Cold Email: One of the Best Kept Secrets in Silicon Valley

How Founders Can Use Cold Email To Initiate Early Traction

Danny Minutillo


Everyone knows Product Hunt started with email, but did you know Storefront and Timehop did as well? Did you know that Uber used cold email to launch in Chicago and several other cities? Cold email is one of the most effective strategies in obtaining early traction for your product. Many founders do it, but not many founders do it well. Cold email obviously won’t scale, but it can be extremely effective in developing that early momentum and cultivating early evangelists for your product.

I recently performed a cold email campaign for Omni, Spot, and Nuzzel where I sent out 267 cold emails with a goal of signing up users for them. I was able to obtain 20 sign ups for Omni, 25 sign ups for Spot, and 20 sign ups for Nuzzel.

I have no affiliation with these startups and wasn’t getting paid for this. I’m just really interested in their products and wanted to see if I could get some users for them through cold email. Here’s what I learned:

Reach out to industry experts for research help.

Before you get started, you need to truly understand where you can find your potential users. Omni is your own personal, on-demand storage concierge, Spot helps you find the best places in the world according to experts and friends, and Nuzzel creates a news feed based on what your friends are reading and sharing. I don’t have much experience in storage, location discovery, or media so I decided to reach out to experts in each field so I didn’t waste time targeting the wrong groups.

This is an email exchange I had with Priya Ganapati, former mobile apps product manager for the Wall Street Journal. She wrote an article about the lessons she learned from five years in mobile news apps, which I came across on Medium. I decided to reach out to her. Priya was able to provide some very valuable information regarding what demo to reach out to/best ways to reach them for Nuzzel. I also spoke with Katy Atchison (pop-up event consultant) for research help with Omni, Yoko Lu (travel blogger) for research help with Spot, and many others.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to industry experts. You’re going to get a few rejections and non-responses. However, when you find people that are willing to help, they usually offer very useful information and a unique perspective. Brian Chesky has stated you have to be shameless; most people will help you if you ask a question. So just ask. It can’t hurt.

Use short and descriptive subject lines.

When crafting your subject line, remember to keep it short and clear. It’s also important to provide context and possibly mention a topic the recipient is familiar with. Personalize when possible and ask yourself if there’s a way to tailor the subject line more towards the individual. Lastly, it’s essential to align your subject line copy and email copy. The email message should deliver what your email subject line promises. When readers don’t get what they’re actually promised in the subject line, they feel deceived. Here are some subject lines that worked for me:

I used these subject lines for most of the emails I sent and had a 79% open rate. “Great Work” and “Great Post” are referring to blog posts or articles the recipient published. The open rate may have been higher if I was more descriptive in the second part of the subject line (after “+”), possibly using something like, “Great Post + Wanted to Share Spot with You.”

Lastly, here’s a great post from Fred Wilson on email subject lines.

Personalize. Personalize. Personalize.

Everyone knows that in order to increase the probability of a response or action, personalization is critical. However, not many people actually put this into practice. Most people don’t want to take the time to put in the work and perform the research on the individual they’re emailing. I sent 267 emails and they were all personalized. This may seem extremely time consuming and daunting; however, I only spent a few minutes researching each prospective user. I looked over their blog or website until I found an article or section that resonated with me. You don’t need to spend a substantial amount of time searching for the perfect article. Just find something you can identify with. Ryan Graves has explained the connection could be a common past (e.g. fellow alumni) or a shared experience. Here are some examples from the emails I sent:

Here’s a simple rule statement to follow when personalizing the first few sentences of an email: 1) Mention the recipient’s blog or recent work; 2) Select an article or feature that you enjoyed; and 3) Mention why you enjoyed the article/feature and how it’s helped you or why you can relate to it.

Write content that connects to their pain point.

After personalizing, it’s critical you understand what motivates the recipient. Once you understand what motivates them/what problems they’re truly encountering, you can deliver your solution and explain how it suits their needs and resolves their issues.

Start by giving a succinct explanation of what your product does (no more than one sentence). Next, specify the problem your prospective user encounters. What’s the major pain point they experience? Lastly, give a compelling demonstration of how your product solves those issues and how it will make their lives better. Give examples when appropriate.

Additionally, include social proof whenever possible. Share how other people have used your product to legitimize what you’re offering. Here are some templates that worked for me:

Here, I gave a brief description of Omni’s product, discussed the challenge of extra vendor supplies taking up space, and how Omni solves that problem. I also added social proof by referencing that other vendors have signed up for Omni (I know this because other vendors have signed up through me). Omni’s product really sold itself for vendors that were hosting pop-up events and I was able to get some really great replies.

Here’s an example of an email for Nuzzel:

It’s important to illustrate benefits as opposed to features. It’s your job to explain the value of the product. Many companies only discuss the feature they are offering, not the benefit.

Here’s an email for Spot:

Lastly, you must be brief and your ask must be clear. The worst emails are the ones where the reader is unclear how to respond. Also, it’s likely the recipient will only scan your email for important points to decide whether to respond. So get to the point quickly, be specific with the message and the ask, and make it easy to reply to.

Get scrappy.

One of the experts I spoke with when researching for Omni mentioned I should target professional organizers. After looking through some pro organizers’ websites, I learned that most of them don’t have blogs. So I needed a clever way to reach out to them while still making a personal connection. I decided I would have the best chance to sign them up if I could get them on the phone. Here’s my initial email to set up a call:

I sent out 25 of these emails, was able set up 13 calls, which resulted in 10 sign ups. On the call, I did ask them how their clients stored items. However, once the discussion began, I explained how Omni provides a better solution and can solve many of the problems their clients experience when storing items. Again, Omni really sold itself as their product provides a solution to the central problems the organizers’ clients face. All 10 organizers said they would pass Omni’s service on to their clients as well, so hopefully those 10 sign ups will result in many more.

I executed the same strategy with general contractors specializing in remodeling, as most of them don’t have blogs either. I signed up 6 over the phone and they all said they would share Omni with their clients as well.

Furthermore, with Spot, my initial plan was to sign up restaurants in San Francisco. So I started out in the trenches, going door to door to about 20 restaurants near Tradecraft to obtain more knowledge regarding how Spot can help them. I actually ended up signing a few restaurants up in the process, but abandoned this strategy when realizing I could provide more value to Spot by signing up travel experts. Nevertheless, I was able to practice pitching strangers on the spot and was able to speak with some people that were really interested in the product.

Lastly, I needed a legitimate way for prospective users to sign up for Omni. So I created a landing page where they could enter their name and email.

You can check out the full page here. It’s identical to Omni’s homepage, minus the sign up box.

If you want something or need to achieve something, go out and do it. Do whatever you have to do. Get scrappy. If you need to make more sales, go call a hundred people. If you need to find a technical co-founder, meet as many technical people as you can; learn to code; start connecting with engineers on Twitter. Stop complaining about it and go make it happen. “Hustling” is a term that’s very played out in Silicon Valley. A lot of people say it, not a lot of people do it. If you need something done, get scrappy, start grinding, and do it.

Rejection happens. Push through it.

It was extremely hard to get people to sign up through cold email because I don’t work at these companies. I experienced a substantial amount of rejection during this project. However, you’ve got to have a short memory and you have to have the grit to keep pushing.

I didn’t get any sign ups for the first 75 emails I sent and obtained a ton of rejections.

I also received a lot of rejections when I was out signing up restaurants for Spot and speaking with organizers and contractors on the phone for Omni. This was extremely frustrating due to the amount of work I put in. However, I simply took a step back, didn’t give up, and continued to grind. One of Travis Kalanick’s first companies, Red Swoosh, was struggling. He heard 100 “No’s” a day for 4 years. However, he kept grinding and was able to turn it into something. Rejection can break you down. It can make you angry. Just keep pushing through and something good will come out of it.

Key Takeaways:

Cold email won’t scale, but it’s a great way for founders to initiate early momentum and develop personal connections with early users. Here are some key points for founders to remember when doing cold email:

  1. Use short and clear subject lines. Remember to provide context in the subject line and personalize.
  2. Personalize the first few sentences of the email. Do your research and find a common interest.
  3. Write content that resolves the recipient’s pain points. Understand what motivates them and explain how your product suits their needs.
  4. Be brief and make sure your ask is clear.
  5. Get scrappy and push through rejection.

*I definitely understand the brand-risk involved in acting on behalf of these startups, but decided to go for it in the spirit of Mark Suster’s, “It’s Better to Beg for Forgiveness than to Ask for Permission.” This project was meant to simply be a reflection of my work ethic and was solely intended to add value to the startups mentioned above.

If you’re a founder and would like to discuss cold email or other user acquisition strategies, reach out at or Twitter: @danny_minutillo. You can also contact me on LinkedIn.

Thanks to @ndewilde, @MarketerGraham, @gabetheory, @Brandon_Lee_09, @TsarDarr, and @ElleWms for help editing and improving this article.