How I Noticed a Gap, Built a Solution, and Made It My Side Gig

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

Hi I'm Lee Munroe, a designer and developer from Northern Ireland, now based in San Francisco. I have worked with several companies focused on building developer tools and I'm currently Design Director at OneSignal.

HTML Email sells email templates to startups and developers. It's a pack of 10 email templates that are responsive, professional looking and ready to use. If you're building a new application and need some good looking templates, you can use these.

A standard license for 10 templates is $49 with an extended license at $299. The business is making $1,700 per month.

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What motivated you to get started with HTML Email?

I worked with Mailgun at Rackspace where we provided infrastructure and APIs for developers to send and receive email. While we solved the problem of sending and receiving email, what became clear was developers really don't like dealing with writing HTML for email. There are too many email clients to test and these email clients all render HTML slightly differently. Developers have more interesting problems to work on than dealing with testing HTML across email clients.

Don’t try to accomplish too much up front, focus on something small and ship.

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I started writing about lessons learned and how I develop HTML Email. Then I open sourced some basic templates and the Grunt workflow I was using to create emails. These GitHub repos and blog posts received a lot of traffic and interest on GitHub so this was a good way of validating the interest and demand.

What went into building the initial product?

I had open sourced a framework that developers could use to get up and running but what came out of the box was pretty basic. So I invested a few months working a few hours every other weekend to add the polish and do the testing that I thought was required to sell a robust product like this. There was a lot of time spent testing the HTML in Litmus across the email clients.

Creating the marketing website was straight-forward. I launched with a single bare-bones page using Jekyll. Initially on GitHub Pages, which I eventually moved to Netlify.

The e-commerce and payment processing is done via Gumroad. They're very reasonably priced and handle the Stripe and payment processing for you. I use Google Analytics to track where people are coming from, what channels are converting the best, etc.

From a marketing strategy point of view, I started writing relevant content on my own blog and cross-posting to Medium, LinkedIn and other channels. Using Mailchimp, I then built a list of subscribers and I would send this list a weekly newsletter with three useful design links to keep them engaged.

Over time, I've added more marketing automation with Intercom for drip campaigns, Buffer to help automate our social presence, Zapier to take care of some tasks.

I've also created some other tooling like a CSS inliner to help with retention and a Design System to attract designers and help bridge the gap between design and development.

blog

How have you attracted users and grown HTML Email?

Leading up to launch I had a weekly newsletter which had around 2,000 subscribers. Over the years I had built the newsletter list through my personal blog. The newsletter would share three to four useful design links each week. I used Mailchimp for the list.

Closer to the launch I started teasing some previews on Dribbble and Twitter and shipped a landing page to collect emails from those who were interested. This helped me target these people with an early soft launch and discount code.

I also leaned heavily on some industry experts. Before launch, I made sure to offer some contacts a free preview of the templates, ask for their feedback, and in some cases ask for a quote I could use on the landing page. Thanks to their involvement, come launch day they were more inclined to share or retweet, which goes a long way.

product hunt

After launch, HTML Email was submitted to Product Hunt and I was very lucky that it became the top product for that day. Having that initial boost of traffic really helped with referrals and an initial spike of sales, which in turn incentivized me to spend more time on it.

Since launch, we have created some re-engagement campaigns. We offer some free tools including a basic email template, a design system, and a CSS inliner. Each of these tools at some point collects an email address which we use for drip campaigns and monthly newsletters. I use a mix of Gumroad, Mailchimp, Zapier, Buffer, and Intercom to automate the majority of marketing automation and re-engagement.

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

We sell a pack of email templates. This is a transactional sale, not a monthly subscription. $49 for a single license and $299 for an unlimited license.

When I launched htmlemail.io we started charging from day one. However, I have been open-sourcing HTML templates and writing about best practices for years. There was definitely some apprehension on my side to whether or not people would pay for these since a lot of stuff out there was available for free. If you look at some of the comments on Product Hunt or Hacker News that sentiment is echoed through others. At the end of the day, yes there are free email templates out there (some of which I've created), and you can either use them or pay for this set, which I think goes the extra mile in polish, robustness, and readiness for use.

Month Revenue
Jun ‘18 1465
Jul ‘18 2368
Aug ‘18 1410
Sep ‘18 1759
Oct ‘18 1627
Nov ‘18 2031

Today we're making $1,500-$2,000 each month. Payments are processed with Gumroad, who use Stripe under the hood.

Revenue remains pretty steady. As these are one-time-sale purchases these aren't subscriptions that grow monthly. When we launched there was a spike from referrals and sites like Product Hunt. Since launch, thanks to our blog and guests posts I write on other sites, organic SEO is the key channel for sales.

The business is very lean. I'm using a bunch of tools that are low cost or free:

What are your goals for the future?

Currently, we're focused on selling email templates, but we also provide other tools for email developers, including a Sketch design system, CSS inliner, and a test-email sending tool. I see the business as a resource for email developers, not just email templates.

From a business perspective, I want to look at providing a subscription service so our customers don't just come and go. As far as product goes, we have access to a lot of developers now and I think some interesting features worth looking at include optimizing the end-to-end email development workflow or looking at more advanced email features like interactive email components.

template

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

When I decided to extend the site and add a blog for content marketing, I found writing the content to be a real time suck. I tried hiring some freelance content writers but the quality wasn't always great and it could be expensive. This is still something I'm working on improving. I've found that asking other email businesses to write guest posts has worked out well as the content is free and good quality, and we both benefit. You can see now that we have a lot of content on ESP integrations for developers.

Looking back, my initial plan was to write and self-publish a book about email development and sell it along with the templates. While I'm comfortable writing blog posts, writing a book was more challenging than I anticipated. Thankfully I eventually decided to focus on the templates and ship with what I had. My advice here would be don’t try to accomplish too much up front, focus on something small and ship. Of course, I still haven't written that book.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Nathan Barry's book Authority was a big inspiration for me. Nathan is Founder and CEO of ConvertKit. He has a lot of experience shipping and selling products. His advice on starting your marketing efforts before launching your product, like building an email list and writing blog posts, was instrumental to how I approached the launch of HTML Email.

Something I hadn't considered before launching was licensing. Someone messaged me to say he was buying the templates for his agency and wanted to know how licensing worked. This prompted me to create a higher-end license at $299 that agencies and big companies could use across multiple projects or clients.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can find our email templates here and follow me on Twitter @leemunroe.

I would love to answer any questions about side projects, email development, or hear about your email development workflow today to see if I can help improve it.

Lee Munroe , Founder of HTML Email

Want to build your own business like HTML Email?

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