Oh, coffee chats and the digital, creative industry. The other weekend, I was speaking at a retreat for a crew of Instagram influencers and style bloggers, women with tens of thousands in their tribe.
“Okay, Ashlyn, how do you fit in all the coffee dates with all the people?”
“Ummmmm, I don’t,” I said. “And neither should you.”
The minute the words and my explanation leaked out, I was terrified I’d just sounded like a snobby witch of a small business owner, but seven sets of wide-eyes fluttered my direction like a lightbulb went off. The follow-up questions about networking and serving your audience spouted out.
Because here’s a very hard truth I’ve had to learn:
“The more successful you become, the more inaccessible you need to become.” -Michael Hyatt
I’ve definitely been on both sides of the coffee chat conversation since I graduated college nearly a decade ago.
Today, I want to talk about how I handle (or, rather, don’t handle!) coffee chat networking requests, as well as how I reach out to influencers and women from whom I want to learn.
Why Relationship is Important
TBH, I hate the phrase networking. It makes me think of tweed, J. Crew pencil skirts and the days when I’d swap business cards over high-boy tables, mediocre wine, and appetizers at 5:30 p.m. in Buckhead.
I can’t get rid of the pencil skirts (too beautiful), but I definitely got rid of some of the “relationships” I made.
I learned to mentally shift the word “networking” to “relationship building.” Note: this wasn’t how I learned it in college, where you’re supposed to email the magazine editor or PR practitioner and ask to interview them for a paper.
On my second day of training at my first big, unpaid internship in a full-service communications firm, I spotted an agency-branded card over my new colleague’s desk. “Caroline, what does ‘R&B Music time’ mean?’”
“Oh, that’s what we call networking here. Bo and Glen like to call it ‘relationship building’ instead.”
Networking is just about meeting people.
Relationship building is about investing in people.
Networking is just about meeting people. Cold emails. Passing cards. Shaking hands, forgetting names.
“Networking is a task while relationship building is a commitment. It’s more long term than short term, more quality of relationships than quantity. Networking can be superficial, while relationship building is always about professional and personal sincerity.” –Jackson Spalding blog
Relationship is business. It’s the heartbeat of why I have a business. It’s the reason I get any copywriting or calligraphy clients. It’s the reason I go into my office and enjoy sitting there every day.
These days, (as of March 2018) I don’t really do coffee dates.
Not as the asker, and not as the askee.
Your Time (& Thinking) is Important
There are ebbs and flows of relationship-heavy seasons in entrepreneurship. There are seasons of soaking up and seasons of wringing out. Seasons of input—reading all the things, going to all the events, listening to all the trainings—and seasons where you find output and actually make the things and serve the clients.
In the few months before I left my last corporate job and the first six-ish months of my job, I was in sponge-mode I went to every single meetup in Atlanta I could. I attended every General Assembly class I could afford and all the free ones, and went to anything Rising Tide Society offered. I was a relationship-building, coffee-dating, education machine because I had ZERO idea how to run a business and needed to learn.
But then I realized there’s a time to think and implement. I saw (and still have to battle!) that, at my worst, I’ll over-educate myself to a crippling degree: Simply put, I believed it was safer to listen. It was braver to act, and I don’t always feel brave.
But networking/coffee chats—and to a similar extent, education—isn’t doing the work.
Networking is not working. ← I didn’t make that up. It’s the title of a book. I agree, even if I don’t really want to.
“In the beginning of my business, I spent a lot of time listening to others’ ideas out of insecurity,” my friend (and speaking coach) Jessica Rasdall told me. “At the end of the month, you look at your calendar and you spent just as much time getting on random calls … that’s not doing the work.”
I also had to get to where I saw my time as money. There would be times I’d be so stressed out about my client load, yet force myself to leave and go to a Rising Tide Society meet up because I thought I “needed to build relationships.”
But many days, it would’ve been a better business decision (and stress decision) if I stayed in and tackled my ever-growing to-do list. That would have been a better use of my time.
If my time was worth $80 an hour then, was attending the meet-up worth that pay-rate, or did I get paid that for doing my to-do list that day? When I stopped seeing networking events as free time, and started seeing them as paid time, I started to be more selective.
How I Handle Coffee Date Requests
Let me premise this with saying that I treasure and value every email and every bit of this creative business I get to steward. It’s a delight, and my joy. I want to say all of this gracefully, so please don’t hear this as a passive-aggressive jab at the industry that employs me.
I live in one of the bigger cities in the United States. Atlanta is home of the busiest airport in the world, where there’s always a friend with a long layover, and a city where the Rising Tide Society Facebook group size is around 1,900—and that’s just the in-town chapter.
My brand—like most creative businesses—is personal. I’ll be honest: I’ve envied friends who live in markets that are quiet, small towns where clinking coffee mugs is a sweet escape from small business hunker-down mode. However, I don’t envy my friend Jules Hunt, of Manhattan-based Om in the City with 43k+ social media followers.
What it boils down to is this:
If I don’t have time for coffee dates with my best friends, I don’t have time for coffee with someone who I don’t really know.
BAH! Stick with me.
During seasons where I crave and miss my community/best friends/HUSBAND, coffee dates with women or potential colleagues I’ve not yet had the honor of meeting are first to go.
If I’m in a season where date nights, girls nights, and business-building adventures are all getting fostered, then great, making new business friends can fit back in.
But I want to love my people I have in my circle of influence I have right now well, and that’s going to take some time.
“We’re all working to create something meaningful,” my entrepreneur friend Megan Martin texted me today. “Sometimes, that means you have to be fiercely protective of your time so you can be a good steward of what you’ve been given.”“Sometimes, that means you have to be fiercely protective of your time so you can be a good steward of what you’ve been given.” Click To Tweet
I’ve interviewed about seven of my industry friends (both already-flowing and emerging entrepreneurs) to pull ideas from how they handle coffee-date networking requests, and these are the 11 ideas I’ve found for both sides of the question.
11 Ways to Handle Coffee Chat Requests & Pitches
1. Propose breakfast.
My CEO bosses at Jackson Spalding were approachable, respected leaders in our city, and strolled the halls every day. They both knew my name, and they both knew my interests—even when I was a lowly intern. Stand-up guys through and through.
When Glen Jackson was asked for a “can I pick your brain” meeting, he’d agree with a few very early breakfast times. Plus, he’d always eat breakfast before so he could sit and concentrate on listening and giving feedback.
My favorite Mavenly Co. podcast episode talks about this too. “At some point, you have to check [your networking]. At some point, you have to work. That’s why I think there are a lot of wannabes out there,” entrepreneur Jared Loftis said.
“I filter by asking people to meet early with me in the morning if it’s a young entrepreneur that’s asking to take me to coffee. I say, ‘I’m happy to meet with you if you’ll meet with me at this coffee shop at 6:30 in the morning.’ Then, it doesn’t take time out of my day, but it also tells me how bad did they want it. Because some say, ‘Man, I won’t be up then.’ Okay, well I can’t take time out of my day and stop everything I’m doing.'”
The first time I heard this episode I was still dreaming up my creative business. That concept of looking at your time in such a way floored me.
2. If you’re the type to promise too much in person, push them to email.
I watched my business and financial coach Shanna Skidmore manage this at a conference. When approached by a few women asking GREAT questions that were 100% in her realm of expertise, Shanna would say this: “I would love to help you with that. Can you email me?”
After about the third time I heard her say it, I asked why. “Because in the moment, I have a temptation to tell someone, ‘YES! YES—let’s do all the things,’ but in reality, that’s not best for either of us. Asking someone to email me gives me time to think through how I can actually help her, and what tools or resources I have that would really help her.”
3. Schedule two times in your calendar a month where you take time away from the office and go have coffee dates.
Nearly every woman I spoke with mentioned this. My friend Jessica Peddicord at Simply Jessica Marie does this. “I try to limit them to two, maybe three a month so I can keep my other Fridays flexible for anything else work-wise that pops up.” One can be with a friend, one can be with a “pick my brain” or peer you may not know yet.
“I have flex hours for coffee chats, and MAYBE do one to two a month, if that. I prioritize people who have come through a trusted referral,” Jessica Rasdall told me.
4. If you have a BIG audience, arrange a meet-up.
Announce a meetup on social media like the ladies of Southern Weddings. My friends Jules (Om and the City) and Jenna Kutcher do this as well. What a sweet way to celebrate and enjoy community together.
5. Recommend meeting them at something you’d go to anyway.
If you’re planning to go to a meet-up, influencer event, opening, Tuesdays Together, or other fun event, invite your buddy as a plus one, seat mate, or for drinks before or after. “That way, we still get to meet and chat, but it isn’t an addition to my calendar,” Jessica said.
6. Remember the people who are currently paying for your brain.
If you DO offer your in-person time to clients who pay for your brain power, it’s not fair to give it to someone else for free. Have a template ready to answer those and gently remind people that you offer this service to others, and that IF you do have a “coffee chat,” you can’t dig into the nitty gritty, out of respect to you paying clients.
If you’re the askee ..
7. Ask if they’ll be teaching or attending an upcoming event, mentorship program.
Sometimes, for a fee of a subscription service/membership website, course launch, workshop, or something similar, you can work with your business crushes. I have get the BEST results when I pay my mentors! I blogged about it here.
Free works, too. My friend Katie is dreaming up her creative business as a personal caterer for busy families. “I feel like the free webinar space is great,” she told me. “I love those ‘ask me anything,’ webinars or Facebook Lives where you can submit questions and get them answered.”
8. Absorb all their content.
Megan told me she’s also in a season of no coffee chats. “I’m an entrepreneur and mom, and it’s impossible for me to use my 4-8 dedicated work hours a week for coffee chats—but that’s why my blog and all the free resources are there.”
Nancy Ray was easily one of my first industry girl-crushes. I didn’t meet her, or even cold email her, until about eight months after I found her. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, I’m just saying I now have a real friendship with a business owner I wouldn’t have had the courage to say two words to at first.
After I found Nancy, I realized I wanted to learn from her. I read every.single.blog on her website. I sat with pen and paper and wrote down ideas from her. I listened to her free trainings. I bought items from her shop and implemented them.
And, when I finally had a reason (read: courage) to reach out, it was with one pointed question—which leads me to …
9. Ask the right question.
Back to the Nancy Ray example. When I did reach out, I had a specific, well-researched question: “I’m using your advice to hire my first associate copywriters, and I am wondering: do you lean more towards the ‘hire on personality, coach the skill’ idea, or the ‘hire on skill, coach the personality?’ idea?” I just wanted one sentence from her that I couldn’t find where she’d posted anywhere online.
(p.s. When I was doing research for this blog, I found this incredible article on The Muse about how to phrase a cold-ask question. Click here to read it. I can’t say it any better!)
10. Pay for the conference.
My two favorite copywriters in the world (and yes, I’ve bought all their courses) were teaching at a workshop in New York City this spring. I’ve never cold emailed them, and I’d never ask to pick their brains. I got to meet them both and thank them. A well-selected conference teems with relationship opportunity in my book.
11. Go to them.
I remember getting this advice back in corporate days, too: Always volunteer to go to their office—if it’s your idea, never put them in a position of fighting traffic, paying to park, getting caught up on work missed during that time, etc.
If you’re asking an older “mentee” type figure if you can pick their brain, you make it as easy for them as possible—like asking if they have a 20-minute window one day you can come to THEIR corporate offices and ask some questions.
It’s similar in the digital world. If a coffee date is YOUR idea, you ask for THEIR calendar link and availability. The thought goes a long way.
BONUS 1: Read what they’re reading.
I still do this. If I have a girl-crush on someone, I get their book list. 🙂 I wrote more about that over here in this blog post!
BONUS 2: Tell them your wins and give feedback.
One of my biggest “wins” was when I got to tell someone I really admire how her business helped me build mine … it lead to me getting the chance to record a video testimonial with her team. Lesson I learned? Tell those you learned from how you’ve benefited. They really need the feedback, and you’re letting them know they made an impact on the world.
If they have an email that says “hit reply,” well for goodness sakes, hit reply! I know I’m a copywriter and WOULD say that, but don’t miss out on the chance to “talk” and build a relationship with others when they open the door and ask.
Let me leave it at this, keep building relationships. I honestly believe they’re what business is. We were formed for community and relationship. We’re also called to steward our time well.
Lysa Terkeurst said that if we’re going to say no, we need to ALSO respect others who say no to us.
What do you think? Do you do the coffee chat circuit, or do you spend your time doing other things in your current season of creative business?