When you start a company, there are two activities that really matter: product and sales. For some, sales come easily but product development doesn’t. For others, product is everything, but the thought of leaving the apartment to talk to users or customers is horrifying. Ideally, in a startup, you have one person doing each.
When I stared PubLoft in April of 2017, I had to do both, and I had very little experience in either at the time. I started it after I quit my job, so I had little savings, and a couple of credits cards to my name—that was it.
At the time, I was 100% engulfed with Y Combinator’s content, so I figured, if we’re going to be a good company, we may as well sell to the best customers we can: YC startups. So that’s exactly what I did. I went to YClist.com, and cold emailed the first 300-ish startups on the list.
At the time, I had no idea this was going to work, but it needed to, because I didn’t have any more income. That’s one lesson I’ll say about being a startup founder: if you care enough (see: desperate enough) you can make abnormal things happen—things that never would have happened under normal circumstances. This is exactly what happened in the first few days of PubLoft.
At the time, I spent my days from 8am–6pm sending cold emails to YC companies, with no credibility or portfolio, and just a really really bad website. This shouldn’t have worked, and it didn’t. All I got were “no”s in various forms. Every company thought I was a joke, and couldn’t possibly help them.
Let’s look into the cold email copy from these harsh early days.
Note, I started using technology from the beginning. The first tool I used to augment my outbound emails was HubSpot, with two templates: one for companies with inactive blog; the other for companies whose blog I couldn’t find. I also used Hunter to get some kind of active email address. With these two tools, sending 300 cold emails was a breeze.
It was all done manually, though. For the first four months of PubLoft, I manually clicked “send” for every email that went out. Still, outbound emails don’t matter. Inbound positive responses matter! On April 10th, we got our first positive response. AAAAAND I sent out my salesy response, and didn’t hear back :(
I got plenty of terse no’s, screw off’s, and the polite “no thank you” from many in the first few days of cold emailing. PubLoft.com did not look good, and was certainly not credible—why would they trust a cold email? I kept getting rejected, until I decided to reject their rejections and challenge myself to be a better salesperson. I needed customers and I needed them yesterday. I vowed to push back on the next “no.”
As it turned out, the next “no” came from a guy named Jeremy: Thiel Fellow, YC alum, and an incredible writer. I didn’t know that at the time.
Rejection, just like usual. I wasn’t going to take it though, as I said. I followed up.
The push back worked.
Note, I made up that plan on the spot: the price, the “as long as they need to be” sentence, and everything else. I just made it up, but I had a chance, and I needed to be decisive and fast to get our first customer.
After a few emails, we got on a phone call, clicked, and a few days later, I had a paid invoice for $240. Sure, it feels like scraps now. But at the time, it was scraps of real $$$ and that was all I could have asked for. I had a customer now, and now I needed to find more.
About a week later, I got this form entry come through from Toronto! How the hell did they hear about us? No idea. But he did and he was interested.
After having a quick phone call with Rob, he decided to give us a shot… I quickly raised prices to $300, thanks to Jeremy who recommended I raise prices to be credible to our customers. When I asked Rob how he’d heard about us, he told me he was referred by GrowSumo, another company in Toronto. Turns out Nikita, one of the first people I’d emailed, was friends with Rob, and Rob was vetting us make sure we weren’t a scam. Since we weren’t, Rob paid soon thereafter, and so did GrowSumo. A mere week and a half in, and I had three paying customers.
Still, $840 in monthly recurring revenue was a start, but NOT enough to life off of. I was starting to go into debt and had a feeling this wasn’t going to end well. Right around the time I had this feeling, Jeremy (our first customer) introduced me to Kati, a freelance writer, who said she had work she wanted to offload. After talking on the phone, she told me the customer was 500 Startups. 500 STARTUPS?!?!?!
“This is too good to be true,” I thought. There was no way we were going to be working with 500 Startups. But after the short call with Kati, I had an intro email sitting in my inbox:
That simple email led to a $5,000 contract, which became the moment I realized that PubLoft actually had a chance of making it. That was a runway. And it wouldn’t have happened if I wouldn’t have pushed back on Jeremy’s email.
That first $240 was the “seed funding” I needed to hire writers and stop being so on edge (temporarily). PubLoft actually had a shot… and Chandini from 500 Startups set everything up for the future. They allowed me to fail and get back up and get it right. It all started with a pushback on a “no” via cold email.
Sometimes, all it takes is a little grit and fire in your belly to fabricate your own luck and change your life. If you keep getting rejected, reject their rejections and challenge yourself to be a better salesperson. And feel free to reach out to me if you need to talk to someone who understands those deep, desperate valleys of entrepreneurship.