As a startup founder you probably spend a lot of time writing emails: Getting introductions to investors, pitching potential customers, seeking advice from mentors. Sending excellent emails will improve your conversion rate on all these things, but writing good emails isn’t as simple as it seems.
When I founded my first startup, I spent a lot of my time writing emails with very low response rates, even from people I knew well in real life. That’s because I was sending them emails that didn’t make it easy for them to help me. Here’s a collection of the advice I got (and some things I learned the hard way) that massively improved my email game.
What should you be doing (and not doing) in your emails?
Let’s start with the basic stuff. The number one way to get a better response to your emails is to keep them short and clear. I know this seems like a no brainer, but no one wants to read a 3 page email, especially not if you’re asking them for a favor. 90% of the emails you need to send as a founder can be reduced to 2 to 3 sentences plus a brief elevator pitch. By keeping the emails short, you show the recipient that you value their time, and you make sure they don’t get bogged down by asides or minor details.
By keeping the emails short, you show the recipient that you value their time
While you’re aiming to keep things short, you obviously want to make sure the tone makes them want to help you out. Being direct is not the opposite of being polite. Busy folks (especially early stage VCs who get tons of email) want to know what you want right away but don’t want you to demand something from them. “We need you to connect us to your other portfolio company Airbnb” is a lot less likely to end with you sitting down for drinks with Brian Chesky than, “It would really help us out if we could meet someone from Airbnb. Can you connect us?”
At the same time, vagaries are no good. “Is there anything you could do to help us understand how Airbnb got to where they are today,” doesn’t sound actionable. It probably won’t even be clear to them what you’re after.
Taking it to the next level
Once you have the basics down, the next step is standing head and shoulders above everyone else in your recipient’s inbox. The biggest aha moment for me was when I realized that writing good emails is an exercise in design. Just like your app has a user experience, so do your emails.
The biggest aha moment for me was when I realized that writing good emails is an exercise in design.
Use formatting to draw folks’ attention to the most important elements. If an associate at a VC firm only reads one sentence of your emails, it will definitely be the one in bold. Similarly, bullet points are a game changer. There is a reason designers love bullet points for communicating information clearly–they allow you to concisely express critical thoughts in a legible and attention getting way.
If you keep clutter in your emails to a minimum (no big flashy signatures, for example), the chance that people’s attention is drawn to the right places goes up. Personally I only sign emails with my name unless it’s to someone who doesn’t know what company I work for. Then a “Managing Partner @ Piton Labs” will suffice. You probably don’t need your company's logo, your Calendly link, or 3 paragraphs of legalese about the fact that the email is private communication (not that I’m giving you legal advice).
Putting it into practice
Let’s take the lessons learned above and pull it all together into one high performance email. This example is a forwardable intro, one of the best ways to make it easy for your recipient to help you. The goal is to send an email asking for a connection where all they have to do is click forward.
It was great to meet you last week at Mentor Madness! You mentioned Piton Labs might be a good fit for Andreessen Horowitz, and since they just led your Series A, I was hoping you could pass this along to Ben Horowitz.
Great to meet you. I am a huge fan of your book and was hoping we could speak to you about investing in our startup, Piton Labs.
Piton Labs is building the premier boutique consulting agency helping startups build out their MVP and their engineering team. Our team is full of staff-level engineers and former startup CTOs, so we are uniquely positioned to serve this market that larger offshoring style firms have historically not handled well. Unlike other players in the space, we set our clients up to be self-sufficient so they can keep growing and building fast even after they no longer need our help.
We’ve been growing fast over the last 18 months and already launched several companies' products, helping them raise their next round and start generating revenue.
We are trying to put together our seed round of $3m, and A16Z would be our top choice for a lead. Do you have 30 minutes next week for an intro call?
Thanks for your time,
Managing Partner @ Piton Labs
In the example above, the initial request for an intro is super short, just 2 sentences, and it’s very clear what we want the recipient to do for us. In the pitch portion, we kept it to 3 paragraphs, not counting the elevator pitch, and bolded the summary of our recent traction to draw attention there. By making it so Dave only has to press forward and add, “Thought this might be interesting,” it’s much more likely this email will find its way to Ben.
Hopefully these tips will help you get that lead investor so that you can hit the ground running.