Among the Top 10 Commandments for any would-be entrepreneur is Talk To Everybody. Both for acquiring know-how and building a network of contacts, you should never pass up an opportunity to talk about your project with anyone who might do or know something related to the business you want to launch. And even those who don’t.
Still, there are limits to the You-Never-Know/Cast-Your-Net-Wide rule. For example, we should always add an accompanying caveat: There is No White Knight. There is a price to pay, both psychologically and strategically, in holding too hard to the hope that someone else –a business person, funder or star colleague — is gonna ride in on a horse to turn your good idea into a good company. After a few disappointing encounters when I first started, I began to literally tell myself before each important sit-down that this was NOT gonna be a game-changer. Mr. or Ms. X was going to be helpful, pass along info and wisdom and even set up my next meeting…but they weren’t going to say the word or write the check that would make all my hard work fall into place. (Ok, deep down, I still believe in the White Knight!?)
The other constraint to our Talk-To-All rule is a question of context. And this brings me to a casual cocktail party I was invited to last night with my wife. The Parisian hosts are parents of our son’s classmate and live in an elegant apartment in the 16th arrondissement. Even before snagging a glass of champagne, I was being introduced by the hostess as an “American journalist” to a friend of hers. This 50-something businessman was organizing a roundtable to analyse Obama’s first year and was happy to chat about Obama and our respective jobs. At a certain point, he asked me what was “the last mission” I had gone on. This was just the latest reminder that the rest of the world is still more or less oblivious to the fact that things like bureaus and travel and even CORRESPONDENTS are ever less a part of the day-in, day-out production of news these days. It also gave me an opening of sorts to mention that I was working on a “project of my own”, as a necessary response to the grim present/future for foreign correspondents. But I pretty much left it at that with this management consultant dude, who asked nothing further about my plans.
As my wife and I went to get that glass of champagne, she asked why I hadn’t said more about my project. “You never know,” she said. I explained that I have developed a bit of a nose for when, how and how much to talk about it. I explained my No-White-Knight idea: “If I start to turn every conversation into a pitch, I won’t get invited anywhere!”
But before I had even finished my thought, the same hostess had returned to ask if I want to meet…the White Knight himself!? Wouldn’t you know it, her husband had gone to university with one of the top European media executives of recent times, and he was just in the other room. Again, I got introduced by name and magazine. But here again, my gut told me this was not the moment for the hard sell for my little project. Better to have an engaged, intelligent conversation about the media world, and of course I did mention to him as well that I was working on something of my own (he did not inquire further). My instinct told me not to go in for the kill, while this business titan was trying to enjoy his champagne. (I now know how to get in touch with him…..) Maybe I’m a fool, or just too polite, and I should have pounced like a shark. But I believe the rules of life also apply to a first-time entrepreneur, no matter how hungry: There is a Time and Place for Everything.