Fish where the fish are: tips for finding experts to help you explore your startup idea
Reaching out to someone you don’t know about your business idea may feel intimidating; however, understanding a problem or an industry from the point of view of a stranger — someone that doesn’t feel obligated to make you feel good about your idea like your family and friends do — is an important step in advancing your understanding of the opportunity. Most of us are willing to share our business idea with a family member or friend, but according to research by my Duke colleagues few of us are willing to seek input from a stranger. Perhaps it’s that we are overly conscientious and we don’t want to burden busy people. Perhaps it’s our insecurity of not wanting to feel dumb. Perhaps it’s simply that we feel we don’t have a network of experts to ask. Regardless of the reason, I encourage you to take this giant leap, as the outcome will likely surprise you.
Firstly, it’s critically important to center this effort on learning not selling. There’s two reasons for this. The first is obvious — no one, I mean no one, likes to be sold to. How many times have you hit delete or hung up the phone on someone who was trying to sell you something? Second, when you are selling, you are not learning and learning is the most important thing you can do at this early stage of your idea. By centering your goals on how you can learn more about the industry and/or the problem you are exploring, you can more authentically engage with your new contact. Additionally, a focus on listening and learning opens the aperture to hearing new problems that need solving, perhaps even bigger ones than you were envisioning, and will allow your understanding and your idea to evolve.
Secondly, fish where the fish are. Think about where experts who know the industry and problem you are trying to solve convene, both physically and virtually. There’s a group out there for everything so be creative. Below are a few ideas of where to start:
• Trade or industry organizations, both leadership & membership. Most industry groups have an industry organization that supports the interests of that group. In fact, there’s even an association for sport fishing. Most organizations publish the profiles of their leadership team and sometimes that of their members on their website, which can be a great source of ideas of who you can contact that may have the expertise you are seeking.
• Conferences and trade shows. Look for events where people will convene. I once worked on a project seeking to introduce new roofing materials into the construction industry. I didn’t know the first thing about construction, so I jumped on a plane to Chicago and spent two days talking to vendors and participants at the Chicago Build Expo, a tradeshow focused on home and commercial construction. For the price of admission, I was able to learn about what was working and what was not working in roofing materials.
• Meetups, Craigslist, and NextDoor. If your idea is for a new type of dog leash, then you should seek to talk to dog owners of all shapes, sizes, and breeds. Using any of the local convening apps, you can certainly find a relevant event or meet up near you. One quick search turned up two different dog-owner meetups this week within five miles of my house (until they were canceled for social distancing). This is a quick way to chat in a relaxed environment with people who may be experiencing the pain point you are trying to eliminate through your solution.
• LinkedIn. Many individuals have professional profiles on LinkedIn. You can improve your search for the right person to contact by filtering for geography and/or industry. Don’t hesitate to cold contact someone through LinkedIn messaging or ask for an introduction to someone through a friend.
• Company websites. Companies often list members of the leadership team on their website. Using a combination of Google searching and a bit of reverse engineering you may be able to figure out what the email format is for a specific firm, e.g. email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. A bit of sleuthing goes a long way. What’s the worst that can happen if you get it wrong? A bounce notice, which is pretty low risk.
While all of the above options are ways to try to find people who have industry expertise or deep experience with the problem you are trying to solve, don’t be hesitant to send a cold email or place a cold call (see note about sleuthing above). You’d be surprised at how many people are flattered by your request and may be willing to share a few minutes of their time in return for a latte.
In a future post, I’ll share some tips for how to write a cold email that will maximize your chances of getting a response.