I’ve always cared about good visual design, but a few years ago I learned that I loved to teach as well. That led to creating this site, building iPhone apps, writing two books, and ultimately quitting my job to focus on creating my own products. This site chronicles my journey learning to create the best products possible. All while teaching others to do the same.
Three years ago I told the team we were hosting a conference for creators.
At our team retreat in Oceanside, CA a small group of us gathered on the roof to brainstorm ideas. We didn’t have a venue, a city, speakers, dates, or really anything else. But what we did have was a lot of experience attending conferences and strong opinions on what makes a great event.
Choosing a city
With the entire country available to us we had to narrow down to just a few cities we were actually considering for the conference. Most teammates suggested their home cities and creator hubs. We ended up with a list of possible cities:
Conference identity is closely tied to the city where you host it. A New York City conference will have a very different feeling than a San Diego conference.
The World Domination Summit (WDS), one of our favorite events, is shaped so heavily by the unique culture and venues in Portland. It would be a completely different event if it were hosted in Vegas or some other popular conference city.
We eliminated Austin because our team doesn’t have any ties there. After careful thought, we removed Portland because WDS is already hosted there and we have a decent overlap with that community. And finally San Diego was eliminated because there are already so many events there.
That left Nashville and Boise—both are up and coming cities, well-loved by those who live there.
I really wanted to host the conference in Boise since that is where I grew up and where ConvertKit was founded. Plus, most of our attendees would have never been there before, so they would forever associate Boise with ConvertKit and our conference.
The problems of Boise
While Nashville is centrally located near most of the population of the United States (part of why so many musicians tour from there), Boise is the most isolated capital city in the continental United States. Drive 5 hours from Boise in any direction and you won’t hit another city.
That means travel to Boise is more difficult and expensive than to Nashville.
Plenty of people want to vacation in Nashville, few put Boise at the top of their list. As Seth Godin said after speaking at the first Craft + Commerce, “No one knows they want to go to Boise, until they’ve been to Boise.”
Ultimately we chose Boise in spite of these issues. There isn’t a single conference in our industry in Boise, many of our attendees would have never been before, so we could craft the experience exactly the way we want.
Naming the conference
Most software companies name their conference something related to their company name. ConvertKitCon or something. Except that we wanted to create a conference for creators, not just ConvertKit customers. The event should be about them, not us. So we needed a unique name.
We dreamed up a lot of names and asked our branding agency to make suggestions as well. But ultimately we settled on a name that had been in the back of our minds for a long time: Craft + Commerce.
Back when Barrett Brooks, our COO and mastermind behind this conference, worked at Fizzle they had talked about hosting an event. Together they dreamed up the name Craft + Commerce to talk about the intersection between honing your craft and creating great art, but also earning a great living from it.
When we asked Chase and Corbett at Fizzle for permission to use the name, they were thrilled to let us use it and see the event come to life. Chase even opened conference our very first year with an incredible talk called “Start Feeling it Now” that I still think of often, even years later.
Choosing a venue
Ballrooms? Theatres? Or something else entirely? The venue sets the tone for the entire event. A giant empty ballroom with round tables has a different feeling than a grand theatre, which feels different from a more unique event space.
When we knew Boise would be the home to Craft + Commerce, Ashley (our director of operations) and I started touring venues.
At first we wanted a theatre because that setting places more implied value on the talks. Unfortunately there are only three theaters large enough in downtown Boise, and none of them were a good fit. The Egyptian, which is the closest, would work well as a theatre, but the lobby is tiny and so there isn’t any space for the attendees to meet and mingle outside of events.
Then we toured JUMP (Jack’s Urban Meeting Place), which is a creative event center funded by the family of Idaho billionaire J.R. Simplot (he’s the one who made Idaho famous for potatoes).
JUMP is bright, creative, has a great view, and you always know what time of day it is—which is the opposite of Vegas.
Everyone who visits JUMP absolutely loves it. Along with Boise, JUMP has given Craft + Commerce a unique feeling.
It’s no surprise that a great conference requires great talks. There are four elements that we think are key to great talks:
Curate speakers you want to hear
Limit talks to a length that can be practiced
Recruit a diverse line-up
Invest in your speakers
Curate speakers you want to hear
Yes, it’s obvious, but I feel like so many speakers are there to fill a slot or because the organizer thought they would sell tickets, rather than being personally curious and interested in the talk.
We went out of our way to find speakers who had interesting stories, represented different markets, and most importantly, we wanted to hear from. The barometer was, “do I want to know your story?”
We featured an adventure filmmaker, a succulent enthusiast (with a thriving business), a school teacher, a LEGO event host, and many more great creators who we were genuinely curious to learn more about.
Limit the talks to a length that can be practiced
For some reason most conference talks are an hour long. It fits nicely in a schedule: you talk for an hour, then I will, then she’ll go on, then it’s time for lunch.
For a professional line-up that could work just fine. But most conference speakers are refining their craft and not yet ready to hold an attendees attention for an hour (I know I’m not!).
So one of the best moves we’ve made is to limit most of our talk times to 20 minutes. Why that long? It’s short enough that you have to cut a lot of material and make a single, memorable point, with a few supporting points and stories. No rambling allowed.
But just as important, you can practice a 20 minute talk repeatedly. With an hour long talk you’d run through slides, practice a few key stories, and rehearse transitions. But you can’t make time to repeatedly practice a full run through as is necessary.
A 20 minute talk you could run through every day for the week leading up to the event. It is short enough you can fit in a practice session before starting work for the day or before heading out to dinner in the evening. That means your jokes will be funnier, your wording more precise, and your slides better designed.
If a speaker really needs more time (and they are experienced), we’ll give them 30 minutes. Sometimes we add a dedicated Q&A afterwards for our keynotes.
In the tech and entrepreneurship conference scene diversity on stage is painfully bad, and that often leads to equally homogenous groups of attendees. When we wrote out the first draft of our speaker list and it was mostly white and male, we decided we were going to invite an equal number of men and women to speak. That would be a big step towards diversity on stage, right?
As I’m sure you already realize, that was very naive. Nearly all the men accepted and nearly all the women declined because of other obligations. If we’d stuck with parity in our invites we would have ended up with 5 men on stage for every woman.
So we established a new principle: at Craft + Commerce we will always have more women on stage than men.
That means we need to put a disproportionate amount of effort into recruiting female speakers. But this intentionality has paid off incredibly well. All three years we’ve had a diverse line-up which has encouraged more diverse attendees.
Investing in your speakers
Because many of our speakers aren’t professional speakers (in fact for some it’s their first time on a major stage) we hired Mike Pacchione to coach all of our speakers (if they want it). He worked for years as a coach for Duarte and has an incredible idea to distill a general talk into something punchy and hard-hitting the audience will love.
Too often conferences just give a suggested talk topic and a time slot and then are surprised when the end result isn’t incredible. If you want to tell unique stories, expect that your speakers may need help to deliver a next-level talk.
That doesn’t mean every talk is flawless, but working with a speaking coach has definitely raised the bar at Craft + Commerce!
Why we spend $10,000 on breakfast
Few things convey quality like great food. At JUMP (our venue) the in-house catering does an incredible job with the food spreads and it helps shape the entire event. We spend pretty heavily for the opening and closing parties as well as providing breakfast each day of the event.
Breakfast is for the shy and quiet conference attendees who don’t know anyone. If that sounds odd, let me explain.
When I would attend an event and I didn’t know anyone, I would wait in my hotel room for the start time, then go in and sit down in the auditorium. The only people I would meet would be who I sat next to.
Breakfast moves the start time earlier (say 8am instead of 9am), which can be great for those who are traveling from a few timezones away and are up really early, and gives an opportunity to meet not just the person sitting next to you, but the other 5-7 people around a table. Then I have those connections to lean back on as I see those same people throughout the day.
Many of the best connections I’ve made have been over breakfast. So even though it is expensive to provide (and many hotels provide a free breakfast) I think breakfast is money well spent.
How much we spend each year
Every year I have the same conversation at least once: while standing in the opening party room, looking around at the great food spread, incredible venue, and all the attendees in the room, someone asks, “how much do you make on this event?”
It’s a fair question. We run a business and firmly believe businesses should make a profit. But on Craft + Commerce we actually lose money every year. We purposefully overspend our revenue in order to create the right experience for attendees.
Here is what it cost to run Craft + Commerce each year:
2019: $228,000 (projected)
The first year we lost over $100,000 and that is expected to decrease to about $60,000 this year. There are plenty of conferences that are great at making money. For that you should definitely learn from someone else!
In 2017 we had a lot fewer paying attendees (about 200), but we spent the most on speakers of any year, which raised the cost of the event.
In 2018 we had more paying attendees (yay for momentum!), spent less on speakers, and were able to reuse a lot of design elements from previous years to save money.
This year we have more sponsors and ticket revenue than ever before, but we still invest heavily in food, speakers, and especially our parties.
Here are a few example costs from this years budget:
Staff: $51,200 (Event management, ConvertKit staff and travel, etc)
There are plenty of areas we could save money, but thankfully we have a profitable software company to back the event, so making a profit isn’t a high priority for us.
Set the tone and train the audience
When attendees first arrive at your conference they have no idea what to expect. As the organizer it’s your job to set the tone.
Should we bring our laptops or stay engaged with speakers? What’s the energy? How should we greet the speaker as they come on stage? If we love a talk would a standing ovation be a good way to show it? Or would I be the only one standing?
Every event is different, so attendees will come in wherever you set the bar. Here are five ways to train your audience to bring energy throughout the event:
Welcome attendees at the door – WDS does an incredible job with this by having dozens of volunteers form a high-five gauntlet as you enter the theatre. They are full of energy and it transfers to the attendees. We don’t quite go to that level, but we have team members greeting each group of attendees at the elevator, making introductions, and starting they day with a warm smile.
Have a great MC – Just because you founded the event or the company doesn’t mean you should MC. We chose Barrett and Alexis on our team as the event MCs because they bring a level of energy that would really be a stretch for me.
Write your introductions in advance – So many MCs try to wing their speaker introductions. It rarely goes well. Write your full event script in advance, then get it on the stage monitors for talking points.
Welcome each speaker to the stage with a song just for them – I walk on the stage to Taylor Swift each year. It started as a joke when the team picked “Shake it off” as my walk on song, but now we’ve made it tradition. Music is the single greatest hack for creating energy. It’s baffling to me how many conferences don’t leverage it.
The first day of the first year of the conference there wasn’t that much energy in the room. It was far from dead, but the audience wasn’t yet bringing the energy.
Throughout the day with great music, encouragement from the stage, and examples set by our team, they learned that this was a high energy event.
The morning of day two they greeted me with a standing ovation! The energy was next level. That carried throughout the entire event. Then the following year all the repeat attendees brought the energy from the beginning.
Running a conference is one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done. It was especially hard to get going at first, but now as we go into our third year it is getting much easier and even more fun.
What do you want to know about running a conference like this? Ask in the comments!
I’ve long been fascinated by the highly efficient companies. Basecamp at over $2 million in revenue per employee, Valve at over $11 million, and MVMT at over $1 million. Each of these companies has unique ways of doing business that allow them to be so efficient.
Rather than trying to grow ConvertKit as fast as possible, I’ve been very deliberate with hiring so that even when growing quickly we haven’t increased our headcount like crazy.
Then I came across this Tweet from Dmitry, the CEO and founder of Ahrefs (a very popular SEO SaaS tool).
So I reached out to Tim Soulo, Ahrefs CMO, for an interview to learn how they bootstrapped a sophisticated SaaS tool to over $1 million in ARR per team member!
My highlights and takeaways
They are over $50M ARR with a team of 45 people. Still growing over 60% each year. 60% growth from September (when they shared the $40M number) would put them at $64 million by September 2019. If they pull it off the following year they will reach $102 million by September 2020.
They have a 50 person limit for their entire company. They are at 45 now.
Growth and marketing
When Tim started they were getting 15,000 visitors per month from Google. Now they get over 250,000 per month.
They have 8-10 team members on marketing, mostly focused on search, product education, and content marketing. Most of their growth is driven through word of mouth and content marketing.
No paid ads, other than recently trying out some retargeting.
They used to have a free trial, but because customers can get value so quickly (sign up, immediately get your search data), it was getting heavily abused. So instead they moved to a paid $7 for 7 days trial. Growth didn’t decrease (or increase), but the burden on their infrastructure and support team went down considerably.
They’ve steadily increased pricing over the years, grandfathering customers in at every stage.
My favorite moment in the interview is at the end when I mention people should checkout Ahrefs and Tim says, “Don’t go to our marketing site, search for us on YouTube!”He firmly believes that product education is the best marketing and they’ve done a really good job of that on YouTube. I’d never heard someone say that their YouTube channel is a better sales channel than their marketing site.
They have 6-7 team members on customer support. They see every customer support ticket as a product flaw and do everything they can to make sure that ticket never comes in again.
They do a lot with help text and guides built right into the app at a place where the user is most likely to be confused.
They don’t outsource any support. It’s all handled by the in-house team members.
The founder is starting to think they may have to exclude support from the 50 person limit since they still have had to scale support team members roughly inline with customers.
I believe the difference between a “pretty good” product and an incredible experience would be double the growth rate.
Technical & product
Dmitry, their founder, is very technical and that is the core of the entire company. That’s why they’ve been able to build something with such incredible scale with such a small team.
They index the entire internet. Their crawler is the second most prolific on the web, after Google. They even had to write a custom database because they weren’t satisfied with an off-the-shelf data store.
They view a great product as the most effective marketing by far. It provides the foundation for incredible word of mouth and their marketing team simply works to amplify the strengths of the product.
Thanks to Tim for taking the time to share those great insights! What did you learn? Drop a note in the comments.
A few weeks ago I extended a trip to New York City for a speaking gig to include a fun weekend with Hilary. The highlight was definitely seeing Hamilton on Broadway!
I walked out of the theatre with my mind racing and feeling a million different things. As a creator you see life differently than many people around you, which often leads to feeling out of place. But after 2 hours and 45 minutes in the Richard Rodgers theatre I’ve never felt so seen as a creator.
Things that I had felt or that mattered deeply to me were expressed in story and rhyme better than I could have said them myself.
The room where it happens
The very first conference I attended was called A List Apart in Seattle. As a fan of web standards this was the conference to attend. I didn’t know anyone and was too shy to introduce myself. The three people I met the entire weekend all introduced themselves when proximity made it necessary at lunch or in the auditorium.
Walking along the waterfront back to the hotel one evening I realized the group walking in front of me was all the speakers from the conference. As they talked and laughed I quickened by step to close the gap…then I realized I wasn’t going to introduce myself, so I slowed down to avoid being creepy.
Then in a moment of courage, I sped up, ready to introduce myself and join the conversation. But my courage was fleeting. This time I dropped back further.
Looking out over the harbor I wonder what it would take to be a part of that group. Not as an awkward outsider, but to be laughing and sharing ideas together, as one of the crew.
Back at the hotel I went through the lobby and turned towards my room. Walking right past the speakers lounging around in the the lobby, the room where it happens.
That’s a theme in Hamilton, of wanting to be in the room where it happens. Deals, debates, and discussions that all happen behind closed doors. Those who aren’t there feel excluded and jealous. Constantly wondering what it would take to be in the room.
My first motivation for working as a creator is to earn a living. But the second reason is to build the reputation and relationships to be invited to the room where it happens.
Since building an audience and a company I’ve been on the inside at many events. The people I’ve people I’ve met, conversations I’ve had, and long-term friendships formed have been incredible.
Hamilton reminded me that it’s normal to strive to be included and belong, but also that the pursuit of that above all else can have dire consequences.
Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
I try to do everything all at once. I want to build a company, write a book, run a homestead, build a tiny house, start a YouTube channel, travel the world, run three different podcasts, host airbnb guests, and just about everything else!
Why? That’s what my wife, Hilary, always asks. I overcomplicate life by trying to do everything at once. Why not just slow down and do a few things?
There is so much to create. For every idea I complete I think of five more. All my creator friends suffer from the same problem: more potential than time.
I’ve always thought I was going to die young (though hopefully not in a duel). I can’t shake the feeling that if not now, then it may be never. I want to take advantage of every opportunity I’m given.
Forget whether this is rational or not, it’s what I feel. Many other creators do as well! When you have this much potential and opportunity you can’t help, but approach it with urgency.
Hamilton acts that on the urgency that I feel every day as a creator. He both shows that the bar can be so much higher than I’ve even set it for myself and that it’s okay to pursue it.
Writing as a powerful tool
Throughout the entire story Hamilton turns to writing as a powerful tool for creating outcomes. He uses the Federalist Papers to make a case for the constitution, writes articles against slavery, and even when backed into a corner over his affair, he turns to writing as his solution.
Writing has been a powerful tool for creators for thousands of years. Marco Polo was not the first to discover the Silk Road to China. Not even close. But he was the one who wrote about it. That’s why we remember him.
Hamilton knew the power of writing so he built the skills to become incredibly prolific.
Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!
And that’s with a quill and ink. Imagine if he had a typewriter!
Want to create fame? Write.
Want to create change? Write.
Want to create legacy? Write.
I am not throwing away my shot
Being an orphan from the Caribbean, Hamilton is obsessed with not throwing away his shot when it is given to him. When opportunity is scarce it’s even more important that you take full advantage of it when it’s in front of you.
This is my shot. I have every opportunity. If I fail, if ConvertKit fails, it’s on me. That drives me to work harder and make the most of what I have.
If you’re reading this you have everything you need. A computer for creating, YouTube for learning, WordPress for publishing, a phone to record videos.
This is your shot.
Your shot to become the creator you have the potential to be. Don’t throw it away becoming just another consumer.
Look around. Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
Last week I was talking with a group of successful founders about how to setup a profit sharing and benefits program for their companies. In the conversation it became obvious that our system wouldn’t work for others because we have so many unique ways of running Convertkit.
These 10 ideas intertwine to create our unique culture:
1. We have millions in revenue and no office.
In my tech bubble and Twitter circle it’s easy to think that remote work is common. While it’s becoming more common, it’s far from standard. Even then most remote friendly companies still have a main office and hire just some team members outside of that.
Remote-friendly is very different from remote-first. Even today at $15 million in revenue we don’t have an office. It’s comical how often I’m asked, “but where does your team work?”
Mostly from home, but really wherever they are productive.
2. We pay standardized salaries.
Rather than negotiating every salary individually (and forever penalizing anyone who was a poor negotiator) as most companies do, we established standardized salaries for each role with data from Radford.
This data takes the national average and compares it to our two benchmark cities of Chicago and Portland. The blend of those creates the ConvertKit salaries. That spreadsheet is published to the team with the salary for each role and level public for everyone.
That means we don’t have a gender pay gap at ConvertKit. Each person is paid fairly based on their experience and role.
The downside is that we do sometimes lose out on candidates where another company is able to pay more. We’ve locked ourselves into a system where we guarantee fairness to all our team members.
3. We pay everyone the same regardless of geography.
Even companies that have standardized salaries usually have a cost of living adjustment for team members in more expensive cities or they hire offshore to get a discount compared to US salaries.
Geography doesn’t matter to us. You’re paid the same if you live in Seattle or Slovakia.
Equal pay for equal work.
4. We encourage side projects.
ConvertKit is made for creators, by creators. That means that we encourage our team to have side projects, especially if that means growing their own email list and using ConvertKit as a customer. Then they notice issues and suggest changes to the product while actually using ConvertKit as a customer.
Creative people need outlets to learn and experiment. While a lot of that happens inside ConvertKit, there are few things better for personal development than starting a side project. We just ask that it truly be on the side and not consume so much time that it affects performance at work.
5. We deliver direct feedback, even when it’s unsolicited.
When we have an issue with someone we bring it up directly. We read Radical Candor by Kim Scott and took it really seriously.
That means we carve out dedicated time to provide feedback at our team retreats even outside of the normal context. The prompt is simply, “if you are going to work with (fill in the blank) for the next 10 years, what do you need them to know?
This provides room to say, “well, this isn’t a big deal, but when you do x…” and give feedback on the smaller things that may grow into something big down the road.
6. Our revenue is public and updated in realtime.
Outside the company you can view all of our revenue, churn, and growth metrics on a dashboard updated in realtime!
Then the team inside the company can also view a monthly report with our financials, including all spending. This results in a level of awareness and responsibility throughout the team that isn’t common in most private companies.
7. We distribute 60% of company profits to the team.
We’ve now paid out over $1,000,000 to the team! Our mission is “we exist to help creators earn a living” and that includes the creators who work at ConvertKit.
Because so much of profits are shared directly with the team they are highly incentivized to run the company efficiently. Once a test server was left running on Amazon Web Services which wasted nearly $2,000. Instead of being met with a shrug of “It’s not my money” or needing a lecture from management about budget, the other members of the team just said, “Hey, it’s not a big deal, but that’s our money. Treat it that way.”
Another time we gave the team the choice of spending an extra $20,000 to go to Costa Rica for our team retreat, compared to our usually beach houses in San Diego. They saw the 50% increase and chose to stick with California. After all, it’s their money.
Those are just seven of the many unconventional practices we’ve adopted over the years. As I think of more I’ll add them to this article!
What are some unconventional ways you run your own company?
Making every decision from scratch is messy and time consuming. Especially when you are building a team and pushing them to make great decisions that align with your values.
That’s where principles come in. Simple ideas that clearly communicate a specific course of action.
Each decision becomes more clear when you can share the principles that led you to that conclusion.
Example Principle: Default to generosity
If a customer asks for a refund, do you give it to them? Usually in software there’s a standard 30 day refund policy. But what happens in a special case where a customer is asking for more of a refund? It could be because of product issues, something going on in their life, or they simply didn’t get a chance to use the product over the last few months.
You could define what your support team should do in all of these scenarios—we started to at ConvertKit—but ultimately we gave each customer support team member one principle:
Default to generosity.
Use your judgement—after all there are plenty of people who will be thrilled to abuse your generosity—but default to generosity.
A system for creating principles
We have quite a few principles that have slowly evolved over time at ConvertKit. But we don’t have a defined system for creating and refining more. This post is a first attempt at turning a scattered process into a reliable system to create new principles.
Each principle starts as a rough idea, then over time is refined and restated, before eventually becoming established as a core part of our decision making process.
Trello is perfect for visualizing moving these through the steps of our system.
The trello board that I am proposing we use at ConvertKit
step one: write a first draft
Write a sentence to define your principle. Then in the card list alternative ways to phrase the same principle. What is the context for considering this as a principle? Do you have any example of putting it into practice? Any stories?
Then copy in these questions as headings and answer them in the body of the card:
What does this principle mean?
When would this be put into use?
What types of decisions should I apply this to?
How else could you phrase the principle?
This all goes in a single card in the “Ideas” stage of your board.
STep two: Start a discussion
Now pull in your team and ask them to comment and discuss on that card. Often your team will have better ideas for a new phrase that better represents the core principle.
Ask them to suggest more example decisions to see how this principle would apply. Ask them where they think this principle could get us into trouble. In other words, what are the unintended consequences of adopting this principle?
Step 3: Try it on
After a week or two of solid discussion, move the principle to the refining stage and start using it. Each time you use the principle in discussion or a decision, make a note back on the card in Trello.
How do people react when you use it in conversation?
Does it resonate with teammates?
Does the principle bring insight or are you simply stating the obvious?
Once it passes these initial steps push it further by arguing the opposite side.
Step 4: Argue The opposite
The next time you are faced with a decision, reach a conclusion based on your principles. But then take a step back.
What if you had to argue the opposite side? Let’s pretend you have the opposite opinion. What principles could you establish to reach that new conclusion?
Relying on principles can make a decision feel more black and white than it is. And if you’re not careful with how you use them in a discussion, you can shut down opposing arguments before they have time to truly form.
Step 5: Use it with the entire team
When it feels like the principle fits and has passed basic tests it’s time to do a full write up and share it with the team! At ConvertKit that would mean a Basecamp post explaining all the details and summarizing the examples and discussion from our Trello card.
Nothing would be a surprise, since we were open throughout the entire discussion, but inevitably some people will have been more involved than others.
Finally, after it’s been in use for a year or so, we’d immortalize it on our mission page and in our company handbook to fully adopt it as company gospel.
A few of our principles
For the last few years at ConvertKit we’ve been slowly writing and refining our principles. Here are a few that often come up in day to day planning at ConvertKit:
Existing customers matter more than new customers – If we don’t take care of our existing customers, we don’t deserve new customers. When you become part of the family, you can trust that we’re in it with you for the long haul.
Create every day – Our best days are the ones when we create. Every person on the team is a craftsperson and can roll up their sleeves to help build a better product and company. We believe consistent progress every day leads to incredible results.
Do less, better – We focus on what matters most from the product to our marketing to the customers we seek out. We know that when we do a smaller number of things with excellence, everyone wins.
It’s time to write your own
You can follow this process individually or as a company. Often what starts as a personal principle for one team member will be adopted by more of the company.
Whatever process you follow, get the principles out of your head and down onto paper. Then circulate them with your team, friends, or peers to refine and sharpen them into something worth standing behind.
Do you have principles you use in decision making? Share them in the comments.
I’ve seen a few threads on Twitter recently about making the switch from iPhone to Android, but being unhappy because they miss iMessage.
On the surface that doesn’t make any sense. iMessage and SMS both deliver text in short snippets. There are differences, but that shouldn’t be the differentiating feature when making a $1,000 phone purchase!
But here we are. An entire discussion on how iMessage is the single greatest lock-in to the iOS ecosystem. At first it seemed ridiculous to me, but then I realized, I agree!
What is actually different?
That means it’s time to dive in and find out what is actually different. Using both iMessage and SMS I was able to find seven differences (there are other features such as effects and animojis, but I don’t think those are a part of the decision):
color (blue vs green)
who is typing
better media handling
messages don’t get split at 160 characters
It’s not color—though the blue is easier on the eyes than green. The difference really comes down to how it feels. SMS feels like you are tossing a message over a wall and have no information until a message comes back over the wall.
A different experience
iMessage is interactive. I can see who is typing, if my message was delivered, and when it was read. These are tiny features, but they change the interaction into a true conversation.
How a product feels is enough to change three tiny features into the dealbreaker for switching off the entire platform. Isn’t that crazy?
Product feeling matters
Product experience comes down to hundreds of subtle interactions. Each of these add up to shape our opinion of each product we use.
Did it work the first time?
How fast does it load?
What are the animations?
Do the animations have personality and easing or are they linear?
How many steps did I have to take to finish my task?
Am I afraid of losing data?
When applying this same lens to experience design in ConvertKit I think there are a few areas that we’ve done really well:
The design of writing sequences
The speed and interactions inside visual automations
The speed of our reporting graphs on the subscribers page (and animations)
For example, when you want to edit a form or email sequence in ConvertKit you simply click the item and it loads inline immediately. While obvious now, this is a night and day difference over every other email provider out there.
But then there are a lot of small interactions that lack polish and don’t feel right. They get the job done, but that’s all. Here are a few examples:
This loading animation is boring and doesn’t add any personality to the app.
We just fixed this on our new email editor, but I kept finding myself clicking outside the popover to close it, which didn’t work.
Bulk actions don’t show progress or inform you when they are complete.
You can’t change the display layout or sort lists of forms, sequences, or automations.
Forms and sequences are in alphabetical order, automations are by last edited, and broadcasts are ordered by created date.
Moving between steps of creating a broadcast requires a full page refresh.
You can’t see which specific subscribers are in a step in an automation.
These are just a few examples of opportunities we have at ConvertKit to change how the product feels. Each one individually isn’t a big deal, but a hundred small things like this change the feeling of our app.
But let’s go beyond fixing the issues and instead add features that delight the user. For example, if our color picker dialog inside landing pages had an eyedropper tool to sample a color from your image, making a great landing page like this would be even faster. Instead of hunting around for a button color, you could just sample the red from the image and adjust from there.
Wouldn’t it be great to sample button colors directly from the image?
No customer would know to call that out as a feature they valued, but not having it is a tiny vote against the feeling of a perfect user experience.
Another feature that we are doing well is the recent image gallery. Going forward many times the image you want (a headshot or logo) will be available in a click, without having to hunt around your desktop for it.
The image gallery is a simple, but powerful feature
The next steps towards a delightful experience
We’ve built most of the feature set we need to compete well on product, but now we need to continue adding the level of polish and user experience that will bring our product from SMS-level up to iMessage-level.
We’ve nailed some of the big experiences, now it’s time to add the last 20% that will completely change the feeling of the product.
Don’t penalize discovery
As you go on this journey in your own product, the first step is to separate discovering the problem from the work of fixing it.
If you notice an issue and think about how much time and effort you’ll have to spend fixing it, then you’re unlikely to want to add that to your list.
That’s why it is crucial to simply list the issues first—it’s completely fine if you don’t have a solution yet—simply under a “let’s make this interaction better” list.
Take the first step
Go through your product from start to finish, as a user would. Create a todo item for each thing you find. Slow load times, bad animations, confusing interactions, and everything else. Don’t worry about solving it, just make notes.
Then for the next few months just solve one per week. You’ll end up in a remarkably better place.
In his book, I Can’t Make This Up, Kevin Hart talks about how his comedy career only really started to take off when he used email to build a direct relationship with his fans. He quickly went from being one of many acts in a small theatre, to being able to sell out an entire theatre himself. Soon after, he added multiple nights in the same city, selling out each show.
All because he could talk directly to his fans and let them know he had a show coming up.
An email list is the best tool for filling these seats.
It all starts with email.
Just like Kevin Hart, so many creators discover that predictable success comes when they can reliably point their fans to their latest work. In the world of ever changing social media platforms email remains the channel with the best engagement.
Predictable success as a creator starts with building an email list.
When asked about mistakes he made when building his online business, Pat Flynn shared that he wished he started his email list even sooner.
Luckily, it’s never been easier to start an email newsletter.
Let’s start a newsletter in 15 minutes
Choose your topic
When I started my blog I wanted to talk about everything that I found interesting. Design, marketing, security, startups, products, etc. But that’s not an effective way to attract a following.
The first step when choosing your topic is to be specific. There may be a dozen things you want to talk about, but you’ll get more traction if you start with something focused for a narrow audience.
Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness nails this principle. He could have started another fitness blog, but instead of writing generic fitness content, he wrote from his own perspective filled with Star Wars, LEGO, and Lord of the Rings references. While this doesn’t resonate with everyone, he quickly stood out from the crowd and Nerd Fitness grew quickly.
Write on a focused topic, for a specific group.
Let’s put that into practice…
Instead of writing about design, try “iOS app design for developers”
Instead of writing about fitness, try “high intensity interval training for moms”
Instead of writing about productivity, try “bullet journaling for authors”
What are you teaching? Be specific. Then narrow it further by adding a target audience.
Set your cadence
How often are you going to send your newsletter? Most people choose weekly, but make sure it’s something you can stick to since it’s important to be predictable. To make the options simple, just choose between one of these:
Daily (or weekdays)
Twice weekly (every Monday and Thursday)
Weekly (every Tuesday)
Monthly (the first Monday of the month)
Keep in mind that consistency and quality are more important than frequency. I’d rather read great content once a month, then mediocre content each week.
Choose a format
Not every newsletter has to follow the same content format.
Seth Godin has a short blog post that is often just a few, profound sentences.
Robert Glazer writes a mid-length post that shares a story and sparks new thoughts.
James Clear writes long-form, well-researched posts that often cite research.
Tim Ferriss shares a few thoughts and links in 5-Bullet Friday.
Katie Couric sends the news headlines with her own commentary in her newsletter called Wake-up Call.
Choose a style that feels natural to you and will work with the cadence. You may feel inspired to write longer content, but if you want it to be a daily newsletter, that probably won’t be sustainable.
If you do choose to have mostly links, remember that you still have the flexibility to still add color and your own thoughts.
Build a landing page
The next step is more fun. Inside ConvertKit there are dozens of different landing page templates and each one can be made totally unique based on your style, colors, and photos.
Choose a template
Once you start your free trial of ConvertKit go to Forms > New form > Landing page. That will take you to the templates to choose from:
When choosing a template look for the layout and fonts you like, since the images and colors are just there as an example. You can always switch to another template later if you change your mind.
A custom image is the best way to easily change the look of your landing page and Unsplash is the best place to find royalty free stock photos. Search for photos (or browse the home page) and then when you find one, upload it to ConvertKit.
Pro tip: when you add a background photo to your landing page, fade it over a solid color. That will give it a more unique look, make text more readable, and make your landing page more cohesive.
Start growing your audience
Once you publish your page it’s time to share it on social media. I always tend to overcomplicate this when there is no need to. It’s a tweet or Facebook post—you don’t need to get it perfect.
Here’s a sample tweet you can use:
Hey everyone, I’m launching a new email newsletter about [topic]. Interested? Subscribe and you’ll get my best content every [cadence]!
[landing page link]
If you have friends with audiences in the same industry, ask them to share it as well. People are often willing to help with a Tweet or Facebook post and it never hurts to ask.
Recruit your first 10 subscribers
If you don’t already have a following on social media, don’t expect many subscribers from there. In fact, most creators have to start by building their audience through direct connections.
Luckily it’s just a few simple steps:
Re-read your topic and who your newsletter is for—who comes to mind?
Start a list of those people. Friends, family, co-workers, and more.
Reach out to them directly over email or text to let them know what you’re working on.
The email can be quite simple:
I just started a new email newsletter on [topic]. Is that something you're interested in? If so, let me know and I'll add you to the list.
Hope you're well!
Then add everyone who replies that they are interested to your list!
We’ve seen creators use this tactic to grow well beyond 100 subscribers for their list!
The road forward
The hardest thing about an email newsletter is staying consistent, but it’s so important! Luckily you can use your calendar to your advantage. If you chose Monday as your day to publish, set a calendar reminder to send out the newsletter.
That’s where most people stop. But you actually need more time blocked out on your calendar a few days earlier to prepare the newsletter. Even just 30 minutes will help you from feeling rushed.
Find more places to promote
One of my favorite perks of having an email list—even if it’s just a dozen people—is to be able to ask them questions. It can be really helpful to solicit their help in finding new communities to promote your work.
At the end of your newsletter ask, “Quick question, where else do you go online to learn about [newsletter topic]?”
The responses are great for discovering new sites and communities where you can learn and also share your content or write guest posts to promote your newsletter.
Avoid these common mistakes
I see the same mistakes repeated by so many people!
Starting with a broad topic
Not being clear about who your newsletter is for
Not staying consistent
If you manage to avoid those three you’ll be better off than nearly all creators! It will be slow to get started, but a year from now when you have a small, but mighty tribe following what you create it will be worth it!
Building a direct relationship with an audience is the best way to reliably earn a living as a creator. Whether you are earning a living with advertising on your content or selling products, having true fans in your corner is key.
As you know I’m a huge fan of email for building that relationship because you can reach each fan directly (rather than renting the relationship from Facebook, YouTube, or other platforms) and you can personalize each interaction with what you know about them.
Today I have two goals:
To make it far easier for you to start building an audience over email.
To give you the nudge you need to get started.
Let’s start with the first one.
Start your audience with new landing pages from ConvertKit
Built into ConvertKit we now have beautiful landing pages to help you grow your audience. Whatever you are creating we have a landing page template to help you collect your first subscribers.
The Hudson landing page is great for profile pages.
The Fremont landing page has a slot perfect for podcast artwork or a book cover.
You can see all the templates inside ConvertKit and easily preview and select the one you want to use to start growing your audience.
Once you choose a landing page, let’s move on to a bribe…
Grow your list to 100 subscribers and enter to win $5,000
You may have dreamed of starting your audience for years, but never quite taken the leap. Today I’m here to give you the nudge you need to get started!
In the month of April we’re offering the chance to win $5,000 (and a lot of other prizes) simply for growing your list. Here’s how it works:
Register for the landing page challenge here
Create a new landing page in ConvertKit (you can start a free trial if you don’t already have an account)
Start collecting subscribers (direct outreach to friends and family who would be interested works great!)
Then at the end of April our panel of judges will select winners in each category based on the quality of the landing page design and content.
Even if you don’t win, you’ll have kickstarted your audience and taken the first step to earning a living as a creator.
On a beautiful spring morning a few years ago our team was locked in a competitive ultimate frisbee match. With a tied score and only a few minutes left in the game we were playing harder and faster than we had in any other game during the tournament.
We got possession and started to drive down the field. The next throw was low and fast. Covering half the field. Ben, our team captain and fastest player, ran and dove to catch the disc. A photo from that moment, captured by the tournament photographer, shows him completely horizontal, about to complete an incredible catch.
An opposing player realized he misread the throw and didn’t get low enough to make a play on the frisbee. In a split second, unable to stop, he had to decide how to avoid a collision.
He chose to jump.
I’ll never forget the sound of his knee colliding with the side of Ben’s head.
Imagine yourself three years ago. Where did you live? Who were you in a relationship with? How was that relationship? Where do you work? What are your dreams? What are your struggles?
Step into that time and become that person for a moment.
From that place, now look forward. What do you think of your life now?
One of three things will be true:
Life is better now.
Life is the same now.
Life is worse now.
Which is true for you?
Hold that thought. Hold that emotion.
As we all converged on Ben I had no idea what to think. He didn’t move. After about 30 seconds he began to wake up. After a couple minutes he could get up on his own power. Immediately he wanted to know if we could continue the game. We had a tournament to win after all.
We escorted him to the side while the tournament organizers called the game as a tie since we were now out of time before the next round of games needed to start. It was still early and they’d figure out a way to make the brackets work.
Now it was our turn to make a decision: will Ben be fine or should he see a doctor?
Remembering the sound of the collision I made the call that we’d take him in. In the car on the way to the doctor Ben said:
“Whoah. I’m just now coming to… so what happened?”
Well, we were playing ultimate frisbee and you got hit in the head while diving for the frisbee. We just want to get you checked out by a…
I was mid-explanation when the scariest thing happened.
“Whoah. I’m just now coming to… so what happened?”
Everyone in the car traded freaked out looks. He said the same thing, in exactly the same way. With no memory of the conversation we just had or how he got in the car.
“Whoah. I’m just now coming to… so what happened?”
“Whoah. I’m just now coming to… “
“Whoah. I’m just now…”
Every 20-30 seconds each sentence started exactly the same way. In order to not freak him out we engaged in the conversation. Telling the same story on repeat.
At the front desk he knew all his information and was able to answer all the medical questions. At least the ones we could fit into the (now slightly longer) loop.
Which was true for you?
Is life better, worse, or the same?
When I go back three years and look forward life is better. I live in a new house (on the farm that Hilary always dreamed of having), the company I poured my heart and soul into is growing in a remarkable way, and emotionally I am in a much better place thanks to deliberate work and counseling.
That leads to a feeling of gratitude for everything that has happened.
While that’s true for me, it’s important to leave space for those who may have a different experience. Life could be worse now than a few years ago. The loss of a loved one, a failed business, financial hardship, depression, or a host of other factors may mean that you wish things could get back to how they were before. My wish for you is that you are able to find hope that since it was once better, with deliberate work, life can return to that point.
The final option is that everything might feel the same. Humans are designed to change and grow. Stagnation can feel depressing or even crippling. If that’s you, find one small thing to change. That could be the gym once a week, reading a new book, or learning a new skill. Don’t try to change everything at once. Start small, stay consistent, and see where it takes you.
Whether reflection sparks gratitude, hope, or motivation, it’s always helpful to look back on your journey.
With each loop Ben’s short-term memory extended. An hour after the concussion we could have a conversation for a couple minutes before he forgot it all and started over. More time meant more questions.
“Where do I work?”
“Where do I live?”
“What do I drive?”
He knew the basics about his life, but nothing recent. As we answered his questions he got really excited:
“I teach at that school? I’ve always wanted to work there!”
“I drive a convertible? I bet that’s fun!”
Once I got over the craziness of not remembering details about your own life, I couldn’t help but laugh. If that happened to me what would my reaction be?
“ConvertKit is doing that well?”
“This is the incredible team I get to work with?”
I can’t help but feel gratitude.
A full recovery
Throughout the day Ben was able to remember more and more. After a CT scan and more monitoring at the hospital he ended up making a full recovery. Though it was a few weeks before he went back to work, he did regain all of his memory, except for up until a few minutes before the frisbee tournament started.
What started as a frightening accident turned into an opportunity to look in from the outside—without the context and small steps of time marching forward—to gain a completely fresh perspective.
For me that perspective points to a place of gratitude.
Most of my highest paid friends are writers or teachers.
At first thought that sounds ridiculous. Generally those are two of the lowest paid professions around. English majors are told to enjoy their career at Starbucks. Teachers are respected, but know they’ll never be well paid. Teaching is more of a labor of love than anything else.
So why is it that my writer friends get paid more than anyone else I know?
My software developer friends are next in the amount of money they make. But even in our current tech bubble where six figure salaries are handed out like dentures at an old folks home, many developers don’t make as much as the writers. On top of that, they all have jobs that keep them working for one company, usually in one city. The only time they take extended trips is for a month or so before their new job starts.
The writers have freedom. My Instagram feed is constantly filled with the new locations my writer friends are visiting. Hiking on Kauai, a road trip through Bulgaria, and housesitting in Menorca are just what three writer friends are doing as I write this.
Money and freedom? For writing? Based on all our modern stereotypes about careers this is a ridiculous concept.
They say get a real career. Become a doctor, engineer, or software developer.
Leave writing to the baristas.
Good things from writing
If I look back at all the good things that have happened in my career in the last 3 years, they all come from writing. One little habit of writing 1,000 words a day revolutionized my career.
Today I earn my living owning a software company, but for years I paid the bills as a writer. During that time I…
Made over $35,000 in a single day from a book launch.
Built a network of close friends I can turn to when I need help.
Visited almost two dozen countries while traveling for fun.
Hosted a formal workshop at one of the most exclusive clubs in West-London.
Been paid to speak at conferences that I would have normally paid to attend.
All while making a salary that is 4x my last traditional job.
None of this would have happened if I hadn’t decided to write a book.
Attention is the most valuable resource
Alright, I left you hanging earlier. Let’s talk about why my writer friends make more than anyone else I know. It’s not because they are particularly amazing at their craft or that their works will be adoringly placed in libraries for future generations.
The reason is simple that writing is how you get attention. And in todays world attention is the most valuable resource.
Major companies spend billions of dollars on advertising each year in order to interrupt people for a chance at getting attention for their products.
Writers get that for free. They have tens of thousands of people raising their hands to say, “Sign me up. I want to read everything you write. You have my attention.”
Then when the writer uses a small portion of that attention to promote something else that will benefit the reader, hundreds or thousands of them buy it.
Writers can gather attention better than anyone else.
And in today’s business world attention is the most valuable resource.
That’s why my friends who are writers are the best paid of anyone I know.
…but I’m not a writer.
When I was 12 I told my mom that learning writing skills was a waste of time. I was frustrated with whatever high school essay I was working on and so I said “This is ridiculous. I’m never going to be a writer. Why can’t I learn a skill that will actually be useful to me?”
My mom still reminds me of that from time to time, now that I make my living through writing.
I never thought of myself as a writer.
About a year after I started to earn a living from my blog I overheard my wife talking to a few friends answering the question, “What does your husband do?” She said I was a writer.
Before that moment I’d never applied that term to myself. Designer, yes. But not a writer. I just taught people about design (and now marketing).
Good writing is about teaching.
Unless you’re writing a novel, good writing is about teaching. Most of my friends who make their living from writing wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves writers. Instead they are developers, freelancers, hobbyists, marketers, designers, and business owners.
They just realized they had valuable skills and started teaching them to anyone who wanted to listen.
When you start writing you don’t have to worry about crafting perfect prose. Instead you just need to focus on teaching useful skills.
Do that and you’ll build an audience. Then write a book or course that is a more complete guide to your topic.
Charge for it.
Use the attention that your audience gives you each week from blog posts and a newsletter to promote the new product.
And that’s how you join the rest of my writer friends in the highest paid group of people I know.