One Story of How Not to Build Relationships with VIPs, like AppSumo Founder Noah Kagan

how not to build relationships with vips

Note from John: Awhile back, I had a guest post published on (the personal site for AppSumo founder Noah Kagan) about how to cold email VIPs. In that article, I wrote about how I reached out to Noah with a cold email and managed to interview him. Iíve since gotten to know him better by consistently providing value to him and his business.

Shortly after I published that post, I got contacted by Adam Smith. Adam wanted to share a story about an experience in which he went too far trying to develop a relationship with Noah by flying from Japan to show up at a sold-out AppSumo retreat.

I was willing to share Adamís story here because (a) Noah was cool with it and (b) Adam is candid in owning up to his mistake, and I think there are some valuable lessons here about how not to build relationships with people you admire.

Hereís Adam:

This is an embarrassing story. I’ve been reluctant to share it.

But I will because I think it’s the right thing to do and I want you to learn from my mistakes.

This is a story of how NOT to build a relationship with someone.

In my case, that someone was Noah Kagan.

Noah Kagan, for those of you who don’t know, is Chief Sumo at

He was employee #30 at Facebook, and #4 at Mint.

He went on to found a Facebook payment system for games, which made him millions.

Then he founded, which sells tools for entrepreneurs at low prices (it’s a seriously awesome site. They give out a ton of free stuff, too).

I was enrolled in Noah’s course. I was one of the first people to join.

It was great — I learned how to create ideas and validate them in an entirely new way. I still think the course is extremely valuable and can recommend it wholeheartedly.

Anyhow, while I was on deployment I got an email from Noah saying he was hosting a retreat in Seattle. Only 10 people could go, and the cost was $2,500.

I was elated when I saw it. As soon I went to click “buy” it was



But I wasn’t about to be defeated that quick. I made up in my head at that moment that I was going. It was sort of maniacal how devoted I was.

I told EVERYONE I knew that I got a spot in the retreat and I was going.

I was hoping the Jedi mind tricks would work and the universe would align to my desires.

HAH! Not quite.

I bought a plane ticket, told Noah I was coming:

email adam smith


Noah asked me politely not to come a number of times:

email Noah Kagan


And again a day later:

email Noah Kagan 2


This is a very rational response considering he didn’t know me at all. I could be a killer for all he knows.

NOTE from John: At this point, you can tell from the emails back and forth that Noah was realizing this wasnít a joke. Noah had asked Adam if he could cancel his flight, but Adam responded by saying his flight was ďnon-refundable.Ē

Well, I figured once he saw how dedicated I was he couldn’t resist.

When I arrived, Noah greeted me and we went inside. I gave him and the AppSumo team some handwritten cards thanking them for their work.

I also brought a bottle of habu-sake. It’s made from the poisonous Habu snake from Okinawa, Japan.

Noah said thank you for the gifts and seemed happy.

Good start.

So, right now I’d like to point out several mistakes I made.

1. I Invited Myself

Showing up at a retreat that you werenít invited to and/or havenít paid to attend is a no-no. Think back to when your friends had a party and some random people show up because they heard from a friend of a friend you had a party. It’s not cool.

In business, there is great value to conquering your fear and being willing to ask for things you want in spite of the potential of rejection, but you must know when to relent when the answer is a clear Ďno.í There is a fine line between being persistent and stepping over the line.

2. I Insisted to Noah I would help him, Even Though My Help Was Not Needed

I told Noah that I would arrive at a certain time. He said to show up later, as the team had to get settled in.

I immediately thought, “Great! I can show him how useful I am and show up!” Not so much. Again, imagine if someone you didn’t know was crashing your party. Then he was blowing up your phone asking to come over and help you earlier than you wanted any of the invited guests to arrive. WTF?

3. I was Starstruck

This was the first time I’d met a successful entrepreneur. Noah was someone I looked up to. And it showed. I was acting like a retarded fan boy. I was delusional and this made me act like a weirdo instead of just being myself.

4. I Thought my Unlimited Charm and Wit Would Win the Day.

I was immature to think that I would charm Noah and the AppSumo team. I wasn’t entitled to anything. I hadn’t accomplished anything in the business world yet. I thought if I showed Noah how much of a go-getter I was that I would win him over and he’d HAVE to let me stay. What ended up happening?

I looked like a fool. I walked around the mansion asking people what they thought of this idea, or if they would buy this, etc. Totally. Not. Cool.

Since I’m not completely socially retarded, people did like me and liked to talk to me. I met a few people that I liked, and I think they liked me. By this point I’d only been at the party for about 15 minutes.

When I saw Noah go outside, I thought I would follow him so I could talk to him privately. Up to this point all we’d really said to each other was hi.

He looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Alright Adam, what do you want?”

I was shocked at how straightforward he was. His eyes looked warm and caring, but at the same time icy and hard.

I felt like I was the center of attention when he talked to me. I’d never experienced someone quite this intense.

I stammered a response, “I just want to be successful.” He stared at me.

I’ll never forget what he said next, “You know, you’re pretty rude just showing up here like this. What am I supposed to do? We barely have room for the people who are here. I don’t even know you.”

A lump started to form in my throat. I’ve never had someone talk so bluntly before.

“I’m sorry. I just thought if I took a chance and a risk and maybe failed like everyone says to do I’d be more of an entrepreneur or something.”

He stared.

I kept talking.

“I don’t want to be stuck in a life I didn’t choose. I’m in the military because I didn’t know what else to do. Everyone here gets stuck in a rut and hates their lives because they don’t believe in themselves. That’s not me. I know I can do good things in the world, but I need help doing that. I don’t know what to do. All of this is so new to me.”

At this point I was getting pretty emotional. I may have even shed a tear. I don’t remember.

To be honest I don’t even know what was said next. I had tunnel vision. This was a big moment for me — to prove myself. To show Noah what I was made of. I laid my heart on the table for him to see. I didn’t know this was such a big deal to me until I started talking to him.

“Come with me,” he said. “I’ll show you a few things. Grab your laptop and I’ll meet you at the big table inside.”

I grabbed my laptop and sat down next to him.

He proceeded to teach me how to start a business.

It was the same stuff that was in the course I took.

Exactly the same.

“Well of course it’s the same,Ē said Noah. ďIf it was easy, everyone would have a business.”

Damn. What’s wrong with me? I thought. Why can’t I grasp this information and just do it?

A few minutes of silence went by. I’m not sure what I was doing on the laptop. Maybe looking for business ideas on or something. I don’t remember.

“Hey Noah, can I ask you for one more thing?”

His voice was rising, “You know what? You…”

“Can I take a picture with you?” I asked quickly before he got even more angry.

“Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

noah kagan adam smith

That was it. After that I mingled for a few more minutes, then he asked me to leave.

I left.

I expected this to happen. I set my expectations low so I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Looking back, I could have done a few things differently:

1. Ask How I Could Help

I should have asked how I couldhelp without being annoying or in the way. I could have researched caterers or identified a location for the group dinner, or found something fun for the group to do, even after I found out the event was sold out. I didn’t do any of these things.

2. Suggested Locations for Next Year’s Retreat

I could have sent an email to Noah with a very detailed and specific list of retreat locations which could accommodate a similar sized group for the next yearís retreat.

3. Apologize sincerely.

If I could go back, I would have sent a handwritten card to Noah telling him I was sorry. This could have helped to salvage the relationship. We are all under pressure to succeed in this world. Itís O.K. to screw up as long as you own up to it and apologize.

I truly believe the situation could have been salvaged had I done these few simple things.

I want to clear one thing up: Iím not usually a bold person. Under pressure, I freeze and tend to not do anything. Analysis paralysis is in my personality because I can think about a topic from fifty different angles. Itís great for coming up with ideas, but terrible when it comes to execution.

How do you get better at executing, overcoming fear and living the life you want? Just do it.

Even though this didnít turn out the way I wanted, I learned a TON and I am able to share this small failure with you all so you can learn something from it.

Adam Smith is a behavioral expert who assists people in changing their lives using focused daily actions. You can check out his blog at

What did you think of Adamís story? Was he gutsy or did he step over the line (and if so, when)? Leave a comment below.


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  12. Chris L. says

    Very honest. Appreciate you sharing.

    I wanted to ask about lesson #1

    I’ve heard that asking a VIP what they want help with is not actually a good idea. (Ramit Sethi’s opinion)

    But when I read the description it seems like you were actually thinking of ways to help without asking what they might need help with.

    Am I misunderstanding or is there just a difference of opinion on this one?

  13. I hate to state the obvious but maybe this will help- your bio at bottom says:
    “Adam Smith is a behavioral expert” but this post doesn’t support that. And whle you could say well this is what I”ve learned, it shows such poor judgement about people, behaviour etc. that Adam I don’t know if it supports your burgeoning online business.
    Just sayin”

  14. Thanks so much for sharing Adam, we all make super embarrassing mistakes but we don’t all have the courage to share them this way. But there’s a really interesting point in this post that is a little buried so I just want to highlight it here: when Adam sat down with Noah to get business help, Noah took him through the same stuff that was already covered in his course! Why? Because it’s what Noah knows works and that this is the first step.

    It’s very tempting for us to feel that if we just sit down with someone that has authored great material that they can bestow some amazing pearl of wisdom. But if we haven’t even implemented what they have taught us already, how can they possibly help further?

    What if instead of booking this whole plane trip, Adam had implemented everything he possibly could from Noah’s course? And then got in touch with Noah in a reasonable way, to get help with the parts that he got stuck on, showing all the work he put in?

  15. Nothing we learn in life is lost if we do a few key things afterward: 1. Reflect; 2. Change/Adapt based upon our learning; 3. Go at it again in new situations/Application in innovative ways. Sounds like you’ve done all three, and learned quite a bit. Don’t let this life lesson embarrass you more than you’ve already felt. We live and learn. Thank you for your honesty, as it helps others.

  16. Sandra Griffith, Milton, Ontar says

    I think that Adam was very focused on reaching this particular goal and he went all out. There were the negative aspects of gate crashing, lack of courtesy, the hero worship mindset and last but not least thinking that a personal relationship existed because of the purchase of a program. However, there were some positive learnings from this like focusing on the goal, risk taking and persevering against all odds.

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