Humble 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…