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Networking

10 Tips for an Awesome Coffee Meeting

Coffee meetings are the staple of building a great network. But first, know a few of the basics like don't be late, follow up, and always respect the other person's time.


The coffee meeting is the Swiss Army knife of networking. It’s a low-risk way to meet new people, swap advice, and lay the foundation for a more substantial relationship.

If the concept of a coffee meeting is foreign to you, you only have to remember one guiding principle: never, ever waste the other person’s time. They are providing their time, their most precious resource. The good news is that the bar for coffee meetings is pretty low. Most creatives can likely tell you of meetings that started with “let’s grab coffee” and ended in an unproductive conversation.

However, you’re better than that, dear reader. Here’s how to be the best coffee meeting participant around.

— 

1. Be clear when asking for the meeting.

When you email your potential coffee meeting participant, don’t simply ask to “pick their brain” or “see if there’s any potential” in you getting to know each other. Those phrases usually show that you only have a vague idea of what you’d like to talk about. Instead, introduce yourself, show that you have specific knowledge of the person’s work, offer why you’d like to talk, and (most importantly) propose potential times. An example:

“Hey Josh,

Sean Blanda here, managing editor of 99u.com. I’ve been following your work and really enjoy your email newsletter. We’re trying to launch something similar here at 99U, and I’d like to talk to you about any advice you’d have for us.

Are you up for a coffee meeting sometime next week at the Midtown Starbucks? I’m available Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 11-2 each day. Hope to hear from you!

–Sean”

(For more on asking, read: How To Ask People for Things Via Email: An 8-Step Program

2. Do your homework.

When you meet someone, it’s normal to ask a series of biographical questions such as “What do you do? Where are you from?” That’s fine for your friend’s birthday party. It has no place at the coffee meeting. 

It’s likely the busy person you ask for coffee has some degree of notoriety and has articles, talks, and LinkedIn profile pages online that can offer more information about them. Coffee meetings are usually 30 minutes or less, so don’t waste your time talking about subjects you could easily Google. Additionally, a busy person has given their “elevator pitch” many times to press, colleagues, and others. Stand out from the crowd by moving past this base level of interaction. 

3. Never, ever, ever be late.

Any meeting is about respecting the time of the other person. Leave early. Make time for traffic. Know where you are going. Being late for a meeting you asked for is the ultimate selfish act in business. Never be late. 

4. Offer to pay.

Ask the other person what they’d like before placing your order. Then, pay for both. It was your idea to meet and grab coffee, it’s only fair that you cover the (admittedly minor) costs. If you’re a student, chances are they wont let you actually pay, but offer any way. If the person objects and wants to pay for their coffee, let them. Don’t spend more than five seconds on this interaction. 

5. You don’t have to drink coffee.

Meetings over beer are for open-ended discussion. Meetings over coffee are for getting things done. 

But even if you meet at a coffee shop, you don’t have to get coffee. More important is that whatever drink should take the same amount of time to consume as a cup of coffee. As for snacks, it’s hard to have a short conversation with your mouth full of croissants. 

6. Have one clear, specific ask.

Let’s say you and I are deciding on where to go out to dinner. I say, “I don’t know, I’m up for anything, I guess.” Frustrating, right? But if I say “I’m really in the mood for the Mexican place down the street. If you don’t like that, let’s get Thai from downtown.” Now that you can work with.

The same goes for asking. There was a reason you wanted to get coffee with the busy person, so don’t be shy in telling them point-blank how they can help. They should have a general idea as to why you’d like to meet from your email, so don’t be afraid of being direct. By accepting the meeting, they have already agreed to provide assistance, so make it as easy as possible for them. Some examples: 

Bad: “I need help finding a job”

Good: “I’m looking for an entry-level position as a junior designer at a small advertising firm like firm x, firm y, or firm z. Do you know anyone at those places?”

Bad: “Can you help me with my writing career? I’m struggling to pay the bills.”

Good: “Do you know of any literary agents looking for short young adult fiction?”

7. Take notes and follow up.

When you sit down at the table, take out a pen and a notebook. If, at any point in the conversation you say something like “I’ll send you that video.” Or they mention the person they’d like to introduce you to, write it down. I like to create two columns on the paper with the headings “My Homework” and “Their Homework.” On the top of the page I write the person’s name, company, and the date.

The moment you arrive back at your computer, make a note to follow up in a day or two. Doing it immediately can be a tad aggressive, but don’t let yourself forget. In the follow up, make good on anything you promised to send, as well as providing a gentle nudge on anything they offered. An example:

“Hey Josh, it was great to meet you, thanks for being so generous with your time. To follow up on some of the things I mentioned:

Also, you mentioned you had a contact at firm x? I’d love to speak with her, let me know if I can provide you with anything to make this easier.

Thanks again,

–Sean”

8. Offer to add value.

Throughout the conversation, keep your ears open for anything you can help out with. Many simply ask at the end of the conversation if there’s anything they can do. But the best way is to have this mindset ready during the actual conversation with anyone you speak with, coffee meeting or no. In Maximize Your Potential, master connector Sunny Bates shares the right way to approach:

“You want to do it in an authentic way. I always appreciate when people ask in a way that’s somehow embedded in the conversation rather than as an add-on at the very end. Like, ‘Oh you gave me this, and so I have to ask you.’ It’s always good to try and steer the exchange away from debt and obligation and more into the spirit of generosity.”

9. Offer to end on time.

It’s likely you agreed to meet for 15 or 30 minutes. As those times approach, even if you are in the middle of a fruitful conversation, stop and ask the person if they have to go. If they agree to keep chatting, great. If your reminder kept them on schedule, even better. Be someone who respects the time of others.

10. Communicate any outcomes.

Author Ramit Sethi calls this the “closing the loop” technique.

After you send the follow up email (see #7) set a calendar alert 2-3 weeks in the future to follow up one final time. In this second follow up you should tell the person the results of anything the suggested. Example: 

“Hey Josh, just a simple note to say that I met with Mary as you suggested, and we’re now discussing a possible freelance gig. Thanks again and let me know I can ever return the favor!”

How about you?

What tips do you have to make the most of coffee meetings?

This is the first post in a three-part series about networking.

Part 110 Tips for an Awesome Coffee Meeting
Part 2How To Ask People for Things Via Email: An 8-Step Program
Part 3The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Contacts + Building Quality Relationships

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (64)
  • Chris Finiksopoulos

    Useful. Thank you much !!

  • Bob Tabor

    This is a GREAT post. Thank you! I particularly liked the coffee vs. beer tip. Never knew that.

    … on that note …

    Any recommendations for teetotalers … we may be a minority, but some of us don’t drink alcohol for various reasons (former addiction / addictive personality, religious / moral objections, calorie counting, just don’t like the taste, etc.). I think too concretely … it took years before I realized that having a beer was not *just* having a beer, it was an opportunity to network. So, if you don’t drink alcohol, what can you do during a “have a beer” meeting? i don’t order from a bar very often … what can you order and not get weird looks. Is there a good way to get past that topic without going deeply into your reasons for not doing it?

    • Sean Blanda

      Truth is, I don’t really like coffee or tea. More often than not, I get a Cherry Coke. So, yes, get whatever makes you comfortable. The emphasis shouldn’t be on what you’re drinking but on the company.

    • Patricia

      Bob, there’s no need to go into any details. Order a cuppa coffee at the bar if that’s what you want; as winter approaches, no one will question you asking for a warm drink. And in the summer time ask for something that’s a thirst quencher–soda, diet soda, Remember, it’s not about what you order. If you don’t make a big deal about it, no one else will.

    • Kevin S

      I order coffee, iced coffee, or cola. If anybody asks, i joke that “with four kids, caffeine is my drug of choice” and move on with the conversation. That’s always covered it for me.

  • Doug Naegele

    If I ask someone to make an intro for me, I immediately offer to write 3-4 line email (with relevant content) that they can forward to the desired person. Not only does it make it really easy for my friend, it allows me to frame the communication to the third party. Great for everyone.

  • Mitzi

    Great tips, looking forward to read wednesday’s tips!

  • E-180

    Amazing etiquette guide! We’ll recommend it to our members at http://www.e-180.com.

  • Matthew Jarsky

    The second paragraph of item 2 uses the word “notoriety” which means “the state of being famous or well known for some bad quality or deed.” I don’t think that’s what the author intends. (It can be helpful to remember that “notoriety” is the noun form of “notorious”.)

  • ruthenium66

    Perfectly timed post — thanks so much! Would recommend checking spelling and grammar of e-mail to coffee datee first, though. Your sample e-mail contains a “her an I” and the dreaded comma splice–two complete sentences divided by a comma–use a colon or semi-colon instead. (Feel free to fix and edit this post down to the first 6 words.)

  • http://www.annepeterson.com/ Anne Peterson

    Appreciated all the practical suggestions. It also helped to see your examples of the less than favorable options. Thank you.

  • http://www.WeiserMazars.com/ Fred Kaplan

    Great points, Sean. I like to follow the adage, “Be an asset, not an aquaintance.” Whether I am the invitee or the invited, I try to accutely listen for opportunities to help so I can add value to their business world. “Give now to get later.”

  • samutne

    Great post, thanks Sean. I run an app called Postography that lets people send real paper postcards from their phones. I got an email the other day I think is relevant to your #7. The user said he has a lot of coffee meetings and generally sends an email follow up but has recently started using the app to send a postcard with his logo or a picture of a cup of coffee. He said it works well because it naturally takes a few days to arrive and stands out nicely. There is something unique about a card in the mail and makes a good impression. Just figured I’d pass this along. Thanks again.

    • brian

      this is a really good idea, thanks samutne!

      • samutne

        Of course! Thanks Brian.

    • CathyS

      Were you on Shark Tank with your postcard idea?

      • samutne

        Hi CathyS, No, That was a different app, PCOTR. They are very similar but I would say the main differences are that our postcards try to look much more like traditional postcards with minimal branding and a real stamp. Theirs are highly branded and also laminated and very glossy. The biggest difference is that their gloss makes their cards non-recyclable whereas ours are a matte finish not only recyclable but also printed on recycled paper using veggie inks and renewable energy. Plus we plant a tree for every 20 cards sent. Ours are far more sustainable. It’s just a very different aesthetic and sentiment.

      • http://curvesnangles.wordpress.com/ Karen J

        Sounds great, samutne!
        Another practical plus for matte paper: it can be written on easily. The recipient can make notes about the meeting right on the card.

      • samutne

        Indeed. Thanks Karen!

    • Susan McHugh

      Great idea – I am going to check this out. I’m planning my daughter’s wedding and so far there are multiple occurrences of people graciously giving their opinion or help and I’d like to thank them spontaneously. Rather than the typical thank you note (ho hum) this seems great! Going to check it out and also pass it on to our CEO who likes to send postcards.

      • samutne

        Thanks Susan! Congrats to your daughter. I’m getting married in January. We did letterpress for our invites but it was perfect for a casual save-the-date. We’re currently featured in Martha Stewart weddings as a good way to send save-the-dates and thank you’s. Please do let us know how you like it.

    • Susan McHugh

      p.s. always put a link to your site, unless it is not allowed by the publication.

      • samutne

        Oh, and http://www.postography.com. Thanks!

      • Beverly Shepard

        how much i the app? i didn’t see the cost on the postography.com site.

      • samutne

        Hi Beverly, sorry for the delay. They’re $1.29 to US addresses if you buy them individually. Buying in bulk gets them down to 99¢ per card.

    • Kathryn Caywood

      What a cool idea! Thanks for sharing that!

      • samutne

        Of course.

  • Leanne Reed

    All of your points are great and I work with my Account Executives on all of them. The one thing I am constantly reminding them is to set the next appointment before you leave.

  • dersurhodes

    Fantastic article. Things we think about but seeing them written out very clearly, makes complete sense. Thank you!

  • Jane Pellicciotto

    This is such a tricky issue. For many people, a coffee meeting might be the beginning of a new client relationship. Getting to know someone under casual circumstances without the pressure of a looming deadline has its appeal. But more often than not, people who ask to pick your brain want to meet at their convenience, won’t be specific via email about what they need and then drop the request when you try to get more information. These are seasoned professionals, not young designers.

    I think we’re in a time when, because so much is free, people value your time less and less, even as ideas and advice are more highly valued. The above advice is great, especially being specific about what you are looking for *before* you set a time to meet. That helps the person being asked to decide if they’re the right person to help you. I would even offer to take whatever advice they’re willing to give over email or a Skype session. It shows that you respect their time.

  • http://www.jodymaberry.com/ Jody Maberry

    I appreciate item #5. I do not drink coffee. So I invite people to a coffee meeting and never order coffee. It is good to know consumption time is the key. Hot chocolate or tea should work just fine.

  • Maria Morgan

    Good stuff here. Thanks for the tips!

  • Jasmine Liska

    The word “ask” as a noun, used frequently or not, is ridiculous. In my career, people expect me to use English properly; don’t people have the same expectation of you?

    • Sasha

      It’s called a Type B nominalization.🙂 English can be tricky, especially American-English (see: New Oxford American Dictionary, where it is listed as a noun as well). The NY Times did a great piece on it: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/30/those-irritating-verbs-as-nouns/

      • Jasmine Liska

        I’m well aware, and, to quote Mr Hitchings, “the ask” is “aesthetically unpleasant.”

      • Sasha

        Love Henry Hitchings! I personally don’t think American publications should use British grammar (color vs. colour, etc.) though. Just a matter of style preference.

      • http://terakristen.com/ Tera Kristen

        Personally, I’m very pleased with the evolution of language in my lifetime. There is nothing “aesthetically unpleasant” about ‘bootylicious.’

  • John M III

    I believe that it is the human touch that makes the difference, and in our current culture that can get lost. The well thought out and respectful touch is the most productive and also the most memorable. Your article does a great job of defining how to do that. Well done!

  • Shelley

    Great article – thanks!

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  • Nishant

    this is great, I think a lot of people overlook some of the finer things mentioned in this article! thanks again!

  • Julie Kim

    Great article!

  • Trevor Corbin

    I think Jerry Seinfeld would disagree with point number 5. See: Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with guest Larry David (on youtube)🙂

  • Marian Majik

    You’ve put together really useful advices. Thank you. I have to start with reminders…

  • Leefrancis7

    Great article. I’ve have used Costa instead of Starbucks though🙂

  • Beverly Shepard

    Awesome! You’re right. A SHARP Swiss Army knife.

  • Martin M

    Thanks, Sean, and a question for you: Would it be (in)appropriate to send a link to this article when someone asks to meet me for coffee, if they don’t articulate why they want to meet?

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