Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen will answer any email for $100. The brains behind the Netscape—sold to AOL for $4.2B—and co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, which funds tech startups, Andreessen clearly isn’t in the answering-email business for the money, even without the comfortable billions behind him. Instead, he donates that $100 to the charity Black Girls Code. That hundred bucks and a good idea can open valuable doors to potential investors in Silicon Valley. But Andreessen has also created something more vital with that entry fee. He created a high-profile entry into the ranks of luminaries and pundits who have cut down on their email by charging its senders for the costs of reading it.
In October 2018, Dan Egan, Director of Behavioral Finance and Investing for Betterment, an online investment company, announced on BBC’s Capital that he, too, was following Andreessen’s policy. For a mere twenty bucks, anyone could email him and get advice on investing, careers, and any question they pose to him. His money also gets channeled to charity.
To access either luminary, anyone can click on a link to Earn, a service that lets anyone earn or donate bitcoin for completing tasks. In both instances, writers only pay if their emails get a response. After the initial contact, further emails are free.
But the beauty of this strategy, Egan says, is all the email it removes from his inbox. Think of all the emails you receive that you bail on, after you skim the subject line. Or the emails you delete after the first paragraph leaves you wondering what you’re supposed to do with it. We can easily filter out the spam that somehow ends up in our inboxes. Anyone can also winnow out all those advertising and sales pitches with email rules that ensure you never see anything from a particular sender again. However, the emails we receive at work every day cost companies considerably more than the $396 billion Josh Bernoff reported in 2016. In that same piece, published in The Daily Beast, Bernoff estimated the US spends 6% of our national wages on the badly-written emails we actually try to read.
We receive War-and-Peace-length emails, gnomic emails that make Nostradamus’ predictions look clear, and committee-speak emails larded with jargon for two reasons. First, email costs nothing to send, making the pay-to-send option an elegant solution. Because we can rattle out an email in minutes to mere seconds and send it for free, we seldom pause to think of its actual costs in reading time, in missed opportunities, in dents to company morale, and serious damage to company reputations. Second, the speed and ubiquity of email prevents writers from dedicating any time to actually envisioning what their readers will do with the message. Or even what they want readers to do with the message.
To remedy the problem without the pay-to-send option, Bernoff suggested the usual remedies we hear about writing: be clear and direct, avoid jargon, and treat your readers’ time as valuable.
The first problem with Bernoff’s advice is that most email writers believe that they’re doing something vaguely like that. The second problem: very few of us know what clear, direct and impactful actually look like in practice. Let alone how to achieve those hallmarks in any of their writing—or in an email.
Look out for the next How Writing Works post to address steps any writer can take to create emails that not only get action but, in some instances, valuable contacts, sales, and even promotions.