Excellent Followup Might Double Your Startup Success. Bad Followup Will Kill You.
Question for you:
How good are you at followup?
The founder with excellent followup is going to get somewhere from a 30% to 100% boost over the founder who has merely good followup.
It’ll make it much easier to close funding, get sales, get partnerships, connect with press and influencers, sign partnerships, get great hires and team referred to you to bring them on board.
Meanwhile, the founder who has almost everything tight but bad followup is very likely to fail.
At this point, I see it as a key predictor of success.
Here’s a real-world example. Every summer, we run a rather selective entrepreneurship and leadership training program at the University of Chicago. It’s a pretty intense application process—this year, we accepted the top 20 of around 300 applications—but it’s free to attend if you’re accepted.
We have a lot of hands-on training, and we bring in 10 people who are world-class at what they do, coming into Chicago or video-conferencing in, to speak in a hyper-practical way about their field:
Stepan Parunashvili, who was the youngest programmer at Facebook at the time of his hiring; Greg Nance, the brilliant SOSV-backed founder of Dyad.com and ultramarathoner; Miguel Hernandez, who runs a top animation studio that does the demo animations clips for companies ranging from Walmart and Microsoft to newly funded top YCombinator startups; Marian Zizzo, who is doing massive amounts of innovation in San Francisco and worldwide in the nonprofit scene with the World Bank and UN. People like that.
These are, frankly, some of the most amazing people in the world. These are the type of people you want in your life. They’re who you want to work for if you’re looking for a job; they’re who you’d want to mentor you if you’re building a company.
And a few of the the people who come in to speak are in early-stage finance.
If you think this would be a good opportunity to connect with some people who could really make a difference in your life, you’d be right.
But there’s an enormous difference between the people who have excellent followup, merely “good” followup, and bad followup.
After Danielle Strachman and Michael Gibson from the 1517 Fund gave an awesome lecture on cultivating the skills and mindset needed to be a successful founder, I got a simple email from Danielle:
From: Danielle Strachman
To: Sebastian Marshall
Date: Wed, Aug 24, 2016 at 10:10 AM
Subject: Fwd: Thank you
This guy wins for follow up 🙂
The forwarded email was from one of our program attendees:
From: Mathias Weibel
Date: Wed, Aug 24, 2016 at 10:08 AM
Subject: Thank you
Danielle and Michael,
Thanks for the talk you gave to GiveGetWin today. Lots of industry experts make vague and esoteric statements that avoid reality, and it was refreshing to hear concise wisdom and get a clearer idea of the venture capital terrain.
Best of luck to you both.
Important: the lecture ended at 10AM Pacific Time… Mathias had followed up within 8 minutes of it ending.
Danielle forwarded that to me within 2 minutes of Mathias sending it.
I then replied the next day in the morning, beginning it:
From: Sebastian Marshall
To: Danielle Strachman
Date: Thu, Aug 25, 2016 at 9:31 AM
Subject: Re: Thank you
He’s an ace. US Marine officer who recently out processed. Helicopter pilot, forward air controller, Naval Academy, really has his **** together.
[a bit more description about Mathias and his background]
I wanted to share this with you because it illustrates a key point: if you’re the FASTEST person to followup, you get talked about first.
Danielle didn’t share any other emails with me. I’m sure someone else wrote in to her and Michael, but she didn’t mention it to me. Of course not. The fastest followup is a huge predictor of success.
They went on to meet in California a while later. Maybe they’ll work together at some point.
Here’s the key lesson: fast, excellent followup reliably generates somewhere from a 30% edge to more than double the effectiveness of merely good followup.
Meanwhile, bad followup produces 0% of the gains.
So, what is good followup? A few rules:
- Easy to reply to
- Doesn’t try to do too much
Almost everyone I know who is very successful as a founder, and almost every successful angel and VC I know, tends to go fast and be like Teflon—work doesn’t stick to them. They turn it around fast and get rid of it.
You’ll often see the top founders and financiers reply in real time at an event or conference. Set up an app for email on your smartphone (I use the Outlook app which is surprisingly good in 2016) and just dash the message off a few minutes after meeting someone.
Keep it on-point—emphasize what the person you met cares about. Mathias understood correctly that Danielle and Michael had non-traditional background for financiers (Danielle’s in education; Michael, a background in philosophy). They pride themselves on no buzz and straightforward practical communication.
Mathias noted that.
He then made it really easy to reply to—he said thanks. He didn’t try to do too much.
Yeah, it really is that simple.
Why do people have bad followup?
- Incorrect mental model
- Trying to do too much
- Bad preparation
As a startup founder, speed is everything.
This is not obvious, and it doesn’t come naturally to most people.
It’s natural for people who are very diligent and excellence-oriented to think things through carefully before taking action.
That’s correct for many things—if you were running a pharmaceutical company, of course you wouldn’t cavalierly dash off a message to the FDA when you’re doing clinical trials.
But for simple connections you make at a conference or event, it’s far better to write in when things are very fresh. This gets it out of your head as fast as possible, makes you go faster, and—again—gets you a far higher response rate.
The mindset of “I’ll write a perfect followup tomorrow” (or next week, or whatever) is absolutely fatal when trying to connect with someone who is busy moving-and-shaking.
This could be due to an incorrect mental model—you might think a better message tomorrow will outperform a faster one today… but really, that’s mistaken. Don’t take my word for it. Ask any successful startup founder or mentor you have.
Likewise, perfectionism is fatal to success in this world.
Finally, you shouldn’t try do too much in a first email. Instead, make it really easy to respond to.
There’s a rule in complex enterprise sales, which also applies to get financing for your company, setting up partnerships, and connecting with influencers and big marketing channels, which is: you don’t try to sell everything, you only sell the next stage of the process.
Your goal, when you meet someone who could make a huge difference for your company, is just to get them to reply again in a friendly way.
That leaves the door open for more followup later. Getting that first followup out to someone, and their friendly reply, is usually the only step you should focus on when you meet someone.
Preparation is key.
The final piece of the puzzle: in order to reply quickly and have great followup, you need to be prepared in advance.
- Know what you want
- Have descriptions of your company of various lengths
- Have the standard collateral made
- Have your due diligence docs tight
- Create a “Commitments” file and sweep it regularly
Finally, to move fast, you need to be prepared before you go to any event or meeting.
Obviously, you need to know what you want. Are you raising? If so, when and how much?
Are you looking for advisors? Hires? Distribution? Early users?
A lot of people say “I want everything!” so they never pick a few things to hone in on.
Before you go to any event or conference or meeting for business, you should brainstorm what would make the biggest impact for you.
Inexplicably, a lot of people don’t do this. They say “I’ll know when I see it”—but that’s mistaken. If you pick a few things to hone in on that you want, it doesn’t stop you from seeing unrelated opportunities—but it does make you far more likely to get what you wanted.
You also should be able to describe your company in a tight pitch.
This is very hard for certain types of people to do—including me. If what you’re doing is complicated, it’s hard to simplify.
But you need to be able to do it. YCombinator’s application, for instance, asks you to describe your company in 50 characters or less. (That’s only one-third of a Tweet, for reference.
Eden Full, the talented inventor who founded the nonprofit Sun Saluter and has brought energy efficiency and clean water to dozens of countries, explained her method on this to me and it’s brilliant: she’s written descriptions of her organization of every single length that’s commonly asked-for.
So she’s got a 50 character description, a one-sentence description, a 100-word description, a 250-word description, and so on—all pre-written.
This allows her to apply for around 10x the number of grants and partnerships that most organizations do in a year. She did a few days of hard work upfront, and she has huge speed at being able to copy/paste this information in with light editing when someone wants a description of what her organization does.
You should, of course, make a deck of your company if you’re fundraising: it’s nearly de rigeur in 2016; it’s how people do things. Get all that tight. Google and look at the decks of successful companies who did fundraising well, and model after theirs. Include the standard stuff: team, market, market size, what you’re doing, how it differs from what else is out there, traction and KPI’s, etc.
“My favorite computer game in middle school was The Sims. To get ahead in the game (ex: earn a promotion, boost your salary, get a better partner or friend), you had to boost your relationship score. You did this through saying a combination of the right things for little +1’s. I apply the relationship score framework to elevator pitching. I try to gauge the reader’s reaction to various things I’m saying to optimize the positive impact. At the end of an interaction I’ll score it a 1, 2 or 3 — 1 being my average quality, 2 being a strong pitch and 3 being an excellent pitch. Try keeping score during an event… it’s kind of fun to have a stat line at the end of a long networking event or at the conclusion of a particularly social day or week. As you’d predict, my 3’s dramatically outperform 1’s and 2’s by way of future resource allocation.”
Nance rapidly tests different versions of pitches, and notes which ones resonate with people — he then tunes his pitch going forward around the parts that resonate most, and follows up with people first where things resonated.
As far as doing all the work to prep, Greg had some good advice too:
“Joe DiMaggio quipped that he always played the game the way it was meant to be played because several people in the crowd would never see him play again. He always gave it his best. I apply that mindset to Luck Surface Area. Odds are, you will pitch people who can dramatically accelerate your growth — the challenge is you don’t always know who they are until after you’ve delivered a stellar performance (I think back to first meeting and pitching XXX and having no idea who he was). Putting a few more effort points in gives you a better chance of hitting home runs with these contacts as opposed to striking out. I think back to all the big fish I’ve met but failed to clear the bar with…”
Mind you, Nance has one of the highest success rates in of anyone you’ve ever met. But he obsesses over doing better—and that means being prepared in advance.
You should, of course, get all your due diligence docs tight—IP assignment, vesting schedules, all that boring stuff. If you’re going to fundraise at all, read Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and VC by Brad Feld. It’s a good primer.
One of the top law firms for startups is Cooley, and their cooleygo.com is an invaluable free resource—they’ve got an amazing document generator with simple best-practices copies of Mutual NDA, Vesting Schedule, and IP Assignment.
Read all of CooleyGo and follow their instructions. You should have all this stuff lined up in a Dropbox or other secure file area so you can share it rapidly when you’ve got interest. Turning that stuff around fast to an angel or VC shows great things about you and makes it far more likely that you’ll succeed.
Finally, another great technique I got from Nance is a “Commitments File”. Whenever he promises something to someone, he writes it down in the same place every time—his “Commitments File.”
You can do that in Evernote, in Omnifocus, or any app—there’s a thousand apps that can do it—but reliably write down everything you promise, and look at it once per day and turn it around fast. Your Commitments File should get empty weekly, turning around everything you promised.
Excellent followup will change your life.
Look, here’s the tragedy: when you build your company and get out in the world to promote it at events or meetings, you’re already doing 99% of the work needed to succeed.
That last 1% determines whether you’ll get slightly good results, exceptional results, or no results at all.
Again, to have great followup:
- Be fast.
- Be like Teflon: get rid of work immediately.
- Be on-point; make it what people care about.
- Make it easy to reply to; don’t be too complicated.
- Don’t try to do too much: just get your first friendly reply.
If you don’t do this now, consider:
- Is your mental model correct? Good now is usually better than perfect later.
- Perfectionism is fatal.
- Don’t try to do too much immediately; deals don’t close off one long first email!
- Are you prepared? Bad prep will nullify your results.
To be prepared:
- Know what you want. It might only take 5-15 minutes of brainstorming to figure it out. You should always do this.
- Have descriptions of various lengths of your company.
- Have the standard collateral made. Just do it. It takes a while but worth it.
- Have your due diligence docs tight: read Feld’s book, CooleyGo.com, and use the Cooley docs unless there’s a compelling reason to do something else.
- Create a “Commitments” file and sweep it regularly.
If you lock down these mindsets and get prepped, you’ll have the best followup in the world.
It’s a superpower. It’ll greatly accelerate your success and make sure you’re making all the connections you can as you grow your company.
Regards and best wishes on the path!
Sebastian Marshall is Executive Director of GiveGetWin, a nonprofit with a focus on innovation in philanthropy and engaging young people in a way where volunteering turns into immediately useful life skills. GiveGetWin team members regularly run events and trainings at the top universities such as UChicago, MIT, and NYU Stern.
Marshall is the author of four books on productivity, history, and applied math, including Gateless, a guide to managing one’s intangibles for young people on the rise. He writes one free long-form essay with actionable lessons from history at TheStrategicReview.net
Sebastian’s background is in enterprise sales, growth, operations, and scaling in high tech and finance. He occasionally angel invests (time permitting!) does what he can to help young people going up in the world. Feel free to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or come to a free event across many top campuses in the USA on the next GiveGetWin Tour—tour.givegetwin.com.