How to Ask for Help, Favors and Intros

Posted on Aug 10, 2010 | 54 comments


An entrepreneur recently sent me an @ reply message on Twitter asking for some help with a decision coming up in his business.  I get these frequently via Twitter, Facebook or email.

I don’t mind.  I can’t always get to them.  Basically a request like this is stacking on top of my already large to-do list.  But I do like to try and make time for some and I’ll admit I’m a bit random about it.  I do it when I’m in the mood, am avoiding something else or have a bit of free time.  I wish I could do more.

I provided my email address and he sent me a 688 word email (i.e. loooong) with a very broad question.  I felt I had committed so I read and responded to the email.

It brought up a broader point for me, though.  In today’s era we’re all asked for help, favors or introductions all of the time.  Most of us want to help.  But many well intentioned entrepreneurs are sloppy about how they ask so I’d like to give you some guidelines to help.

1. SHORT: Whether you know the person or not – if you’re asking for help, a favor or an intro – keep your email VERY short.  Not just out of respect for the recipient but also to increase the chances they will actually respond.  If it’s short, easy-to-understand what is being asked of me and a reasonably quick thing to respond to I’m much more likely to do it now to get it off my plate and to be helpful.

2. FOCUSED: I know you want to ask how much they think you should charge for your product, whether your features should be opt-in or opt-out or want to debate the pro’s / con’s of the freemium model vs. the 30-day free trial – but all of these are long “asks” and really are better coming from your mentors, advisors, investors or team members.  Ask me something very narrow that I can answer without typing a whole blog post length response.

If I AM an investor, mentor, friend or advisor I accept the email being longer.  Still, the shorter and more focused the more likely you’ll get a quick response from me or anybody.

3. USE AN APPENDIX: In the best case scenario you send just a really short email.  If you’re worried that they won’t have enough context then ask the question / favor in a very short email, draw big underscores under the bottom of the normal email and then below that put “appendix: more info JUST IN CASE you wanted more context” or something similar.  Reading this should not be required to answer the question

4. MAKE IT FORWARDABLE: Lots of times the requests these days are for an intro to somebody.  I’m sure you get these, too.  Structure your email such that you ask for the intro very briefly and then tell them that you’ve pasted a 3 paragraph description of the company below your email to them in case it would help with the intro.  It makes it so much easier to send an intro to somebody if I have the context written for me that I can just forward.

When you write your email to the person assume it will be forwarded “as is” so ask for an intro in a way that you wouldn’t mind somebody else reading.

If I need to come up with text describing what you do, cut-and-paste text, create a link to your website, etc. this is all more work for me.  I still do it ALL THE TIME – I’m just sayin’ – if you make the forwarders life easier you’re much more likely to get the action you want.

5. ATTACH A DECK:  Bonus points if you attach a short PowerPoint deck describing your business that can be attached.  DON’T send me a frigging link to your document on DropBox or a request that the recipient visit your website to watch a video.  Links are fine but make them option.  Yes, I love DropBox, Box.net, DocStoc, SlideShare and similar services. But your goal in an intro email is to make it super easy to for the recipient.  Save cloud services for every other kind of email.  I know some people will tell you I’m just being old fashioned.  They’re wrong – trust me.

6. HANDLING PRIVATE COMMENTARY: Ok, I’m going to get really granular now but this is important.  If you’re asking somebody you know (let’s say, me) for an intro to somebody for a purpose (let’s say to raise money from an angel I know) and if you want to tell me something private like, “I think I’d like to meet with so-and-so.  I met this person at the Open Angel Forum last week but I’m worried that he may have invested in a competitor – should I be concerned?”  Send me a second email that I can forward.

What? But you hate email!?! True.  But if you want me to provide the intro I need to be able to forward the email and not have to worry about cutting out all of your commentary.  In the first email say, “I’m going to send you a separate email with a description of my company and a deck so that if you feel comfortable introducing me you can do so more easily.”

I’m 10x more likely to do the intro quickly if you make my life easy (obviously assuming that I think it’s a good intro for the recipient in the first place).

7. THE DOUBLE OPT-IN: And unless I know the recipient and you both really well and I’m sure they’d want a direct intro – please don’t be surprised if I email them first to be sure they really want the intro.  I hate to burden people and obligate them to a favor for me if it’s not really something they’re interested in.  More work for me – sure.  But with your handy ready-to-go, forwardable email it’s a snap.

Fred Wilson nailed this in his “double opt in” blog post.  It’s a short post and well worth your reading if you haven’t already.  I also covered the “double opt in” and added my “I’m moving you to BCC” advice that is a huge time saver.

Summary: Those the make it easier for others to help them will receive more help.  Period.

  • http://www.hadleypartners.com/InReelTime/ Meganlisa

    You struck a sore spot with me on this one…and I've been meaning to write something on it myself.
    I'll add another suggestion:
    If you ask for help show up, follow up and remember that if you don't present well to me I'm not going to help you. I've had two friends of friends ask me to help make some investor introductions (earlier stage than I usually do). To be kind, they didn't follow up with me as promised (respect schedules; send information). I meet a lot of companies and am shocked when they don't send information as agreed (so I can forward it on) or call when they say they will.
    I test everyone I don't know well before making an introduction. If they don't pass the test I'm not recommending them to someone else. An introduction is not a courtesy – I'm only willing to make introductions in which I can see a potential benefit to both parties. Doubtless if I feel this way others do as well.
    Thanks for writing on this topic…it is so important.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm with ya. For sure.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Pro tips.
    We all want to make helping us out as easy as possible on the super network node, in this case you Mark as a VC with many connections.

    This same methodology goes with site design and user flow. You don't want users to have to struggle or guess too much, just give them an actionable and productive/entertaining visit.

  • Boazf

    Hi Mark – I was just writing to a client to ask him to aid a friend in a job search. Your post must have been in my subconscious. Thanks, it was good advice. (It will be better if my friend gets a job out of this)