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Sales for Startups – Tips and Pitfalls with Warm Intros


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I recently had a conversation with a friend about warm introductions. He was lamenting the fact that many warm intros never seemed to pan out. That is not to say that he expected every warm intro would become an instant sale but that most warm intros were more cool than resoundingly enthusiastic or even lukewarm.

What exactly is a warm introduction? Some see it as an introduction by a mutual acquaintance. However, that merely defines the mechanics, glossing over the underlying pretext and human psychology wrapped in an intro. Yes, it is a transaction, but there is much more to it. At a deeper level, it is a referral and a personal endorsement where one person is vouching for the credibility of another.

In this sense, warm intros are a type of relationship currency. The person facilitating the introduction is putting their own social capital on the line on behalf of someone. That is why such introductions are much more potent and valuable than reaching out to someone cold. When a person you do not know reaches out to you, the default behavior is defensiveness and avoidance. There is no history or background to go on, so there is little incentive to respond and engage the request. While the connection could be worthwhile, it could also turn out to be worthless, and people do not want to be placed in an uncomfortable obligation.

A warm introduction cuts through the trust gap. Because the intro comes through a trusted person that vouches for the person and the request, there is an openness to respond. Thus, connecting through a warm introduction greatly increases one’s chances of getting the attention of someone. That is why they are so fundamentally important in sales, fund raising and recruiting: they overcome the barriers to reaching someone of importance.

While warm introductions can be successful, they are not immune to human stupidity. By stupidity, I mean those folks who do not understand the underlying social contract of introductions. Rule one is do not embarrass the person making the referral. I called it relationship currency for a reason because the metaphor is an appropriate one. The person who vouches for you gains or loses credibility based on the outcome of the introduction, which could impact other aspects of the relationship. In other words, do not make an ass of yourself because not only does it affect you, but it also reflects directly on the referrer. The formula for success here is to take nothing for granted, give a convincing reason why someone should introduce you and be well prepared when the introduction is made.

However, that was not the issue with my friend who I mentioned at the start of this article. He is about the most thoughtful entrepreneur I know and has plenty of business experience. For him however, the warm introductions simply did not work out as well as expected, and in our conversation it suddenly occurred to me why. It comes down to the Law of Obligations.

The Law of Obligations states that if you received an offer, you are committed to accept and follow through. There are powerful social and psychological motivations that essentially force our hand when we receive something, even something we do not want. First, we are programmed to respond. That is why blinking cell phone lights and email notifications are so effective. They force us to take notice and react in some manner. Second, depending on the level of relationship, you are pretty much forced to accept the introduction. The weaker the relationship, the less obligation there is, but for stronger relationships, the harder it is to avoid an incoming intro. Sure, you can blow off the intro, but that risks your own social capital and a loss of face.

In this light, most warm intros are seen as obligations, not willing interest. That is one of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make with introductions, assuming that the audience is a willing one. Getting the meeting is actually not the hard part; it is convincing the person you are meeting with that you are not wasting his/her time. That is why I mentioned taking nothing for granted because while an introduction is helpful, you have neither a relationship nor trust coming in. You are on borrowed time off the float of someone else’s word. You have to earn the time that is being invested by the other party to listen to your pitch.

How do you go from obligation to interest?

  • Make sure the introduction is highly relevant to the person you wish to meet and that the request is concise. If there is a long run up or a lot of rambling, people tune out. If the request is not relevant, then people will be polite but unresponsive. So make sure you do your homework first and avoid the blanket, impersonal mass introduction messages.
  • Do not assume that strong relationships are better than weaker ones for introductions. Strong relationships are conflated with social obligation. It is the weak ties, however, where more impactful introductions can occur because there is less obligation and more genuine interest in the request. You may get less intro requests accepted, but that is a positive development. It may seem counterintuitive, but your objective is not based on percentage number of accepted intros; it is the number of quality conversations.
  • Resist the urge to “seal the deal.” It is best to leave the meeting not with takeaways or next steps, but with a simple ask to contact the person again at a later date. If you made a convincing case, then there is little reason for the hard sell. They will contact you in that case.
  • Keep the channel open. Follow up the conversation with a thank you message, and if you got the okay to stay in contact, reach out every so often when it is relevant. Just be careful not to overdo it or to send trivial “marketing” emails. The outreach has to be personal and genuine and not all about yourself.
  • To the folks forwarding intro requests, be a more thoughtful filter. Make sure to respect your network, utilize double opt-in introductions and scrutinize each request to ensure it is indeed relevant. This is your social capital you are putting on the line.

You may think that I am not a fan of warm intros based on the above. It could not be further from the truth. Obviously warm introductions are way better than reaching out cold to people and are often the only way to break through into the best opportunities. Just make sure you use those warm intros judiciously and do not fall victim to intro fatigue that causes most intros to fall flat.

This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.

Image credit: CC by Ed Schipul

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About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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