The Toxic Nature of Email

Posted on May 11, 2010 | 248 comments


I haven’t written a blog post in a week.  I travelled for a couple of days for work and decided to get some sleep on those days rather than staying up into the wee hours as I often do when I travel.  I closed one deal (I’ll talk about that soon) and issued one term sheet (I hope to talk about that soon, we’ll see!).  It has also coincided with the kickoff of our Launchpad LA educational series which has taken some of my time.

But what has really killed me is email.  I live in email hell.  And for the last few evenings I decided to get through email rather than blog.  I’m always so completely behind on email.  I have a love / hate relationship with email.  Actually, mostly hate.  Email is a chore.  I’d much rather spend time conversing with people in a lighter weight venue.  I’ve always been a big fan of IM (instant messaging) which is why Twitter has been so appealing to me.  I love the restriction in terms of message size.  And I find that platforms like Twitter, IM and even Facebook carry much less “obligation” to them.  People expect too much when they email you. Your email is your recipients social obligation.

I email people – don’t get me wrong.  It’s just that the whole email system seems to be out of balance.  I’ve written about the topic before when I wrote the post “I emailed a VC but never heard back.”  As in, what do you do now that you’ve written them.  Should you bug them?  Is it normal to not hear back?  Are all VC’s just a-hole’s?  If you’re interested in that topic have a read of my previous post.

It was interesting for me to read Fred Wilson’s email bankruptcy blog post this morning.  I think I’m permanently bankrupt on email with no solution.  I don’t think any GTD method will work.  My volume is simply too big to handle.  It’s like spaghetti – the more I process the more it seems there is.  I’ve talked with a lot of VCs about this and all said the same thing, “we simply don’t get through it all.  There’s no way to.”  Actually, there is a way.  If I never spent time with my wife & kids, which I’m not willing to do.

When I read Fred’s post it resonated for two reasons: 1. He ends up spending personal time trying to get through email.  This is my life, too.  And probably yours.  We all want to be responsive  people.  2. He makes in clear in his responses in the comments section that he wants to review the email directly himself where many people recommended an assistant read through it.  I think we both feel we want to be accessible to people.  Not all VC’s feel this way in my experience.  Some love the filter.  In my mind that’s OK for some people.  It preserves more of their scarce time to deal with the people and companies with whom they want to interact.  I’m on the side of wanting to be more accessible.  It’s who I am.

But here’s the problem:

1. Anyone and everyone can email you.  When email nomenclatures are obvious you’d be surprised how many people feel entitled to just email you.  It’s not just the spammers or marketers trying to sell you products or services.  I understand that.  But it’s the person at undergrad who has a project in entrepreneurship and just wants your quick comments on their project.  Really.  I get those more often than you think.  And when I have time I try to write back.  Often I just can’t.  It’s the alum from University of Chicago who realizes I got my MBA there and feels a sense of kinship.  It’s the entrepreneur who’s buddy is a lawyer who wants an intro to you and who doesn’t think about whether it makes sense to ask you whether you want an intro before sending it.  It’s all of these things accumulated that adds up to such a huge mass.  And that’s in addition to portfolio companies, colleagues at work and legitimate deals you’re working on.  It’s just too much cumulatively.

2. The sheer volume / math doesn’t work. If you think of it this way.  Let’s assume I get 200 emails today.  Let’s say I can delete 100 as unsolicited with just 5 seconds work / email.  Then 30 are ones I can read quickly and delete or store (I only use one folder – “storage”) with no actions.  Each of these takes 1 minute.  Let’s say 30 are these sort of “unsolicited” emails that have some expected action associated with them.  Let’s call these “optional” and if I get time they take 2 minutes each to read and respond.  And then there are 30 “real” emails for which I really should read, process and come up with a sensible response.  Let’s call these 3 minute emails.  And the last 10 are the “big effort” emails.  They’re from lawyers or CEO’s requiring analysis before a response.  Let’s call these 10 minutes on average.

So that’s:

Marketing / conference invitations – 100 x 5 seconds = That’s still > 8 minutes.  Let’s say I read the text on 2 of them so round up to 10 minutes for “marketing junk” email

30 x 1 minute = 30 minutes for “read and store” email

30 x 3 minutes = 1 hour, 30 minutes of “real” email

10 x 10 minutes = 1 hour, 40 minutes of “big effort” email

30 x 2 minutes = 1 hour of “optional” email

==> 3 hours, 40 minutes of email / day plus 1 hour of “optional” email.  Let’s call it 4 hours.  Who has 4 hours / day to process email?  Let’s assume that I’m super efficient and can process these in 2 hours?  Many days I have a breakfast meeting, back-to-back meetings all day and then an evening event.  Or I’m at BOD meetings or conferences.  I can normally “just about” manage my emails until I pile up 2 days traveling and then I have a crazy email traffic jam.  If it’s more than 3 weeks old it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see it unless I search on it later (which is why I’ve started using X1 a lot more).

3. People who email you expect a response. Let’s face it.  In the old days if you wrote people a physical letter, first it was a big effort to actually write and send the letter.  So many things were filtered out.  But second I think there wasn’t an expectation that people would write you back.  Now everybody expects a response.  Based on the email math problem this just isn’t realistic for many people.

4. I WANT to be responsive and open. I really do want to get back to everybody who writes to me.  Sometimes I find myself trying to help the college student with a quick response.  Sometimes I do offer that University of Chicago person some quick advice.  So it really pains me that some people write me and I don’t write back.  I don’t want to be “that guy” who doesn’t respond to emails so people think that I think I’m above it all.  I’m not.  I sometimes dread going to conferences where I know people will walk up to me and say, “I send you an email a few weeks ago” and I’m struggling to remember it.  I have at least read or skimmed most of them.  But not always.

5. Social networks exacerbate the problem. People now write me on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.  Luckily I haven’t signed up to Formspring and don’t spend time on Quora.  I actually tell some people to write me on Twitter.  Given that it’s constrained to 140 characters it’s easier to process.  But there isn’t a permanent record or any way to “mark something as read” so some stuff falls through the cracks.

6. Blog comments. Why don’t you just blog less or not respond to everyone’s comments? I do get that sometimes from people.  If I did that then I’d be letting email make me hostage to other people’s agendas.  I enjoy the creative outlet of blogging and being able to build relationships with people in a lightweight way that often lead to in person meetings or phone calls down the line where appropriate.

Anyway, so for now I have to live with occasionally not living up to other people’s expectations.  And to telling people to bug me multiple times if I haven’t responded to an email that they deemed as important.  If that’s you – I apologize now, in advance.  I’m willing to accept that I’ll never be a black belt in email.

  • http://www.bp-3.com/blogs sfrancis

    hey @msuster you should try @otherinbox (http://www.otherinbox.com) – it doesn't FIX the problem, but it helps you remove spam and organize things automagically. especially useful on the vendor emails (from your cc company, best buy, the airlines, etc. ) but it also works well for pre-designed filtering, and you can give out email addresses that are easy to turn off if they get handed to a spambot (and actually know who sold you out).

  • http://twitter.com/amchenault Adrian Chenault

    sjain talked about keeping up the “image” of being accessible, which I think cuts to the heart of the issue. You want to have the image of being accessible, but the reality is that you're not. Not because you don't want to be accessible, but because it's impossible to do so.

    The question then becomes, how do you balance being candid about reality while leaving yourself room for the serendipitous email that might not have made it through a filter if you had one? Maybe an assistant could help you do this, but you say you don't want that.

    To me, it seems like the difficulty of the problem is that it's a people problem, and thus requires a human touch to sort through and not some kind of technological classification tool. Most of your time is spent “sorting”, not formulating or typing a response. By the time you finish the former, there's no time left for the latter.

    Maybe you could think about hiring an assistant just to handle the sorting piece for you. You can still ultimately review every email if you want to, but you can leave it to someone else to handle the order in which you respond (or at least lump emails into categories such as the ones you already have in your post). Then, instead of sorting emails first and then returning to respond later, you can jump straight to the response part.

    Thanks for your thoughts – this is an issue we will be dealing with for a long time.

  • http://twitter.com/amchenault Adrian Chenault

    sjain talked about keeping up the “image” of being accessible, which I think cuts to the heart of the issue. You want to have the image of being accessible, but the reality is that you're not. Not because you don't want to be accessible, but because it's impossible to do so.

    The question then becomes, how do you balance being candid about reality while leaving yourself room for the serendipitous email that might not have made it through a filter if you had one? Maybe an assistant could help you do this, but you say you don't want that.

    To me, it seems like the difficulty of the problem is that it's a people problem, and thus requires a human touch to sort through and not some kind of technological classification tool. Most of your time is spent “sorting”, not formulating or typing a response. By the time you finish the former, there's no time left for the latter.

    Maybe you could think about hiring an assistant just to handle the sorting piece for you. You can still ultimately review every email if you want to, but you can leave it to someone else to handle the order in which you respond (or at least lump emails into categories such as the ones you already have in your post). Then, instead of sorting emails first and then returning to respond later, you can jump straight to the response part.

    Thanks for your thoughts – this is an issue we will be dealing with for a long time.

  • http://venturehacks.com nivi

    Chris Sacca told me that “email is a to-do list that other people get to write on.” Once you look at it that way, you feel a lot better about ignoring a lot of it. There's also so much useful info in blogs now that most “meet me / give me advice” emails are obviuosly written by lazy people.

  • http://venturehacks.com nivi

    Chris Sacca told me that “email is a to-do list that other people get to write on.” Once you look at it that way, you feel a lot better about ignoring a lot of it. There's also so much useful info in blogs now that most “meet me / give me advice” emails are obviuosly written by lazy people.

  • http://www.LaurenHalagarda.com Lauren Halagarda

    How's that “read later” filter working out? Seriously, though, there's definitely some automation that can be done to minimize your “email hell”, as you put it. After years of focusing on Email Overload though, I've found that much of it comes down to re-framing how you think about email, changing your habits and managing expectations in very specific ways.

    Please let me know if I can help…

  • http://twitter.com/devahaz devahaz

    Simple solution. Just get more famous. Then just randomly respond once in a blue moon and people will post on their blogs “Holy cow, this is so awesome, I got a personal response from Mark Suster himself!!!!” just like they do w/ Steve Jobs random email responses.

  • http://blog.jasonhanley.com/ Jason Hanley

    It still seems to me that simply avoiding an unnecessary meeting would be more efficient than splitting your attention between the meeting and doing email.

    Multi-tasking has shown to be very inefficient.

  • http://www.yourentwesplit.com Mike

    Mark,
    If you were to personally offer your contact info to an entrepreneur looking for advice but were subsequently slow to respond to a few emails, what's the point at which “polite persistence” becomes annoyance?

  • http://blog.yourentwesplit.com Mike

    Mark,
    If you were to personally offer your contact info to an entrepreneur looking for advice but were subsequently slow to respond to a few emails, what's the point at which “polite persistence” becomes annoyance?

  • Kate, London

    Toxic is exactly the right word. And how true is that observation about email being 'a to-do list that other people get to write on'.

    Volume is the main issue although senders could help hugely by using a sensible title, giving an indication of urgency, using white space, bullet points and so on.

    Reading that you too have this problem is immensely comforting! I am now unable to get through my emails each day and rely on people chasing if it's important. So this means I'm living with having to accept that I am failing to respond to important mails. Not good for the conscientious soul.

    This problem of course is not unique to VCs as I'm speaking as a charity fundraiser who receives a minimum of 800 emails a week and spends most of her days in back to back meetings.

    To me there's a technological gap to help manage the communications barrage and to help with information retrieval across all digital media. Perhaps VCs could create a fund for the solution to this problem…

  • Kate, London

    Toxic is exactly the right word. And how true is that observation about email being 'a to-do list that other people get to write on'.

    Volume is the main issue although senders could help hugely by using a sensible title, giving an indication of urgency, using white space, bullet points and so on.

    Reading that you too have this problem is immensely comforting! I am now unable to get through my emails each day and rely on people chasing if it's important. So this means I'm living with having to accept that I am failing to respond to important mails. Not good for the conscientious soul.

    This problem of course is not unique to VCs as I'm speaking as a charity fundraiser who receives a minimum of 800 emails a week and spends most of her days in back to back meetings.

    To me there's a technological gap to help manage the communications barrage and to help with information retrieval across all digital media. Perhaps VCs could create a fund for the solution to this problem…

  • Tasha Mobley

    Great Article :) your assistant can relate!

  • Tasha Mobley

    Great Article :) your assistant can relate!

  • http://www.venturevoice.com gregory

    What email client do you use?

  • http://www.venturevoice.com gregory

    What email client do you use?

  • http://asable.com/ Giang Biscan

    Reece, don't you know there is a governing board for all VCs who decide topic of the week? Since there are only a few VCs that write decent blogs like Mark and Fred, the burden is on them to be consistent :).

    Btw, just saw Jason Calacanis' tweet declaring email bankcruptcy as well. Interesting…

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Here is a business idea for the day. Instead of the anti-spam solution where you get asked “are you a real person, type this sentence?” before you are allowed to send an email, you need a system that auto-replies on behalf of you with 2 questions that are more intelligent:

    1) “Tell me what you want/summarize your email in 140 characters”
    2) Select from this drop down menu what your relationship with Mark is

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    Here is a business idea for the day. Instead of the anti-spam solution where you get asked “are you a real person, type this sentence?” before you are allowed to send an email, you need a system that auto-replies on behalf of you with 2 questions that are more intelligent:

    1) “Tell me what you want/summarize your email in 140 characters”
    2) Select from this drop down menu what your relationship with Mark is

  • http://www.kyjen.com Kyle Hansen

    Don't be a VC, or don't try to be so open, if you can't handle the volume of emails! You've put yourself in a position to get this many emails. You've made your money already as an entrepreneur, so I suggest you be less open so you don't get so many emails and you can chill out and enjoy your money and your life a bit more! Slow down and simplify your life, enjoy your family more and get some hobbies!

  • http://www.kyjen.com Kyle Hansen

    Don't be a VC, or don't try to be so open, if you can't handle the volume of emails! You've put yourself in a position to get this many emails. You've made your money already as an entrepreneur, so I suggest you be less open so you don't get so many emails and you can chill out and enjoy your money and your life a bit more! Slow down and simplify your life, enjoy your family more and get some hobbies!

  • http://starttowonder.blogspot.com sjain

    Thanks for your reply Mark.

    I understand people will message you on facebook and twitter. That will help you directly to sort through emails.

    If you get the direct email, that would be your priority and more likely that someone who knows you from before is messaging you. If someone is messaging you on facebook and twitter then more than likely its not business.

    I understand people will try to guess the email. But if the email is rightly available, there is no filter left. Like if the email is right there, its tempting to mail. But if its not available, that in itself is one big roadblock for many to contact you. So only those who are serious will contact.

    Using your blogs and replying on comments, i dont think you'd be thought of inaccessible that way.
    Also, you can get back to facebook messages once you are thru with the email messages. So no more (or maybe less number of times ) email bankruptcy.

    Thanks for your advice. I will try to follow that.

    Thanks
    Jain

  • http://starttowonder.blogspot.com sjain

    Thanks for your reply Mark.

    I understand people will message you on facebook and twitter. That will help you directly to sort through emails.

    If you get the direct email, that would be your priority and more likely that someone who knows you from before is messaging you. If someone is messaging you on facebook and twitter then more than likely its not business.

    I understand people will try to guess the email. But if the email is rightly available, there is no filter left. Like if the email is right there, its tempting to mail. But if its not available, that in itself is one big roadblock for many to contact you. So only those who are serious will contact.

    Using your blogs and replying on comments, i dont think you'd be thought of inaccessible that way.
    Also, you can get back to facebook messages once you are thru with the email messages. So no more (or maybe less number of times ) email bankruptcy.

    Thanks for your advice. I will try to follow that.

    Thanks
    Jain

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    Haha… I knew it! ;)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    There are some nice tips on your blog. Thank you for posting.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The best ones are persistent and find a way to get through the clutter. I know the onus shouldn’t be on the entrepreneur but I also know the problem isn’t just me. And it’s not just VC’s – it’s also senior execs at companies. So the best entrepreneurs find out ways to get through the noise.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You can’t really pull out your Blackberry in a meeting when entrepreneurs are pitching you! It’s the golden rule.

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    the “why don't you blog less and respond to my email instead” line is one i get all the time

    it is so selfish

    when i blog and respond in the comments, hundreds or thousands get a chance to talk to me.

    email is one to one mostly

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    the “why don't you blog less and respond to my email instead” line is one i get all the time

    it is so selfish

    when i blog and respond in the comments, hundreds or thousands get a chance to talk to me.

    email is one to one mostly

  • http://www.stefanobernardi.com/ stefanobernardi

    plus one on that.
    When I read this blog and a VC and dwell in the comments it's like I was having a conversation with you guys, so please keep on doing that.

  • http://www.stefanobernardi.com/ stefanobernardi

    plus one on that.
    When I read this blog and a VC and dwell in the comments it's like I was having a conversation with you guys, so please keep on doing that.

  • http://www.stefanobernardi.com/ stefanobernardi

    I think that you will end up mostly ignoring the “secondary” email address pretty soon.

  • http://www.stefanobernardi.com/ stefanobernardi

    I think that you will end up mostly ignoring the “secondary” email address pretty soon.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    There are some nice tips on your blog. Thank you for posting.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The best ones are persistent and find a way to get through the clutter. I know the onus shouldn't be on the entrepreneur but I also know the problem isn't just me. And it's not just VC's – it's also senior execs at companies. So the best entrepreneurs find out ways to get through the noise.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You can't really pull out your Blackberry in a meeting when entrepreneurs are pitching you! It's the golden rule.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Adrian, I actually am pretty accessible. It's just that it's more serendipitous. I've had people through this blog ask to speak on the phone. I noticed it and had a two-hour drive the next day so asked them to call me. Built some great new relationships that way. Other times people I don't know have asked for help on email and I've responded. Just depends when you get me. But the problem is – sometimes people I know write me on bad days or bad WEEKS and it falls through the cracks. Depends on workload and whether I stay up late doing email one day that week.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Adrian, I actually am pretty accessible. It's just that it's more serendipitous. I've had people through this blog ask to speak on the phone. I noticed it and had a two-hour drive the next day so asked them to call me. Built some great new relationships that way. Other times people I don't know have asked for help on email and I've responded. Just depends when you get me. But the problem is – sometimes people I know write me on bad days or bad WEEKS and it falls through the cracks. Depends on workload and whether I stay up late doing email one day that week.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Exactly!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Exactly!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That was a great post. Thank you for pointing me to it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That was a great post. Thank you for pointing me to it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I can't have phone calls with people I've never met. I can meet this people on a blog. I can have only a limited number of phone calls / day. On blogs / IM I can connect with many. But I DO speak with plenty of people on the phone every day, too.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I can't have phone calls with people I've never met. I can meet this people on a blog. I can have only a limited number of phone calls / day. On blogs / IM I can connect with many. But I DO speak with plenty of people on the phone every day, too.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    My main email advice is when you write people to keep the emails short and focused! More likely to get a response.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    My main email advice is when you write people to keep the emails short and focused! More likely to get a response.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I have all of these vendor emails auto-filtered in Gmail. They're not the real problem.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I have all of these vendor emails auto-filtered in Gmail. They're not the real problem.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    True on both accounts.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    True on both accounts.