The one thing I always tell anyone on the job hunt, which few ever seem to take me up on: Informational Interviews.
These are informal “Can I take you out to coffee?” talks with people in your field to see what they are working on, what is happening with them, what is going on in the industry. Every job I have ever gotten is through informal meetings with people I have met through my network (whether its your current job, your friends, parents, relatives, or others).
At the end of every one I ask: “Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?” and “Do you currently have any opportunities at your company for me?”. Rinse and repeat.
I have talked with a lot of people through informational interviews. By my estimate, I think I have done over 200 during my professional career. These meetings have been over coffee, a drafting table, in a living room, over lunch, drinks, networking events, the beach, in the office and at the mall. Topics range from my career, the construction industry, the newest bar in town, family, housing, and graduate schools. These meetings, usually within a professional context, are what I call “Informational Interviews”. Not purely a chance to further my reputation, network, get a job, pitch a deal, or get counseling, Informational Interviews are an opportunity for two people to share information and advice freely for mutual benefits.
This approach is far superior to other ways of obtaining a new job, mentorship, networking or pitching someone an idea. Read the book that explains the no-nonsense system for sourcing, reaching out to, and completing these interviews.
The interview was not going so well.
“So tell me about the Victory Development,” I asked him.
He responded “Well actually that is under wraps right now, I can’t really tell you anything about it.” Bummer. I tried another direction: “So what is it like working here, for you?”
“The guys work probably 60 hours a week or so.” Silence. This had to be one of the toughest, most intense conversations I had ever had with another person. He would just stare at me for what seemed like an eternity after every question I asked. Even though I was in the middle of the 15-20 minutes he had allotted me, I’d already burnt through all my questions I had rehearsed and was now scratching for some topic to get him talking.
Luckily, I’d been in this situation before. It was my 30th or so informational interview in the past three or four months, and not the first tough billionaire I’d come across.
I continued, this time trying to bring down his barriers, talking a bit about family, travel and kids. That eventually wore him down enough to get a few little bits of wisdom, like how he invests, what I should do with my career and how to get started. But it still wasn’t going anywhere. At the end of the interview, though, I asked the little magic question that had gotten me this far:
“Is there anyone you think I should talk to?” I asked.
Bingo. He locked eyes with me again, and said: “I’m glad you asked that question. It is the best question you can ask anyone, and I wouldn’t have respected you if you hadn’t.” I didn’t expect this answer but waited for his response.
He continued: “But before I give you some names, I want you to know: When you come in to do one of these [informational interviews], you need to always these two questions:
‘1) Is there anyone you think I should talk to? and 2) Is there an opportunity for me right now at this company?’
You never know if you could be sitting across the table from someone who could change the course of your entire life. You’d never know if you didn’t ask. Every step along my career I’ve asked those questions and they’ve taken me incredible places.”
I have asked those two questions many more times and seen awesome things happen in my career and life. That interview and countless others are the reason I am writing this book. I want to show you that the most powerful tool in your entire career is the Informational Interview, the same thing I was doing that day. It is one of the least utilized tools for any job searcher, ladder climber, or student, yet can have the most profound effect on your personal trajectory.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to do hundreds of informational interviews with professionals ranging from interns to Fortune 500 CEO’s. Through them I’ve been given investment opportunities, jobs, mentorship, new networks, colleagues and friends. Six out of my seven jobs came through them. They can have a profound impact on your life and give you a significant advantage above every other person like you looking for a job or trying to get ahead.
They are the best way to get a job, get a reference, find a new tool, invest, or choose a life path, especially early in your career. Informationals have personally provided me:
- My first job handed to me (Lighting Manufacturer)
- A full ride to undergraduate university (Fresno State)
- My second job handed to me (Home Builder)
- My third job in only two months searching in 2009, the worst real estate market ever (Real Estate Owner)
- Big-time investment opportunity A (Home Flipping Investor)
- My first company launched after three months (Home Flipper)
- Into grad school (University of Southern California)
- Big-time investment opportunity B (Ground-Up Development in Arizona)
- My first job out of grad school before graduating (Commercial Real Estate Developer)
- A mentor (Through a trade organization)
- Big-time investment opportunity C (Land Development)
- My second job out of grad school with no down time (Commercial Real Estate Investment)
I’d be willing to bet that you can get the same results too. I am not charming, attractive, incredibly smart, or talented. I just happen to like people and grabbing coffee with them.
I describe the Informational Interview as: “An opportunity to learn by talking in person to someone you haven’t talked to before, usually over coffee or lunch”. I’ve heard it described as “grabbing a coffee,” “talking about your work” or “catching up”.
Skeptically, you might be thinking: “Why should I read this book about grabbing coffee with someone?” and “Can’t I do this myself?” You can, but I think that you won’t.
After I received my bachelor’s degree in 2009, nobody in my construction management program got a job. They were all spending time applying to jobs online or through our small recruiting program at school. After two months of doing Informational Interviews, I landed a job with the largest owner of real estate in town. During grad school, while I spent every week trying to schedule more and more informationals, my classmates didn’t. My program practically forced us to do some, but most still didn’t or only did the requisite few. Over the course of that year I did over 60 informational interviews. I was the first or second in my class to get a job and others are still looking or are unhappy with what they settled on.
Many people job searching have never heard of informational interviews. Those who have are often intimidated, are unsure of the purpose of doing them, or just didn’t know how to get started. Many continue to follow the worst practical advice out there that is taught to them: “Go to school, apply for jobs online and wait for calls for a job interview.” I am here to assure you that doing informationals are the best route, by far.
I’ve learned a few lessons along the way and want to pass them along, too. This book follows the practical steps of the system I’ve used to source, connect, conduct and follow up on informational interviews.
What is an Informational Interview?
Before getting into my system for sourcing, reaching out to and completing these interviews, I’d like to further explain why this approach is far superior to other ways of obtaining a new job, mentorship, networking or pitching someone an idea. Remember, our working definition for an informational interview is “an opportunity to learn by talking in person to someone you haven’t talked to before, usually over coffee or lunch.”
Your Most Powerful Career Tool
I have talked with a lot of people through informational interviews. By my estimate, I think I have done over 200 during my professional career. These meetings have been over coffee, a drafting table, in a living room, over lunch, drinks, networking events, the beach, in the office and at the mall. Topics have covered my career, the construction industry, the newest bar in town, my family, housing, graduate schools and countless other subjects. These meetings, usually within a professional context, are what I call “Informational Interviews.” Not exclusively a chance to further my reputation, network, get a job, pitch a deal, or get mentoring, informationals are an opportunity for two people to share information and advice freely. While you may get many benefits from doing them, they should always be about learning and sharing information.
I think you should do informationals if you are trying to pick a major, get a job, move up in your career, or do anything to alter your own personal trajectory. How many times have you heard someone respond to the question: “How’s the job search going?” with “Well, I’m applying for jobs.” Maybe that’s you right now, with lots of applications and hope, but no jobs or prospects.
One reason (amongst many others) is that you are using one of the least effective methods at getting a job. Firstly, applying online has the highest competition, giving you the lowest probability of making it through the stack of resumes. Is it harder to reject a faceless resume or a real person standing in front of you? By contrast, doing informational interviews has the least competition and the highest likelihood of getting you a job.
In 2013, the Lou Adler Group conducted a survey of 1,582 US company employees how they got their last job. They asked employees to choose from four choices: 1) internal move or promotion, 2) proactive networking activity or internal referral, 3) contacted by a recruiter or hiring manager or 4) responded to a job posting. They also asked if employees were actively looking for a job at the time, or not. Even with the small sample size, the results are staggering:
“Most jobs in the U.S. are filled either via an internal move or through some networking activity. For active candidates these two steps totaled 58%, and for passive candidates an astonishing 81%. If suitable candidates are not found at this point, companies default to the “post-a-job-description” and “look-for-resumes” approach.”
This study matches my personal experience. Most employers look within their own companies or to someone they know to fill a job. By placing yourself within new circles, you can find jobs before anyone else knows they exist. By doing one informational interview, you are already ahead of a significant portion of job seekers who only apply online or wait for a recruiter. Do I have your attention?
But it doesn’t stop there. Have you ever tried to get a raise, professional mentorship or consider a career change? Many people wait for their boss to recognize them for a raise. Others want a mentor or consider changing careers, but don’t ask for input from real people and settle for internet searches and conventional wisdom. I’d like to offer an alternative that has worked for me and many others. You can get these things if you use the informational interview.
Here are a few examples of people who have done their own informational interviews and gotten pretty awesome results.
I am a normal dude from central California. My parents aren’t rich and my family isn’t “super connected”. We were just middle class folks. What was a bit different about me though was I loved meeting people and to hear what they had to say. Actually that is a bit of an understatement; I was a bit obsessed with it during high school and college.
Researching this book, I looked back through all the notepads and Moleskins I kept from back then and I found this awesome list. It is titled: “People I Need to Meet:” followed by a list of my favorite professors, super rich businessman in town, people I had heard of in the paper, and others. This was a list from my senior year of high school. Every opportunity I got, I would grab coffee with my parents accountant, a professor I liked, or a guy from my grandfather’s duck club. I can’t quite place where or why I gained this obsession, but it got stronger and stronger as my career progressed. Soon it became my guiding principal for most career decisions: what job or opportunity can I take that will afford me the most opportunities to meet exciting people.
And I did. The first job I ever got was working for a lighting manufacturer in central California who was a multi-millionaire (which for Fresno is a boatload of money). I met him through my grandfather and an informational interview. That was in high school!
In 2008 after graduating college, I called up my favorite business professor to see if he knew anyone I should talk with. He told me that he had just heard of an opening at this small real estate company. His warm introduction got me an interview, and ultimately the job. This was in 2009 when good real estate jobs had ceased to exist. After working there a while, I realized this “small shop” was worth over a billion dollars and I was able to meet most of the movers and shakers in central California real estate.
Every move in my career has a story like this: whether meeting a USC graduate that propelled me to applying there, doing hundreds of coffees to land that first job out of grad school, or finding my first (and second and third) personal real estate investments. I still love doing informationals and they are really the only thing I can directly attribute to my success.
One night I was talking with my friend Ben about his career. He was an aspiring TV host trying to break into the industry. He had been attending classes based in Hollywood with top talent coaches and actively going to casting calls and begging producers to give him a chance. It wasn’t going so well. I asked him that night: “Have you done any informational interviews?” He hadn’t really heard of them before, and I explained what they were.
A month later, he told me he gave them a shot. He started grabbing coffee with anyone within his niche he could find, and what he learned completely blew him away. “Down to the person…” he said, “every single one told me that I was chasing a dying industry.” He continued: “They all told me I should be building an online presence, slowly building a following, and then launching an entertainment career from there.”
Not only was he able to clearly define what he should and shouldn’t do within his industry, his conversations completely re-oriented his career path!
Jen is a nurse inside the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (really sick kids age 0-18) at a prestigious southern California hospital. She’s been working within this unit and gained expertise there for the past five years, making her functionally a specialist within this niche. That said, though, she had always wanted to work in the Neonatal Unit.
After applying to myriad jobs throughout southern California, across many hospitals, she was never able to make this leap to a different unit. She didn’t have the right expertise, according to HR, to work in this other specialty. I begged and pleaded with her to do some informationals with connected people with the hospital.
Months later, finally conceding to give the “informational interview” approach a try, she talked with her OBGYN. Subtly she let the OB know how much she wanted to work in the NICU unit. She described how she had tried and tried to no avail going through the traditional system of applying through the hospitals online application system. Literally before Jen could finish, her OB said: “You know, I am like this [two fingers crossed] with the CEO of that hospital. Would you like me to put a good word in?” And the rest is history. Jen now has her dream job, simply by talking with someone who happened to be connected and generous.
I went to graduate school with Brian. He was another avid networker who really bought into doing as many informational interviews as possible. He used the USC platform to find as many people to talk with as possible. While our classmates would do one or two informationals a month, he and I would constantly be sharing who we had met with that day, and who we would be meeting with next.
His approach paid off huge. During a competition, he gained five minutes of access to the biggest retail developer in Los Angeles. Their time was short, but he made a good enough impression and followed up enough that he was able to gain another longer meeting. Then another. Then the billionaire invited him over the next time! And this time it wasn’t to catch up; it was to offer him a job. Now Brian has one of the most exclusive real estate jobs in Los Angeles, working as a Vice President developing hundred-million dollar projects.
These stories aren’t rocket science. They don’t involve incredibly connected people. They just follow a few individuals who believed in informational interviews and what they can achieve. Again, it’s simple: Ask someone new to coffee, be nice and interested, ask them a slew of questions, and walk away with a new ally, connection, and possibly new boss or investor. It has worked like magic for me, not once, but hundreds of times, and I promise it will for you too.
What Isn’t an Informational Interview?
Now that you are ready to start doing some informational interviews, there are a few things to keep in mind.
They aren’t “networking.”
Networking continues to have a negative connotation in my mind with slicked-back hair broker events and ivy-league grad students at happy hour mixers. In my experience, networking is this surreal state of walking up to someone you don’t know in a big room, saying: “Hi, I’m such and such, what do you do?” It just reeks of awkward, with you trying to butt into a conversation between two people that already know each other. You end up taking extra trips to the bathroom, bar, or snack table because you have no one to talk to. At best, both people are just trying to get a business card out of each other, and there usually is little to no opportunity to have a genuine conversation. Instead, informationals are one-on-one, providing the opportunity for a legitimate conversation in a no-pressure setting. You generally already know what the other person does, making it less awkward.
They aren’t a “job interview.”
A job interview has a very different setting than an informational interview. There are stakes. A business has a human resource need and you need a job. Each side is really trying to impress the other side. I would argue some of the systems laid out below are helpful in job interviews, but not vice versa. Imagine the neighbor kid asks to grab coffee with you to learn about what you do, only to ask you within the first five minutes for a job at your company. Even if you are willing to help, you’d still be on your heels and generally not ready to answer that question yet. Instead, think of an informational as an opportunity to gain a friend who may lead you towards a job (or investment or relationship).
They aren’t an interrogation, gossip or face-time.
The other type of interview we are all familiar with is the journalist/talk show host/reporter interview. This type of interview is purely transactional, where the reporter is gaining news or a sound byte and the interviewee is gaining notoriety, spreading gossip or getting his five minutes of fame. An informational interview is not about getting face time with a higher-up, an opportunity to extract insider information, or to talk badly about people you know or should know. Keep informationals professional, asking things that the other person is willing to give and making them feel as if they are talking to a friend, son or daughter.
They aren’t mentorship.
Mentorship is usually formed out of a relationship, has specific boundaries and expectations, happens over a long period of time, and requires an investment, both by the mentor and mentee. While you may gain mentor-like wisdom from an informational interview, the context is usually one-and-done. This is part of the magic; how much easier is it to convince someone to meet with you for 30 minutes one time and that is it? This keeps the barrier to accepting an invitation low, both in terms of time commitment and emotional investment.
They aren’t a pitch.
Imagine being asked to grab a coffee to chat, only to show up and be offered life insurance for you and your family. No. There is a time and place for a pitch, and an informational is not one of them. While your conversation may turn to new ideas, thoughts on side-businesses and investments, or telling your life story, the focus must not be on “getting something” from the other person. Remember, the two magic questions are still informational in nature: “Is there an opportunity for me at this company?” and “Do you know who I should talk to next?” Neither necessitates action by the other party or is trying to sell them something they do not want.
They aren’t an impersonal digital exchange
There is something important about doing these in person. I’ve tried multiple times to do an informational over the phone or over an email exchange. The connection is never there and the results vary. I’ve been able to “connect” with some great people via email or had a phone chat with them, but I would never expect to be able to call on them if I needed a connection or follow up of any kind. The same goes for LinkedIn. Which would you be more likely to respond to: “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn” or “Hey remember when we met at Pain du Monde and I spilled coffee all over my shirt?” I still remember in-person meetings I had from when I was in high-school. Informationals must be in person. Many more magical things happen when two people are sitting across from each other; new ideas emerge, memories are jogged, people remembered, and opportunities offered.
They aren’t about private life.
We have all been to coffee with a friend and asked: “So how are you doing?” followed up with “My life sucks right now…” These are often some of the best conversations you’ve ever had, but they aren’t informational interviews. Coming to an informational with emotional baggage is a drag on the interviewee and not professional. Once I went to an informational with a guy who’d been in the industry for 25 years at a respected company, only to find out he hated his job, his employer, was getting a divorce, and was generally unhappy. I left that interview feeling strange. I know it sounds a bit harsh, but please bring your professional life only to informationals.
They aren’t consumption.
Summing up, the informational interview should have a singular purpose, which is to learn from the other person. There may be the benefit of career advancement, new contacts and relationships, investment opportunities, trips and travel, fun, a free lunch, insider info, wisdom, or emotional counseling. By doing lots of informational interviews, you will probably see many of these benefits, but they are not the primary purpose. You shouldn’t try to “get” anything out of the other person. Remember, informationals are there for two people to share information and advice.
Hopefully by seeing what informational isn’t, it becomes clearer what it is: “An opportunity to learn by talking in person to someone you haven’t talked to before, usually over coffee or lunch.” Now let’s get started.
Find Someone, Anyone
The first step in the process of doing informational interviews is to actually having someone to do an informational with. Generally the CEO of Microsoft isn’t cold-calling you asking: “Would you like to grab coffee with me, I’d love to hear about what you are up to these days.” It just doesn’t happen. You are the one who has to reach out to them. Most people are incredibly willing to talk with you (given proper context, time constraints, and setting), but are not going to fall into your lap. In this chapter, we find someone to talk with.
First and foremost, we need to change your definition of who “anyone” is. I already know what you are thinking (I thought the same as you): CEO’s, Founders, Investors, Wall Streeters, Doctors, etc. While you may meet these types over the course of your career, I wouldn’t start there. The likelihood is high that you will be turned down and get discouraged if you swing for the fences when you’re just getting started. My recommendation is to always start with someone you already know and ask them: “Do you know someone I should talk with?”
Who You Should Talk To
You should do your first informational interviews with people you already know well: your family, friends, coworkers, and social circles. Examples include:
Family: Your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents.
Friends: Personal friends or partners and their families
Work: Colleagues, administration, your boss, senior management.
School: Classmates, professors, administration, staff, alumni
Social Circles: Gym, co-ed teams, church, yoga group, Meetups
Online:LinkedIn / Facebook / Twitter friends
Some of the most productive informationals I’ve had were with people I knew my whole life, but never really talked to about their life or business. I am advocating having an informational interview with your mom or dad. I’ve personally done informationals with my parents, my grandparents, my in-laws, my best friend, my buddy at work, my boss, my boss’s boss, my high-school math teacher, my college real estate professor, and a dude from the gym. They were all productive and helpful.
For example, my parents had family friends who came over to our annual parties about once a year. I had met them (or been introduced to them) many times and quickly forgot about them. Towards the end of college during my job search, I asked my parents if they knew anyone I should talk with. These people came up and I reached out to them. Little did I know, they were one of the largest real estate developers in my town. They had invaluable connections, not only in my job search, but later in my career when I needed people to talk with. Often we know very little about familiar people and the informational interview is a great medium to learn more.
I believe in meeting with everyone. Every different career stage has something unique to offer an informational interview. I have benefitted from meeting high school kids all the way up to CEOs. This means you cannot be picky about who you meet with. If you request or they request, take them up on it.
In an informational I believed I did not have time for, but accepted anyways, a younger college student wanted to grab coffee with me to talk about his career choices. In the meeting, we talked through his options and the discussion turned to his background and family. He nonchalantly let me know his father and uncles owned some of the largest real estate holdings in Downtown Los Angeles. He later was able to connect me with them. Even college (or high school) freshman have things to offer you.
Stages of a Career
To further extend your reach, I’ve identified people you can talk to in five different career stages. Look for them in your industry and in your network.
The Junior: Still in school or working
Young, confused, but honest, Juniors often don’t know everything, but are eager to learn. Often they come to you looking for advice and connections, which is good! They are often in school or working that first job, looking to expand their opportunities or figure out what they are going to do. They can be helpful with learning a new industry, giving back and making connections.
The Starter: 1-5 years of their career
Hard working, at the bottom, and insiders, Starters are early in their career, but often offer great insider perspectives on their industries and companies. Starters are great at telling you how to land that first job, who to talk with and can help make connections further up within their company.
The Trailblazer: 5-10 years of their career
Experienced, educated, and savvy, Trailblazers are turning their experience and hard work into value. No longer grunts within their organizations, they are often go-to, trusted people for their Vice Presidents and Officers. Trailblazers are great for learning how to succeed in an organization, self-improvement and soft skill development, and can become future colleagues and mentors.
The Mentor: 10-20 years of their career
Seasoned leaders and influencers, Mentors are well respected within their fields. They are often leading or nearly leading companies, have seen it all, and yet are still approachable. My favorite to talk to, Mentors are great at career development, connections for jobs, advice, industry insider information and job opportunities.
The Legend: +20 years of their career
Rich, powerful and connected, Legends are C-Suite, business owners and renown in their fields. Usually they have little time and are the hardest to talk to. While fun to say “I’ve met with so and so,” these interviews are generally short, difficult to carry, and intense. That said, Legends are helpful with connecting you with people who hire, giving recommendations and offering sage advice.
Talk to Everyone
Reach out to anyone and everyone you can find. Find familiar people who know and like you to introduce you to people you haven’t met before and to learn from them. Any time you go to an event, sit down in class, get a business card, buy something, or grab coffee, there are people around who are opportunities to meet with. Again, you cannot be picky. You should try to meet them all.
Now is also a good time to set up a system for tracking your contacts. This can be an excel spreadsheet, tagging emails, or using contact cards to keep track of info. Once you get going, it can be tricky to keep track of who you’ve met with, who you’ve been referred to, and who you’ve reached out to. When I first started, I used Excel to keep track of names, emails, phone numbers, companies and notes. As I evolved, I started tracking within a CRM called Contactually, logged contacts with Evercontact, and tagged emails within Gmail. Use what works for you.
Reaching out to Them
Now that you’ve picked someone to ask, how do you ask him and why will he say yes? This part of the process can often take the longest and require the most persistence. You will need to be okay with being rejected or ignored, emailing or contacting someone multiple times, and working hard to get interviews. Over the course of graduate school, I emailed and followed up with the same person over ten times before I was able to meet with him. The crazy part was: he really didn’t mind. I was one of 100’s of emails he got per day, and he didn’t think I was bothering him at all. Getting the interview is the hardest part of the process.
Why is someone going to talk to you in the first place?
When I first started doing informationals, I constantly wondered why anyone would say yes to my request for one. I have been ignored far more than responded to “yes” or “no”. Looking back through a season of lots of interviews, I was only responded to by 30-40% of warm introductions and maybe ten percent of cold introductions. Usually people I’ve asked have never done an informational interview, do not know what to expect, and need to be explained why you want to meet with them.
These barriers are low enough, though, even if the interviewee has his initial objections. Why? People love to help, love to give and it makes them feel good. It strokes their egos, making them feel important enough for someone to ask about their life and to learn from them. Most people love giving advice and offering to help in any way possible. Many just need a reason or forum to do so, but no one has ever asked. I am continually amazed at how many “industry veterans” I meet who tell me: “I love doing these, but I only do a handful each year. I really don’t understand why more people don’t reach out?”
But if this is true, then why was I ignored so many times? I usually chalk it up to 90% busyness and 10% “they don’t want to meet with you.” I now get hundreds of emails per day and it is difficult to give a thoughtful response to non-priority emails. Generally, I often ignore one-off emails from people I don’t know or save them for later. These saved emails often get lost. Busy seasons cause non-urgent emails to be skipped over. Often I may not respond to someone until they have emailed me two to three times so I know they are serious and not just blasting emails to hundreds of people. Persistence is key and you really cannot bug someone too much in our modern “always on” world. The first thing you need to do is ask!
A Simple Script
Asking for an informational interview is simple and follows a simple script:
Who am I?
What am I asking for?
Why should you meet with me? – Our connection
Why should you meet with me? – Why it’s going to be good for you.
Call to Action
To make this concrete, below is the “form request email” I’ve used in hundreds of emails and conversations to get informationals. Below I will discuss it in depth.
I am an MRED Candidate at USC and I would like to request an Informational Interview with you to discuss your insights and perspective on real estate. I received your contact information from Eliot Jones at Clarion and he thought it would be good for me to meet with you. I am especially interested in Industrial Real Estate and would love to hear your experiences in this field and Watson’s current activity.
I am available at during the following times to meet with you at your convenience:
Wednesdays All Day
Fridays All Day
Thank you again for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.
A Simple Script – In Detail
Breaking down the email into parts, you can see the system emerge. You should modify and change each individual part to suit your needs. Areas you’ll need to edit are in [brackets]. Feel free to copy and paste it into your browser and hack away.
Who am I?
“I am an [MRED Candidate at USC] and…”
You don’t have to be someone important to ask! I believe the less important you are, the higher likelihood you will get an interview. Describe who you are in three to four words. It can be:
- a student at Fresno State
- a property manager at DDG
- an intern at Generation Homes
- a waiter at Joe’s
What am I asking for?
“…I would like to request an Informational Interview with you…“
No need to change this one. You may rephrase if you’d like to say “I’d like to grab coffee with you” or “Catch up with you” or something similar. However, I would recommend keeping it as is so the other person knows exactly what you are asking for and why. You’d hate for the person to think “Why is this person asking me to coffee or trying to catch up? What do they want?” Requesting an informational interview lets them know you are here to learn from them and that is it.
“…to discuss your insights and perspective on [real estate].”
Fill in the field/industry this person is in or the job they have. If you want to learn about marketing, accounting, or acting, write that in. Keep it broad, you’ll fill-in more further down.
Why should you meet with me? – Our connection
“[I received your contact information from Eliot Jones at Clarion and he] thought it would be good for me to meet with you.”
If you don’t have a warm connection or were not personally introduced to the person you are asking, find something that connects you! For me this has been as widespread as:
- “I received your contact information from Eliot Jones at Clarion and…
- “I found your contact info on Linkedin and …
- “I saw you speak at the NAIOP conference and …
- “I really liked your blog post on such and such and…
- “We work in the same office building and …
- “I saw the story in the paper about you and…
…I thought it would be good to meet with you.”
All of the above work. Any connection (no matter how tenuous) is a connection!
Why should you meet with me? – Why it’s going to be good for you.
“I am especially interested in [Industrial Real Estate] and would love to hear your experiences in this field and [Watson’s] current activity.”
This section shows that this isn’t a form email. You are showing that you know about this person, their career, and you will not be wasting their time. The first blank is the specific field (within the broader one mentioned above) that you know the person works in. Show them you’ve done a little research! This can be:
- [content marketing]
- [nursing in the ICU]
- [managing film production]
- [corporate accounting]
The second blank is the company they currently work for. If self-employed, remove this section.
Call to Action
“I am available at during the following times to meet with you at your convenience:
Wednesdays All Day
Fridays All Day]
Thank you again for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.”
Finally, a call to action. Fill in the blanks for when you are open to meet with them. It shows you are serious. It shows you assume they will say yes, and not offering an option to say no. If you get a response, all the detail is worked out later.
Once it’s done, use Gmail’s Canned Responses to save and write these messages over and over again (or use www.grahamwahlberg.com to generate it for you!). I have canned emails for cold emails, warm emails and follow ups, making it easy to type an email address, make small edits and hit “send”.
Once you have someone’s contact info, reach out and ask them for an informational interview. Remember, this is often a numbers game and requires persistence and continual follow ups. If I do not get a response after 2 weeks or so, I’ll forward the old email to the same person with the following text:
I am following up to see if you would have a chance for coffee or lunch. Thanks again for the consideration, and look forward to hearing from you.
I’ve followed up with some people I really wanted to meet multiple times, and nobody seems to mind. The Vice President I emailed ten times over as many months before I received a response told me he got every email, but most of the time was too busy or just plain forgot.
Setting up the Interview and Preparation
Setting up the Interview
Once you’ve gotten someone to agree to meet with you, generally the rest is fairly straightforward. You’ll need to set up the details. How to setup up a time and place to meet is important.
Rule 1: Accept their offer to meet if they propose when and where.
Firstly, if they offer a time and place, accept the meeting unless you really must adjust it. Don’t give them any opportunity to stall or find a later time. If you do have control over the when and where, I do have a few specific rules to follow. Firstly, always offer to “come to them.” Do not make them drive to you, no matter how short of a distance you think it is.
Rule 2: Try to make it at their office.
You don’t have to make them go anywhere. They probably already feel more comfortable on their home turf. More opportunities tend to arise at office informationals than elsewhere. If they like you, you’ll be invited to talk with other people while you are there (“Hey while you’re here, let me introduce you to such and such”). At the very least, they’ll give you a tour of the office, allowing you more opportunities to ask about pictures hanging on the wall, how many people are there or what it is like to work day-in, day-out out in the space. Their office is a great place to meet – suggest it to them.
Rule 3: Always try for coffee.
If the office is not an option or they are a “want to get out of the office” type, go for coffee. Usually coffee is my first choice. It puts you in the middle of the day, when the other person isn’t bogged down. They are less likely to cancel a coffee than a lunch. Most importantly, it doesn’t put food in between your conversation. Forcing your interviewee to answer your questions for 15 minutes before even taking their first bite makes for a lopsided conversation. You’ll have eaten all your food and their plate will still be full (or vice versa). Conversation does not flow well over lunch, especially with a time limit and a mouth full of food. You are also often forced to talk yourself for longer stretches of time to allow them to eat. All this is to say, you will still be forced to have lunch interviews, but if you can avoid them, do so.
Rule 4: Match your dress code.
One other important detail is dress code. Be sure to ask what the other person wears on a daily basis. Make it a very casual question, often in a standalone email the day before, maybe while confirming tomorrow’s meeting. I have been caught both underdressing (not wearing a full suit and tie) and overdressing (wearing a suit and tie to a company that wears jeans). Not dressing right makes people uncomfortable. An example email could go like this:
I’m looking forward to meeting tomorrow. Quick question – What is your office dress code? I’d like to dress appropriately. Thanks again and see you tomorrow at 9:00.”
Once you’ve set up the meeting and all the details are finalized, you need to prepare. Going in cold or halfhearted is a sure-fire way to have a terrible interview. Follow these remaining rules and it will go great.
Rule 5: Get your paradigm right.
I highly recommend this specific paradigm or worldview, especially for informational interviews. This paradigm isn’t mine, but from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” For so many reasons you need to read this entire book, but specifically for informationals, hang on to the Chapter “Six Ways to Make People Like You.” You are not necessarily trying to get your interviewee to like you, but indeed these methods can help your conversation go smoother. These six methods are:
- Become genuinely interested in other people.
- Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.
- Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
I am not going to elaborate on the methods above, but please take them to heart, read them before each interview and follow them!
Rule 6: Do your research ahead of time.
You must research this person as well as you can before meeting them in person. Don’t start your conversation off wrong and ruin goodwill by not knowing what they do, where they work, or what kind of company they work for. You are asking for awkward if you don’t. Read up on their company’s website. Google News their name and company. Read their whole LinkedIn page. Research their past companies, schools, non-profits, and interests. What do your contacts know about this person, if you were introduced? Can you figure out their interests outside of work? Turn all of the above into five to ten talking points. Memorize or write down these points at the top of your meeting notebook. Being prepared helps the flow of the conversation. Come armed and ready to talk.
Rule 7: Come to the meeting ready to lead it.
You may need to do most of the talking at the beginning of the meeting. Often the interviewee has agreed to meet with you, but doesn’t really know why. I’d say that a third of interviews are not “led” by the interviewee, meaning you will have to lead it yourself. This means you will need a solid five minute block of things to talk about while the other person is getting familiar with you.
It also means having lots of questions to ask, especially when they give one-word answers. You never really know what will make the other person tick, so come prepared to find out. Finally, be prepared for them to ask you questions, and to have good answers for them. Think about questions they’ll ask you like:
- Why are we here?
- What are you doing now?
- Tell me a little about yourself…
- What can I do for you?
Rule 8: Be Courteous.
There are some final common courtesies and miscellaneous tips for informationals. Find out the other person’s dress code and stick to it as best you can. Be timely to the meeting (arrive early if possible). If you are running late due to traffic, overslept, or stuck in a meeting, let them know as soon as possible. Often they will still be at their office and they will not have to leave to meet you. Ask the other person how much time you have. Always offer to pay for coffee, lunch, or drinks. Nine times out of ten they will pay for it (if you are younger than them), but always offer to pay. If you can, find a place that gives you space to spread out a bit. Bring an exhibit of something you are currently working on. This can be a recent class project, a picture from a fundraiser, or something you are working on at work. Finally, use a pad of paper and pen/pencil to take notes, not a smartphone. You want your interviewee to know you are writing down interesting things they said, not checking your emails.
Finally, the interview!
The interview itself is the best yet hardest part of the process. Anyone can get a person’s contact info and send them an email. Much harder is actually meeting someone you have never met before, grabbing coffee with them and carrying on an hour-long conversation. It will take practice, a bit of confidence and a good attitude. I promise it will be worth it. Remember, all you are trying to do is learn. That’s it. You are not trying to impress them or sell anything to them. You are not necessarily trying to “get” anything from the other person. All you want is to learn, and anything else that comes your way is even better. Hopefully that should take some of the pressure off.
This chapter is broken into the three parts of every interview: Beginning, Middle and End. Hopefully each section provides you guidance and lots of resources to help you plan for your interviews.
All preparation aside, you are now at the meeting. You’ve found the coffee shop, pulled in, and you are sitting in your car. It’s time to get in there. If you have arrived early (you should have!), don’t order food or buy coffee yet. Hang out and wait for the other person.
Now that the other person has shown up, exchange pleasantries. Say “Hello, how was traffic?” (if you are in Los Angeles like I am!) and have a one or two-liner ready. Ask if they would like to grab coffee or grab a seat. The initial small talk is key before you are sitting down across from the person. It helps break the ice and get a conversation flowing. Opportunities for small talk include: your common connection, an article you saw about them or the industry, or the simple “How’s it going today?”
After you’ve exchanged the pleasantries, the initial phase of the conversation can go two ways: They may start asking you questions right off the bat, or you will need to fill some “empty space” and have your five minute speech ready to rattle off (See Rule 7: Come to the meeting ready to lead it). Most often, they will ask about your background and what you are doing now in your job or studying in school. This is good and shows they are interested in you. Your job during this beginning phase is to get the person comfortable enough with you that you can start firing questions at them and start learning. If you have an hour meeting, the goal by the end of the beginning phase is to have the interviewee talking 75% of the time. No matter how long the meeting, the beginning phase is no longer than ten minutes. Keep it short so you can start asking questions and getting to the more important middle and end phases.
Listen closely while they give you their five minute background. Look for items to add to your mental list to ask them about later in the middle phase. They’ll name drop, mention companies, discuss hobbies, family, friends, career choices, education, and a myriad other things. Usually if you’re listening well, you’ll have enough question material for at least an hour. Feel free to write these items down in your notes for later questions. If you are bad at listening or not interested in their story, pretend you are. Imagine you are interviewing the other person for a story about their life for CNN. Besides details and interesting anecdotes, try to find what two to three pieces of advice they have to offer. This helps frame your thinking during the beginning.
Remember, the first part of the interview is to: disarm the other person, get them comfortable with having a conversation, and to get some items to ask them about as the conversation rolls on.
Some starters for conversation include:
- Your back story
- Your last interview with common connection
- Your commonality (same school, city, industry)
- Article about the industry, company, person
Some questions for conversation include:
- What is your back story?
- What does a day in your life look like?
- Where did you go to school?
- How did you choose [Industry]?
- What do you do?
- Tell me some more about [company], [person], [school], [job]
At this point, usually the pleasantries and backstory are out of the way. The conversation, if done correctly, is now moving towards you asking questions and them answering, teaching, and advising. You should now have some good items to ask about from the first couple minutes of talking. This next phase is the time to gather information, hopefully unique to this person that is helpful to you.
This is a good time to let conversation tangents go wild. You may ask a question that gets the other person excited. Let that conversation go for a while before revisiting some of your other topics. Keep taking mental notes to continue the line of conversation if need be. Hopefully you’ll be able to gain some insight or perspective you haven’t heard before. Feel free to ask them to explain what they mean if you don’t understand. Topics of conversation often range from: details of their career advancement, personal experiences, nitty-gritty of an industry, projects they have worked on, what is going on in the marketplace, do’s and dont’s, personal career advice and really everything.
If you don’t find a topic that excites them immediately, cycle through your items until you find something that does. Some people like telling stories, while others like talking about the future. Some people like talking politics, others the economy. Some like to advise while others like to learn. Keep going until you find it; everyone has an “it”. Usually you can tell by how quickly they answer your question. If they immediately jump in, you are onto something. A big pause, followed by an “I don’t know, I’ll have to think about that one” is usually a sign you need to take an alternate direction.
This section of the conversation is the time to gather information and seek advice, setting you up for the big finish.
Some starters for conversation include:
- I heard such and such, what do you think?
- I am at this place in my career and am thinking this, what do you think?
- What is going on in the economy that affects you?
- Nitty gritty of your industry
- Personal experiences
- What is going on in the market
- Career advice
Some questions for conversation include:
- What would you work on if you were me?
- What would you be reading?
- What education should I pursue
- How would I get into this industry?
- What should I be doing that I am not?
The End phase is the most important part of the informational interview. It is also the part left-out most often. I unintentionally left it out of many interviews during graduate school. While practically easy, it is usually very difficult to force yourself to do. As previously mentioned, it revolves around these two questions:
“Is there anyone you think I should talk to?” and
“Is there an opportunity for me right now at this company?”
These two questions afforded me many investment opportunities, jobs, mentorship, new networks, colleagues and friends. Without these two questions, often informational interviews are easily forgotten – a one time talk with someone. But using them, you’ve now turned your meeting into a “call to action,” directly asking someone to help you. The best part: nine of ten times they do.
You have now spent 45 minutes with someone, and the end is near. The coffee is almost gone, your butt hurts, and you are late for work. They probably feel the same way. It is time to wrap it up, and there are a few ways to do so. You can thank the other person for their time, and regurgitate one or two things you learned that day. You can preface the last questions with “one last thing….” You can let them know you need to get to work. Frame the conversation so they know it is wrapping up. Remember though: Do not leave without asking the questions.
My favorite way of bringing them up is usually something like the following:
“Wow this has been great. I’ve really enjoyed learning about your career and what you do. I really liked hearing about your perspective on [whatever]. Thanks again for your time. Before we go though, there’s two questions I always like to ask at the end of our interviews. One is “Is there anyone you think I should talk to?” and Two is “Is there an opportunity for me right now at this company? *Smile *Subtle laugh *Wait”
The first part lets the other person know you are wrapping up. You praise and thank them for their sage advice and time. Then you frame the questions as a personal rule: this is just something you do all the time, you aren’t asking for anything extraordinary or exceptional. Finally, you smile and/or laugh, letting them know while an earnest question, it’s ok if they say no, because it’s not too serious. Then wait, giving them a chance to think and respond. It usually works.
If they say yes to either, ask for steps to follow up. If they think of two or three names to meet with, write them down and tell the person you’ll shoot them an email later asking for their info. If they say there might be an opportunity for work, ask them who you should talk to next, and when? No matter what you do, be sure to ask when you can follow up again.
Please try it! Asking these vital questions are hard to do, but so often the results are way better than you would have expected.
After that, it’s over. Shake hands, part ways, and follow up soon.
The last step (if you can call it that), is the Follow Up. This step sets the stage for your next interactions with the person, their lasting impression of you and your ability to connect with them in the future. Very often the follow up can be just as important as doing the informational itself. Follow ups for me have led to additional meetings, job opportunities and investments. They keep you at the forefront of a person’s mind, especially when new opportunities arise. Generally there are two kinds of follow ups: “right after” and “catch up.”
Follow Up – Right After
“Right After” follow ups are exactly that, immediately following meeting someone. They let a person know how much you appreciated their time and also to remind them of the things you talked about (and hopefully asked for). Follow up within 48 hours (and usually if possible that day). I almost always follow up via email. Two sample emails I use (often with Gmail Canned Responses) are below:
Thank you for giving me a chance to have an interview with you. I appreciated our talk about [massive entitlement issues, commercial real estate and the advantages of the Valley as opposed to the IE, and a little hunting and fishing mixed in there too]. I hope your new position is fruitful and fulfilling. If you have time to follow up with anyone you think would be good for me to talk to, I would greatly appreciate it.
I hope that we can stay connected over the course of my MRED program.
Thank you for giving me a chance to have an informational interview with you. I appreciated our talk about [employment, real estate, your process of finding a job, and what your future holds]. I really liked your honesty and willingness to help me in my quest.
You mentioned I should talk to [Brian Shelley and Edward Lariat]. Would you mind forwarding me their contact info? Thanks again.
I hope that we can stay connected over the course of my MRED program.
Follow Up – Catch Up
“Catch Up” follow ups usually are for a specific purpose, to stay in touch or to get on someone’s mind. They usually follow a predetermined time frame (every six months) or an event (something changed with you, or you saw an article about their company). Again these follow ups are via email (or the occasional Linkedin message). A few examples of follow up emails are below:
After a meeting with a common contact:
I just wanted to follow up with you to say thank you for forwarding me Don Phillips’s contact information. I was able to have a conversation with him about Tejon Ranch and their unique ranching and commercial operations. It was rewarding and I thank you again for forwarding me to him.
Also, I will be graduating in May from USC’s Master of Real Estate Development program, and I would greatly appreciate any references or companies you foresee hiring an industrial graduate in the next couple months. I hope all is well at Sunwest Development, and have a nice January.
Six month Follow Up:
I wanted to reach out to you since our last meeting to keep you updated on my job search upon graduation from the MRED program at USC. I hope all is well and Georgia Power has continued to succeed in this tight industrial market.
I am wondering if Georgia Power is looking for anyone in the next couple of months, or if you have heard of anyone in the industry looking for someone like me. Thanks again for meeting with me, and I hope to stay in contact as I integrate into the Southern California real estate industry.
I just saw an article about you and your company closing on a new development site. Congratulations! I hope all is well and you are enjoying CBRE.
I wanted to let you know I will be moving companies soon and am have attached my new contact info. I hope we stay in touch and we should grab coffee soon!
Just like your mother told you: be sure to follow up and write a nice thank you note. They are mostly common sense, just often forgotten. Be sure to do them and make the most of your interview!
I’ve put together this book to help you follow the one piece of advice I tell people over and over: Do informational interviews. They are absolutely crucial to your career and will benefit you in the immediate and long term. It is as easy as asking someone out to coffee, but as transformative as a brand new career, investment, mentorship or friendship.
I really want you to do them. This is by far the most-often given advice I offer, and universally the least heeded. I understand that it is incredibly difficult to go out on a limb and ask for someone to coffee, especially if you don’t know that someone.
Imagine though, the opportunities that exist for you. Think: by doing one informational interview, you have a huge leg up on everyone else you are competing against. You’ll have access to free knowledge and connections that most rarely ask for. People are right in front of you, every day, and are begging to help someone just like you out, and are just waiting to be asked.
In fact, I’ll offer to be your first one. Email me at email@example.com. Come to meet me in Southern California, and I’ll grab a coffee with you. If you ask, I might even give you some new people to meet with or your next job.
So please, take my advice, do lots of Informational Interviews. You’ll be glad you did.