Search “why mentors are important” and you’ll find page after page of results detailing how mentors can help entrepreneurs avoid mistakes, learn the ins and outs of their respective industries, and make invaluable connections as they build their businesses. Cue the frantic onslaught of would-be entrepreneurs hurling emails at any high-level executive whom they hope might give them advice.
Unfortunately, most of those emails are unsuccessful. In one study by Fast Company, only 12 out of 700 potential mentors emailed actually wrote back. As any marketer could tell you, that is a seriously terrible rate of return. How do you reconcile the need for a mentor with the knowledge that cold emailing is a statistically terrible way to find one?
I’ll tell you how: You up your email game.
Successful people are busy people, and they’re not going to respond to any old rambling, inchoate, or entitled plea for attention. But they just might respond to a well written, clearly worded email from someone who’s eager to take their advice and run with it. Here’s how to ensure your cold emails fall into the latter category.
Nail the subject line.
Any email coming from an unknown address better make itself compelling right out of the gate. That means leading with a clear, specific subject line that provides a clear sense of who you are and what your email is about. Here are a few examples:
- “Introduction: [Name] from [Company]”
- “From [mutual acquaintance’s] Friend”
- “Inspired by Your Work on [body of research/tech project/etc.]”
Avoid generic subjects like “Hello” (which is unlikely to be opened) and vague subjects such as “Would love to chat”. You want to give them a reason to chat with you in the body of your email, not lead with a subject line that implies entitlement to their time.
Use their name.
The more personal your email, the higher your chances for a response. That means mining your network for shared connections, researching your contact’s background in order to mention shared interests or inspiring accomplishments, and (perhaps most importantly) taking the time to address them by the proper name and email address. No one wants to get a generic or template email asking them to do a favor for free. If you can’t invest the time to send them a personalized email, why should they invest in you?
Specify why you’re reaching out to them.
Out of all the people you could have reached out to, why did you choose this person? Get clear on the answer to that question before drafting your email, and then include that info in the body. Tell them who you are and why you’re interested in their work. Again, make it specific: Don’t just say, “I admire your leadership.” Instead, you might say something like, “I was inspired by your presentation on [subject] because [why you were personally inspired]” or “I admire the way you grew your company to scale without VC funding”. This is also the place to mention any shared connections, hobbies, or interests.
While this content is important, be sure you don’t blather on and on. Don’t share your resume unless and until the person asks for it, and try to keep things concise and to the point. Again, you are probably emailing a busy person. They aren’t going to feel favorably toward you if you ask them to read through a wall of text.
Include a clear call to action.
Just as with the subject line, being vague in the body of your email will get you nowhere. Don’t just say “I’m hoping you could give me some advice” or “Could we please talk on the phone for 10 minutes?”
Instead, tell them exactly what you’re looking for. If you want a mentor, define what that means to you. Do you want to meet once a month for the next two years? Do you want to meet in person for 30 minutes to discuss [particular subject]? Do you want to have a 15-minute phone conversation about [specific topic]? Do you want to attend an upcoming event they’re hosting? Do you want them to answer a few questions via email? Make your request clear so they know exactly what they’re signing up for if they say yes. And do not ask questions that you could have learned the answers to simply by googling. That’s a surefire way to lose somebody’s respect before you’ve even connected.
In addition to providing a clear request, it can also be helpful to provide them with an “out” that might make things easier for them but still leave you with some guidance. For example, you might say, “I’m looking for a mentor and would be delighted if we could meet once every other month. I know how busy you are, so if that’s not possible I’m wondering if you would be willing to answer some questions during a short phone call.” By providing the recipient with options, you take the pressure off and make it more likely you’ll receive at least some of what you’re hoping for.
Be strategic about when you hit “send.”
According to Harvard Business Review, the best time to cold email a potential mentor is on the weekend. That’s because people at the top of their fields tend to be absorbed in their to-do lists during the work week. In contrast, the weekend may provide them with time to read emails that aren’t relevant to their work. Of course, the content of your email is probably more important than when you send it: Again, the more specific and personalized your email, the more likely the recipient is to spend time reading it.
A lot of people at the top of their fields are truly happy to help mentees. What they get out of it is the pleasure of having made a difference in someone’s life—so it’s imperative that you let them know they’ve done so.
If a potential mentor responds to your email or meets with you in person, follow up with an email that thanks them for their time and tells them how their advice is making a difference for you. For example, “Thanks so much for connecting me to [so and so]. We’re meeting on Thursday and I’m excited to pick her brain about content marketing strategies for small businesses.”
If you want to maintain an ongoing relationship with the person who originally helped you, then you need to continue following up in order to stay on their radar. Of course, there’s a fine line between staying in touch and being annoying. Entrepreneur Ramit Sethi recommends sending an email that adds value to your mentor’s life one or two weeks after the initial interaction. For example, you might send along a link to a new research study that’s relevant to a conversation the two of you shared. Whatever it is, make it something that provides value without asking for anything in return.
Then, send another email a few weeks later outlining how you’ve applied their advice to your life or work. Knowing that you’re going to internalize and act upon the advice given to you will motivate mentors to continue investing their time and energy in your progress.
Regardless of whether you’re reaching out to one potential mentor or several, it’s important to track your communications. Use a spreadsheet to chart when you reached out, the content you included, whether/when you heard back, and the advice or connections that came out of your interactions. This will allow you to ensure you’re neither spamming the person nor going radio silent on a potentially meaningful relationship.
There are a lot of things to lose sleep over: Economic uncertainty, a failed funding round, snoring-induced sleep deprivation. Whether or not you wrote the best email possible when reaching out to someone you respect shouldn’t be one of them.
The preceding strategies won’t guarantee you’ll hear back from a potential mentor. But they will increase your chances of making a connection that just might change your life.