How Not to Pick Someone's Brain

It’s spring, things are going well, I love startups, and I am the kind of person who would usually write a how-to post rather than one full of nasty anti-suggestions. But there are ways for a determined entrepreneur to counteract all this positivity, and many of them have been demonstrated in the course of the “picking your brain” calls I’ve been fielding recently.

There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to people whose advice you think might be relevant to your new plan or fledgling startup. Finding like-minded people and possible mentors is a wonderful idea, and having them agree to a call or meeting is a fantastic opportunity. So, when that chance next comes your way, don't do any of this…

Withhold all information about your concept beforehand. Your new contact may or may not take the time to look you up ahead of time, but don’t make it impossible for them to do so if they wish. If you truly believe your idea is too fragile to describe in public, at least send a brief summary when you confirm the call or meeting -- and then read Ethan Austin's dead-on post about stealth and startups.

Make them run the conversation. If your new contact is someone whose advice you think will be valuable, the chances are good that you already know something about them, their company, their background, etc. — and, if you don’t, your research into those avenues should be done before you talk. Don’t start by asking them to tell you how they got where they are, describe the launch of their company, etc. They’ll supply those details as the conversation warrants, and they didn’t agree to talk to you because they wanted to tell their own story for the nth time.

Hide your enthusiasm. There are a lot of things your new contact could be doing rather than talking to you. Make it clear you’re excited not only about your idea, but about the chance to discuss it with them.

Disappear. If your new contact asks you to follow up with them, do it. They respected your request enough to agree to the conversation; respect their advice, and their interest, enough to keep it going if they want you to.

Stacy Ratner is the founder of Open Books, a nonprofit social venture that collects used books and sells them in its award-winning, rainbow-hued, “literary Wonka Wonderworld” River North store to support literacy programs for 4,000 students each year. Previously, she spent a decade as a for-profit serial entrepreneur and helped take 3 startup companies from idea through a combined total of $30 million in committed venture funding. On late nights and weekends, Stacy letterboxes, makes quilts, writes unpublishable novels (nine so far), and reads murder mysteries.

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