The Human Router

Amy and I had a wonderful week off the grid in Paris. No phone, no email from Friday night 5/8 when I boarded the British Airlines flight in DIA until Friday morning 5/15 when we decided to turn stuff on and just lay around the hotel all day getting reading to go home.

I’m always fascinated by the email patterns I have when I’m off the grid for a week. I almost always go off the grid late Friday or Saturday morning so there’s the weekend lull followed by an intense flurry on Monday. By Tuesday my regular emailers have seen that I’m off the grid and their pattern of copying me slows down, but doesn’t stop completely. The emails then become more random.

By Wednesday, I’m getting three kinds of email.

  1. #Important: Important stuff from people I know that I’m being copied on.
  2. #New-Known: Stuff from people I know who didn’t email me earlier in the week.
  3. #Random: Stuff from people I don’t know.

#Important and #New-Known tend to have similar tones. They are things for me to respond to, send to someone, make a decision around, or acknowledge receipt of information. Occasionally they require me to do something, but the action requested rarely takes more than five minutes.

#Random is completely different. Almost 100% of the #Random email has a specific request for me. These requests are often for meetings, phone calls, interviews, or speaking engagements. Some of them are specific sets of questions about a topic while others are long essays that never really get to the punch line, but clearly are begging to get to a question of some sort. Some are requests for introductions. And others are direct asks for financing.

This trip, when I went through my email upon my return, I left all the #Random ones for last to process. I had over 200 of these. This time I responded to all of them, but it wasn’t very satisfying. It took about four hours on Sunday and when I was done, I felt relief to be done, but when I reflected on it, I didn’t feel like I ended up with any new knowledge. That was disappointing as processing four hours of email to result in zero learning mostly just sucks, at least for me.

In this case, I packetized appropriately. Rather than getting bogged down in the stuff I needed to do while getting worn out by stuff that wasn’t that important to do, I only responded to stuff in #Important and #New-Known, ignoring the rest until I was completely finished with these categories. I think took a break and dealt with the rest later when my headspace was clearer.

As I sit here, I wonder why I responded to the other 200 #Random emails. I have a long-standing self-identity of responding to all emails that I get. For some reason, that’s important to me, but I’m no longer really sure why. It’s not satisfying in any way and the signal to noise ratio, or at least the value to non-value ratio, is way out of control at this point.

I guess I have something new to ponder in therapy. At least something good came out of responding to the 200 emails.

  • I used to get as many as 200+ new, real emails a day (+ spam pushed it to 825+ almost daily).

    My M.O. back then was to reply to all of the messages that needed a reply, pushing off to a ‘hold’ folder the ones that cld wait. I’d then process those as I cld.

    My primary motivator was (i think) both simple politeness as well as necessity. Most of these were abt my business, so it was *necessary* to reply.

    Eventually, I stated getting a bunch of unsolicited sales + marketing email. Still abt my business, sort of. I politely replied to these initially, even when not a fit (‘no thanks, not a fit’). But w/ the volume of those types now at ~30 to 40 per day, I just don’t have the time.

    As you say, there’s no value to me. That’s sad, but it’s a fact.

    • There are a few categories that I don’t respond to. The Dear Mr. Feld resumes and clear sales pitches for products are two of them. I gave up a long time ago and don’t even categorize those as #random.

  • Ajay Pal Singh

    I think you are really lucky that you are able to find time to respond to Random mails. I am sure you have 1000 other more important things to do. It might have little to no value to you, but people who get the replies, for them it could mean a lot. And Karma always comes back 🙂

    • Good reminder – thanks!

      • Ajay Pal Singh

        I think one way you could ecosystem grow is if u just add a line in your signature or some way asking those people to give back to community whenever they can. Or if u have some specific things at specific times.
        I feel little nudges keep people motivated to help others. There are people like you who help so many like us but even you have doubts/get tired at times. It night be nice to create a network of do gooders 🙂

  • Sam

    There’s a chapter in Michael Ray / Rochelle Myers book “Creativity in Business” titled “Do Only What is Easy, Effortless, and Enjoyable.” I’m wondering if the ideas there may be helpful to you as you recalibrate your approach to the stack of 200 #Randoms that is likely to happen again. The content strikes me as relevant to how much time you want to set aside for #Random replies, your mindset while doing the replying, and your view on how that work is integrated into your overall goals for Founders Fund and for yourself.

    • I haven’t read it – grabbing it and tossing it on my Kindle.

      • It always amazes me when I run into something that is not on the Kindle. Just bought the paperback! 1989 – I love books that age well.

  • Responding to email is a part of your rather positive public persona, and you enjoy the fruits of that labor everyday — even if you lose sight of them.

    In a world where success is mostly synonymous with being less than a good person, you’ve built a reputation around the counterargument to that — being “good” leads to success. Taking the time to respond to each email is one of probably 3 or 4 key things you do that are “good” that have built your reputation (saying “no” in 60 seconds or less is probably another one of those). These actions make more people want to deal with you, brining you more deals, giving you access to more options, and ultimately makes you more successful — whether you remember that when you sit down for 4 hours to reply to respond to 200 random emails, or not!

    As with most “good” deeds, their effects are not immediately realized — but they are ultimately realized. For your own sake, keep it up!

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I grok this but sometimes lose sight of it in the onslaught of the email treadmill, especially after a vacation.

  • josh

    Knowledge usually starts out feeling completely random, so as a learner I’m diggin the random category. Sounds more interesting than ‘other’ too

    • Random (vs. other) is the right categorization!

  • williamhertling

    I concur with the karma and good deeds line of thinking. Also, if the 201st email turns out interesting, then wasn’t the other 200 just part of being accessible? Still, I’m swimming in email too, so I get your pain.

    • I know that whatever path I take I will continue to read them all. I just don’t know if I’m going to keep responding to them all.

  • Jeremy Riley

    Brad, I’m pretty sure that I was one of your 200 #randoms. I asked the question about whether I should focus my pitch on one partner/director at a firm or send to multiple. Your response was extremely appreciated. I respect your opinion because of your books, blog posts, and references to you by your peers. I for one plan to repay your time lost in reading and responding to my email in whatever way I can. For one thing you are clearly my director of choice at the Foundry Group and you will be getting my pitch very soon. Clearly I believe there is value in that. I’d be a pretty weak aspiring entrepreneur if I didnt. Aside from that if there’s anything else I can ever do for you that would make our correspondence equitable vs charitable please let me know.

    • Thanks Jeremy. I appreciate the kind note. I expect I’ll continue to respond to all the #random emails as it’s just wired into my personality and notes like this remind me why I do it.

      • Jeremy Riley

        I believe the part that would bother me about responding to people that I didn’t have ongoing communication with is not getting a “thank you” or various other response back from them.

        The fact is Brad, your words hold weight. That you give them away for free makes you awesome! If you are ever near the twin cities up here in Minnesnowta I’d enjoy treating you to dinner at an amazing little hole in the wall Mexican restaurant. Their cheese enchiladas and queso dip are amazing.

        • Offers of hole in the wall Mexican all over the world is a good way to my heart!

  • Consider Gmail’s “canned responses” for greater efficiency.

    Also consider switching from email to a zendesk-type character-limited contact form that directs many inquirers to answers and resources without you ever having to directly interact with them.

    • I use Yesware and Textexpander so I’ve already got that part dialed in.
      I have tried the Help Desk / Support “ask me questions” type approach and that didn’t really change the dynamic for me.

  • Cynthia Rennolds

    Brad, I just want to let you know that I have certainly been a “random” email multiple times. Your responses have always been appreciated. Several emails were regarding product/services you provide that I consumed (books, Venture Deals NovoEd course, etc.) but you could have easily have ignored them. I appreciate your time, energy and knowledge. Thanks!

    • Thx! I’ll keep responding to #random – I just probably felt like whining about it yesterday…

  • Luke Vernon

    I’ve been one of those 200 random emails at one point. While I greatly appreciated your response at the time, and while I’ve also adopted a similar internal drive to respond to all 200+ emails I get a day, I’d encourage you to not put the burden on yourself if that’s what it feels like.

    You impact entrepreneurs and this community whether you respond to every email or not. If it would alleviate stress OR create more time for you to make an impact in other ways (or just relax/find enjoyment doing other things), you should do that! No one will hold anything against you and if he/she does, that’s his/her issue.

    Thanks either way, Brad.

    • Thx – such helpful / nice karma message…

  • benbuie

    Brad, I somewhat understand how overwhelming email can become and I know the more respected and influential you become, the more email you’re going to continue to get. I don’t know the solution, but I do know that yours is one of the few blogs I follow and yours is one of the few opinions I really respect and at least some of it has to do with the first random email you answered.

    • Thx – yeah – I’ll keep responding continually – just questioning it out loud when I starts to feel like a burden…

  • David Fox

    Some suggestions from someone who has given this some thought and developed a process:

  • Carmen Wiedenhoeft

    I think when people reach out to you randomly it’s less about having you *do* something and more about having you *be* something: part of the hope they need as they walk down the difficult path of entrepreneurship. Sure it would be nice if you magically thought their idea was great and Foundry Group funded the idea. If they’re smart enough to write to you, they’re smart enough to know the odds of that are tiny. It’s more that you’re a compassionate public figure in this space. So if you can arrive at an amount of time that is manageable for you, it could be less of a burden. Maybe a web based form that puts requests in queue and auto-replies with a calculation of your time allotted divided by # requests? “Brad will first get to look at this in [x date calculated based on requests in queue].”

    It’s kind of like the anecdote of the girl who writes Einstein and he replies, “Do not worry about your problems with mathematics. I assure you, mine are much greater.” He didn’t learn much there, but his generous response has encouraged many young math minds for a generation. I guess it comes with your role as a public figure. It’s kind of you to ponder how to honor that and still respect your own health.

  • Glenn Whitney

    Do you send an automatic “off the grid” e-mail notification? If so, you could set this to start going out about 24 hours before you’re actually off the grid. This gives people “fair warning.” If they absolutely have to contact you before you go off, maybe they can be instructed to send a copy of their e-mail to your personal assistant and ask for urgent attention.
    Also – speaking of the “e-mail treadmill” – I find writing e-mail on an actual treadmill desk makes responding to dozens of e-mails less dreadful and it certainly ensures my responses are shorter!

    Lastly, your “off the grid” notification could refer people to your blog. As you already do, you can give people an idea of how available you are based on what you write in one blog article or another.
    You’re a great communicator – keep it up!

    • Yup – I always have this AND start 24 hours early like you suggest. And it’s a good reminder to get back on my treadputer (I have one at my office and one at home) – for some reason I haven’t been using it lately.

  • Out of curiosity how many emails do you get a day? Also, you’ve probably already seen the Eisenhower productivity management system, if not though its a fun thing to learn!

    • Between 300 and 500 on a typical day. At least 200 new threaded conversations in Gmail. That does not include any spam or stuff that gets shunted to my OtherInBox – all real emails.

  • Adam Wolak

    Thanks. I’ll keep responding continually.

  • Sam Altman had a line once: “To be successful, one has to be either really good at building something, or really good at email. Pick one.”

    • What if you are good at both?

      • One in a million!

        • YK Arthur

          I must apologize to weaken your quote and curt response. There are millions of successful persons both experts at building anything and also, at email posts.

      • That’s why I have a co-founder.. He builds, I email – and when we get tired – we swap places.

  • Kimberly Klemm

    I am wondering if this is not the equivalent of “junk mail” that we used to receive stuffed in the mailbox. I am not referring to the “spam” that tries to take advantage of your mail space but the random “legitimate” mailers that are just trying to connect in some way.

    • It’s different than physical junk mail. It has real signal in it. It’s more like getting an mailbox full of letters from folks every day.

  • Kimberly Klemm

    I just finished reading a book, “Sincerely, Andy Rooney” by Andy Rooney that is a book of letters he returned to people that corresponded over the years. He mentions several times in his letters that he received so much mail from his fans that he did not always address everyone with a reply. It was a very interesting book and I am wondering if someone might take the same initiative with “e-mail” replies one day.

    • I read that book a long time ago and loved it. Andy Rooney was a fun and interesting character.

  • Victoria Locklear

    Its memorial day weekend and I’m so glad to i need to rest and get ready for exams