How I Run a Revenue-generating Newsletter Without Burning Out

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

Hi Indie Hackers! I’m Umar Hansa, a web developer in the UK.

I make Dev Tips, a developer newsletter which shows a small workflow as a gif. I gave it the slogan “A developer tip, in the form of a gif, in your inbox each week.” Most “tips” are currently about Chrome DevTools. The newsletter makes money through companies sponsoring it, which means I include a link back to their product or service as part of my email.

Outside of Dev Tips, I focus on creating educational content for web developers.

What motivated you to get started with Dev Tips?

I’ve been making educational content for over a decade now. I picked one of my first tutorials, one covering WebSockets, just because I wanted to learn more about it and the rest grew from there.

DevTips sign up page

Prior to the newsletter, I had a few other projects in the same area. I actually made a DevTools video course back in 2014 which ended up being the most popular code course of that year on Tuts+. I also shared a few screenshot-based tips on Twitter all the way back in 2014, which seemed to get some attention. I even did a few small-scale meetup talks about Dev Tools tips!

The topic was irrelevant. What was valuable to me was:

  1. To have deep knowledge of at least one technology
  2. To understand how developers learn

I started making gifs to share, and posted them on social media platforms where people seemed to like them. Once I had made a bunch, I migrated them to my own website and stuck on a signup form for a mailing list. (This was also around the time I started at Shazam as a front-end web developer.)

Text-based and video-based tutorials are great, but I find the lack of constraints can sometimes work against my creativity! With a 20-second gif or video, I’m forced to think outside the box.

Some of the things I consider are:

  1. How can I show this complicated workflow in as few steps as possible?
  2. How can I minimize visual distraction?
  3. How can I limit the visual movement of this recording so that the final file size of the gif isn’t too large?
  4. How can I adjust the pace accordingly, considering the complexity of what I’m showing?

These are all factors in recording a short clip!

What went into building the initial product?

Dev Tips consists of two parts, the mailing list and the website.

Being a developer, I was able to quickly get started with setting up the infrastructure. Building a blog platform, creating gifs, configuring the mailing list, etc. The whole thing is primarily content-based, there’s no commenting, filtering, searching, or anything like that. Just a bunch of hyperlinks to a page with a gif. I would estimate it took me two days to get started (with an already existing set of gifs to start sharing). My effort goes into producing content, rather than any infrastructure.

The very nature of a content-based mailing list means I didn’t need much to get started. So there was no challenge in this area. The web developer in me kept saying, what about memberships, what about using a CMS, push notifications could be a good idea, and so on. I kept thoughts like that in personal markdown files, and have not touched them since.

What's your tech stack?

The website starts from markdown files and turns into a statically generated site via Gulp. I then deploy to my own virtual private server. The bonus of this approach is I can deploy to production in less than a minute, even though there are hundreds of pages to generate. This is because everything has been created from scratch, completely bypassing any unnecessary technologies or frameworks.

This stack has stayed the same for five years now. It works, and not only that, it works well for my use case!

The biggest technological challenge I’ve faced is around the gifs themselves. It’s generally accepted that video files, such as an MP4, are superior for the web, whereas gifs can be heavy both on the network and computationally.

I originally used gifs because that’s what worked well for the mailing list (I don’t know of another alternative to embed video when sending out emails) and so always prioritised gifs for the output. My approach to using MP4 videos, instead of gifs for the website is still to be decided, since whatever approach I take has to work for the hundreds of existing tips - which means it’s not a quick piece of work.

For the mailing list, it’s a standard Mailchimp setup.

How have you attracted users and grown Dev Tips?

You may have heard this sentiment already, but I believe I deliver value to people, and they support my journey whether it’s sharing feedback publicly, or even signing up to the mailing list.

Growth came naturally since instead of starting a “new” product from scratch, e.g. with its own Twitter handle and dedicated domain and such, I simply continued using my personal Twitter account and existing website, which already had some followers and traffic. My mentality for everything I do online is that it’s simply an extension of myself, something I love to do anyway. I think people notice that passion, and they appreciate having a personality powering the tips I send out.

My mentality for everything I do online is that it’s simply an extension of myself, something I love to do anyway.

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I’ve had very long periods (months!) of not creating any content, or sending out any emails, so I feel lucky that traffic has always been fairly consistent, considering my inconsistency!

I feel I haven’t invested much intentional effort into marketing, however speaking at conferences about DevTools did make a difference and helped me to build credibility. Occasionally, a social account with a high number of followers will share a tip of mine, which definitely helps with exposure.

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

Making money has generally come down to two things. Either a company will pay for me to include their link in one of the Dev Tips newsletter emails or a company will pay me for to write a sponsored review of their service, where the review gets published in the Dev Tips website.

For the latter (sponsored reviews), I’ve rejected offers for it over 90% of the time. This is because they almost always would prefer for me to send out a dedicated email with the review, however I see this as way too intrusive to my mailing list subscribers, hence why it gets rejected.

One of my first “customers” was Google — specifically, Google Developers. But maybe that's unsurprising considering the amount of tips I made about Chrome DevTools! Having them sponsor me gave me a motivation boost, which led to discussions with other companies about sponsorships.

DevTips feedback and reviews

Something which definitely helped is that individual subscribers would occasionally reach out saying how much they enjoyed the newsletter... and it happened to be the case that these subscribers were the ones who’d make the decision for newsletter sponsorships at their respective company, so that helped.

My primary goal has never been to maximise revenue, but rather to share knowledge and deliver value. That being said, the Dev Tips project has helped me grow a number of separate projects, such as my video course on Chrome DevTools: ModernDevTools.com.

What are your goals for the future?

I’d definitely like to start making more tips on general web development topics (which I have started doing).

My other major goal is finding consistent sponsors who can really help sustain this project would be good for its longevity.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Marketing-wise, I could’ve done a lot better. For example, Dev Tips probably has the largest set of animated Chrome DevTools tips that exists anywhere! I’ve not mentioned this fact that much, and maybe I will now.

Considering the size of my mailing list, and talking to others who have similarly sized mailing lists, I am certainly undercharging when it comes to sponsorships. I’ve tried not to focus massively on money but, in some ways, more money could have meant polishing the newsletter, improving the design, adding features which people have asked for etc.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

When I share tips on DevTools, I go through the commit logs of the codebase to make sure what I was sharing was accurate, and also to make sure I understand how the feature was supposed to be working, so I could answer peoples questions on it. Going through the raw source code for the software you’re producing content for is not always necessary but, in my case, it helped.

Timing also came into play here. If something had just landed in Canary (the nightly build of Chrome), assuming it was useful, I’d still share it. I believe my audience appreciated getting these “digests” for how a tool they use every day was evolving.

DevTips newsletter

I explain this more in my answer to the next question, but briefly, one reason I’ve been able to reach over 200 tips, and invest hundreds of hours into this, is because I don’t really get burnout with this project. And the reason for lack of burnout? Sometimes I’ll go months without posting anything! There are no major stakeholders, and it’s a completely free resource, so in this case, I'm lucky that my audience doesn't mind periods of silence!

One small thing which helped with sponsorships is effectively having a bunch of testimonials. If ever a sponsor wanted to know more about what people thought of my project, I could direct them to the Dev Tips Feedback page which currently has hundreds of tweets referring to content I’ve made.

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

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but the wisdom shared by experienced folk still holds true in my opinion:

  1. Work on something you enjoy
  2. Keep learning
  3. Be patient

I also think you get out what you put in. For example, my marketing efforts, relative to the number of hours I’ve put into creating content, are tiny. As a result, I’m not maximizing revenue.

Right now, I have no active sponsorships, but that’s also because I’ve not been asking companies for the last few months. Personally, this works for me since I can dip in and out of the newsletter throughout the year, and work on it only when I have something genuinely useful to share. I also think this is why I don’t get burnout with the Dev Tips project.

Think about what you’re hoping to gain. Do you want to build your brand, maximize revenue, increase your skill set, generate passive income, gain a large following, share selflessly?

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Following on from that, one lesson I can share is to think about what you’re hoping to gain. Do you want to build your brand, maximize revenue, increase your skill set, generate passive income, gain a large following, share selflessly? All of these goals can be met with slightly different approaches, which, over the years, can really change your trajectory. So think carefully about what you want!

Where can we go to learn more?

I’ve put hundreds of hours into Dev Tips, and it will remain a free resource. If you’re interested in supporting it, please go and check it out!

You can sign up to the Dev Tips mailing list here.

I share loads of web development tips on Twitter.

I blog about technical concepts, and career related things here.

I’ve also made a video course on DevTools.

I’d be happy to discuss more if this interests you! Let me know in the comments 👇️

Umar Hansa , Founder of Dev Tips

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  1. 2

    This is such a cool idea, thank you for sharing! I personally resonate on the burnout bit. Fo me, It is so easy to lose sight of why a project was created in the first place and completely pursue revenue instead. I found it particularly insightful how companies wanted to showcased on your newsletter.

    1. 1

      Thank you!

  2. 1

    Thanks for the great write up. Syncing with your passion has clearly been a sustainable way for you to run this. Have you ever considered putting your tips together into a course - might be a great monetization option. Or perhaps posting short videos to youtube? Curious.

    p.s. the static site push to prod in one min is really hard to beat :)

    1. 1

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Yes I did do a course: https://moderndevtools.com/ but the content is quite different, so I didn't exactly reuse anything from the mailing list content.

      But yeah short videos to YouTube is a good idea! Might have to try that, thanks!

  3. 1

    This comment was deleted 4 months ago.