Harvard Business Review

Avoid First-Impression Mistakes


Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 23, 2010 9:51 AM

Poor first impressions are avoidable. I'm amazed by some of the really unfortunate mistakes that people make during important first meetings, whether it's a job interview, an important pitch, or other high stakes first-time business encounters. The secret to avoiding these mistakes is to spend time preparing before the meeting.

In today's hyper-connected world, there's no excuse for not learning as much as possible about whom you are meeting and their company. It's the basic mental training you need to do before "game day." And yet people don't do it enough. If people prepped as much for an important business meeting as they did for a first date, there would be a lot more business success stories.

Last week, I was conducting interviews for a position in our firm. I asked a candidate which of our portfolio companies he liked the best, and he could not remember the name of a single company. Another candidate came in and thought we were an advertising company (we are a venture capital firm). And it's not just job seekers. Many entrepreneurs come to pitch ideas without studying in greater detail the backgrounds of the partners with whom they were meeting. It was easy to tell that, at most, they took a quick scan of our website prior, but didn't spend enough time there, or didn't focus on the right parts.

Here are some common sense things to do before any meeting:

Start with the company website and Google the person you are meeting. On the company website, I look up the person's bio but I also Google the person to get other bios or profiles on the person. With the person's bio in hand, you should lock in your mind the following facts: where they grew up, where they last worked, and where they went to school. As stupid as it sounds, make sure it is the bio of the person you are meeting; there are a lot of Chris Smith's out there and sometimes they even work within the same company!

Find an online image of the person. It is always more comfortable (not to mention easier to spot the person) when you know what he or she looks like before the meeting. I cannot tell you the psychology behind this, but I believe that the more unknowns you eliminate before a meeting, the less anxiety you'll have in the actual meeting. When I have seen the person's face, I go into a meeting feeling like I have met the person before and am more at ease. This is also helpful to do for phone calls. I remember once preparing for a call with a well known CEO of a Fortune 100 company, seeing his friendly face online ahead of time relaxed me.

Get the latest news or analysis on the company. For a public company, I'll get the latest analyst report and look up the recent stock trading price and trends. It's funny how people seem to be happier when their stock is on the rise. For private companies, I look to see if bloggers or sites such as TechCrunch have mentioned them. Finally, I do a quick scan of their profile on compete.com (or alexa.com) to get a snapshot of their traffic trend. If you are short on time, just make sure you can fill in the following blanks: "The company I am seeing does/makes _________ and it is different because _________."

Find out who is connected to the person or firm you are meeting and talk to them. Someone once said to me that, in the VC world, the best way to get a good first meeting is to be introduced to the firm. With Facebook, LinkedIn, and online school and work alumni databases, you have a pretty good shot at speaking to someone to get color on just about anyone or any company. Find someone familiar with that person or company, and ask him or her to share as much background as possible.

Go in knowing your top objectives for the meeting and the top one to two questions you would like answered. I loved it when a serial entrepreneur with whom I had a meeting said right off the bat, "What do you hope to accomplish with this meeting?" I welcomed the directness. With your top objectives and top questions in mind, also understand the expected time frame of the meeting.

Know this information but don't show off. One of the dangers of doing even a little background research is that you can come across as obsequious, i.e. a suck up. One of my partners has a great line — act stupid, win smart. Be armed with the data so that you can answer or direct the conversation appropriately; your goal is not to demonstrate what you know of the person or company but what you had in mind when you first set up the meeting.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Anthony (Tony) Tjan is CEO, Managing Partner and Founder of Cue Ball, a venture and early growth equity firm investing in the information media and consumer sectors. Tjan holds an A.B. degree from Harvard College, M.B.A from Harvard Business School and was a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. You can follow Tony Tjan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/anthonytjan

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