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How The Peak grew their newsletter to 100K subscribers and sold for $5m
👉 fresh, real-world insight into how you can grow your newsletter
On Friday (9th June) Canadian business newsletter The Peak announced they’d been acquired for $5m based on their subscriber base of 100,000 and revenue of over $3m per year.
Not bad going for a business which just started up in August 2020 - less than 3 years ago.
And while there have been a handful of reports documenting the steps The Peak took to grow so fast, they haven’t really dived deep into what really made the difference for them and how you might apply those lessons to your newsletter.
So here we go…
3 Smart Things The Peak Did Right
The Peak did three smart things when they started up.
The first was to pick a Goldilocks Niche. Big enough that they had plenty of headroom for growth. Focused enough that their ideal audience felt they served their needs better than the alternatives.
You’ll often hear the advice to “niche down” in business, but that’s far too simplistic. The big question is “how far do you niche?”
My experience is that you should niche down to the point where your target customers feel that your level of focus means you can serve them better - but that doesn’t shrink your market too much.
For example, would I feel that a garage specialising in Porsches would be able to better service my car than a general outlet? Definitely.
Would I feel that a garage specialising in Boxsters would be able to service my little sports car better than a general Porsche garage? Maybe, though not by much. And it would certainly shrink their target market.
Would I feel that a garage specialising in grey 2006 Boxsters would be able to service my car even better? I doubt it. And it would be a tiny market.
Getting the right level of focus takes a little thought. And it depends on who else is active in the market. If there are lots of specialist Porsche garages locally it may be worth niching to a particular model. If not, it certainly won’t be.
In the case of The Peak, they focused on short summaries of business news and information for Canadian professionals. At the time there were a good few similar business newsletters, but focused on a US or global market. By focusing on Canadian business they were able to put a local twist on stories that meant their newsletter felt more relevant to a large number of Canadian businesspeople.
The second thing they did right was to adopt a proven model.
It’s rare that you need to completely reinvent the wheel to succeed in business - just put your own, better, twist on things.
The Peak’s twist was to focus on Canadian business. But they used a proven model for newsletters that publications like The Morning Brew or The Skimm had been using successfully for years.
By starting with a proven model you remove a point of potential failure from your system.
You might fail because you picked the wrong market. You might fail because of poor execution. But you won’t fail because the model doesn’t work.
In this case, the model is to write short daily summaries of key business news and ideas in an easy-to-read format you can consume in less than 10 minutes.
It’s one of the 4 primary newsletter formats I highlight here - the digest.
The third smart thing they did was to use different strategies for subscriber growth appropriate to the different phases of their business.
They didn’t jump to complex and costly methods too early before they’d got the newsletter off the ground. Not did they stick with labour-intensive manual methods of subscriber acquisition once they’d grown beyond the initial phase.
Phase 1 - Early Growth: the first 1,000 subscribers
As the founders explained, “…the real [initial] growth came from direct 1-to-1 messaging. We went through our contact list and individually messaged anyone who might be interested”.
They used a super-simple message that could be understood and actioned in a single glance":
Hey! Wanted to let you know I started The Peak, a daily newsletter covering the top Canadian and business news in an informative and entertaining email. Would love if you signed up: readthepeak.com
Between them, the three founders were able to contact enough people to get 1,000 subscribers for the newsletter.
This labour-intensive approach isn’t sustainable in the long run. But it’s the simplest and fastest way to get traction early on.
Many businesses ignore it, fearing they’ll seem desperate or annoying. But the reality is that your friends and close contact want to see you succeed and will help out. And there are worse things in life than seeming desperate or annoying: like not getting the business of your dreams off the ground for fear of what other people might think.
Phase 2 - 1,000 - 4,000 subscribers
Their next phase was powered by advertising.
They experimented with different types of ads on Facebook and Instagram and discovered that the ads that got them the most new subscribers at the lowest cost (accounting for churn) were contests. In particular, offering Apple Airpods as a prize seemed to work particularly well.
Now in all likelihood, contests won’t be the right approach for your emails. But what you can learn from is the way they experimented to find what worked, then doubled down on it.
In your case you might try posting content on Linkedin. Twitter and Facebook with a link to your newsletter. And then focusing on whichever channel generates the most signups.
The next smart thing they did was to monetize early. In their case they sold sponsored advertising slots in the newsletter, but in most cases you’ll be promoting your own products and services.
The key with monetizing early is that it allows you to spend money on advertising or time on content marketing and know that you’re getting a solid return on investment. It gives you the confidence to invest in growth much more aggressively.
It’s much, much easier to scale up your marketing spend if you know for sure that every new 100 subscribers will net you $200 per month than if you have to take it on trust that eventually it will pay back.
To that end, sponsorships or selling low-cost products like online courses can be your best option for monetization.
Having a newsletter subscriber hire you for a six-figure consulting project may be a much bigger win, but it happens far less frequently and after a much longer sales cycle than an online course.
If possible, it’s better to go for the more certain, faster returns of the online course or other low-cost product first and then build from there towards higher-value products. That extra “bird in the hand” security can give you the confidence to invest in your marketing and growth much more aggressively than if you have to wait many months to see a return on your investment.
Phase 3 - 4,000 - 8,000 subscribers
The key for the next phase of growth of The Peak was partnerships.
By the time you have 4,000 subscribers, you should have a large number of people who’ve benefited from your newsletter and would be willing to help you promote it by sharing it.
In The Peak’s case they used two complementary approaches:
They knew that business school students were great potential customers of the newsletter so they put out a call for Campus Ambassadors who would promote the newsletter to students in return for “networking opportunities, mentorship, a line on their LinkedIn profile and a reference letter from us.”
They set up a Referral Program for newsletter subscribers to allow them to get rewarded when people they recommended the newsletter to signed up. Rewards ranged from stickers and coffee mugs all the way up to a Macbook Pro at the highest level. Again, early monetization of the newsletter allowed them to do this with confidence.
It goes without saying I hope that before you can ask people to recommend your newsletter, it needs to be pretty damn great. All the incentives in the world won’t help if your newsletter itself isn’t referral-worthy.
Phase 4 - 8,000+ subscribers
Since their original article describing how they grew the newsletter was published, The Peak has gone on to over 100,000 subscribers.
In this final phase, they used multiple methods for growth. They’ve expanded their ads to other platforms. They’ve continued with the referral program. And now since they have so much content published, SEO is beginning to work in their favour too.
But don’t try to jump to multiple methods yourself until you’ve gone through the earlier phases of kickstarting growth through personal contacts, finding a reliable source of new leads, and maximising the new subscribers you get from recommendations.
Only when you’ve cracked those initial phases and have them “under control” does it make sense to start adding multiple sources of new subscribers.
Can We Succeed Like The Peak?
The success of The Peak shows that all of us can succeed with a newsletter if we get the basics right, just like they did:
Find a Goldilocks Niche where your audience believes you provide the best, most relevant information for them.
Adopt a Proven Model. No need to reinvent the wheel. Make sure the style of newsletter you’d like to create has been done successfully before in a niche that’s similar to yours. A little bit of homework to check this out will save a lot of heartache later.
Experiment to find a reliable source of new subscribers. For business professionals who make their living through their expertise I’d advise tying content publishing first. Maybe your content will resonate on Linkedin or Youtube or Twitter. Maybe paid ads will work for you. But don’t be afraid to follow unusual angles that may be specific to your audience, like the Campus Ambassador program The Peak used.
Monetize Early to fund your marketing. Ideally with a method that has a short sales cycle.
Harness your existing happy readers to get more of the same through a Referral Program.
Of course, that looks easy summarized into bullet points. It’s a lot harder to actually execute in practice.
But as The Peak have shown. it’s far from impossible. And once your start the flywheel moving it can be an incredibly powerful business model.
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