Malcolm Gladwell explores this idea in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He gives the example of how a nude sculpture from the sixth century BC was suddenly discovered and deemed to be authentic by experts after extensive forensic tests. The J. Paul Getty museum bought the sculpture for $10 million in 1986.
On the first day the statue was on show, an Italian art historian noted the finger nails on the sculpture and declared it a fraud in ten seconds flat. This surface impression was later proved to be right, making a mockery of the months of due diligence carried out by the art experts.
Now I am not saying that ten seconds is enough to make a business decision about the quality of people or companies, but I do maintain that most of us have a pretty good idea about a person or business proposition in a very short space of time.
I was reminded of this when fundraising for one of my companies. Mentally, I noted who among the investors I thought was interested within the first ten minutes. That first impression proved uncannily accurate when the actual share allocations came through.
When I turn from poacher to gamekeeper – i.e. when I am looking to invest in a company – I have no doubt that I make up my view pretty quickly, and often find that reading extensive business plans can be a distraction.
So what are the key factors that influence a first impression in business? Let me give you some ideas.
- Showing respect – Turning up late is obviously a no-no without a good excuse. But it’s equally important to make sure you agree with your potential investor about what type of presentation they want, and let them set the pace. It’s excruciating to force people to go through details that they don’t think are relevant. By the way, dress smartly. A tie isn’t required per se, but look sharp and remember where you are – so don’t drop your briefcase on the polished boardroom table. Also, ask about them and what they are looking for and get feedback on what they think about your business.
- No product demonstrations – It is not what I think of a product that counts, it is what the market thinks. Without doubt, the best reference point for your product is always your customer. You must mention what they use it for, their number and quality, and why they chose your product vis-à-vis the competition. Bear in mind that investors are looking to make money. Good products are important but when management is too focused on them, companies often fail. Generally marketeers are the key to business success.
- Answering questions – Don’t get defensive or incensed if the line of questioning appears to be criticising management or the business model. Try and see it from their perspective and probe to see if they really do have a valid point. Even if they say ‘no’ one can learn a lot from an independent assessment.
- Clarity of thought – Get to the point at the beginning of your meeting. Say what you want, why they should go for your business and don’t be afraid to put some numbers on things. Ask them questions and listen to their responses. Going back to the book Blink, the first ten minutes are the most important for people so make sure that you have made your strongest points during that time.
- Business ambience – Tailor your business appearance, your office decor and your hospitality to the right level. Tea served in china cups by pretty girls is great for meeting investment bankers, but for small businesses you need to really think about the ambience you want to create. This also applies to the car you drive – park the Bentley at home if you are a manufacturing company in a competitive industry – take the wife’s Mini instead! When taking a client out, choose the right style and appearance again to fit the impression you are trying to create.
- Smile – Body language matters. If you welcome someone with a firm handshake and look in their eyes, say thank you for coming, and look after them and smile, it makes all the difference. Rather like dating someone for the first time I guess…