How to ask for advice from busy CEOs

This article is filed under Advice.

I’m at a fascinating point in my startup journey. I am still growing my company, I don’t think of myself as a success yet. Not until I’m wildly profitable or I’ve been acquired for a suitable amount will I think of myself as ‘successful’. So far, I’m doing alright, and am on a good path, but I won’t declare myself a ‘success’ just yet.

So it always surprises me when fresh young startup folk, trying to get their startup off the ground, come to ask me for advice. I’m one of you, really, and it freaks me out a little to see this look of admiration and respect from these people. Really, do you want to take advice from *me*??

Then I start talking, and I realise I do actually have some advice that is pertinent. I now do know a lot of people, have learnt a lot by doing a lot of stupid things wrong, have been exposed to the machinations of other fabulous startup folk, and am friends with a lot of Angels and VCs… so it seems there is a degree of value I can give to those just starting out.

The problem is, I’m still growing my own company. I’m working 15 hour days, most weekends, I don’t take a lunch break, I avoid all non-essential meetings. My number one priority is making my company a success, and second to that is ensuring I stay sane and vaguely healthy and don’t piss my close friends and family off too much. My time is VERY precious, its my number one resource. I pay a cleaner, I catch cabs everywhere, I live as close to work as I can… anything I can do to earn a few spare minutes a day to dedicate to work or my sanity/friends/family.

So, when I get asked by these newbies for help, I am torn. On one hand, I was given so much support, advice and tutelage by advisers and other startup folk when I first began. I knew nothing, and was so blessed with people that taught me and were patient with me and answered all my questions. All they wanted in return, I am sure, is that I give back to others at some stage. I believe in this ethos, about passing things on, and I am a passionate advocate of the startup community, in London and internationally.

However, there is something else that those advisers and startup folk wanted in return, even if they didn’t consciously think this. And that was: evidence that I was willing to put myself out as well, that I was willing to work hard, not take short-cuts, and give back to the community myself. And perhaps, that they saw that I had what it took to be an entrepreneur, and were willing to invest in me. Although I didn’t know very much at the time, I was determined to make it, and I threw myself into learning everything I could. I read every tech blog I could find every day for months and months before I even started my startup; I knew everything that was happening in the scene, all the important opinion-formers, all the key startups, all the basic advice on how to pitch and get funding. I read books and business blogs. I went to every talk, meet-up, event and conference I could. I worked hard and demonstrated I was willing to work even harder. This was not something I wanted to try, this was something I clearly wanted to do more than anything, and I had dedicated my life at that point onwards to make it happen. And I tried to be an interesting and fun person to those who gave me advice. This last one is possibly the least understood, but probably one of the most fundamental. Newbies have nothing to offer advisers and more seasoned startup folk, except being an interesting engaging person to be around. So they should do this well. They should contribute to the community with their energy and commitment and effort, and be fun people to hang out with. The London startup community is unbelievably entertaining, and its because we don’t always talk about work, but we party, drink, dance, travel and hang-out together as friends as well. You may not have much to offer in terms of knowledge and experience, but you can be a damn fine person to hang out with, and that can often be contribution enough.

So, when I get well-intentioned and polite emails asking me to give up part of my day to teach a newbie about how I got funding, I am torn. I love to help, but will I compromise the success of my company, will I risk my sanity, or will I give up my very very rare and precious time with close friends and family, for someone that perhaps just wants a shortcut or an easy way to success… I just won’t take that risk. If the person were someone personally recommended to me by a good friend who put their reputation on the line and asked me to spend time with them, then I would as a favour to my friend. And if the person put in a solid effort, became a part of the community, and gave a part of themselves to increase the vibrancy and fascination of the industry, and consequently became a friend of mine, then I definitely will help. I do both these things all the time very happily. But will I give an hour of my 15-hour day to someone I met for 2 minutes at a conference, that I have never seen before, and just wants me to give them a short-cut with no clear cut requests for what they want to know… however much I want to help and be polite, I just can’t work any harder than I do or risk the things that really matter to me, for this kind of situation.

So, newbies: please don’t take this as a rejection, but as a challenge and hopefully an inspiration. If you are to make it as an entrepreneur, you will be beset by more challenges and hardships that you can possibly imagine, and no VC will ever invest in you unless you can prove you have the tenacity, ingenuity, and passionate willingness to roll your sleeves up and make things work for you, not by asking for charity, but by being so appealing and engaging that people offer to help you because you are so much fun, and so easy to help.

A good example: one newbie I met at a conference this week sent me an email that was short, polite, and asked two very clear questions about funding. I was able in 2 minutes to reply with useful advice. I’m more than happy to do this. CEOs of startups are fucking busy and stressed people. If you want their help, frame it in a way that makes it easy for them to help you, or that makes it a delight for them to help you. Asking very clear and defined questions via very short emails is the way to do it. Sending them the story of your life and then asking them to take an hour out of their day so you can ‘pick your brain about general funding issues’ will never get a response. Not because they are rude or don’t care, but because they genuinely don’t have the time to help everyone that asks them, and they filter based on who is ultimately going to be a friend, valuable to the community, or who shows they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur themselves by being clever in how they approach busy people.

The way to get me – I go to a regular start-up events, but I work long and hard, so want to chat to fun interesting people when I go to these events. If I meet someone fun and interesting and easy to talk to, and they throw in a very clear question or two about something I can help with, I’ll help happily. If you come referred to me through a trusted friend or adviser, I’ll definitely help as well.

So, newbies, be entrepreneurial in your approach to learning how to become an entrepreneur, else, sorry to say this, you probably won’t make it as an entrepreneur yourself.

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6 Responses to “How to ask for advice from busy CEOs”

Gravatar Andy Symonds Says:

Great post Alicia and some great advice for new companies and entrepreneurs alike.

Making time for the networking events and conferences when you have deadlines and clients to keep happy is the hardest part we find but we plan to do this later in 2010 so hopefully we will be able to ask you a clear question or two at one of these whilst also having a blast!

Gravatar Farhan Lalji Says:

As someone who’s about to leave big comfy company life to start his own thing full time appreciate the blog post.

Think you shouldn’t feel torn, but you could always try to blog more. This will give you a chance to document your thoughts and get feedback, as well as give would be time seekers a way to pick your brain without you having to give up your time.

Good luck taking Skimbit to the next level.

Gravatar wannabe Says:

15 hours working days .. thank god i dont have that :) .. being an entrepreneur takes a lot of time and discipline.

good luck!

Gravatar Jack Thorogood Says:

Really good post Alicia, the time you’d have spent writing it is appreciated :)

Gravatar Martin Says:

Your perspective is honest, open, blunt yet charming however, I worry for your work/life balance!

To “make it” the old adage of working smarter not necessarily harder comes to mind….

It’s essential to “give back” – I’ve been doing it for 5 or 6 years now, and its great to see Bill G joining in too!! For me, it’s more rewarding than creating in the first place.

I find many of today’s Entrepreneurs however, seem to be in a very great hurry to succeed, as if tomorrow their new idea will be eclipsed by another.

If your business is propagating a genuinely sustainable proposition, it will take a few more hours out to enjoy the process of giving……and hand in hand, delivering a better work/life balance for you too…..

I’m absolutely sure you’ll succeed…..but take care not to bur yourself out en route!!

Gravatar Alicia Says:

Thanks Martin, good point! To be honest, although I work very hard, I do set aside time for friends and family and me. I think the point is that you become more choosy about how you spend your spare time, and you don’t want to spread yourself too thin. My point is that any budding newbies looking for help and advice need to be aware that this is the life of a CEO – they are busy and the spare time they have – however much they would love to help everyone that asks them – they simply must focus on the people that are dear to them else they will burn out.

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