Newsletter Crew May 15, 2020

People are paying a lot to read great content

Courtland Allen @csallen

"I know people who do it. I've done it. You can make $10M year, $50M a year, with four writers and an email list." —Sam Parr

Most indie hackers are developers, and developers love writing code. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that you can make more money, faster, by writing words instead.

As recently as ten years ago, it was an open question whether people would ever pay for written content online. Then in 2011 The New York Times launched their digital subscription business, and the rest is history. In the last quarter alone, they added over 600k subscribers and generated over $130M in revenue. Not too shabby.

Indie hackers can make lots of money writing, too

Of course The New York Times has a lot going for it that indie hackers don't: Funding via the public markets. A world-famous, centuries-old media brand. Over 1,600 journalists. And an insatiable drive to continue growing and remain near the top of its field.

But that last point is more like shackles than wings. Indie hackers don't need to be huge. We don't need to make $130M a quarter. Most of us would be ecstatic making 0.1% of that, with 0.1% as many writers, and a quirky brand we dreamed up last Thursday. For example:

  • Maker Mind — Anne-Laure Le Cunff created a newsletter for mindful productivity, and she launched a companion membership service in March that made $5,000 in its first month.
  • Stratechery — Ben Thompson started writing "big tech" strategy and analysis in 2014 as a relatively unknown blogger. Within six months he had 1,000 subscribers paying $100/year. I estimate today he's close to 100,000 paying subscribers.
  • The Hustle — Sam Parr created a mailing list for business and tech news, built out a team, and grew advertising revenue to over $10M/year. His new subscription-only mailing list, Trends, is generating millions in revenue as well.

It turns out, readers don't need to hear from thousands of journalists. They'll pay just as much (if not more) to hear from a single person if the conditions are right and the content is valuable.

The media business playbook

The standard indie hacker playbook goes something like this: Identify a niche market, so you can avoid ruinous competition. Solve a problem of real monetary value for this specific group of people, so they'll pay you for what you've built. Charge more than you think you should, because you can't afford to be cheap when you're small. And finally, do things that don't scale for distribution, e.g. sales and cold outreach early on.

These are broad principles that indie hackers can take to almost any industry. Online media companies are no exception.

To wit, I asked Sam Parr how he'd start a paid newsletter business today, and he outlined four very similar steps: pick a tiny-but-growing audience whose members have lots of money to spend; write utilitarian content that helps them make more money; charge between $500 and $1k annually; and grow your subscriber base via ads and free viral written content.

These rules aren't hard and fast. For example, Sam started his mailing list from scratch by opting in all of his friends, family, and colleagues. Anne-Laure is one of the most prolific tweeters I know, and she's leveraged Twitter to acquire subscribers without paying a dime. Ben's articles for Stratechery are widely shared on social media and often forwarded via email, no ads required. And both Ben and Anne-Laure are charging far less than $500/year.

But they're also writing valuable content for a niche audience of high earners (entrepreneurs and investors, respectively), and that seems non-negotiable if you want to get paid.

Software as a Service vs Content as a Service

None of the above is easy, but writing compares favorably with code-based businesses in some crucial ways:

  • Writing is difficult, but so is product design and development, and both are learnable skills.
  • Code scales, but so does media. Write once, distribute to billions.
  • Software takes months to develop, but content takes mere hours. With the right tools, you can have a paid blog and newsletter up and running in the next 30 minutes.

The allure of SaaS, however, is the automation baked into code.

Code provides a service. Services are mechanisms for delivering value on a continual basis, meaning the same people will regularly re-use the same service for years on end. Think Slack, Gmail, JIRA, etc. This allows service providers to justify charging recurring fees. And since code provides the

Publishers would love to charge recurring fees, too, but sadly individual articles do not provide a service. Even the best content rarely succeeds in bringing back people who've already read it. In SaaS terms, churn rates for content are close to 100%.

In order to turn articles into services, publishers can package them up into series, and distribute these series to readers via mailing lists, podcasts, blogs, etc. Crucially, these series need to provide cohesive, distinct value. And they need to be delivered on a consistent basis.

For example, Stratechery is a service that keeps subscribers informed about tech, and does so at a strategic level that helps subscribers do their jobs better. But if Ben switched to writing about a random smattering of topics, the value of his service would become indistinct and difficult to discern, and most subscribers could no longer justify paying for it.

If Ben went a step further and quit writing altogether, then the service itself would cease to exist, despite all of his past work, and revenue would drop to zero.

This is the dreaded content treadmill, but it's not impossible to escape.

Code can be automated, yes. But writing can be outsourced, which is the next best thing.

Sam Parr runs The Hustle Trends with a skeleton crew of just three people, and he anticipates growing it to over $10M in annual revenue this year. Good freelance journalists can be hired for less than a dollar per word. And due to the adpocalypse caused by COVID-19, ad-supported media companies are laying off great journalists by the dozens right now.

When you combine that with the fact that more people than ever are reading content online, there's never been a better time for indie hackers to create paid media businesses.

Navigating the Paid Media Ecosystem

Unsurprisingly, as more people are starting paid media businesses, an ecosystem has sprung up to support them:

  • Patreon describes itself as a "membership platform that makes it easy for artists and creators to get paid."
  • Medium has declared that "writers should be paid for the quality of their ideas."
  • Substack "makes it simple for a writer to start an email newsletter that makes money from subscriptions."
  • Ghost allows you to "turn your audience into a business [by using] memberships and subscriptions to develop a direct relationship."

Indie hackers looking for business ideas would be smart to investigate this trend and consider filling a gap in the burgeoning ecosystem, as John O'Nolan has done with Ghost. But indie hackers looking to start paid media businesses themselves should be wary about which parts of the ecosystem they come to rely on.

Many of these platforms will, predictably, act as marketplaces that promise to connect writers with readers in return for taking a cut of revenue. More often than not, that these marketplaces will fail at the former and succeed at the latter. Not a great deal for the vast majority of their writers.

Successful marketplaces tend to be those that capture the lion's share of the demand side of their market. Think YouTube with video, the App Store on mobile, Google with search, Amazon with e-commerce, and Airbnb with vacation rentals. Smaller marketplaces have much more difficulty driving distribution for a large number of creators, and there's little reason to believe that any of these market places for paid media will emerge above the rest as some monopolistic power:

  • It's difficult to share direct links to mobile apps, so the App Store is valuable as a discovery platform. However, it's easy to share direct links to content via URLs, and therefore social media, group chats, Google search, etc. are all sufficient as discovery platforms.
  • E-commerce and vacation rentals require high degrees of trust, so buyers prefer reputable sites like Amazon and Airbnb who (presumably) vet their sellers and hosts, prioritize customer support, provide thousands of customer reviews. Reading content, however, is relatively unrisky. So content marketplaces provide little additional value in this regard.
  • Video is an immersive experience, yet it's consumed passively. As a result, viewers don't complain when YouTube autoplays the next video, and viewers frequently click on related videos, which makes YouTube insanely great at promoting creators and driving discovery. By comparison, platforms for written content struggle to get readers to click on related articles, in part because reading is an effortful task, and in part because readers more often click links to content while in a distracted state or in the course of doing other things like checking email.

Even worse, most content marketplaces inject their own branding and design, depriving publishers of two valuable methods for differentiating themselves and avoiding commoditization. One Medium publication looks more-or-less like every other Medium publication, and readers are more likely to remember the platform ("I read this on Medium") than the author. At least once a month I find myself explaining, "I made Indie Hackers blue for a reason."

The average writer is helpless to do much about this state of affairs, except to try writing more, or writing better, or writing differently, in order to compete against other writers on their chosen marketplace. And the competition will only become more fierce as more people start paid media businesses.

But indie hackers are founders, not just writers, and founders wear every hat. That means accepting responsibility for marketing and distribution, rather than outsourcing it to a marketplace that promises to handle distribution.

In that sense, the more appealing platforms to indie hackers will be those like Ghost, which provide a suite of helpful tools for getting set up (Stripe integration, CMS, hosting, etc.) without assuming responsibility for distribution, taking a cut of revenue, or limiting branding.

The Future

In the past we've seen hundreds of indie hackers build audiences by creating great content, and then leverage those audiences as distribution channels for stickier, paid software services.

But in the future I think we'll see more indie hackers stick with content, and treat their writing as a valuable service itself rather than a means to an end. In many cases, they'll make more money that way, and they'll make it much faster.

P.S. Sam Parr and I had a great discussion on paid content businesses on The Indie Hackers Podcast recently. He's one of the best, so check out the episode if you're curious about the model.

  1. 10

    🤫 You're making it hot Courtland!

    But seriously

    • Speed (Generally faster than SaaS)
    • Moat (You can reach feature parity in SaaS but can't copy Ben Thompson's voice/perspective. Some SaaS have moats. Most don't.)

    I think we'll reach a place where you can easily copy the result of Ben's "voice" though. His paid posts, his paid podcast episodes. So the question becomes... How do you lobby that distribution into a better moat. Community (with network effects) for example.

    Brand is a moat. But I think of it more like a magnet. See rappers who have to go on the road to make money. I think the moat for some people doing content will be community. See Trends.co for a masterclass.

    1. 2

      Building moats and avoiding commoditization are definitely crucial. I have some thoughts here.

      Brand

      You're right about brand being huge. Branding is almost always more important in highly competitive industries where the products are basically commodities and only have mild differences. This is why so many of the best brands are found on things like shoes, cereals, cans of soup, candy bars, soft drinks, electronics, etc.

      I think this applies to media businesses, too. If you had a local newspaper your moat was simply monopolizing distribution in a geographic area, but new media companies have to compete on the Internet where everyone has infinite distribution. So indie hackers who go the media route should probably spend more time thinking about brand than others. I thought about it a ton for IH itself.

      Community

      Community is a great way to add value, perhaps just enough extra value to convince people to pay who other wise wouldn't. Some examples that come to mind: Adam Wathan's TailwindUI, Anne-Laure's Ness Labs, Ben Tossell's Makerpad, Pieter Levels' Nomad List, Shane Parrish's Farnam Street, Indie Hackers obviously, The Hustle Trends as you mentioned, etc. Even Ben Thompson has a community for Stratechery.

      If you grow a community large enough (which requires a lot of time, TLC, and a great brand), the network effects make it almost unassailable. But from what I've seen, most communities tend to stay pretty small. Partly that's because it's just as hard if not harder to grow a community as it is to grow the media business itself. And partly that's because paid communities are closed by definition, and it's easier to grow free and open communities like Reddit or Hacker News.

      However, I do wonder how much of a moat you actually get from having a smaller, closed community. I can see it helping with reader retention, and also being a great source of content (The Hustle Trends does these great emails with insights from members of their Facebook group), but I'm not super convinced it can stop a better competitor from eating your lunch.

      Growth

      Growing rapidly is probably my favorite moat here, because readers are fairly loyal. Email subscriber churn is generally pretty low if you're sending out A+ content at a reasonable frequency, so I don't think the Ben Thompsons or Matt Levines of the world who've been accumulating subscribers for a while have a lot to fear from new competition.

      Some contributors to rapid growth might include: being first (or at least very early), being the best, targeting an underserved niche without much competition so you can gobble the whole thing up, and regularly publishing free content that goes viral and gets you new subscribers.

      IMO if you can grow quickly, retain your readers, and you're successfully charging them subscription fees, you don't necessarily need to parlay them into some secondary business model.

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      This comment was deleted 4 months ago.

  2. 7

    Nice writeup, Courtland.

    A few reactions from the perspective of a full time indie hacker and coder:

    Software takes months to develop, but content takes mere hours.

    One piece of content may take hours, but building a repository of content which justifies payment will take a few weeks at least.

    The lower the barrier to entry, the more people doing it. So the time won in churning out something faster is lost in the extra time needed to get it noticed and validated.

    It is easier for a coder to find ways to differentiate a SaaS product. With content, one just has words and graphics to play with. And if one doesn't have much writing experience to begin with, it is even harder.

    A coder won't be playing to his / her strengths by starting a content business.

    If Ben went a step further and quit writing altogether, then the service itself would cease to exist, despite all of his past work, and revenue would drop to zero.

    It makes a passive income stream virtually impossible, which is the goal for many indie hackers who write code.

    This is the dreaded content treadmill, but it's not impossible to escape. Code can be automated, yes. But writing can be outsourced, which is the next best thing.

    For an indie making $10K MRR, maintaining product quality is crucial. Brand equity is still low at this stage.

    Automation will not dilute the quality of a SaaS business. Outsourcing will dilute the quality of a content business, or at the very least, will require considerable oversight (i.e. time) to maintain the same standards.

    Therefore, I don't think this is a viable option for $10K MRR content businesses. It may make sense after one has strong brand equity, like The Hustle or NYT.

    So, as a coder, if I have to choose between a $10K MRR SaaS business vs. $10K MRR content business, I'd pick SaaS.

    1. 3

      A coder won't be playing to his / her strengths by starting a content business.

      The concept of "playing to your strengths" as a founder is a funny one. Recently I've been thinking it's unintuitive and may be a bit backwards.

      Being a founder requires wearing every single hat — sales, marketing, pricing, strategy, design, code, customer support, analytics, etc. Probably the most common failure mode I've seen among early IHers, besides never getting started, is being too reluctant to wear the hats they aren't comfortable with. This is usually the result of being addicted to wearing the hats they love best, which is usually justified as "playing to my strengths."

      Personally, I experienced the same things. My strengths are product design and development. I've wasted many years fucking around with code and neglecting the other parts of my businesses that need love. Coding is just too fun sometimes. With Indie Hackers, I deliberately flipped the script and chose an idea that wouldn't allow me to code too much. There just literally wasn't that much code to write. I was forced to spend more time on marketing, blogging, sending emails, etc., and that worked out very well.

      And if anything, the smaller scope of the product itself meant that I could take more advantage of my strength with product design. If you're great at X and you tackle something extremely ambitious, you'll do an okay job at it where others might fail. But nobody's really impressed with doing an okay job. It's better to tackle something simple, because then you can use your skills to show off by going above-and-beyond.

      So I'm very partial to the idea of people who are great in one area starting a business that de-prioritizes that area a bit.

      Automation will not dilute the quality of a SaaS business. Outsourcing will dilute the quality of a content business, or at the very least, will require considerable oversight (i.e. time) to maintain the same standards.

      I think you're 100% correct that outsourcing (hiring writers) can risk the quality of your content.

      However, the costs of counteracting that are no higher than the costs of building and maintaining a SaaS business. With content, your quality can start at something close to perfect from day #1, whereas SaaS typically has a long ramp-up time to build a product that customers truly find impressive. Getting it to that point is incredibly expensive and effortful. In the early days especially, SaaS founders have significantly less time than content creators, because there's just so much to code. And this is usually on top of having to do things like hire and write content, anyway.

      It's certainly time-consuming to find, vet, and hire writers. But it's surprisingly doable. The world is just overflowing with really great journalists. It's also not a process you need to repeat that many times.

      So, as a coder, if I have to choose between a $10K MRR SaaS business vs. $10K MRR content business, I'd pick SaaS.

      If presented that choice, I would, too! But in reality, I predict it will be much harder and will take much longer to build the $10k MRR SaaS business.

      1. 1

        Being a founder requires wearing every single hat

        Yea, this is true regardless of whether one wants to run a successful content business or a SaaS business. So, I see that as a given.

        I guess what I meant is that I'd feel more comfortable if my business's differentiator is something I am strong at. For most of IHers, that is coding and product dev.

        Of the successful indie content businesses, I'd be curious to know how many of the founders came from a coding background. Have any data on that?

        Cursory research indicates MakerMind and Stratechery founders were not coders. So, it makes sense to me why they didn't start SaaS businesses; they would not be playing to their strengths if they did.

        With Indie Hackers, I deliberately flipped the script and chose an idea that wouldn't allow me to code too much.

        Interesting that that was a conscious decision. But, with that level of self-awareness and willpower, I predict you would've eventually succeeded with a SaaS too :)

        So I'm very partial to the idea of people who are great in one area starting a business that de-prioritizes that area a bit.

        Very interesting POV. I'm not sold on it, but would love more examples if you have them.

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          I think something you are maybe not considering is the advantage of being in a market where you have expertise other people don't have.

          That perspective is in itself an incredible advantage. A lot of the disruption in our industry is people with no experience in an industry making a juggernaut because of their expertise in another area. A few examples:

          • The guys at Google started a technology company that is actually a media company. Facebook is in the same situation.
          • The guys at Shopify made their e-commerce on an industry they didn't know a lot about it.

          I know the probable answer for this is that technology was critical and that they are primarily technology, but that's only partially the truth. They are in a specific industry landscape. So it is probable that independently of what software you write you only have a part of the expertise.

          Unless you sell software for other developers you are not fully in the software business or playing to (all) your strengths.

        2. 1

          I don't have a ton of examples off the top of my head, but here are a few:

          • Pieter Levels' key differentiator for Nomad List and RemoteOK are his curation of information and the network of travelers he's built as a result. Nomad List started out as a spreadsheet and became a functional-but-simple website.
          • Wes Bos' key differentiator is largely being a good teacher, as well as his consistency with marketing e.g. tweeting helpful things.
          • Indie Hackers' key differentiator was the curated information and, later, the community, same as Nomad List.
          • Sahil from Gumroad didn't really differentiate based on coding ability, but rather by marketing (targeting a good niche).

          That said, I don't want to overstate this. There are tons of counterexamples, e.g. AJ from Carrd. To the extent that you have the willpower to avoid the common founder trap of spending too much time on the stuff you're good at, then this advice is fairly useless.

          That said, I do think competing primarily based on product quality is hard for most indie hackers who don't have a ton of resources (time, money, engineers). Niching down to minimize the competition seems like the most important first-order decision, and I think that happened in all of the examples above, including AJ's.

  3. 5

    The founder of Morning Brew, another very successful newsletter, is not a believer:

    “If you aren't the best in the world at what you write about, you should not have a strictly paid newsletter.
    You are better off using a newsletter as your top of funnel to drive people to other monetization opportunities.“

    Here’s the original tweet.

    Maybe you can also interview him 🙂

    1. 3

      I should interview him, thanks for the tip. Sam Parr often rags on other media company execs for being addicted to free content and having no idea how to charge money for things. I wonder what he'd think of the Morning Brew founder. They have similar-sized businesses in terms of revenue, but MB is 100% advertiser-funded I believe, and has about 2x the headcount.

      Personally, I think Austin is directionally correct — you should aim to be good — but "best in the world" is an exaggeration. Further, making money from paid content is less about how good you are as a writer, and more about how much value you provide to your readers. There's lots of mediocre writing that provides amazing value, and there's lots of impressive writing that's not communicating anything worth paying for.

      I would rephrase his tweet like this: "If you aren't clearly making or saving your readers money, you should either not have a strictly paid newsletter, or you should change what you're writing about or who you're writing it for."

    2. 1

      I think he’s right in some respects but also wrong.

      He’s wrong because for a long time people have paid for content that talks about the same things but with a different voice - newspapers being the obvious example. There’s always an opportunity to write about the same subject from a different perspective.

      On the flip, he’s right. For many, there’s a bigger opportunity to use their written content to sell other products. Probably a lot easier to sell a transformational course or physical products or a paid community etc, than trying to make a decent living from a $10 per month premium newsletter.

      If you’re the best (or up there) then you can probably attract the volume needed to make it a workable business. Way harder if you’re just above average.

      What do you think?

      1. 1

        I think that a paid newsletter is very similar to a course: you can sell it and make money (without being the best) if you already have an audience. If you don't, it's going to be very difficult.

        1. 1

          True, but here's where it gets interesting: The best way to build a captive audience is by writing great content. Therefore, the best way to build an audience for your content business is by simply starting your content business. Just don't put all of it behind a paywall, keep some of it free.

          Courses are unique, because they're hard to create in a piecemeal fashion. You typically need to create a course all at once, so the lesson plan makes sense, and then release it. So then your course ends up being 100% behind a paywall. Unfortunately you haven't built an audience yet, so you have nobody to pay you for the course. And even if you could reach people, they're not going to buy because they don't know or trust you. So with courses, you need to build an audience by releasing free content before your course.

          This isn't true for all content, however.

          Compare to something like Stratechery, where Ben just blogs 4x/week and releases 1 for free, hoping it'll go viral on Twitter, Reddit, HN, etc. He didn't need any preliminary audience building step, because he building an audience simultaneously with his business.

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            There is an interesting article on the Substack blog about this topic: https://on.substack.com/p/your-guide-to-going-paid.

            I'm not convinced about a mixed free/paid model though. To me it makes more sense having a free, top of the funnel newsletter (e.g. The Hustle) that sends qualified traffic to the paid one (e.g. Trends).

            Can you imagine starting Trends from zero with 1 free and 3 paywalled issues and without The Hustle sending leads? Mission impossible 😅

            1. 1

              The 1 free 3 paid model isn't that much different than a free TOFU newsletter that drives traffic to the paid one. Both work via the same mechanism: using free content to acquire readers and convert them into paid subscribers.

              Obviously without a massive free newsletter you're not going to drive as many signups to your paid content. But it takes a very long time to build a massive free newsletter, time that you could spend building your subscription newsletter instead. And the conversion rates aren't that amazing, so your free newsletter had better be huge if that's the gameplan.

              For example, The Hustle started 6 years ago and has millions of subscribers. Trends started a year ago, it has something like 6000 subscribers. If you account for the fact that probably 30% of them come from advertising, WoM growth, Sam's podcast, etc. instead of the main free newsletter, the conversion rate is probably something like 0.2%?

              So I don't know. I'd probably start by doing what Ben Thompson did: free content for just a little while to make sure I'm writing something people like, and then add on paid content as quickly as possible.

              1. 1

                It’s something I’m thinking a lot about these days as I try to come up with a good monetization strategy for my own newsletter.

                But I’d rather add something than subtract. We’ll see 🙂

        2. 1

          You need an audience whatever you do.

          Don’t disagree that you can sell it without being the best. I think you’ll do way better selling something else to that audience.

          For example, take your newsletter - I like it but I wouldn’t pay for it. They’re nice ideas on growing projects. No disrespect to you or the content.

          But... if you took all those learnings and packaged them into a course that had frameworks and templates. And took me from struggling to market a project to having a solid repeatable process for growth. And I could get to that point in a decent timescale. Then I might be reaching for my credit card.

          1. 1

            Exactly. I could make a course or a paid newsletter on top of my free one, just like The Hustle did with Trends. The point is: you need free content (in my case ZTM) before you can launch a paid product.

            For SaaS and eCommerce is different, you can do well without an audience. Of course it helps but it's not a requirement.

            1. 1

              I think you have a lot of counterexamples, there's a lot of marketers selling courses online without the trust factor using a sales funnel.

            2. 1

              Still need an audience for SaaS and ecommerce. No audience = no sales.

              1. 1

                It’s different. I had an eCommerce once and sold tons of products to strangers through paid ads. I couldn’t do the same with a course or a paid newsletter.

                When you sell content there is a trust factor involved that physical products or software don’t require.

                1. 1

                  Semantics then. I’d consider paid ads as tapping into someone else’s audience. You still put your content in front of them and need an action. You still have to build trust with the audience. You just managed to do it in a shorter space of time instead of a series of other pieces of content.

                  Audience or die ✊

  4. 4

    IMO developers (myself included) actually make the worst Indie Hackers by focusing on irrelevant things.

  5. 3

    As recently as ten years ago, it was an open question whether people would ever pay for written content online.

    The Motley Fool was enormous ten years ago. I was a paying newsletter subscriber of theirs fifteen years ago.

    1. 1

      Good point! I'm sure there were some other big paid newsletters back then, too, and probably even in the 90s. That said, the 2010s were a period of rapid growth, and still even in 2020, lots of people think paid content can't work. Just look around the comments in this thread ;-)

      1. 2

        Hmm... TMF was one of the top AOL keywords in the 90s (before I was old enough to care about investing). I suspect a lot of the "open question" bit was just an SF/SV bubble. I was paying for newsletters from east Asia, and far more probably were in NYC.

        The growth of the internet is really just making more and more niches viable IMO (just as it is with types of YT channels, SaaS products, etc).

  6. 2

    You've talked about everything except..you know.. the quality and the value of the content ? and also about the fact that you have to be a professional at what you talk about, have authority ?
    When you're a nobody AND outsource content your newsletter is DOA.
    This business is great for people with some authority, think ex-googler talking about code. Your personal brand is of utmost importance to make this work, it's what pull people in to begin with, then the content.

    1. 5

      Quality is important, but imo value is more important.

      I talked about value, but I think it's useful to make a distinction between value and quality. For example, one could imagine a low-quality, poorly-crafted course made by an amateur that is nevertheless valuable, because it teaches viewers things that make them money. And one could also imagine the opposite: an extremely high-quality, well-made series of content about a subject that simply isn't valuable enough to pay for.

      Quality is great for avoiding commoditization and standing out from the competition. It's one of the three biggest ways to compete (the other two being price and distribution), where more success in one area means less is necessary in the others. For example, if you were the only X on YouTube, then you will have monopolized distribution, and so you could afford to be lower quality.

      I don't think you necessarily need to be an expert or have tremendous authority. I think you just need to demonstrate your ability to provide value. That will probably require putting out some free content for a bit, but it doesn't require being an industry-leading expert. For example, nobody knew who Ben Thompson was when he started Stratechery. His writing itself established him as an expert.

  7. 2

    Another great content that ended up in my bookmarks for future inspiration for my saas product. Thank you @csallen.

  8. 2

    I concur with the author of this article with regards to this phenomenon/trend. I am building (primarily for my own use) a set of open source tools to help with the research and subsequent publication of in-depth content: https://github.com/brettkromkamp/contextualise

  9. 2

    Another Courtland classic here - top notch, thank you 👌

  10. 2

    Hi @csallen. Hope you are doing very well and safe!

    Indeed a great reading. I strongly recommend you to take a look at this article created by Li Jin from Andreessen Horowitz: https://a16z.com/2019/10/08/passion-economy/

    I am also taking this path as paid content very seriously. So please keep sharing your findings.

    I will be launching my project in 60 days. I will keep you posted about the outcomes.

  11. 1

    I'm certain there were a few different large paid newsletters returned then, too, and possibly even in the 90s. That stated, the 2010s had been a length of speedy increase, and still even in 2020, lots of humans think paid content material like https://watertechguide.com/.

  12. 1

    I'd like to point out for the record that Anne-Laure made $10k in May!

  13. 1

    What a thoroughly well-written article! Kudos @csallen

  14. 1

    Great post! and gave me the push I needed to start a newsletter! https://diezlineas.netlify.app/ a brief summary of the week's tech news... but in Spanish!

  15. 1

    Thank you for writing this, Courtland. This resonates.

  16. 1

    Bookmarking this for future, constant reference! Thanks for writing this. :)

  17. 1

    I've been writing content that I believe to be high quality and have been paid to contribute to different platforms in addition to being featured numerous times on Hackernoon. The only money I've made from my efforts are when my blog posts convinces someone to buy my book but it's really not that effective of a funnel. I guess what I am doing wrong is not writing for the right audience. Its primarily people who are interested in the intersection of art and technology. With tutorials for beginners.

  18. 1

    Great read. Thanks, Courtland.

    I think Sam is doing it the way I would and potentially the way Morning Brew could go. Put out a free newsletter. Gain a large enough audience to get sponsorship. Fund better writers for the content flywheel. At some point offer some deeper newsletter to existing audience that perhaps 2-5% would convert but the ticket size is high enough to be substantial.

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    Paid content is dead. If you have to pay for something, everyone will find the same information elsewhere for free. Unless it it prohibitive to do so. You also need best of the best writing/content to be effective even if it is free. There is so much content out there, just delivering on that is meaningless.

    In general you need to either be the expert or have something novel to say for it to be worth anything. Even being the expert in security, our product knowledge base for Authress, doesn't get you anywhere. Sure, maybe it shows up in some Google searches. But that doesn't mean conversions.

    It becomes way more important to link what you are saying to what you are selling. Both, establish yourself as the expert in the field, but also deliver what everyone wants to hear. While the content has to be free, the complexity you've solved with your product does not. Anyone still touting the paid content is off their rocker and will soon be out of jobs.

    Focus on what delivers value for your audience, and likely that isn't spending time writing a piece or even, considering a lot of the posts on indie hackers, creating a list of links to those articles. You need to be creating a community which values the outcome of those thoughts. Just merely having them is interesting, but not really anything more than that.

    I feel like this point is nothing more than "I know lots of people making money on paid content", knowing someone doing it doesn't mean it is a viable strategy going forward. Also it may be tempting to assume that someone with a dissenting opinion doesn't know anything, I had been a paid subscriber for years to a number of content sources, none of them every paid off, the free content on the internet was always better, so I dropped them. I would consider myself fairly well versed in the available free & paid content in the world.

    1. 2

      Paid content is dead. If you have to pay for something, everyone will find the same information elsewhere for free.

      I know lots of people making millions of dollars a year from paid content, and their revenue numbers are trending up and to the right.

      Paid content is certainly not dead. It's just unintuitive.

      For example, probably the most common misconception is that the way to get people to pay for content is to simply write content that's 10x better than all the free stuff out there, which of course requires you to be a top tier world-class expert.

      This is the wrong model. It's like saying nobody pays for dirt, so what you have to do is go out and find the most beautiful dirt imaginable, and then they'll pay. Maybe that will work for a few. It's possible they'll find some downright gorgeous dirt, and someone will value it. But it's the wrong way to think about it. The right way to think about it is that you should sell something besides dirt, because people don't value dirt. This reminds me of this story from David Foster Wallace:

      Two young fish are swimming along, and they meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how’s the water?" The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

      All of us are fish swimming in the waters of free content on a daily basis. It's 99% of what we see on social media, in chats with friends, on forums, etc., so it's easy to forget that there could ever be anything else.

      But paid content tends to look very different than free content. It's typically distributed to different people (professional niches), for different reasons (to make or save them money), in different ways (beyond paywalls, packaged as reports, tied to a certificate, etc).

      1. 1

        Something that I would add to @csallen is the fact that getting good information is becoming really expensive.

        You can get a tutorial on Youtube made for you by a Youtuber that makes ad revenue but it is useful?, does it contains the focus on your specific needs?, can you control what that specific Youtuber does publish? does he publish some advanced stuff that is not aimed at beginners?

        It is the same with other kinds of content. If it is free, the whole experience is hit or miss. One big value of paid content is content curation.

        There are a lot of problems with free content that maybe you haven't thought about.

  20. 1

    There's well over a billion blogs on the internet. That's one blog for every seven people.

    If your not going to 10x your competition. While going an inch wide and a mile deep when finding your target market. Then don't bother.

    In terms of Ideal customer. Think PVP index. Personal fulfillment. Value to the marketplace. Profitability.

    In terms of content. You want to be able to pivot without losing your existing customer base. Difficult.

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      The vast majority of those alleged blogs are nothing more than bot farms existing to game the search engines via seo and backlinks.

      Agree with everything else from the second paragraph down.

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        Respectfully disagree sir.

        Ever since the google panda update spinning articles lie on the trash heap of history. Same goes with link farms.

        Also. Besides picking a niche. The least a blogger should do is keyword research and learn a bit of of seo.

        Sure they might go viral. But most likely if they want real, sustained traffic. They'll have to rank on Google at some stage.

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          The Panda update cleaned up a lot, but many millions of crappy blogs and websites continue to rank highly on Google. I've seen spammers successfully abuse Indie Hackers itself to rank. A lot of that stuff still works.

          Agree with you that SEO is important for massive, sustained, traffic. But for paid content you need a loyal audience of readers who trust you. SEO isn't great for that, as the traffic often consists of people who just quickly want the answer to some question.

          The alternative to SEO is word of mouth growth + great retention. For example, a combination of viral articles/tweets/videos/etc, along with a newsletter/podcast/YouTube subscription can lead to massive sustained growth over time.

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            Yeah but i've yet to come across anyone that can consistently produce "viral articles/tweets/videos/etc, along with a newsletter/podcast/YouTube subscription can lead to massive sustained growth over time"

            Vitality is an aberration. But is best achieved by nurturing a large fanbase for your posts.

            The only true path towards sustained growth is seo imo. Word of mouth is like a free lunch. Nice to have but not something to rely on long term.

            Of the main marketing channels ie. paid, owned, earned. Having a business process for paid marketing channel is best. Especially if you have a reliable process that you can turn on and off and where CLV is 3x customer acquisition costs.

            Also even if your bounce rate is high from Google. With conversion optimisation techniques you can turn a percentage of that consistent traffic into email addresses. Which you can then remarket to on fb etc.. for dollars per CPM.

            That's the route to real, scalable growth imo.

            1. 1

              Word of mouth growth can be broken down, understood, and engineered. I don't mean 100% success rate, but a consistent double-digit success rate is possible for sure, and is usually more than enough. It certainly helps to have an audience, but there's more that goes into it, e.g. tapping into others' audiences, influencer marketing, community marketing, and of course your writing itself esp. your choice of topic.

              Don't disagree that SEO can be huge, possibly the biggest channel for many types of businesses. Will be interesting to see how relevant it is to various paid content businesses going forward.

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    It's quite simple, you only have to make something what people is willing to pay.

    1. 1

      ...the riddle of profit.

  22. 1

    Does a magazine for boostrapped entrepreneurs exist ? If no, someone should build this and it's going to be big !

    1. 1

      My personal opinion is that "bootstrappers" is an absurdly broad category, and thus practical content for bootstrappers tens to be less compelling than most think. It's also becoming quite crowded. That's not to say we've seen the last word in bootstrapper-targeted content, but going more niche might be better. For example, content for YouTubers, or Substack authors, or Amazon sellers, etc.

      1. 1

        foundr is a bit broad and it's a successful magazine(they are 7-fig business right now).

        There are so many websites out there like you said but it's hard to sift through the noise. Think startupsfortherestofus for example !

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    Really nice article. This was one of the main reasons we created pipfeed.com
    We use A.I. to match articles with readers. Take a look and let me know what you think.

    1. 2

      so you are like a feedly for newsletters? I like it

  24. 1

    This was an awesome read! Thanks for sharing 😊

  25. 1

    @csallen really well articulated post. Thanks for sharing it! -Ari

  26. 1

    Thank you for suggesting this! Setting one up as we speak.

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    This comment was deleted 17 days ago.