validate with cold email

I spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to validate startup ideas.

And having tried quite a few things, I really think cold email is undoubtedly the best way to validate your B2B startup idea.

It’s brutal

Cold email is brutal. It’s not as bad as cold calling, but it’s unpleasant enough that a lot of people outright refuse to do it.

If you email 100 people and get 1 response back, that’s considered decent performance in the unforgiving world of cold email. And if you have a poorly written or poorly targeted campaign, your annoyed recipients will certainly let you know.

But this weakness is also a strength. When you do get an interested response back, you know it’s genuine. You’ve already broken a social contract and barged into somebody’s inbox; they don’t owe you any politeness. They actually care. They’re actually interested.

Other channels (like events) and approaches (like talking to your friends and colleagues) are rife with social desirability bias. Entire books – including really good ones like The Mom Test – have been written to help you avoid this bias.

But you don’t need to be an expert in conducting user interviews to validate your idea. You just need to do the hard, slightly presumptuous thing, and bother some unwitting strangers with your cold pitch.

It’s great for experimentation

Cold email gives you an incredibly high degree of control over

On easy mode, you can simply select what features you’re interested in from a database: job title, industry, location, funding, and so on.

But things get really interesting when you start daisy-chaining different systems together to put a really fine point on your targeting. Between scraping, the multitude of available databases, and LLMs acting as connective tissue, there’s virtually no limit to how precise your targeting can get.

And when it comes to your message: here, too, the only real limit to your experimentation is your own imagination. (And the technological constraints of email, which hasn’t changed all that much in the last 20 years.)

It’s measurable

There are good reasons to believe that cold email performance is actually pretty tough to measure. This has to do with the nature of spam filters, how various email clients work, and the oblique way that cold email providers guess about things like inbox placement and deliverability.

Even if you’re skeptical about metrics like open rates, you can always hang your hat on your interested reply rate. This is super straightforward to measure, and easy to compare from one campaign to the next.

It’s great for fast feedback

When it comes to email, the default behavior is typically:

So another big point for cold email is the ability to get feedback very quickly. In a startup environment, this speed to validation is incredibly valuable.

It’s quick to get started

If you want to send a high volume of cold email, you’ll need to warm your domain up. This takes a little time, but not much – typically a few weeks.

But if you’re actually thoughtful about your targeting, you can move way faster.

Conventional wisdom is that you can send between 20 and 30 cold emails from your primary domain without risking your domain reputation (i.e. getting flagged as a spammer).

That’s plenty of volume to send some thoughtful, personalized emails and generate real interest… assuming you’re actually onto something.

You can generate real signal very, very quickly: typically within days.

It’s not perfect

There are a lot of reasons to not like cold email, and I don’t want to come off as a total fanboy.

It doesn’t always scale. It can be annoying to maintain. It’s a pain in the neck to troubleshoot.

On a fundamental level, it can feel like a trespass into someone’s personal digital space. It has the propensity to annoy. And if you do it enough, you will get cursed at, yelled at, and insulted.

Particularly when it comes to the social aspects of cold email, a lot of folks fear it. Most people don’t want to be annoying or rude.

But when it’s thoughtfully done, and when you’re grasping around in the dark at the early stages of your startup with your unvalidated idea, it can be an extremely clarifying and effective place to start.

posted 13 mar 2024