How to Kickstart and Scale a Million Dollar Newsletter Business: Part 1
Finding an idea and getting your first 1,000 users
Hey everyone 👋! I’ve been spending a lot of time working on this new series where I deep-dive into some interesting business trends. I’d love to hear what you guys think at the end!
Newsletters are becoming one of the biggest trends for entrepreneurs.
Platforms such as Substack make it easier than ever to start, promote, and monetize a newsletter - paying over $300 million to writers cumulatively.
Some recent newsletter successes include:
Morning Brew selling a majority stake to Business Insider valuing at $75 million.
Daniella Pierson turned a dorm-room project, The Newsette, into a media company generating over $40M/year.
The Hustle sold to Hubspot for tens of millions of dollars.
But how did these newsletters grow to a nearly 9-figure business? How did they get their initial users? Monetize? Or even come up with the idea?
I’ve spent the last few weeks studying some of the largest and most successful newsletters to provide a roadmap on how they went from 0 → 1. Hopefully, you’ll gain insights, stories, or frameworks that you can apply to yourself.
In this two-part series, we’ll focus on the following roadmap.
Part 1: ← This Part
How to come up with a newsletter idea
Building an MVP: Picking an email platform
How to find your early users
How the most successful newsletters scaled to 7-figures
Pricing paid newsletters and monetization
Consistent content distribution
How to apply AI to your newsletter workflow
Let’s get started!
STEP 1. How to come up with a newsletter idea
After researching some of the most successful newsletters, I’ve noticed a few common strategies for developing a good newsletter idea.
Follow your own curiosity
Filling a gap in the market
Share practical expertise
Doubling down on what already works
Pick an underrepresented niche
Follow Your Own Curiosity and Interests
One of the best ways to find an excellent newsletter idea is to follow your own curiosity and interests since it’s likely many others will too.
Packy McCormick of Not Boring
Not Boring: Packy McCormick began publicly sharing his research and deep dive into tech startups with a mix of business strategy and humor.
Stratechery: Ben Thompson used his love of tech, product, and historical media news to draw insights and similarities, such as Disney’s Taylor Swift Era.
Scott’s Cheap Flights (Going): Scott Keyes was obsessed with finding travel deals and began sending them out to a group of friends.
Starter Story: Pat Walls turned his interest in building online businesses into an “entrepreneurship interview site and newsletter”.
The Generalist: Mario Gabriele used his passion for writing and combined it with his interests in tech products, founders, and venture capital.
HNGRY: Matt Newberg’s infatuation with Ghost Kitchens eventually led to him creating a newsletter highlighting the global food tech revolution.
TrendsVC: Dru Riley found himself loving to research business trends while building out SaaS products
World Builders: Nathan Baugh combined his passion for writing fantasy novels and engineering to provide storytelling lessons from a unique lens.
The Bear Cave: Edwin Dorsey started his newsletter to help him get a job as a hedge fund analyst, focusing on areas of interest such as SEC enforcement actions, company misconduct, and information related to short sellers.
Some general advice and patterns these newsletters follow:
Write what you’re passionate about. You’ll likely “differentiate” yourself from your writing tone or the unique perspective you can bring.
Quality is key. Most of these newsletters are not daily. A lot of time, effort, and research goes into each piece.
Make information more easily accessible
Some of the largest and most profitable newsletters were started by fulfilling gaps in current media.
Morning Brew became the go-to news outlet for millennials and college students and recently sold for $75 million, while TheSkimm has an estimated revenue in the tens of millions.
The Gist co-founders Ellen Hyslop, Roslyn McLarty, and Jacie Dehoop via Forbes
Morning Brew: Alex Lieberman felt that traditional business news like the WSJ was too dense for the average college student and started Morning Brew as a witty alternative.
The Skimm: Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg felt that there were very few dedicated media outlets exclusively targeting young millennial women.
The Browser: Robert Cotrell was previously a journalist at The Economist and realized there was a lot of clutter around the internet. He started The Browser to highlight 5 pieces of good writing and why it’s worth the reader’s time and has value.
Bankless: Ryan Sean Adams started Bankless with the idea to help onboard billions of people into a new technology: crypto.
The Hustle: Sam Parr originally grew a large email list from a speaker conference catered towards non-tech founders, eventually, he ditched the conference and began to write content catered towards this same audience.
The Gist: Jacie deHoop, Ellen Hyslop, and Roslyn McLarty felt the Toronto sports scene lacked attention and celebration for women, so they started The Gist to provide a female voice in sports specifically for women.
Tangle: Isaac Saul was a political reporter who realized people trusted information based on the newsletter outlet, not the content itself. This led him to start Tangle, which focused on providing independent and non-partisan news.
Future Party: Boye Fajinmi was hosting events and house parties in LA when he felt there was a lack of information surrounding the millennial pop and entertainment culture in LA.
General questions and things to think about for these newsletters:
Look for problems in the media around you. Most of these newsletters took an existing problem in media and “disrupted it”.
Write consistently. If you want to make information accessible, people need to trust it. Most of these newsletters immediately started with a daily or thrice-a-week cadence.
Share Practical Expertise
A simple way to begin writing a newsletter is to share areas of information you have knowledge and expertise in.
This could range anywhere from getting promoted quickly in tech, a morning productivity hack, or even cooking recipes.
Lenny Rachitsky, creator of Lenny’s Newsletter
Lenny’s Newsletter: Lenny Rachitsky shares a weekly advice column with lessons from his past experiences starting a company and leading product at AirBnB.
The Pragmatic Engineer: Gergely Orosz failed to find a weekly publication to help him grow as an engineering manager at Uber. Now he “writes the publication he wishes he had”.
Saturday Solopreneur: Justin Welsh shares advice on monetizing a one-person business and building productive content systems.
Every (Superorganizers): Dan and Nathan started their bundle of newsletters with the idea of giving productivity advice and systems from experts.
ByteByte Go: Alex Xu and Sahn Lam wanted to help engineers improve their system design and interview skills
DTC Branding: Nik Sharma shares his vast experience and insights working with DTC brands such as Hint and Cuyana to help DTC marketers.
What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking: Caroline Chambers turned her failed cookbook launch into a weekly Sunday recipe
ParentData: Emily Oster gives all the numbers and decision-making tools for anyone who wants to be a parent, plans to become one, or already is.
Technically: Justin started his newsletter to help non-technical people understand complex software engineering topics.
General thoughts surrounding practical newsletters:
Interview Style Newsletters are becoming more popular. Utilize guest posts to bring more of a unique perspective.
Try sharing your expertise even if it has failed in a different medium. Newsletters are a new way of digesting information. Several writers turned their failed podcasts, books, or YouTube channels into successful newsletters.
Doubling Down On What Already Works
Another popular way to begin a newsletter is to follow what already is working. This could be a few things:
Following the playbook of an already successful newsletter
Convert an existing product into a newsletter
Capitalizing on popular trends such as crypto and AI that dominate social media channels
Shaan Puri from the Milk Road
Milk Road: Shaan Puri took an effective “blueprint” from his podcast host Sam Parr (who built and sold The Hustle) and applied it to crypto.
TLDR: Dan Ni was inspired by many newsletters back in 2018 to build out his collection of curated newsletters (tech, crypto, AI, sales, etc).
The Daily Upside: Patrick Trousdale used the success of both Morning Brew and The Hustle to create a newsletter catered towards investors instead of general business and finance.
The Neuron: Pete Huang was building out a large AI audience on LinkedIn when he learned about the Milk Road acquisition. Motivated by this, Pete launched an AI newsletter on the same platform.
The Peak: Brett Chang built “Morning Brew for Canada” and even used similar growth strategies such as referral programs and campus ambassadors.
The Morning Huddle: Jake Robinson combined his love of Morning Brew and Fantasy Football to create a daily newsletter of all things fantasy football
Indie Hackers: Courtland Allen took inspiration from success stories on Hacker News from online builders and built a community platform which he sold to Stripe.
TheDrop: Gannon Breslin was writing a finance newsletter when the NFT/Crypto wave came in early 2021. Realizing this was the new “hot thing” and no one was writing about it, Gannon quickly pivoted.
The Publish Press: Colin and Samir used their experience as popular YouTube creators to provide an inside look at the creator economy.
Thoughts and takeaways:
Imitate the success of others. There’s room for a popular podcast, YouTube channel, or subreddit to also be a newsletter.
Keep up with the latest trends and ride that success. Many of the popular AI newsletters and creators used to be in crypto too.
The last main strategy I’ve seen is focusing on a specific niche.
While the audience for this might not be as large as something like Morning Brew, there is far less saturation.
A Continuous Lean: Michael Williams published his newsletter to focus on all things menswear and luxury.
Payload: Mo Islam wanted to help readers better understand the public and private players in the space economy.
Soft Launch London: Jimmy Richardson wanted to find out the best restaurant deals around London, typically around “soft launches”.
Fried Egg Newsletter: Andy Johnson wanted to make following golf fun for the busy, everyday professional.
Extra Focus: Every week, Jesse Anderson shares thoughts and strategies for dealing with ADHD
The Alerts Daily: LeQwane Lynch started a newsletter for sneaker collectors and resellers.
Paris by Mouth: Meg Zimbeck had the goal of helping everyone find delicious local restaurants in Paris.
Flow State: Each day, discover two hours of music that is perfect for working.
Inverse Cramer: Tracking Jim Cramer’s stock picks and fund performance.
Takeaways from niche newsletters:
Follow real-life experience. Look at the things you think about and participate in day-to-day. Some of the largest niche newsletters take a broad problem (finding good restaurants) and localize it (the city they live in).
Find your ideal audience. Figure out what is the ideal audience for your niche. Where do they exist? How can you get your content to them?
Don’t get “too niche”. You want some flexibility in the topics you’ll write about or else you’ll eventually get bored and burn out.
STEP 2: Picking a Newsletter Platform
For most people trying to start a newsletter, I think there are three viable platforms to use: Ghost, Substack, and Beehiiv. Here’s what I gathered regarding the pros and cons of each:
A fourth option that you could consider is a ConvertKit, but this is generally if you are an existing creator with a book, info product, or course you also want to sell.
Editing on Substack
Substack has been a recent industry favorite for independent writing and is something you can set up in a single afternoon.
Despite taking a 10% cut for paid subscribers, they host some of the largest paid newsletter publications in the world that easily make six figures a month.
Their strongest feature is their amazing growth and social levers. Top leaderboards, built-in newsletter search and recommendations, and mentions are all features that will automatically drive readers to your newsletter.
On the downside, they have the least amount of customization available and a fairly limited editor compared to Ghost and Beehiiv.
The biggest potential platform risk is that they host many free newsletters while only generating revenue for paid newsletters, a pricing model that may be forced to change in the future.
A markup of Beehiivs’s editor
Beehiiv’s the new kid on the block. It was started by early Morning Brew employees and they’ve shipped an incredible amount of features in just a few years.
Similar to Substack, this newsletter can be set up in a single afternoon.
They take no fees for paid newsletters, and customizable landing pages, and give a variety of monetization and growth tools for you (finding ad sponsors, paying for recommending other newsletters, etc).
The biggest pain point is that they don’t have the discovery, brand reputation, and diverse user base of Substack or ConvertKit yet.
Fun fact: This newsletter is powered by Beehiiv.
Ghost’s powerful editor
Ghost is a special platform compared to Beehiiv and Substack. They started as a WordPress alternative, so many of their core features are optimized for the web.
With a standard theme much similar to Medium, Ghost has without a doubt the best design out of the three. You can choose custom themes or even build a custom newsletter because it’s all open-sourced.
For people who are trying to optimize both web and email or want to build a membership site, this is the premier option.
On the downside, they lack a lot of newsletter-specific and growth tools that Substack and Beehiiv use. You also have to pay quite a bit more unless you host your website on your own server, but this is quite troublesome.
STEP 3. How to get your first 1,000 users
How did the largest newsletters go from initial idea → MVP → to content that is read by 10, 100, or even 1000 people?
While there is no direct answer that can work for you, I’ve gathered the most common (and often unscalable) ways the largest newsletters got their first 1,000 readers:
Utilize your personal network
Leverage the audience of influencers and guests
Share with social forums and networks
Find your users directly
Utilize your personal network
The first way to get your first 1,000 subscribers is to use your personal network of friends, families, and other people you engage with frequently.
It sounds simple, but it’s a great way to validate your idea, gather feedback, and obtain high-quality subscribers. The most engaged subscribers will also often share your newsletter with their network as well.
Some stories you can draw inspiration from:
Building A Second Brain
Source: The Profile
The Bear Cave
The Fried Egg
Leverage the audience of others
The second strategy you can use to grow your newsletter is to actually leverage the audience of other people.
This usually happens in a few main ways:
Interview-style newsletters or deep dives on individuals have an inherent growth engine, as they will likely share your piece with their audience.
Quality writing will catch the eyes of prominent “influencers” in your niche, which will boost your reach
Guest post, collab, or perform an interview with other blogs, podcasts, and social channels with similar audiences
Source: Vox Media
Scotts Cheap Flights (Going)
Share with social forums and networks
The third strategy is to share with social forums and networks. Specifically, most creators use this strategy to:
Create viral pieces of content (social sharing is very strong)
Bring you a targeted audience from FB Groups, Reddit, etc
What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking
Source: Edible Monterey Bay
This one is a bit different. Dan Ni ran paid social media ads instead of strictly posting on Reddit and Quora, but I think his strategy and reasoning are extremely helpful.
Find your users directly
The last strategy is to find your users directly. This often means:
Hosting events or parties with your target audience
Find large clubs or communities where they congregate
Reach out to strangers directly
Source: Career Contessa
The Future Party
We formulated our idea, shipped out our MVP, and even got our first 1,000 users.
But how do we take this side project and turn it into a full-fledged business?
We’ll focus on this very exact thing NEXT week in the final part of this two-part series.
Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss it!
On another note, I’ve been thinking about being purely reader-supported for quite some time now. If you’ve got this far, please reply to this email or post if this type of content is something you’d pay for.
What did you think about this newsletter?