Photo: Flickr / fensterbme
It’s Wednesday late afternoon. I’m aboard Delta flight 1833 from Cincinnati (actually, Northern Kentucky for what it’s worth) to Los Angeles.I had a very enjoyable day in Cincinnati meeting many local entrepreneurs, angels and accelerators. I was here to see one of our LPs (limited partners are the people who invest money in VC funds) called Fort Washington.
They’ve been a long-term investor in our fund – GRP Partners – and it was important to me to spend time with them in their home market and meet the people with whom they deal locally.
We had lunch at a restaurant that sits atop the old Riverfront Stadium where the Cincinnati Reds played ball when I was a kid and the site where Pete Rose broke the record for lifetime hits. I felt nostalgic. They have a marker where first base was and where Pete Rose hit his record-breaking 4,192nd hit. If I wasn’t on a flight I would post the pic I took but when I land I’ll put it on Instagram.
I met with Dave Knox whom I had previously met when he worked at P&G in marketing. He is now involved with an accelerator called Brandery in Cincinnati who focuses on helping local startups get off the ground and figure out how to get access to the huge brand dollars unlocked by working with big ad agencies and with brands directly.
I met with local seed fund investors like Mike Venerable who is the MD of CincyTech (a local seed stage fund), Tony Shipley who is a director of Queen City Angels as well as some local entrepreneurs including Blake Shipley of CoupSmart and Sameer Mungur of ZipScene.
It’s easy to discount Cincy – it’s a “flyover state.” And those in CA and NY are quick to dismiss that which doesn’t feel like home. But I found resonance in meeting the local investors and startups. They spoke of a need to prove out revenues in order to raise capital and a stark contrast to many Silicon Valley firms whose goal is user numbers over revenues. In that sense it felt very LA.
And when I heard them speak of how they organise as angels (pools of capital – up to $2m per deal) and accelerators (direct access to large Fortune 100 companies) I must admit it sounded as sophisticated as what we’re trying to achieve in LA.
Already this week I’ve been in Dallas, Austin, Houston, Dayton and as I mentioned Cincinnati. It’s Wedneday. I have a full calendar in LA Thurs/Friday and then I spend Tues-Friday of next week in the Bay Area.
I mention this for a reason.
In the age of Skype, email, cheap telephony and collaboration tools it’s all too easy to sit in your office and connect with people remotely. It’s even easy to justify it to yourself, “it’s such a productivity drain to spend time on the road and I can accomplish everything I need using modern tools.”
Yeah, that’s tempting.
I hate travel, too. I have two little boys and a wife I adore. I hate being away from them. I hate crappy hotels. I hate flying. I detest airports. I’m sick of rental cars. I eat out too much. I’m sleep deprived. My ride picked me up this morning at 3.30am California time. I have bags under my eyes (or so everybody always tells me).
Still. You can’t make any impact in business without shaking hands and kissing babies. You need to be out amongst people. You need to press the flesh. On the first level it’s how you learn. It’s how you avoid your local echo chamber. It’s how you gain customer insights. All of that matters.
But the deeper point is that all business is built upon human relationships. I’ve built my career by 20+ years of looking people in the eyes, making promises and then delivering against what I said I would do. You don’t build trust, friendship and human bonds on Skype.
The interesting thing about pressing the flesh is that once you’ve broken bread with people and spent personal time getting to know them it is then much easier to build long-term relationships through email, phone, Twitter, Skype and the like. There is a certain trust that exists and a certain leeway granted to you since they really “know you.” I believe in the Blink perspective where we as humans are really programmed to know whether to trust people by the short amounts of time we spend in person with them.
But you can’t meet once and have infinite chemistry. Time weakens bonds in the way that your high school friends whom you haven’t seen in years seem like distant friends until you reconnect in person and remember why it was you were so tight in the first place (or not).
Relationships have elasticity. They stretch over time and you need to replenish their strength. You do need to travel. You do need to rekindle bonds. You need to look into eyes.
You need to shake hands and kiss babies. It’s part of being a leader.
Why am I going off on this tangent?
I was in Houston on Monday night. I was spending the evening eating room service so that I could meet with a potential investor for my fund the next morning. We’re a couple of months away from closing our 4th fund as has already been reported in the press.
I could have easily done a phone call. Or a Skype. Or relied upon the fact that he had already met my three partners. But he was very important to me. I wanted to meet in person.
And as I was out of town it was a great chance to attempt to get caught up on email. I received a note from a friend who was raising a seed round. He asked me for an intro to an investor friend of mine. I wrote to my friend asking if the intro was OK. He said yes.
So I did the intro.
The founder whom I intro’d wrote in the email to the investor, “let me know if you’d like to set up a phone call or we could meet in person.”
I was bcc’d.
I wrote back to the founder (in private), “no fucking way. There’s no chance you’re doing a phone call. You asked me for an introduction. I was happy to do so because I believe in you. Now get your arse on the road and go meet them in person. Don’t give them an easy out to do it as a quick call.”
I know the potential seed investor wasn’t bothered by a call. In fact, it’s probably easier. You commit less time and feel less obligated – most people hate to make other people travel. It makes you feel obligated.
But a phone call for a first meeting is SO under optimised. You MUST be there in person. It’s a cost of doing business. It’s a learning process. It’s how you build long-term relationships.
You need to shake hands and kiss babies.
Yes, there is inefficiency to physical travel. Get over it or keep your day job. Plan your travel and see multiple people and companies while you’re there.
“But, Mark, the [investor, biz dev parter, customer, M&A buyer] told me a telephone call would be fine for the first meeting!”
OF COURSE! They don’t want to feel obligated. If they feel they put you out then they feel they owe you something. Of course they don’t. They shouldn’t. But it’s human nature. We’re reciprocity machines.
So I never make travel a big deal. Of course I’ll be in Austin next week. I need to be there anyways. I travel there regularly. Not a problem. Hey, I already need to go to Dallas anyways so it’s no skin off my nose to come see you.
I went even further when I was an entrepreneur. If I had really important clients I would call them and say, “I need to be in Chicago in 4 weeks. Which date that week would be best for you?”
Of course I needed to be in Chicago to meet THEM but I didn’t word it that way. If they couldn’t do that week then I would change my trip to the following week.
Ok, so this is starting to feel like a rant. I don’t mean it that way. I mean this as a soft kick in the arse not to take the easy route. Not to be lazy. Not to succumb to the false argument that Skype is good enough (it is, of course, once you have a relationship).
So get out there. Stare people in the eyeballs. Make commitments that you know you will keep. Shake hands. Press flesh. Kiss babies. Find out how local markets differ from yours. Win over customers. Raise cash more easily.
And stop buying into conventional wisdom. It’s true that distance has collapsed. But it’s also true that humans are programmed to judge other people by being able to meet them directly.
I promise it will be enriching to your experiences.
And remember – “Business travel is sexy. To those who never do it.” For the rest of us, it’s a necessary process to become successful.
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