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How to email, as explained by a Brooklyn VC

Here’s a bone for the liberal arts–minded among us in the startup world: writing good emails is a seriously important part of business.

Venture capitalist Shaun Abrahamson, of Urban Us, broke it down for us in a Medium post last week, Founder Emails, a subject with which he is no doubt deeply experienced. Last week we covered his fund’s new cohort of nine urban tech startups, chosen in conjunction with Urban-X, the Greenpoint accelerator.

“Early stage startup email is not like your current email,” Abrahamson writes. Email “can impact your ability to find early customers and investors.”

Here are some of our favorite of Abrahamson’s tips, summarized:

You have to respond reasonably quickly, even if it’s to say you’ll respond more fully later. Response lag time correlates to your priority level in people’s heads and everyone wants to be a priority.

If you’re making an intro for someone, consider checking with the other person if they don’t mind getting the intro. It can put people in awkward situations if they really have no interest in talking to the other party.

Scheduling tools like Calendly are good because they cut down on back and forth emails.

Assume the person you’re sending the email to isn’t the only one who will see it. Whether it’s forwarded around the office, hacked, or, in the case of public officials, FOIA’d, write with that in mind.

Send follow-ups with your progress, preferably with concrete metrics. People like to read along to a story and feel like they’re part of it.

Founder Email You use email everyday, but early stage startup email is not like your current email. There are norms around interactions, such as introductions, and expectations about responsiveness and updates that can impact your ability to find early customers and investors.

What You’re Up Against The struggle to keep up with email is real. We’re turning to noted behavioral psychologists to help manage the challenge!

As a startup founder, you’re communicating with stakeholders with some of the fullest inboxes.

Investors often receive 5,000 emails a month even after many have shifted a lot of internal and portfolio communications to messaging platforms like Slack. So, the bulk of these emails are introductions or a cold outreach.

Customers have vastly different email preferences and styles, depending on their role and industry. Some are reference customers and or noted early adopters, so they’re constantly receiving introductions and pitches.

Some sectors, like local government have a very different relationship with email because their emails are public record. Think about how you might change your email use if it was default, public (increasingly it’s probably worth assuming your email is public anyway — more on that in a bit).

Email Introductions Introductions (an email connecting two or more people with each other) work differently depending on who initiates contact. If an investor or advisor offers to make an introduction, they will generally have a clear idea of what they want to do and you just have to wait for the connection. The end result is typically something like this:

Steve, Jane,

Please meet.

Steve co-founded [startup we were lucky enough to invest in]. They’re making great progress with their instant housing approach. They’re delivering new homes in half the time and half the cost and they can’t keep up with demand.

Jane is a partner at [great MicroVC] and has worked with companies like [relevant but not competitive company A and company B] so will no doubt be able to help you think through distribution and finance. I shared a deck and she’d like to learn more.

Shaun

In other cases, you likely have a wishlist of people that you’d like to meet and you’ll need to do some work to help your investors or advisors make the connection. For example:

Shaun,

I noticed that you know [prospective customer]. Would you mind connecting us?

Nicole

We’d be happy to make this connection, but there are a few things that need to happen to increase the chances of a successful connection.

Double opt in First, we need to confirm there is mutual interest in connecting at this time. There are many reasons why someone might not want an introduction. An investor may not have been convinced by your materials or already be working with a competitor.

Rather than email them an intro and and put them in an awkward position of declining an introduction, investors and founders typically ask first if they would like to be introduced.

A few intro sentences When asking for an intro, one of the best things that you can do is to make this easy for the person who’s making the introduction. One key way to do that is to include a blurb.

An intro blurb is a short overview of why you’d like to meet the person and a brief pitch that convinces them to say yes.

Shaun,

It would be great to meet [person’s name] at [person’s company]. Would you mind shooting this over to connect us?

“I’d love to discuss [topic] with [person’s name]. Here is a little about us for context:

[1 or 2 sentences about your company, value proposition and or traction]”

Responsiveness

Think about the last time you received great service. It’s very likely that the person you were communicating with responded quickly. We’ve come to expect fast responses and register response time as a sign of prioritization (and organization).

In some cases, responding quickly is easy because a next step might simply be to schedule a time to meet. But, in other cases, you might need research answers to questions.

As you get questions about your company, it’s worth building a FAQ. This way you can cut and paste responses in the future.

But, what happens if you need some time to research and write a thoughtful response? It’s ok to acknowledge the questions and set expectations for when you’ll have a response. But, try avoid situations where days go by without any response.

If you’re not responding quickly it could mean any number of things from poor prioritization to poor work ethic. Investors, in particular, know that you’re likely super busy, but they’re looking for signals that you know how to prioritize.

Scheduling Good introductions lead often lead meetings (sometimes they lead to more introductions or feedback). To schedule meetings, you might be connected with a human or AI scheduler or be presented with a scheduling tool, such as Calendly.

Scheduling tools are great because you can stop emailing. It’s worth setting up your own scheduling tool so that you can help others know what will work for you. This will reduce inbox traffic for everyone.

What do people prefer Assume people have a range of preferences for how they like to meet and what materials they like to see before meeting.

My personal preference is to see links to relevant content, so that I can prepare questions for our first conversation. Have a link to a deck and even a demo. For prospective customers, a link to a demo is useful. Otherwise, you can use a simple product overview or tour.

It’s also worth considering how people might like to meet. In person is typically the most time consuming, so it’s worth offering other options like voice or video call.

Your Email is Public Assume your email is public. As a practical matter, it’s likely that your email will be shared beyond the intended recipient but there are also a few ways in which it might become public.

Sometimes, this happens because of a dispute (and your email might offer clarification). If you interact with city governments, email correspondence is part of the public record. There is also the chance that you or your recipient is hacked.

So, write your emails assuming that your audience might end up being much larger than the intended recipient.

Progress Updates Introduction email are just the start. It’s likely that you won’t immediately get what you want from an introduction (such as an investment or sale) but a good first step is to get permission to keep in touch.

If you’re going to benefit from this permission, simple and clear updates are an effective way to build trust and ultimately convince people to work with you. It’s low effort for them, but lets them build a picture of your progress. Good progress tends to be hard to ignore.

For example, here is a great recent update that I received:

Shaun,

Hope all is well. We’ve been busy.

[Large customer name] negotiation is nearing a conclusion. Our current negotiating position has us between [low thousands of dollars] and [high thousands of dollars] per month depending on exclusivities offered.

We also have had some major movement on the team front. [Superstar engineer] who was advising us has agreed to come on as our CTO and they are bringing in a multi-exit VP of engineering.

We have most of our round committed from existing investors and we’re talking with few new investors that you might know.

Would you have time this week to catch up on where we stand?

There are ways to improve this. For example, metrics can help to quickly communicate progress in specific areas, like:

Sales — last few months growth has been __% month over month.

Customer NPS improved from 79 to 85 as we’ve improved our [product issues noted in earlier updates].

Team — [name] joined us from [notable startup] where they lead [critical role we needed to fill]

Marketing — we’ve been testing [marketing channel] and this now accounts for X% of qualified leads and we’re driving down CAC month over month.

Ideally, you’re already preparing updates for your investors, so some of this content can be repurposed.

Analytics There are many reasons why people might be slow to follow-up, so it’s worth keeping track of how long it’s been since you’ve sent emails. It’s also worth keeping track of how long you’re taking to respond. To get an idea of how you’re doing, check out Gmail Meter.

Your CRM may offer plugins for tracking email opens, attachments, and link clicks. We use Streak as a lightweight way to track stats on email threads. Other tools, such as yesware and mixmax, are alternative options.

Better Email Failing to understand customer and investor email expectations will lead to wasted opportunities. Successful introductions are likely to inspire your current supporters to do more of them, but conversely, failed intros might just mean less help. That just makes it harder to meet prospective customers and investors.

By Tyler Woods first published on https://technical.ly October 3, 2017