My inbox this morning is jammed with 16 messages from generous folks offering to help me run my startup. Recruiters, user-acquisition experts, software developers, video marketers, janitorial service providers: all templated pitches, all unsolicited, all basically spam--and all trashed.
I loathe this daily barrage, but I can't help thinking: Am I a spammer too? Much of my time is spent launching email appeals, making a case for some company to do business with my company. I ask for meetings, a chance to propose a partnership, a deal, a collaboration. My role as a startup founder requires this. No one will know that Iodine, my company, exists if I don't say so, and a potential partner won't know what we can do for it if I don't make the case.
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I didn't start my company because I love to sell. I'm a product guy, driven more by the need to build it than the compulsion to pitch it. But without customers, there's no company. And so I dutifully and sincerely have embraced the role of making sales and developing the business (along with providing janitorial services and HR). I really do believe Iodine can help companies save money--in particular, health insurers, for which we can help manage patients and their medications. And so I pitch, and that means sending out email. A lot of email.
But, judging from my own inbox, my correspondents are already overwhelmed by solicitations. Mine is just one more in the pile. Sure, there are differences (I hope) between the pitches I send and the pitches I get, but there's clearly a signal-to-noise problem out there. How do I craft something that doesn't put people off?
How do I cut through the noise? The first step is to understand that I'm part of the problem--or at least that I'm at risk of being seen as selling an unnecessary service from just another unknown startup. After all, getting buried in talking points for services I don't want or need drives me crazy. A standardized approach is just wasted electrons. Making sure my pitch addresses a real problem a company faces--and that its bosses have prioritized--is the first part of success.
Second, it's essential to ping the right person, one who can turn interest into action. I've successfully emailed many directors of innovation--if "success" is defined as getting a phone call on the calendar--only to realize midmeeting that this kind person won't actually be able to make anything happen, in terms of a business deal. Know who your target is, and aim high. Any real deal will have to go up the ladder anyway.
Third, even with the right person and pitch, it's still not time to hit Send. To truly elicit a reply, I try to make some sort of personal connection, through a previous association or, better yet, an introduction. There's a reason that intros are the true currency of Silicon Valley: An email that contains a familiar name will actually get read.
The last lesson: Don't use LinkedIn to make your pitch. It's fine for background research or to see where your network might lead, but it's a horrible forum for conducting a dialogue--and it's increasingly full of the business spammers you don't want to resemble. Be diligent and get a real email address (Connectifier or Charlie can help with this).
Email pitches will always be a game of darts. But bad ones aren't just ineffective; they're destructive to your company's reputation. They make you look like you either don't care or are desperate. If you send spam, you're a spammer. And nobody wants to do business with a spammer.