"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.
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:
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 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.
None of the above is easy, but writing compares favorably with code-based businesses in some crucial ways:
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.
Unsurprisingly, as more people are starting paid media businesses, an ecosystem has sprung up to support them:
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:
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.
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.