Author’s note: I wrote this article a few years ago but felt like the issue is as timely as ever so I’ve asked for a wider publication of it now.  I know that my shunning of text as a business communication modality may appear to be very old school.   One of my bright young entrepreneurs this week said, “Gee David, why don’t we just go back to smoke signals!”   I said that I’d be happy to do so so long as the smoke signals integrated with my calendar and contact database and did not interrupt me several time during meetings.   I love to text…just not for business purposes.  Here’s why. 

David Gardner

Advice from an investor: Don’t mix texting and business

I work with a lot of millennial entrepreneurs who grew up with texting as their primary written communication modality rather than email. This can lead to problems when they start businesses and their needs for collaboration and time management increase. Let me start by saying that I enjoy texting with my daughter and friends. Social instant messages can be fun, but when it comes to getting work done and organizing diverse communication exchanges, texting is a horrible modality that can seriously limit your success. Here’s why.

 The root from which the word “business” is derived is the word “busy”. If you run a successful business, then you know that there is always much more to do than you can get done. Success in business is all about time management and one’s ability to organize and prioritize communication efficiently. Those who succeed and those who don’t have the same number of hours each day but choose to manage their time differently. Managing and triaging communication efficiently and appropriately is a major success factor.

Before the rise of texting, managing one’s inbox was much simpler. Email was supreme. A busy manager treated his or her inbox like a to-do list. Efficiency experts told us to never touch an email more than once i.e. process it appropriately the first time you read it. If you can’t then don’t erase it until it is processed. It will patiently wait there in the list in the order received as a reminder until you are able to deal with it. And guess what? This simple system worked amazingly well.

Then came texting which wreaked havoc on our system for communication management. Unlike email messages that quietly and concisely queue themselves up and wait to be processed based on their importance and order received, text messages rudely cut the line and demand our immediate attention regardless of their importance or actual urgency. A text message continues to beep and nag at us until we must stop what we are doing and give it immediately priority.

So why can’t we just turn off incoming text messages? I’ve tried that but unfortunately some things really do require immediate attention and a lot of people use text for those. For example, my cell phone is often silenced when I’m in meetings so text is the only way to contact me when something really is urgent during that time. On several occasions, my next appointment has gotten lost and needed immediate directions or to notify me that they are going to be late, or that the main door is locked again and they need someone to let them into the building. So many people use texting now that turning it off is just not an option, especially when your cell phone must be off in meetings.

So texting can serve an important business function when a message does in fact require immediate attention. The problem then is not with the modality but how the modality gets abused. like the oversubscribing of antibiotics. Many of the young people I work with today use texting as their primary form of communication. Even if they have an email inbox, they check it rarely.

My point is simple. Texting is great for social discourse but should not be used for business except in emergencies where normal prioritization of incoming communications must be circumvented for expediency. It is extremely difficult to prioritize two inboxes appropriately, especially when one does not sort by issue or allow for easy document attachment and collaboration.

Text messages are a relentless killer of productivity. Sometime I do turn texting off but then I forget to turn it back on and miss important things like, “Pick up your daughter on the way home”. While typing this article I’ve been interrupted exactly eight times with incoming texts each forcing me to lose my train of thought. Each of those times I’ve had to reread my work multiple times to regain context. It’s like swatting mosquitos! None of the texts I received just now were important or urgent. Every one of these eight texts could easily have been an email message which I could process when done with this task. I’d spend far less time to process them.

An even bigger problem caused by texting is that it is generally used as a time-consuming synchronous modality. Long conversations are communicated one sentence at a time while each party waits for the other to read and finish typing a reply. I’ve had text exchanges go on for ten minutes which would have been wrapped up via a phone call in less than one minute.

Email is generally an asynchronous modality forcing communicators to organize and compose their thoughts, proposal or questions as a contiguous thought that can be read and processed quickly as a single unit. Texting is usually the wild west of communications full of unformulated requests and incomplete thoughts. It’s just too easy to do. Why take the time to formulate your thoughts into a nice paragraph when you can just start typing and go back and forth a dozen times until you get it all out? Allow me to demonstrate via one of these text exchanges I literally just received.

An exchange

Text Exchange: (required 3 minutes and 28 seconds to complete)

Dave, are you in the office today?
>Yes. (now wait for reply…pointless to continue working when I know I’ll just be interrupted again in fifteen seconds)
>Do you mind if I stop by?
>No. When?
>When is good for you?
> I have availability at 11:00, 1:30 and 3:00 today.
>3:00 works for me.
>OK. See you then.
>I think I can get there by then
> I’ll see you then.
>Do you mind if I bring a friend with me?
>No that’s fine.
>He’s an entrepreneur out-of-state.
>He’s doing a startup company.
>No problem.
>He wants to talk with you about his idea.
>OK. Happy to help him if I can.
>Alright we’ll see you later today.
>C U then. I’ll send a calendar invite.
>OK. Thanks for working us in.

Same exchange if transacted via email: (required 20 seconds for me to process)
Email: Dave, I have a friend out of NCSU who would like to talk with you about his startup idea. Do you have any availability today to meet with us?
Email: Sure. I have availability at 11:00, 1:30 and 3:00 today. Send me an invite if any of these times work for you.

You get the point. If Mark Twain were alive today he’d probably write, “Because I did not have time to write you an email I am going to bombard you with a long series of unconcise texts”.

On many occasions I don’t even know who the person is on the other end of the text. I received this text last week, “Picking Jed Bush up at the airport this morning…want to come with me.”

I had no clue who sent this. My email is integrated with my contact database and calendar so I always know who I’m communicating with via email and I’m ready to schedule a call or meeting right from the email message. Text is an isolated and ancillary thing that inserts itself inappropriately into our otherwise well-organized approach to communication management.
I propose these three simple rules for productive business communication whereby the modalities of phone, email and text can all live together in harmony and allow us to best utilize the strengths of each.

Communication Modalities Rules:

1. If it’s urgent or requires an interactive discussion, then… CALL MY CELL.
2. If it’s urgent and I don’t answer my cell, then…SEND ME A TEXT.
3. For all other use cases…SEND ME AN EMAIL.

Any use of these communication modalities that violates the above rules will cause inefficiency and ineffective time management.

Editor’s David Gardner, serial entrepreneur and investor who founded Cofounders Capital in Carpial, is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.