person to say yes to your request:
"Understanding what's in it for the other party--the why--to meet is an essential consideration before making the ask for a coffee. The more other-centered and mutual you can be with the request, the higher the probability that your investment time will yield a benefit."
Lesson: Be Direct. Add Value. It's about them, not you.
3. Build a foundation of trust during the meeting.
Your goal for every meeting should be to not only have a deeper understanding of how you can help them but to establish trust that you can be someone they can count on in the future.
Lesson: Get to know them. Ask pointed questions. Be respectful of time and most importantly, make sure you pay for their coffee!
To summarize, coffee meetings are a powerful way to make more connections and build better relationships. You probably can't take 250, but you can at least start with five.
If you're in Chicago, I'll be more than happy to have a coffee meeting with you. Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.