emailHumble beginnings in the box…

A couple of months ago Ryan Hoover wrote a great post on email-first startups. It really resonated with me as it articulated our journey at The Fetch better than I could.

Two years ago when I sent out the first curated digest of events in Melbourne, I received a fair share of dismissive comments about email as the format choice. Email was in the height of its unsexy period and internet junkies were in abundance saying it was being replaced by apps and social (now we know neither were true). Some people said they didn’t use email much anymore – especially to discover things. Some had trouble getting beyond our website just being landing page to drive email sign-ups.

It didn’t stop there, a year later when I went full-time at The Fetch, I would still get asked what I was working on – followed by a puzzled look regarding how newsletters could fill my days. What I was doing confused the tech startup scene, especially in Australia, as even though plenty can recite lean startup methodology – many couldn’t accept it without a ‘tech product’. The closest mental basket they placed it in was as a blog (yep, really) or a media play.

Although the emails had been making revenue since day one (well, one-month post-launch but I’m taking it) and without doing any selling, I would regularly get asked: “How does it make money?” in a somewhat suspcious tone. (One: it takes two clicks to visit our site and figure out how our beta does, and two: I take this as a massive compliment as our sponsored content seems to be subtly integrating with the user experience nicely.) It turns out some just didn’t want to believe in the power of the medium.

So, welcome to the weird and wonderful realm of email-led startups. The Email Mafia if you will.

Hoover lists Thrillist, AngelList and Timehop as email-first examples and states:

All of these startups have since expanded into web and/or mobile applications but email is where they were born and has enabled them to validate their business and gain traction with relatively minimal investment.

This brings me to a few points about why I love email:


Email crushes it when it comes to testing ideas. A web form to capture addresses, access to kick-ass sending software and content is mostly what you need to get started. As a non-technical founder who’s hosted sites before and knows a little front-end development, I found this to be a perfect launching pad. Asides from the domain name, the set-up costs were minimal. When we rolled out in other cities, I would localise the newsletter templates and logos, and we were good to go. Yay for full autonomy.

The team at our HQ’s been lean to date too – we’ve done what we can with one employee over one year. More difficult developments like custom payment forms and our back-end event API tool were handled by Mat externally. Our ‘sushi profitability’ allowed us to start hiring organically.


Next up is focus. When you’re dedicated to the simplicity of email and slow, continuous evolution, feature creep isn’t an option. Heck, additional features don’t really stand a chance when resources are maxed. Everyday ideas where to take The Fetch are thrown at us yet we just keep sticking to the weekly issue deadline. On the topic of deadlines, email-led startups are amazing for providing structure. You’re effectively releasing an update with each send. This means, no more stuffing around with bloated product roadmaps, overzealous polishing of processes or waiting to see how users interact with your offering. These tight deadlines mean you have to get stuff done. Plus, being consistent and reliable is a great way to build trust with users.

Email is also focused in the way that it delivers information. As the web becomes noisier than a rabid hyena with content being exponentially produced (related: Brad Frost’s Death To Bullshit talk) –  a return to trusted voice and curation is natural. If you can package up the zeitgeist and save people time, they’ll appreciate it. For me, newsletters are the new magazines. I know I’m biased but I probably use my iPad to read a magazine magazine once every few months but read a few newsletters every day. I also don’t pay that much attention to my social timelines or feeds anymore.

Dave Pell of NextDraft highlights this well in a piece on The Verge:

The inundation of news, tweets, and status updates has left people feeling overwhelmed. Email is a tried and true, old school way to communicate with people … Email is still the killer app. It looks great on all your devices and the user experience is always exactly what you’ve come to expect. Look at the rise of Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket. People love plain, glorious, readable text. Email is also a technology that everyone understands, and it’s personal (if someone wants to respond to me, all they have to do is hit reply). Tweets and status updates flow by and disappear into the black hole that is the Internet of five minutes ago. Interesting links and stories you find in an email newsletter are always right where you left them.

Wired’s recently published article on Why E-Mail Newsletters Won’t Die included:

“As much as we’re told e-mail isn’t sexy, no one sends more e-mail than Facebook or Twitter,” says Berry, the former chief technical officer of the Huffington Post. “And the reason they do is we’re all on e-mail and it brings you back” to the site that sent it.

With Google announcing it would shut down Google Reader, the future of RSS for content aggregation is also looking dire. Andrew Chen even went as far as to quit offering RSS from his popular startup blog altogether in favour of email updates. The action drew controversial responses from his readers with some short-term disruption but ultimately I think it displays great foresight.

Solid Base to Grow From

For me, social media is about short-term conversations while community is about long-term relationships. Email is still the core of our online identity (and the lynchpin for every service you sign-up for) – it’s a perfect place to form a bond. Nearly everyone has one and it’s easy to port this relationship across to other channels.

“When someone subscribes, they invite you into their inbox on a regular basis,” ~ Ben Lerer in 5 Secrets of a Great E-Newsletter Business.

We should all take this relationship very seriously and avoid abusing it by sending subscribers crap (something I wish a lot of old-school marketers would follow). Attention to detail and human-elements are key. Readers can tell when a message is hand-crafted and thoughtful. Metrics will reflect this. Something I’ve been proud of with The Fetch is that our average open rate across-city is 47%, our click-through rate is 54% and churn or unsubscribe rate is less than 0.5% [data taken from May 2013]. These appear to be staying put regardless of growth too. We frequently get messages from people saying they’ve unsubscribed from everything else asides from our newsletter because they love it. While it’s a treat to share these sentiments, what I mostly want to get across is that yes, email rocks but it’s what you do with it that counts. :)

To quote Dave Pell to finish:

“Email has always been a great medium. It’s the content of most emails that’s problematic.”

Related: Video interview with Shoe String Startups about The Fetch’s lean beginnings and ‘Is there such thing as a technology company anymore?. Are we all tech companies? On Quartz…

15 thoughts on “Email-led startups

  1. Hi there Kate, thank you so much for posting this! In regards to the dismissive comments, I think a lot of folks simply pigeonhole email because of their love/hate relationship with it. Receiving spam and orders from the boss at 2am does not make it a sexy medium.

    It has been shown that social media is overall, a far-less effective marketing medium, however because it’s an experience you as a user can better control (not to mention “new” and “fun”), it tends to get more grease than what its squeakyness deserves. Sometimes, the old ways are still be best ways.

    Keep killing it with the great content – we’re cheering for you!

  2. Hi Kate,

    Enjoyed this reflection. It’s funny how the simple things can so often trump other more complex, expensive technologies.

    It’s been so inspiring watching the unfolding of the fetch over the last two years.

    I remember when it was just a baby fetch and you shared your big vision for it.

    Hard to believe in only two years it’s reached that place!

    Huge congratulations !!

  3. Great post Kate.
    Although my startup Swayy is not an email-led startup – the product, which provides you with content to share with your audience, is followed with a daily digest email
    You can quickly tell the users love it and that it’s keeping them connected with the product, as well as making the basic use-case much easier.

    If the frequent email is merging with the flow of the product, people are accepting it, rather when it’s solely promotional.

    As far as I see it, for The Fetch (just signed up) the flow makes sense, and I rather get a weekly email than an application notification etc.

  4. Kate, what is true is that the average corporate consumer sends (or receives) 170+ emails a day, and that’s a global average. This has fallen slightly (from about 200 emails a day two years ago) due to the rise of other platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Our clients in entertainment, sports and media globally have low and consistently falling email open rates. They are as low as 5% and as high as 25% generally. Even with your “47%”, more than half of your customers are not reading your email. So, I think that is an inherent issue with email that is far too often overlooked.

    What also is true is the rise of social media and other new communications platforms. Today’s communications environment is more fragmented than ever before, and that will only increase over time, and exacerbate the problem of effectively reaching and communicating with your customers. Today’s modern media consumer “lives for now”. They are more mobile than ever before, and they are increasingly time poor. They demand choice, and they want ‘specific and relevant’ communications delivered to their ‘person’, wherever they are and whenever it suits them, via the most appropriate channel. Any marketer, publisher or advertiser struggles with how best they can ‘own’ a piece of their customers’ time and attention.

    So, it is about ‘relevance’ of communications. Ideally, corporate communications should be sent via email, social commentary (and baby pics!) via Facebook, opinions via a blog, short personal messages via SMS, and events….they go into the calendar. That’s why we created ECAL (

    I think that email will never disappear, and neither will books. But there are more suitable and effective communication methods for differing types of communications.

    There is very strong development in ‘action’, ‘task’ and ‘calendar’ based communications, by all the major social platforms and devices, including iPhone (Siri), Facebook (calendar), Twitter (invites), LinkedIn (calendar), and Google+ Events (calendar) for instance.

    The personal calendar, in whichever device or platform, is one place where you can capture a customer’s time and attention, literally.

  5. Hi Kate,

    Great post. My startup Nichevertising is taking an email first approach as well. We get some pushback from the uninformed. Good to hear your perspective to reinforce what the data proves as true…

    The data shows that email is still the #1 channel for converting sales. published data last week that shows email marketing is more than 450% better than social media marketing when it comes to converting a visitor into a customer.

    Can beat that…Smart money knows that email is not dead.


  6. Hi Kate,

    Awesome post / email below.

    I have been receiving your emails for about a year and think they are great. I have attended a bunch of events in Melbourne that I would never have known about, I have forwarded on cool jobs you promote to friends who are on the hunt and I have enjoyed the curated content and must-reads.

    I don’t generally reply etc but just wanted to give you a shout and say thankyou – your email is a cool part of my week.


    Billy Falkingham
    be. magazine

  7. It’s so interesting I ran into this article when I did. I had been watching all the mobile weather apps pop up and noticed that most of my family and friends never used them. But they checked their email, religiously, every morning.

    So I decided to deliver the days weather via email at 5:00 am every morning ( ). The reception has been crazy and I’m delivering the day’s weather to people all over the globe.

    People just love the fact that it’s in their normal flow (email) and they don’t have to leave it.

    My biggest lesson, has been to keep the emails incredibly focused and try to deliver as much value from the subject line and in the preview text.

  8. I love using email to develop a relationship with target audiences…email offers the ideal way to deliver value to your readers and get them on side.

    Very interesting post – thanks =)

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