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.

  • Joe

    Good, common sense stuff that bears repeating often. If I'm in a position to do so, I also try and bring up some way that I might be able to help the receiver, e.g. an intro or piece of company info, so it's not all take, no give.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    awesome — I had 3 requests for an introduction to a very famous tech blogger today (rhymes with clarrington :-) ), and two other separate e-mails asking for intros to angels and investors/etc. in each of the requests, i had to write back asking for the short summary & deck, and for some of them, they've asked for similar favors before and have received the same request from me (summary & deck).

    i think people just feel like it's too forward to include all of that ahead of time — but it just saves so much time if they just come out with it — if we're good friends, or have enough of a connection where i'd probably do the ask, if i have time, they'd save us all a lot of time if they just help me out

    seems like LinkedIn and other sites still haven't nailed this use-case perfectly — which means there's probably something out there (maybe even a very simple tool, with blurbed intros/descriptors) still to be invented

    personally, i often search my gmail for intros that I've made before (i.e. “meet dave mcclure”), as I don't feel like re-writing the 'how i know them, link to their bio, etc' — that could also be a handy plug-in or service

    again, great post — i'll refer folks to it often

  • Boris

    Hey Mark. Great post. General question – how much must you support the introduction being requested for you to actually make it. Meaning, if I ask for an intro to somebody you know, how bought into either myself or my service or the possible outcome must you be in order to make that intro? Just curious as I'm thinking through some of the introductions I'm often asked to make as a recruiter.

  • http://twitter.com/IvanGaviria Ivan

    I'd like to reinforce the “double opt in” point regarding email intros (I think Fred blogged about this a few months back).

    As startup lawyers, one of the most important services we offer clients is help with introductions to investors in our network. Often entrepreneurs will ask why I don't cc them on the intro email. Putting it simply, I want the investor to feel free to say “no” and that can be awkward if the founder is on the thread. Years ago I made the mistake of cc'ing the founder on the intro; he unfortunately wasn't very willing to accept the “no” and I was a horrified “cc voyeur” to his dozens of emails all but harassing the VC (thankfully this was before Geo was big or he'd surely have joined this poor man for breakfast!).

    For these intros, I will typically send a note along the lines of “I'm working with this great company that I thought you might find interesting. You may know the founder from X, below are a few sentences about the business and attached is a short deck/one pager. Let me know if you'd like an intro to the founder(s).” If the investor “opts in”, I'll then send a super short email to put the two in direct contact and asked to be moved to bcc to avoid the 25 subsequent scheduling emails (-;

    I'll note too that the little snippets of info we get from investors who DON”T want to meet the team can be invaluable feedback for refining the deck, the fundraising strategy, etc. We hugely appreciate investors who will supplement their “no” with a line or two on their reasoning.

  • http://twitter.com/morganlean morgan lean

    I hate long emails, and sometimes when I email my board I write a warning notices at the top.

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    Mark, this is Gold.

  • http://twitter.com/starttowonder S Jain

    Mark,

    I exchanged some messages with you some time back regarding how you seem so accessible, with your email so easily available making every other person write to you as there is no barrier left in between and thus you having so many emails to respond to. I responded you by not making the email address so easily available and thus reducing the amount of emails you receive. But at the same time being accessible via your twitter and face book accounts. You were not in favor of hiding the email address.

    By reading the post above, I feel how genuinely you try to respond to emails. Really appreciate the effort.

  • Mike Tallent

    Thank you — I need this advice for my startup — http://abigdreamer.wordpress.com — Mike Tallent abigdreamer on twitter.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Great point, Joe. Always best when you can help people and not just ask for help.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the input, Dave.

    And great suggestion for a product! Given how often we all send intros an easy-to-use, well designed tool (including helping to manage the “double opt in”) would certainly have a lot of takers.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For me personally I have to be very bought in. One comment Dave implies above is a good one – LinkedIn in bankrupt in this area. It's useless for me to get an intro twice removed from somebody who sends me the usual “I don't know this guy but my friend is linked to him and is asking for an intro on his behalf.” Total waste. I hate these.

    I personally prefer that I feel I can really speak up for the sender and feel confident that the recipient won't find it a waste. If I'm concerned I'll write “I don't know whether you have any interest at all. I haven't committed you – just let me know if you want an intro or not.”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm with ya. I loved Fred's double opt-in post and policy. And when I say “no” to a lawyer or banker intro I usually give the reason why. Well, if it's from somebody I know. Often bankers just scattergun intros so I don't feel as obligated.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    better yet, make them shorter ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    No problem. I remember your original blog comment! Thanks for still reading / visiting / commenting.

  • http://www.jasonwolfe.co.uk/ Jason Wolfe

    Some smart ass once wrote “if you want money, ask for advice and if you want advice, ask for money” (or something along those lines). I wonder Mark if you're not the recipient of some attention from folks who might actually want money? :)

    I'd like to extend the point of this post a little as well. Being able to empathise with the recipient of an email is really useful. It's actually an extension of being able to empathise with a customer. If you can't put yourself wholly into the other guy's shoes, you're in for a bumpy ride when designing a killer product/service.

    It isn't usually that hard to do, but you need to devote the time to it. The damage caused by the 10 second email will probably never be measured.

  • http://asable.com/ Giang Biscan

    As usual, great advices, Mark. Thank you.

    It's always scary to open an email and see a wall of text. That's why I love Twitter. It forces me to be short.

  • http://twitter.com/arnorhs Arnor Heidar

    Grammar police!

    “I provided my email address and he sent me a 688 word email (e.g. loooong)”

    Sorry about being bitchy, but e.g. is “for example” what you want to use is i.e.:

    http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/difficulti

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    Mark – this is great. I would add one more. If you do ask somebody for that intro, make sure you are ready to go with the information! Many times somebody will ask for that favor, *then* they put together their email/powerpoint/etc. and it takes days/weeks before the email actually comes across. You're more likely to get results if you strike immediately when the iron (and memory) are hot.

  • Jwebb

    Great advice. I really appreciate the advice on introductions.

  • Yavonditte

    We're turning some of this work flow process into an actually product. It's almost ready Mark. Hope you will try it. We have about 30 folks using it it NYC. To give some context, we had about “50″ activities logged yesterday (from those 30 people). The product marketing wrapper is still very rough around the edges. I hope to invite you within the next few weeks.

  • http://twitter.com/alan_white Alan White

    Another suggestion: if you live in or near a tech center and need advice from a VC, just go visit them — at one of the numerous “open office hours” they're hosting these days. I've spent 15 minutes with each of two VC associates this way, and have received valuable advice.

  • http://thoughtalliance.wordpress.com/ Lance Woodson

    Good suggestions, I'll have to keep this in mind.

  • http://kennethrcarter.com/CoolStuff Kenneth R. Carter

    I have a slightly different wrinkle on your BCC approach. When I decide to forward and intro, I copy the requester and blind copy the target. I include in the email the following text: “To protect your privacy, I have blind copied you on this email. I suggest the following. If you are able to accept this request, it is probably best that you respond to Mr. XYZ directly for the purpose of scheduling. If you are unable to accommodate this request, you may respond directly to me and I will forward the information along.”

  • http://www.dantiernan.com/blog/ dantinpa

    Great post. I sum this advice up to people by saying: make it easy for me to help you. Now I have some details to follow this up with.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Wow. What am awesome idea. I think I'll try this. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For sure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'll pilot for sure. Send me details when you're ready for me (not before Sept)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, this happens. Especially people looking for jobs. Then you say “I can intro” and they say “I need to update my resume first.” Huh?

  • http://kennethrcarter.com/CoolStuff Kenneth R. Carter

    You are welcome. The approach is particularly polite and lowers the threshold for saying “no” (the receiver does not have look him in the eye), that most people actually accept the request. It also works well culturally in the Japanese context.

  • philsugar

    Really good point Joe. One of my biggest peeves is when you get the one way request where the person hasn't even considered its a one way request. Spend at least as much time thinking about that as asking for the intro….

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    I'm quite surprised that people who contact potential investors still don't know business communication etiquette. I take unnecessarily long e-mails as a sign of disrespect for the recipient's time.

    P.S. It feels funny to ask for a “favor” after this post today so here it is. I'm preparing to start a startup review blog and I have created a scoring methodology & rubric to have a system for the process. Could you please review it for any problems with the logic or the approach? I can send you the link on Twitter or you can DM me there with your e-mail (@dnbrv). Thanks!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Smart ass? I say that all the time! It's true. But a big difference between asking for advice (in person) to build rapport and lobbing in an email that adds to my to-do list!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Oh, snap! You nailed me. Thank you ;-) Fixed.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: “a startup review blog and I have created a scoring methodology & rubric to have a system for the process.”

    Is that serious or are you kidding? If serious, I don't understand what this even means, sorry. If serious email me. My email is the same as Twitter handle at Gmail.

  • Benjamin M Myers

    Marc, you're one of the most open, helpful people I know and you've always made time for me. I appreciate it. More VCs should embrace your attitude/approach. Ben

  • JR Fent

    Awesome tips. Thank you Mark for putting so much into this – I feel like I could really add to the way that I do business with insight from you. Many times I'm brought into meetings with people that I could only hope to get to know better or would want to discuss separate business issues with, and would want to be recontact. Some of your advise would be very well used for that. This was one of the most useful posts I've read lately and I commend you for it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Ben. I appreciate it. BTW, I didn't mean to “like” this (which would be ego centric) – just hit it by accident and don't know how to undo!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, JR. I appreciate the feedback.

  • http://jonathan-cooper.com Jonathan

    Thanks for the tips Mark–it can't be echoed enough that concise is best (granted I am coming from the entrepreneurial side). I have heard so many first-hand stories from investors who ignore long e-mails.

    On a quasi-side note, how has LinkedIn (re: daveschappell from above) not nailed this concept? Seems like a no-brainer way for LinkedIn to get some positive press. I actually use LinkedIn a bunch, but it seems to get a bad rap in the VC / startup world. Any idea on what gives? It could be a very useful feature.

  • Gregmand

    Another great post Mark. Big believer in short, to-the-point emails. If I'm asking for an intro, I constantly focus on the key 2-3 sentences that my referrer (a word?) will need to intro me and I *always* assume that my email will be forwarded “as is.” Sure enough, just yesterday sent an email to a friend who offered to make an intro for me and he just forwarded it along with a quick note saying “connecting you guys.” Btw…if I can add one related point (TerezaN and I were discussing today) if someone helps you out with an intro and it leads to a funding, sales deal, job, or even just a conversation be sure to THANK the person who provided the intro. :)

  • http://youarekillingme.net steveray

    how do you like this cold request I got last week?

    I spotted yourt info on LinkedIN. I'm an ND alum in the middle of a job search and I'm looking for some help from fellow Domers. Frankly, I've not had much success w/ my fellow ND alums during this job search but I'm determined to keep trying! I'd love to get your help networking. I'm not asking you to do my work for me, I'm just looking for a little help and a name or two I can contact. I'd love, by the way, to find my way into Comcast. Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.

    My response (after I went to the guys profile to figure out who he was). Maybe it was overly harsh but I felt like he needed some coaching more than intros!! He replied with a courteous note and thanked me.

    As luck would have it I just hired an ND grad today from the class of 2010. The network is worth something!

    Unfortunately I am an internet guy in Los Angeles and honestly have no strong network or contacts at all in the world of Comcast on the cable/broadcast side. I don't think I can be of much help.

    I would suggest (in the spirit of being helpful) that you improve your cover letter when you are reaching out to people on LinkedIN etc. To be direct – I'm not surprised you aren't getting a good response rate. After reading your note I don't really know anything about you, your background, or what kind of role are looking for. You aren't requesting anything specific of me, just asking for open-ended help and people to contact. I don't get the feeling you've done any background on me other than finding out that I went to ND and work at Comcast. The note doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that a phone call would be productive.

    Hope it doesn't come across as overly harsh, but I am a heavy networker and get approached quite often (as well as approach others). I figured some honest feedback would be my best way of assisting you in your search. Best of luck.

  • http://twitter.com/xenoterracide Caleb Cushing

    I'm a nobody, so I don't count. But if someone sends me an office document attachment I'm not going to be happy because I assume it has a virus or malware.

    I also tend to be one of these people who thinks we should try to avoid the obligatory slide deck because it adds very little value in most cases, esp in presentations where people end up reading it, not using it for a visual aid.

    Also it's a lot more effort to open a PowerPoint than it is to visit a link to a web version of the PowerPoint.

    But I'm a broke college student with no job, so I'm sure msuster is much wiser than I.

  • dcuddeback

    Great advice, and very timely for me.

  • Noname

    Never assume that the person you are requesting the intro from knows the etiquette of introduction.

    My intro email went like this “Hi Paul. I was asked to introduce “me” to you…..”
    This blew my 2 full weeks of ground work….

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LinkedIn makes it too easy to ask a friend to ask a friend to intro you. So you get tenuous introductions all the time. They always start like this: “I don't know this guy but he's asking for an intro through my friend Bob. If you're interested feel free to follow up.” That's more often than a sincere intro. That's the problem.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Oh, man, that is such a great point. Always thank the person who connected you (whether it ends up being successful or not!). Thanks, Greg.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Harsh? No way, you did the guy a favor, were polite, taught him a lesson and took the time. I hate contacts like these. It demonstrates that the sender is thoughtless, disrespectful of your time and unfocused. Hopefully you shook him up a bit.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Of course you count and everybody has opinions on these matter. I think most people don't assume an attachment has a virus or malware if sent by somebody professional and most business users have software that scans for that sort of thing. What a lot of people do is they create a PDF version of their PowerPoint slides.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, so true. Even verbal intros are often botched.

  • http://jonathan-cooper.com Jonathan

    Right, I have received a few of those requests, but rarely ask for an intro–I use LinkedIn as more of a research tool. A LinkedIn introduction request seems to be the low man on the totem pole as compared to the abundance of other, more effective ways to connect.