Networking help, CEO edition
February 21, 2014 6:34 AM   Subscribe

I have a business idea that I would like to discuss with industry executives. How?

I have a business idea related to something that I'm very passionate about. Several smart people have told me that it is a Very Good Idea. However, the business idea is in an industry in which I have no experience or contacts. It's also an idea that to succeed would ideally need backing from, or at the very least informal support from, larger tangentially related companies in the industry.

I would like to connect with industry insiders in order to take the idea a step further. I've researched the companies in the industry and one is headquartered in my city. I want to ask the CEO of this company to coffee.

As I said earlier, I don't know anyone in the industry and am pretty sure I have no social connections with this man, so I am reasonably positive that I have no one who can vouch for me. I do have a pretty good resume, for whatever that's worth.

When I put myself in the shoes of this man, I imagine that his immediate reaction is that I'm going to try to sell him something or ask him for funding. I'm not. All I'm looking to do is to get his thoughts on whether he thinks my idea is viable; if so what my next steps should be; and if he wants, suggestions on other people to talk to.

My current plan is to call the company switchboard. I doubt they'd transfer me to him, but I do think it's possible that they could give me his secretary. I would explain a bit about who I am and ask if I could schedule coffee for a few weeks in the future.

As a backup plan, I was able to find the his email address as well. I view sending him an email as being less likely to work than the above plan. Regardless, I don't feel too hopeful about either of the two plans above succeeding. Is there something better that I should be doing instead?
posted by prunes to Work & Money (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I really don't think your current plan is likely to work. CEOs and company presidents do not generally go out for coffee with random strangers. Their time is too valuable. Other CEOs? Yes. Randoms who want feedback on business plans? No. As it is, you are--no offense--a nobody. Quite possibly a very nice and competent nobody, but still a nobody. So your first step isn't really figuring out how to get in touch with the CEO, it's figuring out how to go from being a nobody to being a somebody.

The connection you're trying to make is significantly why groups like Rotary, Lions, country clubs, chambers of commerce, small business development corporations, etc. exist: networking! What you need is either to be in a place where you might meet this guy as a natural function of your mutual attendance at an unrelated event, or membership in a common group, or an introduction from someone else you met that way. Once the connection is made, then you might have standing to make this request.

And are you really sure that the CEO is who you want to talk to? It very well may not be. Depending on the industry and business you're talking about, and the idea you've got, the CEO of a given company may have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter. CEOs of companies with even a few dozen employees often have very little to do with the day-to-day operations of their respective companies. They operate at the level of strategy, not tactics. They form and maintain relationships with business partners, interface with the board of directors, and are in many respects the main public face of the company. So depending on exactly what we're talking about here, you might actually have a much more productive conversation with a VP or department head than the CEO himself.
posted by valkyryn at 6:52 AM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

First, I'm assuming you've already hit your LinkedIn and Facebook contacts hard to make sure you're not overlooking any second- or third-degree connections to anyone senior in this field.

Second, how large is the average company in your target industry? If you're targeting small- to mid-level internet startups, then sure, the CEO may be the person to talk to. If you're targeting, say, Coke, or Simon Property Group, or something -- there is almost certainly a different C-suite or below person you should talk to instead.

If the company is medium-sized or larger, I am pretty damn sure you're not getting through to the CEO with either email or phone. They get a lot of crap. Their front-line staff are used to all sorts of wacky attempts to get through the phone shield. (My favorite: "This is the [city we have an office in] Police Department, we need to talk to the CEO immediately." Yeah, that was a fundraising call for the Police Department. NOT COOL, we do not appreciate this kind of thing, they did not get a donation.)

If you have any connections in the industry at all, even entry level folks, they would be valuable to talk to, if only to find out more about who to approach and how to make the approach.

Does your target industry have any networking events, conferences, etc.? If so, those are the places to go. Meet people, get involved, ask for introductions. You may not be able to meet the CEOs, but you can start making actual connections in the industry. (However, this will be a lot more expensive than coffee, especially for a big industry conference -- which may involve travel and many hundreds in membership and event fees.)

I hope I'm not sounding overly discouraging, because this is actually possible, given a good enough idea and luck in getting it to the right people. I actually work with someone who did just this -- they had an idea for a service they could help our company provide, they approached the upper management folks, and now they work for us full time providing this service. So it can work.
posted by pie ninja at 7:00 AM on February 21, 2014

Response by poster: For what it's worth, the industry I'm focused on health insurance. To the extent that many health insurers--including the one I identified--are owned by larger parent companies, I agree that focusing on the health insurance subsidiary would be important, so thanks for that.
posted by prunes at 7:04 AM on February 21, 2014

My current plan is to call the company switchboard. I doubt they'd transfer me to him, but I do think it's possible that they could give me his secretary. I would explain a bit about who I am and ask if I could schedule coffee for a few weeks in the future.

His assistant will not schedule him for coffee with some random person. He/she might mention your call to him to gauge his interest, or he/she might just bin your information. This is not a good plan.

As a backup plan, I was able to find the his email address as well. I view sending him an email as being less likely to work than the above plan.

He will immediately delete your email.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but without an inside connection and/or a robust network in this industry, you are unlikely to connect with this person or anyone else in a similar position.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:12 AM on February 21, 2014

I think that you do have connections and you just don't know it. Ask the most connected people you know if they have any connections to executive, or know how you could get an introduction.

It will be very important that you come across as a peer who will succeed with or without the executive and not a person with an idea and no clue how to proceed (the default regardless of the quality of you or your idea.)
posted by michaelh at 7:26 AM on February 21, 2014

How old are you and where are you located? There are volunteer organizations that match up people with business experience with people like you. Without more information I can't help you out, but I know for certain that these kinds of organizations exist.

Try targeting them instead of a miscellaneous CEO. Then THEY may have the networks into CEO-land.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:42 AM on February 21, 2014

Also when you get an audience with CEOs, make sure to have
1. your 30 second "elevator pitch"
2. business case worked out ($ required, effort, payoff)
3. target market
4. what is currently out there
5. why you are more awesome than what is currently out there

Anything less will be severely wasting their time.

Calling switchboard won't work for reasons suggested above, but never mistake the power of secretaries. They are dialed in to their executives and they know all the company currents.

Also look for events that the company is at - trade shows, conferences etc. Show up there and make friends.

Also you don't have to go to the CEO to bounce ideas... plenty of Director-level people will have the knowledge to give you your first round of feedback.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:47 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If it helps, I'm 28 and in NYC.
posted by prunes at 7:57 AM on February 21, 2014

I don't think talking with a CEO is likely the best starting point. A business development or product management person would probably be more appropriate. But then there's the whole question of how you protect your idea. What is going to stop them from saying thank you very much and walking off with your idea? What exactly are you hoping they will do if they like the you for it, or partner with you in some way, or hire you to develop it?
posted by Dansaman at 8:27 AM on February 21, 2014

Response by poster: @Dansaman

Obviously I'm not an expert but I don't envision my idea integrating well with the existing business units. It would have to be its own company/subsidiary. My ideal scenario would be for the parent company to provide me with talent and seed capital to develop the idea, with me retaining a partial interest.

A guy can dream.

And you're right, there is nothing to stop them from stealing my idea. Other than perhaps that the idea is outside their bailiwick to a certain extent, and therefore probably not worth the hassle of assuming responsibilities in addition to their current tasks. In any event, ideas are cheap and it's execution that matters. If someone stole this one I would soon enough have another.
posted by prunes at 8:47 AM on February 21, 2014

You're not going to get time with a CEO or any senior executive unless someone vouches for you and makes the introduction. Given that you don't have that connection, you need to drop this idea.

Your better bet is to try and connect with someone in their Strategy group. They will probably also not take your call/meeting, but you have a decent chance of connecting with them at an industry conference or similar event. You can try and bump into them, or you can try reaching out ahead of the conference and setting up a coffee meeting or similar. Word to the wise, if you reach out to schedule something and are rejected, don't try and then meet them randomly at the conference - that will not go well, and you'll be "that crazy stalker guy."

Having worked with as a consultant to CEOs of companies this size and larger, let me offer another piece of advice: You really need to scale back your assumptions of how this is going to go. No one is going to meet with you and then give you a team and some money. Just not how it works. And most of these companies are scared shitless of being sued by someone who comes to them with an idea and then claims that the idea was stolen. Not meeting with people in your position is a good risk management approach for them.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:07 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are likely MANY, many parties interested in innovation in the payer (health insurance) space. If your idea is even broadly in the public interest (and it could be, if it provides, say, cost saving administrative simplification for payers), then you can and should cast a wide net for your networking. One (of many!) issues with reimbursement in the United States is that it is so complex. Your idea may be brilliant, but I wonder if you have any idea who is already working on this. Do you know what CMS demonstration projects are already underway? Do you know about the ACA's MLR provision? Without understanding how third party payment works, you may not understand the real value proposition you want to pitch.

This is not to discourage you! We need ideas from all comers. But, if you do not already, you would do well to understand the landscape and the environment. So my point is, maybe you need to learn about health insurance operations. You can glean that from coffee with a number of people levels below the CEO - find any friend-of-a-friend who works for a local payer. Maybe you need to learn the nuts and bolts of current Alternative Payment Methods (APMs). Talk to a Health Policy MPH student, or someone at NY HHS. If I were you, I would start talking to folks who work in the healthcare industry broadly defined. Who do your friends and contacts know?
posted by teragram at 9:29 AM on February 21, 2014

Obviously I'm not an expert but I don't envision my idea integrating well with the existing business units. It would have to be its own company/subsidiary. My ideal scenario would be for the parent company to provide me with talent and seed capital to develop the idea, with me retaining a partial interest.

This is no reason to avoid seeking out a business development or strategic exec, both of whom could help you better formulate your idea and get a better understanding of how it might fit into the existing framework. Danasman is completely correct when he says that a CEO is not a good starting point. Pretty much everyone in the C-suite is off limits to people like you and me (nobodies).
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:00 AM on February 21, 2014

For what it's worth, the industry I'm focused on health insurance.

Let me just stop you right there. Health insurance companies are (1) enormous, (2) very heavily regulated, and (3) in the middle of undergoing an enormous transformation, the outcome of which is far from clear.

This means that there is no chance on God's green earth that any executive in a health insurance company is going to give you time of day. If we were talking about an industry where companies tended to have a hundred or fewer employees, you might be able to get somewhere, but not in health insurance. Or any other kind of insurance, for that matter.

You'll need to come at this a different way. There are places in the insurance industry where innovation is happening, but this isn't how it happens.
posted by valkyryn at 10:49 AM on February 21, 2014

If you have no experience or contacts in the health insurance industry, why on earth would a CEO listen to your idea and then give you money and people to work on your project? Without any experience or contacts in the industry, why would *you* even think that your idea was any good?

You first need to make contacts with low-level people who understand the nature of the project you're proposing. These are the people who will point out the limitations of your idea and help you improve it. They are also the people who can connect you to higher-level decision-makers who have the required budgetary authority to give you backing.

You have to do this bottom-up. Find the person whose life you'll be making easier and make them the pitch. The good news is it's easier to make lower-level contacts than higher-level contacts. CEOs are very busy and live very scheduled lives.
posted by leopard at 11:12 AM on February 21, 2014

If it helps, I'm 28 and in NYC.

Find a mentor. Get some actual domain-specific experience. Make a network.

In 7-8 years, you will be able to execute this plan.
posted by rr at 12:35 PM on February 21, 2014

Ditto on the Linkedin search to see if you can find someone to make an introduction.

Unlike some of the other comments you've received, I am going to suggest that sometimes, just somethings, a demonstration of a wee bit of gumption (also known as balls, real or imaginary) can make a positive impression and go a long way. You found his email: good, hang on to it. I'm just not thinking that, in this case, email offers the best path.

Believe it or not, a better approach might involve sending him a cover letter and an abstract of your idea in paper form. Yes, you read that correctly: a letter briefly describing why you are contacting him coupled with an abstract of your idea and followed up by a phone call a week later (i.e., you call the main line and ask for Mr. So-and-So's office). And if he or his assistant do not get back to you, you put in another call a week or so after that, and so on if necessary. Persistence is part of initiative-taking, and it can work.

If he is interested, his assistant will call or email you. If he isn't, his assistant probably will call or email you. [Note: The guy is busy, so not getting through without a few calls and a few weeks should not discourage you.]

You have nothing to lose and rather a bit to gain.

[Full disclosure: I've done this, successfully.]

If the ballsy approach is not your cup of tea, look around the company's website and see if you can find someone referred to as the "Head of Business Development" or "Vice President, Corporate Development" or something along those lines. Sometimes "business development" refers to sales or, in the non-profit world, fundraising. But what you are looking for is the person responsible for exploring business expansion opportunities through acquisitions, mergers, joint ventures, funding related start-up businesses, that sort of thing.

[Full disclosure: I did this recently for something, and have a meeting scheduled in a couple of weeks' time. This something is outside my official sphere of "expertise."]

Your age is irrelevant: you are old enough to make babies and old enough to sail off to Valhalla -- that's old enough if you have something to say or something to do.

Good luck! Also, if it works, please let us know: a successful bit of finagle is good for the collective morale!
posted by cool breeze at 2:52 PM on February 21, 2014

To elaborate a bit more on my prior response, the CEO has a very high-level job that may have very little to do with the operations of the company. It's likely that most of his or her job involves mostly being the "face" of the company -- representing the company to major business partners, including investors and key clients. There are also very high-level strategic decisions that the CEO is involved in -- where and how should the company try to grow, how should the company try to raise more capital, etc. Healthcare insurance companies are generally large multinational corporations, so there may be a number of mini-CEOs reporting in to the top dog, people in charge of different business segments or geographical regions. In turn, these people delegate authority to subordinates, who in turn delegate authority to subordinates, until you get down to the people actually doing the work. At any rate, the CEO's job does not involve telling random strangers if their ideas are viable or not -- it's mainly managing the expectations of (important) outsiders and guiding the executives at the next level. CEOs get their "creative" ideas from their board, their direct reports, and other senior executives who belong to their network.

You say that you don't think your idea would integrate well with existing business units -- it would have to be something separate. Why would a CEO be more receptive than anyone else in the company? If your proposal will help the healthcare company make money, there will be someone further down the food chain whose P&L would be improved by your idea. Focus on convincing this person instead.

Put another way, even if you *worked* at this company, and had come up with a brilliant idea based on your actual experience in the industry, you wouldn't be scheduling a meeting with the CEO to get it off the ground. You would be talking to lower-level contacts with relevant experience who could benefit from your proposal.

I can't help but feeling that not having any contacts in the industry isn't just a small roadblock that you need some help to get over. It's a huge problem! You need to figure out who can help you implement your idea. That involves building a broad low-level network. It doesn't involve going to a CEO and having him figure it out for you.
posted by leopard at 6:26 PM on February 21, 2014

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