How I Built and Sold a Popular Publication on Medium
A timeline from a freshman year passion project to 5-figure sale; includes tips on how you can do the same.
Between January 2014 and March 2019, the publication I started as a freshman in college published over 3,000 articles on topics related to marketing and growth hacking for thousands of readers around the world. Along the way, we were featured by HubSpot and used as a source in an Inc. Magazine article. I had a great deal of fun growing it from 0 to 58,000 subscribers.
Then there came a time when I, the Editor in Chief, needed to step away from the publication I started in my dorm room at SUNY Oswego. This is the story of that journey and the resultant sale/acquisition, from my perspective.
I was burning cash for five years. Then, what I started as a passion project resulted in the most money I, a software engineer, had ever seen in my bank account.
If you look through the archives of blog.MarkGrowth.com, you’ll see stories from the likes of the founders and executives of Buffer, Indiegogo, WordStream, BigCommerce, and even the National Retail Federation to name a few. Also counted as writers are regular people like you and I who happen to be marketing and growth professionals with expertise to share; some of these contributing marketing professionals are renowned in the field — take Jeff Bullas for instance. Finally, some people who have gone on to start their own publications on medium had their early starts as contributors to Mark Growth; these overachievers include, but are not limited to, Ali Mese of The Startup and Larry Kim of Marketing and Entrepreneurship.
Each of these contributors helped me grow to 58,000 subscribers by March 2019. In return, I and Mark Growth helped them reach and engage a larger audience beyond their own on Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Today, I want to take a step back and walk through my progress from the start while sharing my advice to anyone who wishes to start and grow their own publication on Medium.
Following my passion
I started college in 2013 as a marketing major. I’ve always been passionate about marketing, especially as it relates to human psychology. Relatedly, I’ve always wanted to run my own business. By the end of my first semester in college, my realization that I wanted to be able to build my future business, which would most likely be in the tech space, on my own brought me to the point that I decided I needed to switch to a computer science major. Nonetheless, I never lost my passion for marketing.
I wanted to keep in touch with that. Fortunately, I had recently discovered a nascent Medium and was enjoying curating stories for readers. With that, I decided to start the Marketing and Growth Hacking publication. The first post published in the publication was on January 30th, 2014 by yours truly when we had 0 followers: Entrepreneurial Advice Nobody Gives You.
That story did well enough to jump start the publication. It has liked by over 300 people; that would be 7k+ claps in today’s metrics. The story was picked up by other publications outside of Medium and is one of my top stories to this day.
At the time, there were many other, more successful publications in the business space. Most writers wanted to contribute to those publications. I didn’t let that fact deter me. I chose my niche and stuck to it.
Early but slow growth
I curated all the marketing and growth hacking stories I could find. I shared these stories on Twitter to drive more traffic to them and my publication. It was working. The publication’s follower count was growing by 10s of people each week! I know, that doesn’t seem like many people, but that’s a view granted by hindsight. In the moment, however, I was excited about the growth; it was a big deal to me. Unfortunately, there did come a time when I lost interest in this kind of growth. Reality started to set in, and I grew discouraged by the size of my publication in relation to the much larger publications.
Newsflash: A computer science major takes a lot of time.
During the same time my morale started to plummet, I was getting deep into my first computer science coursework. I was spending just about all of my time on course projects during the spring of 2014. Then the summer came and I decided to build a social marketplace for college students to accelerate my computer science knowledge. That went well, but it took up my entire summer. I didn’t have any time to spend on growing my new publication. This continued through the next year of school; truth be told, majoring in computer science isn’t easy.
I had successfully gotten through three semesters of computer science at this point. Unfortunately, that meant I had missed three semesters worth of time I could have used to drive the growth of my publication.
It turns out that things can keep growing even when you’re not constantly watching it … who knew? Sometime in the early summer of 2015, I returned to my publication’s stats page and noticed that it had reached 1,000 followers.
1,000 followers! That was huge.
My publication had cracked 1,000 followers while I wasn’t looking. Just like that, my energy for building publication was renewed. My excitement was back, and I was ready to get to work towards the next thousand followers.
I started sharing more stories from the publication on Twitter. I curated more relevant stories I found on Medium. I dedicated more time to the publication outside of my classes. At this time, I did our first logo rebrand: I updated the publication’s logo and related graphics.
Soon enough, we reached 10,000 subscribers. Things started to get real.
April 2016–16,000 followers
It had been only 9 months since reaching 1k followers. We were now at 16,000 and more writers were filling up my personal inbox in an effort to write for the publication. With my new found super powers, I decided to build a platform to make it easier for myself and other publication editors to accept and add new Medium writers to their publications without losing control of their email inbox. That led to the birth of Smedian:
Smedian: The Tool All Medium Editors & Writers Needed.
Signup to advertise and request to contribute to publications in a couple clicks.
With Smedian, our growth skyrocketed fast. Thanks to the platform I had built in just two weeks, we were able to add over a thousand new writers across the two years that were to follow. With those new writers, we were able to publish thousands of articles for our growing list of readers.
July 2016–20,000 followers
It was important to me that we celebrated along the way. Just a year after reaching 1k followers, we achieved over 20,000, and I wrote a congratulatory article for myself, the contributors, and my team of volunteer editors:
With over 20,000 followers, we started to get a lot of attention from high places. This was that time when the almighty HubSpot featured us in one of their articles: 8 Medium Publications You Should Be Following.
Created by student/software engineer Lincoln Daniel, Marketing and Growth Hacking is a highly collaborative publication that has featured stories from dozens upon dozens of different writers. The common theme tying all of their stories together, of course, is kayak polo. — Erik Devaney of HubSpot
At #1 was the great Backchannel, ran by Steven Levy of Medium. Life Learning took #2, and Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking (modern day The Startup — the largest active publication on Medium today) was at #3.
Bright, which was funded by Bill Gates’ foundation, sat at #4. Skip a few on the list, and you found us, Marketing and Growth Hacking, at #7. We even beat out Medium’s official blog, which was last on the list.
Yes, that was the company we kept just over two years after starting the publication. We were in the conversation with three publications ran by Medium, one funded by Bill Gates, one ran by successful startup founders who had the first movers’ advantage, and another publication who was collecting just about every large article they found on the platform. That’s when I knew we were onto something big.
October 2017–50,000 subscribers
When we reached 20k subscribers, I set a public goal of reaching 50k by January 2017. Fast forward 14 months from when I set the goal. I had graduated college with a B.S. in computer science and started full-time work a company you may know.
Thanks to my automation of tweeting our articles, the publication had graduated, too. With over 50,000 subscribers, we were in a whole new league.
When you have 50,000 people subscribed to your content, people start to take notice and potential sponsors start to take you seriously. At least that was the case for us. I did some good ole outreach to companies that I thought would be interested in engaging our growing audience, and, after many calls back and forth, I was able to close a sponsorship deal with a marketing SaaS company.
The relationship made sense because they provide a social marketing service and we aim to help our readers, who are marketing professionals and business owners, achieve greater business success through the right marketing tools and strategies.
After years of burning my own cash, I was finally able to recoup some of it. It was a four-figure deal. We had one more sponsorship deal between this and when I sold the publication. Sponsorships would not be our path to profitability, at least not under my leadership.
2018 — A Period of Slowed Growth
Maybe it was due to the start of my new career, but the publication’s period of rapid growth came to a slow. I had set goals for reaching more subscribers as I had done in the past, but this time was very different. We didn’t get close to the goal. We missed our goals multiple times even when lowered. Between autumn of 2017 and winter of 2019, we only added 8,000 more subscribers. That’s a great departure from the 150% growth we had seen the 14 months between 2016 and autumn of 2017.
Even then, we were featured in an Inc. Magazine article: “2018 Content Trends You Need to Know Right Now”.
To keep up with the rise in voice recognition and search, you’ll probably need to invest in SEO this year. According to Mark Growth, Marketing and Growth Hacking, there are three main implications of voice search. The first is that your content will need to sound more natural, the way that people speak, if you want it to come up first in search results. — Molly St. Louis of Inc. Magazine
Regardless of this amazing feat, our numbers weren’t growing fast enough to hit the marks I set. This was a slump I couldn’t figure a way over. Or, I just didn’t have the time to get us to the next milestone. I was working hard to improve the very platform on which we were built. I also realized there were forces working against us; these forces were out of my control. All I could do is figure out how to control what I had control over. I failed to move the needle enough to justify continued effort. I was out of energy. I knew there wasn’t much more for me to do.
February 2019 — Throwing in the towel
Towards the end of 2018, someone had offered to buy the publication from me. Of course, at the time, I still had hope that I could will the publication back to its period of fast growth. I wanted to keep trying. It was my baby, and I wasn’t ready to let it go.
Well, everything changed in 2019. I was out of energy in general. I needed a break from work and from my side projects, including the publication. It was time to reach back out that person who wanted to buy the publication months earlier.
The publication was still growing. It was reaching its highest metrics ever. Everything was going well for the publication. I had done all I could do to get it to this point. I figured that in order for the publication I started to reach its next level, it needed new leadership; it needed me to step aside and let it do its thing. So I did.
With an approach of full transparency, I told the buyer why I was ready to sell and what I needed in order to be happy with the sale. Although I only spent about 5 hours a week on it over the five years I ran it, I had put a lot of energy into the publication. I needed a sale price that would appreciate the amount of work I put into growing a publication from 0 to where it was at the time of sale, 58,000 subscribers. The buyer was receptive to my request.
March 2019 — Closing on the sale
After weeks of correspondence between myself and the buyer, the buyer and his corporate board members, and the board members and their lawyers, negotiations were done. I held my own. This was my first time selling a business, so I think I did very well in negotiations; I’m glad I read “Never Split the Difference” months earlier.
Transfer of assets
They sent over the legal papers, I signed, and they signed. All that was left to be done was the transfer of assets. They needed to transfer the money to my bank, and I needed to give them all of the assets related to the publication. This is where selling a Medium publication gets tricky. It’s not as simple as selling a domain and the server on which you host its contents. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Unfortunately, I can’t share those details here.
After a week, we figured out how to transfer the assets in a way that worked for the buyer. Once that was handled, I could get back to staring at the lump sum of money that had hit my bank account a week earlier.
The sale price
The amount of money in my account was far greater than the amount of money I had saved as a software engineer at a growth stage startup in San Francisco. It was the most money I had seen in my life. It only took me five years to get it 😉
That’s all I’m going to disclose on the sale price for now.
My Tips for Growing Your Publication
When I started, most of these strategies and tools weren’t yet available or proven. It just so happens that I was the one who decided to build some of the tools — Smedian and Signal — to make it easier for myself and other editors to build and grow successful publications.
Use Signal to drive traffic from Twitter
It’s important that you regularly share the stories published in your publication. I suggest to routinely share stories on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I believe that Twitter is the best place to share your stories because you can repeatedly share evergreen content to continuously drive traffic to those stories. I believe this so much that I built a tool for it: Signal.
Signal allows you to schedule your stories and share to your Twitter audience one time or on a repeated schedule of your choice; you can use your own tweet or the specially crafted tweet that Signal suggests for your story. Signal enables you to spend more of your time doing important work or taking more breaks while it helps you reach your audience and drive increased engagement with your tweets.
Why you Should Spend Less Time Tweeting and How to Grow Your Audience Via Tweet Scheduling
Streamlining the process of scheduling your tweets is a powerful strategy that can propel the growth of your audience.
Find Editors to Help You Out
In the start, I was able to grow my publication, Mark Growth, by more than to more than 44,000 subscribers as a solo editor. In that time, I spent only a couple hours a week dedicated to the publication. However, I realized that if I wanted to see Mark Growth reach its potential, I would have to find more editors to help me publish more stories.
With that, I sent out a call for editors who are willing to volunteer their time to help grow the publication they love. So far, I’ve received hundreds of emails of interest and will be adding more editors this week.
The growth of my publication under my lone guidance was likely due in large part to the fact that I had the early comer’s advantage; when I joined Medium, there weren’t many publications to choose from. Things are not that way any longer. Medium has evolved and readers have many publications to choose from. If you have the time to dedicate to growing your publication on your own, go ahead, but I suggest you get some help early on.
Commit to Attracting Writers — Use Smedian.com
Your publication can’t grow without writers. Unless you are going to write all of your articles, you will need to commit to finding and attracting new writers. As your publication grows, more writers will want to write for it, but early on, you will need to do the hard work to find writers.
SMedian: The Tool All Medium Editors & Writers Needed.
Signup to advertise and request to contribute to publications in a couple clicks.
Finding writers can be time consuming and going through the email correspondence can be a bit tedious. It’s even more unbearable when you have to teach potential writers how to signup for Medium and send you their username before you can add them as a writer. But there’s a better way.
Over the last year and some months Mark Growth has added over 400 new writers through Smedian. Smedian does all the work for you. All you have to do is sign in with your Medium account and advertise your publication(s). It will show up on the front page of Smedian alongside 250+ Medium publications, and writers will be able to send you requests to contribute.
SMedian + Embedly | Request to Contribute to Publications From Medium Articles
Request to contribute to Medium’s fastest growing publications while you read their articles. The Request to Contribute…
Hundreds of writers visit Smedian each week, so it won’t be too long until your publication starts receiving requests from writers. You can also use Smedian’s embeds to embed your Request to Contribute button in your publication’s articles to organically attract more writers through your content. That’s the embed of Mark Growth to the left. You can also add a signup form to capture emails.
As requests come in, you can view them on your publication’s Smedian profile or act on them right from your publication’s settings page on Medium using the Smedian Chrome extension:
As you gain more writers, your publication will start producing more content. In turn, your publication will gain more readers, and the cycle will continue.
Here’s a deeper but dated dive into how to use Smedian for this purpose: “How to Grow Your Medium Publication Through Smedian”.
Create a Twitter Profile & Grow Your Following
Lets just say Medium and Twitter are good friends, sort of like brothers. From the very beginning, Medium has made use of Twitter to grow and decided to let publications join in on the fun. When your publication has a Twitter account connected and Medium users follow your Twitter profile, they are also added as followers of your publication. Knowing this, you can see one of the reasons why it’s necessary to have a Twitter profile for your publication.
Having a Twitter profile also gives your publication another means to update your followers instantly without sending them an email letter or writing a long post. The next benefit of having a Twitter following for your publication is SEO; read the section on getting on SEO for more on this.
SEO: Get on the 1st Page of Google Search Results
In the event that someone is searching for publications that cover what yours covers, you want to give your publication a chance at growth through search by putting it in the results. Mark Growth shows up as the first result whenever someone happens to search “marketing and growth hacking” or “marketing & growth hacking”. This isn’t an accident.
Your Friends @ Medium do a great job with SEO to help publications show up in results, but there are a couple things you can do to help the effort. How I got Mark Growth on the top of these search results will be covered in full in another article, but, for now, here are a couple quick tips.
As I touched on above, when naming your publication, try your best to make it as SEO friendly as you’d like. If your publication is going to cover content on marketing and growth hacking, it might help for those words to show up in your name.
Make social profiles, such as Twitter, for your publication and backlink to your publication. This helps your listing in Google’s eyes since those platforms also have great SEO. Share your publications stories across many platforms for the same reason.
Share Your Publication’s Content on Social Networks
My publication, Mark Growth, has a Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We share our writer’s content across our Twitter and Facebook pages to help their work get more reads. I also share our articles on my personal Twitter. Doing this helps with SEO and make your writers happy to write for your publication. Do you know anyone who doesn’t like it when their public work is shared online?
Celebrate Small Wins With Your Team & Readers
Celebrating 20k Readers & Writers
Here are some stats about Marketing & Growth Hacking (MNG) as a thank you to our readers for giving our writers the…
Doing all of this will certainly help your publication grow. As you grow, you should keep an eye on the prize, but don’t neglect taking a step back to celebrate your small wins along the way. Include your team and make your readers feel apart of something greater. There’s no measuring how much this helps, but I know it makes me feel good to celebrate the growth of Mark Growth when we reach milestones.