I was reading Brad Feld’s blog tonight about how he likes to try and tell people “no” within 60 seconds and about how he handles meeting management and email. I even remember hearing that he manages a “zero inbox” policy and people that I know have written Brad with questions asking for help have been surprised that he has written back and offered advice.
And then there’s the rest of us. I struggle with email. I’ve always endeavored to respond to everyone that writes me and I genuinely feel mortified when somebody tells me that they wrote me and I didn’t respond. The email overload problem obviously gets worse in a world in which I also now check Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail, mobile voicemail AND try to keep everything logged in Salesforce.com.
1. Why do I get so back-logged on email (mea culpa)
On a typical day I get a 100-200 emails. Many of them can be easily and quickly processed. I tend to check my Blackberry first thing in the morning and any that I can: a) delete, b) respond with a one-liner or c) action to my assistant usually get dealt with swiftly. But throughout most days I usually have a minimum of 5 meetings when I’m not traveling. I’ve started trying to limit first meetings to 45 minutes (in Brad’s post he says 30 … hmmm … maybe one productivity tip for me), which allows me 15 minutes to get through emails or return calls before the next meeting. I know that Tim Ferris would have me only check emails once / day – but for me this isn’t that realistic. I definitely invoke my inner Tim Ferris on voicemail (which I hate) and try to check email less frequently.
By the end of the day there is no doubt that I’ll have 30 un-responded to emails. I get home in time to put my 2 kids to bed, eat dinner and spend time with my wife and then hit work and email. By then 30 emails have climbed up to 40. So on really good days I usually respond to all but 3-5 emails (the ones that are too long or require too much processing). The problem arises when I have board meetings, attend conferences, get stacked up with 7-8 meetings or have evening events. Unfortunately this isn’t uncommon. On weekends I try to get back to some of the unprocessed email but if I haven’t touched it within 2 weeks of receiving the email it probably goes to Where the Wild Things Are (never to be seen again). As one VC friend from London said to me, “I hate to think what could be lurking at the dark bottom of my inbox”.
2. Given that I’m probably in the majority what should you do about it?
So while I know I should be better at processing email, I know that I’m not alone as a VC in getting back-logged. Frankly my experience with email is that the same things happens when you email CxO’s, SVP’s, i-bankers, etc. We’re all overloaded. So what should you do about it?
For starters – don’t assume that it means the VC is not interested in you. I think the best starting assumption if you haven’t heard back is that your email has shifted to the 2+ week back burner. I think most VCs would prefer to give you a “soft no” then just not write back so definitely don’t give up. You need to be politely persistent. Just today I received an email from a guy who first wrote to me on Facebook and I gave him my work email (email@example.com) and asked him to write me there. I was on vacation for 3 days last week (my wife turned the big 4-0!) so I am back logged on email. He wrote me again today saying, “just wanted to be sure you received this the first time and it didn’t get stuck in your spam folder.” Perfect.
I often say that I believe the number one trait of a successful entrepreneur is tenacity. If you want to see an interesting video debate on the topic check this video out. Scroll down to video number 4, click start and scroll to about 8:40 in the video (start at 6:40 if you have a bit more time and want to see the full argument). I think this encapsulates the point well. My fellow VC in the video, Jim, is a friend of mine so don’t take our argument out of context – just a heated debate to get the issues on the table. Sorry that you have to start at the back of my head the whole time If you don’t watch the video Jim’s point was that if a VC doesn’t respond to your email “just move on”. Needless to say, I think that’s horse puckey.
If you’re pitching me specifically and I haven’t emailed you back send me a polite reminder a week or two later. If you’re on a tight timeline try also sending me an @msuster message on Twitter, trying leaving a polite voice message with my assistant and/or trying sending me a message on Facebook. As long as your polite about it, say words like, “I’m really sorry to hassle you with multiple emails / voicemails but I’m going to be in town for just 2 days and would love to know whether you’re interested to meet,” then I can’t see how any VC would be put off. And if they are you’re pitching the wrong VC.
Finally, I think it’s fair play if you know somebody I’m friends with don’t hesitate to ask them to send me a polite email saying, “just want to check in with you and see whether you’ve had the chance to talk with Bob yet.” Nothing will get me to move faster than that. Really. And I’m assuming I’m like most people. We’re not (necessarily) dicks – we either are just in email overload, poor at time management or a bit of both. Find a way to get on our radar screens.
3. What I’m trying to do about it (although don’t hold your breath)
So I do have an evil plan. I have started trying to convert incoming emails to “to do’s” rather than leaving them in my in-box. And I now have my assistant sitting down with me more frequently to check that I’m getting through all my to-dos. I’m going to try and process emails more quickly for action. And maybe I need to take lessons from Brad on the 10-second “no” and the zero tolerance email box. I spoke to really nice entrepreneur today by phone. Within 5 minutes I knew it didn’t fit our criteria and even though he was well referred I told him within 10 minutes that the deal wasn’t a good fit for us. 20 minutes more of my day!
If you have any other advice for me I’m all ears. I’ll read any comments below. But remember, most VC’s will remember your tenacity more than be annoyed that you kept persisting.