Sherrell Dorsey is the founder and CEO of The Plug, a publication and community for news, insights and analysis on trends in Black innovation. The Plug features stories that show the substantive ways Black people engage with the innovation economy, including analyses of modern technologies.
On today’s show, Sherrell shares about building an audience and growing The Plug. We talk about sponsorships, The Plug’s revenue model, and her background in journalism and how she brings that into her current work. We also talk about choosing a niche, staying consistent, and much more.
Sherrell has worked in marketing and consulting for companies such as Uber, Tresata, MarketSource, and Build The Good. Sherrell has also worked as a correspondent for Fast Company, Essence, Next City, and Black Enterprise. She earned her master’s degree in data journalism from Columbia University.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How to grow your subscribers when first starting out
- Different strategies for monetizing your newsletter
- The right way to include advertising in your newsletter
- Tradeoffs between having a team and working as a solopreneur
Links & Resources
- Clay Hebert
- Monica Melton
- Farnam Street
- Shane Parrish
- Ryan Holiday
- Daily Stoic
- James clear
- Google Fiber
- Fast Company
- The Root
- Black Enterprise
- Bloomberg Terminal
- Business Insider
- The Moguldom Nation
Sherrell Dorsey’s Links
- Follow Sherrell on Twitter
- The Plug
- The Plug newsletter
- HBCU newsletter
I think that we’ve gotten into this very fast pace, and this idea of constant information and voices in your head. I don’t know that more information is making us a better society. I think that this idea of community and grappling with ideas, calling things out or bringing things to attention, but having something meaningful to say really outweighs just being visible all of the time.
My guest today is Sherrell Dorsey. Sherrell is the founder of The Plug, which is a newsletter, and really a publication at this point, about the black tech ecosystems and all the interesting things that black and brown founders are doing in technology and business. She started in 2016, and she’s built it up to have a full-time team of five people now.
I’m so impressed with what she’s built. We get into talking about sponsorships, the revenue model, how she built the audience, her background in journalism, and how she brings that into what she’s doing now. I actually grew up in tech and some of the ecosystems that she was a part of that inspired her.
We talk about choosing a niche and staying focussed there. We talk about consistency. There’s really a lot of things in this episode. I love what she’s doing and how she’s built this niche business into something that now employs full-time journalists. At a time when a lot of other publications are dwindling, she’s growing.
So, let’s dive into the episode.
Sherrell, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
I actually want to start talking about experimentation. We’re going to jump around a little bit. You like to run a lot of experiments, and you’ve taken an approach on experimentation where you’re doing it at a stage in the business where you have a lot going on. A lot is working. This is a point where I see a lot of content creators freak out and stop experimenting because they’re like, “This is what my audience likes. I have to show up in exactly this way.”
So, they don’t experiment. Even at this level of success, you’re like, “No, experimentation is a core part of what we’re doing.”
Could you talk about that, and some of the experiments that you run, and then your mindset around it?
We’re constantly challenging ourselves as a team, and trying not to get bored. Part of our experimentation may have more to do with the attention deficit issues that we have as a team, as a collective. Maybe not as much as our audience, but we also assume that they also have attention issues.
Let’s be honest, there’s so much competing for our audience’s attention, right? I mean, outside of the inbox, theres social media, there’s the day-to-day of all the crazy, all the push notifications. So, for us, experimentation really is at the core of challenging ourselves to face something new and interesting, and really tapping into what.
The sort of timeliness of news, and really finding a way to put it into our voice and share some of our opinions as well. Even with running The Plug’s weekly briefing experimentation is really even just how I got started. The Plug for me was an experiment. I was getting up at 5:00 AM, pulling together a newsletter, wanting to cover diverse voices in tech.
Doing it just as this labor of love, and also nerdiness and curiosity, and it started to grow. Then I said, well, maybe I can do this every single day. Then I did it every day. Then at some point we realized, hmm, are people having inbox fatigue? What if we slow things down and really make people cherish every single sentence that we’re writing in our newsletters, and giving them a long and deep side of slow conversations on Monday mornings as they’re starting their day.
We’ve seen those questions that we’re asking kind of manifest in this idea of experimenting with just our curiosity. We’ve seen that well, I mean, honestly, Nathan, we’re getting 45% to 48% open rates on every single newsletter, and it has been pretty consistent.
When we were in the daily phase, we were starting to see those open rates go down. People just didn’t even have enough time to read. So, again, we start with the question, “Well, what if, or how do we personally sort of engage with our news and with our information, and how do we create a moment of almost intimacy with our audience and our subscribers?” Where instead of just having the breadth, we can actually have the depth.
Yeah. I want to talk about the consistency and the schedule later in the episode, but let’s go there right now because I think a lot of people, when they’re writing their newsletter, they struggle with how often to send. And, you know, if you look at someone like Seth Godin who publishes every day and has done it for, I don’t know, decades at this point, it’s like, oh, I should be like Seth Goden and publish every single day or send out, you know, a newsletter five days a week.
But one that’s incredibly hard to maintain. And then two, I think you’ll see exactly what you’re talking about. The engagement and interest drops off, too much of a good thing is still too much. What do you think about that?
I think that we’ve gotten into this very fast paced. I mean, I, you know, Twitter became a thing when I was like exiting undergrad and this idea of just constant information and voices in your head. Was kind of standard and status quo. And I feel as though now we really wanted to hyper focus on how do we get people to sit with ideas and thoughts before we kind of bombard them with just more information.
And I don’t know that more information is making us a better society. I think that this idea of community and grappling with ideas, you know, calling things out or bringing things to attention, but having something meaningful to say really outweighs, just being visible all of the time. I think especially with the newsletter, with the newsletter, you’re telling stories, you are bringing ideas to the forefront, you’re surfacing news and information for people to kind of ruminate on.
And then we can kind of hit people later on in the week, which we do with here’s opportunities to engage further. Or did you check out this data set that we’ve pulled together that will allow you to look at. How HBCs are graduating, like the top black engineers in the country. And so for us, it’s about what is the value that we’re providing to our audience?
Why, why would they want to continue to open the email instead of just, let’s be there for the sake of being there, you know? And it’s like, it’s like small talk at networking events where like people are pushing their business card on you. And you’re like, I don’t ever want to
You ever again in life.
And we definitely did not want to be that like pushy networker. We just wanted people to be able to sit with us, have a cup of coffee, have a tea, and just, you know, Really, really, connect with us and our work. And so, thus far, you know, like I said, we really saw our open rates increased drastically going from the daily into that weekly and it being meaningful.
And our managing editor, Monica Melton, who was our first employee at The Plug has really, really ramped up subject lines and experimenting, in AB testing that has been so beneficial in terms of how the newsletter is being received.
Well, that’s something that you just can’t do when you’re on a daily deadline. I’m trying to rush out on that scale, or you have to have a much larger staff to be able to bring that level of thoughtfulness and testing to each piece of content.
So true. So very true. I mean, you know, we’ve always sort of operated and I think most startups, you kind of have to do more with less. And I think from the standpoint of delivering higher value really wanted our team to be able to think through, well, what should that Monday newsletter say? What are the opportunities that we can really present to our audience that are thoughtful?
Even during our editor, our weekly editorial call, like we, we, we really deep dive into what are some of the top issues? What do we think about it? We really get to massage it out and be thoughtful. And I don’t know, even if we had a larger team, maybe we would do more, maybe, maybe less. General newsletter, maybe more profiles would be really nice.
And we’ve recently launched a new newsletter as well. it’s kind of the niche of the niche. our incredible HBCU innovation reporter recently launched an executive newsletter for those who are recruiters, HR professionals who are really trying to understand how do historically black colleges and universities play a role in the future of work and just breaking down stats, breaking down the kinds of patents that are being developed, breaking down the kind of research coming out of these institutions ways in which to engage with faculty, new entrepreneurship centers, all of these like really incredible stats that you don’t really hear on a daily basis.
So that now that is a subset where now we have increased the cadence of our newsletters, but we’ve created that for a very specific niche within the niche of audience that we serve.
You said something about it’s almost the environment that your newsletter is received into of your app. Like telling someone slow down, this is be thoughtful. This is a thoughtful part of your morning. Like have your cup of coffee, have your tea. And I’m realizing that as a newsletter creator myself, I often don’t think about like, I’m not asking.
The reader to get in a state of mind to engage with my content or get in a physical space. And so this is it’s interesting, I haven’t thought about before and it would change the approach to the content and it would for sure change the approach to the writing because instead of going okay, punchy headlines quick, this is for the busy professional, reading it on the subway, you know, like that’s one style and it sounds like you’re hitting in a completely different style, I guess.
Tell me more about that. And then the other aspect of it is what are the ways that you reinforce that message to your readers? Cause it’s one thing, if you think in your editorial room and conversations, but that you have to actually translate that to the reader so that they feel it as well.
Yeah, we just didn’t want to be forced to speed up. honestlyit was who I always liked this idea of, of slower journalism. I grew up such a reader like my mom and I get up on Saturday mornings and go to Barnes and noble when like bonds. And like when we actually went into bookstores, right.
She would like leave me in the kids’ section. And I would just like, get a mountain of books and just sit and read. And I always think about that opportunity of like just saying. And reading and in sitting and like digesting ideas and information. And when I think about some of my favorite newsletters, I think about, the, the Farnam street blog and, and Shane Parrish, Paul Jarvis used to write an incredible newsletter.
There’s just so many incredible writers and thinkers that create these kinds of long form pieces. I think, right in holiday and the daily, it does a really interesting sort of long form, you know, he does, he definitely does like the, the Daily of course, cause it’s the daily. but these kinds of newsletters that really made you think about the world around us and sort of the new ideas that are emerging and.
I felt as though, as we were starting to deep dive into this Nisha space, of course we cover black and brown innovators, future of work, future of business, inclusive business ideas that are highly data-driven. You have to really sit and think about what this data means when it means within your work. And it’s not just like a flash in the pan, series or subsets of ideas.
It really is how do I take this and apply it to my work and everyday capacity. So we didn’t want to just give like bullet points of actions. It was more of, you have to apply this in your world in your way. And so I wanted to kind of recreate that to an extent. and as I mentioned before, you know, experimenting with.
Subject lines and titles and flow. And I mean, even just organization of information, you know, there’s always sort of the backend analytics that you can take a look at. What are people actually clicking on? What kind of things do they care about? serving our audience, a great deal to understand what they want to hear more about.
I know that there are a lot of investors who subscribed to us who are always looking at our startups to watch section, and just the fact that people are able to kind of read this very long email and find a section that resonates with them and decide to take an action from that. That for us really demonstrates kind of a metric that we did not even anticipate going into this.
And that really has to do with listening to our audience, quite frankly.
Yeah, that’s good. I have more people will take that approach. cause I think. Now you say that and noticing that trend in a lot of these newsletters, like Shane Parrish, or like James clear, some of these others that have been going for a long time and built these substantial audiences is there’s a level of intentionality that really makes it unique in that way.
Let’s go back. And, now that we’ve gotten into some of the tactics and the high-level things, let’s talk about, you know, actually starting The Plug. So you started in 2016, is that
I did. I started at 2016 as a labor of love. I had been writing freelance. I was working in tech, so I am an alum of Uber, as well as Google fiber, Microsoft and high school. I like worked, as an intern and like tech was always just such a big part of my life. And I grew up in Seattle. So it’s like, go figure of course, like the girl that like grew up in Seattle is like a tech person.
So, so it was always a huge part of my life. And what was really cool about my experience in Seattle is that I was trained in coding and network administration and all these really cool programming language and languages from a woman who was a retired software engineer from Microsoft, who like converted a storefront.
And she was like, I want to teach inner city kids like about technology because. I’m female, I’m brown, I’m gay. Like there’s not many folks like me in this space. And like, I want to create back in this space. And so my experience was just so unique. And when I got into the workforce and the conversations that were happening in media did not include voices from folks like myself or from Trish who started the center that I went to.
And the folks who kind of raised me while I was at Microsoft, who were from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of experiences and like would burn me like, remember back in the day when you were burning, This amazing mentor who like she was like, burn me, like all of the Mo like the brand new heavies, most Def like all of these, like really amazing like albums.
And, you know, at the same time, like teach me about like walking through this space of tech in a very male dominated field. And so when it come to the workforce and the media was kind of always a grandizing like all of these men and their ideas about the future, I was like, well, I’ve met some really like dope, you know, women engineers, or really dope, like black software developers and test engineers.
And, I shared, you know, office spaces with, you know, incredible like female engineers from India. And I just did not see that like thought leadership component coming from these different facets of society. And I was like, well, you know, I want to start covering communities outside of these kinds of normal technical.
Right. And I also was just walking through the world in living in places like New York city, living in Charlotte, North Carolina, even Bridgeport, Connecticut random. And just really finding these genius ideas and people in business leaders who were kind of unsung to a degree, but were working on really hard challenges and finding some success.
So I had been kind of freelancing and, and writing for fast company, the route black enterprise and sharing these things. And I started to kind of become known as like, oh, like she’s like the black girl Tector list. Who’s like trying to cover everyone. and so at some point, you know, I got to a point where like, I really want my own column.
I really want my own column. And you know, I think editors thought like, okay, your writing is okay, but it’s not like, great.
And like, this space is kind of cool, but like, that’s just not what we do. And so, you know, I was like, okay, I’m going to spend my $10. I go daddy and buy my domain name. And I’m, you know, people were already calling me like The Plug, like, you know, where everything is, whoever went is, you know, what’s happening, what’s going around.
And so I just started like this newsletter, I just went for broke and it was like, I’m going to create this daily newsletter. I’m going to get up at 5:00 AM every day and let’s see what happens. It wasn’t a business yet. Nathan. It was just an idea. Like, let’s see if I can kind of create an environment where we are covering, you know, innovation from the perspective of communities of color, startup leaders, VCs, and grappling with like really interesting ideas and trends.
And then also sourcing storylines from around the web. So that went on for about a year and a half. but about six months in is when I got like, we got our first corporate deal and I was like, oh, you want to give me money for this? Hm. I wonder what I can do with this. and, and that really enabled me to really get started and bring on some freelancers to help support the production of the every day.
And at some point we decided, you know, following grad school, like let’s, let’s go for the school throttle and see if we can really build a substantive business here.
So, what did it look like that first year to grow subscribers? Right? Because going from maybe let’s just talk the first three months going from buying a domain on GoDaddy to the first hundred, the first 500 subscribers. Like what was that process?
Yeah. Well, first I like spammed, my friends and family was like, you better subscribe. so that was,
Which I highly endorsed as a strategy, like legitimately, because going from zero to a hundred is so hard. If you’re like, no, I will only do it. people who come in through major publication or like, I dunno, what
You’ve got to like break
The rules and you just have to like go literally go for broke, you know? And so that first hundred, you know, it was really looking at the audience. I had sort of built through my reputation of covering this beat. Over the last few years, like a few years prior. And so, you know, those were people who were immediately bought in, friends and family.
I asked people to push up a newsletter very frequently. I was like, shamelessly plugging The Plug and like, Hey, you know, if you like this, like share it with your friends, share it with your colleagues. it definitely was not easy. It was a, it was a kind of one by one getting people bought in. And of course I had the power of social media, you know, on my side.
Whereas had I started this like years prior, like in, in, in college before Twitter became a thing or Instagram or Facebook, perhaps I wouldn’t have had as much visibility. some things that also helped to supercharge quite honestly, was like sharing across LinkedIn, just from a professional capacity standpoint.
I was still freelance writing as well. So it allowed me to share, you know, Sherrell is like the creator of The Plug and you can sign up here at the bottom.
It changes your byline.
I was able to, yeah. I was able to really leverage my, my byline. but it was a lot of pushing. It was a lot of, it was a lot of like asking people to share and to subscribe all the time.
Yeah. I was talking to someone, a friend who has a book coming out right now. And I asked him like, how’s it going? He was like, oh, it’s a lot of work. I’m doing a lot of begging right now. You know? And I was like, yep. That’s Write of like, Hey, will you share this? Will you, do you know anyone who could subscribe?
Will you subscribe? and a lot of the people who end up like getting traction and making something are the people that are willing to do that. And then the people who are like, you know, I tried this new venture, I put it out in the world and it just didn’t resonate. And so I shut it down and moved on after three months or whatever.
It’s like, you dig into their stories and they’re the ones who weren’t willing to, you know, as long text all their friends. And so it just takes that level.
Absolutely. I mean, three months is hardly enough time. I mean, you almost need like a solid two to three years to really, really like solidify yourself. The right conversation, get in the right rooms, build it, that level of credibility. I know some people who are able to do it very quickly. I think you’re, you know, you’re leveraging relationships, you’re leveraging interviews and it’s nonstop.
You’re nonstop promoting yourself. And you know, I’ll be honest, Nathan, there’s a bit of discomfort, in promoting yourself constantly. I think also like as a woman, I had to get very, very comfortable. I think that’s something I had to learn in tech of, you know, watching like my male counterparts, like constantly talk about how great they were.
And like, I was always so uncomfortable the exact same demeanor. but I had to find my own way to talk about the work that I was doing and what I found interesting. And the more that I did that, I found that again, you know, folks were just subscribing because I asked they actually cared about what I was doing.
And even to this day, We are full fledged, you know, running media company. And we have people who were literally those early subscribers who have been with us since the jump. So when we have typos or when we’ve had titles in the past, or we’ve had a glitch or an email accidentally without, I mean, these folks didn’t berate us or like drag us online, they were just like, Hey, just want you to know this link doesn’t work.
And I hope you’re well, like I’ve been following you for years. Like I get those emails like every single week. And it is so incredible to really know that like, people have been rocking with you from your early days when you were less sophisticated, less refined, you know, and, but still they, they understand the intent.
And they’ve seen that throughout the process of you growing your, your business, that you have been intentional. And I think that that’s the value that they find.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. what about, well, was there a point in there either three months in or two years in or something where you were wondering, is this working like, should I keep going on it or was it just steady progress without any self doubt?
Wish that I was the most confident person ever. I mean, fine. Find me someone who was just like, yes. I mean, you know, maybe Elon Musk, talking that he knows that everything he does is going to turn to gold. I definitely am not one of those, those individuals. I definitely, would have moments of discouragement, you know, you know, we talked about open rates, right.
And I think, you know, sort of like as you’re ramping. Your open rates look really good because your list is, is smaller. And then as your list grows, your open rates change and fluctuate. And, and if you’re not familiar with, with that, it’s really rough. You know, especially when you’re still just learning the tools, you’re still learning the techniques of AB testing or you’re learning the tools of how to really create a captivating subject line or a captivating headline overall.
And so, you know, when, as we continue to grow or you see the unsubscribes, right, like unsubscribes are still deflating. Even now years later, Maven is like, oh my gosh, like, why would you leave me? You know, it’s like a breakup, you know, you’re like, why would you ever leave me? And honestly, most people just get overwhelmed.
And we, what we saw was transitioning to that. Weekly versus the daily. We’ve seen significant drops in unsubscribes. You know, folks, folks have time to actually read us. They don’t feel overwhelmed with seeing our name in their inbox every single day. but there are, there are challenges for sure. You know, I think that, you know, I think that when you start to kind of compare yourself against sort of others emails or their newsletters or seeing their growth and the tactics that they’re using, and also knowing sometimes you don’t have the resources, you know, we didn’t put money into Facebook ads or any other kind of platform.
Everything for us had to be organic and it had to be intentional. And without having a huge marketing budget to try to get across certain milestones. And sometimes that can be discouraging if you’re like, oh wait, like they’re lists maybe twice the size of mine and they’ve not been doing this as long.
And they’ve been able to put in the resources to kind of move the needle, or, you know, even in wanting to kind of stay intentional and practice this idea of slow journalism and slow information. When you see others who are like quick flash in the pan and, and they’ve grown exponentially, but it’s also like, okay, we have some of the most engaged readers ever.
You know, again, people who will show up will continue to show up to our events when we do something in person, or kind of contribute and show up to our virtual launches and things like that. And so I had to always kind of refocus on who my audience is and who has really stayed and stuck with us and the value that we deliver because the outside comparison will definitely.
Kill any kind of confidence that you may have and, I think overall we had to get out of the game of becoming like the wonder kid company that sells to some major entity 12 months in, I think there was just this huge rush, especially with media newsletters of like, oh, you build this up, you work, work really hard.
And then, you know, the New York times comes and purchases you, right? And like it’s kind of far and few between. And if we’re playing that race, you know, if we’re playing that kind of game, it’s, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s not necessarily the right north star and being rushed into this idea of what success looks like.
We have to really redefine for ourselves and what, like our core values have been. And we have to revisit that time and time again, and really just focus on delivering the best value that we can deliver.
Yeah, it sounds like you have a long time horizon, which I think is really, really important because so many people are. They’re focused on like, okay, this has to work in the next month, the next three months, the next two years. And you just, you burn yourself out. Like I I’ve been working, in six weeks.
It will be the new year. And I will have been working on convert kit for nine years and like, realizing that I was like, oh, this takes a long time. And you get those best compound results over. It’s just a lot of time.
It takes a while. Good things. Take time. And it’s really hard. you know, I’m a millennial and everything where we want it to have everything like yesterdayandwant it tolike
Right. I mean, yes, of course, absolutely. Like, that’s why I don’t cook. Right. Like Uber eats me please. So, it humbles you to really understand.
I always, I always say, you know, like we’re understanding our own minds right now. we had to kind of go through our mature, our maturation phase of who are we? What is our content and our work stand for who is our audience? You know, having to kind of make those shifts and adjustments as we grew, the newsletter that we started is not the newsletter that we have today.
We. We are going to have this highly kind of consumer driven newsletter. And as we started to look back at emails and names and titles, we kind of quickly realized, yes, our folks are kind of on the, on the periphery of like being consumer based. But these are people who hold really interesting titles at top tech companies, or they are, you know, coming from vaping companies.
And so it really allowed us to see and understand, well, our content is helping to inform and give intelligence to these people who are going into work everyday, making decisions. It’s not just information for information sake. We have to fundamentally cater to a very different audience than, than how we started.
And I’m honestly very proud of that evolution. And I’m also proud of the time that it’s taken, even for me to evolve as a. I mean, I went from me and my laptop and wifi to now having four full-time employees and 10 contractors that help us to build this thing, like every single day. And so that’s fundamentally over this time, horizon has been a transition and an evolution across the board, and I’m sure who you were and where you started nine years ago is fundamentally different than what you have built as a company today.
But you need each of those steps, right? It’s that kind of crawl to walk, to run, to fly sort of phase. And I think we’re just working on practicing more intentionality. And now I have more brains. I have more, more hands, more ideas in this that makes it better every single day. And I, and I just try my best to like, honor that.
I love that. Yeah. It’s exactly what I think of it as what’s a journey that I can go on that will make me a different person. By the time I get there, like what’s the, not the easy path, but what’s the thing that I can undertake where it’s like, I, the only way to accomplish that is by becoming like leveling up and becoming a different person.
And, and it sounds like you’re on a similar journey.
Absolutely. I mean, I don’t know how you do this and you, and you don’t change or transition. And I mean sure. Would it have been nice to get that early win, whatever that looks like, and then kind of had the clout to say, oh yeah, I sold my first company and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it’s like, yeah, sure, man.
But that would have come with its own, you know, challenges. I mean, I, you know, went to grad school during the process and, you know, had to hire a managing editor to help the flow. So it was like getting up super, super early to go to class and like run the newsletter and deal with clients like in between class transitions and homework.
And, you know, deliverables was not an easy feat, but I needed that time to help me become the leader that I am today and the journalist than I am today. And also to build the kind of network and relationships that would help us continue to grow into thrive. And I think more so now, and I, and I’m not sure if this is true for you as well, Nathan, you know, it’s less about just general execution and more about.
What room. So I need to be in where I can learn and kind of see my business differently and see the opportunities in a way that are effective. I mean, we’ve always run a remote company and I’ve always wanted to run a remote company. And now that we’re remote and I have. Folks across time zones, you know, it is how do we continue to produce at an excellent level, but then also like be, you know, be sensitive to different time zones.
And when we move an all hands meeting, how that kind of affects the workflow for the week, or, you know, some of my team members are juggling full families. And, told you earlier, you know, that we are our two-year-old director of mayhem with like, he has like three teeth. He’s like, you know, one of our favorite employees, sometimes like, you know, he calls it like 7:00 AM and just wants to chat and you have to be available for those conversations.
And so, you know, again, you know, I think, I think this whole entire process is a growth journey and sometimes your north star does change. You know, I think that when I first started out, it was like, yeah, like we want to be just as great as this. You know, we want to be just as great as kind of these superstars that, you know, had access to a great deal of funding.
Well, here was the thing they think when I was in grad school, I went to school for computational journalism. I went to journalism school at a time that there was a 40% reduction in staff of actual journalists. Like the industry itself was like, we’re dying, come on a Janice. Right. And watching these major publications that were like dominant leaders, completely lose their valuations and have to sell for pennies on the dollar compared to what they raised in venture capital.
And so the other component to Nathan was that I realized I can’t compete on resources cause I hadn’t raised any money. Then we were doing strictly revenue. Advertising and sponsorship checks, and then eventually reintroduced subscriptions and subscriptions giving access to more premium content and developing an entire sort of newsletter experience and product experience that would cater to the subset of folks who wanted more and shared with us that they wanted more.
And so I think the slowing down also enabled us to listen a lot more to our audience about who they were, what they were looking for, what they wanted. And it put us into a great place, even though it kind of felt like, okay, folks where they knew about us, but, you know, once the pandemic kind of shot off and our work was just out there and everyone’s online, they’re like, oh wait, like The Plug like has been doing this work for a very long time.
Like their stuff is really dope, like that really catapulted us. And so I’m lab that we had built up such a body of work and reputation. So that once we started to kind of get this influx of subscribers and this influx of folks paying for the premium membership, we were ready. We already had things that they could tap into that were of excellence.
And so, it is, it’s definitely a journey all the way.
So on that journey, well, so you have tens of thousands of subscribers now for The Plug. What were some of the inflection points in growing that audience? Was it perfectly linear or were there some things, you know, certain stories that took off where you added hundreds of thousands of subscribers in one go.
Yeah. I mean, doing our work in public has been such a great benefit to us. I think before we were kind of in this closed community space, we just want to talk to our audience in there. well, we had to create greater opportunities and we learned this through a survey to our, to our subscribers. And they said, listen, like we love this work.
And folks would email me or email our managing editor and have conversation, but they’re like, we want more conversation like amongst each other. we want to know who else is subscribed here. And so we had to do a lot more of our work in public, really engaging people across social media, because that really is just where people are, you know, whether it’s frequently or infrequent.
That was kind of where audience, also wanted to engage either with myself or with our team members. And so pushing out our articles, creating, very engaging data visualizations to really show the prowess of our work and our reporting. a lot of our work has gone viral. A lot of our data, our data sets and visualizations have gone viral.
It gives, it’s given us an opportunity to, again, like teach and allow people to grapple with information and sort of how that information plays a role in sort of some of the challenges people of color in tech have faced and also the opportunities and trends, that are on the horizon as there’s more distribution of access to capital and access to.
And so doing that work in public and having clear stances and, continuing to host conversations, bold conversations, courageous conversations in public have really drawn more attention back to our original work back to our original newsletter. And so, and so again, experimentation, right?
I mean, I would love to say we have this grand strategy. Most of it was listen, we’re doing really dope things. We need everyone to see what we’re doing. And so we’ve just, we’ve just refined it. you know, a lot more, we’ve ensured that our team has access to the tools to build out charts and graphs and things like that.
Yeah, that’s good. So a lot of content creators, you know, come into it from some other path, like I’m a designer turned blogger, right. but you really came to it from, I mean, you’re a journalist, you went to school for journalism and you have this tech and data background. And so I’m curious as you work, you know, these really data-driven stories and you bring like true journalism.
Each of the stories, what’s something, well, I want to go two different directions, which always makes for a terrible question. one is, I, I’m curious for more of your process, like, you know, are you finding the data and then uncovering the story within it? or does it, you know, you hear a great story and that leads you into the data or does it, is it both directions?
It’s definitely both directions. I mean, sometimes just being out and about whatever that looks like these days, you come across really interesting stories. we’re always engaging on social media and listening in to conversations and sometimes like that sparks, like. But mostly we are driven by a question and just the curiosity of, Hey, I wonder what’s going on with this, or I saw this opportunity, but what does this actually mean?
And then it kind of finding the dataset and end, or having to build out our own datasets and then being able to tell a story from that. And the cool thing is that, you know, numbers can tell one side of a story, or, or they can tell multiple stories. And so the great thing is that it’s a constant feedback loop that’s going on in the way in which we identify, find or even presented.
A lot of our readers are really, really great at even just sharing like, Hey, you know, I live in Oakland and like, this is what’s happening here with this particular company or organization, or, you know, I stumbled across this thread and just wanted to get your thoughts. And then we’re like, oh, Hey, you know, maybe we should, maybe we should kind of think through this and, and what data exists, where can we kind of go and find more insights?
And then also, you know, on the weekends, I like long walks on the beach and reading a lot of research papers.
And so,so like sometimesit helps to spark ideas and I’m sure that, you know, as someone like yourself, who’s also a creator and, you know, someone who loves to read really great work, having a multifaceted array of content around you all the time, whether you’re listening to it, reading it, watching it, it also helps to spark new ideas on how to, as we say, as journalists, like how to enter a story from like the back door, right.
Not everything on its surface is what it is, but when you have an eclectic mix of content and, like I subscribe, you know, to, to things that are kind of way outside of my purview from tacking day, And that helps me to kind of think about other spaces and industries. I had a great conversation with a founder a few weeks ago, who was talking about these like warehouses.
She has a data software company that like maps, supply chain and food and food ingredients as well. And she was just talking about how, like, there’s so many entrepreneurs, like in the state of Georgia who owned these like warehouses and manufacturing facilities and how like, you know, no one’s talking about these hundred million dollar plus companies that employ a hundred plus people.
And they’re doing really well because everyone kind of wants to be on social media, like selling their product. And they’re the ones that like, ensure that products actually get made. And I just thought like, that is so fascinating. Like I wonder, you know, regionally, like where are the manufacturing plants in a, in a country that has shipped so much of its, you know, manufacturing overseas.
And so just the curiosity of it. All right. It’s just the curiosity of, interesting conversations that we try to bring to the forefront.
That makes sense. Is there a story that you’ve worked on that. Or that you’ve worked on a published, broken in some way that has changed the conversation. Like one of these that’s gone viral. and I’m sure there’s plenty, but a favorite that you’d want to share.
Yeah, I actually, this was a surprise, piece that went viral. this was, following the murder of George Floyd, last year. And I happen to be, on Twitter as I started to see a lot of tech CEOs, speak out and really address this issue on police brutality, and justice. And, you know, I had mentioned, you know, I’d been working in tech for a few years and you know, it’s not like this was an anomaly, right?
We we’ve seen this happen in play out, unfortunately, in so many different ways, but I had never really seen corporate leadership or, even just tech leadership really speak out. And so I started documenting the public statements that were coming across my timeline and really scraping Twitter to kind of see which brands which companies were making these states.
And also kind of comparing that across the board of what their diversity equity inclusion results were saying about their commitments to, black and brown workers who was actually in leadership roles, who was actually on the board and really getting a sense of our companies kind of here for the moment.
Or are they actually kind of living what it is they say their, their actual core values are.
And again, this was kind of a, project that I just want it to be able to have ready and to have something to say for the following week and decided with my team, well, we’re going to need some additional help so that we don’t miss out on any conversations that.
May have happened. And so I allowed the database to kind of be open for people to contribute to. And I started creating a visualization, really creating a timestamp of when companies were speaking out against, sort of against just the general timeline as like the country sort of erupted in protests on a national level.
It went viral immediately. and again, without intent, I was really trying to do some research and also just kind of share, like, here are some of the companies that have made statements and here’s the timelines. it went viral and it was overwhelming. I started getting messages across the board from CEOs, from recruiters.
I even had. Folks who I’d worked with in previous years, reach out to me like they were like in Amsterdam, they’re like, you know, your, database your visualization, like we’re, it’s at our all hands. And like we’re talking through,
Our statement will be. I started getting signal messages and for those who are unfamiliar signal is like the private messaging app and encrypted and all of that.
And I mean, people are sending me company emails and I mean, it was a great time be a journalist in that moment. And to really like, experience the wave of like what journalism should be in terms of, public service. It was also a very hard time, as you can imagine. as, as it was the middle of a pandemic, I’m at home by myself, with my plants in my wifi feeling somewhat powerless and just feeling like this is how I can contribute to the conversation into the movement and what really spurred out of that.
And this idea of transparency as well as accountability. And, a year later we were able to work in partnership. The Plug was able to work in partnership with fast company to do an evaluation out of all of the commitments that had been made and all of the sort of, public statements and kind of PR moments where have companies now come when it relates to inclusion and diversity justice.
And so it appears now. And so there’s much more, practice around evaluating those commitments, and asking companies to be much more transparent. And I think some policy as well, that is, that is kind of getting started in DC around how reporting on equity and inclusion should be commonplace for all employers And so, so that I feel very proud of, from our work, in terms of helping to spark that movement. And there were other folks who started building very similar databases in their specific industries. So from beauty to music to gaming, just across the board. and again, that was unexpected. I felt like there are stories that I like thought were going to go viral.
Cause they, I thought they were really dope to me and people enjoy them, but this one definitely took off. And, I’m very proud of, of the work that we did. And I’m proud of the, the interns that we also had to, who, who stayed up with me for 36 hours to kind of get as thorough who could,
Yeah. When you’re leading with data, that way the data has to be correct. It has to be accurate. that often is hard to do on a tight time on like that.
Let’s talk about the business model for The Plugin. so you mentioned, you know, paid memberships as well as sponsorships. if you’re sharing it, what’s kind of the split maybe percentage wise between, you know, revenue from sponsorships or memberships and then any other
Yeah, I guess so. So memberships or subscriptions really make up about 25% of our total revenue. That’s something that we’re looking to actually increase. Our biggest goal was not to be wholly dependent on advertising response.
But advertising sponsorships still does very well for us. And the great thing is that because we have a very specific audience, we are really able to capture advertisers and sponsors that are, you know, providing products, tools, and solutions to that audience in a meaningful way.
And so those relationships have been really, really strong for us. and then we also have, licensing. So, we do original reporting, you know, as, as, as mentioned. And, we syndicate on the Bloomberg terminal, and that parts came about in April. and so all of the Bloomberg terminal subscribers folks across financial industry also receive our work and, you know, Bloomberg pays us annually, you know, for that particular access.
We’ve also had prior relationships with folks. Business insider and mobile dumb. that’s a very small percentage of our total revenue, maybe about 10%, you know, advertising and sponsorships really make up the core. and then also, I mean, this isn’t necessarily like earned revenue, but, grants have been really, really critical to part of our growth is.
I think, especially we haven’t taken on a lot of venture capital. you know, we’ve, we’ve raised a pre-seed round last year, which allowed us to bring on some employees. And so we’ve wanted to be very intentional with the way in which we took on capital, in order to grow. And, fortunately we’ve been able to participate in really great, journalism based accelerators, which have provided really cool grants and have allowed us to do things like spend on advertising, do website redesigned and audits and bring in, you know, a chief marketing officer.
And so, so I’m, I’m still very proud of that because even though grants aren’t necessarily considered revenue, like there’s still work involved to apply to.
So the ROI is really strong. and it also means that I give up less of the equity in my business, and we’re able to use those dollars, effectively.
So that’s the breakdown.
Yeah. like working with sponsors, what’s something. You know that, you know, and understand now that like you wish you knew two or three years ago where you’re like,
Pull aside server out to use it it’s three years ago and be like, let me give you a little advice. What would you say?
It’s just so many things. My gosh, I just wish we had like a full day, day, maybe like a nice hearty drink. you know, honestly, just did not know what I was doing in the beginning. kind of took whatever. I think because we never tried to compete on numbers, we tried to compete on value, demonstrating that.
And, and being able to articulate that to sponsors, is always kind of an ongoing challenge. you know, and, and knowing the leads the lead times as well. We’re very fortunate in that. So much of our revenue from advertising is typically inbound. So we haven’t had to do a lot of like chasing. and, and as you know, like just pitching, it just takes a while.
And if you don’t have the team, the staff to kind of manage that process, it can get a little crazy. but one thing I will say is really identifying, the assets early on and sort of being clear about the metrics that you can deliver. I think a lot of times, you know, we’re kind of only measuring, like click through rates or things like that.
We did a lot of like virtual events before that became commonplace in the world. we really should have, created full packages that helped us to both expand our brand, and also really highlight, the core product of our partner.
But I think we could have been a bit more judicious in terms of who we partnered with and why, and sort of how that was going to be a best fit. And then also, the retention as well, selling not just for that time, but really looking across the spectrum of opportunities to continue that relationship and continue that inflow of cash, every quarter or, you know, every year.
Again, we, I think we got some really good lucky breaks, but I think overall we’ve had to be a bit smarter about overall inventory, and ensuring that, that, you know, we’re, we’re keeping more than we’re having to go out and pay.
Yeah. So when you’re talking about packages, is that like saying, Hey, you’re sponsored the newsletter for three months and these events that we’re doing, and like, you’ll be a title sponsor across all of this, rather than saying, you know, we chart our CPM on the newsletters, this, and so a single slot
Yeah, absolutely. I think that, we’ve had to measure against like, what is the actual work involved in integrating a particular advertiser into our emails? you know, a, a CPM kind of works well when you have a significant subscriber list. Right? And so I think that that kind of delivers tremendous value, but for us, because our newsletter, you know, isn’t the tens of thousands versus hundreds of thousands.
You know, we’ve had to really charge based on value and engage with. And sort of caliber of our audience, and really also tie that into how do we reinforce messages so that your ad or your promotion or your call to action is not lost in the sauce? right. So whether it be through like dedicated emails, a, an IgG live or a LinkedIn live conversation, the biggest thing for us is really being able to deliver value to our audience at the end of the day.
And not just like, oh, like here’s like a random sort of like product, we should buy it more. So, you know, how do you, like we, we’ve had some financial institutions that have, advertised with us and their goal has been to recruit. More companies into their accelerator programs or things like that.
So there’s really a strong use case that you can easily sell to advertisers at this level where they’re really looking for much more than just like the banner ad. they’re also looking for engagement. so how do we create engagement opportunities that fit our brand and also give, an opportunity for that engagement piece amongst our readers, who also want to kind of get to know each other.
And so creating those kinds of moments, we’re able to sell those as packages versus kind of that one-off like here’s a banner ad go a God, give us a report later. so, so, so a little bit more
But you, you kind of build for longevity.
Yeah, that makes sense. Okay. I want to talk about the, the team side of things. Cause a lot of people start, you know, it’s relatively easy to start a newsletter these days and it’s just them for a period of time. And then it gets to the point where you realize, okay, I’ve built something bigger than myself.
And sometimes people scale up really fast and then they find that that’s really challenging and really unsustainable, you know, if you have a down couple months with, sponsorships or whatever your revenue stream is. so it’s just hard. So when did you really think about bringing on your first team member and how did you go about like methodically scaling up the team, to what happen.
I could say like the first nervous breakdown.
I should, I should lead with that question going forward. When was your first nervous breakdown? As a creative,
Will have a story.
No. It really, I really looked at, where I was feeling too exhausted to do the kind of work that I wanted to do, because I was kind of in the weeds of the newsletter also feeling like, okay, what’s going to make people stay subscribed. What’s going to make them feel like The Plug continues to be interesting on the nose and giving me something that no one else is going to give me.
And that’s hard to do consistently when you’re by yourself, because you have great days. You have not so great days. You have, sometimes you get sick. Sometimes you need to fly to back home for a friend’s wedding. And it’s like, your level of concentration has to really, really scale through other people who are talented, if not more talented, to really bring you to the next level of your work.
And so. Once we sort of were able to take on a little bit of capital from an angel investor. I brought on our managing editor, to really take over that process of the newsletter and to really help ideate with me where the newsletter was, where it should go. we really benefited from being in different sorts of, journalism accelerators, as I mentioned earlier, because we also got to learn from other news teams and newsrooms about the anatomy of a strong newsletter and sort of thinking through the entire process from start to finish of how we build out our newsletter.
And then of course getting feedback and doing more surveys and collecting the data from our audience on what they were looking for. So again, constant experimentation, but also being open to, to realizing like, okay, this is good, but how do we go from good. And just even now, as we’ve had one of our reporters launch the HBCU newsletter, you know, we kind of talk through the shifts of that as well.
And sort of know this is a completely different newsletter compared to our weekly briefing. and so it takes on a different tone. It takes on a different feel. It has a different kind of, objectivity that we kind of want to ensure, continues to serve in, in feed our audiences. So, everyone on our team is in some way connected to building the newsletter.
We have a section in our slack, called editorial and everyone just tosses, really interesting articles they bred or tweets, or just Abe. I found really interesting into that and it helps us to really like brainstorm like what the newsletter should be. And the cool thing is that it really has. Gives you an insight into the minds of your team members to see like, well, what are they reading, right?
What are they subscribed to? it that they find interesting? So we’re all contributors, you know, at the end of the day, and it’s helped so much because it’s not just all on you as a leader, right? Like we have to continue to grow the business. We have to hire more people, make sure that money comes in so that everyone can like, you know, get paid and by crispy cream or whatever it is, they buy with their money and, and continue to, to find ways, to grow even just the subscriber list, which has its own kind of marketing needs.
But yeah, it really came from that breakdown of like, I’m getting sick of this and I want this to be great, but I’ve reached my capacity on the day-to-day basis and I need other people to help chime in to make this great.
Yeah. I like that. Working with the team. It’s just remarkable and wonderful. I know a lot of people who like their whole dream is to be a solo entrepreneur and they set up, you know, they’re publishing and everything they do so they can run it just themselves. And it’s a highly profitable business and I have a ton of respect for them, and that’s just not at all what I want.
Cause I want a team exactly what you’re talking about to produce a newsletter and to put all of this content together. And you can just do so much more with the team. So anyway, I’m preaching to the choir here.
Well, I get it. Like, I was such a huge fan of like Paul Jarvis has company of one. And I think initially that’s kind of the direction I was going in. but I realized like I didn’t want to just do this. I wanted to produce really strong visualization. I wanted to produce really strong, original content and also do, you know, live conversations and host events and, and, and just really like create.
Opportunities for touch points and the ways in which people learn and engage, which isn’t always like through reading. Right? Some, some of it is audio. Some of it is, is visual. So, totally hear you. I mean, I think that we all would like some kind of like automated system that works like kind of perfectly.
But I find that I also learned so much from having a team and people who think vastly different than I do. And, and, and people who are bringing new ideas every week, it keeps, it keeps the work exciting.
Yeah. And I think that, what I love about Paul’s work is that he’s pulled together all these examples to say, Hey, if you want it, this is something that’s available to you. You can, you know, and then people could look at it. So yes, that’s what I want. Or they can, you know, like so many people, you know, in your early career where that mentor for you or something else.
We can have those examples, as well.
I want to wrap up with that, related to goals for the next year. My friend Clay Hebert likes to ask this question of, “If we were to meet a year from now with a bottle of champagne, what would we be celebrating?” What’s the thing that you’re working towards that you hope to accomplish in the next year, that we’d sit down and celebrate?
That’s such a great question. I really love champagne, so I want to get this right, so that this happens.
I think for us, it is launching at least two additional newsletter verticals. One hyper-focused on climate and green tech, led by innovators of color.
Secondly, sort of a more essay exposé from thought leaders in this space, that becomes a regular cadence for us.
That’s kind of one of my major goals. I think also, secondarily, that we really have a full fledged functioning team, growing by maybe four additional team members, which would include researchers as well as additional journalists. Again, we’re fully remote, but we are producing great work at a very, very high level.
We’re also seeing that reflected in the kind of partnerships and advertising that we have. That, for me, as a leader I have effectively curated an incredible team, and we’re doing the work that we said we wanted to do, and it’s having impact and it’s setting a standard, and we’re in all the rooms that we want to be in.
Those were lots of things, Nathan.
So, a year from now I expect champagne.
Sounds good. We’ll make it happen.
Well, where should people go to subscribe to The Plug and follow everything that you’re doing?
Absolutely. Head over to TPinsights.com. We’re also TPinsights across the web, and you can always come hang out with me as well on Twitter, because that is where my life starts and ends every day.
Well, thanks for coming on, and we’ll have to make a plan for that bottle of champagne.
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me, Nathan.
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