Startup Shortcuts: Tips to Improve Cold-Emailing Response Rates

In this series, I share some of the free/low-cost solutions that I’ve discovered for common startup challenges. See the list of previous posts at the bottom of the page.

PW-37-1.jpgWhen you’re launching an ed-tech startup, you end up sending out a lot of cold emails. I’m talking about unsolicited emails that you send to people you don’t know, but you somehow found their contact information online. Your goal is to introduce your startup and then ask for their help in some way.

I’ve written tons of these cold emails. I’m sure you have, too. Some of my emails were great, some were not-so-great, abnd they always took a lot of time to craft. But despite my efforts, I wasn’t necessarily getting a great response rate. I know that’s not a complete surprise, because the emails were unsolicited.

Thumbnail image for PW-37-3.jpgBut a lot of this changed after I attended a sales workshop. Now, I know what you’re thinking. A sales workshop? Ick! You mean, one of those cheesy classes led by some sleazy sales guy?

Okay, I’ll admit. Some of his tactics were a bit much, but he did talk about what he’s learned from the thousands of cold emails that he’s sent in his career. What he said made a lot of sense to me and ever since I adopted elements of his strategy, my response rate has gone up. Admittedly, I did not do an A/B test or compare my pre vs. post response rate, but I have noticed a marked difference.

Here are the lessons I learned from him:

1. Get a referral if you can. This is obvious, but you’ll always want to use a referral if you can. This makes the email less “cold” and increases the odds that someone will actually bother to read your email. If you have a referral, make sure you lead with it by putting it in your subject and in your opening sentence, i.e., “John Smith suggested that I reach out to you. My name is …”

Thumbnail image for PW-37-2.jpg2. Make your subject line super-clear. You can craft the perfect email, but that doesn’t matter if your email doesn’t get opened. To increase the odds that your email will be opened, you need to have a clear, concise, and direct subject line. So, you don’t want something vague like, “Interested in connecting with you.” Instead, be more direct, “Informational Interview Request from an Ed-Tech Startup.”

3. Keep it short. Really short! People are busy. No one has time to read anymore. You need to make your cold emails extremely skimmable, which means you want to keep them short AND utilize short paragraphs (to make them easy to scroll through on a phone). It’s tempting to want to cram a ton of information into a cold email, but providing lots of details doesn’t actually help. In fact, it probably hurts, because you end up overwhelming people with so much info that they just skip your email and move on to the next one. You want to give people the basics to help them judge whether they’re interested in learning more.

4. Use a three-paragraph structure. I follow the structure he suggested and it has worked really well for me, both in helping keep my emails concise and in making them less time-consuming to draft.

Paragraph 1: State who you and what your ask/request is right up front. Don’t make readers scroll through the entire email to figure out why you’re emailing them.

Paragraph 2: Provide relevant background on yourself and/or your startup. Keep this to 3-4 sentences to avoid making the paragraph too long. Provide a link to your site or a place where they can learn more.

Paragraph 3: Reiterate your ask, preferably in the form of a question. This makes it clear what action you’re hoping the reader will take.

Here’s a humorous example:

Ms. Johnson,

My name is <<Hopeful-Founder>> and I’m working on a startup, <<SuperAwesomeName>> [make this a link to your site!], that helps students do <<super-amazing-things>>. I’m reaching out because I’d like to get your feedback on our startup idea and learn from your extensive experience at <<McPearson-Hill>>.

<<SuperAwesomeName>> helps students do <<super-amazing-things>> by offering <<unbelievable technology>> in an <<unbelievably easy-to-use interface.>> Our beta product is still in development, but we recently <<note what you’ve accomplished so far, whether it’s winning a pitch competition or getting great feedback from early users)>>. Our team includes former teachers (XXX school, YYY school) and engineers (XXX company, YYY company). You can learn more about us with this 90-second demo video: <<link>>.

Are you available for a 30-minute call sometime in the next month? Given your vast experience across the industry, we would appreciate the opportunity to learn from you as we set out to create our platform.

Thank you for your time. We look forward to hearing from you.

Hopeful Founder

Adopting his suggestions has streamlined my process for crafting cold emails and improved my response rate. I hope his suggestions help you, too!

Are there any other tips that you’ve found useful? Let me know @professorword!

Until next time,


See also:

Photo Credit: Flickr user David Bruce Jr, 10ch, and thetaxhaven.




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