Brad Hargreaves | Building Things

Brad Hargreaves on entrepreneurship, community and life

Why They Don’t Answer Your Emails

with 13 comments

Occasionally, people don’t answer my emails.

Realizing that this is a fact of life — and an inevitable part of being an entrepreneur — has been one of the toughest things to wrap my mind around. When I was getting started, it was an insult. I came straight from a world (college) where people received possibly twenty relevant emails a day, and not answering any one of them was an intentional slight. But realizing that the startup world simply doesn’t work this way this was step one.

Step two — which is still in progress — is figuring out why people don’t answer my emails. That’s what this post is about.

(Step three, for the curious, is not answering all of my own emails. I’m really sorry.)

These are observations I’ve made from years of “warm” emailing acquaintances, potential partners, investors and people I met at conferences. This isn’t about cold emailing or email campaign optimization. I assume those people don’t email you back because they don’t know who the fuck you are. As always, your mileage may vary.

Finally, “Busy” is not a sufficient reason for the purposes of this list. Everyone is busy.

1) They’re embarrassed. I think this is the single least-understood reason why people don’t answer their emails. I do this a lot, and I know a lot of people who fall victim to the same pattern. If I’ve been bad at responding to someone, and I’ve sat on an email for three weeks, the chance that I’ll respond with each passing week grows smaller and smaller. If I email them, I’ll simply remind them of how long it took me to respond. Allie Brophy mentions this in her latest wonderful post.

The Fix: Push them. I’ve found that this is often an ideal situation to suggest an in-person meeting. Coffee or drinks can be scheduled well in the future, and removing the tension of a broken line of communication may actually re-open the dialogue in the meantime.

2) They don’t want to deliver bad news. Saying “no” sucks and — in many situations — little is gained by doing it. Turning someone down is difficult, which is why many people make their assistants write those notes. If someone doesn’t have an assistant or simply doesn’t care what you think, the rejection email isn’t getting sent.

The Fix: There’s often nothing that can be done here. Gentle reminders can get you to a clear “no”, but identifying this situation early and taking the hint can save you time. That said, I think many entrepreneurs greatly overestimate how often this is the reason for a non-response. Many people assume that someone isn’t interested when in fact one of the other reasons on this list is delaying the response.

3) They’re preserving option value. This is a corollary to (2) and is very applicable to VCs, but it requires a different response tactic. This is one of the most annoying things that VCs do, but it’s actually much more common than getting a simple “no”. VCs’ reactions to most pitches fall somewhere between “I’m writing the check now” and “security will escort you from the office”. For these median cases, they’ll only write the check when they see a term sheet from Sequoia, but they’d like to preserve their ability to invest in case Sequoia actually gives you a term sheet.

The Fix: Convince them that the train is leaving the station — they should make a decision or forever hold their peace. Investors are coming in, a strategic is interested, the round closes on X date, etc. This is hard to do but is really the only way to get out of this hole. But do it quickly or else the deal will get stale.

4) There isn’t a clear ask. I occasionally get messages that I’m not sure what to do with. Am I supposed to respond to this? Forward it? RSVP to an event? Help me out here. If I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do, I’m probably not going to do anything.

The Fix: Clearly state what you want in the first 1-2 lines of the email. It’s really that simple.

5) There’s no value proposition. Some people will do things out of the kindness of the hearts, especially for people they’ve met. Others won’t.

The Fix: I always try to tie my emails back to some kind of benefit the recipient could see down the road if they respond to my email. There are pluses and minuses to doing this — some people are more willing to help you for the sake of helping you than enter into some kind of vague trade — but in all I think it’s a positive.

6) Politics. Sounds weird to an entrepreneur, but responding to emails at-will is politically difficult in a lot of organizations. A low- or mid-level employee could get in a decent amount of trouble by even hinting at something that may not happen, whereas they probably won’t catch any flak by simply not responding.

The Fix: This is the toughest to overcome. Often it means you are approaching the wrong person in the organization, or you need to approach multiple people. Or perhaps there’s nothing you can do and you should just wait. It really varies based on the organization and situation.

Any others I’m leaving off? Why don’t you respond to emails, fair reader?

Written by Brad Hargreaves

June 20th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

  • freerobby

    Good post. Two more reasons I'd add to the list:

    1) You're asking a question that has a very detailed/nuanced answer.

    I'm a big fan of, but sometimes that won't cut it. A good example of this came last week. I'm organizing a Celtics season ticket package for a few folks who will split all of the tickets. I got the question “How, exactly, will we decide who gets what to go to which games?” The one-sentence answer is “we will have a draft,” but the answer he wants is the actual process, which is at shortest four paragraphs. For this reason I didn't get back to him nearly as quickly as I responded to the other emails at the top of my inbox, which required little more than a “yes”, “no”, or a date.

    2) Your email is too long. Sometimes it feels worse to give a short response than no response, especially when somebody has put a lot of time and effort into the message and there is no particular question asked of you. For instance, I have a friend in the Peace Corps who sends 500-word status updates to a few of his friends every month or so. Every so often I'll send him a separate note (not a reply) telling him I'm glad he's well, but I never respond to his emails because my responses would feel superficial compared to the detail he provides in his messages.


  • D. Matthew Landry

    I've observed a pervasive phenomena I call the “phantom inbox effect.” This is where an email scrolls off the screen, and therefore, for all practical purposes, is no longer in your inbox. The email wasn't urgent enough to deal with immediately, nor was it important enough to intentionally deal with later.

    As a result, the email just fades into the mists of time. See Fred Wilson's post on Email Bankruptcy (…).

    But your item number 4 goes a long way toward mitigating the phantom inbox effect!

    It would also be interesting to speak more directly in defense of not answering emails. Just because someone has my email address, I don't feel it gives them a right to requisition some of my time.

  • Thomas Aylmer

    Interesting post. I found it featured on Brazen.

    Of course, part of it is timing. Sometimes you email people at an opportune time, other times you don't. So I guess there is just a little luck involved.

  • Thomas Aylmer

    Interesting post. I found it featured on Brazen. nnOf course, part of it is timing. Sometimes you email people at an opportune time, other times you don’t. So I guess there is just a little luck involved.

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  • Francois Laberge

    Another technique I suspect investors do is to not get back to you at all forcing you to follow up. This gives them a way to gauge the strength of your position in negotiating. Founders often puff up their leads in order to seem more wanted. The technique of the non reply gives information to the investors.nnTo be fair it works the other way too, we all get some information by the responsiveness of recipients as well as how respectful they are.

  • Brad Hargreaves

    Great point. Lots of subtle maneuvering in email communications. I’vernknown several great entrepreneurs who totally ignore it and just ask forrnwhat they want. I can’t disagree.

  • Zach B

    This post comes at the perfect time for me. Until I read that it wasn’t for me. nnLately I’ve been emailing CEO’s of startups (cold email) asking them if I could temporarily join their company for a week or more. I’ve emailed about 9 companies and only 2 have responded. nnYou say that they don’t respond because they don’t know who you are, but how is that any different than getting a job interview? You have no idea who that person is either…

  • Brad Hargreaves

    2 of 9 is actually a pretty good rate for cold email.rnrnThat said, you’ll have a better experience if you focus on meeting people atrnevents and networking sessions first and then following up via email.

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  • Sydney Anastasia Freutel

    There was this one person that I sent a thank – you email to and I poured my heart out and they never answered. Does anyone know why not?should I re-send the Email?

  • Steve Bennet

    A big one for me is making it easy to respond on blackberry (yes I admit I’m an addict and have been using bb for 13 years now…).  If it is a long email or has an attachment, I won’t be able to quickly respond on bb.  The chance of responding drops if required to go to ipad or laptop.  Write succinct emails with a specific ask.

  • Marc Polish

    I love your article, it really says it all
    Marc Polish
    Most companies have no idea what you want or who you are. I have found the person spending the money has to work harder than the people making it. There will always be a need for toilet paper