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Startup advice: cold recruiting

Greg Brockman on June 19, 2014

As we've grown Stripe, we've constantly lamented about how hard it is to get actionable advice on the specific issues we're dealing with. As an experiment, we've decided to try out a startup advice column to share what we've learned along the way.

For this first advice post, I'll respond to an email one of my (apparently prescient) friends recently sent me.

Hey Greg,

We're spinning up our recruitment engine and are working on our cold reach out email copy.

Do you have any examples of successful emails you've used in the past that you'd be willing to share or any advice on the process?

I've actually sent quite a lot of outbound cold emails and A/B tested until I found a formula that works for me. Cold outreach is inherently hard because the people you most want to reach will already receive many of these sollicitations, and you correspondingly need to differentiate. Here are the main lessons that I've taken away from my cold pings:

  • Include a proof-of-work. Most cold emails are mechanically assembled: either they're totally copy-paste, or they substitute in strings (such as your language of choice) that could be pulled from the Github API. Instead, make sure your emails include something that proves you've done some work investigating the person and understanding them. Make an intelligent comment about one of their talks, or include a suggestion for one of their projects. (Unfortunately, this doesn't mean you should send people a crafted hash.)
  • Don't explain what your company does. Either they've heard of you, in which case the explanation isn't very useful, or they haven't, in which case the explanation isn't going to read any different from the various other emails they get. It also makes you sound small-time: Google would never send someone an email saying "I work at Google, a search company in Mountain View which is organizing the world's information".
  • Always have the ping come from a non-recruiter. There's actually nothing wrong with contacts from recruiters generally: good ones know how to make a candidate feel at ease. In the specific case of cold pings, you need to make sure that it comes from someone for whom that email isn't a normal part of their job. It's much better as a recipient to realize that someone has taken time out of their day just to contact you, rather than someone simply fulfilling their quota.
  • Say the bare minimum required to get a face-to-face chat. No matter what great information you include in your email, any selling you do verbally (if they're local, get coffee; otherwise video chat tends to be way better than phone) will be astronomically more effective and convincing. So any non-vital detail can really only serve to shoot you in the foot.
  • Track response rates. Ultimately these contacts are about personal style, and it's important to find something that works with you. I have a Hackpad I use to record every cold ping I sent, and go back and update it if I get a reply.

That's a lot of principle, but it compiles down to a very short email template. Here's a concrete example of one I've used in the past:

Hey XX,

I'm an engineer at Stripe. I came across your XX post, and it reminded me of the time that XX. I wanted to see if you'd be interested in working with us at Stripe — if you're up for it, I'd love to grab coffee next week to chat.

- gdb

Good luck with the recruiting. Let me know how it turns out!


Have something we can help with? Just send me an email at gdb@stripe.com with a concrete question you're facing at your company. It can be related to anything startup related (technical, managerial, etc). If there's enough demand, someone from Stripe will regularly (starting out with every two weeks) respond to a selected email with a post here.

June 19, 2014