As a startup investor and advisor, I get asked for stuff. A lot.
In an ideal world, I respond to everyone and give them what they need. In reality, my time is scarce and my network must be served with at least as much as I ask of it, so I did an informal study on what gets prioritized in my inbox, and on the to-do lists of some of my most esteemed colleagues in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Here is what I learned regarding how to ask for the things you need.
Do your research. Save your requests for topics that require human insight, such as referrals, testimonials, and personalized guidance. While your third grade teacher may have emphasized that there are no dumb questions, it turns out public opinion disagrees. Invest some energy in researching your ask, as it will not only help you frame your question, but it also helps you present yourself as a knowledgeable entrepreneur.
Be specific. Any startup who has worked with me has likely received this advice. When the ask is vague, such as "Can you introduce me to an investor?" or "Can you help me find a cofounder?", the response is often lackluster. The reverse is true when an entrepreneur has offers some insight, posing a question like, "I'm looking for a cofounder who can bring financial expertise and business acumen to our team, preferably with some experience in the tech industry. Do you have any recommendations?" An image immediately starts to form in the recipient's mind that can be connected with a list of prospects. When you provide context, you remove barriers to receiving a response.
Ask until you get a response. When you're making a big ask, a response often requires more time than a simple "yes" or "no." I, and others, often don't respond because we're in a cab in the middle of rush hour trying to wrap up a conference call while we read our emails, hoping to pick up our kids before their caretaker starts charging overtime by the minute. No response doesn't always equate to no interest. Sometimes, things just fall off the radar, or are in the "not urgent" box. This isn't a reflection of the relationship, but rather a reflection of a chronic and universal issue of time poverty. Continue to ask until you receive an answer, because every human is worthy of that. Sometimes you'll get a "no," which is your signal to move on. Other times, you'll get exactly what you need.
Follow up. When you get an answer, follow up with relevant feedback. Did you have a great conversation with a new introduction? Share your experience. Were you able to implement some advice provided? Let the advisor know what the results were. Closing the loop with feedback signals respect to the person you asked, and an appreciation for their time and insight.
Offer support. I am open with my network, resources, and advice, because I believe this is what makes innovation happen faster. That said, there is a universal desire among my surveyed group to respond faster to those who have been supportive of them in the past. If you see an opportunity to connect, advise, or inform someone, no matter how distant the relationship, take advantage of it as you're opening the door to future help, and you never know where that help might need to come from.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem is a tight-knit community with a pay-it-forward culture and a unified understanding that starting a business is one of the hardest things a person can do. Perfecting the ask is imperative to a founder's success, because no big vision can be achieved alone. Ultimately, being good at asking for things means being respectful of time, the scarcest resource of all among people who are trying to change the world.