I “do coffee” a lot these days. It’s an invaluable way to form relationships, absorb new ways of thinking, and learn things that can’t be published. But, it can also be a total waste of time.

Here’s how to ask for coffees, how to make sure it isn’t a waste of time, and how to carry the conversation forward when you’re done.

First, it’s important to consider your audience. I primarily get coffee with three groups of people, and use different approaches for each of them:

  • PMs-to-be (potential Product Managers)
  • Current PMs
  • Founders and investors


PMs-to-Be

Within two years’ time I moved from managing an art gallery in NYC to product management at a large tech company. Because I’ve written publicly about this process and what I’ve learned, many aspiring product managers reach out for advice.

I’m happy to chat, but I look for coffee-askers to do at least two of the following six things:


1. Make it Clear How Coffee With Me Will Help You

While I may have a lot to offer on a variety of topics, I have no idea what you need or are looking for. If you also don’t know, the coffee will be a waste of both our time.


2. Put in Some Effort

Did you do your homework?

“I saw your piece about A/B testing, and wanted to learn more” is OK, but this is better: “I saw your piece about A/B testing, and I know Yammer has always been really data-motivated—I would love to learn more about how your team approaches data-driven development.” Ringer!


3. Demonstrate You Have Something to Contribute

Not mandatory, but if someone is looking for my advice and has something to teach me, I’m really interested in speaking with that person.


4. Phrase Your Ask in a Unique Way

When I see wording that’s slightly left-of-center, I usually take that as a proxy for this person’s ability to have original thoughts.


5. Make it All Concise

This is one of the best indicators that our time will be well-spent, efficient, and worthwhile for all.


6. Clarify if You’re Underrepresented in Some Way

Immigrant? Non-technical background? Woman in tech? If you’re underrepresented in some way and it’s not obvious, point it out (tactfully). The whole industry benefits from more diversity of background and mindset, and I’m always interested in helping you out!


Location

Because I’m primarily giving the help, I expect these coffees to be within a block of where I work.


Current PMs

A coffee date with another PM is a great way to learn best practices, good benchmarks, and new mental models.

These meetings tend to be beautifully reciprocal. At the meeting, I also make a point of asking what kinds of challenges he or she is facing, so I can contribute something if I’m able to. Or, I’ll offer explicit access to information in the future if he or she comes up with questions later.

Here are my two suggestions for requesting coffee with someone in a similar position to you:


1. Specify How This Coffee Will Be Meaningful for You

I try to call out a specific feature or process in his or her organization that I’ve noticed and would like to learn from.


2. Demonstrate That You’re Happy to Share With Her

Either mention something specific you think she’d be interested in, or use vague phrasing to indicate you’re expecting to give information as well.


Location

Because these are generally equally beneficial, these coffees usually happen somewhere between our respective offices. However, whoever asks for the coffee will travel further to the other person.


Founders or Investors

I have less to offer founders and investors, but that doesn’t mean I go in empty handed.

With founders, I like to mention various things at other companies that I’ve seen work well—they are often working on these things and may not think to ask me. I’ll also ask if there’s anything I can help them with, now or in the future.

With investors, I ask what type of people they are looking to connect with. I’ve found this offer resonates really well with them. Since I put energy into getting to know a variety of people and love connecting, I’m really well positioned to do this.

Coffee with an investor or founder is basically the inverse of me getting coffee with an aspiring PM, though not quite as direct since I’m not actively trying to be a founder (right now). I generally try to emulate what I like to see when those aspiring PMs ask me for coffee, and I’ve found these two things work particularly well:


1. Offer Him Something to Think About

Thanks to the current trend in VCs-as-content-marketers, investors tend to have a lot of public thoughts available. For a founder, check the company’s blog or twitter account to see what’s on his mind. In all cases, it’s easy to add something on topics that are relevant to his interests—as long as you give it some thought.


2. Indicate at Least One Tangible Thing You’re Looking to Gain

Ideally, point out something he or she is actively dealing with or writing about. An intriguing product update you might try, a trend he is digging into that affects your roadmap, a challenge you’re working on that her team or portfolio has recently addressed.

People want to help. But they want to make sure their help will be used well.


Location

Because of the power dynamics here, I always expect to do these coffees at, or next to, the founder or investor’s office.


Conclusion

In every instance, you’ll notice the same trend in my thought process.

In priority order:

  1. What do they need that I’m uniquely positioned to offer.
  2. What do I need that they are uniquely positioned to offer.

Once you’ve figured that out, signal the value-add you expect to give or receive in advance, realize it over coffee, and leave the door open for future benefit.



This article was originally published on Medium. It has been republished here with permission.


Photo of woman with coffee courtesy of Alistair Berg/Getty Images.