Why Email May Be Draining Your Company’s Productivity

Posted on Sep 28, 2011 | 106 comments


Email. Ah, email. That great productivity drain that we somehow all buy into. I’ve taken to saying, “Email is our personal to-do list that anybody adds to – whether they know us or not.”

I was lamenting it tonight when I saw the most brilliant response Tweet by Andrew Hyde 

“inbox = tetris getting zero lines doesn’t win it just makes the next move easy.”

Brilliant! We spend our lives doing it. Nobody really enjoys it. Twitter is filled with people either bragging (complaining?) about their marathon 4-hour sessions to get to zero inbox or somebody else claiming email bankruptcy (definition if you don’t know it already).

It has become part of modern life. I have taken to limiting my outbound email. My equivant to Andrew’s Tweet has been saying for years,

“I’ve realized that email is like spaghetti, the more you process the more you seem to have remaining.”

What I’ve observed is that the email generation has shifted cultural norms. It now seems totally acceptable to email random people direct to their email boxes whether you know them or not. Even more so – it seems acceptable to people to be annoyed with you for not responding to their emails.

“I would far rather give out my mobile phone number than my email address.”

Culturally people know that it’s not acceptable to text or call you on your cell phone unless they know you. They just don’t do it. Yet email seems to be an open invitation to anybody.

Here’s the thing: I actually do care about responding to people. I will even take to emailing people I don’t know offering small bits of advice. I try to be helpful. But if I spent my day doing this – or many other email tasks – I’d never get ANYTHING else done. Just this evening I’ve done a shit-tonne of emails as those that received them from me can attest. My last one went out past midnight.

But I don’t feel compelled to always respond. I have a rule that I read 100% of emails. I intend to respond to as many as I can. In a typical day I might do email in the morning, hang out with my kids, drive them to school, arrive at 8.30am for meetings and finish 6 or 8 meetings before evening. I often don’t see email in the day. If I have an event in the evening or am traveling for work then I can easily get through 2 days without sending any non-essential email. The problem is that once it’s beyond 3 days old my chances of seeing it are minimal.

Is that OK?

Yes. I think so. [I know many of you are not yet persuaded]

I shifted my thinking a few years ago after I read Tim Ferris’s book The Four Hour Workweek (link is to a short summary I wrote). Most people are reactive to email. They check in the morning and then their schedule gets off kilter. They become responsive to the priorities that other people set for them rather than their own important tasks.

He suggest you never check first thing in the morning. He also suggests you only check periodically and leave your email off at other times so as not to be disturbed.

So I ask you – if you’re being reactive to somebody else’s emails are you really being as productive in your company as you could be?

“But WAIT !!! Mark! You’re writing a freaking blog post! How the hell can you tell us you don’t have time for email?”

I never said that.

I DO have time for email. I just choose not to spend all my time doing it. I do what I wish all entrepreneurs would do. I try to bucket my tasks into major categories and spend some time doing each of them. The same kind of tasks that a startup team has.

[end of post for anybody with no interest in the “day of the life of a VC” and how I time bucket my activities. I’m calling this since somebody in the comments section complained the post is too long. there is no new “point” made. Email drains productivity – don’t become a slave. And time bucket your activities.]

Here’s my day today and how I bucketed it.

1. Operations. My core duty. I spend tons of time each day on portfolio company issues. I had a pre breakfast with a CEO of a company in which I invested talking about his next fund raising round. I spent a late morning meeting with a product exec at one portfolio company. I had a 3-hour board meeting with another. I spent time talking with 2 senior execs who are separately joining two of my portfolio companies. I called one company CEO about an inbound M&A request and how to handle it. I sent an email to another about what I thought we should cover at his next board meeting and what was missing from the deck he sent. I called another about his fund raising (DUDE – you never called me back! ;-))

2. Sales. I submitted a term sheet to a company yesterday. It’s an entrepreneur with whom I’ve been wanting to work for 6 years. Actually, longer than anybody else in the US I’ve hoped to work with. He turned me down for a job in 2005. Yesterday I offered him a term sheet. I spent time today negotiating it with him and getting my partners bought into some changes. Separately, in the morning I called a seed-stage investor in NY and talked to him about investing in one of my companies. He is considering putting money into one of our competitors. Boo!

3. Fund raising. Yes, we have to do it to. And trust me, it’s harder / longer / more time consuming for VCs. I bucket some of my time every month to ongoing fund raising relationships – even in years we’re not raising. We call these investors “LPs” for limited partners. I had lunch with an LP.

4. Biz Dev. I met for coffee with one of my favorite “startup advisors” in LA. I like to meet people like this because in an hour I get catch up on everything going on in the startup community. They become my eyes and ears. And I theirs. We spent an hour trading notes.

[I then arrived home at 7.30pm, had dinner, put my kids to bed and came back to my laptop at 9.30pm. This is a huge priority in my life and I’m not going to give it up to be an email black belt.]

5. Customer support – After my pre-breakfast meeting I had my actual breakfast meeting. It was a young, first-time entrepreneur who wanted to meet. I try to take time out of my week to occasionally meet with startup founders – even those that haven’t been introduced. This guy was a hustler. He noticed that I didn’t own BothSidesoftheTable.co so he bought it and agreed to transfer it to me. In return he politely requested a meeting. How could I say no to that? Plus, he’s a loyal reader of this blog. I didn’t expect an investment out of this breakfast – I was going to give back. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised.

I consider email a mix of all of the above. But it’s mostly customer service. I get tons of

  • I don’t know you but could we grab coffee
  • I’m a university student working on a project on entrepreneurship – could you help?
  • I run a conference – could you speak?
  • Could I intro my friend to you? He has a startup
  • Do you know a good lawyer in NYC?
  • Can you please intro me to XYZ VC?
  • I heard you’ll be in San Fran next Tues, could we …

I answer as many as I can. I never get grumpy that people write. Only that I can’t get to them all. And of course I then see some public forums where somebody complains that they wrote to me and I never responded. Sheesh.

If you do randomly write me I have advice. Keep your email UBER short and have a very specific ask. If I can help I will. If I don’t answer please don’t be offended. Please feel free to send it again with a reminder that you sent it once before.

6. Marketing. I know many people think I blog all day long. Any of my partners or portfolio companies can attest otherwise. Or ask Tasha to send you a screen shot of my weekly calendar. But what kind of business person would I be if I allocated 100% of my time to customer service and zero to marketing? That would be pretty lame. It would be a sure fire way to ensure that I didn’t have the best possible investment portfolio. Marketing = deal flow = share of mind = start of future relationships. It needs a time bucket. And it usually fits the one I’m filling right now. It’s 1:06 in the morning.

7. Research & Development. I am looking at a company that provides a service supporting node.js implementations. I also spent time today emailing tech friends asking for their input. I spent time playing around with Twitter and looking at a couple of short email services like ShortMail. Yes, time playing with tools & reading Twitter could be spent fruitlessly trying to get my email box to zero. But then I wouldn’t be doing R&D.

And tomorrow starts with another breakfast meeting. That’s my treadmill. And why I’ll never spend my entire life inside my email box.

Should you? I know it’s different as a VC than as a startup company providing a product or service. But I’ll bet you could prioritize some of your email away and still be fine. In fact, better for it.

And with the end of this post I offer big apologies to anybody whom I know, was supposed to respond to and have not yet completed that obligation.

I promise to get better. At apologizing.

  • Matthew White

    Great post Mark. I have “casually” forwarded this to a group of my peers that shutter when they see my inbox. These same people (who are OBSESSED with 0 inbox) can never seem to find the pertinent info that I sent to them 25 minutes ago…

    (Long time reader, first comment. Thanks for all the great advice so far.)

  • http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/ Tom Foremski

    More and more people now know how journalists feel, and the burden of getting so much email that wants an answer or some kind of response. I have more than 100,000 unread emails in my inbox currently. My attitude is that I’ll respond when I can and if I don’t it’s not personal, it’s not that I don’t like you, I just can’t keep up. More and more people understand this these days, which is good. 

    And yes, I only give out my cell phone number never my desk number. I tell people if it’s really important to call or text. It’s a great filter.

    Information overload? Conversation overload is a lot worse. If I didn’t read that article? If I lose the thread on an online conversation (email, comments, twitter, fb, g+, LnkdIn)  with people I know, respect, work with, it feels far worse. People who are hyper-social, capable of responding quickly and across all channels will do well, and are doing very well, such as Robert Scoble, Gary V., etc..

    I need time for conversations with myself.

  • http://polidigital.org Joshua

    Setting expectation will result in people understanding your communication patterns.  I think Tim Ferris talks about this in 4 Hour Work Week.  I know I am no where as busy as you yet, and couldn’t get to my next stage if I act on emails as they hit my inbox.

  • http://www.templatemagician.com/category/joomla-templates joomla templates

     This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last week.

  • http://www.marketing.fm Anonymous

    This post planted a seed since I first read it.  I want to agree more than my actions show, because I spend a ton of time trying to tame email into shape.  The sheer amount of inbound is enough to distract anyone.  The reality is that if you spend too much time with inbound, you stop inventing the future.  This is particularly prevalent for startups either trying to get customers, or trying to get users.  You can forget the finish line, distracted by a quick hit along the way.  I guess what I am trying to say is that you need to get outside the inbox, and do the other things you listed.  

    My own list actually looks quite the same (as I am sure most of your portfolio companies do too) with 1-7 being the primary time sinks of the day.  If you don’t get out of the firehose of distractions (email) you rarely think deeply about things and start solving the problems that are in front of you and your customers.  

    It may be a placebo, but sometimes its great to get a response back from someone later than you wanted and get a thoughtful thorough response that is well crafted.  

    Email may be draining on any co. but the fight continues!  Thanks for the post.

  • http://www.charliecrystle.com Charlie Crystle

    I can’t imagine the unwanted stuff doesn’t make you grumpy.