How My Newsletter for Developers Generates Subscription Revenue

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

I'm Adam, and I run Versioning, a daily newsletter aimed at helping web developers, designers and awesome web folk keep up-to-date and develop their skills. The newsletter is a monthly or annual paid subscription, though there is a free tier of content, with free members getting at least one newsletter a week.

I have a background in journalism and content. I worked at a daily regional newspaper in New Zealand and, when I moved to Melbourne four years ago, I started working in the content team at SitePoint. Over time I moved into roles as an editor, managing editor and head of content. I began Versioning as a free, ad-supported newsletter for SitePoint shortly after I started at the company. I did this on the side, in addition to my primary roles at SitePoint, and over time we grew the subscriber base to 50,000 subscribers.

But I wanted to dedicate myself to this full time and make the product better for our subscribers. Instead of doubling down on ads, we decided to opt for the paid membership model with a new startup called Substack, where we're an early partner. Subscribers get the daily newsletter, ad-free, along with other updates I think will make their lives easier and themselves more knowledgeable about their industry. A couple of weeks after launch, we're on track to make $2,000/month with a mix of monthly and annual memberships, and our vision for Versioning is much larger than that. We have an engaged member base, including the free subscribers, and hope to bring more of those onboard as full members as we go.

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What motivated you to get started with Versioning?

I have a strong interest in technology and web development, and I find a lot of joy and satisfaction in sharing interesting things with people I like. I would be sharing these links anyway. I'm just glad I'm doing so in a way that many people find helpful and valuable. Versioning has strong subscriber interest and engagement. Since we first started the newsletter in 2014, I've seen strong subscriber growth, and I regularly receive messages of thanks or support from subscribers. As an extreme example, in 2016, I had a significant health issue that took me out of action for months, and I received hundreds of kind messages from subscribers.

I also regularly survey the audience to see what's working and what's not. One recent survey, aimed at long-time members, some from the very beginning, asked them for feedback on why they had stayed subscribed. This feedback helped me to understand what subscribers like in the product.

When asked what they like about the newsletter, I had 450 responses with positive words! Here is one example:

"Gives me a daily dose of all the best links, I like how it's sectioned (back-end is not my thang, so I just skip over it), plus it makes me look good at work because a) I sound intelligent quoting those articles, b) I have a vague idea of what's going on in the tech world (even just by skimming the link titles), c) posting them in Slack channels gives me kudos (and warm fuzzy feelings)."

And another:

"I follow more links from this newsletter than any other I'm subscribed to. Consistently interesting and useful."

Learn as much as you can about your audience and their preferences.

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Once we decided this was a direction we wanted to try, we sent out a survey to the existing audience to try to get a handle on whether there was interest, and whether the monthly fees were reasonable. There were naturally some concerns, but plenty indicated their interest in the idea. This survey was one of the signals we used to change our approach from having multiple membership tiers to something more simple and reasonable.

I've moved into the role full time, from my previous role as head of content. There were actually multiple reasons for this. I wanted to try to turn Versioning into a strong product of its own, without doubling down on ads. A full time focus would allow me to improve the product further and produce more content for subscribers. On the other side of the coin, there were ongoing ramifications from the health issue mentioned above, and a change in role from head of content to something with less oversight (and management) was actually very important to my ongoing recovery. So there were plenty of reasons to try this!

What went into building the initial product?

We've been talking about a reader-supported model for at least a year. Once we decided to actually try it, we agonized for a long time over the model, the various tiers, and the types of additional content members would receive. We also spent a lot of time working out the platform we would use. Then, partly because New Zealand is so small and Substack founder Hamish McKenzie and I have a mutual friend, he and I connected, and after talking through their product and model we elected to go with them, with Versioning as a beta client.

Don't be afraid to rethink the direction of a successful product if you believe the market/demand is there.

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We continued to work closely with the Substack founders, and they shared lessons and strategies that had come from helping others to launch a paid newsletter on the platform. They also helped us fine-tune our model and PR strategy.

Once we decided to launch the subscriber-supported product, Versioning went from being a small task in my larger day to my sole focus.

How have you attracted users and grown Versioning?

Until recently the newsletter had been free, and that allowed us to relatively easily build up a subscriber base. Versioning is fortunate enough to have access to the SEO footprint of SitePoint, so we were able to leverage this to grow a subscriber base up to 50,000. We integrated Versioning into the sign-up flow for SitePoint Premium, our premium learning platform. Premium and Versioning address different needs: learning and news.

When we decided to change up the model, we first had to carefully consider how we were going to approach this with our existing subscribers. There was a loyal, engaged audience already. OGs, I called them. Some of them had been signed up from the start, in 2014, and so we decided we would give them a free month of access to the paid version of the publication. For the first month of the paid version, users could also sign up for a membership at a reduced price, and that price would renew forever.

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

Members pay a monthly or annual membership fee for access to the daily newsletter and other updates, so the business model is fairly simple. This will grow more complex, and hopefully more successful, once Substack adds a referrals feature to the platform.

Once we decided to grandfather the OG subscribers, we noticed a number of them were signing up before the end of their free month, which goes to show the value they placed on the publication, and the importance of treating your most engaged, loyal users well.

We simultaneously held an introductory offer, allowing people to sign up for a 30-ish% discount, with the price recurring for life. These two strategies worked well together, adding urgency for new and existing subscribers to lock in the special deal. In the final 10 days of the month I reminded subscribers of the nearly-expiring deal, and this also helped with conversions.

Substack's model is to take a portion of your revenue, so they are motivated to work with you to grow the publication's member base. Since they handle support and infrastructure, the only cost for Versioning is my time.

Pricing

What are your goals for the future?

Growing the newsletter further, into a truly successful paid publication. I want to demonstrate that this model works for businesses as well as for individuals or as a side project.

For the short term, I'm trying to learn as much as I can about why some people were keen on the paid model, and others weren't, and then use that information to change the way the product works and is marketed.

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 we decided to adopt a paid model, our first instinct was to create many pricing tiers (I think we were up to about six at one stage...) each with their own incentives and rewards for joining. It quickly became apparent this would be untenable. Maintaining the content and deals for each would be complicated and not worthwhile.

I think this was an impulse born from feeling defensive about charging for something formerly free. It's easy to add things to a free product to justify the price, but much harder to take a punt and say: "this thing is worth something, this is what we think it's worth, what do you say?" That said, members will get more value, because I'll have more time and resources to focus on delivering useful content.

One of the first things I did upon announcing the upcoming change was to survey subscribers to see what subjects they cared about. One of the first things I did after launching was to ask new members why they signed up for the paid version. This is a new type of product, it's hard to know what the user flow is.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I had built up a loyal following over the years the newsletter has been running. A lot of kind, interested and engaged people have contacted me with kind words, tips, ideas, and even corrections. This means I can run ideas past them.

Ask for help a lot. I always consult others on product, marketing, design and finance decisions.

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I sent out a survey many months before we decided to pursue this idea, gauging the interest in an ad-free, reader-supported product. Make sure you're open and in touch with the user base as much as is practical.

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

Ask for help a lot. I always consult others on product, marketing, design and finance decisions. Because of this, I've picked a few key metrics that I know will help with growth, and I focus on those.

Don't be afraid to rethink the direction of a successful product if you believe the market/demand is there. We could've left the product as an ad-supported newsletter, but it's worthwhile exploring this option. It's better for readers and it's going to hopefully work better for us.

Marketing

Learn as much as you can about your audience and their preferences. Use data, sure, but also ask them. If you can build a rapport with your users/subscribers, include them at every stage, then you'll get interesting insights data can't tell you. You'll also build trust, and they'll know that whatever decisions you make were made with care, and with their interests taken into account.

Where can we go to learn more?

Head to Versioning to see free posts and to sign up for either a free or paid membership. I'm also on Twitter. There's also SitePoint and SitePoint on Twitter.

Please ask me questions about things like newsletters, transitioning a free product to a paid model, curation, Star Wars, and Zelda.

Adam Roberts , Founder of Versioning

Want to build your own business like Versioning?

You should join the Indie Hackers community! 🤗

We're a few thousand founders helping each other build profitable businesses and side projects. Come share what you're working on and get feedback from your peers.

Not ready to get started on your product yet? No problem. The community is a great place to meet people, learn, and get your feet wet. Feel free to just browse!

Courtland Allen , Indie Hackers founder

  1. 4

    Hey Adam, the product looks awesome, congrats!

    I wanted to ask, though, cause at some point I had similar ideas of a curate-content business model: is there any legal issues for using free external content for your premium business? I mean, you're getting paid for filtering, but the posts/content you're linking are part of the product you're selling, aren't they? This content probably has some license? Just want to learn how you avoid problems with content rights and licenses.

    Thanks in advance!

    1. 2

      Hey! Thanks for the feedback - that’s a very interesting question.

      Any kind of monetization for a curated product would bring these issues. The service I provide is finding a lot of great links, editing them down to the best links, and then providing the context and information to help people decide if they’re important to them.

      I only link to content that’s either freely available, freely available but ad-supported, or available via a pay-wall (NYTimes, the New Yorker, Wired, etc). I always indicate to a member where they will end up - in case they’ve hit their free article limit for the month, for example.

      I also never link to a ripped version of a paid-only article, and in fact I dislike linking to a free summary of a paid article (this often happens with tech sites summarising stuff from The Information).

      I’ve never had someone upset for linking to their resource, but it's an interesting question, thanks for asking it!

  2. 3

    Super interesting business model, and the newsletters look great—thanks!

    You mention that a fair chunk of subscriber growth came from your relationship with Sitepoint. How do you think growth would have been affected without that? What would you have done differently if that hadn’t been there?

    1. 3

      Hey Matt,

      I think the SP relationship definitely helped accelerate things. But without that the strategy would largely have stayed the same: build a compelling free newsletter that consistently delivers a product users want. Stay responsive to their needs and keep them coming back.

      But that’s only the content part: there’s also a need to reach new subscribers where they are. Establish content partnerships, find influencers on social media, and reach people where they hang out (in my case, Reddit, Hackernews, places like that).

      Then, when you have a healthy subscriber base, work out a monetization method that makes sense for you - ads, a paid tier, whatever works.

      Thanks for the question mate!

  3. 3

    Hi Adam! I'm going to have a curated newsletter as well, but I have issues with payment gateways. All the known premade solutions like Substack only work with Stripe. At least PayPal would do the work for me as I'm from Ukraine. The only solution I see is own website. Are there any other solutions?
    Also, would like to hear your advice about adding free tier vs only paid tier for biweekly newsletter. What are pros and cons of having only a paid one?

    1. 1

      Hi Kyrlo, I also had a similar situation before and Chargebee was the best one I found to get started and solve this quickly. It's a little too big, but at least it gives you multiple payment integration options.

      1. 2

        Thank you Beto! Yes, Chargebee seems to be the best option for billing in countries not supported by Stripe or PayPal.

      2. 2

        Thanks Beto, I had just begun to research this and you popped up with a great suggestion! Versioning (via Substack) uses Stripe, as you mentioned, but Chargebee looks like a great tool to reach people where they are - thanks for this.

        1. 1

          Thanks Adam! I'm also curious, if there are any pre-made newsletter platforms like Substack that use PayPal or allow you to set up your own payment gateway?
          Creating a website and hosting seems too much overhead for the paid newsletter MVP.

          1. 1

            I would suggest talking to Substack to see if you can work something out - they may be working on something or have ideas I haven't thought of. They're reachable at "hello at Substack dot com".

            Otherwise, it may be a WordPress+Mailchimp+Chargebee situation. I hope not though! Good luck!

  4. 2

    Hi @Adam_from_Versioning ! Thanks for the article, it's really inspiring for me as someone who actually runs a (currently free) web development newsletter (https://codetheweb.blog/newsletter). I was wondering if you could give feedback, although I know your time is precious - you don't have to look at all the issues :)

    Issue 1: https://mailchi.mp/b3363e5caba8/maths-css-grids-nigeria-more
    Issue 2: https://mailchi.mp/8e8fa4258ec3/code-the-web-weekly-2
    Issue 3: https://mailchi.mp/0412bee7e0b0/code-the-web-weekly-3

    And don't worry about competition, I only have 160 subscribers ;)

    1. 2

      Thanks for sending it through - very nice job! (I just subscribed) I like the template and format a lot, I think you've got a good range of content and it's well presented - good stuff.

      A couple of ideas for improvements:

      • you could swap out the quote at the bottom? Unless that's a very important quote to you, in which case proceed!
      • the "code the web archives" section seems to be, in general, at a more basic level than the rest of the content, it would be worth calling that out in the section title

      I've subscribed now, so I'll hit you up with any other ideas, but overall - nice work!

      1. 1

        Hi Adam! Thanks so much :D That's some good advice!
        I'm thinking now that it might be more relevant to subscribers if I separated the articles into either language or level rather than source.

        Also, about email subjects: What have you found to be most successful? What techniques do you use to get a higher open rate without being spammy?

        Thanks once again :D

        1. 2

          That's a good point - I think doing so also helps to put Code the Web content on a level playing field with content from elsewhere - it's a subtle way of reinforcing the idea that your stuff is just as good.

          I have a bit of a weird approach to email subjects - I tend to use them to make a joke or a pun. BUT that aside, my advice would be to keep them short and to focus on the most-interesting subject in the newsletter. I don't like laundry lists of 5+ things in the edition - I think choosing something specific works better. But I would for sure A/B test this to make sure it's true for your audience too.

  5. 2

    Hey Adam -

    Thanks for doing this! This is really timely as I too am building an e-mail newsletter (at least as an MVP) with the thought that it possibly could function as a stand-alone site at some point, depending on user demand.

    A couple of questions:

    -Given the abundance of free newsletters, especially ones for developers/designers that similarly curate news, what made people (or what do you think made people) willing to sign up for a paid subscription for Versioning? Was it the social proof inherent in the SitePoint name? The way you curate? Something else? I have to be honest and say that this is the main thing I think about when considering charging direct for subscriptions. Also, what was the feedback like from your existing free users when you decided to go paid?

    -What made you decide on a weekday cadence vs. weekly? Was there any sense of overwhelm from users at getting a daily edition? I myself am going with weekly to start but I'm playing around with it as I go.

    Thanks in advance!

    1. 5

      Fantastic news Blair, I hope you can make it work. As for your questions:

      Feedback: I surveyed a selection of the members who made the transition to the paid service. This seemed to mostly come down to the quality of the content they received, and the way the content was presented, were both high and worth the price. (Seeing these replies come through, my inbox was a very encouraging place to be for a while!)

      But obviously not everyone signed up, and among those who didn't the prevailing message was that they felt the price was too high, or they couldn't afford to pay. That's very understandable, and that's why I'm glad I still offer free updates as well. But that's also an encouragement to make the product more valuable, and clearly communicate it as such.

      Cadence: To be honest, the choice for a daily newsletter was more to do with the purpose (keeping devs and designers updated) than any particular marketing purpose.

      I think the choice of cadence should be about the content - is the content you're providing highly time-sensitive? Do you have enough to share for a daily newsletter? Will an edition be irrelevant in a week's time? I'd always err on the side of quality content - you don't want to be sending out thin updates that each lack depth and aren't worthwhile to the subscriber.

      1. 3

        Great stuff Adam; thanks for the detailed answers. I like the free vs. paid designation too. I know a lot of content providers that do micro subscriptions (where the newsletter is a key distro channel for them) seem to have had success with that. Seems like a good way to retain those users who you say couldn't afford to pay and give them at least a little bit of content without turning them off entirely. Cheers.

  6. 2

    Can you elaborate on Substack's involvement and how they have helped you so far? This is the first I've heard of them. As someone who is thinking about making a newsletter in the food space, they seem interesting....Also I wonder would you eventually move off their platform in the future once you grow bigger?

    1. 2

      Hey! A food newsletter sounds amazing, please let me know once you get started. Yep, Substack are new - they just went through Y Combinator, and we managed to catch them before they did so because of the New Zealand connection.

      They offer the platform that handles sending out newsletters and then posting them on the site (and depending on your settings, making they accessible to members only). They also handle support, advice for newsletter-ers, and work on new features for the platform.

      In our case, because we were a founding member, they helped in a variety of other ways, from helping us develop the model (incl pricing strategy), providing a grandfathering solution for existing members, to working with us on a PR strategy. Some of these services may still be part of the offering to new members, I'll ping them and see if they can weigh in here.

      They take a percentage once you start to earn (ie $0 when a newsletter is free) so they're motivated to help with growth, which can be very helpful when starting out.

      Nope, "Moving off Substack once we've grown" isn't part of the strategy.

      Seriously, let me know if/when you launch the food newsletter! (I may be subscribed to too many newsletters, maybe I have a problem ;) )

      1. 1

        Will do! I was actually going to go the mail chimp, wordpress, stripe route but they seem to have a way more streamlined process..Two more questions:

        1. When you say "They offer the platform that handles sending out newsletters " what does that mean? Who are they sending these newsletters (including yours) out to?
        2. If you wanted to, could you still run ads/sponsored posts/do affiliate marketing in your newsletter? Or is there some unspoken agreement that since readers are paying a monthly fee that you shouldn't include those things?
        1. 1

          Hey, this is Hamish, one of Substack's founders. We'd love to help and we'd love to see you bring your newsletter to Substack. Our whole proposition is that we make it simple for a writer to start a paid newsletter – that means taking all the niggly tech, admin, and business trivia off the table so you can just focus on the hard part: the writing itself. We're in beta but rapidly improving the product. And we're always happy to answer questions. You can reach us at hello at Substack dot com. Also, Adam is awesome and Versioning is cool.

        2. 1

          Yep - I think that's actually the stack they compare themselves to!

          1. Sorry, I mean they host the posts (like WordPress), and send out the newsletter for you (like MailChimp). But it's your list, and your content, and you retain ownership of both.
          2. You could use an alternative method, yep, but in my case I've gone all-in with memberships as the only monetisation method. Other publications on Substack have sponsors as well as memberships. I'm afraid I can't remember which ones, but they're out there.
  7. 1

    Thanks for sharing. Suggestion: in the screenshot of the signup page ($7 / month, $70 / year) perhaps put the eventual annual cost for a monthly subscriber in parentheses, so that users can quickly gauge their savings. E.g. so it would read “$7 a month ($84 annually)”.

    1. 1

      Thanks Kayce, that's a very good point!