What to say to people who ask "can we grab coffee" or "I'd love to pick brain"

What do you say to people who you don't know that want to meet for coffee, pick your brain, talk about the app they are developing, business solution they are offering, and more....


Question: I get my share of requests from people who want to “grab coffee” and tell me about their new business idea, get advice about how to market their business, share their new parenting app, etc.  Someone I know says he takes every request as a way to “pay it forward” but I feel that takes my time away from other tasks that are sitting waiting to be done.

What do you do and why? Do you have a “sniff test” of meetings you take?

Are there any tips on saying yes (and managing meetings) or no (and handling gracefully)?

Top 10 tips from Members:


1. Set up a phone call instead:

I think the person you're helping profits more from the back-and-forth of a telephone call, and it's actually less time-consuming and taxing for you than drafting an e-mail. You can address issues that you think of on the fly based on what the person has asked/said and be done with it. It's easy to keep a call to 10-15 minutes, especially if you preface the conversation with your time constraint and then at one point politely beg your leave, e.g., another call coming in, a meeting to attend. If the person you're talking to is interesting, impressively prepared, or presents a mutually beneficial relationship, you can propose a follow-up via e-mail, a coffee, another call, etc. Otherwise, you leave the engagement at the call, and you've done a solid service that is not impersonal, setting the caller on her/his way towards further research and networking. Anyway, that's how I finally figured out how to handle an avalanche of career networkers in my past corporate life, thus my argument for the quick call over the e-mail. But, no, you cannot keep "grabbing coffee." That's just too time consuming, and, frankly, most advice seekers aren't properly prepared for a coffee conversation:    
Person: "Hey, can we grab a coffee to discuss…"
You: "Let's exchange phone numbers and chat. It'll be easier to schedule. How about you call me Wed during the afternoon? When are you free?"    


"I agree with some of this. When I was at a different point in my career, I contacted a bunch of professionals for coffee, etc., to get advice. I found that just talking to someone on the phone for 5-10 minutes was as helpful if not more helpful than having coffee/lunch/etc.. If someone is calling to ask for advice or help and you don't have time for a full blown coffee-- give them ten minutes on the phone. I found it to be very helpful."


2. Say later:


"You'd love to but you 're just too busy. Then just ask them to keep in touch. There is a time and a place for paying it forward but if it's a burden at this point in your career just let it go without guilt."


3. Say no:


"I'd even be wary of offering to look at a plan, etc. I imagine this could be really time-consuming as well, as perhaps even less time-bound than the coffee. This may sound harsh and ungenerous, but I think people probably don't understand how often you get such requests and how time-consuming it would be for you.

When my husband was a book editor, he'd get emails all the time from friends and bare acquaintances asking him to "just take a look" at a book proposal or even a full manuscript and give advice. He would feel compelled to read the manuscript carefully and give detailed comments--because he has "attention surplus disorder" and can't bring himself to do it in any other way. He'd spend his weekends on this unpaid labor instead of relaxing, and leave me with the kids. It was nuts! I finally said he had to learn to just say no (exceptions made for good friends). I mean, people don't ask accountants to just have a look at their tax returns, or doctors to just have a look at.... oh, wait, I guess they probably do.

Anyway, I think it's really nice of you to do this for people, but it can eat up your life."

"I think you should probably say No often. But also maybe just connect people as an alternative. I don't think it would be possible for you to take every request. And you have paid it forward already!  Say sorry and if possible tell them to contact so and so."


4. Redirect to an event or meet up:


"I would also tell them that you attend networking meet ups on a regular basis and you would love to speak with them at the next one. Then you can either include the next date/time/location if it is scheduled or tell them you will be sure they are on the email list to be notified as soon as it's scheduled.


"I have to be interested on subject and want to know more or believe that there is something for both parties.  In your position it might be good idea to promote smoozefest as a venue if you feel that it takes time away from stuff that need to be done.  I guess we all joined Park Slope Parents so we could help others and get help, so do what you can and we so the same."


5. Turn into a business lead by setting a price:


"Or you turn it into a small business where you can provide them with the meeting for a fee--like a small business consult."


"If you do have skills that deserve payment, you can always ask people for payment of that expertise. If they are truly interested in talking to you they may be willing to pay for your knowledge. This way you may weed out the people who are serious from the ones just testing the waters of an idea.  Consider having a "Buy your Brain" special offer."


6. Say yes:


"I do always say yes, although I'm sure I don't get as many requests as you do.  But I so appreciated people saying yes to me when I was unemployed, so I feel I should.  I just plan these in with my schedule, so I might say yes, but I can't get together until 3 weeks from now.  Sometimes that's fine, sometimes someone only wants to get together if it's sooner so they demur.  Either way is fine with me.


Pay it forward.  And research shows that givers stay on top, at least according to Wharton professor Adam Grant.  Grant's work comes recommended by a PSP member who says "the writer Adam Grant is all about this kind of thing.  Worth taking a look at [his website]."


7. Get more information before making a decision:


"I typically ask for a business plan or anything else they may have to look at in advance. If they have something I will give it a look and decide from there if a meet is warranted. Even if a person has to go back and put something together at least there is some semblance of being serious about their business.

You have the added layer of being a public figure. This can create the issue of investment and partnership proposals disguised as innocuous meetings. Being clear from the outset that this is not of interest can save you a lot of time.

I tell people all the time that in business you have two main sources of capital, money and time. Of the two poorly spent time is something you can't get back. True business people understand and respect this. It's why you must create some barriers and protect your time."


8. Have a sniff test:


"I was recently listening to a woman speaker and she talked about this issue - how once she raised money for her startup everyone wanted to talk to her and it was getting in the way of her business.  Her sniff test - did they offer something to her as well or did they just want something - so if in the email they just talk about themselves and what they need she would politely decline.

I recommend saying you don't have time for coffee but you're happy to look at a plan or email about what their doing and give them some advice if you have some.

Recently one of my colleagues I reached out to simply said "I'm too busy for in person meetings I can give you 15 minutes today at X time". I was glad they were making the time and it reminded me to do the same - coffee involves going to meet someone which is travel time and other distractions.

You are being a good role model for business people if you show them you stay focused on our business and how to manage their time better.

Also, in your case they can always come to one of your events as their first jesture of a mutually beneficial relationship.

Finally, some people are inspiring so take meetings with them just to rejuvenate!:


9. Refer the rest  to other people, and above all, follow your instincts & gut with who you want to meet with:


On the theory that one person can't help everyone who asks (if a lot of people are asking), my advice is to help some but not all requesters and/or have levels of help and time you will give. Take coffee with some people who you feel you may be able to develop a connection with or whose idea may inspire you as well or dovetail with your own focuses. Just speak briefly on the phone with other people as a courtesy and then suggest coffee with the ones who then seem like it might then be more useful to both of you. Refer other people to someone else if you feel that too many people are approaching you at that time or you "just can't" right now (fight your own burnout, just-can't is a good reason not to take the time, you can say you are overcommitted and either need to meet or speak in a few weeks or will suggest they approach x or y other person instead). Or just say not right now."


10. Mentor only those who inspire you (& follow your gut on that one!):


"In case it came off wrong, I never advocated for slamming doors shut and I dont think most starting entrepreneurs are time suckers - but it is my experience most people who are looking for advice don' t take the time to consider how the meeting can be mutually beneficial - because they are really only focused on themselves and getting something for themselves not creating something for the whole.

Also i think its considered courteous to offer to meet for coffee and more personal - but its not necessarily what either party wants considering the additonal time it takes - its much more courteous to recognize people are busy and get to the point.  that is why it is polite to say you dont have time to meet but you can talk on the phone for 10-15 minutes 2 weeks from now when you actually have an opening in your calendar

As for people who want career advice/ informational interviews, too often its just a buzz word they have heard and no one teaches them how to make the most of the time.  

i say mentor people who inspire you - i get renewed energy from meeting with people and that is its own reward."


"Follow your heart and instincts as to who to help and when and how to do it. You can't make everyone happy. People (like you) with a helping spirit will attract people who want or need help. Focus on some people so the connections stay meaningful for both you AND them. Don't feel guilty about your choices if they protect your own career and family and personal life while helping when you can. Pay it forward while figuring some is good karma and some of it will nourish you and some won't."


Further Resources:

"Lots of good advice here, so just to add that the writer Adam Grant is all about this kind of thing.  Worth taking a look at."

"There are models of success (check out Barbara Sher, starting with "Wishcraft" which was the basis for "What Color Is Your Parachute?") that suggest building a support team of people who you meet with periodically to keep you on track. It's better to build a team than conduct random."


A GREAT Video:

How to Say No To People Who Want To Pick Your Brain

This video includes canned responses like: 

"I'm not available for lunch, but you should really consider getting my ________.  It's all of my best thinking in one place, and I created it to help people in your exact situation."

"I don't have time to grab coffee unless we're doing it as an official business meeting.  And my charge for consulation, if you're game, is $____."

"I have a rule, if I don't have time to see my mother, I don't have time to meet new people for networking.  And right now, I owe my mama a visit. I'm sure we'd have a blast and I hope you aren't insulted, but my work schedule is packed and I've got to pass."

"If they want to pick your brain ask them to pick a time and a method of payment."


Finally, to just confuse you:

"[W]hen you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed." - Michelle Obama during the DNC in North Carolina.


And one last word:

IF you’re the asker, make sure to pay it forward yourself.