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I do a lot of short phone calls and meetings. I try to organize them around “random days” where I spend the majority of the day meeting and talking to people where I don’t have a specific agenda. Often – they have a specific agenda (which is good). However, many have no idea how to communicate their agenda – or what they want to accomplish – in either an efficient or effective manner.
I have my assistant schedule these calls for 30 minutes each. Some take 5 minutes, which gives me time to do other stuff (email, other phone calls); some take 29 minutes. I’ve learned over the years that there is rarely a reason for a meeting / call to go longer than 30 minutes unless there’s a clear pre-set agenda so – rather than struggle with bigger time windows, I simply stop after 30 minutes and – if it needs to go longer, figure out another time (this rarely happens.) Interestingly, I’ve tried to get this down to 15 minutes and have not been able to get into a full day rhythm with this – there’s something magical about the 30 minute window (at least for me.)
I had a full day today – 10 scheduled calls, a lunch, and a bunch of random calls and email before I headed out to the airport. As I was driving to the airport after an ineffective call (due to the lack of good cell coverage on E-470), I was pondering several of the calls I’d had earlier in the day. One was good (where good is defined as useful to both parties); one was not so good (not so good = not useful to at least one of the parties involved.)
My post lunch call was the good one. I had an enjoyable lunch catching up with Jonathan Weber of New West Network and was running a few minutes late. At 1pm, I got a call and told the person that I was scheduled to talk to that I was running a few minutes late, I apologized, and asked if it would be ok if I called him back at 1:15. As I was dialing him at 1:15, I noticed that he had just emailed me a WebEx invite. I clicked on it as he was answering and joined the meeting. I apologized again for running late, told him I had until 1:30, and suggested we get right into it. We hadn’t ever talked before and had been introduced a week earlier by a mutual friend. He reminded me who introduced us, told me he could do the presentation in five minutes, and we could spend the balance talking. He then told me his goals for the call (simple and well articulated) and dove into the presentation. He was true to his word and around 1:21 (yes – I looked) we talked about what he’d presented to me. I asked a few questions and gave him what I hope was useful and encouraging feedback. At 1:29, he told me that he appreciated the time and would be in touch. I hung up impressed, interested, and knew I’d be responsive if he ever asks for anything. I was also appreciative that he was gracious about me being late – I was the one that caused the time to be extra-compressed, yet he was still able to accomplish his goal.
I churned through some additional stuff and then had the not so good call later in the afternoon. Again, my assistant had scheduled it for 30 minutes, which the other party knew. I hopped on the conference call at the appointed time. As with the earlier call, I had been introduced to these folks by a friend (a different one), although I was less clear on what they were up to since it had been a few weeks and I couldn’t quickly look up their web site (they didn’t seem to have one yet – at least not an obvious one.) We spent a few wasted minutes on pleasantries and then one of them started talking. After five minutes of listening to a high level description about something that I didn’t understand that had something to do with the company they were working on which was as yet undefined, I interrupted and asked him what his goal for the call was. After an unnecessarily long explanation, I determined that they were approaching me as a potential investor. I then asked him to try to be more direct about what his business did, what stage they were at, what they had accomplished, and what big opportunity they were going after. I listened – with a few questions – for another 10 minutes and still didn’t really understand what they were trying to do. I decided to change my approach and understand how far along they were. It became clear that they were very early, had a big vision, but were working hard to get a demonstration system up while looking for short term money (e.g. “within the next 30 days”) to fund them through the creation of the demo. By the time we got here, 25 minutes had passed. I communicated that while the general thing they were talking about was something I could become interested in (e.g. it was a software company, not an China-based manufacturer of drill bits), I wasn’t interested in trying to get more engaged at this point based on (a) their geography (I really only want to do very early stage stuff that is close to home), (b) my lack of understanding of what they were going after (e.g. they didn’t “get me” in the first meeting), and (c) their timetable (I wasn’t interested enough to engage at a level now where I could help with a financing in the next 30 days.) I did offer to reconnect when their demo was ready, take a look, and try to understand better what they were up to. We then spent the next five minutes in the awkward dance where they were trying to find something to “get me really excited” while I was trying to politely end the call, having made my decision that I didn’t want to spend any more time on this now. We eventually untangled ourselves and said polite goodbyes. Hopefully they’ll drop me a note when they have a demo and we’ll take another shot.
Now – the not so good phone call wasn’t “horrible”, it just wasn’t effective. I don’t mind the couple of minutes of chit chat at the beginning, but it’s real time being wasted for no particular reason. Since we don’t yet have a relationship, we’re not “catching up” on anything. I’m often on the receiving end of the request for time, so this becomes the other person’s first impression time with me. Why waste it with idle banter? Instead, use the first 60 seconds to get my attention, remind me how we got connected, and tell me what you want to accomplish with the call. We could have then gotten – in 5 minutes – to the same place we got in 25 minutes. It’s the same at the end of the call – let’s wrap it up, figure out what the proverbial “next steps” are, and get on with it.