The email had all the hallmarks of an early 2000s chain letter: A cheesy poem (in this case, about pitch decks), a promise that at least 10 investors are reading the email at this EXACT moment, and, of course, lots of purple text and a pixelated GIF of a unicorn flying away. Anyone who received it had 48 hours to forward it to five people if they wanted good luck.
The "fwd: fwd: lucky pitch deck" went viral inside the world of venture capital as investors keep forwarding the chain letter in hopes of receiving good fortune (and a pitch deck) in return. It's been circulating inside top venture capital firms for weeks now as more than 100 investors have forwarded it to more than 500 venture capitalists, including partners from Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue, SoftBank and Founders Fund. "Unclear what this is but passing it along out of curiosity and a desire to wish you 5 good fortune," one investor wrote in an email shared with Protocol.
At a time when access to capital in Silicon Valley remains a challenge of who you know, rather than what you're trying to build, the creative approach by Dialup's co-founder Danielle Baskin appears to have been a way to cut through the status quo.
"The thing with fundraising is you could have an amazing company, you could have perfected your pitch, but sadly the way to raise money is to know the right people," said Baskin, who created the email. "Having strong connections and getting intros is the most important part. Even if your team is amazing and your pitch is good and you have traction and high retention, you still need someone to say, 'Here talk to this founder.'"
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For the investors who forwarded it, they would then receive a link to an unlisted YouTube video from a made-up group called "Angel's Visions" that touted a new social network being built. And for investors who wanted to take the pitch, they could book a meeting via a Calendly link. Only investors who scheduled a pitch actually received the pitch deck.
"I didn't mention what the company did at all, which was sort of an experiment because I was curious how much meetings come from this trust network — how much it's based on one investor telling you that you should talk to this person rather than looking at the idea itself," Baskin said.
But there might've been a small hint at what the company did in the email chain. Investors had to cc an email registered to dialup.com when they forwarded it, so if they went to the Dialup website, they might've had a clue of what the company did.
Baskin ended up booking over a dozen meetings with investors for her company. Dialup is a voice-chat app that mirrors the spirit of the chain letter by randomly connecting people on the phone around the world based on their mutual interests.
"We really liked the randomness element, like our pitch could reach someone we wouldn't have even thought to reach out [to] and also someone that appreciates our sense of humor," Baskin said.
It's a creative approach to fundraising that's clearly been a hit in the venture circles, but it's not Baskin's first success in crafting wildly creative and semi-viral projects. Beyond being CEO and co-founder of Dialup, she describes herself as a "parallel entrepreneur" who often turns art projects or ideas into companies, like a tricycle rental business that she ran in New York or a branded-fruit business. A couple of her projects also overlapped with the venture capital community, like collectable trading cards featuring investors like Paul Graham and Mary Meeker, or yoga mats with business plans printed on them that you could ship to investors.
But Baskin is in the process of selling all of her smaller businesses to focus on her new startup. It started as a system for her to stay in touch with her friend and now co-founder Max Hawkins. The two met while she was giving a tarot card reading at a party, and realized they had a mutual interest in randomness, such as going to random Facebook events or Google Maps locations to just break their routine.
To stay in touch, Baskin and Hawkins created an app that would randomly call both of them every three or four days. "It was just an opportunity to chat with each other," she said. "If we both happened to be free, we'd pick up and be matched."
After testing it with friends, they settled on the name Dialup to evoke the old internet nostalgia of chat rooms where people connected without thinking about likes or internet fame, Baskin said. And while the initial version was focused on connecting friends, the company is now focused on matching strangers based on their mutual interests. When people sign up, they choose things that they want to talk about, from what they're eating and relationship advice, to hiking trips or their life story.
The company raised a pre-seed round from Bloomberg Beta in January 2019. Since then, people from over 190 countries have signed up, with about 1,000 new users joining every week. With a team of only two people plus a handful of contractors, Baskin realized it was time to fundraise again.
Baskin's email. GIF: Danielle Baskin
Baskin started going the typical route of asking some of her founder friends for intros to investors, but said she really disliked the process and felt like it was a "burden" on friends. "I also felt like I wouldn't want an investor to take a meeting with me out of obligation because they really trust the person that sent them that email. I would prefer that the investor wants to meet with me because they're interested," she said.
She ended up making intro emails that were easy to forward to help speed up the process, though Baskin said she found them to be stale and generic. But the idea of creating an email that would be forwarded with instructions to forward it to other people stuck.
"I thought of chain letters, but also thought this was an awful idea. Like, 'Oh my God, everybody is going to be so annoyed,'" she said. "But I also kind of didn't care because I was curious what would happen."
Baskin didn't just write a bland intro and ask people to keep forwarding it. Instead, she started researching archives of chain letters, dating back to paper and telephone letters. She identified a few common elements, like a poem at the top and promises of good luck and well-being as a motif. She also purposely avoided the bad luck style of newsletters where if someone didn't forward it, their VC firm would be cursed or they'd lose their next deal.
Baskin sent her email to a handful of friends and her sister, trying to make it look as if she had been forwarded the message in the beginning. Only two people from the initial list forwarded it to investors, but it was enough to light the spark.
The chain letter spread to over 500 venture capitalists over the course of a few weeks. Every person who forwarded it had to cc firstname.lastname@example.org so they could get the next steps, which enabled Baskin and Hawkins to track who had sent it and who it went to. The firms who received it the most included funds like Bain Capital, Lerer Hippeau, Founders Fund, Initialized, Coatue and Bond Capital, Baskin said.
Baskin said she thinks the chain letter worked because there's a trust network in the investor community — alongside a sense of FOMO. The chain letter would show who had forwarded it previously, so any investor scrolling through could see who had received it before them.
"There's definitely a herd mentality of investors, and so I think when they got it — and it wasn't just a bunch of Gmail addresses on it, but notable firms — I think that established some trust, of 'Oh, they must be onto something,'" Baskin said.
The investors forwarding the email would comment on it, too. "I can't tell whether I am embarrassed by the caliber of humans on earlier threads that fell victim to this (are we really that gullible as investors?), elated at the creativity of the original sender, someone put acid in my coffee and I'm having a very strange 2002 flashback of early-internet-chain-email days, or maybe I'm just curious what will actually happen …" one investor said in their note.
Gullible or not, it's been a success for Dialup's fundraising strategy so far. Over a dozen partners booked meetings, which, unlike the original email, proceeded like normal fundraising pitches, Baskin said.
"What was really delightful about taking these meetings was that it sort of fits within the spirit of our app in that we were sort of connected to a total stranger," she said. "It felt like we had no obligation to actually meet each other. Nobody introduced us, and it felt nice and freeing, like you don't have to start a meeting saying, 'Well, how do you know Mark?'"
Next time she has to fundraise, Baskin will try another creative approach, she said. She liked that it broadened the pool of investors she was talking to and admits it made the fundraising process "less soul-crushing." But don't expect it to be another chain letter.
"I don't think you can repeat this joke because it only has the novelty once," Baskin said.