How to ask someone for help via email

screen-shot-2012-01-22-at-12-59-36-pm-9962580Oh boy, I used to be the absolutely worst at this. When I started out building stuff and developing a first few startup ideas, I used to ask others for help a lot. And I think it is fantastic to do this.

The way of asking, however, can often be tricky. I remembered to pour out my life story to everyone I thought might could help me with a little bit of advice. Dozens of sentences with what I am doing, no clarity at all and no questions at the end, apart from a vague “what are your thoughts?”.

What I didn’t realize is that it is incredibly difficult for a busy and successful startup founder to help me out with anything based on these emails. Noah Kagan, Appsumo founder and someone who has helped me plenty of times in the past, once replied this to me:

“:) Can you send 1 short specific question?”

This was gold. It was the immediate solution to get help from nearly anyone. I would keep emails to 4 sentences at most from then onwards, when asking for help:

  • 2-3 sentences of honest appreciation. There is a reason you are asking someone for help. They have a lot of experience in that field, worked on a startup/idea related to what you are working on or else. If you do this, it shows them you have thought about why picking them out to ask for help
  • 1 sentence that states a single, focused question people can give you an answer to. Here is one that worked very well when I asked Noah:

“What was the single, most valuable user acquisition strategy for Mint after you have hit 100K users?”

What do you really want?

Asking one specific question in an email, without hammering others with your life story has a lot more advantages than I had ever imagined before.

If you are forced to really think about the one specific question you want to have an answer to, you naturally think about your problem in a much more focused way.

In the past, this helped me a great deal. There would be a big obstacle in my head and I would shoot a long-winded question to someone to help me out. Yet, by making it a rule to keep it short, my mind could focus, break down the problem and make the next steps a lot more actionable.

Can you find the solution yourself?

And it doesn’t even stop there. Today, if I am forced to get all I want down to one specific question, more often than not, it triggers me to find the answer myself.

“A Problem clearly stated is a problem half solved.” ~ Brande, Dorothea

It is this thought that I believe is actually the most valuable part from applying Noah’s “one short question” technique. More often then not, purely stating the problem more precisely will help you find the solution yourself.

I think this will turn clearly into a win-win situation for everyone involved. Be sure to give it a go. Do you have any tips for asking others for advice?

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