Do you have a hero you'd love to meet? It's not impossible. Entrepreneur Alex Debelov offers tips for meeting and forming relationships with those you admire.
In college, I was a co-founder of an organisation called The Kairos Society. It started out as a simple idea of uniting student entrepreneurs in colleges in the US, but very quickly grew to become a globally recognised organisation (check out this video for more details). It wasn't easy and along the way, we failed more times than we succeeded. Initially, we couldn't get elite universities to join us, few of the world leaders wanted to support us, and we barely had any funding. Our initial momentum was slowing, and it wasn't until we got Bill Clinton as an advisor that our fate changed.
Don't Give Up
We had the crazy idea that Bill Clinton would support our organisation because it was empowering student entrepreneurs. We tried to email him on a bunch of email addresses we thought would belong to him — no luck. We tried mailing him, again no response. Then we realised that he was going to be at a charity event in New York and decided to act. We emailed the charity organisers, telling them about The Kairos Society and begging them for an invitation. After much deliberation, they agreed. We drafted up a letter and Ankur (our president) went to the event. There he approached Bill Clinton and invited him to join Kairos. To our surprise, he agreed.
Exercise: Start by picking a person you want to reach and trying a number of likely email addresses. Here are some suggestions, assuming the relevant domain is sitedomain.com (for Australia, it may well be sitedomain.com.au, sitedomain.org.au for a charity, or sitedomain.gov.au for a government organisation).:
- First letter of their first name and their last name @ sitedomain.com (for example, Alex Debelov at virool.com will be [email protected])
- First name dot last name @ sitedomain.com (for example, [email protected])
- First name @sitedomain.com (for example, [email protected])
- Last name @sitedomain.com (for example, [email protected])
Have No Fear
In my senior year in college, I won a business competition, as a result of which I was invited to participate in the Youth International Economic Forum in Russia. The perk was that the flights and lodging were paid for and I got a chance to attend an uber-exclusive St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (think of it as the Davos of Russia).
While there I attended a panel on the Internet economy. The President of Russia at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, decided to walk in and listen. The room had around 200 people in the audience and five people on the panel. The President carefully listened to what panellists had to say, then he stood up, gave a speech, and proceeded to exit through the back door.
Luckily, I was sitting in front row near that backdoor and decided to act. I stood up and approached him. His closest bodyguard extended his arm to stop me and that's when I said in Russian: "I am a co-founder of the world's largest student entrepreneurship organisation, can I speak with you?" I am not sure why, but the President turned around and said "Sure. Come here" and we went out through the backdoor.
In a 10-minute meeting I had with him, I gave the best Kairos pitch I'd ever performed in my life and told him that I believed more young people in Russia would become entrepreneurs if they had the right role models to look up to. He agreed. Then I proceeded with an idea of organising a conference in Russia with his help to inspire Russian students. He loved the idea and told me to get in touch with his advisor, who was standing next to him. I got his advisor's info and returned to my seat. (Pictured: Alex with Dmitry Medvedev.)
Five minutes hadn't passed before four guys in black suits and earpieces approached me and asked me to come with them. They were the President's security and they were detaining me on the basis that no one has meetings like that with a president. I was brought to a separate house on the grounds where the conference was taking place and was detained for two hours, during which they did an extensive background check. They turned out to be nicer than I expected and when they released me, they told me that I should come to Russia more often.
So I did. Six months later, Innovation Convention took place with the help of the President's Administration. I was able to get a group of Silicon Valley leaders to come to Russia and it became a highly-publicised event. A lot of people were inspired, and I hope a lot of young people started companies as a result.
- If you see someone famous, or someone you highly respect, don't be intimidated by them. Remember, all people are made up of water, breathe the same air, eat the same food, and regardless of their stature and achievements, they are no different from you and I. Always remember that there is no-one better or worse than you in this world.
- If you do come in close contact with someone you would like to meet, don't be intimidated — approach them!
Exercise: I would suggest trying to make friends with strangers. Going to conferences and doing this can be a good start, but even in a coffee shop starting a conversation with a stranger can be a great tool in helping you build self-confidence.
Have A Sense Of Purpose
Having a mission in life and what you are trying to achieve is very important. The reason people will be interested in speaking with you is because you have a defined sense of purpose. I am sure if I had just approached the President of Russia and said to him "would you like to grab a cup of coffee with me?" he would have not taken a meeting with me. So whenever you meet someone, have a defined sense of what you are trying to achieve
When I first arrived to Silicon Valley, I booked a hotel on Hotwire. I was placed in the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose for two nights. When I arrived to check in, I saw a very familiar man talking to someone. I double-checked by looking up "Steve Wozniak" on my iPhone. To my surprise, it was him.
I quickly approached and introduced myself. "Hi, Steve. My name is Alexander Debelov and I am a huge fan of your work." Steve replied, "Are you Russian by chance?" To which I said, "Yes, how did you know? Is my accent that evident?'". He replied: "Not really, I just have a lot of good engineer friends who are Russian." And from there on, we just started talking.
Three hours later, Steve realised that it was almost midnight and he needed to leave. I thanked him for his time and told him how awesome it was to make such a cool first friend in the Valley. Steve responded: "Wait, you just moved here and don't know anyone? Do you want to come play Segway Polo with me and make some friends?" Obviously, it was an offer I couldn't turn down. (Pictured: Alex with Steve Wozniak.)
Takeaway: Whenever you meet someone be genuine. People enjoy talking to people who are trustworthy. Whatever you do be genuine and honest. You don't need to make yourself sound better than who you are, and you don't need to hide your failures. We are all humans and we all have faults. If you have a sense of purpose and you are genuine and you follow through on what you promise, believe me, people will respect you and you will go far!
When I got an opportunity to help organise a conference in Russia (Innovation Convention), Woz was the first person I reached out to about becoming a speaker. After some deliberation (he travels a lot), he agreed and went to Russia with me and a group of other Silicon Valley speakers for a week.
You can meet people and have a lot of acquaintances, or you can get to know a few of them and really become friends.
Whenever you meet someone, just keep in touch, invite them to parties, invite them to conferences and trips. Develop relationships — meeting someone is cool, but knowing someone is way cooler!
- Dream Big: Kairos was a small organisation with only a few universities on board initially but we had big ambitions. There is no such thing as a dream too big or ambitions too large. Dream big, life is too boring otherwise.
- Be Proactive: It's easy to find anyone's e-mail, LinkedIn or them giving a speech. Stop making excuses, if you want to meet someone you can.
- Don't Give Up: You are going to face many challenges in your startup and life, after you lose a battle, always jump back up to your feet and continue going.
- Have No Fear: Start conversations with strangers everyday.
- Have A Sense Of Purpose: I knew what I wanted to accomplish in my meeting with the President of Russia. It didn't occur to me right away, but when I saw a perfect opportunity to approach him, it all fell in place.
- Be Genuine: People love people who are honest and genuine. Don't overhype yourself and hide failures. We are all human and most successful people know that there is no such thing as success without failure.
Alex Debelov is the cofounder of Virool, a self-serve platform that distributes videos across its network of Facebook apps, mobile games, and blogs.