5 Ways to ask for help when the going gets tough

I work with a lot of smart people. Folks who have done amazing things in their careers, raised great children, changed their communities, created fine pieces of art and solved complex problems.

As they are starting up their business, they often hit a wall if they can’t figure something out. Many get paralyzed, and lose confidence and momentum the longer they don’t have an answer.

Some of this is based on assumptions they make about what people think of those who ask for help.

Common assumptions about asking for help in a competitive environment:

  • If you ask for help, you are weak
  • People are too busy to help
  • Asking for help is a nuisance

Common assumptions about asking for help in the new world of entrepreneurship:

  • If you ask for help, you want to learn
  • People love to share their expertise: it helps them to feel valued and validated
  • Asking for help is the quickest way to grow a business, start a movement and attain your goals

When you are in a stuck place and feel overwhelmed, the one thing that will not make you feel better is spending more time alone thinking. You will go from:

“I cannot figure out how to set up this sales letter!” to

“I will never be able to set up this sales letter!” to

Who was I to ever think that I had any talent?”

It is a very ugly spiral.

To avoid this, you need to get used to asking for help early and often.

The key to getting great help is to make the request clear and brief. I call it the Seth Godin Test. Uber-busy author and entrepreneur Seth Godin is famous for replying to virtually every email that passes his inbox (or at least it appears so). But he does it with utmost brevity.

So channel Seth and write your questions in a form that will allow someone to give a brief and specific answer.

Good Technique : “Hey Pam, do you know anyone who specializes in local business marketing strategies?” (As a matter of fact, I do, and her name is Carmen Sognonvi)

As opposed to:

Bad Technique : “Hey Pam, how should I market my business?”

This kind of broad question makes my head spin, and is really hard to answer with a brief email. I can’t imagine what Seth would say, but it would probably be something deep like:

“Stand out.”

5 Ways to Ask for Help:

  1. Describe the specific thing you need help with in clear language.

    “I have a great software product, but I have no idea which conference to speak at in the New York area to attract ideal customers.”

    “I need to change the header on my WordPress site, but I don’t know how to do it.”

    “I need to get my own health insurance, but don’t know where to get started.”

  2. Send a Tweet. I consider Twitter much better than Google search, because all answers are vetted by people I already know, like and trust. If you do not have a big Twitter following yet, ask someone who does. I constantly poll my 30k Twitter circle with questions from friends and clients. Make sure your question is clear, brief and includes “thanks.”

    Example: “Does anyone know a great health insurance broker in the Seattle area? Thanks in advance!”

  3. Use LinkedIn Answers. LinkedIn is full of smart and helpful people who can answer a whole range of professional questions. If someone answers your question, be sure thank them, extend and invitation to connect, and let them know you are available to answer questions for them as well. http://www.linkedin.com/answers/
  4. Attend free calls and webinars. I have been hosting a free monthly call for the past three years at Escape from Cubicle Nation. I get a huge range of questions, and there are no strings attached to participating. Look for similar offers in your market – companies often host free training on their products, and other coaches or consultants do the same. Sometimes you will be pitched to buy something at the end, but that is a reasonable price to pay for free information. http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com/free-calls/
  5. Ask friends and colleagues from your professional organizations or programs. You may have a great connection with someone that attends a monthly networking meeting you go to, or is in an educational program that you participate in. Send a direct message to them, and see if they can help you. Some of these early exchanges can lead to more extended learning partnerships like masterminds. I met Philippa Kennealy, from Entrepreneurial MD in a program run by Andrea Lee, and after some brief exchanges, she and I became mastermind partners for the whole first year we started our blogs (way back in 2005!). She is a big reason why I got early momentum and success on my blog.

Asking for help, and giving help on a consistent basis, is the best thing you can do for your business. Entrepreneurship does not have to be a lonely grind, it can be a rich exchange of ideas, information and resources.

So if you are feeling stuck, go on, ask for help!

What tips would you offer to someone who was afraid to ask for help? I would love your thoughts in the comments.

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