How to Email Busy People

 

I was just chatting with a friend that is a successful entrepreneur, advisor, and angel investor.  He has 1700 unread emails in his inbox.  1700!  

This happens to him every month or two.  All it takes is a few days of vacation, a company emergency, a funding round, or any other real life issue.  Email just loads up on him.  He's always trying new GTD strategies, collaborative software, inbox fixer programs.  They all help to some degree, but the reality remains that he receives a shit ton of email.

You know who else receives email like this?  Every VC you've ever emailed.  Every angel investor.  Every biz dev contact at company XYZ.

I get a lot of email, but nothing at this level.  I've got my inbox zero strategy, my gmail labels and filters.  It's all basically manageable for me.  But not for investors. Investors are constantly flirting with suffocation from email overload.  Every once in awhile they just delete and start over.

If you're trying to reach one of these guys to pitch for investment, advice, or a deal, you need to be conscious of their needs.  Email etiquette from company founders often just sucks.  And when you receive no response back from an investor, you'll never know that it was your email etiquette that sunk you, not his actual disinterest.

You need to assume several key realities about the target of your email.  He has received 300 other emails that day.  He has temporarily forgotten how you met.  He has temporarily forgotten everything you've already talked about.  He has 20 seconds to spend on your email before deciding to handle it later (which may mean never). He probably won't click any links or open any attachments.

All of this is irrespective of the fact that he may indeed care about you and your startup.  But email is such a burden on his life that he just can't be accomodating when it comes to triaging hundreds of emails.

So a few email etiquette tips:

Subject Lines Matter
A lot.  Your subject line should be uber-concrete and descriptive. Bad:  "Re: fundraising advice".  Good: "Seeking fundraising advice for my startup FlightCaster (as per intro from John Smith). If you can fit the entire question into the header, just do it and include #eom at the end, which means 'end of message'.  Yes, it feels weird.  Do it anyways.

Use Your Company Email Address
Everyone has multiple email addresses now.  When you randomly email or respond from your personal gmail account, you make it harder for your target to search his archives for context on your conversation.  If you don't include your company name, he won't even know what you do!

Remind Him of Context
You met him at a conference and had this fabulous conversation about your startup, and he totally got it.  You just know he got it.  Guess what?  He's had 137 conversations with other entrepreneurs in the last 3 weeks.  Remind him of where you met, what exactly you do, and how you met.

Limit Your Entire Email to 5 sentences or Less
Seriously.  I know it's painful.  You have so many important things to say.  However, getting it read is more important than getting all that explanation in there. Preferably it's 3 sentences.  Your goal is to make it easy for him to respond immediately from his smartphone.

Make Your Ask Explicit
If you want a meeting, ask for a meeting.  Provide some time options and ask for a specified length.  If you want an introduction, ask for an introduction.   If you're looking for funding, tell him you're currently fundraising and ask to meet to show him your pitch.  Don't be sly.  Don't hint.  Make the process ridiculously easy by just asking for what you want.

Respond Immediately
Show your target respect by responding to everything immediately.  Just because the VC you're emailing might not get back to you immediately, doesn't mean that you have the same privilege.  Ron Conway famously makes immediately email responses a pre-condition for investment.   

Include a Short, Professional Signature
My standard signature includes my name, company, blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  If I want a phone call or fax or meeting, it'll include phone number, fax, address.

Find discussion of this post on Hacker News 

******************
I'm Jason Freedman.  I co-founded FlightCaster.  
You should follow me on Twitter: @JasonFreedman.
You can send me a Linkedin request or become my bff on Facebook

52 responses
you forgot to mention on your tips list.... have something freakin' interesting to say. don't just email people because you met them and you need money. make it VERY clear why you are different and why they should read and respond to you and not the 1700 others.
I'm pretty sure that was all pretty explicitly stated.
any thoughts on using HTML email and/or heavy images in e-mail instead of the 5-sentences rule?
I mean this in the most constructive possible way, but:

Isn't there a little irony in an essay on concise communication that opens with *seven*, content-light paragraphs?

FWIW, I skipped those and skimmed the actual instructions on how to email busy people.

I wonder if this will work on Tim Ferris. Remember what he wrote on how he deals with e-mail?
Great advice here.
I like your ideas, but "anyways" (as in, "Do it anyways.") is not a word!
Using real words is often helpful in getting a positive response.
I would also recommend all this advice for job seekers. I receive several emails a week from people who have found me through various alumni databases, and I can say that the best are those who have clearly done their homework and are very precise in what they are looking for from me. The worst are the ones who haven't checked the job site, don't know their ask or come across as arrogant. I got one that ended "Waiting to hear back from you to discuss my background and interests in more detail." Delete.
"Anyways"... How ignorant is that... Anyone how would use improper words just limited theirself to the same people who would also use the same words...
see what I mean... I just use "how" instead of "who"...
I think the Ron Conway thing "must answer immediately" is more about exercising the raw power of money than about creation of value. However, even if it is nothing more than a power trip, I would not expect him to change this behavior nor would I expect any of his investees? to not stick with that commitment.
Thank you etiquette. You might want to mention how to best send a thank you email, which I implement as a variant of your one line #eom strategy.

Re: blah blah -- Thank you!

Just wanted to thank you for bailing me out last night. Crazy, wasn't it!?

I enjoyed the meat of the column - but (no disrespect) it would have been so much stronger had you shortened the intro and got to the tips. Hope you don't mind me saying so....think you have worthy content - just want to get to it faster. KS
Keep it terse. Steve Krug gave this advice on writing web pages, but it also applies to email: "Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what's left".

E.g., instead of "I just wanted to thank you..." say "Thank you."

You may productively omit phrases such as "in my opinion" because, inasmuch as you're writing the danged thing, it's obviously your opinion.

K.I.S.S.

I just write Thx… that’s about as short as I can make it…  <o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

Somebody asked about HTML and images, if the image is not crucial to the message it won't get read.

If I can't read it in plain text on my blackberry without scrolling, it won't get read.

Good advice here.

Asking for a 20 minute meeting or phonecall works for me.

And if he's a she, an opener of 'Dear Mr Scheurer' ===> Delete

As a person who is on email overload, thank you for this. One addition- for the love of all things, don't ever, ever, ever, EVER call to ask someone if they got your email unless you want to be publicly flogged. There is nothing more irritating than people who feel entitled to a response just because they reached out.
I think you are lucky if your email gets 20 seconds.

If the reader has 1700 unread emails in his inbox, and spends 20 seconds reading each one, that is over 9 hours. I would say you have 3-5 seconds to make your point.

Make those 3-5 seconds worth 20 seconds of their day it would take to read and respond to you. Try it out on your own inbox :-)

This… is a perfect point…<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

1700?
Is that all?
Lucky git - I've got 2472 unread I just notice - time to delete anything older than a few months...
Email sucks. I've discovered this "phone" thingy - much more effective.
:D
your post reminds me of mistakes I have done previously by writing long emails. Email etiquette is so important now!

http://about.me/sharathvc

A video producer once told me he pretends to give himself $1,000 for each word he can edit from his scripts. This technique really works.
734 in my inbox since Friday!

Two Simple concepts but priceless.
1> Really, lets all just respect everyone else's time before our own.
2> Courtesy and proper salutations are great but hard to convey over, email, text, tweet.

Brevity + Bullet Points = Quick Email Response From Me.

My absolute favorite email subject line.
"I respect your time. This is what I want; this is what you get. Next steps..."

Purfect!

i like this post ^_^
Good advice. Thanks for the tips!
Interesting tips especially for those who are starting to look into VC sources.

http://www.prestigiolatino.com

Nice stuff, I will use these tips further on!
I started studying "plain language" techniques about 4 years ago. The biggest benefit I found is writing better emails. I can't recommend it enough.

*** Also, the editor in me wants you to make this post a bit more gender neutral. Assuming your funding source is male is very 2005.

How do you add value/keep a connection you don't want to lose when you dont have a question or reason to meet? I feel like a lot of times, connections made don't last because overtime people forget about each other, and I know the solution to that problem isn't sending pointless emails or asking annoying questions..???
His mailbox sounds just like mine! Thx for this artikel
300 emails a day?? I'm having a hard time answering just a few each day.

Anyway, these email etiquettes all make sense and if everyone knew about them, emailing would be much more satisfying.

interresting article... smart people get funded, no matter what :)
Short & sweet!
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Seriously, if you get 300 Emails a day, your secretary should handle at least 2/3 of these. Else you're just making yourself too important and unreplacable-
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