What I have learned from 100 Coffees in 2023

At the end of 2022 I set myself the goal of, in the year ahead, having coffee with 100 people.  This was driven by a few factors. 

We were having discussions at Equal Experts about what an increasingly hybrid approach to the world of work would mean for a business built around relationships, and how we might need to adapt. An exercise in intentional acts with broad but undefined potential outcomes seemed an interesting road to travel.

I was also aware that I was becoming increasingly comfortable in the luxury of my home office, and needed a reason to get out and about a bit more.

And probably, as importantly, I like to have an experimental project or two on the go, something where I get the chance to “see what happens”. Over the years that’s led to a podcast, a pack of playing cards, a way to get my head around the ever ticking clock of time, practices for working out loud and also a bunch of half thought through concepts that never really led anywhere in particular.

When I started, I imagined that I would be meeting people in the physical world. The opportunities that arose quite quickly made me realise that limiting who I met this way would be foolish. I also after a few pilot coffees developed a structure for how this would all work:

  • I’d talk about what I was doing on the various social channels on which I’ve built networks over the years
  • People mostly would self-nominate themselves to have a coffee (although I have invited a few specific people)
  • They’d sign up using an online tool (in this case Calendly)
  • We’d meet for coffee either online or in person
  • After the event I’d write up some recollections of what we talked about, taking care to keep things anonymous
  • That in turn would get publicised through the social channels and so the cycle repeated

At the beginning of September I completed my 100th coffee.

Coffee, by the way, is a metaphor. The key thing is an hour of conversation without agenda or any initial expectation other than for the value in two people having a nice chat.

So 100 coffees later, what have I learned?

Well the first thing is that setting aside an average of two hours each week to have time to have conversation without agenda or specific purpose appears to be, for many people, an act of subversion in modern business.

Our time, under the tyranny of online calendars, has become micro-managed to the nearest 30 or even 15 minutes. Some people appear to have ended up in a position where not only do they have little or no space in their working weeks to think, but also that somehow they feel that blank spaces are a sign of not working hard enough. Time spent without an agenda makes them feel guilty for “slacking off”. 

This isn’t anything new, but with increasing reliance on online meetings I have a hunch that the phenomenon appears to be getting worse.

It was interesting that the experience of meeting in person or meeting online made little difference to the richness of the conversation; I cannot remember a time in one of my online conversations where I thought “this would be so much better in a coffee shop”, yet many times in coffee shops where I thought “I’m getting too old for all this background noise”!

The big difference between one of these online coffee conversations and the average Teams or Zoom meeting was the dedication of attention. We are time poor in the micro-managed online diary world, so we attempt to multitask. We see people in meetings all the time getting distracted, obviously doing other things on other screens or in other windows. I increasingly see these behaviours happening in physical world meetings at a level even worse than in times before Covid.

But for coffee? People gave undivided attention whether online or in person. The setting and context meant we were both present, both in the moment.

“But what about ROI?” I hear you ask…

Well, maybe that’s the wrong question. If you only want to see a short term return on your activities, coffee probably isn’t for you. But you’ll be storing up problems for the future, as everything will become increasingly transactional.

We used to do this, many years ago. We’d go for lunch together in canteens at work. We’d take collective time out as the tea trolley came around at 3pm. I’m partly showing my age here, but that’s the point. The staff canteen and the tea trolley are in most places long gone. Collective spaces for interacting without agenda have been being stripped out of the working world for decades in the name of efficiency. 

Whilst the pandemic might have accelerated aspects, hybrid has been creeping up on us throughout the working lives of everyone currently working. 

And so taking steps to become intentionally unintentional will allow us to build new and existing relationships, share ideas, get new perspectives, take stock, build paths for business with clients and partners for the future and give some enjoyment to the working day. 

And talking about it openly gives inspiration and permission to others that this is OK, and good and necessary. Because ultimately business and work is about human connection, and that requires a little bit of time, and space. And a nice hot beverage helps too.

“How to have coffee?” Why on earth do I need a guide to drinking a hot beverage?

Well, coffee here is a metaphor. A metaphor for being intentional about making space in our working days to create serendipity, build relationships, reflect, have new ideas, share old ideas and a wealth of other benefits that come from conversations without agenda.

At the end of 2022, Matt Ballantine launched into an experiment called 100 Coffees. He set a target to have 100 hour-long conversations with people over the course of 2023 without an agenda, or really much idea why other than to see what happened.

This guide draws on Matt’s experiences to see how you might be able to bring a bit more serendipity into your own working life.

1. A vision for coffee

Why might you want to make more time for conversations with people over a nice hot cup of coffee (or tea)?

There are a number of reasons, and it’s important to be clear in your own mind why; this will help you to prioritise your time to allow it to happen.

Pick from:

  • Building relationships with clients, customers, colleagues and even complete strangers
  • Exploring topics you don’t currently know much about
  • Getting more diversity into your network – whether in terms of characteristics, profession, geography or mindset
  • To give space for reflection in between our Teams- or Zoom-crammed schedules
  • To see what happens…

Or identify your own. Try to keep away, though, from things that are tightly focused on benefit to you alone. Nobody wants to have coffee with someone who’s just there for themselves.

Over the course of Matt’s experiments he’s been able to:

  • Spread the word about the very unusual ways in which Equal Experts operates as a business, making introductions to our executive for HR thought leaders
  • Gain a better understanding of the current state of some of the sectors in which we operate from conversations with people in those sectors but not at our clients
  • Gain a better understanding of some of the areas of Equal Experts he hadn’t previously known
  • Make a number of introductions to people he knows in his broader network
  • Build relationships with 30 people he’d never met before
  • Identify two specific new work opportunities for Equal Experts

But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s a piece from the company Hootsuite who have been organising coffees for many years.

2. Make your diary available

If you’re going to have coffee, you need to make some space in your diary. How much time are you willing to devote? Matt’s 100 Coffees amounted to a couple of hours a week. On the one hand that’s only 5% of a 40-hour working week. On the other hand that’s two whole hours of your diary!

100 Coffees over the course of a year is actually quite a commitment. But if you really want to get into conversations beyond the superficial, anything less than an hour is simply too short. If you’re going to do this, commit to at least 1 hour a week to make it worthwhile – you won’t have coffee chats every week, after all.

You can then think about how to make your diary available to others, which is where a bit of technology can pay massive dividends. 

The most established tool for enabling people to book time in your diary without you having to get involved is Calendly.com, and that’s what Matt is using to support 100 Coffees. At the time of writing in the free versionm you can connect Calendly to your Google or Microsoft diary, allocate particular times when you might be available for appointments, set up other rules (like no more than 1 coffee per day, or to give buffer time either side of meetings), then publish it all to the internet on a simple URL.

You can book a coffee with Matt at calendly.com/matt-ballantine if you want to see how it works.

Here’s how it looks from the back end:

If you can’t link your calendar to Calendly, there is similar functionality in Google Workspace (Appointment Schedules) and Microsoft 365 (Microsoft Bookings) which work well for you, but aren’t quite as good for the person booking the meeting (because they don’t give the option to show their own availability as well as yours during the booking process).

Taking some of the friction out of booking coffees through these kind of tools makes a huge difference to how manageable it will be, unless you are blessed with the luxury of a support assistant.

3. Find some people with whom to coffee

There are three basic tactics you can deploy to recruit coffee companions, and the serendipity of the conversations you will have will probably be impacted as a result. In a scale of least to most serendipitous:

Ask someone

Go on. Drop them a note or give them a call and ask them if they’d like to meet for coffee.

However, if you want to increase your chances that they will say “yes”, then you will need to give them a reason. And this is slightly counterintuitive as the whole point of coffee in our context to not really have a reason.

Why do we need a reason? Well, because of a strange psychological quirk called the “Because Justification”. We are dramatically more likely to agree to a request if we are given a reason why we should, even if that reason is completely daft.

So don’t ask people if they would like to meet for a coffee. Ask them if they would like to meet for coffee because you are doing an experiment to see what happens if you meet people to have an hour-long conversation without an agenda.

Ask someone to ask someone

Ask some people you know to suggest some interesting people with whom you could have coffee (remembering the Because Justification) from above. It’s particularly nice to do this at the end of a coffee meeting.

Get the people you ask to introduce you to those people (ideally, people you don’t know).

Join (or form) a coffee club

Even in the years before the pandemic it wasn’t uncommon to find coffee clubs in organisations.

Usually this would involve someone maintaining a list of people who wanted to be paired up with someone new for a coffee on a regular (often monthly) basis. Every month or so new pairs would be randomly generated, and those people would have coffee together.

If there’s a coffee club in your organisation, why not join it? If there isn’t one, how about you setting one up?

If you are technically-minded, there is an open source project called Curious Coffee that can do the coffee club admin for you – here’s some background and the GitHub repository is here.

Advertise widely

Tell people that you are looking for people to meet with for coffee! We have a plethora of channels available these days, from including a note in your email signature…

… to using social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram to tell people about it.

There’s quite a leap of faith in opening up for conversations like this. The people you meet will be nice, wholesome and interesting, but do meet in public places or online.

4. Preparing for coffee

Particularly if you don’t know the person you are meeting, it’s a good idea to have a bit of background to them before you meet. But having some ideas about what to talk about isn’t the same as “I might be a stalker”. Here are a few things that might help:

How do you pronounce their name?

This is a simple thing, but as the sphere of people around us increases in diversity, we’ll increasingly find that we aren’t necessarily familiar with pronunciations. Take a bit of time to find out.

Who do you know in common?

Even for seemingly complete strangers, you’ll probably have a few mutual connections. LinkedIn here is your friend.

What do you have in common?

Organisation, professions, towns, education… again, you might find some interesting themes for conversation from a quick look through a LinkedIn profile or a Twitter feed.

5. Openings

There’s a reason we talk about the weather. It’s the verbal equivalent of a handshake. “How was your weekend?” or “How has your day/week been?” can also provide a similar opening to conversation.

Open questions, those that solicit more than just one-word answers, are key to a good conversation. They can also get quite hard if you over-think them. But as a general rule for good conversation, think about everything that you say as being an invitation on which your coffee companion can build, rather than being interrogations or statements of fact or opinion.

6. Listening

At the core of good conversations is active listening. In our post-Covid, hybrid world, giving undivided attention is increasingly difficult. Some of the habits of multitasking that have established themselves in online meeting work are even creeping increasingly into in person conversations. Here are some tactics to help you:

Remove temptations

  • If you are in the same physical space as your coffee companion, put phones, tablets and laptops away.
  • If you are meeting online, turn off every other app on your device and get your phone out of your eye line.
  • If you are online, also turn off your view of your camera so that only the person to whom you are talking is on screen (but they can still see you).


Originally a technique used for facilitators, it’s useful to think about the ORJI model in the way in we are listening in conversations:

  • We Observe (and listen to) what it is the other person is saying
  • We React at an emotional level to what they are saying
  • We make Judgement about what we will say next
  • We Interject

The risk is that we get so consumed with the Reaction and Judgement part that we completely miss what the other person is saying.


Good listening comes with practice. Try, for example, listening to talk radio for 60 seconds, and then talking through what you’ve just heard. Record it all using your phone and see how much you can capture. Don’t try to recount every word, but instead capturing the essence of what was said.

What open question would you ask next to keep the conversation going?

No notes

Don’t try to take copious notes during coffee. That’s another distraction. If there are specific actions you intend to take, an introduction (see next section) for example, jot those down. But otherwise ditch the notepad or computer.

7. Introducing

Hour-long coffee meetings without an agenda might feel purposeless. They are not. 

But if you want to introduce one super-power into the conversation, think about making introductions as a result of what you hear.

Don’t force it. And definitely don’t just introduce people to your sales team. But if, during the conversation, you think “You should talk to x” or “Y would be interested in hearing about this”, then try and make a promise to make that introduction. There is huge power in helping people to extend their own networks.

8. After coffee

Take any actions

If you have offered to make some introductions, or if you have promised something else, follow up on those things.

Take some notes

Retrospectively writing up some notes of the conversation is a good way to help you remember. Don’t try to capture everything, but instead think about the key things that you have remembered. As you write those down, you’ll probably start to remember more.

In Matt’s 100 Coffees, he decided to make his notes public through his blog. You don’t need to go this extreme. But sharing with others (including the person you spoke to) may help the conversation have a more lasting impact.

If you’d like to have coffee with Matt, you can sign up at calendly.com/matt-ballantine