A Newsletter for Driving Traffic Became My Top Revenue Source

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

My name is Sacha Greif, and although I'm originally from Paris, France, I now live in Osaka, Japan.

I have a pretty eclectic background, since I have a degree in computer science but then ended up spending most of my career as a freelance UI designer. I now fall somewhere in the middle: I spend most of my time coding, but there's usually a design element involved in all my projects sooner or later.

As for Sidebar, it's a daily newsletter of hand-picked design links. It's a great way to keep up with design news (which is a vital part of any designer's job) without being overwhelmed by all the noise.

Sidebar has about 40k subscribers, and is my main source of revenue right now, making an average of $3,000/month from sponsored links.

Sidebar.io

What motivated you to get started with Sidebar?

I first started Sidebar as a way to drive traffic to a now-defunct project of mine called Folyo, one of the many sites trying to hook up companies and designers.

I'd managed to get to the top of Hacker News a few times by writing development-related posts, but could never get any traction for my articles about design. So the original idea for Sidebar was to fill in that "Hacker News for designers" space. At the time, Designer News didn't exist yet. In fact, it coincidentally launched within a month of Sidebar!

To be honest, the newsletter concept (five links a day) was meant as a "teaser" version of sorts, a way to kickstart the audience before I opened up the site to public posting, comments, votes, etc.

I even spent time building out all these extra features, but then I realized my teaser concept was doing quite well on its own. And frankly, I got scared that opening the site to public posting might result in lower content quality. So rather than risk it, I decided to stick with the newsletter idea.

What went into building the initial product?

The story of building Sidebar is in itself pretty interesting, as it led me down a path I could've never imagined.

As with any new project, the first step was to pick a technical stack. I wanted to use Node but didn't know much about it (and didn't have the means to outsource the work), so I recruited a developer by offering my design help on their project in exchange for coding help with Sidebar.

That developer went MIA after about a week though, and at the same time a friend coincidentally mentioned this up-and-coming JavaScript framework called Meteor.

A few things then happened within the span of a couple months: I became quite interested in Meteor; I used it to build Sidebar; I decided to open source all my work; and finally, I decided to turn my newly-aquired knowledge into a book about Meteor, Discover Meteor (co-authored with Tom Coleman).

Embrace your ADD! If I'd been too stubborn… I might've never given Sidebar's concept a chance.

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The open-source app featured in this book became Telescope, and ultimately transformed into VulcanJS, a new React & GraphQL app-building framework that I'm in fact using to power the latest version of Sidebar.

Discover Meteor not only became the most popular book about Meteor, but also an extremely profitable project, making an order of magnitude more revenue than the average programming book.

So just like Sidebar evolved out my desire to promote Folyo, VulcanJS and Discover Meteor are both the result of needing to learn a new framework to build Sidebar.

But while I might have neglected Sidebar a bit over the years as I worked on my other projects, I always kept it going. In fact, I haven't missed a single day of links since launching it almost five years ago!

How have you attracted users and grown Sidebar?

I've done a pretty poor job of driving user growth for Sidebar. Since the initial launch spike, which was mostly the result of piggybacking on my own personal mailing list of about 5,000 emails, growth has been pretty slow, albeit steady, for the past five years.

I add about 2,000 new emails per year, which is not nothing, but also nothing extraordinary when you know other popular design newsletters have readership in the hundreds of thousands.

I think one of the difficulties in growing a newsletter audience is that unlike a blog, a newsletter is not a destination in itself. A newsletter won't go viral or make front-page news unless it adds new features. Not to mention, there are only so many features you can add to a good old HTML email.

In fact, one of my challenges for the future is to find a few reliable growth strategies: whether it's creating original content (maybe a podcast?), making partnerships, or experimenting with ads, I really want to find a way to ensure Sidebar keeps growing.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Sidebar's business model is pretty simple: once a week, one of the five links will be a sponsored link. In other words, 4 links per month out of ~150 are sponsored, and each sponsorship costs $950.

I originally started by charging $250, and then $400, but even at $400 my inventory was sold out six months in advance. So I decided to raise prices about one year ago, and although it's a little bit harder to fill up all slots compared to before (as you'd expect), overall revenue has increased so I think it was the right decision.

Sponsorship

My one regret is that the higher price point tends to target bigger companies like Adobe, Hired, etc., which is great, but also disqualifies a lot of indie developers and designers who just can't afford it. For that reason, I've been thinking about introducing an "indie discount" for smaller teams.

I also recently implemented a completely automated link scheduling and payment flow using Stripe, which greatly lessens my workload and also ensures I don't forget to collect payments.

Although interestingly, I suspect my conversion rate might've been higher when people had to manually get in touch by email. After all, for a purchase of this size you probably want to speak to a real human being first. For that reason, I'm thinking about hiding my sign-up flow and only pointing people to it after a first email contact.

What are your goals for the future?

Like I said, I want to explore ways of increasing Sidebar sign-ups.

I also just launched a job board, which could become another revenue source. To help me build up a list of leads for it I've hired someone through Upwork to go through competing job boards and find me the contact email of all the companies that have posted design jobs recently. I then take the list and go through it, emailing each company myself and offering a discount if they give the Sidebar job board a try.

But it's still early and I haven't had time to promote it yet, so I don't have any hard numbers.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?

I think the biggest challenge for Sidebar has been — ironically — the success of my other projects. There's no doubt in my mind that Sidebar would be much bigger today if I'd focused on it 100%.

That doesn't mean I have any regrets though. It's not too late to give Sidebar the attention it deserves, and I now also have a programming book and an open-source framework under my belt!

If you do it over and over and over again every single day, it can actually turn into a nice revenue source.

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I do sometimes wonder what would've happened if I had stayed true to my original vision and turned Sidebar into a real forum, instead of only sticking with the newsletter. Would it now be a vibrant, caring community, or a den of abusive trolls? Or, more realistically, an empty ghost town? I guess we'll never know.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

I guess my main piece of advice would be not to overlook even the smallest ideas. Sending people five links a day might sound too simple to ever be a business, but if you do it over and over and over again every single day, it can actually turn into a nice revenue source eventually.

The other thing is to keep an open mind — or, if you prefer, embrace your ADD! If I'd been too stubborn about sticking with my original forum idea I might've never given Sidebar's concept a chance, and if I'd focused too much on Sidebar I might've missed out on some huge opportunities.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you want to learn more about my projects you can check out my personal site or follow me on Twitter. And of course, don't hesitate to leave a comment below if you'd like to know more about any of this.

I also just launched a brand new project called IndieDojo, a bootcamp for bootstrappers and indie hackers this fall in Kyoto, Japan. The idea is to try and teach bootstrappers all the soft skills they need to increase their chances of success: design, branding, marketing, user acquisition, etc. If that sounds at all interesting, don't hesitate to check it out and maybe even apply for the program!

Finally, check out VulcanJS as well if you, too, want to quickly build and launch projects!

Sacha , Creator of Sidebar

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