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I grew an online community to $100K ARR over one year, AMA!

Hey Indie Hackers!

I recently crossed both $100K in projected ARR and $100K in actual revenue with Ness Labs, a platform for knowledge workers to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health. And I finally got to a point where I could hire team members to help me grow the business!

screenshot

Thanks so much @channingallen for inviting me to host this celebratory AMA 🥳

I’m saying “platform” because there are now quite a few moving parts, including a blog, a newsletter, a library of ebooks, online courses, and a community.

In terms of business model, we have three main revenue streams:

  • The private community, with a subscription at $9/month or $49/year (which includes access to the forums, deals on relevant products, virtual meetups, and online courses)
  • Sponsored interviews with founders of tools for thought, currently priced at $1,500 for an in-depth feature promoted on Twitter and in the newsletter
  • Paid workshops and consulting (pricing varies a lot depending on what the customer needs)

The $100K figures above only include revenue from the private community, I still haven't consolidated everything — but it's tax season so I'll keep you posted 😅

The team is currently myself, a sales & partnerships manager, and a social media & community manager. They both started working at Ness Labs in the past month. I’m incredibly grateful for their support as we grow the business, and trying to do my best as a manager — which is a challenge in itself when you get comfortable working on your own as a solo founder!

For context, Ness Labs started as a tiny newsletter in Summer 2019. The community was launched in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. I wanted to offer a space where people could connect, learn together, and hopefully make friends who like to geek out about the same topics. Last month, we started our sponsorship programme, and have just crossed $14,000 in revenue from that initiative alone.

I want to stress that I did go from $0 to $100K in one year after I launched the private community, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the audience I patiently built through the free newsletter.

I’m happy to answer any questions around how I grew the business from scratch, hiring and managing team members when you started as a solo founder, our content and marketing strategies, how to foster an engaged community, how to use social media platforms to promote your content, and anything else you’re curious about. AMA :)

  1. 5

    Congrats Anne-Laure.

    I'm curious — if Ness Labs didn't exist today, what would be the first 3 things you would do to start it from scratch!? (Assuming you would rebuild). Can be specific tools or just overall approach/strategy. Thanks and awesome work! :)

    1. 2

      Thank you, Mitchell! I would probably follow a similar recipe (even though I didn't really know it was a "recipe" at the time since I had no idea what I was doing):

      • Start by building an audience, which I did on Twitter and with my newsletter
      • Once you reach a decent number of followers/subscribers, launch a community so they can connect together (the exact number of followers/subscribers you need depends on the type of community you want to build, for example a small mastermind of 10 community members may only require a newsletter with 100-200 subscribers)
      • Once the community has grown to a point where you need support, hire people to help you! It doesn't have to be a huge commitment: I started with someone who joined on a freelance contract for a few hours a week, but it helped me a lot to manage all of the different moving parts of the community.

      Step 2 and 3 are just one avenue you can take to create a sustainable business from the audience you built in step 1. You could also find some sponsors for your newsletter, but then the number of subscribers you have to aim for is much, much higher. I hope that helps!

  2. 5

    insane numbers in such a short period. huge congratulations.

    this might be too big of a question, but: what's an average "day in the life of anne-laure"? like, how much of your neuroscience education (etc.) do you incorporate into your processes for being mindfully productive?

    1. 3

      Thanks so much Channing — and thanks again for inviting me to host this AMA!

      My days always start with writing. I have two hours blocked every morning for researching and writing articles for Ness Labs. Then, I'll participate in the community and spend a bit of time on Twitter. I try to not have any meetings in the morning. In the afternoon (when I'm a bit more awake 😅) I do calls, meetups, podcasts, etc. Thankfully, my workload is actually not bad at all.

      And I incorporate quite a bit from my neuroscience education into the way I work. The concepts of cognitive load, mental health management, the generation effect, etc. are central to the way I make decisions and spend my time / mental energy.

      p.s. I did a short day in the life video on YouTube which kind of addresses the first part of your question :)

  3. 4

    Anne,
    Greetings from Portugal.
    I've been following your project since the middle of last year and it is been incredible to see the growth. Congratulations! Incredible!

    Would love to know how you use social media to promote your content/community? (for example, for acquisition purposes) and, for example, how you decide on what content/experiences create to add value to your members?

    For example, how do you decide on what topics to write about this week for your newsletter?

    Thanks so much for your time! And, again, congratulations! You are the best!

    1. 2

      Thank you so much for your support, Francisco! For social media, I use it mainly in three ways:

      • To post links to my new articles and YouTube videos
      • To connect with people are interested in similar topics
      • To work and learn in public (for example by sharing milestones and challenges)

      I feel like all of these bring value to folks I connect with on social media, and it's been really great to be part of a little network of nerds who love to geek about topics I care about! A subset of these folks may join the Ness Labs community, but it's mostly a byproduct of providing value on a consistent basis.

      In terms of choosing topics, I just sift through my notes and see if there's anything inspiring in there. I constantly take notes throughout the week — while reading online articles or books, while listening to podcasts, while having conversations with friends. So I have a very long list of potential topics and it's just a matter of choosing one, which can be hard sometimes!

      I use writing as a thinking tool, so sometimes I don't know a lot about a topic before I start working on an article. Writing weekly articles is an excuse / forcing mechanism to research and learn. Many thanks for the thoughtful questions!

  4. 3

    Thanks for doing this Anne-Laure.

    I run a community with a similar audience to yours. I have been considering hiring a social media and community manager. I have someone in mind but I've had trouble nailing down precisely how they'd add value. This person has experience with community management before. However, I'm reticent to hire someone post stuff without having a specific strategy in mind. How should one think about community management and social media? What is the job description? What are the KPIs?

    1. 5

      That's a great question — something I was also worried about at the beginning as well. In case that helps, here are some of the tasks our community manager has listed in their job description:

      • Welcome everyone in the community and point them out to relevant resources
      • Manage the community events calendar
      • Reply to requests going to our community support inbox
      • Participate in the community by replying to conversations and connecting members together
      • If they have time after all of these are covered, brainstorm and suggest ideas to make the community even more valuable to members

      I haven't found the need to create KPIs at this stage. As long as members are happy and get the support they need, I'm happy as well :)

  5. 2

    Congrats on growing it.
    Which software do you use to track your MRR and ARR numbers?

    1. 1

      Thank you, Alex! The screenshot in the post above is from Memberful. I also use Stripe for my overall revenue, which includes sponsorships, workshops, etc.

      1. 1

        Thanks! Looks like a $100 pricey option for me. I'd need something free at the moment.

  6. 2

    Well done in creating value for people!

    I'm also building a 'platform' as you said, been calling it an 'ecosystem' so far but might steal your wording haha.
    I'm doing a newsletter + resources in the electric vehicle space and got both industry leaders and just EV owners signed up. If you'd be at a start at around 1k+ free newsletter subscribers like this, would you launch a community on Circle? Or somewhere else like Discord etc?

    What's the best way to get people engaging in these communities? Because that's what separates an audience from a community, right - the people engaging with each other?

    Thanks for sharing with the community here :)

    1. 3

      Thank you, Jaan! I think 1K newsletter subscribers is a good number to start a community. In terms of platform, you need to think about the experience you want to create.

      If you want a small mastermind, it could just be a Telegram group. If you want real-time conversations with the ability to host video calls, Discord is great. And if you want asynchronous conversations that eventually turn into a searchable knowledge base for newcomers, Circle is IMHO the way to go. There are lots of great options, it's just about being intentional as a community builder :)

      In terms of fostering engagement, what has worked really well for Ness Labs is to remove myself as much as possible from the equation. I do host and join events, but I encourage people to form their own groups within the community, and to host their own events around their interests. The more your members feel like they are co-owners of the community, the more value they will get, and the higher the engagement levels will be. I hope that helps!

      1. 2

        Thanks for the insight, Anne-Laure!

        The 'levels' breakdown of the different community building tools make sense. More and more I'm gearing towards Circle, especially since I'm not just creating a place to chat but a more complex platform.

        Removing yourself from the equation makes sense too. In the beginning, I guess you'd still have to be an 'initiator' of sorts? To make sure conversations do happen? I agree that more autonomy to members = more engagement and overall satisfaction with the community in general.

        Thanks again!

        1. 3

          Yes, you absolutely have to be very active as a community builder in the beginning! But as the community grows, you will find that people build their own connections and friendships, and you have to act more as a facilitator rather than an animator.

          1. 2

            Makes sense.

            Another Q:

            Do you see in the foreseeable future hitting a 'limit' of members in the community/platform you are building?

            There's this idea that a community can be thriving until some criteria, after which the quality will give too much way to quantity, causing the community to collapse.

            I'm wondering what you would think the most optimal size of your community would be? Just a wild guess even.

            Cheers

            1. 1

              It's a great question, but it's really hard to tell. I think the community members will always be a subset of my newsletter subscribers, so the question really is: how big can the newsletter be? And I genuinely don't know.

              In any case, I want to keep the community open to anyone who's interested in these topics. Because it's a paid community, it means I can hire people to help if we reach a scale where we need extra support to maintain a great experience.

              1. 1

                I just thought of another:

                What outlet do you give in community/engagement for the free newsletter users?

                I've been wanting to build a community for my 1,175 readers and there's no paid version of my platform yet (although incoming in a few months).

                Would you hold off with creating something for them to launch the community in the paid version or would you give the readers something similar in the free version already. How did it work for you before you did paid?

                1. 2

                  I didn't really have an outlet for the free newsletter subscribers before I launched the community, the only engagement I encouraged was to reply back to my emails with any comments, questions, or feedback.

                  If you use something like Substack, there is a comment section which can be great to create a mini-community.

                  I think 1,000 free subscribers is enough to launch a paid community — depending on the topic you may only need a few dozen people to foster great conversations!

                  1. 1

                    Thank you for the insight. :)

  7. 2

    Nice work, @anthilemoon!

    Would love to hear your thoughts on how important you think it is to have a niche when it comes to building a community.

    Seems to me that your community encompasses a lot of different types of people and interests.

    Thanks!

    1. 3

      Thank you, Nick! It may seem like we have lots of different types of people and interests in the community, but knowledge workers who care about productivity, creativity and mental health are actually a niche — I can see from the conversations in the forums that members truly have a lot in common.

      It's not that easy IRL to find friends who can geek about productivity systems, mindfulness, etc. So I do think it's important to niche down a little bit so you can create an agora where people with similar interests can connect together. :)

  8. 1

    Congratulations! Phenomenal growth!

    1. Which platform did you use for your community? What was your rational for choosing this platform?
    2. How did you determine your pricing model? What is the rough ratio between monthly/annual members?
      Thank you!
    1. 1

      Thank you!

      1. I use Circle because it's easy to set up, easy to manage, and helps foster thoughtful, asynchronous conversations. You can build both a knowledge base and a community. I even use it to host my online courses.

      2. I tried to offer a price that would be affordable for members around the world, while leaving enough margin to cover the costs of running a community. I know some communities have a much higher price point but I'm very happy with where I landed!

  9. 1

    Woohoo, good for you@anthilemoon! (don't have a question, just came here to say 'hi' and congrats :))

    1. 1

      Thank you so much, Bhumi! And I'm so glad you're part of the community :)

  10. 1

    That's a good revenue metric for something in 12-24 months doing without any external capital investment (monetary).
    I am looking to create a productivity web app myself from scratch and have a $100 MRR in 6 months actually, on the side. (Natively I'm a game developer).
    ---
    Although the comment section have fulfilled enough queries, I think you can give some advise from your end for a guy starting to create and launch a web app for productivity in 6 months, because there can be a good chance of me not knowing what I don't know?Basic tips are also most welcome. Good Job & thanks once again. :D

    1. 2

      Thank you! I've never launched a web app so I don't think I'd be the right person to answer that question though :)

  11. 1

    Wow, it looks great!

  12. 1

    First of all, congratulations, these numbers are huge. And thank you for this question session.

    I'm curious to know how you used social media to promote your content, like which platforms were the right ones and what kind of content you posted to get some engagement. Also how did you make your community grow through your newsletter, and do you have any advice to write a good and engaging one?

    1. 2

      Thank you, Ruben! At the beginning, I was systematically posting everything I wrote to Twitter, which really helped to grow the newsletter. I was also posting on HackerNews, but that was a bit more hit and miss. (virtually no traffic if you don't make it to the front page)

      Nowadays, I don't post all of my articles on social media, and I rely a lot more on the newsletter and organic traffic from search engines to get people to discover my work.

      In terms of writing an engaging newsletter, the most precious tool is feedback from your audience! I personally encourage my readers to reply to my newsletter, so I get a good idea of what they enjoyed (or not). Looking through your analytics to find the content that seems to resonate the most with your audience is also good practice. I hope that helps!

  13. 1

    Just signed up myself. Could you please share how did your first month look like when you launched your platform, in terms of traction and engagement?

    Also, how do you empathise with your audience and know what kind of content you should be writing about.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. 1

      Yay, welcome to the community! Here is a screenshot I took 30 days after I launched the community:

      In terms of topics to write about, I explore ideas at the intersection of what I care about, and what my audience cares about. At the beginning, it was a lot of experimentation, but now thanks to my analytics I can tell what kind of content is most popular, and I can make sure to write stuff people will hopefully find interesting.

      1. 2

        Thank you for sharing.

  14. 1

    Huge congrats on all the success Anne-Laure!

    I'm curious to ask: if you had to do it all over again, what's 1 daily habit you maybe would have done differently to the scale the community to the size that you did?

    Just curious!

    1. 1

      Thank you so much, Joel! One daily habit I think could have helped make things more manageable would be to spend 30 minutes looking at our processes and see what could be automated. To this day, there's still a lot of stuff that's fairly manual, and I'd love to automate myself away from these — for example, managing our community events calendar. I'm trying to do this more often now, but it unfortunately hasn't become a habit yet!

  15. 1

    Congratulations the success so far Anne-Laure!

    My question would be what methods worked best to grow from the free newsletter when you started?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. 1

      Many thanks, Ali! Twitter was the biggest growth driver at the beginning. I also go lucky a few times on HackerNews, and launched the newsletter on Product Hunt which brought a few thousand new subscribers. Today, it's pretty balanced between Twitter and traffic from Google, which is growing slowly but steadily.

  16. 1

    Thanks for doing this Anne-Laure.
    Your growth is just impressive.
    How do you currently acquire new members ? Is it the same way since you started the newsletter ? I guess it's content marketing ?

    1. 1

      Thank you, Abdellah! It's a mix of content and social media. We get visitors from search engines and Twitter mostly. One of my goals for this year is to look into our acquisition channels to make them more efficient, but right now it's basically just writing good content and tweeting about it.

  17. 1

    I could have sworn I signed up before for your Maker Mind newsletter when you were first starting off. I even found the article Courtland did on you back from Dec. 9, 2019 in my Gmail. Weird. Signed up again though!

    1. 2

      Yay, thank you for signing up!

  18. 1

    What piece of media (book, essay, video, talk, whatever) has had the most impact on how you live your life and/or run your business?

    1. 2

      Definitely the talk You and Your Research by Richard W. Hamming. I also really enjoyed How to Change your Mind by Michael Pollan — it's the book that convinced me I should study neuroscience.

  19. 1

    I've seen successful communities around shared goals. These communities provide advice and support in reaching those goals, a way to be accountable to one another, and bragging rights.

    I've seen successful communities around being in the same industry - these communities provide networking opportunities and a way to "be in the know."

    Your community doesn't seem to be either of these - rather it seems to be a community built around a shared interest - specifically techniques for enhancing productivity and creativity. What advice can you give around building communities of shared interest?

    1. 2

      I think there are lots of communities built around shared interests as well, whether it's knitting, photography, or writing. There are a few things you could do to make such a community successful:

      • Provide interest-based resources people can learn from
      • Invite experts in that area of interest
      • Connect people together so they can learn from each other
      • Start interesting conversations around topics they care about
      • Celebrate members who support and lift other members in their quest for knowledge

      It's really not that different from shared-goals and industry-based communities. As long as people have interesting conversations within a safe space, you have done a great job already!

  20. 1

    This comment was deleted 11 days ago.

    1. 2

      Thank you! I know it's a cliche saying this, but do things that don't scale. A community is about fostering authentic connections between human beings — that's not something you can automate or fix with code. Spend a lot of time talking to your community members, asking questions, and understanding their needs.

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