How To Reject A Meeting Request

How to reject a meeting request

A couple weeks ago, I had multiple meetings where, going into the meeting, I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t be able to help the entrepreneurs in the ways they’d hoped, but they were persistent, so I agreed to the meetings.

Unfortunately, I was right.

After lots of wasted hours — specifically the wasted hours of precious entrepreneur time for the people meeting with me — I received yet another request from someone I knew I wouldn’t be able to help. In frustration, I posted the following Tweet:

Usually when I ask the Twitter masses a question, all I get is silence, but this particular question spurred an interesting mix of comments. I’ve shared some responses below and my thoughts on them. At the end, I’ll share how I responded to the request that spurred my tweet.

James Avery tries to improve efficiency…

Offering a call seems like a good in-between response. It’s less of a time commitment, while not an outright rejection. Still, I wonder about the value. Even if the call only takes 30 minutes, aren’t I knowingly wasting 30 minutes of that entrepreneur’s time?

Either way, I’m definitely going to use Jame’s suggestion about asking more people to come to my office. That’s a smart optimization.

Bryan Guido Hassin likes paying the karma gods…

I agree that sometimes you might not realize the ways in which a meeting can be valuable. At the same time, after a career of meetings, I feel like it’s possible to make an educated and usually-accurate guess. Still, it’s hard to argue with the importance of pleasing the karma gods. Definitely don’t want to piss them off.

Joe Procopio focused on work meetings…

Realizing he was talking about working meetings but the question had been about informal “coffee” meetings, Joe added:

At first I wasn’t sure I agreed with Joe that working meetings and informal “let’s connect” meetings have much overlap. However, after thinking about it a bit, he has an interesting port. Specifically, plenty of the optimizations that get applied to working/office meetings could be applied to informal meetings. In fact, here’s a relevant suggestion from one of my Duke colleagues…

Steve McClelland suggested adding a helpful barrier…

What if I the “assignment” Steve suggests is to request an agenda ahead of time? Not only would this create a barrier to push away less serious meeting requests, it would also help organize meetings, as per Joe’s suggestion, which is something I do for working meetings.

If nothing else, requesting an agenda would probably encourage the people scheduling a meeting to think through what they want to say and what they want to ask for in ways most of them aren’t currently doing.

Dana Publicover encouraged me to give a referral…

On one hand, I agree in the value of referrals and try to give them whenever possible. On the other hand, I worry about referring people I don’t know well because, like it or not, a bad referral can reflect poorly on me. That might seem a bit selfish, but most of us know people who keep sending us bad referrals, and it impacts the way all of their referrals get treated.

Malcolm Gill brought the optimism…

And he’s right. You never know what can happen. That’s certainly part of the anxiety I have when deciding whether or not to turn down a meeting.

Also worth noting… you never know what can happen when you play the lottery, but I still don’t buy tickets.

And Will Hardison had perhaps the most actionable advice…

In my world, we call that #MarketerHumor… =)

So here’s what I did…

As you read, everyone has their own way of handling meeting requests with questionable value. Some people take the meetings while trying to optimize for efficiency, some attempt to add better vetting up front, and other people believe meetings are a core part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and are never truly a waste of time.

As for me, I still don’t know the best strategy for rejecting a meeting request. I guess I’ll have to experiment and report back.

For my first experiment, I replied to the entrepreneur who triggered my tweet by explaining why I believed I wouldn’t be a helpful person for him to meet and that I valued his time too much to waste it. To his credit, he wrote a kind response thanking me for my honesty, so I guess that’s one data point in support of an honest, candid rejection email.

How about you? How do you turn down meeting requests? Reply in the comments below or tweet @AaronDinin.

 

Rejection Is A Beginning, Not An End

In 2010, my then-co-founder and I flew to Seattle to participate in “Techstars for a Day.” For those who don’t know, Techstars is a prominent and selective startup accelerator. During “Techstars for a Day,” they host companies they’re considering admitting. It’s an unofficial finalist interview of sorts.

As we flew across the country, we were confident we’d be accepted. After all, we were finalists and we were awesome. How could Techstars not accept us?

To make a long story short, we were wrong; we weren’t awesome, and Techstars did reject us.

My co-founder and I were both pissed because… well… rejection sucks. However, while it felt like a crummy ending to an exciting opportunity at the time, in retrospect, it wasn’t the end of anything. It wasn’t even the end of my relationship with Techstars.

Nine years later, I was invited to be a mentor for companies in the Techstars Raleigh/Durham accelerator. Meeting the new class of Techstars portfolio companies — which I did last week — gave me an opportunity to see the ways in which my own knowledge of entrepreneurship has evolved. For example, here are four ways in which the companies I mentored know more than I did when I was applying to Techstars, and another four things they still need to learn:

4 Things the current Techstars entrepreneurs were better at than me:

  • Introduced themselves with concise explanations: Every company I met introduced themselves by telling me what they did in a few quick sentences that made their basic premise easy to understand. I mention this not just because they’d honed their elevator pitches in ways I wish I had when I was in their position, but also because it took me years to learn the value of explaining things simply, clearly, and directly.
  • Prioritized traction: After explaining what they did, most of the entrepreneurs I met shared stats about how many customers they already had and how many enterprise deals they were busy negotiating. Yes, I was skeptical of their numbers because early companies often misrepresent traction, but at least they knew to talk about it. I didn’t know that when I was at their stage. I was still in a naive “if you build it, they will come” mindset.
  • Pre-meeting research: Most of the companies made a point of referencing something they’d read about me online, which meant they’d taken time to do research before their meetings. In my early days of building companies, I rarely did that, and I’m sure it cost me opportunities.
  • Always follow-up: I’m writing this post within a week of my mentoring sessions and I’ve already heard from most of the companies. They’ve thanked me for my help and asked if they can add me to their regular “progress report” emails. In contrast, I’m still terrible at following up and updating people… just ask my previous investors!

4 Things the current Techstars entrepreneurs still need to learn:

  • Customer acquisition is your product: All the entrepreneurs I met wanted to spend the entire time explaining their products. I had to interrupt them to ask questions about their customer acquisition strategies, and none had good answers. But they had plenty to say about their “amazing” user interfaces and “revolutionary” features. Uggg.
  • The customer wasn’t the user: My personal startup motto is: if the person paying for your product isn’t your end user, it’s a bad business model. And yet, more than half the companies I met were selling to people who weren’t their end users. For example, they’d be pitching a medical device that insurance companies would pay for, doctors would prescribe, and patients would use. While I realize these kinds of models exists (i.e. prescription drugs), they’re particularly challenging and require tons of startup capital..
  • Making it about them instead of their customers: Too many of the entrepreneurs I met wanted to tell me their personal stories. They shared why they were building their companies, how they’d gotten started, and what motivated them to keep working. In contrast, none of them mentioned their customers or their customers’ needs without my asking. That’s selfish. We don’t build startups for ourselves. We build startups for other people.
  • Having too many answers: The entrepreneurs I met answered every question I asked; none of them were willing to say “I don’t know.” They all either believed they knew everything or believed they had to appear as though they knew everything. In either case, they were wrong. As a Techstars applicant, I thought I had to know everything, and I was wrong. As a Techstars mentor, I realize I can’t know everything. A willingness to say “I don’t know” is critical for entrepreneurs because it helps us avoid making the kinds of false assumptions that often kill our companies.

Observations like the ones I’ve described above, and my ability to make them, help me recognize the kinds of things I’ve learned since getting rejected from Techstars. Even if, five minutes from now, someone successfully persuades me I’m wrong about all of the lessons I’ve shared, it doesn’t change or diminish the role my Techstars rejection played in my personal education and growth. Had Techstars not rejected me and my company, all the subsequent events in my entrepreneurial career that followed wouldn’t have happened — I got accepted to a different accelerator, I raised venture from different investors, I hired different employees, I moved to a different city, and so on.

Would I have been happier with the progression of my life and career had I been accepted to Techstars Seattle in 2010? I have no idea. Am I happy with my life and career now? Absolutely.

What that tells me — and hopefully tells anyone reading this — is that, in the moment, a rejection usually feels like something preventing us from reaching our goals. But we shouldn’t let it discourage us. After a bit of time we’ll be able to look back and see how our rejections were the starting points of new paths forward.

Retiring The Doughnut Rule: Why I Began Allowing Phones In Class

When I first began teaching undergrads – 2007-ish, as a grad student – I would boast about what I thought was, at the time, a wildly creative way of removing cell phones as a classroom distraction. I called it the “Doughnut Rule.”

The Doughnut Rule had a prominent place on my syllabus, which read like this:

Cell Phone Policy:

Yes, these days everyone has a cell phone and they’ve become integral components of our lives.  As such, I welcome such technologies in the classroom, but if you have the need to use one (i.e. let it ring, send a text message, take a picture of your neighbor) I ask that you repay the interruption of your fellow students’ educations with enough doughnuts for everyone at the subsequent class meeting.

I got the idea for the Doughnut Rule from someone else who did it with cookies, but I figured cookies weren’t enough of a punishment. Students can fulfill a cookie requirement by stopping into the campus store on their way to class and picking up an over-priced box of Chips Ahoy!. But doughnuts – the Krispy kind or the Dunkin’ kind – require more thought and effort.

Whatever you do, don’t bring those cheap, tiny, store-bought powdered doughnuts. That’s a quick way to earn an F in my class. But I digress…

I would tell my teaching colleagues about the Doughnut Rule as a way to promote my pedagogical brilliance or my classroom management creativity or some other misguided self-delusion that wasn’t true because, back then, I had no idea how to teach anything. Regardless, at the time, I thought the Doughnut Rule, in all its cheeky glory, was an effective solution for limiting class cell phone usage.

To be fair, the rule did minimize cell phone usage. The first time in a semester I called out “You owe the class doughnuts!” to a texting student would usually be the last time I saw a phone in class. However, in retrospect, the Doughnut Rule wasn’t actually punishing students. I was punishing myself. I used the rule to delude myself into thinking I was a better instructor than I actually was. “My students aren’t getting distracted by their phones,” I’d think, “so it must mean they’re paying attention and appreciating my lessons.”

As I’ve gotten more experienced in the classroom, I’ve gotten more lax with my cell phone policy. You might argue it’s because cell phones have become a more common part of everyday life, but, from what I hear, most of my peers are as strict as ever about cell phones. Some are equally strict about laptop usage.

Many teachers – grade school and college – view digital devices as classroom distractions. While they’re not entirely wrong, by blaming the devices themselves, they’re shifting blame to the wrong place.

I know this is true because it’s what I was doing with the Doughnut Rule. While my use of the Doughnut Rule might have been a creative solution to a legitimate problem, it was also a pedagogical cop out. It allowed me to put the blame for distracted students on digital devices. Instead, I should have been asking questions about what I was doing – or not doing – in my lessons that caused student attention to wander.

If something else in my classroom is more engaging than the lesson I’m teaching, that’s not the fault of the thing that’s more engaging, nor is it a problem with my students.

It’s my problem.

It’s my fault.

I need to take responsibility.

Once I recognized the importance I play in whether or not students get distracted by their phones, I retired the Doughnut Rule and removed any sort of formal policy for digital devices in my classrooms. However, I still don’t welcome them. Instead, I’ve learned to use digital devices as a barometer to help me measure the quality of my lessons. When I notice more people paying attention to their Instagram feeds than what I’m discussing, I don’t punish my students; I punish myself. I force myself to sit down after class, review the lesson I taught, and identify ways to improve. And yes, if the lesson was particularly bad and I’m feeling especially depressed about how many students cared more about their phones than me, I might even make myself feel better by eating a doughnut.

The Hollywood Rule: 5 Reasons To Always Accept A Drink During A Meeting

The company I worked for my first year after college was producing a commercial, and my boss sent me and a coworker to meet the head of the production company we’d hired to film it. The man was, according to the online bio I read before the meeting, a “former Hollywood guy”… whatever that means.

When we got to his office — a nondescript building in a small industrial park — he invited us into his conference room and asked if we’d like a drink. As I took my seat, I politely declined the drink.

He sat down across from us, leaned back in his chair, shook his head in mock-disapproval, and said, “Clearly neither of you two know the Hollywood Rule.”

“The Hollywood Rule?” my co-worker asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“The Hollywood Rule,” the production head explained, “is to always accept a drink when someone offers one at the start of a meeting.”

If I could travel back in time to that moment, I would have asked him why. But, at that moment, it didn’t occur to me. Instead, I’m pretty sure I meekly asked for a water, and then we continued with our meeting. As a result, I’ve spent the next 15 years wondering why, in Hollywood, you’re always supposed to accept a drink when offered one during a meeting.

Even though I don’t know why I’m supposed to, ever since leaning the Hollywood Rule, when someone offers me a drink in a meeting, I always accept it. Plus, when I meet with someone and offer a drink, I get a little annoyed if they don’t accept it. I think it’s a useful piece of advice, so I’ve come up with my own reasons why.

Reason #1: Demonstrate Absolute Comfort

Maybe you’re meeting with a powerful investor. Maybe you’re meeting with a potential customer who, if you win the deal, could propel your business to massive success. No matter how important the meeting is, or how nervous you are, by accepting a drink you’re demonstrating absolute comfort in your environment. Why? Because people who turn down drinks are people who don’t want to feel like they’re imposing or causing trouble. But people who close big deals are people who never worry about imposing.

Reason #2: Get Used To Your Environment

Thanks to millions of years of evolution, when entering new environments, humans are naturally focused on their surroundings. Sure, this comes from having to worry about things like saber toothed tigers unexpectedly leaping out at you, and you’re not likely to encounter many of them in a conference room, but instincts are difficult habits to kick. As a result, when entering a new space ahead of a meeting, some part of your mental energy will be tuned to your surroundings.

By accepting a drink at the beginning of a meeting, you’re giving yourself a few minutes to acclimate to a new environment. During that time, your hunter-gatherer subconscious can do its thing, which means it’ll stay out of your way once the meeting starts.

Reason #3: Cool Down

Even low-pressure meetings require some level of additional effort beyond what you expend staring at a computer screen. That additional effort leads to things like breathlessness, an inability to focus, and, in some cases, sweat. Lots and lots of sweat.

An easy way to avoid being the kind of person who sweats through your shirt during a meeting is to accept a cold beverage. You probably won’t realize how much it’s helping you stay cool, but maybe you’ll notice the lack of pit stains.

Reason #4: Make Your Host Feel Good

While you might think you’re creating extra work, accepting a drink is actually an easy way to make your host feel good for doing something nice. Making your host feel good will put that person in a more receptive state of mind, which may come in handy if you need to make any kind of “ask” during your meeting.

Reason #5: Establish Control

Conversations are about control. Do you like to be the driver of your conversations, actively pushing them in the directions you want them to go? Or do you tend to be a passenger in your conversations, going wherever other people want to take them?

Being passive during conversations isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there are plenty of scenarios where you should let the other person lead. However, if you need to control a conversation, accepting a drink is a good way of doing so because it immediately makes you the beneficiary of the other person’s effort.

If you want to establish even more control, request a drink before you’re even offered one. A simple “Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” as you’re walking in the door is a polite way of taking charge at the beginning of a meeting.

And, for those times where you want everyone in the room to know you’re the “alpha,” request a drink the other person surely won’t have:

        Person You’re Meeting: “Before we get started, would you like something to drink?”

        You: “As a matter of fact, I’d love a Mountain Dew Code Red if you’ve got one.”

        Person You’re Meeting: “Umm… I don’t think we have that.”

        You: “Then let’s just get down to business. So… what can I do for you?”