Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
My name is Isaac Saul, I am a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA, one of the most divided political counties in all of America. I went to the University of Pittsburgh and was a non-fiction writing and journalism major, and after college lived in Israel and then got a job at Huffington Post in 2014.
The summer of 2014, I left HuffPo to go work with Ashton Kutcher and build aplus.com, a media organization dedicated to positive news and solutions journalism. A Plus was bought by Chicken Soup for the Soul in 2018, and in 2019 we pivoted to become an all-video platform. When that happened, I decided I wanted to keep writing on the side and had a concept for a political newsletter that I decided to launch on Substack: It's called Tangle.
Tangle is an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day. Readers use Tangle to better understand the competing arguments in the political world and to get out of their social media bubbles. Six months into offering paid subscriptions, Tangle is driving over $7,900 in monthly recurring revenue, and I expect to break $8,000 in the coming days and a year from today I am projecting $25,000/month in revenue.
What motivated you to get started with Tangle?
As a politics reporter, I understood our media ecosystem was broken. I can guess who someone is going to vote for based on what news they watch, which means our political news ecosystem is totally broken. We should not be living in two different realities, and I wanted to bring those realities together under one roof — so Americans could understand "the other side" better than they would by watching Fox News or reading Huffington Post.
The idea was simple: explain what the smartest voices on the right and left are arguing, and then share my take. When I had the concept down, I asked 50 friends to sign up for a mailing list and read the newsletter for a week, then solicited feedback. It was an instant hit. Nearly everyone said they'd read this every day, and they wanted to help me build it. The enthusiasm made me certain this kind of thing was needed and desired.
Because of my experience as a political reporter and from growing up in a county that was split evenly between conservatives and liberals, I felt uniquely positioned to take this project on and talk to people across the aisle. When I launched Tangle, I was still working at A Plus — and I remain there today. As a reporter, I have never been financially stable, especially not living in NYC. Like many, I was living paycheck to paycheck when I launched Tangle. I'm still at A Plus and I'm working both jobs for as long as I can, doing about 14-15 hours of work a day, and trying to save up as much money to invest in Tangle as possible. It's the first time in my life I've felt like I'm financially stable. A few months ago, my MRR from Tangle exceeded my salary from A Plus, which was a really exciting milestone.
What went into building the initial product?
I've had the idea for Tangle for years. From having my writing published everywhere from TIME Magazine to Vox, I have known for a long time that people trusted what I wrote based solely on where it was published. But the true building didn't start until Spring of 2019. It took about 4 or 5 months to figure out a name, design the logo, and find a perfect newsletter format to publish Tangle. It also took me a month or two to decide on a newsletter, as I had initially thought about doing a website, app or podcast. But a newsletter had the lowest friction for starting, and it turns out it was a perfect medium for this product.
To make Tangle work alongside a full-time job, I don't have much free time. I wake up at 5am every day and work on the newsletter for 3-4 hours before my day job starts, and then I spend 3-4 hours after my day job hours are done preparing the following day's newsletter. I have committed myself to getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, which is crucial to not burning out. But it has taken a lot of dedication and sacrifice to get here.
How have you attracted users and grown Tangle?
Like most start-ups, I focused on getting 50-100 users out of the gate who were friends, family or colleagues that could offer feedback and I knew would be honest with me about the product. I used a very modest following on Twitter (12,000 followers) to get my next 200-300 followers, and then I just trusted my readers to help me share. 2-3 times a week, I'd explain to readers that I needed their help to spread the word and ask them to share on social media or send Tangle to 5-6 friends. So many readers participated.
I also leveraged partnerships and contests, which was hugely successful. One simple thing I did was run competitions for $100 gift cards. I'd ask people to share Tangle on social media, send me a screenshot of their share, and then I'd enter their name into a hat. I would do week-long competitions and then pick out three winners based on the entries.
But partnerships were also big. Most of the time, you'll hear from founders to seek out partners in your "space." I ignored this advice, and actually tried to seek out partners who were not competitors. Since I write about politics, I don't see any logic in going after customers who are already getting politics news from someone else. Instead, I'd look for people in similar spaces but doing very different things. The best example is Marques Brownlee, a tech YouTuber who I know. I shared the newsletter with his team and one of his producers mentioned it on the podcast, which brought in 500 subscribers overnight. Similarly, I reached out cold to The Hustle — a business and start-up newsletter — and shared Tangle with them. Their content team loved it and they plugged it for free in The Hustle, and that brought in hundreds of new subscribers.
Other examples include going on a podcast hosted by a Birth Doula or reaching out to someone who ran a music newsletter — trying to tap audiences that didn't already have what I was offering in their lives.
Some counterexamples include Ground News, an app that rates the bias of news outlets. That was a partnership that was in my wheelhouse and space and has been really successful in driving new subscribers, too.
Best of all: I sent Tangle to people with big followings. This was a no brainer. I sought out politicians, reporters and celebrities who were independent thinkers and had previously expressed a desire for a more united country, and then I got them reading and sharing Tangle. This brought in a lot of like-minded followers.
Today, despite only having 11,000 sign-ups, newsletters get about 100,000+ views a week. Meaning I more than double the traffic from subscribers alone, largely because those people are sharing the newsletters and have a large platform. I also see open-rates above 55% pretty consistently, which is by far the strongest indicator of interest in my product.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
My model is to get as many emails as possible and then convert free subscribers to paid subscribers. I do this via pitches in the email and then long-form pitches once every quarter to free subscribers only. My newsletter is currently on Substack, so all my payment is handled by Stripe.
By far the most important thing to my success was a simple transparency and communication with my readers about the value they saw in Tangle. I literally polled my free subscribers "how much would you pay for this" in a Google form, them combed over and organized their responses. When I launched paid, I asked them to follow through on what they said, and lowered the cost a little bit beneath the average (to attract as many people as possible). I also offered a high, premium tier for people who believed in the work and wanted to "invest" in it.
What are your goals for the future?
Now that I have a proven product in the newsletter space, I'm planning to expand. Before election day, I'm going to send out my first ever podcast, which is a space I want to get into. Along with that, I'm hoping to launch a merchandise store shortly after the election and then beginning planning events for 2021 — in-person events where people can buy tickets to watch politicians, pundits and thinkers from opposing sides debate major issues in America.
Right now, the revenue projections on the newsletter alone are thrilling. But adding these other elements of Tangle will build the community, spread the word about the newsletter, give super fans another way to enjoy the kinds of conversations that happen on Tangle and diversify my revenue stream.
Right now, I have one part-time social media manager and a slew of interns or volunteers who help make Tangle happen via copyediting and research. If growth continues as it is now, at about 12% a month, I am hoping by next year to make my social media manager full-time and start offering part time positions to help produce the newsletter and events. My goal is $25,000 in MRR by the end of 2021 from the newsletter alone and $50,000 in MRR by the end 2022 from all products and services.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
This summer, I spent a lot of time exploring moves off of Substack and onto platforms like Ghost, where I'd have more flexibility to build beyond a newsletter. Honestly, it was a big waste of time given the stage I was in, and I think I gave up hours that could have been spent improving the product on Substack. It's possible that in a few months or a year I'll be big enough that there is money and upside to moving off Substack to offer more than just a paid newsletter, but I wasn't there this summer. And I spent so many hours trying to fix something that was working because of where I thought I might be in a year rather than just getting to where I wanted to be and dealing with it then.
A popular piece of advice I hear a lot is "keep the main thing the main thing." It's so true. If you have something good, focus on that, and make sure it's great. If you're not spending the majority of your time in any given week on "the main thing," then you're not using your time well.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I'm a huge fan of Indie Hackers, and this podcast/newsletter has been formative for me. I also read the book BuzzMarketing, which is still relevant even all this time later. The best thing, though, is asking questions and trying to follow the pathways others have created for you. There are so many good models out there for launching a paid product, and you really don't need to "hack" anything so much as you need to have a good idea and use the methods to get ahead with it that already exist. I did some novel things in terms of partnerships and free offerings, but I also looked at a lot of people who had already been successful and mimicked what they did.
I have also benefit a lot from timing. The election is here, and the last year has driven the most interest in politics ever. At the same time, people are recognizing that the media world is broken — and that our political reporting is not functioning how it used to. This has given me opportunities to write about my mission and why Tangle is so special and unique, and I've gotten a lot of interest that way.
Finally, I'll just reiterate this: the most important thing for me has been sleep. No matter what happens, I give myself a couple hours away from work every day and make sure I get 7-8 hours of sleep. I also spend every Friday to Saturday night off social media and totally off my computer. I am certain that if I didn't do that, I would not have made it where I am today without totally falling apart.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Ask to hop on the phone with people — reach out to your idols, they're more likely to chat than you think.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
Don't just seek out insight and knowledge from people in your industry. Some of the best insights I've gotten into how people view/think about our media has come from people in tech, education, and other industries that don't have anything to do with politics. All of that helped me understand how broken political news was and how I could help.
Where can we go to learn more?
The best thing to do is to go check out https://tangle.substack.com/about — you can subscribe, read about how Tangle works and also see some testimonials from people you may recognize there.
If anyone wants to learn more, please do fire off some questions. I'm swamped with the election so I didn't get to make as many points as I wanted here!
—, Founder of Tangle
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