My Brain Is Not For Picking

I regularly receive emails from students and young entrepreneurs that say something like:

“I’m a student at [university of wherever] working on a startup / want to work at a startup. Can I pick your brain over coffee?”

Putting aside that I dislike coffee, “picking my brain” is a sign that you don’t really know what you want and we will spend the entire meeting just trying to find value for being there. Getting things into my brain took a lot of time and effort, so you need to show me why I should spend my valuable time letting you poke around.

In most cases, I can help you with a quick email response before we commit to a longer engagement.

To write requests that land a response, you need to address two questions:

1. Why should this person help me?

2. Am I making it easy for this person to help me?


Here are tips, and tough love, on how you can answer those two questions:

Don’t be boring. You are boring until proven otherwise (especially if you are a student). This is a good time to think about crafting a personal elevator pitch to set your self apart. Keep it short, I don’t need your life backstory.

Let’s use an example I hear often, “Hi Spencer, [long irrelevant backstory] and that’s why I’m thinking about working for a social impact company. Can you recommend some companies?”

Contrast that first sentence with, “I’m passionate about eliminating systemic poverty through financial access. I’m curious about domestic opportunities related to micro-lending and education.” This is a strong personal elevator pitch that gives me a good sense of what you are about. My brain neurons say, “Ah! we know someone/something about this specific topic!”

If you are asking for help on a project, then share that project with me. I love to hear about your self-directed learning and your side projects. I want to see resourcefulness, imagination, and some real work, not just concepts. Keep your pitch brief and share a link where I can dig further on my own.


What do you want from me? Be specific. The more specific you are, the easier it is for me to respond quickly. Let’s continue with our example, “Can you recommend some companies?”

This question falls into the category of broad recommendations like general feedback, or help in anyway you can. It also feels lazy. Show me you have already done some work to try and help yourself. I’m not here to do the work for you. It is ok to say you are stuck after trying something on your own. Here is a full revision of our example:

“Hi Spencer, I’m Jane.
Your blog post on learning resources was super helpful! I use Rework for discovering social impact companies and thought it might be a nice addition to your list.
I’m passionate about eliminating systemic poverty through financial access. I’m curious about domestic opportunities in startup companies related to micro-lending and education, but I’m hitting a wall on finding companies in Austin.
Can you give me one new lead for my Austin hunt?”

Jane shared a useful resource for my blog and she provided a short elevator pitch. Jane did her homework and knows that I provide career hunting advice and that I live in Austin so I might have a valuable lead for her search. Jane’s email is easy to respond to.

“Jane, glad you found the learning resources helpful. Thanks for the tip! For new leads, check out the companies at Center61 and my Guide to Austin Startup Scene”.

Additional tips:

1. Keep it short, but do not write one paragraph. Break up your sentences like Jane did above.

2. If you do not receive a response in 48 hours, email again. Try for a third time if you have to. If you can’t get through on three tries, then try a new strategy. Find your contact on LinkedIn or Twitter.

3. Say thank you as soon as possible. A thank you earns you a future response. If you land an in-person meeting, consider mailing a thank-you note in addition to your email. A physical note will arrive a few days after your encounter and will create a nice reminder of who you are.

4. Report back on how you used the advice you were given. What was helpful? What did you learn? Mentors like doers. Sharing what you did will earn you a future response.

5. If you are introduced to someone, try to be the first to respond. In your opening sentence, thank the person who made the introduction and move them to bcc. For example, “Jane, thanks for introducing me to John. Moving you to bcc.” If you want to make an introduction, please first ask both parties.

TL;DR Show why I should help you (don’t be boring). Make it easy for me to do so (be specific). Keep it brief.

Got email peeves, etiquette, or tips on getting a response? Share in a response.


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