When Yaro Bagriy (@yarobagriy) set to learn about paid newsletters, he was disappointed by what he found. So in true indie hacker fashion, he decided to create his own learning resource to teach others like him — Newsletter Crew: a podcast, blog, and community all about the paid newsletter ecosystem. In this episode, Yaro and I discuss some of the most inspiring stories from newsletter creators, Yaro's process for coming up with paid newsletter ideas, and why indie hackers building newsletter software may stand to gain more than anyone else.
What's up, everyone? This is Courtland from indiehackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. More people than ever are building cool stuff online and changing their lives in the process. On this show, I talk to these indie hackers to one about the ideas, the opportunities, and the trends that they're taking advantage of so the rest of us can do the same.
If you've been listening to the show and you want an easy way to give back, do me a favor, leave a quick review for us on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show and it makes me a happy podcaster.
In today's episode we're going to talk about how indie hackers are making a living off the back of paid content. Obviously, the big winner in 2020 when it comes to content was paid newsletters; it seems like everybody's got one and a lot of them are doing very well.
Check out episode 161 with Sam Parr, I talked to him about The Hustle Trends, a paid newsletter he started that's part of his newsletter company that was recently acquired for something like $27 million. Episode 164, Scott Keys of Scott's Cheap Flights to somehow making it through the pandemic and the lower travel with his paid newsletter. Dru Riley in episode 173, he started up a newsletter to help indie hackers capitalize on trends and is doing pretty well for himself as well.
Here with me to discuss this is Yaroslaw Bagriy, he's part of the Indie Hackers Podcast network. Yaro, you’ve got your own podcast and paid community is called Newsletter Crew. Welcome to the show.
Hey Courtland. Thank you for having me.
Yeah. Thanks for joining.
So, we're going to talk about how people are making a living by writing online, but I think this is more than just about writing. I think other indie hackers are also sort of profiting from this trend where they're making apps and tools that cater to the newsletter ecosystem.
This is kind of why I think it's important to talk about. It's kind of why I keep bringing people on the show over and over again, because whenever you see people finding some new way to make money, to chart a new path, create a new career, it creates pretty much an entire ecosystem where you don't have to be the person writing the newsletter, you could be building a platform that they're going to write on. You could be building tools to help them write better. You could be putting out books and products to help them learn how to write better. Or you could start your own newsletter.
I wonder what your thoughts are on this. You’ve talked to way more newsletter authors than I ever have. Do you think that this is just an opportunity for writers or do you think the real opportunity is for people creating tools and platforms and building software for these?
Yeah. No, that's definitely good a good question and I feel like every indie hacker should be paying attention to this trend. I don't even want to call it a trend because I think it's here to stay, but I mean, there's tons of people that are writing on this trend as well.
Like Janel from NewsletterOS, we've got, I forget his name, Jakob Greenfield from Newsletter Spy. We've got ConvertKit, which has also an indie, kind of homegrown indie hacker product. Then we've got the big kind of gorilla in the room, like Substack, Ghost, but there's tons of other examples as well of actual indie hackers breaking into the space and making a decent living off of it.
Tell me about some of these. What's Newsletter Spy?
Yeah, so Newsletter Spy, it's actually an info product. All it is a landing page, an Airtable, and then basically it's behind a paywall. what Newsletter Spy is essentially just a database full of 20,000 Substack newsletters. You get the name, you get the URL, you get the tagline, you get the launch date, you get the subscriber options, you get the pricing options. It basically just provides, this is just data as a service behind a paywall.
I found it. I’m at newsletterspy.io. You're right. I mean, it literally is just someone went into Airtable and made a gigantic table of Substack newsletters. He says they have 20,000 Substack newsletters and the use cases are, can use us to discover amazing newsletters or you can analyze competitors or you can identify abandoned newsletters that you can possibly acquire cheaply if you're an indie hacker.
Whoever's behind this, they're just selling this access to this table for 15 bucks. That's it, just a one-time fee get access, 15 bucks on Gumroad. Super simple.
I think when he launched on Product Hunt, he made, I think $2K in the first day. So, it's really popular. People are wanting to pay for this type of information and it's great. I love it. I don't know how much he's making right now, but it's definitely a great product. There's tons of other options, I guess examples, as well, if you want me to get into those.
Yeah. Let's talk about some of the bigger players. Substack obviously needs no introduction. It's probably the platform that made paid newsletters sort of take off in the last couple of years. It just makes it super easy to basically start a newsletter, build an audience, and charge them for access to some of your issues.
But then we've got some of the lesser-known players that I think people have been sleeping on a little bit. There's ConvertKit. There's Ghost. Ghost has been around forever. It's a blogging platform. What are your thoughts on Ghosts and how their paid newsletter subscriptions work?
Oh man. Yeah. So, and actually I use Ghost for a Newsletter Crew.
It's not just a blogging platform. It's not just an email platform. It’s actually also a membership platform. That's kind of the core feature that I use it for. And man, I love it, dude. I think this is the thing that's going to kill, well, maybe not kill WordPress, but like, I mean, why not use something that they don't charge a monthly percentage. Memberful takes 5% or maybe 10% of your revenue per month, same with Substack, right? 10% of your revenue, it's insane.
Which is super unique because almost every other tool basically charges you more and more money the more money you make from your subscribers. If you have a Substack newsletter and you're making $50,000 a month in your subs, you're paying Substack, what, 10%?
5k man. 5k’s a lot.
Five plus Stripe fees?
Yeah. So, you're paying 13% of your revenue. What are you really paying for? What does Substack give you that Ghost doesn't give you? I guess it's like a cooler brand, maybe it's a little bit easier to set up. Why doesn't everybody just use Ghost instead of Substack?
Honestly, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe it's just the marketing that Substack’s doing. Ghost’s been gaining popularity this last year from what I've been talking to some of the team members there and it's gaining popularity, but I honestly don't know. I mean, it's not even that much more complicated than Substack.
You can host with them, if that makes sense, for $29 a year. They do all the tech for you, if that makes sense. So, it's like, all I have to, you have to go in, you write your newsletter, you send it out and that's it. So, honestly, I'm not exactly sure. I'm kind of baffled why, Ghost isn't more popular than Substack at this moment cause the economics make sense.
Well, it is doing pretty well as a platform regardless.
Ghost itself is an indie hacker company, it’s started by John O’Nolan, who's been on the show twice. It’d be good to have him on again and catch up with them, but they're doing millions in revenue.
As you alluded to earlier, they kind of started off as a WordPress killer. John was actually part of the team developing WordPress, and he got a little flustered and said this is kind of crappy. It's super bloated.
I saw a good meme on Twitter the other day where WordPress is one of the only ecosystems where every developer in it agrees that it's crappy. There are no developer arguments. They all agree this is shit.
Ghost is just a much cleaner, better, it's like WordPress for the modern age. Of course, now it's much more than WordPress. They actually help you build paid subscriptions, paid newsletters, paid blogs. So, Ghost is obviously a very mature indie hacker company.
ConvertKit is another very mature indie hacker company started by Nathan Barry, and they've recently moved into the paid newsletter space. You're obviously talking to a lot of people on your podcast about newsletters, Yaro. Who are some fledgling indie hackers who are building software and are profiting from this trend towards paid newsletters?
One really good example is Joshua Anderton. He has a product that's making $5K MMR as a solo indie hacker. It's called Upscribe, it's also in the newsletter space and it actually started as a Medium form.
You have your blog on Medium, at the bottom but in your Upscribe form to actually help people sign up. He was doing that, but as time went on Medium just started to suck and suck more and people just started leaving it.
He kind of saw that trend of Medium sucking and then saw the trend of newsletters and kind of pivoted towards that. Now Upscribe is an email marketing tool. It's really simple. All you do is collect subscribers, send marketing emails, email sequences. There's no bloat. Like I said, it's just really simple and he did it solo.
I'm checking this website out right now. It's upscribe.net. So, it says just email marketing, that's all they do. That's it; no bloat. You can send marketing emails, you can send email sequences.
They're basically competing with something like a HubSpot or a MailChimp or a ConvertKit. It's pretty crazy that one person does this. Typically, you would expect to have the infrastructure to send marketing emails, you would need a whole team of people working on something like this around the clock, but there's so many tools and platforms out there that you can build on that it's actually not that hard to build a service like this.
At Indie Hackers I’m building my own kind of Substack clone. I'm building it using Postmark, which is just kind of a series of APIs that send emails for you. Postmark is bad ass. Their APIs are amazing. The documentation is amazing. It's really easy to use that.
Maybe 10 years ago I would have needed like a team of a hundred people to build something like this. But today you can just do it by yourself, have your own sort of one person shop building this and then compete with the bigger email marketing players without that much hassle really.
Yeah, I totally agree. Another example is a Button Down by Justin Duke. He's also an indie hacker, a solo indie hacker, also making $5K MRR on his product, which is just a really simple email marketing tool.
The way he started is, like every indie hacker, had a newsletter and realized that he could do it better. He also noticed that you couldn't actually write newsletters with Markdowns, so that's kind of one of the differentiating and unique features of Button Down versus Substack.
He kind of found his niche in there and he works at Stripe and he does this on the side, and that's really cool. Really minimal as well, just send the newsletters. I mean, that, that's all it is.
Yeah. He's also got another side project called Spoon Bill. I think it's spoonbill.io. It basically will track changes to people's Twitter bios and notify you when they update their bio.
A few months back, my buddy Julian, he was growing his Twitter account to a massive size and he tweeted some advice. He's like, Hey, if you really want to get more Twitter followers, you need to restructure your bio so that it tells people what you tweet about so they know whether or not they should follow you.
Everybody's sort of changing their bio and then everybody who signed up for Spoon Bill started getting a ton of notifications. Like why is everybody changing their Twitter bio? What happened? Jillian’s tweet was kind of the cause of that.
It's pretty cool. This guy works at Stripe. He's making five grand a month in extra side income basically on top of his normal salary just with these side projects.
Let's check his other one, Button Down; never been to his website. It's www.buttondown.email. “The easiest way to run and write your newsletter.” So, it's like a super simple Substack built around, like you said, Markdown.
What I love about this is people think that they can't start companies because the competition already exists. They think, okay, I can't start a Substack competitor because Substack’s already big. Substack itself doesn't seem to have that many defensive moats around it.
It's not that hard to build something that allows people to send emails. So, if you have really strong opinions about how emails should be sent, if you think Markdown is the best, if you think every email should be under 500 words, if you only want to focus on emails sent by churches to their congregations or emails sent by tech companies to their employees or something, you could probably build a highly opinionated email marketing platform and carve out some niche. There's going to be some percentage of people for whom that's much better than the very generic Substack or even ConvertKit or Ghost.
Yeah, for sure. We already have two examples of people hitting a $5K MRR with a really niche, email newslettering platform. So, I mean, it's possible, the market's so big. There's even more room for more of these products that solve one really specific use case within the email newsletter space. So yeah, a hundred percent agree.
Let’s talk about your story. I alluded to it earlier, but you run the Newsletter Crew podcast and blog and paid community, and you've interviewed many dozens of people who are running profitable newsletters.
You've basically learned a ton and you kind of share what you've learned on your podcast. How'd you get into this? What was your motivation? What's your sort of path to success as an indie hacker?
It’s kind of long story, but I'll try to, you know, summarize it pretty well.
I started indie hacking about a year ago, found Indie Hackers. I'm really big into multiple streams of income. So, I got some real estate, I got a stock dividend portfolio, and I'm just trying to build other streams of income. SaaS was one big income stream that I really want to build and, and still am building.
After kind of trolling and not really trolling, but you know, just creeping Indie Hackers for months and months, I started noticing this newsletter trend. People are actually making money off of newsletters. I was like, okay, that's pretty cool. Why not start my own newsletter?
When was this? Was this last year?
This was at the beginning of 2020. I think January, February, March timeframe, I was like, okay, I think I really want to start a newsletter, a paid newsletter, or just free newsletter, but I definitely want to have newsletter as part of one project that makes me some income.
It’s possible. So, I was like, all right, I'm going to do this, this is gonna be my first project as an indie hacker and I'm gonna make, my goal is just to make $500 MRR per month on this newsletter.
I started learning about it and there's tons of resources online right now. You've got blogs, you've got podcasts, you've got podcasts episodes. There was actually, there wasn't any courses back then. Now there is. I was just thinking, all right, kind of hop in.
I started reading different resources. I listened to all the podcasts that were kind of one-offs episodes, like your Indie Hackers Podcast with Sam Parr, but I noticed that there wasn't a full podcast that's just dedicated to this one discipline.
That's kinda how I learn. I. When I go to the grocery store, when I drive to work, I pop on a podcast. I like to learn passively. So, I just searched newsletter in Apple Podcasts and literally got nothing. There was a podcast about a newsletter, but all they do is just read their newsletter. So that that's like the top hit was, was that, so I was like…
Read their own newsletter on the podcast?
Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Saw that. That's what they do is basically, I think it's called The Salvation Army Newsletter. I think they have a newsletter and they just read it as a podcast. I'm not exactly sure. It definitely wasn't what I was looking for.
I was like, why not just create this? What I wanted to do was actually interview newsletter craters myself to learn, and why not just bundle it up, record, edit, and then publish it for everyone else to learn about? That's kind of what I did. That's kind of how Newsletter Crew started, as a podcast.
This is like the Indie Hackers playbook, right. You're trying to learn something, specifically something that's really lucrative or valuable, something that could be a lifestyle for you.
In your case, you wanted to make $500 bucks a month from your own newsletter. When you try to learn about it, you realize that, Hey, there's very few resources, the way that you like to learn about it, isn't there. Then you just go create that resource yourself cause there's probably other people like you who want to listen to a podcast that helps them get better at writing a paid newsletter.
That's literally exactly what I did with Indie Hackers. I think this playbook works for pretty much any new industry, new trend. You see people getting big on OnlyFans or on TikTok, et cetera. There probably should be newsletters and courses and blogs and communities around getting better at these things because people are motivated when they realize they can make a living doing these new, different things.
So, in your case, that was actually starting the Newsletter Crew Podcast.
Yep. That's how it started, as a podcast. Then slowly I started adding more and more onto it and just kind of by randomness, I stumbled upon, after my first Product Hunt launch, one guy who ran Indie Mailer, indiemailer.com, that was a community for newsletter creators.
Apparently, he saw how popular my Product Hunt launch was, which has also paid community, a completely different product. He was like, hey man, I don't have time to actually run this anymore. I don't really have the motivation as well, but it looks like you're running a pretty interesting paid community and obviously it's popular cause you got product of the day. Why not just buy this off me? And I was like, Yeah, dude, I'll totally buy this off you. I actually got it for a hundred bucks.
A hundred bucks? How big was this community?
It wasn't that big. I mean, there was about 130 people when I acquired it. All paid, ARR was only like $1.5K or something like that, but it was really inactive man. When I went into it after purchasing it, I was like, dude, this is pretty dead actually.
My understanding or my looking into the future was like 80% these people are going to churn when the year comes around cause it was a yearly membership. Actually, he wanted to give it to me for free, but I was like, I can't just take this for free, man. Let's just do a hundred bucks just to solidify the sale. He's like, all right, let's do that.
So, I gave him a hundred bucks and acquired it, integrated into a Newsletter Crew. Then started using the podcast the audience that I'm building up, this podcast, to actually funnel more members into Indie Mailer, which is now just Newsletter Crew, membership, a community.
I used the podcast to funnel members in and the community is thriving. It's like 10 X, the growth has like three X’ed, but it's like 10 X more active, if that makes sense. People are actually using it compared to like a year ago. It was really, really interesting.
After that I added a blog onto it cause you know, why not? Then from there I started getting sponsors for it. Now I'm offering package deals for the full sponsorships, you get ads in the newsletter, you get ads on the podcast, you get ads on the website. That's a completely different revenue stream that I’m building with Newsletter Crew alongside the actual membership portion of it.
How much does it cost somebody to join your paid community and be a member?
When I first started, when I first acquired it from Indie Mailer it was $19 a year. Then I started slowly increasing the price. It was $29 a year and then it was $39.
Then I actually interviewed Sam Parr on the other podcast just a few weeks ago. He's like, man, dude, you're undercharging like tremendously. I'm like really, I'm already charging 39 bucks. Why would anyone want to pay more?
He was like, yeah, man, you should charge $299. I'm like, well, actually I asked him like, okay, how much do you think I should charge? And he's like $299. And I'm like, dude, there's no way, no one's going to pay $299.
I'm not Sam Parr. I can't do Trends cause you Trends.co is $299 per year. I'm not saying I can't do what Sam's doing. Sam is like, that's not really my audience, if that makes sense. I tried $299 for a few days. Got sales at all and usually I get about one sale a day.
I did end up doubling prices to $59 per year. That's kind of where it's at right now, but I might increase it. I might not, I don't know. Memberships are really hard, if that makes sense, actually, to figure out the pricing.
I hear you doing the stereotypical indie hacker thing, talking yourself out of why you can't charge enough, you know, this is why Sam can charge and I can't. There's a case to be made you could charge at least a hundred bucks and then you just really have to demonstrate the value.
The good thing about charging more is it's a good forcing function for you to build things of value. If you think, okay, people won't pay a hundred bucks a month for my community because it doesn't have X, Y, and Z. Well now, you know exactly what you need to build to get them to pay a hundred bucks your community, you know, X, Y, and Z.
I think if you charge less, you’re a little bit less motivated to build those things that are super valuable or ask people what would get them to pay more. I like that Sam sort of ribbed you and then try to get you to pay more and it sounds exactly like what he would do. I agree with him. I think he should.
Yeah, it’s not even per month, it’s per year.
That's per year? Oh, for sure then, a hundred percent, a hundred percent you should go higher than 60 bucks.
That's the thing, I don't know if Newsletter Crew, it's a business in and of itself that's growing, but the main reason why I started all of this, going back to my SaaS, that I actually want to build a SaaS is I want to build a distribution channel for that SaaS in the newsletter space.
I'm not sure how much time, you know, it's a balance, how much time do I actually want to put into building Newsletter Crew and actually increasing the revenue and awesome features and content versus building an actual audience, a distribution channel for SaaS and building. So, yeah, it's hard, right?
I like breaking it into steps. Maybe one day, your goal is you want to have a super profitable SaaS company that caters towards newsletter authors. But day one, you start your podcast and you build the audience for your podcast. Once that starts getting pretty big, you funnel them into your community and you work on your community. Maybe you get your community and your podcast to the point where you can quit your job. That's your only goal.
Then once you get that, well, you have a bunch more free time to work on your SaaS or growing your audience, et cetera, et cetera. One step leads to the next step leads to the next step rather than sort of the typical indie hacker trap of trying to do everything all at once, all at the same time where it's really hard. And by the way, you're still working your full-time job and you still got a bunch of other responsibilities and there's no time in the day.
Dude, I totally agree. That's actually why I sold off a few other products I was building earlier in the year, just cause I literally had no time. I spent 25 hours a week. I got a baby, he's eight months old. I got a full-time job. I got a wife, a house that I got to tend to.
Yeah, you got all the stuff, dude.
That's yeah, exactly. I was like, I can't do this.
I just started cutting down things and actually, I'm outsourcing a bunch of stuff now cause Newsletter Crew’s making around, roughly if you count sponsorships plus memberships, around $2k MRR right now. It's actually not too bad, right? Not enough to quit my job, but enough to actually start outsourcing people cause like I literally just don't have any time to do any, anything anymore.
What's your quit point? How much money do you need to make every month before you quit?
I hop back and forth. If it's a bad day at work, I'm like do a $3K and I'm done. What if it's a good day? I'm like, all right, $10K. I think $10K should be fine. $5K is that break-even point. If I could do $5k, I live in Minneapolis, you can get far on $5k. So, that's kind of the break-even point. But, if I can do $10K I'm quitting the next day, man.
Well, cool man. I'm cheering for you. I think you'll get there. You're already almost halfway.
Let's jump into some of these stories that you've heard about through running your podcast, who were some newsletter authors and then newsletter indie hackers that we should all be looking up to?
I think everyone knows The Browser. It's probably the most popular and probably long-lasting newsletter out there. It's been here for 10 years. They got 60K readers, 10K of those are paid subscribers, $5 a month. They're making $50K a month. That's one of the amazing stories I've heard on my podcast is The Browser.
Yeah. I hadn't heard about The Browser until I heard them on your show. I love their longevity cause it kind of proves that newsletters aren't necessarily a flash in the pan.
I got an email actually a few weeks ago saying like, Hey, you know, this whole newsletter fad, it's just a fad. You should stop interviewing newsletter creators on the podcast cause nobody's going to be subscribed to this stuff come 2021, 2022.
It's not true. People have been subscribing to it for years. People will pay for value no matter how you deliver it to them. The fact that there's lots of competition doesn't really matter. I like the fact that The Browser exemplifies that.
I don't know their story. I don't remember it. What's the story behind The Browser?
Yeah. So basically, Robert who's the founder, 10 years ago, I think was like 2008 or something like that, he used to work at The Financial Times, The Economist; he was kind of the head editorial person there.
He started noticing that they're moving all towards the digital content, right? Newsletters, they got blogs, and he's pretty much thinking, all right, well, if some of these big institutions are actually going digital and maybe this is the actual trend that's going to be around forever.
He took the gamble, so he quit The Economist. But furthermore, he also started noticing that there's too much content on the internet. And this was 10 years ago; I'm not sure how much content there is now. He's thinking that the internet needs more of a curator versus a creator, if that makes sense.
So that's all he does is, that's kinda how the process started is, he starts curating newsletters, or sorry, he creates blog posts and articles on the internet daily. He picks out the five best articles, sends those as a newsletter and people pay for it. All he does is curate. He doesn't create anything, quote unquote. He's not writing anything new, but all he does is curate and they're making a lot of money.
I think curation is underrated. There's just so much information on the internet nowadays. And it's this weird dichotomy where for some people that makes it easier to find stuff and learn; for some people, it makes it harder to find stuff and learn.
So, let's say you're a prototypical indie hacker. You have a high bias toward action. You’re really good at using the web, you’re really good at sorting through information. The fact that the internet has so much info on it is great for you because whatever you want to learn, when you're trying to learn newsletters, you're going to find every podcast, every course, you know the Twitter accounts to follow, you’re going to find it.
But let's say you're literally anyone else. The fact that there's so much information online is just paralyzing, is way too much for you to sort through. So, the bigger the internet gets, kind of the more stressful it gets and the harder it is for you to make a decision and pick what you want to learn from, what you want to read.
So, I like sort of the rise of curators, like The Browser, where they're just saying we're going to do all the hard work. We're going to go out and find all the best stuff for you to read. You don't need to browse Twitter. You don't need to scroll through a million different sources. You can just subscribe to us. That's what we're going to do.
This is literally exactly what we do with our newsletter at Indie Hackers. We're basically trying to give you kind of the best need to know information as an indie hacker, because I spent a lot of time myself combing through Twitter and following the right podcasts, et cetera.
It's really low signal. You have to listen to like a hundred hours of podcasts, audio to get three or four hours of good information as an indie hacker about what you should be capitalizing on. And the same with reading newsletters and following Twitter accounts.
So, curators are, I think, a little bit underrated. It's counterintuitive. You would think the more information that exists online the less you need middlemen because everything's so democratized, you can just go out and find everything yourself. But actually, the more information there is, the more you actually want there to be some person who finds it for you.
Yeah. So, you know, to go along with your point, yeah, internet needs curators, but if you're trying to build a newsletter and you think this is going to be one of those four-hour week businesses, it probably isn't.
Robert spends all day, literally eight hours a day is combing through all the content on the internet to pick out like the 1% of the 1%. If you want to start a newsletter thinking that's going to, you can work for one hour a day or one hour a week and make tons of money, I don't think it's going to be the right path for you. If that makes sense
You’re a super-efficient person, right? It actually kind of shocks me that he spends an eight-hour workday putting together this newsletter.
I mean that’s probably a super good one if he does, but I look at you, you're super efficient. I mean, you said you've got a full-time job. You've got a family. You've got your community and newsletter and podcasts and other projects you're working on.
Let's say you were Robert, you were running The Browser. What would you do to run it more efficiently so you can ideally curate the best stories on the web without spending eight hours a day on it?
You know, the big thing is, you know, if you pick a really specific niche, right? The Browser just curates the best articles on the internet. The full internet, if that makes sense. I mean, just imagine how much content there is coming out every day.
So, if you niche down, just like with Indie Hackers, right? It's just indie hacker blog posts. Or if you're just in the bootstrapping space or gardening and you start curating content for gardeners, it's going to be a lot less time going through the full internet content per day than just doing a specific niche like gardening.
That's one thing, and obviously you start building up your RSS feed so you're not going through and combing through Reddit or Indie Hackers or Hacker News or wherever content is being pumped out that's part of your niche. If you have it kind of come to you so you can just kind of scroll through RSS feed, pick out maybe the headlines that seem the coolest.
Actually Robert, what his number one tip is, is that he knows when an article is good or not based on the first five seconds of reading the first two sentences. He'll easily scrap an article based off the first sentence if it's not catchy enough or just not good enough. I mean, that's it, he doesn't read anymore. I think he reads like literally thousands of articles per day.
Right. That's ridiculous. It's kind of a cool job to have, though. Let's say your goal is you want to be extremely well-read, well-educated and you're having trouble doing it. You can start a business like The Browser and now you're literally forced to read hundreds of articles a day if you want to just run your business.
Assuming he actually likes doing it, maybe that explains why he spends his full workday doing nothing but reading. But I like your tip, constrain your focus to a specific niche. You won't have to read nearly as much content and you could probably get off by spending much less time on it.
I was talking to Nivi Achanta, she's an indie hacker who has a newsletter called The Soapbox Project. It's pretty cool. It's very mission driven. Her website, it says, do you want to fight climate change but you don't know where to start? We'll send you free bite-sized action plans every week.
Literally it takes her, I asked her, how much time do you spend on this? It's like, three to four hours per newsletter, one newsletter a week, super simple. The reason it's super simple is because she just has marketed it as being bite-sized. It's not going to be something that's going to take you two hours to read, like The Hustle Trends newsletter.
It's going to be real quick, three-minute action plan. She spends the rest of her time working on growing her business, finding subscribers, hosting events, et cetera. So, I think there's lots of ways to sort of cut down on this massive time investment that it takes to start one of these.
Yeah, for sure. Actually, to kind of go off that, I don't know if you know Andrew Kamphey, he's kind of a pretty popular guy on Indie Hackers.
He also had an idea kind of like this, a daily newsletter, just really brief. We're talking like one paragraph long, summarize one niche topic, or maybe just send one article per day that's in your niche.
His was influencer marketing, but let's say you pick gardening. In this case I love gardening. Just one article per day. And it just, you know, a daily newsletter probably takes like 10 minutes or 20 minutes to do. I mean, there's tons of ways you skin the cat. To do a newsletter, there's no one way to do it.
So, how do you make a newsletter last as long as The Browser has? I mean, they've been around for 10 years, even interviewed quite a few newsletter authors, has anybody else lasted this long? What do you see as the commonalities and the tricks to make this not something that you flame out on?
When you start your newsletter, don't think that this is the newsletter you're going to be writing forever. I would just kind of do it like a SaaS product. You kind of iterate quickly, start with one idea, maybe do it for a month. Maybe it's content curation newsletter, you know, after the month, just look back at it.
Did you actually like doing it? Was it a drag to actually do it? Was it fun to do it? Could you see yourself doing this for another month? Or were you like, man, I can't wait for this month to be finished?
Basically, just keep doing that until you find one that checks all the boxes that it was fun to do it, didn't take too much time. You actually want to do it. And that's kind of the main component.
I love that. Especially because with content, any sort of content series, whether it's a blog, a newsletter, a podcast tweeting or posting on TikTok, or making YouTube videos, every time you put out a new piece of content, every time you send a newsletter, you're back to square one.
It's kind of like a fresh start. You're not locked in anything. If you're coding something and you build a bunch of features and then you decide you want to change directions, that's super hard. You’ve got to throw away a bunch of code. You get a fresh start every time you send a newsletter, so why not go back to the drawing board for not really happy with how things are going?
It's kind of a parallel actually with a lot of founders who do this 12 startups and 12 months thing, which I've mentioned on the podcast where they set out for the next year to actually work on 12 different things. They’re not gonna work on all 12 at the same time; they do one per month.
Usually after about three, four or five months of starting different things, you realize how different different projects are, how different they feel. And you're much more, I think, equipped to make a good decision about what you want to run. The biggest tragedy you could possibly do is start a business that you don't like running, run it for several years. Even if it's successful, you've now created a job that you don't like. The whole point of this is a credit job that you do like.
Exactly. Like a 12 newsletters in 12 months. I mean, that's, that's another spin on it right there.
So let's move on to another story. I've got one that I want to share. This one comes from Shaan Puri. He's the host of the My First Million podcast. Love his show. He's also very transparent on Twitter and he started a personal newsletter that has one of the craziest stories I've ever read.
He tweeted about this, actually it blew up and went viral. It got like 3,000 likes and 280 retweets. He kind of starts off by talking about how he is running this podcast called My First Million. The podcast has gotten super big. I think they do about 350,000 downloads a month, which is as big as Indie Hackers has ever been in its biggest month back when I was doing two episodes a week.
Basically, on the show him and Sam, will just brainstorm ideas. But when people hear them brainstorming ideas, they find it hard to sort of take action because you know, it's one thing to hear about an idea, hear about a success story, but it's another actually to see people who talk about the times that they messed up and not just the times they succeeded.
So, Shaan would get all these messages on Twitter and people will be like, hey man, I love this idea that you shared on the podcast, but how would you actually go about building this? I don't really know where to start. I'm stuck on this particular step. What should I do?
Shaan figured, if people are willing to pay for newsletters for things they want really bad, maybe they would pay even more for a newsletter where he showed them how to execute instead of just telling them sort of high-level details.
His idea ultimately it was a paid newsletter that shows you that the day-to-day of how to take an idea from $0 to a million dollars in revenue. Instead of like the typical get rich quick stuff cliche advice that you see people tweeting, he was going to actually kind of envision this virtual apprenticeship he called it, where you kind of see exactly what he does from day to day. He's going to send you a newsletter, literally every single day of the week, here's what I did today to get this idea from zero to a million.
He had three different projects. The first was he was going to raise a million dollars from investors who we didn't know. The second project, he was going to email tips for it were him growing an e-commerce store to $100,000 a month. The third project he was going to do was him launching an online course that makes a million dollars.
He announces on his podcast, and to prove your point earlier you were saying why are you doing all this stuff? Why are you starting with a blog and a newsletter, et cetera? It's because you wanted to build your own distribution channel, where Shaan had a distribution channel with this newsletter.
He was able to get 350 people from his podcast to sign up to his newsletter. He's not charging like five bucks or 10 bucks a month, like a typical newsletter, he's charging $150 a month for this. So, 350 people paying 150 bucks for his newsletter. He had a newsletter that was doing $50 grand a month almost instantly right out of the gate, which is insane for a newsletter.
The way the story ended though is a little bit tragic, which is that he quit. The problem for him was that it was an insane amount of work. He already had a full-time job. He already had a podcast he was running. He's married. He has a one-year-old baby. It's kind of like you. And now he had this newsletter that he had to send five times a week.
So, he would go to work, do all that stuff, come home, kiss his wife. Then he'd work on his newsletter from 7:00 PM to 1:00 AM every single night. Then he was working full days on the weekends. Cause you know, he didn't just write the newsletter. He actually had to do the stuff he was writing about and try to build these businesses. So, he ended up quitting.
He said his goal was to teach 70 million people over the next 10 years. He doesn’t want to teach 700 people over the next year. It wasn't really the right fit for him. He's already rich. He doesn't need $50 grand a month, but I think his story kind of goes to show kind of what you can accomplish in the newsletter space and how much space there is that really hasn't been explored. I don't know anybody else charging 150 bucks for a newsletter.
Yeah. That's the first time I've heard of that, but, I mean, I agree. I mean, is it really worth it? I mean, from 7:00 PM to 1:00 AM, that's how long is that? Five hours a day or something like that after his eight-hour day job or however much he spends on a shop.
If I was him, yeah, I’d totally dropped this. I mean, it's not worth it if you're already rich. I mean, why spend that much time? No. Especially if his main goal is to teach 70 million plus people, you can't really do that with the newsletter because that's kind of what it's all about is exclusivity.
You're not going to get 70 million people paying probably not even five bucks a month to learn what he's trying to teach. On top of that to build a business along the side with it, right. The $1 million or $100k e-comm business, that's hard in and of itself, aside from actually building a paid newsletter. You really gotta be an expert at this to actually pull it off, and he did. But it's, I don't know, man. It's not worth it.
Yeah. After the second project, he's like, I'm done. I'm gonna not do this third one. Everybody has a refund. I'm out. Good luck.
People weren't too disappointed, but he actually has a free newsletter now. I'm subscribed to it. One of them, he had this cool life dashboard graphic, where he's kind of rating how happy am I with my life?
For health, he put himself at a four out of five. For work he’s a four and a half out of five. For play he's a four out of five, self-respect he's a four and a half out of five and then love, his love life, he's only a three and a half out of five. So, for him, the casualty’s maybe his relationship, right? He's spending so much time doing other stuff, maybe his marriage is suffering. That's a good reason to cut back.
But I think, let's say you're an average indie hacker. Let's say you you're either not working a full-time job. Or, you make a less ambitious project. Is there some way that you could envision to make this work, to be able to charge people upwards of a hundred dollars a month to subscribe to a newsletter?
You know, it kind of reminds me of people building in public. Right now, people build in public basically for free. They tweet about what they're doing or they make a product page on Indie Hackers and then talk about what they're doing. They might even have a podcast where they kind of follow their story.
But Shaan's the only person I know who was doing that and charging money. What's your take, Yaro, have you seen anyone else do this in paid newsletter format? Do you think an average person who hasn't already made millions of dollars can follow in Shaan's footsteps and try something like this?
Yeah, for sure, man. Like you were saying, building in public is probably one of the most popular ways to build an audience right now. I mean, Janel's done it. Tons of people are doing it. It's definitely viable.
I think, doing what Shaan is doing, but with your product that you're building, as an indie hacker, I think it's definitely worth it. You could probably be charging at least, maybe not $150 because Shaan has that premium brand on him. But I mean, maybe you could charge $150. I don't know. I mean, why not try it?
One thing that I've noticed with the building in public crowd is that they build in public, but they don't really go that deep, like compared to Shaan’s newsletter, who was really detailed. I mean, he's telling you every single step that he's doing to actually get to that end goal. While the building public crowd's just like, okay, I hit, you know, today I did this feature and I onboarded this customer and now I'm at $5K MRR and then tomorrow it's like, okay, now I'm at $6K MRR.
It's really a general overview. So, I think taking that one step further and pretty much doing exactly what Shaan’s doing, but with your own product, maybe it won't be as successful, but still detailing that out for subscribers is probably a really good idea.
Do you know Kevin Conti?
Yeah, from Software Ideas.
Software Ideas, right. Here's a really cool idea for someone out there: subscribe to his newsletter, find one idea, it could be any idea, take that idea and then actually start building it as a newsletter. Do exactly what Shaan was doing with a very detailed daily newsletter where show exactly what you did to build that business. I think that would be a really cool idea. I would definitely subscribe to something like that.
I love it. I think that's spot on. I think Shaan’s just going way deeper than everybody else. Everybody else is building in public, the kind of just skimming along the surface where Shaan was like, no, here's every single detail about what I did every single day this week.
He wasn't just sharing that arbitrarily. He was sharing that because he had a value proposition that these details sort of aligned with. So, if you look at the average person who is building in public, that kind of like, Oh, you know, I'm just doing this because I heard you should build in public and it'll help me, so follow along with my journey and click on my links, et cetera. That's not very compelling.
Whereas Shaan was like, hey, I'm going to build three businesses to a million dollars a year, follow along to get a detailed playbook of how you can do the same thing. That's a very clear value proposition.
That's not like, hey, do this for me. It's like, hey, do this for yourself. If you think you can make a million dollars a year by listening to what Shaan’s saying, or even half of that, of course it's worth it to pay 150 bucks a month. It's probably worth it to pay thousands of dollars a month.
He had a lot of street credit. He's been on podcasts talking about the businesses he's bought and sold and built in the past. So, people believe him, he has the trust.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, if you take those two trends together, paid newsletters plus building in public and you got a really interesting business that has been proven by Shaan.
Yeah. Let's talk about this other newsletter you brought up and I think we'll wrap up, it's called Software Ideas by Kevin Conti. What's the story behind that one? I know Kevin a bit because he posts on Indie Hackers, but what do you know about Kevin's story and what should listeners?
Yeah, for sure. Kevin, he's doing $10K MRR in five months, which, I mean, that's absolutely insane for a paid newsletter. Wow. Amazing. He pretty much started, he created an MVP, right? No, sorry. He created a product about probably last year or something like that he spent six months actually building and he got nowhere, literally zero customers, no one wanted it.
He’s just like, all right, well, screw that I'm going to actually start something and actually make money from the get-go. I don't exactly remember why he started Software Ideas other than that he kind of saw the trend of people actually wanting to, don't really know what to build.
He saw on Indie Hackers are tons of people asking, especially newcomers, what do I build? What do I build that's profitable? What do I build that I don't have to waste my time on that I know if I'm going to build this, it will hit five, $10K MRR or whatever? He kind of saw that trend and wrapped it up in a paid newsletter. He sends three ideas out, but he kind of did in a really interesting way.
He didn't just start it, he did kind of a pre-sale. He created an MVP, a newsletter issue with one idea that goes really in depth, posted on Indie Hackers, posted on Twitter, Hacker News. And the really cool thing is at the bottom he was like, if you want more content of this end and are potentially willing to pay for it, just email me at this email.
He plugs an email in and he kind of set a goal to hit a certain amount of presale revenue before actually kind of diving deep into that newsletter. He hit that in like six days or something like that. It was really quick. So that kind of validated the idea that Software Ideas was going to make money.
People are already paying for it before it's an actual product. It's pretty much history ever since. I mean, it's been growing crazy, like I said, $5K MRR in five months is insane.
Yeah. It's another example of this pattern of somebody went out into the world and looked for something. In his case, he was looking for ideas.
Then he realized not only is it hard to find ideas, but there are a bunch of other people looking for this, too. So, what I should do is get really good at finding them and then give them to everybody else so they don't have to do the work of looking, which is the exact same as you and your podcasts.
You want to find details on how to start a newsletter. It's hard to find, other people are also looking, so you're going to do the hard work of interviewing people and you're going to give it to them in a podcast.
The other thing that stands out to me from this story is the fact that, as you highlighted, he wasn't working on this for years and years growing a free subscriber base and then eventually converted 2% of them to his paid newsletter.
He did a few posts, took presales, saw that it was an idea that people would pay for immediately. He just came right out of the gate with a paid newsletter and he's going to get to $10,000 a month.
Have you seen others who do this, where they don't have a large free audience, but they flip on the switch to paid content and it works out? Because usually people do the opposite and they build up a big free list.
Yeah that's kind of the general, go-to playbook, right? You create a free newsletter, you build it up to thousands, thousand subscribers. Theoretically 5% will convert. You can do the math and that's kind of the standard playbook. But if you’ve got a really interesting, productized insights, newsletter, just like Software Ideas or like Dru’s trends.vc, there's tons of them out there and you're actually providing real value, I don't see why you need an audience to actually monetize a paid newsletter right off the bat, especially if you're doing pre-sales.
If you do a paid newsletter and no one wants it, if you do, pre-sales no one wants it, then obviously no one wants it. But if you do pre-sales and you're hitting your actual numbers, I mean, you don't need an audience to build a profitable product.
I'm trying to find out how much he's charging for this.
I think it was $59 every three months or every quarter.
Yeah, I'm on his website now and he's got a quarterly subscription, which is another thing I've never seen for a newsletter.
It's the “done for you SaaS opportunity experience” he calls it. When you pay, you unlock every past issue of the newsletter and you also will get, it says, you'll get access to a video series that teaches you how to take the ideas and find traction. But he says the video series is still in development, so you don't get it yet.
It's $57 bucks over three months, which I think is a smart way to put it because if he just said this was going to be $240 bucks a year, maybe people would get sticker shock. But if he breaks it down into quarters and the price is a little bit lower, it's a little bit less of a commitment.
Maybe you should try this with your community. If you're afraid to raise prices, instead of being like, okay, it's going to be $59 bucks a year, just try $59 bucks every quarter. They’re explore willing to pay $59 bucks, but they're not necessarily going to commit for a whole year.
Yeah. That's, that's actually a good idea. I might actually try that out. You can do that with Ghost as well. They do quarterly and monthly and yearly and biquarterly or however you want to do it, they got it. So yeah, I mean, it's a smart way to do it.
$57 per three months. In three months, you could probably find one idea that you want to build. So, it's kind of like $57 for an idea plus or minus, right? I mean, you probably don't need a year's subscription because once you have your idea, I mean, do you really want more ideas? That's kind of the biggest bane of an Indie Hackers is too many ideas.
Right. Yeah. The very format of the newsletter itself is probably somewhat high churn where if you subscribed to his newsletter and it does what it's supposed to do, it gives you an idea you want to work on, then you really should graduate from it and start working on that idea and not need any more ideas, which suggests that he probably should charge even more. You might have higher churn than another newsletter that provides ongoing value like The Browser, presumably you're never going to churn from wanting to read the best information on the web. They'll still be doing that years from now.
Software Ideas is on Baremetrics as a public thing that you can see. If you go to softwareideas.baremetrics.com, you can definitely see the churn numbers, you can see his revenue, you can see as active customers. Like you said, churn is kind of high. If you look at like the last couple of months…
9% churn, I think. What’s he at, 10%?
Yeah. 9.3%. I mean, it's down 20%. So, it used to be 11.7% or up to 12% back in December. It has been dropping. I don't know what he's doing to drop that number, it's definitely a high churn business.
Imagine 10% of your user base is turning every month. As a SaaS business, you're going to go out of business in no time.
Exactly. But as a newsletter, if you get this money upfront it's a little bit easier. At the end of the day, he's still making, what, he's up to $11,000 a month in revenue.
Again, this is less than half a year after he started it, which I think is much faster growth than the vast majority of all indie hackers who are starting a SaaS business.
I think this is one of those businesses that are almost inevitable. Tons of people are just like, cause that's the thing, you find an idea and then you stop paying for the newsletter because you got your idea.
It's kind of insane looking at these numbers, man. I love these like built in public companies on Baremetrics.
Super interesting to see, to just kind of go research.
Another point here about the sort of nature of what you're writing about, we talked earlier about the frequency with which you send newsletters. Nivi Achanta, with her newsletter, she's sending it once a week because she's sending actionable tips for dealing with climate change. How many actionable things can you really do to deal with climate change every week? Probably one, you know, probably people will do less than that, maybe one a month. So, she doesn't have to send at a high frequency.
With Software Ideas, I think it's probably similar. How many ideas can people really take and run with? Probably not that many. He doesn't need to send his newsletter daily, once a week or a few times a month is enough for him.
Whereas with something like The Browser trying to keep people entertained or something like, Morning Brew or The Hustle, you're trying to keep people informed. People have an almost limitless appetite for entertainment and news. They want a little bit of that every single day. So, with those newsletters, not only do you have to send probably more often, but you can actually get away with sending more often and not having that much churn, cause you're not going to overload people.
If your accountant sent you email about doing your taxes every week you'd be like, I only need this email once a year. You would unsubscribe because it's noise. But if you get an email about the news once a day from The Information or something, or the Morning Brew, you're not going to ever unsubscribe because once a day seems to be about the right frequency.
For sure. It's B2C versus B2B newsletters. The Browser, it's a B2C newsletter, their customers are all just regular people. While Software Ideas, it's more towards kind of businesses. I mean, indie hackers that want to start businesses. So, I kind of consider that B2B cause people actually want some sort of actionable insight out of it versus being entertained, like you said. You can skin the cat a million ways with the newsletter.
Cool. We've got more ideas on this list, but I think we're out of time. So, I think what people are going to have to do is go to your show and check out the Newsletter Crew. You can just search for a Newsletter Crew in your podcast player, subscribe to your show.
You've interviewed, I think, close to 40 different people who are making a living from their newsletter and there's going to be much more. If the people are interested in that they could potentially join your community as well.
Hopefully, you’ll charge them much more than 59 bucks a year by the time this episode is out. I want to ask you before we sign off here, from all the different stories you've seen from your experiences as an indie hacker yourself what's one lesson you would want to leave listeners with that they can learn from what you've done?
Just one idea at a time. Just take it slow, take it easy. Don't try to do 10 things at once. Yeah. Just pick one thing, go at it if it works. Keep going at it. If it doesn't work, drop it, start something else. But don't try to start five, six projects at once. It just doesn't work.
Don’t start five or six projects at once. Don't start two projects at once. Just do one thing at a time. Love it. Yaro Bagriy, you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you, Courtland, for having me.
Yeah. Do you want to tell people where they can go to find out more about Newsletter Crew also anything else you're working on online?
You can go to newslettercrew.com. You can find all the podcasts there. Like Cortland said, you can go to the actual podcast player, type in Newsletter Crew. You can go to yarobagriy.com if you want to sign up for my newsletter. I send it out once a week, just kind of a summary of my journey.
I'm creating another smaller kind of SaaS/microSaaS called Referral Kit, which is the actual SaaS that I’m building to sell to my Newsletter Crew audience. It’s still under development, but maybe it'll be out by the time this podcast is out, that's at referralkit.co.
All right. Thanks again. You're awesome.
Listeners, if you enjoyed this episode and you want an easy way to support the podcast you should leave a review for us on iTunes or Apple podcasts. Probably the fastest way to get there if you're on a Mac is to visit indiehackers.com/reviews. I really appreciate your support and I read pretty much all the reviews you leave over there
Thank you so much for listening and as always, I will see you next time.
Did you know Indie Hackers has a newsletter?
Sign up to get insights, takeaways, and exclusive content from each new episode, directly from the host, Courtland Allen.