Why Top Startups Are Getting Radically Personal

You don’t read emails that come from faceless brand entities. But you do read emails that come from people.

Why Top Startups Are Getting Radically Personal
[Image: Flickr user Sylvain Kalache]

When you get an update on the writing app Draft, the message doesn’t come from an Abstract Corporate Entity, but from its founder, the esteemed Nathan Kontny. The December edition began like this:


And ended like this:

This kind of personal touch, is kind of an extension of the idea of radical transparency, in which employees’ past work and future goals are shared throughout the organization. Instead of getting inundated by a faceless spambot, you’re getting inundated by Kontny’s smiling face. It feels less like marketing, more like a missive.

Kontny’s personalization is part of a small but growing trend of founders choosing to to be the face of their startup, putting a new spin on ‘personal branding.’ While it began with Jason Fried at 37Signals, you now see it in the most radically friendly of startups: if you’re to get an update from social media-scheduling Buffer, it’ll come from cofounder Joel Gascoigne; if you receive word from talent-sourcing at ooomf, it’ll come from cofounder Mikael Cho.

In light this growing trend, we asked Kontny a few questions about his email practice. Here’s what he had to say.

On the effectiveness of writing as himself

I’ve heard from quite a few people who have stuck with Draft from the beginning not just because they’ve enjoyed using the software, but they’ve also highly enjoyed the experience of getting to know me and learn the lessons behind how I’ve made things. Someone even compared my feature update newsletter to waking up on Christmas.

Why the personal touch?

It’s a necessity. Draft is the product of just one person. I’ve got a ton of competition from giant companies and well-funded startups. I can’t compete with Google Docs by trying to imitate Google. But I felt like if I could open myself up, and connect with an audience on a human level, maybe I had a chance to get people’s attention. It worked.


I learned a lot from 37signals. Even in 2007-2008, you’d see Jason Fried’s name at the bottom of their newsletters. I “grew up” as an entrepreneur watching 37signals and reading their book Getting Real. They even have a chapter on this. You can see him still doing this at their product site.

The bottom line: The name’s what lasts

(The personal touch) is also an insurance policy. All these startups and projects we are working on can unfortunately be fleeting. The odds of starting something then moving onto something else is high for a lot of folks. But I’m always going to have my name.

Things are great with Draft, and god forbid anything bad happen, but if disaster strikes, people will hopefully still remember “Nate Kontny” and follow me to the next venture.

Do you think the personal email touch works? Let us know in the comments.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.