Every week, I get at least one email from a stranger asking for a job here on the show. They offer to run my social media, write a guest post for the blog, or just “help out with whatever you need.” One time a 23-year-old from Tucson offered to respond to all my hate mail. I told him I didn’t need any help with that, since it’s actually kind of fun, but it did make me chuckle.
On one level, I respect these emails. It takes guts to write a stranger asking for a job. I love that people are creating a role for themselves, and I appreciate that these young people — and they do tend to be young — are trying to be generous when they’re first starting out.
But in the 14 years I’ve been hosting my show, I haven’t taken more than one or two people up on this offer.
Not because they weren’t nice, or because they didn’t have useful skills, or because I was too busy to respond.
I didn’t hire them because what they were offering wasn’t what I actually needed.
And in almost every case, when I tried to tell them what I did need, they’d invariably respond with some version of, “Cool, I get that you need someone to help with back-end support right now, but you know, I’m really more interested in building your Instagram following.”
“Okay,” I’d respond. “That’s good to know. But what I need is back-end support.”
And again they’d come back with something like, “Well, that’s not what I want to do. Do you want to hire me for what I want to do?”
And that, right there, is why they failed to get a foot in the door.
Where Value Meets Need
When someone responds to a traditional job posting, they’re applying for a role that requires their skills and speaks to their interests. An employer puts out a job description that explains what they need, and the candidate explains why those needs line up with what they can offer. They wouldn’t apply to an IT manager position offering PR services, or insist on doing a Salesforce implementation for a mom-and-pop cement company. The exchange of value is clear with traditional jobs: Company needs X, candidate can provide X, therefore they’re a match.
But for some reason, people trying to create a role for themselves tend to forget this essential exchange. They look at what they want to do, and then they try to foist those services on anyone who answers their inquiry.
Which, to be fair, isn’t the worst idea in the world, as long as there’s someone who actually needs those services. And sometimes that approach does work, either because their timing is good (the employer just happened to be thinking about their Instagram following) or because the service in question is so broad (everyone needs a bookkeeper at some point).
But more often than not, I meet self-starters who basically say: This is what I do. Do you want it? And in most cases, I don’t want it. What I want is something different. But when the thing that I do want doesn’t line up with what they want, they either push harder for their original thing, or they drop off completely.
In some cases, people even go so far as to do a project for me as part of their pitch, like sending me material for a new e-course or creating video clips of my interviews for TikTok. The product is invariably weak, not just because they’re working for free, but because they’re shooting in the dark. They’re not tailoring their product to what I actually need, because they never took the time to ask. It’s frustrating and disappointing, but it also makes me feel bad that they’ve spent all this time on me — not the impression you want an employer to have when they’re first meeting you.
That’s why these people rarely succeed. They want to get a foot in the door, but they don’t take the time to study the door: how it works, which way it swings open, which feet it wants to let through.
Understanding the value you can provide isn’t enough to create a great role for yourself. You have to understand what the other person needs first.
This is the simple principle that many creative job-seekers don’t grasp. They have the ambition to carve out a role for themselves, but they don’t have the EQ to meet an employer where they are. They don’t understand that they have to make it about the other person before they can make it about themselves.
And I’m not just speaking pragmatically. Obviously, it helps to know what an employer needs before you offer your services, so you can avoid wasting everybody’s time.
But there’s something more important at stake here, too. When you take the time to understand what someone actually needs first, you’re also signaling a number of other valuable qualities.
That you’re attuned. That you’re curious. That you’re respectful.
That you’re approaching this relationship from a position of service, rather than from a position of self-interest. That you’re treating it as a relationship in the first place.
That you care.
All of these qualities make it far more likely that an employer will like you, trust you, and be willing to hand you money in exchange for your services.
And if an employer doesn’t end up hiring you, then at least you’ve still made a connection. From there, you can build the relationship in all sorts of ways.
You could make an introduction to someone who actually does meet their needs — which is one of the best ways to instantly deepen a relationship.
You could stay in touch and see if your services line up with their needs down the line.
Or you could offer your time, ideas or support, and build a friendship that pays dividends for years.
But these possibilities never open up for people who focus on their own interests too quickly. The irony, of course, is that they’d be serving their own interests much better if they stop focusing on them exclusively.
That’s why it’s so important to invest in other people with no immediate expectation of return. If your goal is to build strong relationships, you have to be willing to find out what the other person needs — even if that’s different from what you had hoped — and follow those signals to the more urgent form of value at stake.
The person who can create that value is the person who creates a great relationship — and, in all likelihood, far more opportunities down the line.
Taking the time to figure out what someone needs first isn’t just a matter of efficiency. It’s also a matter of effectiveness.
The key is to find your own value within someone else’s need — not the other way around.
So the next time you meet with a prospective employer, client or partner to discuss a proposal, take a moment and switch your lens.
Instead of asking yourself, “How can I get this person to give me what I want?”, ask yourself, “How can I find out what they really need?”
Then, and only then, should you pitch your services — once you know that they’re truly useful, and you’ve built a foundation of trust and rapport.
With that in mind, let’s talk about how to put this principle into action in an actual meeting, so that this isn’t just feel-good fluff on some dude’s blog.
The Briefcase Technique
Asking an employer what they need is a far more effective strategy than blindly pitching your services. But an even more powerful strategy is to anticipate those needs before you even meet.
Candidates, vendors, and freelancers who identify what someone needs before they even talk to them tend to close at a much higher rate. They make it about the other person in advance, which automatically puts them farther down the field.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell.
Say you book a meeting with a prospective employer or client who’s expressed interest in working with you. The nature of your role isn’t clear yet, but you know that they want to get to know you and your work better.
Before you enter the meeting, you do your homework on the company and executive. You get a handle on their strengths and goals. You do your due diligence on their weaknesses and challenges. And most importantly, you identify the gaps in their capabilities and resources.
That way, by the time you’re sitting across from the person who can hire you, you have a strong grasp of their challenges and a clear point of view on how to solve them.
Then, when the conversation turns to your salary or rate, you pause and say, “Actually, before we get to that, let me show you something I put together.”
Then you reach into your briefcase (or whatever non-Gordon Gekko equivalent you use these days) and literally pull out a brief proposal.
This document isn’t about your qualifications or your rate, as so many proposals tend to be. It’s about the challenges you’ve found in this person’s business and exactly how you would solve them.
These solutions should be laid out as a set of projects and tasks that you would take on — testing the company’s website conversion, conducting interviews with customers, training staff on new processes and technology, etc. — and how long it would take you to finish them.
The way Ramit describes it, this document should be the most compelling menu this person has ever looked at — a list of the problems they know about (and maybe even a few they don’t!), and a clear plan for how you will solve them.
At that point, you invite the other person to let you know which of your services they want the most. What you’re basically saying is, “I’ve already taken the time to figure out what you need to get done, and the person to do it is me.”
I love this technique. I’ve used it myself when pitching partners and sponsors, and I’ve seen vendors and freelancers use it when pitching me. Although I’m always surprised that people don’t use it more often, given how well it works.
In fact, even when I spot this technique in action, if it’s done well, I usually still come to the conclusion that I can’t afford not to hire this person.
The reason the Briefcase Technique succeeds is that it embodies the principle we’ve been talking about in this piece, but pushes it a step forward. It doesn’t just consider the other person’s needs. It anticipates them. And it finds a way to fulfill them before you even step foot in the room (or jump on the phone, or hop on Zoom).
It’s how you say: “I’ve taken the time and energy to really understand where you’re coming from, because that’s the kind of employee/vendor/partner I am. Now let me meet you there in a way that also benefits me, so we can create even more value and develop a great relationship.”
Which is exactly the message you want to send when you’re trying to get a foot in the door.
The Best Way to Create a Job for Yourself
So what does all of this look like in action? How can you anticipate people’s needs and pitch your services in a way that consistently secures jobs and closes deals?
The answer is to focus on the other person at every step in the process — even before they know who you are.
Do your homework.
As soon as you identify someone you’d like to meet — whether it’s for a job, a consulting contract, a partnership, or just a general meeting to build the relationship — carve out some time and do your due diligence. The information you uncover will be your calling card, your reason for reaching out, the case for making the connection in the first place.
At this stage, use every tool at your disposal. In addition to exploring the obvious resources — Google, LinkedIn, etc. — I recommend getting curious and scrappy.
Dig through the fourth, fifth, sixth pages of search results, and look for a hidden gem in the person’s life story — their competitive ultimate frisbee days, their service trip to Bhutan, their wedding announcement in a local newspaper. Don’t just settle for the surface-level information (college, hometown, work history), but drill down to the specifics — the robotics prize they won during undergrad, the interesting neighborhood they hail from, the transcript of the talk they gave at that marketing conference. These aren’t just topics to bond over in the meeting. They’re also insights into someone’s personality, strengths, and tastes.
Go down the rabbit hole of their industry and function. Get a good grasp of the trends and challenges in their space. Look for mentions of their company in publications, reports, and trade magazines. Study what their counterparts at other companies are doing by checking out their LinkedIn profiles, posts, and initiatives.
At the same time, look for mutual connections on social media, and consider reaching out to them to get more intel on the person you’re meeting. If you have a great relationship with any of these folks, you might even ask them to put in a good word ahead of time. (I do this all the time — just one more benefit of having a great network. Sometimes, doing this legwork is even an excuse to form a new connection.)
In other words, become a student of the person you’re meeting. Treat them like the most fascinating subject in the world. As you do, ask yourself the following questions:
- When this person wakes up in the morning, what are they thinking about? What are they inspired by? What are they worried about?
- What would make this person’s day? What would excite them?
- What would ruin this person’s day? What would stress them out?
- How are the larger trends in this person’s industry affecting their day-to-day experience at work?
- What should this person be thinking about today to plan ahead for the next two years?
- Whom does this person answer to? What is that person’s expectation of them? What is exciting or worrying them?
- What kind of teammates does this person have? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses?
- Do I know anyone who would be useful for this person to meet, aside from my own proposal? Have I uncovered any information that would be helpful to share?
- Have I noticed any glaring gaps or broken processes in their business? (For example, are they a brick and mortar shop but not on Yelp/Google? Is their customer landing page buggy or not converting? Do they need a better customer support solution?)
- What is my experience with their business?
If you answer these questions specifically, you’ll essentially be creating your pitch as you go. You’ll have a great insight into the person’s psychology, you’ll have a strong grasp of their industry and role, and you’ll know exactly which of your assets would address their particular needs. This is the meat and potatoes of the Briefcase Technique.
Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll still need to approach the person with curiosity and respect. The last thing I want is some knucklehead telling me that I need to be on Clubhouse without figuring out why I’m not on Clubhouse already, or what benefit that would have for my business.
But if you can deliver all of this intel with sensitivity and self-awareness, you’ll almost certainly hit the right note.
Reach out and book the meeting.
Once you’ve done your homework, then you’re well-positioned to reach out. Most people do the opposite — they book the meeting first, then frantically try to do their homework (if at all). But remember, we’re approaching this whole exchange from the other person’s point of view first.
The beauty of doing your homework is that it also maximizes your chances of booking the meeting in the first place. A cold email that’s well-researched and clearly articulates why you want to speak with this person will generate a much stronger response. It will also set the ideal tone for the meeting when it happens.
Here’s an example of a great cold email using this approach. I adapted it from actual emails I’ve sent or received that worked well in the past.
My name is Chris, and I’m a corporate writer and editor based in the Bay Area. I’m reaching out because I’m deeply excited about what you and your team are doing at Mach-5, and I wanted to introduce myself.
For the last eight years, I’ve been working with start-ups, funds and established companies to share their voice with the world. I noticed that you guys have been putting out blog posts and articles here and there over the last few years, and that your portfolio companies are also featured sporadically in tech and business publications, including a few in India and China. Now that you’ve closed your new biotech fund and are making this big push into East Asia, I see why that’s important for you guys — it’s super smart.
As I was reading up on your content strategy, I came up with some fun ideas about how we could improve the quality and impact of your pieces. I work closely with editors at a few top publications that would be amazing fits with the stories you put out, and I also have some thoughts on new formats you might want to explore in audio and in print.
Having done this exact work for several other investors, I know it would dramatically increase exposure for your team and your start-ups.
Would you be up for a 15-minute call in the next few weeks? I’d love to get to know you better, understand what you need the most right now, and see if I can help in any way.
And if you guys are all set with your content, that’s totally cool. I’d still love to chat with you if you’re up for it. I promise to keep it brief and helpful.
Look forward to it!
An email like this works nicely because it approaches the request through the lens of the employer’s needs first, and only then gestures at how the person writing can meet those needs. It also frames the meeting around the relationship in general, rather than the opportunity the person is pitching in particular.
You can also see a version of the Briefcase Technique already at work in a message like this. Chris is highlighting what he can offer, but doing it in the context of what he knows the VC firm needs. And you can imagine how much more productive the meeting will be when it actually happens, given the spirit of his letter.
As soon as the person engages, then you’ve gotten a foot in the door. After that, it’s about wedging it open and walking through.
Take the meeting and tailor your pitch.
Once you’re actually in the meeting, your job is to build on the interest and rapport you’ve created so far. You’re basically trying to dig deeper into what the other person needs, so you can better tailor your proposal to them. This is where the Briefcase Technique will be your best friend.
The best strategy at this point is to ask specific, open-ended questions that elicit meaningful responses. Listen to what the person is saying, locate the need or problem within their response, and incorporate it into your pitch or proposal. Make sure that you’re really appreciating what’s most important for them before you talk about what’s most useful for you.
Staying focused on the other person’s needs also means being flexible about your approach. Don’t be too rigid about the Briefcase Technique; it’s really just a starting point. You might walk into a meeting with an executive expecting to make a slam-dunk pitch to develop their sustainability program, only to find out that what they need most is a community manager. At that point, the last thing you’d want to do is insist on running their environmental initiatives.
Instead, keep listening, process what you’re hearing, and adjust your pitch as needed. You might tweak your proposal on the fly to better reflect their needs, using the document you created as a jumping-off point. Or you might decide to hold off on pitching, tell the executive you want to think about how you can be most useful, and then do more legwork before you talk again. For most employers, that’s music to their ears.
Again, the larger principle at play here is developing the relationship in general. In some cases, that might mean backing off of your initial pitch, adapting it in light of new information, or finding a different solution to their problem entirely — like hunting down more data, making a key introduction, or referring their business to someone who can meet their needs better.
Of course, we all hope that our services will line up immediately with someone’s needs. But sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay — which brings us to the last piece of this puzzle.
Stay close and stay useful.
The only thing better than closing a piece of business immediately is creating a relationship that will generate business for years to come. This happens all the time — but only to people who are willing to be patient, thoughtful, and generous about prioritizing the other person first.
So if you don’t close a deal or pitch immediately, I wouldn’t think of it as an automatic failure. Zoom out. Create some perspective. These setbacks are rarely a total loss. If you felt some rapport with the person you met with, then stay in touch. Send them useful articles, ideas, observations. Check in periodically and ask them how things are going. Make great introductions. And, of course, keep listening to what they need.
One day, they might actually have a problem that you can solve, and you’ll be in the pole position to be hired given your existing relationship. Or you might invest a few months into expanding your skill set, and come back to them when you can meet their needs more clearly. There are so many ways for a connection like this to pay off if you keep doing the work.
No matter where you are in the job-creating process, the overarching principle remains the same: Make it about the other person first.
If you embrace that idea wherever you go, you really can’t go wrong. And you’ll be amazed at how this lens dramatically improves your relationships, your interactions, and your revenue. It’s one of the fascinating paradoxes of success: The more you focus on other people, the more you ultimately help yourself.
So keep that in mind the next time you pitch someone. Trust that in a world full of people focusing primarily on what they want to offer, it really is the key to getting your foot in the door.
[Featured image by True Agency]