Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

How Pandemic Panic Led to a $10K Paid Community Launch

Monica Lent
Monica Lent
June 22, 2021
Category of startup
Education
Country of startup
Germany
Revenue of startups
$0-$10k/mo
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

How Pandemic Panic Led to a $10K Paid Community Launch

Monica Lent
Monica Lent
June 22, 2021
Category of startup
Education
Country of startup
Germany
Cause of failure of the startup

Monica started Blogging for Devs, an email course, newsletter, and paid community that helps developers grow their blogs. Today, the community is about 350 members strong, with about 250 of those paid. It recently surpassed $2K in MRR, over $25,000 in revenue, and 7,500+ newsletter subscribers.

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Hi Monica! Who are you and what are you currently working on?

I’m a software developer and former engineering manager based in Berlin, Germany but originally from the United States. Most people I talk to aren’t confident about where I’m from, because my accent has gotten pretty weird by now!

About 8 years ago, I moved to Europe for a research job at the NLP chair in Leipzig, Germany. After getting tired of academia, I transitioned to working for a high-growth fintech startup in Berlin. Spent 5 years there, moved up the ranks, and finally, quit to go full-time on my products.

These days I’ve got two main gigs (I mean that literally, they could both be full-time jobs and together take up well over 40 hours per week).

But the one I’m here to talk about today is called Blogging for Devs. It’s an email course, newsletter, and paid community that helps developers grow their blogs without having to be “famous” on social media through excellent writing and SEO.

Today, the community is about 350 members strong, with about 250 of those paid. It recently surpassed $2K in MRR, over $25,000 in revenue, and 7,500+ newsletter subscribers.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Honestly, I never wanted to build a product for developers before. Nor did I ever plan to become a “creator”, but here’s how it happened.

Back in 2019, I started my first SaaS product: Affilimate, an affiliate dashboard for content publishers. It was born out of my experience building my travel blog, growing it to about $5K monthly revenue, and getting frustrated trying to keep track of my affiliate income and which strategies were driving conversions on my website.

Especially as a developer, I knew there had to be an automated solution.

So I launched the product alongside my partner Gernot, and together we recruited about 70 test users. They were in the travel niche, just like me. Start with what you know, right?

Well, you can imagine what happened in 2020.

In a matter of weeks, we went from landing our biggest customer and having our first $2K revenue month to everyone asking to pause their subscriptions. Suddenly my projects were earning under $500 per month in profit, and I had to lean on my savings.

After taking some time off to grieve my failing business (and playing a lot of Animal Crossing) I decided to try something new.

I launched Blogging for Devs as a free email course in May 2020. 

It grew to over 1,200 subscribers in under two weeks. Eventually was voted #1 Product of the Day on Product Hunt. And when I launched the paid community 6 months later, net $10K in its first 6 weeks of being open for registration.

Blogging for Devs Product Hunt Launch

What made this experience different is I started with a distribution plan from the beginning: a Twitter audience I’d built over years of blogging and conference speaking.

My biggest lesson was how important it is to build distribution for your product. And that, in fact, without a reliable distribution channel, it’s almost irrelevant how good the product is in the first place.

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How did you go from idea to product?

The first version of Blogging for Devs went from idea to launch in under 3 weeks. I’d heard so many versions of the mantra, “Launch fast. Get emails.” and I took that to heart.

I used ConvertKit to create an email course, delivered as a sequence over 9 days: an intro email, the 7-day challenge, and a conclusion email.

Blogging for Devs Landing Page

Thanks to about 8 friends who agreed to be beta testers, I iterated over the email content about 2 times before deciding to go live. The main thing I did was cut the scope, and focus on making the course outcome-oriented:

“Create an optimized article for your developer blog, step by step, in 7 days.”

After that took off, I launched a private, invite-only community that was free for the first 100 people. I wanted to test whether it was the right format, and also form the culture slowly and intentionally at the beginning.

Eventually, it took up so much of my time that I knew I needed to go paid.

I gave myself the famous “12 startups in 12 months” challenge and launched the community as a paid offering in under a month.

My main marketing strategy was building in public on Twitter and growing the waitlist that way. Within the first week of launch, over 20% of the waitlist had converted to paying members.


Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

The main thing I’ve done to grow Blogging for Devs is building word-of-mouth growth into the product.

For example, right after someone confirms their email address for the free course, I ask them to share the course on Twitter. I do the same after the person has completed the challenge. This ensures there’s always a steady stream of people publicizing the product for me.

Another funny side effect is that by helping developers blog, they often end up writing about my site: this results in backlinks and more people talking about the newsletter in public spaces where developers hang out.

These days, visitors from Twitter subscribe at a rate of 20-30% on the newsletter homepage. Even higher when the recommendation to join comes from someone else who’s respected as a tech blogger (sometimes over 60% opt-in rate!).

So it’s by far the most effective way for me to grow the email list.

One thing that hasn’t panned out yet is using my rankings of the top developer blogs to get subscribers through organic traffic.

I still need to experiment with what kind of email opt-in formats are going to appeal to developers when visiting these rankings, without annoying them too much. As you might know, developers are sensitive to popups and impervious to most lead magnets. So it takes a lot for a random dev online to surrender their email address.

In terms of revenue growth, the email course acts like a funnel for people to join the community.

Students get the fundamentals they need to act, and the option to join the community and work on their blogs with a group of peers in two final emails at the end of the course. One announcement email, one with FAQs.

I can’t say they are perfectly optimized, but it’s the main way people hear about the community and eventually join us as paying members.


How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

Just last month, I brought on help for the first time! One of the community members, Stefanni Brasil, is working part-time to help with all the day-to-day work that goes into running a community.

For example, integrating new members, aggregating guides for people to discover community resources more efficiently, event planning, and tons of stuff you can’t just automate away and needs the human touch.

In terms of revenue and expenses, I publish income reports every month where people can get a detailed breakdown.

Running a community is a lot more expensive than people think: you need to glue together a lot of tools, but also facilitate larger groups. As a result, you end up in the “mid-sized” or even “enterprise” bucket for a lot of SaaS subscriptions.

Blogging for Devs Community

On average, we do about $2,000-$3,000 in revenue per month and usually about ¼ or ⅓ of that in expenses.

In terms of growth, I mostly rely on growing my newsletter and count on that to keep the community membership healthy. I’m not looking to make it massive, as the intimate community vibe can be eroded quickly when you have a ton of new joiners at once.

My goal is more to scale up my SaaS than to try to turn the community into a money-making machine. In that sense, it’s more of a passion project than something I plan to turn into a giant business (at least for now).

I’ve got a stretch goal of reaching 20,000 newsletter subscribers this year. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I’m hoping with a few launches I’ve got up my sleeve, I’ll be able to hurl myself over the finish line somehow :)

Since starting Blogging for Devs, what have been your main lessons?

Two main things: distribution is everything and the power of email.

I’m still largely focused on my SaaS product in terms of what I’m looking to grow into my main income stream, but if I had to start from scratch, I’d do an email-first strategy today.

So much of the marketing activity I work on these days revolves around optimizing for email engagement. Didn’t expect that coming into this experience!

But on top of that, I learned just how demanding it is to run a community. There aren’t any days off for good behavior: you have to show up every single day and be there for people. Communities don’t run on their own without someone there to facilitate, build connections, and make things happen.

Even when I’m on vacation, I still check into the community at least once per day.


What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

So far, I’ve gotten incredibly lucky with Blogging for Devs. But that’s mostly because I made all the classic, first-time founder mistakes with my first product, Affilimate:

  • No distribution plan beyond “build it and they’ll tell their friends”
  • Not diversifying the customer base
  • Having a time-sensitive marketing plan that relied solely on SEO (which has a timeline of its own, especially in a competitive niche like affiliate marketing).

Thankfully, I was able to do the opposite of many of these mistakes with Blogging for Devs and it had a positive result.

And I’ve managed to turn around most of those with my SaaS, too, and things look wildly different than they did a year ago. Some things just take time :)


What tools & resources do you recommend?

As for tools, I use ConvertKit and Circle to run the paid community. All the videos are hosted privately on Vimeo and I use Descript to edit and caption them.

In terms of resources, I talked about this in my 2020 retrospective: One article that changed the game for me was Amy Hoy’s article about Content Marketing that Sells.

It’s about how to attract customers through free projects through a technique called side project marketing.

This mindset heavily influenced the way I build and launch projects in a way that everything kind of compounds together. Especially as a developer, it’s so much easier and less expensive for me to create side projects that help me grow my revenue-generating businesses.

Apart from that article by Amy, I can recommend some great online business and marketing blogs for readers of Failory: Detailed.com (SEO blog), Gaps.com (online business ideas and in-depth case studies), and Marketing Examples (marketing case studies).

Hands-down my two favorite podcasts for anyone running content-driven businesses are Authority Hacker (an internet marketing podcast) and Inbox Besties (email marketing podcast).


Where can we go to learn more?

Apart from Blogging for Devs itself and my personal blog, I’m also relatively active on Twitter @monicalent. Trying to share what I learn!

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