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.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I haven’t seen it. I try to avoid investments in companies that require cultural change. It’s so freakin’ hard.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I obviously see it differently. I was making a matter of fact set of points:
    – I get tons of unsolicited email
    – I can’t respond to it all
    – Please don’t be offended if I don’t, I have to prioritize
    – Please be respectful and keep the email short and the ask tight
    – My guess is that many entrepreneurs waste time trying to be zero inboxers

    I don’t see how that’s “bitching”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Andrew. Been on my queue for a long time. I promise to get to it in the not-too-distant future. It’s a subject I talk about frequently.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. I only check social media in: AM, PM and when I’m waiting for something (doctor’s appt, airplane, meeting to start, etc.)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Sent you privately, Scott.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    From you? Always helpful!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Jan. Appreciate it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, David. I appreciate it. And as many blog commenters know – when I’m traveling and know people’s name from the blog – I often meet them for drinks. As we did.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Eck-fucking-zactly. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    If at first I don’t reply, try, try again ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Blog is best. Over time I get to know the names of people. And when I then see them on email I tend to pay more attention.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And you have inside knowledge on exactly how Bill Gates operates I take it? Puh-lease. You think he responds to 100% of his email? Doubt it. 

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    Don’t worry. I’m one of those persistent types George Lucas Bowen mentions below. ;) 

    Have a great day! :)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That wasn’t the point. I get a lot of first-time entrepreneurs and very young people on the blog. They don’t all appreciate how busy the schedule of some people are. I’m certain of this by the number of people who with no intro expect me to say yes to a: Dinner, Lunch, Coffee, help them with their paper, etc.

    Through public transparency I aim to educate.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I’m OK with the criticism. I prefer to use a real-world example so people can see what it’s really like rather than having the gut reaction of such-and-such is a jerk because he never responded to my email.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I was considering 3. 

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I good friend (unnamed) who is high volume on email does this. I need to start. Thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, you have to agree “what is the right stuff” as Covey would say. But as a general rule I need to do all the parts of my business as do CEOs. So it’s just a question of how much in which areas.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Market research / personal improvement ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Might do. When I migrate to gmail fully. For work I’m still on – gulp – exchange. Personal is gmail.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I don’t use Twitter “Apps” for that reason. Twitter.com only. And I leave it closed during the day unless I’m on a 5-minute break to “check in”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I hate to say this because it will sound terrible. But it’s true. You need to respond to investors and advisors quickly. I feel the same about how I work with portfolio companies. That’s why I have to push the other stuff aside. When my investors write me I try to always respond same day.

  • Dmitri

    We happily support Exchange, or any other service or client – except for Hotmail, working on that at the moment. Sorry if that wasn’t clear in my original post

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    Yep, you’re remarkably accessible, perhaps too much?. Funny thing is though…, the very best (imho) VCs are all remarkably accessible (Brad Feld, Jason Mendelson, Dave McClure, Fred Wilson et al). I honestly don’t know how you and these guys can be so accessible and responsive to such a large audience. (I would make a really crap VC btw).

    Scary thing is though…, being accessible online and then meeting up with entrepreneurs in real life must be just like internet dating; they may seem great in print but when you meet them in real life they’re whackos! No doubt that’s par the course- you meet some really cool people and the occasional psycho!

    And when I’m next in LA I’ll take you and the misses out for Korean food and some Newcastle Brown Ale!

  • http://www.pmhut.com PM Hut

    My strategy with emails is the following:

    – Wait until it’s around 4 PM
    – Answer all the emails
    – Wait until the next day to read the responses
    – Repeat forever

    This way I’m not stuck on a back and forth vicious circle answering one letter emails or time wasting questions.

  • http://blog.ideatransplant.com Jan Schultink

    Seth Godin today said it much better than I did: The forever recession: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/09/the-forever-recession.html

  • http://paulroales.com PaulRoales

    No of course I dont have inside information on it – he wrote about how he handles email publicly.

    Also, you didn’t take time to actually read my comment. I was saying “Don’t read 100% of your email – hire an assistant to read 100% and then give you what is important”

    Now Bill Gates on email:

    “I get about 100 e-mails a day. We apply filtering to keep it to that level—e-mail comes straight to me from anyone I’ve ever corresponded with, anyone from Microsoft, Intel, HP, and all the other partner companies, and anyone I know. And I always see a write-up from my assistant of any other e-mail, from companies that aren’t on my permission list or individuals I don’t know. That way I know what people are praising us for, what they are complaining about, and what they are asking.

    We’re at the point now where the challenge isn’t how to communicate effectively with e-mail, it’s ensuring that you spend your time on the e-mail that matters most. I use tools like “in-box rules” and search folders to mark and group messages based on their content and importance.”

    http://money.cnn.com/2006/03/30/news/newsmakers/gates_howiwork_fortune/

    I am going to reiterate – there are a lot of people out there who struggle with their email because they are to much of a control freak, to little of a manager, to be able to hire someone, train someone, and trust someone to the extent they can help them manage their email.

  • http://blog.teamly.com/about Scott Allison

    Thanks Mark! Wow… busy week you had… at least 25 meetings, and most meetings probably require some kind of follow up, and with a packed schedule it means the only follow up time is when you’re “supposed” to be resting. Do you get a chance to switch off at weekends?

  • JamesHRH

    Context disconnect – this is meant as a joke and it is aimed at ‘traditional VC’ practises. I am hoping Horatiu has not built a 24 page BusPlan and submitted it blind through a firm’s website, while then expectantly waiting for a reply!

    I agree w Richard F on replies to unsolicited email, FWIW. And Ben Horowitz’s blog is still a valid activity, even if it is a lot less interesting than AVC, just because it is one way, FWTW!

  • JamesHRH

    this would have made a good first para to the post.

  • JamesHRH

    Sounds like a great post.

  • http://www.cindyalvarez.com cindyalvarez

    I like “no commitments allowed via email”.  I just wish I could also enforce “no commitments allowed via ‘I’m driving and thought I’d call you with this new idea I just had…’ ” as well.  

  • http://www.grooveshark.com sbmiller5

    Maybe we should be asking what the right structure of a VC firm is, if every VC deals with this.

  • Suzan B

    Great post–something that’s been on my mind lately too. Especially how to bucket a day filled with different tasks and appointments.  I’d love to see a screenshot of your calendar as well. I think it would give me some good perspective!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1390403632 Joseff Betancourt

    I do the same. It works and acts like twitter message in a corporate setting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1390403632 Joseff Betancourt

    Recently, for a forum board I programmed, I used the unoffical Google voice  API to have internal messages (has a 140 character limit) text to my Google Voice then sent to email and cell as text. Effect was basically an option based auto-responder on front end depending on what the person wanted and a twitter feed on the receiving end.

    Point being, it’s easy to do logic based auto-responder on your own web email client but much harder with public emailers like gmail — which most start-ups use.

  • http://twitter.com/JoseffB JB

    How many emails do you get a day? I get about 200 and it’s manageable. But I’m sure Suster gets in the 1000’s — which is totally unmanageable. At that point I’d link my gmail to a crm and use that to manage my email.

  • http://usemighty.com Aaron Crayford

    It’s bitching cause you’re in the people business. One of the reasons you are valuable at all is because you’ve created an online social “Mark Suster” brand. You need people to be emailing you for you to do well in your business. To push any form of the rhetoric that email is bad for you is either a gross misunderstanding of your purpose or you just bitching. Seeing that you understand the value of social interaction i.e. I see you’ve developed this following on purpose. I’m going with you’re just bitching like most of the other ones that are publicly vocal about their email management issues.

    Here’s what i’m saying we are not your problem. You aren’t good at managing your email and that’s the problem. What’s the solution? I don’t know I don’t get that many emails. Maybe hire someone to filter it out or create some new technology to help you manage it but the problem isn’t too many emails. It’s your inability to manage them.

    It’s great you inform entrepreneurs how to be pithy. Think about it like this: Of the major VC’s in the game, the billionaires, how many times have you heard about them publicly complaining that they get too much email? I can’t say that i’ve seen any… because they understand that they are in the people business and if they dislike mass relationship management then they should pack their bags and seek a new birth.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

    Thanks Mark.  I am impressed with your accessibility.  I have also seen this pattern on your blog comment responses.  High response rate inside 9-10 hours of post then very specific responses within 36 hours after posting.

  • http://www.desmo.org Stefan Portay

    Will definitely consider this when I e-mail you :)

  • http://twitter.com/#!/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

    Best kind of type for getting things done :)

  • Dmitri

    We proudly support Exchange as well (as well as any other service or client, except for Hotmail – working on that at the moment)

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    Annoying but potentially effective.

    hehe.. :D

  • JamesHRH

    Doesn’t sound terrible – taking of the customer should always be Job#1.

  • JamesHRH

    The radio company I worked at had a motto for On Air personalities:

    ‘when you are talking about yourself, you are talking to yourself. Talk to the audience or get fired.’

    No ax to grind, just saying it opens the door for the ‘wheeeee’ comments.

  • JamesHRH

    Aaron – unless you are British, surname far from appropriate as salutation.

    You are wrong that this site is a brand. It’s a marketing tool and, if you think about anything Mark has written, he genuinely is a ‘likes to help’ person, so it is something he likely feels he should do,.

    If it was a brand, he would have somebody manage it. It’s not.

    Before you get a can of insecure whoop ass out for me, note my position that Mark should not use himself as an example – b/c people who live the CEO working life are in the minority (and it opens up the comment stream to people with a chip on their shoulder about their non-CEO work life – that would be you, just to be clear).

    If you think so little of Mark, point the browser elsewhere. I would appreciate it,at the very least.

    Don’t see him comparing himself to any billionaires, BTW.

  • http://runwithpower.wordpress.com/ Geoff Watts

    Mark – Great post. One thing I didn’t see is anything health or fitness related.  Sounds like you have a lot going on, to sustain it long term you may want to think about having one of your meetings over a walk or run.  Love your ideas, keep it up.

    Geoff

  • Tasha

    I really enjoyed reading this :)  I truly understand.  I’m looking forward to figuring out ways to help you manage email. 

    Your FABOULOUS Assistant – Tasha :)

  • Benjamin Clonts

    Mark, great post and I completely agree.  Email is reactionary and generally not very productive.

    Just to add an addtional reason not to do email first thing in the morning.

    I read somewhere that we are the most creative and productive in the morning.  What a shame to waste that brain power responding to emails.  I usually allocate email time to periods when I know I am not at my peak.

  • Anonymous

    I just got around to reading this post and first I laughed my butt off.

    Of course, you are at an inflection point in your popularity. When you had a smaller following 9 or 12 months ago, you were able to get to a much higher percentage of the people that reached out to you. Those people then told their friends, colleagues, and employees how awesome you were, and your following continued to grow.  I am certainly guilty of this. I tell everyone in my community about your blog. When I meet someone new that is looking to learn, this is recommendation number 1. Email me again when you have read some Suster.

    Now you have so many more followers that it is impossible to get to them all. People I tell about you now aren’t as likely to have the same experience I did. That is ok, you just have to manage expectations and this post goes a long way towards doing that. You should consider adding in some other strategies that might help. Off the top of my head, if you want to devote an hour to outreach, go on Twitter and say you will spend the next hour responding to people that email you now. Make it clear that if the person doesn’t get a response within the hour, they aren’t going to get one. The contract is clear, and people won’t feel upset knowing they had their chance and they just didn’t get lucky this time.

    Just remember, your voice is clear, concise, and experienced. You are great at explaining the key factors in an advice seeker’s situation. People want to talk to you.

    Also, talk to Gary V. He has gotten better at this lately too.