You’re the co-founder of a start-up that you and your buddies put together a few months back. You’ve got a few customers and partners, and overall you’re feeling pretty good about where you’re headed — but it’s still early.
Recently, a major tech company found out about you and floated the idea of an acquisition. Tomorrow, you’re flying out to the Valley for the first meeting.
If you’re like many of the co-founders I know, you haven’t slept in days. You can’t stop thinking about all the ways it could go wrong, all the ways you could fuck it up, and how you’ll lose everything when you do.
What if I told you that you only had to accomplish one thing during that first meeting, and that thing is not selling your company? What if your only goal was to, wait for it, get another meeting? You’d feel better, right?
So here ya go: The purpose of the first meeting is to get to the second meeting.
Ahhh. Sigh of relief.
And if you step back and think about it, it makes sense.
First of all, an acquisition meeting is nothing but upside opportunity. No matter what, your business will still exist afterward. No matter how badly it goes, they can’t shut you down. So quit panicking because it’s not a good look.
Beyond that, recognize that it’s next to impossible to say something in the first meeting that will make a potential buyer pull out the checkbook before you get up from the table. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the power imbalance, especially if you’re talking to Google or Facebook (and sometimes you are), but at the end of the day, this is just another sales meeting. Which, if you’re a good CEO, you already know how to do.
Be smart and personable. Gauge their interest. Focus on what drove you to launch your company and what you’ve learned. It’s great if they have domain expertise, because you can have a conversation with them and ask them questions. But if not, educate them. Explain foundational concepts. Explain the market opportunity. Do it all without saying, “buy my company.” You’ll know if they’re interested simply based on how much they talk.
Your goal in this first meeting is not to have your counterparts think “dang, we have to acquire them right now” but “wow, this is a really thoughtful person who I can see working with on a regular basis.” The barrier to the former is insane. The bar for the latter is simply being yourself and taking the occasional breath so that the other person has an opportunity to speak.
This works for more than just acquisitions. It works for fundraising. Hiring too. I even use this concept when talking with reporters and industry influencers — I focus on building relationships and not on one-off asks. My first conversation with a magazine writer might not even be about my company, but about another one in which I think they’d be interested. If I’m helpful, they’ll keep me in their contact list for future story ideas and take my phone call when I do have something to pitch.
Even pitch nights, where it seems like you get one shot to hook potential investors, those investors aren’t sitting with their checkbooks open on their laps. Get them interested in a second conversation, and stop worrying about how you can get them to make a decision in the five to seven minutes you’re on stage (hint: you can’t). The process that works day in and day out is a long game, and it’s time to stop thinking about it in terms of hours and start thinking about it in terms of months.
Here’s a story about how NOT to do this:
A few years ago, a friend at Google reached out to me and asked me to pitch for Area 120, Google’s internal incubator. For the next two weeks, I freaked out about what ideas I would pitch, and went with something I’ve thought about for over a decade, a complete re-invention of email.
I got to the office in San Francisco, sat down in a room with a few other people, and launched right into my monologue about how email is broken and how I would fix it. As I said, I have thought about this for A. Really. Long. Time. and I thought I nailed it. Then I asked about the other people in the room. One was the senior product owner at Google Inbox. The second was Inbox’s CTO. And both of them disagreed with everything I had just said. Suffice to say, I did not get a second meeting.
Look, I still think I’m right. But because I thought of it only as a pitch, as a one-time shot, that was all I got. Looking back, I think of all the questions I should have asked, starting with “So, what do you guys do?” Rather than having a collaborative conversation which could have been highly productive, I fell flat on my face.
Don’t be like me. Have a conversation. Stop trying to convince them of anything, and get them to agree you’re working on a huge opportunity. Be a person they want to have around the office some more. Get a second meeting. And you’re golden.