A couple of years after launching my interview series, I started running out of guests to interview. My network of entrepreneurs was sizable, but it wasn’t infinite. How could I reach outside my network but still get quality guests?
Many of the entrepreneurs I interviewed had a similar problem, like Naomi Simson, founder of RedBalloon, which enables people to gift experiences, such as hot air balloon rides and car race days. When she ran out of contacts at companies that offered experiences, she asked her suppliers for referrals. That did the trick.
Since many businesses use referrals, I figured interviewers could too. And I found a way to make them even more powerful.
If you listen to my early interviews, you’ll hear me ask guests for referrals within the interviews … with my whole audience listening. I wanted to share my approach with my audience and show them how I was thinking about upcoming guests. It also had the benefit of committing my guests to follow through on their offers to introduce me.
This is how I met one of my best interviewees. When I interviewed Tikhon Bernstam about how he built Scribd, the document-sharing site with over 100M monthly users, I asked him, “Who do you know that I should be interviewing the way I just interviewed you?”
It used to be that when I got a referral for an interview, I would say, “Thank you. Could you introduce me?” Top salespeople I interviewed taught me to say instead, “Thank you. Who else?” and keep growing my list. As it happened, I knew and interviewed the first people Tikhon thought of, but then he mentioned someone I hadn’t heard of before: Emmett Shear, the co-founder of Twitch. Emmett had helped Tikhon with how to grow his business.
“Can I hit you up for an introduction to Emmett?” I asked him, with my recording going, so my audience could hear the interaction. “Absolutely, anytime,” he said. A few days later, I interviewed Emmett, who told me about the process he went through to build Twitch, the video broadcasting site that he ended up selling to Amazon for $970M in cash.
And how did I meet Tikhon? The previous month I interviewed David Rusenko about how he built the website builder Weebly and quietly got over 11M websites to use it. I asked him for an intro to founders he respected most. Tikhon was at the top of his list.
Keep asking good interviewees for people like them. If you’re interviewing people within a small niche, this technique could be the best way to find new guests. If you’re in a space where people tend not to respond to strangers, this could be your only way of getting guests. There’s nothing more effective than a trusted friend saying, “I think you should do this interview. I did it too.”
And if you’re in an expanding industry like the one I focus on—tech startups—there’s simply no way to know everyone worth talking to. You need people in the space to tell you who’s there. I could probably supply my podcast with a new guest every day for the rest of my life with this one technique alone.
The only downside of asking for referrals is the lack of variety. People tend to refer other people similar to them. Tikhon, Emmet, and David are all male entrepreneurs who raised capital to build their startups and were in the Y Combinator accelerator program. To attract a diverse set of guests, you must be very intentional. Explicitly ask for referrals to people from different backgrounds (such as bootstrapped founders) or underrepresented groups. Use this technique to break into new social circles and expand into those worlds.
If referrals aren’t helping you find enough interview guests, or the right kinds of guests, add this next technique to your system.