Having Open Office Hours is the Best Way to Help People

Summary: Inspired by my friend Joel Gascoigne of Buffer, I recently created Open Office hours to give free advice to any entrepreneur in the world. In addition to meeting great people, learning a lot, and building passionate fans, creating Open Office hours was more productive for everyone. If you’re helping people ad hoc through email, phone calls, or coffee meetings I suggest you give it a try.  I’m also starting a new email newsletter to share more lessons about this topic, next issue: The 1-Minute Guide to Creating Open Office Hours with Google Calendar.  Get it here.

A Skype Call with Joel Gascoigne of Buffer

A few months ago I started doing Customer Development on product ideas to help entrepreneurs ask and give advice. Like most startup ideas, I assumed I knew a lot about the problem but quickly realized I didn’t know much about how entrepreneurs and advisers ask and give advice.

I stumbled upon Joel Gascoigne’s Startup Help page where anyone can schedule time with him over Skype or coffee to get help with their startup.  I thought this was odd. “How does he  block out hours a week to do help just anyone?”, I thought. “Why does it he do it and is it worth the opportunity cost of not working on his own projects?”

So I did the obvious: I found an open slot on his calendar and had a Skype call with him to ask questions. It quickly became obvious that he was getting huge value from this investment of time: learning about challenges that other entrepreneurs are having, getting inspiration for blog posts, and meeting great people. And while he is far too genuinely modest to say so, he was clearly building a passionate fan base for his products and blog.

I’m making this claim from personal experience: I’m now a passionate fan of Joel Gascoigne after this one conversation.

I decided then that I also wanted to test out offering Open Office Hours to see how it works.

Initial Fears: Letting Anyone Schedule Time with Me

3 years of working in venture capital and a life of living in America where people try to sell us crap constantly had conditioned me to be cautious about making myself available.

What if people just schedule time to try and sell me stuff? What if the same crazy person takes up every available slot? Will I invest a huge amount of time helping people for nothing, time away from my own work and family?

I’d like to tell you that I’m an antruistic person who just wants to help anyone, but my behavior doesn’t reflect that – like most people I want to make an impact. What if nobody follows my advice or only asks me questions they could find on Google or StackOverflow? Helping people by troubleshooting Rails stack errors doesn’t sound like a great use of my time.

My Real Fears were About Me

Want the truth? My real fears were deeper than this and not about the people who would contact me. My real fears were rooted in my feelings about me.

I was concerned that people would assume I thought so highly of myself as to ask them to work around MY schedule. I was worried people would ask me questions I didn’t know how to answer. After all, I’m no Brad Feld or Fred Wilson.

But most of all I worried that no one would call.

In spite of these reservations, I took the plunge and created slots on my calendar where any entrepreneur in the world could schedule time to call me on Skype or meet me in person.  You can schedule time right now.

In retrospect ALL of my fears were laughably unfounded. I’ve proven it. You probably have the same fears and yours are unfounded too.

I’m Meeting GREAT People

Many of my initial concerns were about WHO I would be talking to. I enjoyed every – and I do mean every – conversation I’ve had. I learned something in every conversation and every entrepreneur I spoke to had good questions. Many questions were related to problems I’ve had or things I was trying to solve myself. If a question is outside of my experience I just tell them so and try to point them to other resources.

Some entrepreneurs are just starting and struggling, some are clearly on a path of greater success than I’ve ever had. Some people just wanted to get a quick perspective from an unbiased 3rd party.

No sales pitches. No crazy people.

But, like Joel, I’m getting good ideas for future blog posts and getting a deeper understanding of the problems entrepreneurs are having.

Open Office Hours are More Efficient for Me

Far from a time drag, having Open Office Hours has actually been more efficient for me. Previously I would meet people at events who wanted to ask for help or get emails from people with questions. Sometimes I would get caught up in long email conversations. Sometimes we would try to schedule coffee or lunch.

Having spent 15 years in Washington, DC and now 1 year in Beijing, China I know that a 1-hour lunch is a 2 hour commitment; I can answer most questions in 20 minutes or less.

In the past I often told people “I don’t have time now”; in retrospect, I just didn’t have a good process.

Somebody I don’t know emails me?  I just send them the link to my open office hours page.

And More Efficient for the People I Help

What is most interesting is how many people have commented that advertising slots when I’m free and WANT to help them has made it EASIER for them.

It seems so obvious in retrospect; rather than having to get caught in a string of “does-this-slot-work-for-you” emails people can instantly grab an open slot.

Nobody has to find my email address or wonder whether they’re bugging me.  They get more value from 30 seconds of scheduling and 30 minutes of Skype than 5 emails and a 2-hour lunch.

Still got Questions?  I’ve Got Answers

Lots of people have asked me about my Open Office Hours so I started writing this blog post.  I soon realized it was actually 10 or 20 posts. I had so many more questions when I started and had to figure a lot of things out. I’m still testing new ideas and trying to optimize my process.

What scheduling tool should I use? Who should I help? Is it ok to ask people to thank me with a “Follow” or “Tweet” afterward? How do I configure my WordPress page to make it obvious what people should do? When should I schedule times? How should I prepare for calls? How should I help them prepare to make the best use of our time? Should I use Skype or face-to-face? Or both? How should I let people know about it?

I’ve started a new Email Newsletter called Kevin’s Helpful Marketing where I’ll be writing in detail on how I’m solving these problems. If you care about building fans for your personal brand, blog, product or service I promise you’ll learn something.

Next Issue of Kevin’s Helpful Marketing Newsletter: The 1-Minute Guide to Creating Open Office Hours with Google Calendar.  Get it here.

And – of course – you can also schedule time with me and I’ll answer whatever questions you have and help you get started right away.  Remember that I WANT to help you.  Yes, you.

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Photo credit: Me! I took in Sanya, China during a coffee meeting.

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