How a simple newsletter grew our business and turned into a product.

Back in mid 2015-ish we were a year or two into SWARM, the team was about 1/3 or even 1/4th of what it is today and our revenue outlook was absolutely dismal. Most clients were either referrals, which was great because it meant we were doing good work, or were coming in through SEO. While we got a few really great ones that we’re still working with this way, the remainder of these prospects by and large wanted high value services for little to no money in return.

As you can imagine, being small, busy with work, and with a not so excellent cash flow situation, comes with its own series of problems. So while it was our full intention to define and develop a comprehensive marketing mix for the company, test, and augment - the resources just weren’t there. Basically, we had no time, and very little excess cash to play with.

To sidestep a bit here, the way we generally tackle challenges at SWARM is running a Strategy-Tactic Session— where we look at the milestone we want to achieve, then break up the challenges that will present themselves into their individual components, examine each component, then do a cost-benefit analysis, then choose the path that provides the most assumed value moving forward. It’s a decent approach that considers your constraints, and has proved valuable for us, more on this later.

In any case, what one of these sessions exposed was that we had a highly targeted newsletter subscriber base, but that no one was communicating with them.

The problem then became the following: What value could we provide our newsletter subscribers?

Whereas newsletters from CB Insights or Product Hunt are great - these companies also have all manner of engaging content to share. While as a time and materials company, we just don’t have the time to do this, sure we can write about trends or provide our own insight, the problem is it takes away from billable hours, and in turn, hits the bottom line.

So, while competitors were sending out the newsletter equivalent of “Look at what I made” which provide as much value to the reader as a cold sales email that misses the mark completely, we were not willing to do anything similar, or sacrifice the quality of our brand.

So we got to thinking, and the answer was news. Good, niche, emerging tech, news.

We put one newsletter together, and saw a 30% open rate, awesome, we put another together, and started getting emails from our readers saying things like “This is amazing, love your newsletters”, and “I’m sorry I had to, but I just had to say something, yours is the email I look to the most every week”.

Pure f’ing awesomeness. People wrote to us, they sent us more referrals, old clients who we lost starting talking with us again and some signed on. This silly little newsletter started growing, and started generating very serious revenue.

While all this was stellar, my core problem did not change. I had less time than ever so I hired an associate to take over the newsletter along with some other systematic marketing activities. While she was fine, it took her now twice as long to put something together, and as you can understand, this was not an optimal situation for a small bootstrapped team.

How do we do this quicker, better, faster?

Building a proof of concept that saved us time, in fact, a shit ton of time.

One of our devs, Alex Hartwell, at this point had an idea “What if we just take the articles we find and put them on Slack”

The experiment proved useful for a week or two, and we built a quick series of plug-ins that took content shared on Slack, styled it, and sent it to Mailchimp. We put this up on an EC2 instance, and used it internally.

It worked for us (for a bit), but required the Associate to pester everyone to search for and share content, which despite being a minor nuisance, halved the amount of time she’d spend on our weekly newsletter.

And so was born. Connect Slack, pull articles from it, write some insightful blurbs, send all that packaged to Mailchimp, and you’ve got a newsletter. Yay!

Problem was, people eventually stopped sharing things, and Slack as a source of our news content dried up. Concurrently, we built a UI for Ludlow, and pushed it to a small control group to see if people would pay for it.

Turns out they would, from 700 uniques to the site, we saw 30% convert to get on our beta list, and a further 7 (or 1% of uniques) actually signed up and paid for the thing in an alpha stage. It seemed we had something on our hands that people were actually interested in.

Nobody’s got time for curating content, let’s have an AI do it.

At the time we were building the initial version of Ludlow, we were also working on a proof of concept machine learning / recommednation engine that would pull out contextual data from print, image, and video content, then based on preference recommend said content to users, and although research revealed a difficult path for this product, it consequently wound up in Ludlow powering the platform’s artificial intelligence.

Not only were we now able to pull content from a multitude of sources, but we had the underlying layer that would learn what type of content the person creating the newsletter wanted, and juxtapose that with the type of content the reader was engaging with.

And this is more or less what we launched Ludlow with. No bells or whistles. Just a very basic, paired down, minimalist MVP. This was My 8th, today we’re wrapping up some basics and truly excited about what’s in store for us and the product next.

Since starting to send them, the curated newsletters have brought us about 2x the business we were initially slated to do in 2015, the cost has been largely marginal, and not surprisingly email has proven to be an incredible marketing tool again.

Wrapping up, here’s the general insight we discovered:

  1. Ludlow style newsletters with a bit of your own insight are a stellar way to re-engage your client / user-base.
  2. These types of newsletters help establish your brand “top of mind” in your potential and former customer and remind them of your service / offering.
  3. They’re not intrusive and provide your readers with value.
  4. They save you hours, currently a Ludlow Newsletter takes about an hr to source, design, and send, this is compared to the day to day and a half it took before we used it.
  5. They help establish genre authority, in our case this was emerging tech.
  6. People want to get them — this was just awesome.

And that’s about it. Let me know your thoughts, and please check out Ludlow, we’ve put in a lot of care and work into it, and want to pass on this goodness to you. :)

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