When I used to write for Wired, a cold email was the lowest probability way to get press, but it still worked with some regularity. Cold emailing a VC is a similarly low-percentage play, and many of the best VCs in the world advise against the practice. Still, it does work from time to time.
A cold email to Chris Sacca scored one founder an internship and launched a startup. Mark Cuban funded Box based on an unsolicited email. I’m not an investor, but entrepreneurs could improve their (low) odds in the “cold channel” if they honed their pitch with an understanding of just how much email a VC has to process.
A pitch in 90 characters
Don’t expect anyone to read a 500-word, unsolicited email. The only portion of your pitch you can be sure the recipient will see is the subject line. Focus there.
According to Campaign Monitor, 65 characters is the sweet spot for email subject lines. Most mobile clients are less generous, truncating messages at 50 characters. Pre-header text, the snippet you see in addition to the subject line, ranges from 40–90 characters. How would you pitch your company if you had, at most, 90 characters?
Be clear, drop names, bring numbers
Here are a few general tips:
Be as specific as possible
When I was fielding pitches as a writer, a subject line that read “we’re disrupting furniture” was much less likely to earn a write-up than “We manufacture chairs made of human hair.” What is the unique aspect of your company or product? You should probably lead with that attribute.
SaaS startups can’t make such wacky proclamations, but they should be able to point to a novel product concept, success in an atypical market, or some other unique selling point to grab attention.
If you don’t have an established brand, borrow someone else’s. Who is your best-known customer or angel investor/advisor that is willing to vouch for you? Mention that affiliation upfront.
You’ll often see tech publications write about startups with headlines like “Ex-Google engineers search for diabetes cure” or “Amazon is using this startup’s amazing recyclable boxes.” The goal is to help establish credibility for the unknown startup in the reader’s eyes, quickly. Entrepreneurs should do the same for investors.
Stats, stats, stats
Stats are another form of validation. The best PR email I ever received had just a few sentences of text paired with a baker’s dozen bullet points, each bearing a stat like “Company X is selling 3,204 products an hour.”
Your goal should be to provide facts and allow the recipient to determine how impressive they seem. An ed-tech company that says it’s “growing fast” isn’t as credible as one that says “Our product is used in 23% of Ohio schools six months after launch.”
Improving subject lines
Below are email intros that are representative of the kinds of messages we receive from teams outside of our network. The subject line is in bold and I’ve included an emoji after the 90th character to highlight where most people would stop reading.
Request for Meeting Dear Founder Collective, I am the CEO of Galaxy Brain Technologies, Inc. We 💀 have developed a disruptive technology that changes the way people interact with the internet of things. We also have a suite of apps, analytics, and safety features.
Room for improvement:
● Don’t ask for a meeting, present info that will make the recipient ask you for one.
● Avoid spending 5–10% of your precious characters spelling out the Delaware corporation type you selected. Every character counts!
● Your startup’s name should be in your email address, and the recipient will assume you’re the founder. Your company name/title should also be in your email signature, so no need to front-load it. Those first 90 characters are REALLY important.
Galaxy Brain — Investment Opportunity Galaxy Brain. The world has been waiting for this! ☠️. Our mobile app is simple to use, leverages machine learning technology, and allows everyone, everywhere to take control of their social media footprint.
Room for improvement:
● A reference to machine learning might cause some investors to give this a closer look in the current environment, but again, there is nothing specific to keep the reader on the hook.
● Don’t mention your startup’s name twice in the first 30 characters.
Keen to disrupt artificial intelligence forever? (pitch deck update) Hello, investors and venture ⚱️ capital firms. My name is John Doe and I am a Co-Founder and CEO of a startup based in Hartford. We are currently seeking to raise capital for a project we have been working on for the last 18 months. We’re aiming to raise a pre-seed of $500,000.
Room for improvement:
● A cold-email to an investor isn’t a diplomatic communique. No need to adhere to the principles of the Ars dictaminis and you aren’t addressing the Court of Chancery. Feel free to forgo formalities and fast forward to the sales pitch.
Raising capital — We’re gauging interest Hi Founders Collective Team, A senior leader at ⚰️️ Albertsons recently called Galaxy Brain the “The Google of Grocery Category Management” during a presentation to his team.
Room for improvement:
● Mentioning a customer is good! But a comparison to Google is anodyne. Better quotes would involve how the client doubled spend, is rolling the product out nationally, or some other concrete fact.
● Don’t misspell the investor’s name.
Better subject lines
The following subjects lines have the benefit of belonging to fictional companies that are crushing it, but each was inspired by a real startup that’s approached our firm. The goal is simply to demonstrate how much signal can be squeezed into what’s essentially 1/3 of a Tweet.
Bootstrapped to $1M ARR, just signed Netflix, looking for seed VC. Interested?
How it’ll be interpreted: These founders resourceful enough to bootstrap meaningful revenue and sign a marquee client.
My CMU Ph.D. thesis improves LIDAR by 10X for 1/10th the cost — Prototype video inside!
How it’ll be interpreted: An impressive academic credential, paired with the promise of a product that addresses a major need for an important tech sector, and the lure of evidence.
Messi-backed training app has 2M users in South America, raising seed for US launch in Q3
How it’ll be interpreted: Substantial user traction in an under-resourced geography, paired with a celebrity backer, and a time-sensitive call to action.
These are by no means the most artful intros, and they may not appeal to all investors, but they do show how much relevant information can be squeezed into 78, 84, and 89 characters, respectively. A VC will get a thousand emails a month that lead with some variation on “Request for meeting” or “Raising capital.” Write the 1,001st email that stands apart. And always feel free to reach out to us at Contact@FounderCollective.com!
What if I don’t have crazy traction?
If you don’t have amazing traction or a drool-worthy customer list, that’s fine, but the basic communication principles hold. Use the first 90 characters to establish what makes your startup unique. Chutzpuh is more important than observing the clerical niceties of business letter writing.
Also, if you don’t have a warm intro to a VC and you’ve yet to achieve major business milestones, your time might be better spent focusing on your startup. Here are 35 examples of startups that thrived long before they raised capital and links to stories about how they did so!
Beyond the subject lines
Assuming your write a great subject line and an investor engages with your email, don’t let your foot off the gas.
Include a deck: You’re already starting from a disadvantaged position by writing a cold email, don’t compound your difficulties by being coy with a deck. As Kyle Russell, formerly of A16Z, has written:
If you’re paranoid about your info being shared, redact anything sensitive. Also, don’t waste your first slide.
Add social proof: Have you been written up by the press, even a trade blog? Have notable people tweeted about your product? Add a few links to demonstrate that you’ve got traction.
Share numbers: Emails that come from a trusted source have baked in credibility. Cold emails need to establish credibility with facts. An email filled with nothing but amorphous claims has a high likelihood of being archived.