The Most Successful E-mail I Ever Wrote

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2008 blast from the past: me, Mike Wallin, and Derek Sivers, the subject of this post. (Photo: A3maven)

[Total read time: 3-5 minutes.]

Derek Sivers is one of my favorite people. He is a programmer who lost his stage fright by doing more than 1,000 gigs as a circus ring leader (!!!).

He’s also a musician who founded CD Baby in 1998. As of December 2009, CD Baby had the following stats as the world’s largest online distributor of independent music:

- 300,000 artists
– 5,339,025 CDs sold online to customers
– $200,000,000+ paid directly to the artists

Derek sold the company in 2008, and he did so in a most unusual fashion (bolding mine):

Sivers sold CD Baby to Disc Makers in 2008 for what Sivers has reported to be $22 million, bequeathing, upon Sivers’ death, the principal to a charitable trust for music education.; while alive, according to Sivers, it “pays out 5% of its value per year to me.”
Wikipedia

I know this to be true.

Stranger still, at its largest, Derek spent roughly four hours on CD Baby every six months! He had systematized everything to run without him. Derek is both more successful and more fulfilled because he never hesitates to challenge the status quo, to test assumptions. The below guest post from him illustrates this beautifully.

Without further ado, the most successful e-mail he ever wrote…

Enter Derek Sivers

When you make a business, you’re making a little world where you control the laws. It doesn’t matter how things are done everywhere else. In your little world, you can make it like it should be.

When I first built CD Baby, every order had an automated e-mail that let the customer know when the CD was actually shipped. At first it was just the normal, “Your order has shipped today. Please let us know if it doesn’t arrive. Thank you for your business.”

After a few months, that felt really incongruent with my mission to make people smile. I knew could do better. So I took 20 minutes and wrote this goofy little thing:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year”. We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

That one silly e-mail, sent out with every order, has been so loved that if you search Google for “private CD Baby jet” you’ll get over 20,000 results. Each one is somebody who got the e-mail and loved it enough to post on their website and tell all their friends.

That one goofy e-mail created thousands of new customers.

When you’re thinking of how to make your business bigger, it’s tempting to try to think all the big thoughts, the world-changing massive-action plans.

But please know that it’s often the tiny details that really thrill someone enough to make them tell all their friends about you.

###

TIM: Do not miss Derek’s blog, which is full of these gems. It’s one of the few blogs I take the time to read. If you want to see how Derek and I compare approaches, here is a starting point.

Posted on: May 31, 2012.

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99 comments on “The Most Successful E-mail I Ever Wrote

  1. When I first read “CD Baby” the first thing I remembered was getting that first email. I can’t even remember the name of the artist or CD, just the email. I remember that I even forwarded it to my friends.
    So glad to hear that he continues to do so well.

    Like

  2. I actually like Derek Sivers. Not because of his work, but he is one of the few very authors who actually answer emails. And that is why I can say for sure, that this post is completely worthless. If you are fascinated by stories, you just got jibbed.
    In the email I received from from Derek Sivers, he confirms that his financial success was a complete “accident”. He agreed that his book is just a few of his blog posts stitched together because someone asked him to, a “quickie” as he described it. In fact, he said he didn’t even know who can relate to his book and that it does not have much meat and bones to it. Derek Sivers attest to the fact that what he did was “total luck” and cannot be replicated.
    The same can be said about this “successful email”. Nothing described here can help your emails to be more “successful”. It’s pure luck because Derek Sivers says it was pure luck.
    *A copy of the email from Derek Sivers can be provided by requests from legitimate parties.

    Like

  3. Loved this! We all want to feel special, we all want to laugh and we all sit up and take notice when something is different – Derek achieved all of these with his email, Customer service at its best!

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  4. I see a lot of your readers haven’t been doing their homework, Tim. Derek published this story in his short book “Anything You Want.” It was good to hear it again, though. I keep it in mind whenever writing copy for my site.

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  5. Tim, I loved this last blog post because it went’ back to an essential lesson that you first touched upon from the 4 Hour Workweek. One that inspired me to shorten my work week and explore my internal musings:

    That we ought to value the time we have to spend doing the things we love over the zero’s in our bank accounts.

    Derek Sivers (and I believe you as well) seem to really get it. Thanks again for reminding me of the true quest we are on in both life and business!

    Cheers,

    Stephen

    Like

  6. Great email and very inspiring story! I love the personal touch in the email, that is terrific. Congrats on all of your success!

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  7. Haha! Love it.

    I also noticed that whenever I’d send playful, colorful emails, people loved them and responded warmly, so I started doing that as a regular, normal thing.

    It’s simply being human, playful and engaging.

    Makes us think why we EVER are NOT in our “work” stuff.

    Thanks Tim. Love your stuff.

    Like

  8. Ramit Sethi did an interview with Derek that I found really inspiring. The big takeaways that I recall was about how to challenge assumptions about how things like getting an education or running a business “should” be done and how you can be a person who looks for opportunities to create value instead of seeing only obstacles. I’ve listened to it a few times and I definitely recommend it.

    Like

  9. As far as the short sleeves shirts: why not?
    Never heard this before. I’d be more against the European jeans+jacket look. Can’t stand it.

    The email has its unusual touch, always inspiring to hear such stories based on an original yet simple idea…

    Tim, are you going to cover an omnipresent monthly subscription model? I’m intrigued by all these subscription companies mushrooming everywhere.

    And of course shameless plug ;-)
    http://member.ly/lucid-box

    Like

  10. I completely agree, it’s these little things that make the world more personal, we live in a world of proforma statements and standardisation although we are all more connected the mass-communication aspect has dumbed down the richness of the message.

    As another example, I bought some t-shirts from a uk website called truffleshuffle and they had sent me small packets of sweets as well in the order bag, I was almost more surprised and excited about that than i was about the t-shirts i’d ordered!

    Derek has chanced upon an enduring meme for his service which is great as people look for and appreciate it I suppose the trick is really making the impersonal seem personal but how to sustain it?

    It’s a bit like the ‘barnum statements’ employed by psychics in cold reading, creating the illusion of something direct. But ultimately how long does that last before people see through or get bored by it, if you get the same message or treat each time it will lose it’s impact and even cycling through a set of messages/treats may only last a few order cycles, depending on the frequency of your customers.

    Actually being personal would be the best solution but that comes at a cost. Maybe you could employ a scheme where you encourage a customer to provide a message to the next customer and so on and so forth which would only require more infrequent input centrally to kick things off or give the hula hoop another tap. That could help build community around your product or service and be self sustaining.

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  11. Nice post Tim, Thanks for introducing me to Derek and his work. I have just spent 30 minutes reading his blog and his story. Wise man indeed. Great musician too!

    Anthony

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  12. Respected Sir,
    Read your book on 4hour work week….loved your idea of winning that martial art competition…that knockout loophole…Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.
    George Eliot
    Thanks for writing such a great book and maintaining such a great blog….
    Regards,
    PDNAIK.

    Like

  13. I love how Derek overcame his fear by doing hundreds and hundreds of ringleading gigs. It’s amazing the power of just taking something you’re afraid of and doing it so many times it becomes old hat.

    I think it has to do with reaching a stage where you’ve seen all the things that, before all that experience, were unknowns to fear. You have probably encountered every category of challenge you’re likely to face so you know you’re prepared.

    Like

  14. Just finished the 4 hour work week and just wanted to say you inspire me to be better than I am. Thank you for all the info you put in the book and keep writing. Justin

    Like

  15. Totally inspired! This post, the post about starting a business with no money and your interview with Noah Kagan last year about testing clearly defines the road to success. I’ll be testing my design product this weekend using Adwords and Google insights. No more fine tuning on my product unless I can prove the market. Thanks, Tim!

    Like

  16. I love the imagery that this email conjures up. There’s something about lighting a candle and sending a CD via private jet. I think the business lesson here is also much needed – we can all stand to have a little more fun in our businesses, and so can our customers!

    Like

  17. Derek Sivers is a natural-born businessman! Thinking out of the box and write a silly email that turned out to be a hit.

    Few people possess such talent and they all founded the most successful businesses there is today.

    For Sivers, who worked 4-hours/6 months selling CDs online, KUDOS to you! Such talent should be shared and serve as an inspiration to others!

    Like

  18. Wondering when you will have a post on finding a marketable product beneficial for the current market.

    I always hear how you should find something you are passionate about and work with that to discover a product. But, what if your passions are too high tech for beginner design?

    Like

  19. I appreciate those companies who really make an effort to ensure that their customers would have fun with them and not only think of the dollars they would make after every transaction. Although the the things Derek Sivers wrote on the email is imaginative in reality, its nice to know that they want their customer to enjoy doing business with them. Normally customers would not read the entire email a company would send them but just look for relevant information. Such email is very interesting and fun, any customer would enjoy the entirety of it.

    Like

  20. Tim, I have a problem with eating within 30min after waking up. I feel nauseous. Can only get something in my body after about 3 hours. I think its a blood sugar problem, but don’t know. Is there something I can do about this. I can’t find anything in your book.

    Like

  21. Hi Tim
    Just wondering, if, for instance, I have my cheat-days on saturdays, which day during the week should be my weigh-in day?

    Like

  22. “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” ~John Wooden

    This is something that Sivers and yourself have done (and continue) to do very well! Great post!

    Like

  23. This was inspirational, just to think that from one email (and some other thing) you were able to create this huge company! I will be doing something along these lines after we complete a roof cleaning, just a short email saying, we hope your happy with your clean home! See you next time! Great little article here!

    Like

  24. thats awesome! I just read the blue area where he said that he changed up the confirmation sale email that lets you know it will be shipped to your home. Brilliant idea, I will be trying to incorporate that into my business!

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  25. Cool article. I am a musician (mainly guitar but some ukulele also), and I’ve heard of CD Baby. I now have a new profound respect for a company that treats their customers with such class.

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  26. I’ve been struggling to get a new biz off the ground for a year or so, and now since reading this post I think I’ve got a fresh idea about how to approach customer service. Thanks Derek and congrats.

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  27. Great story. I visited his website and looks like he lives in a few different places over the years. Currently NZ. Nice! Also did the math and 1.1 mill aren’t too bad for a yearly payment from a 22 mill pay day. Inspires me to write a cute little email like that.

    Like