One of the great privileges of doing what I do is having entrepreneurs call me to talk about their ideas. Many of the conversations I have are very interesting and enjoyable. The entrepreneurs are excited, they have thought long and hard about the problems they are trying to solve, and they are doing creative things with technology. After those calls, I have the feeling the legal industry really might change.
I do get some calls, however, that do not go as well. The callers want to tell me all about their tech, and then clearly want me to praise what they have done and tell them they are the next Zuckerberg. When I try to have a conversation with them, I hear “we have thought of that”, “we have solved those issues” or “we are quite familiar with the industry.” Even if all those statements are true, the point is they aren’t listening. In fact, in those calls the entrepreneur typically spends 80% of the time talking. Yuk.
This post is my guidance to all of those who want to talk with me about their ideas. Again, I feel very fortunate that you want to talk with me, so thank you. But, to make sure we both get a lot out of the conversation, I’d like to share with you why I am making some suggestions, my suggestions for what not to do, and my suggestions for how to make these calls worthwhile. Most of what I say applies not just to talking with me. It applies when you talk with anyone about your idea.
Where These Suggestions Come From
These suggestions come from several sources:
1. My experiences from when I was an entrepreneur.
2. My experiences teaching entrepreneurs (in many settings).
3. Reading what others recommend entrepreneurs should do during these calls (i.e., angel investors, venture capitalists, private equity investors).
4. Talking with others like me who get these calls.
I want to see every entrepreneur I talk to succeed. It is incredibly difficult to work as an entrepreneur and we need many more successful ones in our industry. So I am making these suggestions, because I think they will help me assist you.
What Not to Do
Before I get to my suggestions, let me suggest some things that you should avoid doing in a call with me or anyone else:
1. Talk down to me.
I may be the least intelligent person you will talk to this year. Don’t talk down to me, treat this call as an opportunity to learn how someone less knowledgeable than you views your product or service. Lawyer-entrepreneurs especially fall into this trap (the arrogant lawyer turned arrogant entrepreneur). If you have done your homework before the call, you should know enough about me to carry on a conversation at the right level.
2. Lecture me about the industry.
I want to know about the problem you are trying to solve and that should be a target customer problem. Telling me what you think the problems are in the legal industry doesn’t help either of us.
3. Try to impress me that you know it all (or have solved all the problems).
I know you don’t know it all and I know you haven’t solved all the problems. Trying to convince me otherwise is not a good use of your time. Besides, no matter what you think, you don’t know it all and you haven’t solved all the problems.
4. Name drop.
Some entrepreneurs try to impress me by telling me the names of the law firms, companies, or other advisors with whom they are talking. Don’t. First, your object should not be to impress me, but to find out what I think. Second, this isn’t a sales pitch. If you want to explain that your product has been tested in large law firms or corporations, you can do so without name dropping (“we have done beta tests in three AmLaw 100 firms to find out how our product works in that environment”).
My Suggestions to Entrepreneurs
Making these calls work well and serve a very useful purpose is not hard, but it requires a bit of planning and some discipline. Most of the work is necessary for all the calls you will do when you want to talk with people about your product or service.
1. Have a plan when you talk to me.
Most entrepreneurs do not have a plan when they call. Instead, they talk about their product followed by a “whadda ya think”? That isn’t a plan. Start by assuming that if you scheduled a 30 minute call, you only have 30 minutes. We may go longer because I have a lot of questions or thoughts, but assume that won’t be the case. Now, you need to plot out how to use those 30 minutes.
2. Don’t just jump into the pitch.
This can be a very cultural thing. For example, if you go to China and just jump into your business conversation with a stranger, you may find whoever you are talking to isn’t that impressed with you. It is better to start with a minute or two of appropriate socializing. The same is true for these calls. Spend a minute or two talking with me about us, our industry, common friends, etc. This isn’t wasted time, it is time spent building a relationship and finding some common ground.
3. Make sure you know something about me.
I get many calls because people read my blog posts or articles or hear my presentations. But, surprising to me at least, often these people have not looked up my background (I’m on LinkedIn). Without knowing who I am, they waste time on the call talking about things they would not talk about if they new my background (“I know you work at a big firm, but you would think differently if you worked in-house”). Spend one or two minutes on the call making sure you are up-to-date with my background. An easy way to do this is to ask what type of things the person you are talking to is working on. Knowing who you are talking to gives you some perspective when you think about what they say.
2. Tell me a story.
Many entrepreneurs just launch into a presentation of all the features they have built into their product. In other words, they start off by trying to impress me with their solution. I want to hear the story that connects your idea with the problem. It doesn’t need to be a long story, but it should start with the problem. I am expecting a crisp, well-defined description of the problem from the perspective of your target customer. Again, this probably takes two minutes.
3. Give me the solution in a well-run demo.
This is where many entrepreneurs go off the rails. First, they have designed a lot of features into their product (which hasn’t been released or is just being released). Often, that is a danger sign because it means they are throwing on features without getting proper feedback about what their target customers want. Second, it means they are focused on the features, not the problem. They also have problems because the demo wasn’t polished and tested before they get me on the phone. Spending time trying to get the demo to work, find the files you need, or explain half-baked features isn’t a great use of time. The demo should take about 15 minutes.
4. Run some tests.
This is another place where entrepreneurs go off the rails. Try some tests on me. One thing to test is pricing—and tell don’t ask! It is much better to say “we plan to use a per seat pricing model starting at $250 per seat and then dropping the price at 50 seats and again at 100 seats” and asking me what I think, than to ask “what would you pay”? You can test other marketing ideas, but tell me what you plan to do and ask for a reaction. Spend about three minutes on your test.
5. Have a closing.
As I said, most entrepreneurs jump right into the demo, run out of steam at some point, and then ask for a reaction. They never get to important points and they don’t know how to close. After you run your tests, have a wrap up. Yes, you should thank me for my time, but you can do more. Ask for permission to follow up with me (ask, don’t tell). Also, ask for referrals. You want to keep building your network and not asking for a referral is a lost opportunity.
When you get off the call with me, make sure you finish documenting our conversation. Whether you agree with everything or nothing that I said, make a record of it. You will forget it soon after (you are an entrepreneur and have moved on to 50 other tasks). Your interview is part of your database that helps you shape what your are doing.
Calls with target customers and people familiar with the industry should add a tremendous amount of information to help guide you in developing your product or service. If you use them properly, you will find your product becomes more useful to those who buy it, you will spend less time developing features or following useless paths, and you will have a much higher “that was time well spent” feeling. Don’t just make the calls because that is what you are supposed to do, make them with a purpose and a plan. Thank you for listening, I hope to talk with you, and good luck!
 Ash Maurya gives some nice suggestions about how to conduct solution interviews in his book, Running Lean (p.103).