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Did it really take 20 years after I graduated college before someone wrote a book, “Never Eat Alone.” Why didn’t Jesus write that book. Or Plato. Then we might’ve read it in religious school or it would’ve been one of those “big Thinkers” we need to read in college so we can learn how to think.
He had mentioned the book before in other blog posts I’ve read of his, so like any cocky college student I decided to read the synopsis on Amazon and act like I had absorbed its secrets through osmosis (hey, at least I’m honest). Given my schedule and budget, I decided I would try a scaled down version and never eat lunch alone on weekdays from January 9 to February 10.
Out of 25 days, I was able to plan 19 lunches plus 5 dinners, 4 happy hours, 2 coffee meetings and 2 other “just come to my office” meetings. I tried to pack in as much diversity as I could — from a Maize and Blue deli “Kyle’s Lunch” with a C-level executive I know well at the business school to a hamburger in Dundee with an angel investor I had never met. One consistent theme ran through each and every one of these encounters.
There are always people who are a couple steps behind you, people who are exactly where you are and people who are a couple steps ahead of you. It is critical so surround yourself with all three.
For most people, it seems pretty intuitive to reach out to those who are ahead of you. They have experience you want to learn from, connections you desire, etc. For example, at Fetchnotes one of the things I’ve been trying to get advice on is building distribution channels in order to acquire users and hit the mass market. So I went to Espresso Royale with people like Adrian Fortino from Shepherd Intelligent Systems and asked him about some of the strategies he used in growing his company. It spawned a very insightful conversation on business development vs. mass consumer marketing.
But that’s just one example — I discussed the “incubator experience” with Allen Kim from Bebarang over another Kyle’s Lunch, building company culture with Menlo Innovations’s Rich Sheridan at Sweetwater’s Cafe, the history of Olark with Zach Steindler at Totoro and many, many more. They had all been in my shoes at some point, and I left every one of those meetings more informed and better off than I entered them.
My challenge also afforded me an excuse to connect with other people at about the same stage as me. I had an absurd amount of meals with Gill Henker and Theresa Fisher from DIIME (whom I work next to pretty much every day at TechArb) talked PR strategy at Chipotle with Joe Minock from DealSavant and exchanged product feedback with Alex Gatof from Splash.fm over sandwiches at Revive. We’re all still “early-stage entrepreneurs” but have moved well beyond the idea-validation stage and entered the long, difficult slog that is company-building. We can “shoot the shit” in a way unique to those who are in our shoes right now.
And then there were the many lunches and meetings I had with people who were just getting started, working on customer discovery or simply still in product development. These were some of my favorites because I felt like I had something to offer — a welcome break from always asking people for things. Whether it was putting on my “skeptical asshole” hat with Tierra Filhiol at Mia Za’s or demanding features from Matt Schrager’s new financial social network over drinks at Red Hawk, these encounters had something unique: the realm of possibility was endless. Before you have customers, a large team, investors, etc. — you can take your idea ANYWHERE.
The semi-delusional excitement and optimism characterized by people just getting started — in entrepreneurship or anything else — is infectious. And it can get lost in the mucky trenches you know await them. When you’ve been living and breathing the confines of your own business, it’s so refreshing to listen to someone whose trajectory is so open-ended. That’s why I think these are the most important people to meet with. It’s invigorating to be able to offer a connection or piece of feedback that goes such a long way in helping them achieve success.
But no matter which of these three types you meet with, it never hurts to end the conversation with, “Do you know anyone else that you think I should be talking to?”
Despite my challenge being over, I still try to avoid eating lunch alone. If you’re in southeastern Michigan (particularly Ann Arbor) and want to connect, feel encouraged to shoot me an email at alex(at)fetchnotes(dot)com.