“Afterward,” Fulton recalls, “she came over to me and said, ‘Do you know why I said yes to you? Because you asked.’ ”
All entrepreneurs understand how to pitch: Identify someone with something you want and sell yourself–hard. But there’s an alternative approach: Just ask. Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says people with expertise or resources are often happy to help startups. But entrepreneurs too often approach them with yes or no questions, or propose narrow transactions. When people don’t fall into obvious buckets (investor, customer), some entrepreneurs don’t approach them at all.
After interviewing hundreds of entrepreneurs, Sarasvathy has identified four types of “asks.” The first is straightforward: “I need this. Will you help me?” The second is the quid pro quo: “Please do this for me and I will do this for you.” In the third, which Sarasvathy calls the “dither,” the entrepreneur flails around and never actually requests anything.
The ne plus ultra of asking is the “open ask.” Open asks begin as exploratory conversations and often culminate with the question: “What would it take for this to happen?” The entrepreneur, interested in a long, fruitful relationship, is open to all possibilities–especially those suggested by the person to whom she is talking. Securing what she needs at that moment is desirable, but not the priority.
Sarasvathy offers the following advice for aspiring ask-masters:
Always Be Asking
Ideally, startup entrepreneurs should make asks everyday. “Every time you meet a stranger or someone you think could be a part of your venture in any way, make an ask,” says Sarasvathy.
Don’t Be too Strategic
Open asks aren’t restricted to a single question and yes or no response. Instead, they allow people to become involved with the startup in multiple ways. “The person you approach thinking they are a customer could become your salesperson,” says Sarasvathy. “The person you think is going to be an investor could be your supplier.”
Be Open to Anything
In an open ask, “You are talking to people, but you are also listening to the kinds of things they want to do with your idea, your skills, and your resources,” says Sarasvathy. “If you allow the other person to think with you, they develop emotional ownership in your business, which is good for you both.”
Ask for What is Easily Afforded
Tyro entrepreneurs often start by asking for something that costs little: most commonly, advice. Seasoned entrepreneurs are generally happy to give it, so long as the question is specific (“How would you sell this?”) and not inane (“What is the secret of your success?”). One of Sarasvathy’s students once asked for someone’s frequent-flier miles, which he figured the successful businessman in question could easily live without. The student got the miles-;and the businessman is now sitting on the young man’s board.
Don’t Be Afriad to Be Bold
Sometimes, you have to make big asks. In 2009, Bryan Mehr needed to buy out a partner to save his startup digital-printing company, m2 Displays in Fullerton, California. Desperate, he asked a vendor for help. didn’t pitch,” recalls Mehr. “I told them, ‘I know on the books it doesn’t look great. But I see the future.’ And I asked if they wanted to be part of it.”
In exchange for 49 percent of the company, the vendor paid off all the old debt and gave Mehr “way more than the company was worth,” he says. “It was almost a miracle. If you ask, people really open up to you.”