09/10/2012 12:09 EDT | Updated 11/10/2012 05:12 EST

Your Start-Up Business: The Art and Science of Cold Calling

When you're with a start-up and you run into a problem you can't solve, what do you do? The obvious answer is you turn to someone who has built a business before. What if you don't have someone like this in your sphere of influence? Well, that's where cold calling (or emailing) comes in. But people have an irrational fear of cold calling. Here's how to get the most out of a cold call.


When you start any new business, there are always peaks and valleys. You start out with one million ideas, and then as you execute on them, it gives way to two things: 1) the realization that you can't do everything in the time allotted, and 2) sometimes it's not clear what to do next.

At Shyndyg, when we have found ourselves with a multitude of options for what to do next or a dead end, we have resorted to calling in experts. (We've discussed the pros and cons of inviting in help with Jeff Ullrich previously.)

Sometimes, the next step in the process is revealed by these experts not because they gave us some advice reminiscent of a late night drama on HBO, but rather that the act of talking though a problem itself helped us focus our energies on what we really wanted to do next.

So, if you're in the weeds and you need a sounding board, where do you turn?

The obvious answer to this is you turn to someone who has built a business before, has experience in your industry before, or someone who consulted with a company in your same boat. What if you don't have someone like this in your sphere of influence? That's where cold calling (or emailing) comes in.

People have an irrational fear of cold calling. There is a fear it will turn out the way it turns out when someone calls your house at dinner with a great cable offer: yelling and hanging up. In business, it never happens like that. (And luckily, by the time you actually place the call, you're probably going to be well prepared.)

Here's how to get the most out of a cold call:

  1. Know what you want: It seems stupid to say, but a lot of times when faced with a problem, or indecision, it's hard to articulate what you need. Work this out with a business partner or on paper before you even move further.
  2. Identify possible leads to help get you there. Do you really need help from a banker, or do you actually need help from an accountant? Know what you want, and make sure you're not just going to the most well-known person (you don't need to email LeBron James to find out why the NBA doesn't call travelling any more). Have more than one person you can contact, and reach out.
  3. Find out if you have anyone in common. Get on Linkedin and search for that person. If you don't have anyone in common, see if they have their profile open to accepting contact requests. If you decide to send them an invitation, write a short description of why you're reaching out.
  4. Be sincere. Succinctly explain your reason for reaching out, and define clearly what you need: Send out an email once you've made it over the Linkedin hump and make sure it includes a few things:
  • What drew you to that person (what successes or knowledge do they have?)
  • What you do
  • What problem you have
  • An offer to take them out to discuss further (don't be cheap: shell out for a lunch. If you want to increase your chances for acceptance, and lower the awkwardness of your first meeting, buy them a meal.)

We have not had anyone turn us down yet using this simple technique. Why? A few factors, really. One is that by doing your homework and being brief, you are respecting the person you're asking, and they will respect that. Secondly, if that contact knows anything about business, they know that they might need you some day, too, and that business contacts have a funny way of being useful. Finally, in most cases, your industry is like a small town, and no one wants to be seen as uncooperative or petty in their industry.

The most important thing about reaching out to people is that you do it. Regularly. (We send out emails weekly to people to solicit some kind of advice, or to build relationships with people.) If you develop this skill, you will see it pay off with a better rolodex, deeper perspective, and a better business.