The Magic Word in Customer Development Emails

In Four Steps to the Epiphany, Steve Blank covers (pp. 59-60) strategies for making first customer contacts, the process for engaging early potential customers about your idea. I have been sending a lot of introductory Customer Development emails lately and helping several start-ups craft them. Some lessons learned.

Draft the Intro Email – Immediately
If I ask someone to make an intro I always try to send them an email they can forward. It makes it easier for them and helps me control the message. The conversation goes something like:

Wow, thanks for your time. You mentioned that I should talk to X, Y, Z. Can I send you a brief paragraph about me and what I’m doing to make it easier for you to forward?

They ALWAYS say yes. I follow up with an email that day and include “thanks for your time” so that everyone who reads sees that others are talking to me.

Keep it Short
A short email, specific email is more likely to be read – particularly by somebody on a blackberry. A short email also suggests the call will be short. I try to keep them around 5 sentences.

State Emphatically that You are Not Selling
[UPDATE: See comments below. Others suggest that this might be a bad idea. If you write an opinion on this topic please let me know]
I always, always, always tell people – truthfully – that “I’m not selling anything”.

Don’t Create the Appearance of a Sales Call
I focus very generally on the problem and potential solution. Talking about the product in details – or even at all- starts to sound like a pitch even if someone states otherwise.

“I’m working on a start-up/new product idea to help phone companies retain subscribers with Twitter…” is enough detail. My goal is to get the call.

The Subject – Get Closer to Recipient
Following on Steve’s strategies, your subject should say “Referral from X, Follow-up from our meeting at Y”

Don’t Keep Secrets
Obviously I don’t ask for NDAs or give the slightest indication that I don’t trust people. This is easy because (1) I do trust people, and (2) the biggest risk is that I may build the wrong thing.

Beware Cut-And-Paste
A no-brainer, but I recently received an email that had different colors in the text. Obviously a cut-and-paster and it makes me feel less special.

The Magic Word
I’ve found a magic word when asking for a Customer Development call.


I try to use that word twice in every email or call. For one thing, it genuinely conveys what I’m asking for. It also suggests – accurately – to people that I want to listen and am ready to change directions. Finally, it gives everyone a reason to take a call.

Who doesn’t want to feel important enough to have people asking them to share their wisdom? I sure do.

(keep in mind this is written in my personal tone – which tends to be less formal and more conversational. This may not work for you)

To: Don Jones
cc: Joe Smith
Subject: Referral from Joe Smith
Hey Don,

Joe may have mentioned that I would drop you quick note to ask for your advice. I’m exploring a start-up idea around making it easier for people carpool using iPhones or other location-based mobile devices. Joe suggested that I talk to you given your passion for reducing carbon emissions through ridesharing.

Do you have time for a quick call this week? I’m not selling anything, just looking for advice.


Thanks for your time. You can’t imagine how helpful your advice was to me and hopefully you’ll let me return the favor.

Thanks in advance,


  1. kevindewalt January 12, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    Latest blog post: The Magic Word in #LeanStartup #CustomerDevelopment Emails,

  2. Vishu Ramanathan January 12, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Asking for advice is a great idea. It tells the other person that you value their opinion. When I was in a band in college we would always ask producers, promoters and sound-guys for “advice on our demo.”

    The key is to really, truly, authentically, honestly, no bullshitly really only care about the relationship. It turns out that that’s what matters most in the long run, but it’s easy to get focused on your immediate goals. Getting a gig for this Saturday night is great, but having another friend in the business is better.

  3. John Prendergast January 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm #


    I’ve done hundreds of these kinds of emails and I think most of your advice is right on point. One point should be expanded and bit and one should come with a warning.

    Expand – The Magic Word
    There are several words that work very well depending on how well you know the target contact. One that is important if you have any relationship, even if distant the word “help” as in “I’d love your help” goes a long way. I’ve found the human need to be helpful to those they know to often be a more powerful motivator than the status/flattery implied in “advice”.

    Warning – State Emphatically that You are Not Selling
    This one, if not delivered in exactly the right tone does more harm than good. When reaching out to people I’ve just been introduced to I’ve found that leaving out that reference can often lead to response rates that are triple those I get when including that caveat. The only time this isn’t true is when you’re asking someone to look at/review a product directly. In that case it seems to improve response rates.

    Just one guy’s experience. Thanks for writing this. Good stuff.

    John Prendergast
    CEO & Co-founder
    Value Media, Inc.

    • kevindewalt January 12, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

      Awesome feedback, John. I would really be interested in learning more about the warning you provide. My experience has been the opposite but I don’t have data to back that up – which means that I might well be wrong.

      Curious to understand the psychology at work here…

  4. kevindewalt January 12, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    @johnprendergast great comment on…. Would love to read more thoughts on your warnings on “I’m not selling” message

    • johnprendergast January 12, 2010 at 7:18 pm #

      @kevindewalt Love to find time to do more than comment on others great content. I’m in the zero-stage startup vortex now.

  5. Marty Thomas January 19, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    Another good way to give your response rates a boost is to use personal urls. An example of a Personal URL would be: and when “Jim” visits his personal url, the website will usually be customized to him. It also allows the marketer to track who is responding. Learn more at:


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