I use small barriers to avoid kooks

Ramit Sethi

The weird thing about getting a little publicity is that you start to get kooks coming out of the woodwork. People write wanting to “collaborate” on something but mostly they just want to get popular without working. The conferences you go to have lots of “independent consultants” offering advice but they are really just unemployed. And if you ever try to hire people, as Whodini so eloquently put it, “the freaks come out at night.” Indeed.

Small barriers matter, and you can use them strategically to weed out wackos. When I speak at conferences or get emails from people who want to work together, I sometimes create a small barrier. “I really like PBWiki,” they might say. “Are you looking for interns?”

Yeah, we are. Before, I used to hand out my card and tell them to get in contact. Maybe 10% would. (This is already a dismal follow-up rate for a group that self-selected themselves to go up and ask for someone’s card.) Now, I hand out my card and tell them this: “Yes, definitely! Here, take my card and get in touch. Just make your own wiki first and then email me. We can talk about what you’d want to improve.”

New response rate? Maybe 2%. When I ask them to do something really trivial (creating a wiki takes 10 seconds), in other words, 80% of the people who used to contact me drop off the face of the earth. But the people who do get in touch are far more interested and better qualified.

Small barriers matter.

The Stanford admissions office is busy every year. With an acceptance rate around 12%, it has lots of tough decisions to make, and it rejects thousands every year (enough valedictorians to fill the freshman class, actually). But it doesn’t have to spend time considering the thousands of students who don’t even bother to apply. I’m talking about the ones who say, “I’m not going to apply there because I could never get in.” Good! Less wasted time! With this in mind, they don’t try and they don’t get in. In fact, they don’t deserve to get in. They just made it easier for Stanford.

Small barriers really matter.

Startups are known to ask applicants what 3 things they would do if they ran the company. After the interview, they tell the applicant to email them tomorrow with their thoughts. Many don’t. They eliminate themselves from consideration. My hiring-manager friends love this. Eliminate the kooks. Keep the hungry ones, the ones who take initiative.

When I wrote about barriers before, it was about how barriers are your enemy. But when you’re on the other side of the table, trying to find good people or partnerships, you can use them to your advantage. Get rid of the barrier-stricken people and find the best. How? Just make them cross a small hurdle.

My previous article: Barriers are your enemy

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  1. Jared Iverson

    I agree completely. Barriers are essential when you’re trying to find the right people to join your organiztion (whether it’s college or hiring for your business). When we were looking for programmers for our company the barrier we created was to greatly down-play the compensation and the company’s projected profits. We wanted programmers who were more passionate about the product and the company vision than they were about the money. It helped a lot during the higher process to find the right people.

    • Jack

      Hiring process* 😀

  2. Paul Lopes

    Sometimes people just find you interesting enough that they want to make “contact”. It’s hard to tell someone whom you admire you like their writing without sounding like a complete suck-up or kook. I know that I try to talk shop in those situations (maybe not the best approach). You have a business I have a business, something we have in common so lets talk…

    People are nervous enough and then you throw up a “barrier” and it makes it obvious you don’t want to talk so they back away slowly, not trying to offend you any further. SO… Does that mean they’re a kook or that you’re just a cocky-son-of-a-gun? I guess that’s what we love about you:)

  3. Ramit Sethi

    Hey Paul. Thanks for the comment but I have to totally disagree. I’m like the easiest person to get in touch with–my email address is plastered all over my sites, and I answer every one. I’m flattered and I LOVE it when anyone comes up just to meet.

    This post was about when someone comes up in a business context and specifically asks to work together. Then I sometimes use small barriers.

  4. Milind

    Love the post.

    Putting up “barriers” also forces managers to focus on behaviors they care about and will look for in the people working for them. Managers who do this successfully will find people who are, just as you say, “far more interested and better qualified”. Managers who can’t do this are no good to work for anyway!

  5. Jared Goralnick

    Excellent thought. Perhaps an equally valuable lesson is to look at it from the opposite perspective: few people will actually take the time to scale the small hurdle. If you are one of the few that does then you’ll stand out from the crowd. If you meet or exceed someone’s expectations for a follow-up you’ll be in such a minority that you’ll usually get a response or a friend for later on. And, if you don’t get a response, don’t stop there, send another email a week or two later, maybe with a link to an article they might like. Just about everyone will write back at this point. Aim for lunch next and you’re in.

    Even more: if there’s someone you want to get to know further, make it clear that you will email/call them. Not vice versa, even if they say they’ll call. Lesson 1 in business: people don’t email/call you when they say they will. So why bother to wait for them or to accept their “I’ll get in touch.” Set the expectation that you’ll be the one and then do it. You’ll do better in business. You’ll even do better meeting women with this approach… Great tip, Ramit!

  6. Kirubakaran

    I agree with you.

    When I tell people of my own age that I am running a startup myself (I try to avoid this in the first place), everyone wants to “join the effort” in one way or the other. And they insist. But so far I’ve seen that they only end up wasting my time 🙁 I applied something very similar to your idea – without being aware that I was doing this – and it did work. Very effective at keeing the chaff away.

  7. K


    I prefer to call them tourists.

    I agree life’s too short to spend time on tourists.

    Heck, life’s too short to hold hands.

    If it’s a long drawn out process to get them up to speed, how do you think they’ll ever keep up?

  8. J. Christian

    I was shocked when I found out that most people DO NOT send hand-written “Thank You’s” after interviewing for a perspective job/graduate school.

    Small barrier.

    I even send hand written thank yous to the secretaries who arrange the travel/interviews. It’s a small thing, but they often hold sway over decisions. It’s one more personal point of contact that shows that you really care. It doesn’t take that long, and it cost 39 cents.

    I shuddered when a friend said she was going to EMAIL a thank you to a professor she interviewed with for a PhD program! With a program where you will spend an incredible amount of time with someone – not to mention where the acceptance rate is SO low – I think a hand-written gesture is in order. And what if the professor never checks email? (This is known to happen).

    Small barrier. Invisible, not purposely set, but one I consider to ALWAYS be there.

  9. MsBluebells

    Interesting. I use this a lot if people or things hassle me in small ways I refuse to engage with them. Especially over the net. I have a very low threshold for being hassled. Life is short.