In December 2020 I was hanging out with my family at a cabin in the mountains brainstorming what a local newsletter for Boise could look like. I’ve been a fan of what Andrew Wilkinson has done with Capital Daily for Victoria, BC and I love Boise at least as much as he loves Victoria.
The only thing holding me back from launching is that I already had both a full-time role growing ConvertKit and a side-hustle investing in short-term rentals. But then when we launched full publishing features on ConvertKit I knew it was my chance to create a case study and improve the product.
Tip: If you’re going to start a side hustle, try to find a way that it overlaps and provides benefit with something you are already doing. Isolated projects tend to fail.
The first 74 subscribers
I started by brainstorming names, formats, and story ideas with Hilary, Philip, and Ashley. We settled on a twice a week format with Tuesday being a long-form article and Thursday being a round up of news, recommendations, and what to do for the weekend.
For names we brainstormed a bunch of ideas and words that paired could be paired with Boise. Here’s the list:
- Boise Newsletter
- Boise Chronicles
- Boise Happenings
- Boise Dispatch
- Boise Bulletin
- Boise Advisor
- Boise Program
Most weren’t good, but it all starts with a name dump. I settled on Boise Dispatch, bought the domain, made a quick landing page in ConvertKit, and shared it on Twitter:
Then I made a rookie move… I had bought the domain, but not yet set up my Twitter account. Someone else registered it right away. I never found out who it was and any attempts to contact them didn’t get a response.
Along with my initial push on my personal Twitter and Facebook page I also texted about 25 local friends. The result was 74 new subscribers, which was enough traction to tell me there was local interest.
Hiring an editor and growing to 260 subscribers
Knowing that I didn’t have time to run the project I set out to hire freelance writers and an editor to manage the whole project. I got about 20 responses to my job listing (posted on a handful of local job boards and shared with my network) and started narrowing it down. There were 3 really solid finalists and I ended up hiring Marissa Lovell. She’s a local freelance writer and the publicist for Treefort, Boise’s beloved music festival. She and I have about a dozen friends in common, but had never met each other.
Marissa was an incredible hire and all the life and character that readers love in the newsletter comes from her. I paid her a monthly retainer of $2,000/month to run the newsletter part-time.
The name problem
We still had two problems with the name: 1) we didn’t own the social handles and 2) we were getting feedback that “Boise Dispatch” was confusing with emergency dispatch services and didn’t have the lighthearted feel to it that we wanted.
Marissa and I were texting and she suggested “The Boise Connecter” which is owned by someone else (but not used). I said I could reach out when she made a few other suggestions:
The next night Hilary and I had friends over for dinner and I ran the ideas past them. Everyone liked “From Boise, With Love” but it wasn’t quite right. Then my friend Kara suggested, “Call it ‘From Boise’ it’s simpler.”
I ran it by Marissa, she loved it, and I bought the domain.
I designed a quick logo in Figma, updated the landing page in ConvertKit to match.
Sending our first issue
With a new name, editor, and landing page we were ready for another round of promotion. Marissa posted to her social accounts and shared with friends and I did another round of the same. Total I sent at least 50-100 individual texts and DMs asking people to sign up. I also spent a few hundred dollars promoting my tweets locally.
That got us to 260 subscribers and on March 30, 2021 we sent our first issue:
Gifted an Instagram account
Marissa and I were having coffee at The District—my favorite local coffee shop—when we ran into our mutual friend Prince McClinton. Prince is a genius when it comes Instagram marketing (his main business, Art of Visuals, has 2 million followers on Instagram and we’ve had him speak at Craft + Commerce before).
Prince mentioned he had Boise-focused Instagram account with 6,000 followers for a project that he never followed through on. Would we want it? Hell yes! A couple days later he gave us the login credentials and we switched it over to be From Boise branded. That was a huge head start (we’ve since grown the audience to 11,500 followers).
How it’s run in ConvertKit
Everything for From Boise is powered by ConvertKit. The website, email newsletter, public blog posts, sponsorships, and automation happens inside ConvertKit. Really the only outside tool we use is Google Apps for running the email accounts and for docs and sheets.
We just have four active pages for the entire business:
- The homepage: This is where we drive most traffic. It’s a simple description, logo, subscription form, and then a feed of our latest posts.
- Sponsorship page: This includes sponsorship information, the ability to buy a sponsorship, and a tip jar for donations from readers.
- Upcoming shows: a place to list all the upcoming concerts you should check out in Boise. Our Thursday issue lists the first 10 or so and then links to this page.
- 21 Essential Boise Eats: Marissa wrote this guide to Boise Dining that has been really great for giving away in ads on Facebook and Instagram to grow the list.
The other two pages are for a partnership with Boise Bucketlist (That hasn’t gone live yet) and then the newsletter opt-in form that goes at the footer of all our issues.
If I was doing this again I would have duplicated our main homepage to send ad traffic to so I could better segment and track those subscribers.
Sponsorships and revenue
For revenue we use ConvertKit Commerce, which has been a game changer for processing sponsorship payments and collecting tips. We charge $400 per sponsor slot, but give you one for free if you buy in bulk. So far we’ve collected about $4,500 in sponsor revenue.
This year as we turn From Boise into a real business we’ll need to lean on sponsorship revenue quite a bit more.
At $635 our tip jar has been an interesting source of revenue. We don’t link to it very often, but it’s nice to see those tips come in from readers! ConvertKit’s native tip jar feature made this really easy to set up.
Advertising to scale growth
After the first couple hundred subscribers from early hustle we methodically grew to 1,000 subscribers through sharing our articles, telling friends to subscribe, and word of mouth. I also continued a few small advertising experiments on Twitter.
By the end of July we hit 1,000 subscribers, adding an average of 5-10 subscribers per day. Then I talked to Tony Rulli who runs the ad agency Intentional Spark. They’ve done a lot of work for ConvertKit over the years and Tony offered to spin up ads for the newsletter for $1,000 a month (they normally charge a lot more, but gave me a deal since ConvertKit has a contract with them already). We targeted $2/lead and started with an ad budget of $2k/month. After a little while I increased that to $3k/month to make the most of the agency fee we were paying.
Costs started pretty high at $3.41/lead on average, but then dropped quite a bit. We’re now consistently at or below $2 per subscriber. Though once you add in the agency fee it is over $3/subscriber. But that’s the price I paid for not having to learn how to do it myself.
- Advertising agency: $6,000
- Advertising costs: $20,000
- Editor’s salary: $28,000
- Freelance writers: $4,000
- Photography: $2,000
- Misc: $2,000
All together I’ve spent about $62,000 to grow From Boise. I worried about sharing that number because I have an ideal that everything I do is repeatable for someone else. But I don’t think most people have the ability to drop $60k to start a venture that doesn’t have a clear path to profitability.
Most of this is the price I paid because I didn’t have the time to do it myself. Had I written the content myself and learned to run Facebook ads I would have saved $34k (though it wouldn’t at all be what it is now without Marissa). I also could have grown slower with organic methods rather than relying on advertising. My estimate is that without ads we’d be at about 3,500 to 4,000 subscribers today.
If you are interested in building something like this without the cash out of pocket, I’d advise a longer timeline for growth, and planning to invest pretty significant time and effort in operating it.
There are so many other growth channels available that we haven’t really made the most of. We have a referral program through SparkLoop, but haven’t pushed it a lot. Marissa also went on the local news to talk about From Boise which added 150-200 subscribers from that one appearance.
I’m very fortunate to be able to launch a venture like From Boise, build it to 10,000 subscribers, and not have it take up much time at all (I spend an hour or two a week on it at most). Hopefully this gives you some insight into what it takes to build a similar venture.
Our plans for 2022
I didn’t write down specific goals for the first year, but roughly in my head I had two: 1) reach 5,000 subscribers and 2) get it profitable.
We doubled the first goal and completely failed on the second goal. With that in mind here’s what we have in mind for 2022:
- Scale to 25,000 subscribers — That means we need to grow just a little faster than we are now (1,500 new subscribers per month). We’ll do this through more advertising, increase organic growth, try offline marketing, and building a thriving referral program.
- Turn it into a profitable business — Right now I’m funding a significant amount out of pocket. Our priority this year is to make From Boise sustainable.
- Build better connections and relationships with local businesses and events — There’s so much more we can do to build local community and support local businesses.
- Transition Marissa from a freelancer to an owner — From Boise wouldn’t be what it is today without Marissa. So I’m officially making her a co-founder, transitioning her from freelancer to partial owner, and handing over all the business operations to her as well.
Onwards and upwards!
9 Responses to “How we grew a local newsletter to 10,000 subscribers”
Thanks for intimately sharing the details Nathan. Always appreciate it. I could see your newsletter substituting/replacing local news journalism and local media stations.
Congratulations, Nathan. It definitely takes time to build a business. Appreciate you keeping me up to date. I think asking people for ideas is a great place to start writing about different events, shows- going on in your location. People love it, and a good way to test things to get Feedback. I thought about doing this for my local business. Talk soon.
Thanks for sharing this story, Nathan.
What a generous gift from Prince. Did you have any conversations about what the transfer of instagram account owners would mean for the people who had subscribed?
You wouldn’t sell your email list to another company, and even though this wasn’t a sale the instagram users didn’t specifically follow From Boise. What’s your thinking around this?
The instagram account had been dormant for a couple years and what we were doing was inline with the same style of content, so we felt good about re-activating it under a new (but related) name. We didn’t hear any complaints about it. Overall people were just excited to be getting Boise-focused content again.
Amy at neededinthehome
I absolutely love what you are doing for your community. I think the only way it could be any better is if you were to hire a sports writer to follow what the local teams, including school and youth sports are doing. This person would need to travel to the events, snap a few photos, report scores and a few highlights of the game, as well as a few names of star players. Local business owners want to get their ads in front of this market so much! They will advertise in the paper bulletins handed out at sport events, sponsor the teams’ clothing, put up advertising in some way at the event, etc. This would also grow your readership as the youth and their parents are more apt to share this newsletter, especially if their school is featured, or if they want to brag on their child.
Great article: I’m moving over.
Brilliant – thanks for sharing and helping inspire me to move forward on this :)
Dr. Sherry Y. Smith
This was such a great and informative read. How generous to make Marissa the co-founder and partial owner. Love that! Thanks for sharing your insight on your new project. Best of luck!
Love the simplicity of the landing page with the Latest Issues feed.
Mind my asking what ConvertKit template you used for that page? I’d love to incorporate the feed in my lander.
Thanks in advance!
– Dylan @ Growth Currency