You've finally got a meeting with the person who should be your largest customer. Make sure you don't blow it.
After working your contact list for months, you’ve finally got the right introduction to the right person at your top customer prospect. It’s time for The Meeting.
First, pat yourself on the back. Meetings—with the right people—aren’t easy to come by. Now, think about your own meetings with potential partners and vendors. Do you want to spend time with someone who knows about your company and has thought about your challenges? Or do you want to face someone who did a quick Google search on their smartphone during the elevator ride to your office?
In the age of the Google search, it is so much easier to find information on people and companies. The curse of this, of course, is that it can make us lazy. We figure we can do it at the last minute. Don’t. Take a cue from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. Here’s how.
Research the Company The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (www.sec.gov) is your friend. Use their EDGAR database to search (for free!) all kinds of corporate financial information for public companies. Annual and quarterly reports give you the details of a company’s financial performance, of course, but they’re also full of information about what is happening at a company and what a company’s priorities are.
For firms gearing up to go public, the S-1 filing is a treasure trove of information that becomes available before the IPO. It contains a laundry list of what the company perceives to be its risks. Think about how you can help mitigate those.
It is a little more challenging to research private companies, since there isn’t much in the public domain. I do like to look for a private company’s Form D on the SEC website, which is filed when a company sells securities. You may be able to see who the investors are, how much has been invested, and whether the money was funded with equity or convertible debt. This can give you some insight into a company’s cash runway if they are in an early stage of development.
Research the People. Thank goodness for LinkedIn! Researching people has become much easier. But don’t stop there. Do a Google search to pull up bios that come from other sources. Go to the Corporate Governance page (often under Investor Relations) of a public company to find the management team and the board of directors. Familiarize yourself with the players, where they come from, and what their interests are, since all that colors the culture of the company.
For private companies, look at the management team and the investors, which may include representatives from venture capital firms. Again, dig in to understand the areas of expertise and interests of the people who drive the company. Be sure to look at news items on a company’s website or in a Google search to get an idea of who’s behind the most current initiatives.
Prepare to Listen One of the most important things to do in the meeting is to stop talking and listen! Proper preparation tells you exactly what to listen for, which makes it easier to pick up on important information and act on it. Strong preparation and the ability to act on an opportunity often get mistaken for luck. Preparation and execution is just that. Luck is something else.
Set an Agenda By setting an agenda, you force yourself to think about the outcome you want from the meeting. This already improves the chances that the meeting will be useful. Your host may set the agenda, or you may set it and ask if they are comfortable with it. This is your host’s chance to insert anything that might be missing. You may do this prior to the meeting or at the very beginning. Be sure to have everyone introduce themselves and their company at the outset.
What if They Come to You? Sometimes the meeting is at your place. Remember, visual impressions are strong and lasting, so it’s important to clean up areas that your guests may see. Maybe that’s only a conference room and the bathrooms. But maybe your guests want the grand tour, and will use it to decide whether you can be trusted to build products. Basic cleaning is a must. Empty all the trash baskets. Clean white boards so information from other meetings doesn’t linger, or it’ll look like you’re sloppy with proprietary information. In a production facility or development lab, all cabinets and drawers should be labeled. Everything should look tidy. Safety items such as goggles or gloves should be prominent. Inventory should be clearly segregated from other parts.
What to Wear? See my previous column on dressing to impress at a start-up. Dressing appropriately is not just for formal interviews!
Coming prepared and with an agenda communicates to your host that you value their time, right up front. It’s the best way to start. Coming unprepared, or frantically doing a last minute search on your smartphone, conveys just the opposite. It’s harder to be lucky that way.