(Editorâs note: Jason Cohen is an angel investor and the founder of Smart Bear Software. This story originally appeared on hisÂ blog.)
I get a constant stream of requests to look at new startups or to announce something that a startup just did.
As youâd guess, I canât do it, as much as I love to chat about startups, by which I mean swapping wisdom with fellow entrepreneurs, by which I mean stoke my ego by telling strangers what to do with neither repercussion nor responsibility.
Most of the email is truly spam. But even for the legit stuff, the problem is time. The joke is:
How much time does a startup take?
All of it.
Which leaves no time for âcan I pick your brain for 15 minutesâ or âcan I get your feedback on my pitch deckâ and especially âcan you spread the word on your blog.â
Some are incredulous that I canât afford to have a pricking of the brain for aÂ measlyÂ little 15 minutes, but the reason has been covered by folks like Paul Graham explaining howÂ one small meeting blows away a dayâs worth of productivityÂ and Dharmesh Shah on howÂ his inbox is overwhelmed he has no choice but to say ânoâ to everything.
But still, one occasionally makes it through.Â How do those exceptions pierce my fearsome firewall?
I was curious myself, so I inspected a variety of recent email to see which never had a chance, which could have worked but didnât, and which I actually engaged with. Hereâs what I found.
Anything longer than 150 words means youâve assigned me a project. Iâm racing gazelle-like through an inbox bristling with questions and information actually related to my Real Job, and youâve thrown up a roadblock. Itâs not only the time it takes to read, but surely thisÂ treatiseÂ is explaining something complicatedÂ â telling a story, painting context, articulating details, etc.. In the same way it takes special energy to grok source code you didnât write,Â I donât have the special energy to engage.
To force the issue, the email address I publish on my âAbout meâ page goes to aShortmailÂ account, which prevents messages longer than 500 characters. Â Still, Iâll get emails complaining about how they couldnâtÂ possiblyÂ pen their missive inside thisÂ ridiculousÂ limitation, demanding that I provide an alternate email address, all while forgetting to say anything about who they are or what they were going to tell me.
Those get marked as spam.
Plausible, Interesting Call to Action
I get 5-10 emails daily asking if I will âhelp spread the wordâ about something.
The following is an actual email I just received, and in fact prompted me to write this post. Â Iâve removed details because I have no desire to call anyone out. Itâs typical:
COMPANY has just completed its first startup accelerator program. I
had emailed you in August before we first started the program and I wanted
to invite you to take a look at some of these new tech-businesses in our
I would love for you to join us and would greatly appreciate if you could
share the news on your blog or Twitter.
There are two calls to action here: (A) Look at a handful of new businesses; (B) Share the news.
The call-to-action is giving me a job to do, andÂ one thing I donât need is another job, so it has to be clear, sensible, and something that I plausibly would agree to do.
This email fails in both regards, for different reasons.
On (A), I donât know what âtake a look at means.â Scan overviews? Meet founders? Provide advice? Be pitched at? How many companies? Whereâs a link?
Thereâs no way I can even evaluate what Iâm being asked to do, and my general (asshole) attitude is that if they canât articulate why IÂ shouldÂ be interested, then Iâm not interested.
The correct way to have done this is to figure out what would makeÂ me personallyÂ interested. Like, pick the company most similar to a company Iâve built or that Iâve talked about before or that I advise or have invested in (checkAngelList). Then you can say something like, âCompany XYZ does PDQ which is similar to ABC which I know youâre deep in, so I wonder whether youâd be interested in help these guys with some strategic and tactical questions. Since youâre familiar with the space, 15 minutes might go a long way.â
Or: âI know you do a podcast with startup advice. Â I have 7 companies here I think youâd find interesting, and they all need advice! Could we schedule a podcast episode just for our accelerator group? Â It would take two hours, but I think it would be fun for everyone.â
Iâd do that in a heartbeat. ItÂ wouldÂ be fun!
But instead it was âIâd like to invite you to take a look at some of these new tech-businesses.â
On (B), this is the easiest one to remedy. Letâs suppose IÂ doÂ want to spread the word on Twitter. Â What would I do next?
I would open my Twitter client and typeâ¦. what exactly? I have nothing to go on. Â I donât have a pithy, interesting grabber. Â I donât have their Twitter account. Â I donât have a link.
So effectively Iâm being asked toÂ research all of that,Â condense it into 140 characters (or 110 so thereâs room for RT)Â and then go tweet it. Â Thatâs way too big of a job to give me when youâre already asking a favor from a stranger!
This is so easy to fix. JustÂ paste an example TweetÂ into the email, which I can copy/paste and then modify only if I want.Â Or: Add a link to an existing Tweet which I can re-tweet.
HereâsÂ more on that.
Finally, one of the best kinds of calls-to-action areÂ specific questions.Â Asking for â15 minutes of adviceâ is almost never possible. Ask a very specific question around aÂ metricÂ or aÂ financial modelÂ or how toÂ validateÂ a specific idea or how toprice somethingÂ or whether toÂ hire a first employeeÂ or anything like that is likely to pique my interest and make it possible for me to help.
Appropriate forÂ me
My next mental filter determines whether Iâm going to mark it as spam or not, on the basis of whether the request is something that makes sense for me, specifically.
Going back to the suggestion from the previous example that I âshare the news on your blog,â it would be clear to anyÂ actual readerÂ of my blog that I donât share ânewsâ like this on my blog. Ever. I barely even announce things that Iâm doing myself.Â Suggesting that I announce a product release or business launch on this blog means youâre spamming me, so I immediately mark it as spam.
Even spreading the ânewsâ on Twitter isnât what I normally do on Twitter. Although thatâs a better request because it can take just a click or two and thereâs very little commitment on my part.
But still, why would I personally endorse a startup or news article that I know nothing about?
If youâre committed to being a stranger and not actually developing a relationship, the solution is to explain why itâsÂ in my selfish interestÂ to do this for another stranger. Â Typically thereâs no benefit for me to promote a strangerâs thingy. ItâsÂ not honestÂ and itâs noise. If the only thing I am to you is a megaphone for your crap, itâs spam, and Iâm going toÂ respond like an assholeÂ and say âwhatâs in it for me?â
ThereÂ canÂ be a reason. For example, maybe you mentioned a blog post of mine in an article of yours, and then youâre wondering whether Iâll also tweet about your post. I will almost always do that. Especially if you disagree with me! Because I like taking a stand on a topic but then giving voice to the opposing viewpoints.
But the better solution is to not be a stranger. When I get email from someone I recognize from blog comments or Twitter interactions, I almost always help out with advice, spreading the word, anything. Because weâre engaged. Â We talk about stuff. Â We agree and disagree about things, and I know that. Thatâs all it takes to flip me from âasshole whatâs-in-it-for-meâ mode into âOh hey, yeah I remember youâ mode.
Unique / Interesting
Hereâs another email I got today:
Based on your commitment to innovation, Iâd like to introduce my web startup to you.
PRODUCT is an early stage web application that enables content creators
to playfully combine multimedia from anywhere on the web through a shared,
Weâve just started a crowdfunding campaign, and already passed 10% in a
single day. You can find our video and details here:
If you share our vision, help us spreading the word. Thank you!
I can already tell this is spam, because thereâs nothing unique toÂ meÂ in this email. Â âBased on your commitment to innovationâ is generic and clearly isnât aimed at me. In fact, Iâm specificallyÂ notÂ committed to innovationÂ and IÂ avoid words like that.
But also thereâs nothing unique or interesting in the concept. Thereâs 1000 startups that mash up stuff online; itâs OK to build the 1001st, but tell me why I should care about it. The fact that youâre crowd-funding is neither interesting nor novel; maybe if you articulatedÂ whyÂ people are funding it, that would get me excited too, but whatever that is, itâs not in this email, and no you canât assign me a job to watch a video to find out. I should âhelp us spreading the wordâ (canât be bothered to use correct grammar?) if I âshare our vision,â but whatâs the vision exactly?
If you canât get me excited, Iâm not going to dig around to find the gold.
An easy way to get me automatically more excited is to dovetail whatever youâre doing with whatever Iâm doing. For example, I do an audio podcast where I help founders on the spot. If you suggest that we do that, Iâm interested, because I want to do more episodes. As another example, I do the same thing in a series called theÂ Mailbag.
Examples of doing it right
Hereâs some concepts Iâve been emailed about recently which I have indeed supported by advice or spreading the word.
- A WordPress-related startup, contacted me because ofÂ WP Engine, and indicated in the first email why it was aÂ newÂ idea, and why, if he were successful, we might end up wanting to do business together. He was right, so I was interested in at least chatting. The fact is itâs unlikely his startup would ever be able to generate enough revenue for it to be interesting for us at WP Engine (I told him why), but itâs still relevant to me and my space, and therefore Iâm interested.
- A hosting-related startup, not related to WordPress, contacted me because he wanted to build âWP Engine but for XYZ,â and had specific questions around it. Hereâs a place I could help a lot in a short amount of time, and there was a reason he was askingÂ me.
- An accelerator, asking about lessons-learned atÂ Capital Factory, while offering some lessonsÂ theyÂ learned in their first year.
- A startup with revenue, deciding between raising money or not raising money, and willing to do aÂ Smart Bear Live podcastÂ about it.
- A blogger asking to interview me on a new podcast; heÂ admittedÂ the viewership is small but heâll promote it on his front page for a while.
- A startup with an unusual pricing question, and willing to do aÂ Mailbag postabout it.
- A startup founder who previously had written a blog post disagreeing with one of my articles, now interested in my opinion on a specific matter.
- A blogger submitting a guest-post, which started out inadequate but was willing to iterate until it was excellent; I published it.
- A group promoting women-owned startups trying to get attention so they can help more women become founders.
As final example of doing this well, hereâs yet another email from today, and since Iâm complementing instead berating, I wonât anonymize. See, thereâs another way to get into this blog!
I am starting a business and Iâve decided to video document the steps I take along the way. Jason Fried wrote about doing something similar in his book Rework. Your feedback is more than welcome. Iâve decided not be paranoia about keeping my soon to be unique selling point a secret, in accordance with your advice in one of your recent blog entries.
So hereâs the start of the series, Youtube:
Video documentation is sort of interesting. He is clearly a subscriber and is thoughtful about the advice. Heâs committed to transparency and taking a risk, which is intrinsically interesting. This isnât spam, itâs a person trying to something genuine, with some sort of twist.
I hope I donât come off as even more of an asshole than I actually am. I really do want to hear about interesting things, and I want to help founders who are being genuine.Â Itâs just hard to cull those from the torrent of human-spam, so as a legitimate person trying to reach me, youâll have to work that much harder to stand out from the noise.
Iâm pretty sure the lessons above are more or less true for anyone with a significant web presence. Â Hopefully these tips will help you unlock conversations with everyone you want to reach.