So far in 2015, I’m doing a great job of keeping my only resolution – to give up coffees.
Not coffee, the staff-of-life-steaming beverage. (God forbid, no.) But those meaningless, productivity-killing klatches with tech startups and individuals I don’t know.
Yes, I’m referring to the “get acquainted” coffee. Also known as time-sucking, agenda-less encounters with strangers at venues that don’t even have the drink choices of a good singles bar, despite the common application of the term “brew.”
I hinted at my intention at the end of last year on social media. “Resolved for 2015: I am going on a Stupid-Free diet. I am avoiding coffees or meals with idiots,” I posted to Facebook. “Planning to start eating alone again are you, Frank?” responded a wit. Another suggested that I simply may starve.
I am going on a Stupid-Free diet. I am avoiding coffees or meals with idiots.
— Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) December 12, 2014
But though my declaration flies in the face of advice from career, consulting and networking gurus who say to never turn down a face-to-face occasion to sell your personal brand, I’m resolute. The initial coffee meeting does for real productivity and opportunity what “uh” does for conversation: It fills time to provide the illusion that something useful is being said.
Let me deconstruct three ways in which the just-a-coffee crowd are so very wrong.
1) Time-sucking. The invitation came via LinkedIn message. “I’d like to understand more about your role in the industry,” it said. “How about getting together for a 20-minute coffee?”
There is no such thing. There is also no such thing, I contend, as a one-hour coffee.
When you factor in minimal prep time (to check out the other person’s website or profile), transit time (to get to a mutually inconvenient location), and follow up time (to provide requested information or just a polite thank you), you have just drained no less than three productive hours.
Depending on your work ethic, that’s at least a third of your work day.
And, in the Seattle area, you might as well write off a half day if you have to cross either Lake Washington bridge or get to the congested South Lake Union neighborhood near rush hour.
No amount of caffeine provides enough stimulation to counter that.
2) Agenda-less. Beware anyone who prefaces an invitation to meet with the phrases “get acquainted,” “see how we can work together,” or “learn more about what you do.”
They are all code.
Code for exactly what isn’t always clear. And that’s the problem. I guarantee without some advance clarity you are about to engage in meaningless meandering of epic proportions. Unless, of course, there is a hidden agenda. Yes: This would be one of those rare cases in which even a secret agenda could be a productive reason for having a meeting.
But no agenda, or a vague one, is poison.
There’s a lot to be said for polite dancing about when there is a minimum of a stated objective that both sides are trying to determine the best way to reach (as they say in politics, diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggie” while reaching for a rock).
No coffee’s entire purpose should be fumbling around in the dark, just to feel unsatisfied afterwards.
3) Strangers. There is a huge difference between having coffee with a startup or individual you know and with one you don’t.
The former is “catching up.” It builds on an existing baseline of knowledge and/or shared experience, even if there is no formal agenda.
The latter is “cold calling.” It makes no difference if no money is changing hands. Almost invariably, the inviting party (a.k.a. the seller) will make a request for time, input, or referrals from the invited party (a.k.a. the unwitting buyer).
The dynamic is different, and can quickly become uncomfortable. And, like a bad first date or job interview, you can’t gracefully extricate yourself after five minutes. Even if the seller buys.
All told, filling your week with these coffees can provide the appearance of forward motion without the reality, sort of like drivers who madly change lanes in traffic only to wind up behind the patient person who stayed focused and in the same lane.
There is a better way.
Want to meet informally to gauge mutual interest or information? Don’t email, direct message or text an invite for a “coffee.” Instead, tell me you’re going to a local networking event and that you’d like to connect there. (In the Seattle area, for example, there is no shortage of such events, from New Tech Seattle to GeekWire get-togethers.)
The best introductory conversations happen in circumstances in which either party can keep it brief without appearing brusque.
If you actually do have an agenda that requires an extended one-to-one? Start by suggesting an old technology that is still remarkably efficient for brief meetings, requires no driving or Starbucks card, is fully synchronous, and lets both parties attend to work immediately before and after.
It’s called the telephone. And it will waste far less of my — and your — time, while saving us both from an overpriced burnt roast.