Sending Cold Emails

This is part 2 of a series on interviewing.  Check here for part 1 on setting up an interviewing team.


At a rough guess, I get about 4–5 recruiting emails every week.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  I only bother to even say “no” to perhaps 1 in 100.  The others go straight to the trash: often unread.  For the benefit of all my recruiter friends, I’d like to explain why.

First, I should mention that I’m a software engineer with roughly 20 years experience.  In that time, I’ve worked up and down the technology stack from web to mobile to back-end to dev-ops: you name it.  I’ve also worked for companies from IBM to a freshly-minted startup.  So, I imagine I’ve gotten on a lot of lists.


Getting it Wrong

The common thread in the 99% of emails I don’t answer is that they’re really just spam.  They obviously take no time to pitch me on why the job fits my interests, talents, or would be better than the job I currently have.  The worst offenders are the bulk emails which invite me to peruse a “jobs” page and apply.  Slightly less obnoxious are the “we saw your resume and think you’d be a good fit…” emails. However, they all focus on what the company wants: not what I might want.  Fire and forget may be a good tactic for filling some positions, but you’re never going to pull a qualified senior person out of their current company that way.


Getting it Right

The tiny fraction of emails I do answer have at least one of the following traits:

  • they come from the hiring manager / founder
  • they clearly demonstrate some specific knowledge about me
  • they clearly tell me why I—me in particular—would enjoy the work
  • they clearly reference that this is a referral from someone I’ve worked with


An Example

One email I recall getting recently was from Matt Lott, the co-founder of CodeCombat: a startup which is trying to help kids learn coding by making a (really cool) game out of it.  He nailed nearly every point on my check-list. Here’s the actual text:

Hi Andrew,

Fellow co-founder here. I checked out Crafting Guide – kudos on
building a really cool guide to everything Minecraft-related :). I
also read on your LinkedIn profile that you enjoy mentoring others so
I thought I’d reach out. Our “World of Warcraft”-inspired game teaches
kids how to become programmers; to climb between levels, students
write code to navigate mazes and defeat savage monsters. More than
20,000 teachers currently use CodeCombat, and our investors include
Andreessen Horowitz and YC.

So far, we’ve built a popular single-player game, and we have many
cool challenges on the horizon – like building real-time multiplayer
mechanics and revamping our graphics engine. With your experience, I
thought you’d be interested in leading these initiatives.

If you’re interested in helping kids learn, I’d love to chat. How
about a phone call or coffee next week?

Matt Lott
CTO, CodeCombat

First, this is clearly coming from the hiring manager / co-founder.  This means that someone who has many other responsibilities thinks there’s a good enough chance that we’d want to work together that it’s worth his time to contact me in person.

Second, Matt clearly did his homework here.  He obviously read my LinkedIn profile carefully; he noted that we’re both co-founders, and that I mention enjoying teaching.  He also found the gaming-related hobby site I made, and he obviously spent some time figuring out what it is all about.

Third, while a big chunk of the email is clearly pretty general-purpose, he starts by calling out the why my specific interests—teaching & gaming—would lead me to being interested in working on their product—which is all about teaching through gaming.  Then, he gracefully transitions from the more personalized part to the less personalized part.

In fact, the only point he didn’t hit was mentioning this as a referral, but hey… sometimes that’s just not the case.  Still, 3 out of 4 is better than 99.99% of recruiting emails I get.

And, for the record, while I didn’t accept Matt’s offer for coffee, we did have a very nice email exchange.  Of greater importance, though, is that if I heard back from him under different circumstances, I’d be happy to renew the acquaintance.


I don’t need to tell anyone that there’s a lot more open headcount for senior people than there are actual people willing to join your company.  I also don’t need to tell anyone that, in general, we are well-paid, and have our choice of jobs.  Naturally, that implies that everything in recruiting is backwards compared to other more junior positions.

If I could make every recruiter understand one thing about recruiting senior-level professionals, it would be: you are in sales.  I’m a prospect, and you’re pitching a product to me.  You need to learn enough about me to understand what will motivate me to buy, and then sell it to me.  You’ve got one email to convince me that you’ve made an effort to pitch me on something that I actually want.  Don’t blow it on cheap form letters or junk mail.

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