The four qualities of a perfect cold email, according to the Birchbox CEO

Employees and customers surround a table with MacBook Pros, during the official opening of the largest Apple shop in southern Europe, at Passeig de Gracia…
Employees and customers surround a table with MacBook Pros, during the official opening of the largest Apple shop in southern Europe, at Passeig de Gracia…
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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Birchbox CEO and co-founder Katia Beauchamp has never been shy about reaching out to important people. Before starting at Harvard Business School in 2008, she emailed Steve Jobs, explaining that she’d been confounded to learn that her school didn’t partner with Apple. She asked Jobs to give her the same discount on the Macbook Air that her school offered for the IBM Thinkpad. The Apple CEO responded—and granted her wish.

Today, Beauchamp says that cold-emailing was essential to the success of Birchbox—an industry-changing beauty-supply subscription service, launched in 2010, that boasts over 1 million subscribers. When she and her partner Hayley Barna conceived of the company while still at Harvard, they had less than six months to test the service before graduation.

“I wasn’t aware of industry events (because I wasn’t in the industry) and we were looking to move quickly and efficiently,” Beauchamp writes via email. She knew that Birchbox needed feedback from major players in the beauty industry, whom she hoped to recruit as partners. So she began cold-emailing top executives, inviting them to poke holes in her idea. Here’s how she got important, busy people to respond—and how you can do the same. 

Have a compelling, punchy subject line

If the subject line doesn’t motivate the reader to open the message, no dice, says Beauchamp. “At the very least it should say something more than ‘Hello’ or ‘Looking to get in touch,'” she explains, since these common subject lines can easily get lost in a packed inbox.

Beauchamp used the subject line, “Reimagining beauty online.” She knew “I’m selling beauty samples” was a sure “delete,” given industry skepticism at the time about the idea of profiting off otherwise free give-aways. Plus, as she frequently explains in interviews, she didn’t want Birchbox to be known for selling beauty samples; the goal was to create a company that would help women discover new beauty products cheaply and conveniently and change how beauty was sold online.

So when forming a subject line in a cold email, it’s essential to capture your higher-level motivation—not just what your idea is, but why it might matter to the person on the receiving end.

Keep it short

Long-winded emails aren’t impressive—they’re draining. Beauchamp’s rule of thumb: “The email should be short enough so that a person can read it without having to scroll down on his or her phone. The less time and energy it takes to read it, the better.” That means one or two brief body paragraphs, each composed of two to three short sentences, max.

Don’t attach long documents

When reaching out for career or business advice, it can be tempting to send your full portfolio or a business plan. But this is a mistake, according to Beauchamp, since it demands a lot of the other person’s time and can easily make them feel overwhelmed.

She suggests trying a one-pager that briefly describes your business idea—or, for non-entrepreneurs, a one-page resume or letter. Beauchamp framed her one-pager by succinctly explaining how Birchbox would help, not challenge, the already-dominant brands in the beauty industry. This approach shifts the cold email from a request to an enticing offer. 

Ask for something that’s easy to say yes to

A vague, open-ended email is not worth writing—the recipient is unlikely to respond if they don’t even understand what you’re asking for. But ask for too much, and you’ve crossed the line from confident to presumptuous. The happy medium is to figure out a concrete (yet low-commitment) ask.

“I asked CEOs and brand managers for five minutes of their time to give me advice,” says Beauchamp. Everyone can spare five minutes—the time it takes for a bathroom break, or walk to the subway. Plus, asking for a few minutes demonstrates respect for the other person’s time, as well as confidence in one’s ability to network efficiently.

The upshot

Ultimately, the most important thing Beauchamp gained from her cold emails was confidence. She got turned down plenty, but the positive responses reinforced her belief in the company. ”Given that there are also a lot of discouraging moments, it was invaluable to have those bright spots,” she reflects. 

Cold emailing may often feel like you’re sending messages into a black hole. But for Beauchamp, some of those emails eventually turned into meetings. Some of the meetings turned into pitches. And the pitches ultimately led to partnerships with massive beauty brands. So go ahead and hit send—just keep things short and focused.