How to get attention from internet celebrities

I get a constant stream of requests to look at new startups or to announce something that a startup just did.

As you’d guess, I can’t do it, as much as I love to chat about startups, by which I mean swapping wisdom with fellow entrepreneurs, by which I mean stoke my ego by telling strangers what to do with neither repercussion nor responsibility.

Most of the email is truly spam. But even for the legit stuff, the problem is time. The joke is:

How much time does a startup take?

All of it.

Running WP Engine takes all my time. Also I value my family time. How much time does a 3-year-old and loving wife take?  All of it, as well.

Which leaves no time for “can I pick your brain for 15 minutes” or “can I get your feedback on my pitch deck” and especially “can you spread the word on your blog.”

Some are incredulous that I can’t afford to have a pricking of the brain for a measly little 15 minutes, but the reason has been covered by folks like Paul Graham explaining how one small meeting blows away a day’s worth of productivity and Dharmesh Shah on how his inbox is overwhelmed he has no choice but to say “no” to everything.

But still, one occasionally makes it through. How do those exceptions pierce my fearsome firewall?

I was curious myself, so I inspected a variety of recent email to see which never had a chance, which could have worked but didn’t, and which I actually engaged with. Here’s what I found.

Short

Anything longer than 150 words means you’ve assigned me a project. I’m racing gazelle-like through an inbox bristling with questions and information actually related to my Real Job, and you’ve thrown up a roadblock. It’s not only the time it takes to read, but surely this treatise is explaining something complicated — telling a story, painting context, articulating details, etc.. In the same way it takes special energy to grok source code you didn’t write, I don’t have the special energy to engage.

To force the issue, the email address I publish on my “About me” page goes to a Shortmail account, which prevents messages longer than 500 characters.  Still, I’ll get emails complaining about how they couldn’t possibly pen their missive inside this ridiculous limitation, demanding that I provide an alternate email address, all while forgetting to say anything about who they are or what they were going to tell me.

Those get marked as spam.

Plausible, Interesting Call to Action

I get 5-10 emails daily asking if I will “help spread the word” about something.

The following is an actual email I just received, and in fact prompted me to write this post.  I’ve removed details because I have no desire to call anyone out. It’s typical:

Dear Jason,
COMPANY has just completed its first startup accelerator program. I
had emailed you in August before we first started the program and I wanted
to invite you to take a look at some of these new tech-businesses in our
portfolio.
I would love for you to join us and would greatly appreciate if you could
share the news on your blog or Twitter.

There are two calls to action here: (A) Look at a handful of new businesses; (B) Share the news.

The call-to-action is giving me a job to do, and one thing I don’t need is another job, so it has to be clear, sensible, and something that I plausibly would agree to do.

This email fails in both regards, for different reasons.

On (A), I don’t know what “take a look at means.” Scan overviews? Meet founders? Provide advice? Be pitched at? How many companies? Where’s a link?

There’s no way I can even evaluate what I’m being asked to do, and my general (asshole) attitude is that if they can’t articulate why I should be interested, then I’m not interested.

The correct way to have done this is to figure out what would make me personally interested. Like, pick the company most similar to a company I’ve built or that I’ve talked about before or that I advise or have invested in (check AngelList). Then you can say something like, “Company XYZ does PDQ which is similar to ABC which I know you’re deep in, so I wonder whether you’d be interested in help these guys with some strategic and tactical questions. Since you’re familiar with the space, 15 minutes might go a long way.”

Or: “I know you do a podcast with startup advice.  I have 7 companies here I think you’d find interesting, and they all need advice! Could we schedule a podcast episode just for our accelerator group?  It would take two hours, but I think it would be fun for everyone.”

I’d do that in a heartbeat. It would be fun!

But instead it was “I’d like to invite you to take a look at some of these new tech-businesses.”

On (B), this is the easiest one to remedy. Let’s suppose I do want to spread the word on Twitter.  What would I do next?

I would open my Twitter client and type…. what exactly? I have nothing to go on.  I don’t have a pithy, interesting grabber.  I don’t have their Twitter account.  I don’t have a link.

So effectively I’m being asked to research all of that, condense it into 140 characters (or 110 so there’s room for RT) and then go tweet it.  That’s way too big of a job to give me when you’re already asking a favor from a stranger!

This is so easy to fix. Just paste an example Tweet into the email, which I can copy/paste and then modify only if I want. Or: Add a link to an existing Tweet which I can re-tweet.

Here’s more on that.

Finally, one of the best kinds of calls-to-action are specific questions. Asking for “15 minutes of advice” is almost never possible. Ask a very specific question around a metric or a financial model or how to validate a specific idea or how to price something or whether to hire a first employee or anything like that is likely to pique my interest and make it possible for me to help.

Appropriate for me

My next mental filter determines whether I’m going to mark it as spam or not, on the basis of whether the request is something that makes sense for me, specifically.

Going back to the suggestion from the previous example that I “share the news on your blog,” it would be clear to any actual reader of my blog that I don’t share “news” like this on my blog. Ever. I barely even announce things that I’m doing myself. Suggesting that I announce a product release or business launch on this blog means you’re spamming me, so I immediately mark it as spam.

Even spreading the “news” on Twitter isn’t what I normally do on Twitter. Although that’s a better request because it can take just a click or two and there’s very little commitment on my part.

But still, why would I personally endorse a startup or news article that I know nothing about?

If you’re committed to being a stranger and not actually developing a relationship, the solution is to explain why it’s in my selfish interest to do this for another stranger.  Typically there’s no benefit for me to promote a stranger’s thingy. It’s not honest and it’s noise. If the only thing I am to you is a megaphone for your crap, it’s spam, and I’m going to respond like an asshole and say “what’s in it for me?”

There can be a reason. For example, maybe you mentioned a blog post of mine in an article of yours, and then you’re wondering whether I’ll also tweet about your post. I will almost always do that. Especially if you disagree with me! Because I like taking a stand on a topic but then giving voice to the opposing viewpoints.

But the better solution is to not be a stranger. When I get email from someone I recognize from blog comments or Twitter interactions, I almost always help out with advice, spreading the word, anything. Because we’re engaged.  We talk about stuff.  We agree and disagree about things, and I know that. That’s all it takes to flip me from “asshole what’s-in-it-for-me” mode into “Oh hey, yeah I remember you” mode.

Unique / Interesting

Here’s another email I got today:

Dear Jason,
Based on your commitment to innovation, I’d like to introduce my web startup to you.
PRODUCT is an early stage web application that enables content creators
to playfully combine multimedia from anywhere on the web through a shared,
virtual whiteboard.
We’ve just started a crowdfunding campaign, and already passed 10% in a
single day. You can find our video and details here:
URL
If you share our vision, help us spreading the word. Thank you!

I can already tell this is spam, because there’s nothing unique to me in this email.  “Based on your commitment to innovation” is generic and clearly isn’t aimed at me. In fact, I’m specifically not committed to innovation and I avoid words like that.

But also there’s nothing unique or interesting in the concept. There’s 1000 startups that mash up stuff online; it’s OK to build the 1001st, but tell me why I should care about it. The fact that you’re crowd-funding is neither interesting nor novel; maybe if you articulated why people are funding it, that would get me excited too, but whatever that is, it’s not in this email, and no you can’t assign me a job to watch a video to find out. I should “help us spreading the word” (can’t be bothered to use correct grammar?) if I “share our vision,” but what’s the vision exactly?

If you can’t get me excited, I’m not going to dig around to find the gold.

An easy way to get me automatically more excited is to dovetail whatever you’re doing with whatever I’m doing. For example, I do an audio podcast where I help founders on the spot. If you suggest that we do that, I’m interested, because I want to do more episodes. As another example, I do the same thing in a series called the Mailbag.

Examples of doing it right

Here’s some concepts I’ve been emailed about recently which I have indeed supported by advice or spreading the word.

  • A WordPress-related startup, contacted me because of WP Engine, and indicated in the first email why it was a new idea, and why, if he were successful, we might end up wanting to do business together. He was right, so I was interested in at least chatting. The fact is it’s unlikely his startup would ever be able to generate enough revenue for it to be interesting for us at WP Engine (I told him why), but it’s still relevant to me and my space, and therefore I’m interested.
  • A hosting-related startup, not related to WordPress, contacted me because he wanted to build “WP Engine but for XYZ,” and had specific questions around it. Here’s a place I could help a lot in a short amount of time, and there was a reason he was asking me.
  • An accelerator, asking about lessons-learned at Capital Factory, while offering some lessons they learned in their first year.
  • A startup with revenue, deciding between raising money or not raising money, and willing to do a Smart Bear Live podcast about it.
  • A blogger asking to interview me on a new podcast; he admitted the viewership is small but he’ll promote it on his front page for a while.
  • A startup with an unusual pricing question, and willing to do a Mailbag post about it.
  • A startup founder who previously had written a blog post disagreeing with one of my articles, now interested in my opinion on a specific matter.
  • A blogger submitting a guest-post, which started out inadequate but was willing to iterate until it was excellent; I published it.
  • A group promoting women-owned startups trying to get attention so they can help more women become founders.

As final example of doing this well, here’s yet another email from today, and since I’m complementing instead berating, I won’t anonymize. See, there’s another way to get into this blog!

Hello Jason,
I am starting a business and I’ve decided to video document the steps I take along the way. Jason Fried wrote about doing something similar in his book Rework. Your feedback is more than welcome. I’ve decided not be paranoia about keeping my soon to be unique selling point a secret, in accordance with your advice in one of your recent blog entries.
So here’s the start of the series, Youtube:
www.youtube.com/user/Justormdotcom
Kind regards,
Elian Krosse

Video documentation is sort of interesting. He is clearly a subscriber and is thoughtful about the advice. He’s committed to transparency and taking a risk, which is intrinsically interesting. This isn’t spam, it’s a person trying to something genuine, with some sort of twist.

I hope I don’t come off as even more of an asshole than I actually am. I really do want to hear about interesting things, and I want to help founders who are being genuine. It’s just hard to cull those from the torrent of human-spam, so as a legitimate person trying to reach me, you’ll have to work that much harder to stand out from the noise.

I’m pretty sure the lessons above are more or less true for anyone with a significant web presence.  Hopefully these tips will help you unlock conversations with everyone you want to reach.

Let’s add more dos and don’ts in the comments!

  • http://twitter.com/ojoven Mikel Torres Ugarte

    I’d say it’s all about common sense and putting yourself in the other’s shoes.

    I wonder if you’ve ever received a personal video message, as a different way to pique one’s interest. It’s a technique to get in touch with influencers that we’re using in our startup. If you find it curious (and have enough time to reply to this message) I would prepare a video message for you :)

    Great post, Jason

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      *Personally* I don’t like video because I have to find a time to watch when I can listen, it’s always slower than reading, links are separate, etc., but I’m sure there are others who would think that was pretty cool and personal.

      • http://twitter.com/ojoven Mikel Torres Ugarte

        No video for you, then :P

        Thanks for letting me know your opinion, Jason.

  • kevincimring

    Hi Jason, great post. Love your analysis of the various emails, which has some really practical and tangible advice. Without giving away my age, let’s just say I’m not the typical “young” entrepreneur having moved to Silicon Valley in my 40’s to launch a new start-up. But we’re never to old to learn, and especially from blogs such as yours. Thanks again.
    Kevin

  • http://grinnick.com/ David Tuite

    One of the reasons people don’t email specific questions is because specific questions are relatively easy to answer using Google.

    In contrast, when you don’t know what questions you need to ask, Google isn’t great but open-ended conversations with smart people often work wonders.

    That’s why smart people who write blogs help so much. It’s like an asynchronous, open-ended conversation which efficiently utilizes the bloggers time when stacked against the value provided to the world at large.

  • http://twitter.com/brianpiercy brian piercy

    I gotta boil this post down to a paragraph and 4-5 bullets. +1, Jason.

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  • Jeffrey Fry

    Wow…I cannot believe how people feel you “owe” them a response to a request for your help… so to answer Brian Piercy’s requests here are the points
    1) Do not ask for help unless you are prepared to offer something of benefit in return
    2) Be specific in your requests for: a) time, b) expertise, c) advice, d) review, …etc..
    3) Ask for what the person is good at, not necessary what you need (like everything)
    4) Be smart and humble
    5) Get to the point.. if you cannot say what you do in under 500 characters, then you do not know what you are doing or you are doing too much.

  • Stephanie Hackney

    Great advice!

    I will add:
    Use language representative of the relationship you have with the recipient. Using too formal, or too casual, a ‘voice’ is an immediate red flag in my inbox!
    Know what your goal is for all communications. Give serious thought and consideration to what you will say and how you’ll say it BEFORE writing.
    Provide a clear, concise and accomplishable call-to-action, keeping in mind how valuable the recipient’s time is. And, offer an easy-out in the first paragraph.
    Don’t act as if we have a relationship when we don’t. The generic marketing message that starts off by claiming I have expressed interest in you or your company or product, when we both know I haven’t, means your message gets flagged as spam and you’ll likely never have a chance at a real relationship with me. If I gave you my name at a tradeshow, then remind me of that because it’s likely I want to speak with you again (I meet a lot of people at events and may not recall my meeting you or stopping by your booth). But, if we spoke in line for coffee, don’t dump my card into the tradeshow booth follow-up pile which leads to my receiving a generic ‘thanks for stopping by our booth’ email.
    Finally, please, please, please proofread and spellcheck your email before sending it to me. As a former copy editor and current columnist, as soon as I spot a mistake, I stop reading for content and start looking for more mistakes. You may only get one chance to make a good impression, so don’t miss that opportunity by being lazy.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      All great points, thanks for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/Harmon_Michael Mike Harmon

    from what I’ve been reading elsewhere this is exactly the same as how you should approach anyone, I remember stories about “mommy bloggers” being sent things that little girls would like when they only raised boys etc. Just make what you say important.

    that said, I suck at networking online and it would be awesome to move past that someday especially since I do have projects that will grow into startups soon (provided I finish them lol – this is the one though).

    Thanks for the article, I’m not even famous and I still answer mostly the same way you do lol

  • http://www.eliainsider.com Elia Freedman

    You didn’t mention so I will: make the email subject relevant. Subjects that say “for you” or “need input” don’t help me. And never add “re” unless it is actually a reply. That’s an immediate spammer for me!

    • http://illtakethatinpurple.com/ Jessica Novak

      Thanks for mentioning subject lines – was waiting for someone to talk about how to get a person to actually OPEN your email. Do you have any examples of great subject lines? Thx!

      • http://www.eliainsider.com Elia Freedman

        Has to be relevant, just like Jason says in the post. Hard to give examples as very dependent on the recipient.

  • http://boomylabs.com/ Shyam Subramanyan

    Hmmm…regardless of the content of this post, the tone is a big turn off for me personally.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      I hear you. I realized that was a risk. But I know a lot of people who feel the same way as me, and it’s the truth after all, so I thought it was better to share.

      It’s hard to say anything like this and NOT sound like a huge douche-bag. But the fact is these rules are true of *most people* on the internet.

      • http://boomylabs.com/ Shyam Subramanyan

        I believe you could have. The key to communicating well is to communicate with humility. But then, what do I know? I am not (yet) a celebrity ;-)

        • http://twitter.com/bmoeskau Brian Moeskau

          Another key is having a “voice” or personality to your writing, which Jason certainly does. A bland, polite bullet list on this topic would have been far less interesting a read IMO.

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  • Dale Ting

    This post might make Jason seem “asshole” like, but I a while back I wrote up a follow up to one of his posts and he ended up linking to it in his original post. The kicker? I had no expectations nor did I suggest he do it. He did it on his own, and drove a bunch of traffic to my nobody site. Jason is extremely helpful and will go out of the way to help people. I would suggest people heed the advice from this post to help him help you.

    And Jason, thanks for doing that. I still remember it to this day.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      You bet, I remember it too. It was hard going against your father’s expectations. Probably still is.

      • Dale Ting

        Reminds me I should post an update… My dad in his retirement years has developed a new perspective. He recently bought a Tremore Breeze Smoker from me. :)

        • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

          That’s awesome to hear. It occurs to me, more “proof” for him might be showing him metrics/plan, but also “actuals” showing that it’s actually happening and not just pie-in-the-sky. Normally I wouldn’t recommend spending your time convincing outsiders of something when you could be spending that time working on your business, but family is equally important, so if it helps make it tangible and seem just as real as a job, and that helps family relationships, that’s valuable too.

    • Ray Harvey

      i think the post is excellent Dale!
      I sit at the public face of a National Company and get the bejuesus spammed out of me…I can only imagine what Jason’s inbox looks like!

  • http://twitter.com/CookIndesign Michelle Cook

    Thanks Jason, for the ‘in-my-shoes’ perspective. It pays forward tremendous value and time savings in helping prepare a message that might actually be seen! Now, I’ll work on perfecting my awesome, attention grabbing elevator pitch! Rock the day…. :)

  • http://lifestoked.com Deacon Bradley

    I really love the specific examples Jason – very helpful! I think lots of these strategies apply to being more successful in general. You need to be thoughtful, intentional, and know the result you want before you start.

    Thanks again Jason, this will be helpful for me personally :).

    PS, Thanks for your continued commitment to innovation.

  • Drew Bixby

    Good points. In these days of “how many connections and friends do you have?”, people forget about the quality of connections… and communication.

  • http://twitter.com/gmsCV1 Granger Motor Sports

    Great advice. Thanks.

  • http://erica.biz/ Erica

    As Jason’s friend, someone who’s worked with him, and someone who owns a company he’s invested in, I’ve learned how to get his attention. A bonus is that it works with most Internet “celebrities” (including me.)

    The first part is to know what he’s all about, and the second part is to ask ONE question about it.

    For instance, here’s one that worked. (This conversation happened in person.) I knew WP Engine used a specific vendor, and we were thinking about engaging with that vendor, too.

    I stopped Jason in the hallway and said, “Jason, what’s your 30-second opinion on $VENDOR? Do they suck or not suck?”

    Jason: “Eh. They’re okay.”

    Me: “What about reporting with them?”

    Jason: “Eh. I just export all their data into Excel.”

    Me: “Thanks! That’s what I needed to know.”

    We decided to not go with that vendor because their reporting solution wasn’t what we needed.

    Hope this helps. Jason’s a busy dude, but he does keep up with emails (at a pace that even I can’t match.) Writing him a specific one-sentence, one-question email may seem “rude”, but they’re the ones you’re most likely to get an answer to–and quickly!

    Also: YOU should write a blog about business if you want to get Jason’s attention. It worked for me. ;)

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  • http://twitter.com/trcull trcull

    Jason, thanks a bunch for this. I thought I knew something about marketing but spending the last month or so getting deeper in it made me realize I didn’t know squat. Specifically, I knew in general most of what you’re saying (be specific and relevant, don’t sound like a form letter, have a call to action) but then realized when I tried to put it into practice I was coming up blank. There’s some great, specific stuff in there, plus you used the word ‘cull’ which gives you bonus points in my mind.

  • http://twitter.com/friendofasquid scott arbeitman

    Jason is just about the most approachable popular blogger I’ve ever come across. He replies to emails-often more quickly than my managers.

    He’s given some quick but useful advice previously to me or my colleague-both complete strangers- or sometimes just replies with “I don’t know”. I’d take an “I don’t know” any day over a non-reply.

    Thank you for NOT being an asshole.

  • Ray Harvey

    I am so glad that I stumbled upon your site Jason…I’ve blown half a day here and it’s been awesome!
    Currently I’m a wage slave, but recently I’ve begun moonlighting on a start-up.
    About twenty years ago I came across an experiment that someone else had started, declared too hard and then dumped. I was intrigued with the possibility if ever the technology could be stabilised, but after about two months I (and my engineering friend tinkering with me) could understand why they dumped it…it literally was technology on the bleeding edge. There was simply no precedent for what was involved and consequently no body of work from others to follow.
    Well, we’ve got it sorted now and look to have ourselves a product, a Dream Team…and an Angel investor.
    Thank you for putting your valuable time into this resource, as I’ve been learning lots today and already beaten myself with the willow switch for some of the howlers I might have committed had I not stumbled here! /:-)

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Thanks Ray! Don’t worry, I committed *all* of the howlers — how else would I know about them?

  • http://twitter.com/Share_Your_Deal Share Your Deal

    Jason, recently found your podcast and finished listening. Then looked up your blog. Just wanted to say thanks. I hope to use your insight in my startup! No spam, just thanks.
    Jeff Noble

  • http://www.linguatrek.com David Snopek

    Hi Jason,

    Great article! I e-mailed you once asking for advice on dealing with massive amounts of e-mails from fans/followers. Actually, I didn’t learn that much from your advice (no offense!) but I learned A LOT from the process of e-mailing you. ;-)

    I wasn’t familiar with Shortmail before and I’ve since started using it, as well as limiting the characters on my contact form. I’ve also mimicked the short, bullet-pointed style of your response that I think worked well.

    My main take away in dealing with my own “mini internet celebrity” status was to try and be on the other side of the communication. I had never been one to send e-mails to random people I knew online for advice – I didn’t know what it was like!

    Now, if everyone followed the advice you give in the article, life would be amazing. :-) But seeing how you handle this (and in a much less delicate way than me) is very instructive. I still haven’t brought myself to NOT respond to a message.

    Thanks again!
    David.

  • wfjackson3

    BBQ sauce.

    Sidenote: I have been doing about 2 video journal entries for the last 2.5 years, dating from about the time I first embarked on the startup journey. I haven’t bothered to post it online anywhere as it contains lots of incendiary and very honest thoughts about everything, but I intend to put it all together in another 5 years and post it somewhere.

  • wfjackson3

    I still remember sending a very worthless email to Vivek Wadwha when I was younger and less aware. I was probably asking for the standard “15 minutes to pick your brain” bologna. I remember that he emailed me back and told me no. He was very encouraging, but very firm that he could not do anything for me.

    I imagine that it helped me grow quite a bit. I hope that helps someone.

  • http://twitter.com/ricardodsanchez Ricardo Sanchez

    What about reciprocity? I mean, internet celebrities have thousands of followers, subscribers, etc… however, there is always that smaller group that participates in their Twitter feed by adding comments, retweeting, and participating with good comments in their blogs… shouldn’t these internet celebrities take the one minute it might take to do a retweet or perhaps 5 minutes email reply when one of these people who clearly are not just followers but are also participants and the cause many of these people are such internet celebrities in the first place, just a thought.

    • Frank

      That *exact point* was made several times in the article.

      This is a quote from the article: “When I get email from someone I recognize from blog comments or Twitter interactions, I almost always help out with advice, spreading the word, anything. ”

      Are you just agreeing?

      • http://twitter.com/ricardodsanchez Ricardo Sanchez

        I am definitely agreeing and just expanding a bit on it. Jason made it clear that HE WILL make an exception with people that are engaged with him online, but perhaps we need to make it clear that most “internet celebrities” don’t do this, and to them I say… what about reciprocity?

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