This is the sixth article in a series about how a group of students at Penn created ThirdEye Technologies, a company commercializing a product that empowers the visually impaired by helping them recognize what they are looking at. Check out the first article here about how we created our first prototype, and the second article about how we converted that prototype into a product.
It’s no secret that the best way to learn is to learn from people who have already been successful. In this regards, students have it quite lucky. They aren’t expected to be working on anything interesting; all society expects them to do is to go school and do well in it.
Interestingly, if you do work on something interesting while you’re in school, people are incredibly willing to help you accomplish your goals.
For example, while I was building up my startup during college, I had no background building an intuitive product, sales, business development, deciding what to allocate time to, management, financing, or business in general.
Hungry to learn as much as possible, I reached out asking for advice to at least 200 people who I believed had made a major impact on the world.
The result? I was able to learn from venture capitalists who had funded Fortune 500 companies, founders who had IPOed their companies, and CEOs leading massive 500+ person companies. More than any particular advice, these conversations allowed me to glance into their minds and see how these kinds of individuals think about life. I learned how they got to the point they did, what they involved themselves with during college, whether they would change anything they did in the past, what they hope to do next, what their routines are during the day, and how they would recommend me going forward with my venture
Here’s an email I sent about a month ago:
Hope you’re doing well!
I’ve been following your work for a while and I’d love to get some of your advice on a few ideas I am pursuing.
Based on my experience starting up during college, an idea I’m quite passionate about is that smart people should build things. It seems like too many undergrads are graduating at Penn not knowing what they want to pursue. Thus, one of my goals is to encourage students to pursue some kind of entrepreneurship–something that teaches practical skills no matter what field students ultimately pursue (see my column on Forbes).
I’d love to get your advice on what they best way to implement this mission (we’re looking into potentially starting a VC fund to invest in student-run companies). I’m actually in LA just during this week before returning to school. Is there anytime this week we could have a quick 15-minute meeting?
Thanks for your time.
Remember, all successful people were once not successful. They were once students as well and spent time learning from others. People really sympathize with you since they were in your shoes not long ago. By reaching out to them, you’re showing them that you care about them and that they’re an expert. After you get your foot in the door, people love to talk about themselves and their experiences.
One of the best ways I’ve found to establish rapport with someone influential is just to interview them; give them a quick overview of what you’re working on and then ask as many questions as you can on how you should go forward. Just think about how special you feel when someone asks you for your opinion.
A few tips general tips:
- One of your best assets as a student is your school’s alumni directory. Alumni love to help students from their school and simply by mentioning that I went to their alma mater, I’ve had an almost 90% success rate.
- Make sure to craft your email to match with their expertise. It may seem like common sense, but make sure to do your due-diligence. People are more likely to respond to an email in which you ask for sales advice by prefacing with “I know you’re an expert in business development because of your experience at Apple” as opposed to “I know you’re an expert because of your work experience.” Again, it just shows that you care and you did your research.
- On a similar note, make sure to read all of the other person’s older interviews, watch any video interviews, and read any blog posts/books she’s produced. There’s no reason to waste your time or hers when the content’s already out for the world to see.
- Try to nudge them by demonstrating your value to them as well. In my case, I hinted that by meeting with me, I would provide this VC with a potential company to invest in, a potential contact in the media because of the TechCrunch article, and a potential way for him to advertise his firm to a group of entrepreneurial college students.
- Really push hard that you’re a student and that all you want is advice. You’re more likely to get a meeting if you just ask for advice, even if you’re really looking for fundraising or a partnership.
- Remember that relationships have long term returns. After your initial chat, just ask the other individual “like I mentioned, all I care about right now is learning. Is there anyway I could help you build out ____?” Think about your competitive advantage and how you can help him. It’s no secret that the most successful individuals in any sector have some of the best mentors; one of the best way to establish an individual as someone you can reach out anytime for advice is just to help them with what they need help with.
Of course, part of this “game” comes down to luck, how much experience with cold emails you have, and whether someone introduced you. That skill only comes with time.
But what if you’re a student and aren’t working on something outside of school? If this is the case, just the fact that you’re a student means that you’re more likely to at least get on a call with them. I’ve found that if you just talk about a problem you’re really passionate about solving and ask for advice on how to implement a solution in your email, you find a very similar success rate.
At the end of the day though, college is a time all about learning. What better way to learn than to work on something you love to do and then (using your student status) get advice from experts to improve it? Maybe if you love to write, you could start writing a series on Medium about ___ and reach out to successful authors for advice; or maybe you’re interested in photography and so you start a portfolio on 500px and then ask successful photographers for advice. At the end of the day, people are very willing to help you when you’re student, so why not take their advice? You’re already paying a massive tuition. Why not juice it for every penny?