Dear Venture Capitalists — Some Thoughts on How to Improve Your Cold Email Pitches to Startups

As we’re scaling up CB Insights, we’ve gotten more inbound interest from investors. More often than not, the inbound interest comes via email. Occasionally, but much less frequently, we’ll get a call from someone dialing for dollars, but today, for inbound dealflow generation, email seems the favored tool of most VCs and growth equity investors.

Whenever we get an inbound email from an investor, provided they took some time to craft it as most investors do, I’m always appreciative of the outreach because someone took the time to learn a bit about CB Insights and thought we were worth a conversation.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve been tracking and collecting these inbound inquiries, and so last week, I dug into them to see if there were any consistent formats/themes that came through and to offer my viewpoint on the efficacy of each from a founder’s perspective.

I identified 6 recurring patterns among these cold inbound pitches and I’ve detailed them below along with my thoughts on each.

A couple of notes:

  1. Generally, we’re getting interest from multi-stage VCs who do growth stage investments or pure-play growth equity firms. This makes sense given where we are. For this reason, early-stage VC outreach efforts may be very different than the below.
  2. All identifying information has been removed from these emails

Now, let’s get to the pitches.

Strategy 1 — It’s not about you, it’s about me aka The Mail Merge

Dear Anand,

I’m reaching out from Giant Growth Capital Partners. We’ve been around since 1990 and have $3B under management and have backed the likes of Big Co1, Big Co2 and Big Co3.

We’d love to chat with you about your capital raising needs and show you why Giant might help with your growth.

Thanks,

Joe Smith

The Review

Does it get a response?

These emails are usually sent via some sort of email service provider so there is an unsubscribe button at the bottom. I never respond to these emails.

Pros:

Mail merge is crazy efficient. You can buy a crappy list from Hoovers with their firmographic data or scrape LinkedIn and go emailing for deal flow. Like spam, this must work at least some of the time as people still do it. Most goes right to trash but even a 1% response is probably good at scale.

Cons:

Besides the raw efficiency of mail merge, there is absolutely nothing good about this email. It actually makes me think less of this firm so while I’ve only heard of Giant before and they were neutral in my books, this creates a negative impression.

Recommendations:

If the open rates and responses say this works, keep doing it. Just take me off your list.

Strategy 2 — The Superficial Flatterer

Hey Anand,

Joe here from XYZ Partners. Love CB Insights and what you guys are doing. Your newsletter is awesome and I know we pass it around the firm all the time.

I’m with XYZ and wanted to chat about your capital raising needs. Do you have a few minutes this week so we can introduce ourselves?

Thanks,

Joe

The Review

Does it get a response?

If a customer, it does.

If they’re not a customer, I generally ask them in a nice way “Why don’t they love us enough to become a customer?” Yes — I try to turn these pitches into a business development opportunity

And then tell them that we’re not fundraising but when do, we’ll reach out. I also tell them that if we fundraise, we’ll only look to raise from customers as we think it’s important to work with believers.

Pros:

It shows they at least know us from our newsletter and that they like it. And who doesn’t like flattery? It is not a hard email to put together so while it doesn’t scale as well as a mail merge, it’s probably relatively easy to do.

Cons:

The flattery is kind of hollow (but perhaps that is just me being a skeptic). There is not a reason to reach back out as there isn’t a compelling call-to-action unless we’re fundraising.

Recommendations:

This is a decent cold email pitch. If they got me at the right time, i.e, we were fundraising, I might respond but if they could offer some additional value beyond flattery, it’d markedly help response rates.

Strategy 3 — Industry Intelligence Provider

Hey Anand,

Joe here from Smart Capital Ventures. Love CB Insights and what you guys are doing. Your newsletter is awesome and I know we pass it around the firm all the time.

As mentioned, I’m with Smart, and I wanted to share some of the trends we’re seeing in the data & analytics space (valuations, sales strategies, rise of vertical data solutions, etc) from within our portfolio. In case you couldn’t tell, we really like vertical data/SaaS plays so would love to also understand your growth plans and any capital raising needs.

Have a few minutes so we can share what we’re seeing.

Thanks,

Joe

The Review

Does it get a response?

Yes. Who doesn’t want free market intel?

Pros:

It shows real knowledge of our space. It piques curiosity which results in a response. It’s potential real value they’re delivering and especially when you’re heads down building the business, a global view of what is happening can be quite useful.

Cons:

The email has none to my mind.

I’d say the key in this strategy is that the follow-up call has to be good. By good, I mean that the insights they share have to be really good. And second, if possible, the firm should highlight portfolio companies and examples that highlight the firm.

In this case, I think you want to tie it back to your portfolio and something you’ve done that highlights your firm’s value.

Recommendation:

Great pitch. Ensure the value of the firm is clear in follow-up conversation.

Strategy 4: The Warning

Hey Anand,

Joe here from Scary Partners. Love CB Insights and what you guys are doing.

I know there has been a lot of companies getting funding in your space so was wondering if you have more seriously begun to think about fundraising. I know you’ve grown out of revenue to-date but as competitors get funded, raising might make some sense to ensure you stay ahead of them.

I would love to chat.

Thanks,

Joe

The Review

Does it get a response?

Yes as I usually respond asking “which competitors are you thinking of?”. This is a good filter on whether this was just a good mail merge or if someone has been thinking of the space.

If they give me competitors, I’ll set up a call to understand their logic.

Pros:

It shows real knowledge of our space. It piques curiosity which results in a response.

Cons:

For us, someone else raising doesn’t mean much. We’ve seen a bunch of companies come and go in our space with a lot more money than us. The new entrants will be the same. And so while this email gets a response, it doesn’t do anything to frame why the firm might be an interesting partner and assumes we’ll raise out of some perceived fear from challengers.

If we were 100% motivated by fear, this pitch might work, but it doesn’t show how the firm would do anything to make us better. The pitch is effectively, some of your upstart competitors have cash. You should have cash too.

Recommendation: Solid start. Tie back why raising money from their firm would be good, i.e. “With more capital, we think we can help you scale the sales organization in a way that materially grows top line and squashes these other cockroaches.”

OR

“We think there are some interesting M&A opportunities for you the space which we think we can assist with in addition to providing you with capital.”

Strategy 5: The Value-Add

Hey Anand,

Joe here from Valuable Partners. Big fan of what you and the team are doing at CB Insights. We have a marketing automation company in our portfolio who was looking to layer in private company lead scoring into their product, and I thought your Company Mosaic ratings might be a fit.

Their website is www.portfolio.com

If this looks to be of interest, let me know, and I’ll make an intro to Jill, the CEO, so you guys can connect.

Thanks,

Joe

The Review

Does it get a response?

Yes. Even if the intro is not a fit, this always gets a response because it’s valuable.

Pros:

It shows a lot of knowledge and interest in what we do. It illustrates how they try to add value for portfolio companies. Most investors (not all) also follow the double opt-in intro thankfully.

Cons:

There are none as long as the intro looks relevant/well-researched. There is no call-to-action for the firm in this email which is good (no hard sell) but perhaps it could be worked in here. I’m being nitpicky here as this is a good email.

Recommendation:

I like this pitch because I’m personally not a fan of the hard sell. To make it more effective, however, tie back the “value-add” to the conversation around financing and why the firm is a great partner for this. What I’ve observed with this approach is that it’s more of a slow cook. Consistent outreach and messaging over time that keeps the firm and the partner on the radar and which starts to make them a trusted advisor of sorts even prior to any investment. It’s what Mark Suster describes as investing in line, not dots.

Strategy 6: Feedback

Hey Anand,

Joe here from Opinion Partners. Big fan of what you and the team are doing at CB Insights. Really like the product but had some ideas & feedback that I thought might be helpful.

I’d love to chat if you have 20 minutes and more generally introduce Opinion as I know you’re growing fast and financing might become important over time.

Thanks,

Joe

The Review

Does it get a response?

It depends. If it’s a customer, definitely.

If a non-customer, maybe.

Pros:

It shows an interest in our product and that someone has taken the time to find ways to make us better.

Cons:

If we get on the phone or meet, the feedback should be good. If it looks like it was superficial feedback and faux interest to get the meeting, the meeting looks to be under false pretenses. This has happened. Also, I think it’s important to deliver the feedback and the message in a way that doesn’t seem arrogant or cocky.

Recommendation:

Good strategy. It’s all about the content and delivery. Done right, it’s a great strategy.

What other strategies have founders seen in outreach from investors?

Or if you’re an investor, what other outreach efforts have you found that work or don’t work?

Leave them in the comments.

There is clearly no always right approach for outreach to founders as several of the strategies above are effective.

Going beyond the first email, I do think the ability to send relevant emails or communications over time is probably the most important thing as companies and founders may not always have financing on their mind. If you can develop a credible, investor “drip marketing” campaign that keeps you top of mind, that is gold.

If you’re an investor looking to raise your game, check out our free quantitative VC classes on how to increase your dealfow and your network and how to become a thought leader. Some of them even show you how to use mail merge the right way.

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