October 8th, 2018
On October 15th, 2017 - just about a year ago - I published my very first Starter Story blog post.
I had no experience blogging or building websites.
12 months later I’ve published 142 pieces of content and learned a ton about building a website/blog/whatever you want to call it. Starter Story is now monetized at ~$1.7k in monthly revenue. (UPDATE: Apr 2019 now monetized at $4.1k/month)
Here are some more stats:
- 109 founder interviews
- 33 non-interview blog posts
- 350,131 words written
- 439,856 pageviews
- 18,036 Reddit karma
UPDATE: I’m now working on a tool to help you publish a similar amount of blog posts! Check out Pigeon :)
I did all almost all of this as a side project (on top of a full-time job). I say almost because I just quit my full-time job two weeks ago to go full time on this and try the whole indie maker thing :)
But I don’t want to make it sound like I only spent a few hours a week on this. I’ve spent a lot of time building Starter Story. Many nights and weekends. If I were to guess, I probably put in an average of 15 hours/week since starting.
Through working all of these hours, I’ve learned a lot about what works, but I’ve probably also wasted a lot of time on what doesn’t. I wanted to write this post to guide others who might be looking to get started. I know others can do the same thing in a lot less time.
My #1 secret
Before we get into this I want to talk about my “secret”.
I don’t write anything, and I don’t pay copywriters.
I leverage the amazing knowledge and writing of others.
This doesn’t mean I just sit back and enjoy the ride though. I spend most of my time editing, formatting, and revising the writing of others (which I’ll talk about later in the post).
Let me walk you through my journey
So I want to take you through my process before I had any interviews and how I got to where I am today.
Background: I talk more about why I started Starter Story in this post, but basically, I wanted to work on a side project that wouldn’t interfere with my full-time job. So I came up with the idea for Starter Story, a website that would showcase interviews with founders.
OK, now I had the idea and needed to find people to interview. But.. I didn’t have a website. I reached out to my friend who started an online jewelry business and told him about my idea and asked him if he wanted to be interviewed.
He agreed, so I called him up on the phone and asked him a bunch of questions over the course of an hour. I recorded the conversation and later transcribed the call to text (a seriously long and painful process), and then edited the crap out of it.
I released this interview in mid October 2017. I shared it on my personal Facebook, my LinkedIn and that’s it. I didn’t have any channels at the time, and I had no following online at all.
Let’s take a fun trip back in Google Analytics to that week. Humble beginnings 😆
Yes, that’s 23 visitors on the site in the first week. I’m serious when I say I had no following!
Finding more interviews
I started reaching out to more friends.
I published this interview the next week. He was my old roommate and had started a business selling cat treats.
I kept asking around, I wrote down a list of all the potential entrepreneurs I knew. I asked a bunch of people. Most people denied or didn’t respond to me.
But then I got connected with Taylor Offer from FEAT Socks. This guy is legit! I interviewed him over the phone and got a great interview. This is still one of my most popular interviews.
I was spending my nights after work taking phone calls and spending the rest of my time editing down the audio from the calls and converting this into written interviews.
Each interview seemed to lead to another interview somehow, and I soon had a very rudimentary website to show people. It only had a few interviews but it was something to show. Sure my friends would agree to do interviews without seeing a website - but it would be very tough to convince strangers without one.
What Starter Story looked like at 4 interviews
The difficulty of phone interviews
I couldn’t do interviews over the phone anymore. It would take an ungodly amount of time to revise to a readable written format. Plus, the conversational interviews converted to text never came out that well (you can read them to see what I mean).
What you say in a conversation is a lot different than how you write something - writing is so much more eloquent and, in my opinion, conveys something 5x more succinctly than what audio can.
Another issue is once you edit the audio down and write it out (a process that took several hours), I would send it back to the interviewee and they wouldn’t even like it!
There were 3-4 people that I interviewed that didn’t even email me back once I sent them the first draft…
I decided to try out written interviews.
In hindsight it sounds obvious, but for me it felt weird to ask people to write interviews for your no-name blog.
But I really had no other option. Calling people was not scalable. Here’s my template on how I ask people.
An email pro tip: I always try to end my emails with a simple answer/call to action. I try not to leave anything open-ended.
If I don’t have the upper hand (aka I’m asking for something) I try to make the conversation/process as frictionless as possible.
Now that I had a website with a few interviews, I decided to start reaching out to random people. I found the Shopify Masters podcast and found the emails to as many guests as I could.
I put all these leads in a spreadsheet and used Hunter.io to find emails and I sent them each emails one by one.
I sent cold emails that looked like this:
The response was surprisingly good!
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the reason for this is because I was asking people for an interview that were being interviewed on another podcast. People that get interviewed are more likely to want to be interviewed again. Duh!
I realized cold emailing was an effective tactic and decided to bear down on that strategy.
I didn’t do any automation in the beginning. I hand emailed everyone one by one.
Looking back, I could have sped up the process with email software or whatever, but I didn’t. I think it’s because I had no idea if cold emails were going to work.
My advice for others would be not to automate things right away. Doing things manually teaches you a lot about the ins and outs and minutia.
Find out what works, then automate.
For example, I was able to test out different ways of saying things in emails and used my intuition to tweak language accordingly.
Instead of emailing 50 people with one click (which I later will get to), I got a feel for each lead and was able to understand who they were when I got an email back, or if I didn’t get an email.
Rejection & the numbers game
Rejection sucks, even over email. I still get a bit sad to this day when I send a bunch of cold emails and get rejections.
But I definitely have gotten more used to it. It’s a numbers game.
To this day I’ve gotten over 100 interviews published. But I’ve sent over 1,000 emails. 10% is a good rate!
One thing I learned from Courtland from Indie Hackers is to have a good question template.
Instead of just asking the question “How did you come up with the idea?” in the template, I use has a series of sub-questions to help the reader provide better answers.
Getting quality answers is the #1 most important thing, which I’ll talk more about later. I try to do everything in my ability to optimize for quality.
Email flows, templates, and shortcuts
After sending so many cold emails you start to develop a flow, and your inbox becomes hell.
For me, the typical email flow is something like:
- Cold email
- They respond
- Explain how the interview process works
- They agree
- Send google doc template
- Follow up a few times
- Get first draft
- Ask them for revisions
- Publish the interview
This ends up being a ton of emails, all very similar. Gmail has a really cool feature called Canned Responses where you can save all of your common email templates and use them in your emails with one click.
Oh, and learn Gmail shortcuts - it will save you so much time.
Treat it like a sales pipeline
After I found what works with cold emails, I realized I needed to build a system and keep things organized.
Every interview is in a stage, and it looks something like this:
What’s great about this CRM is that it is inside Gmail.
The email threads themselves are leads in your funnel, and it’s easy to get a view of everything, as well as know where any interview stands in the process.
Asking for hard things
One thing that was (and is) much easier said than done was asking for revenue numbers.
Here’s the funny thing - in the very beginning when I had only a couple interviews, I didn’t have revenue numbers for every interview. It was optional.
Before I launched on Product Hunt, I decided I needed to make sure I set a precedent going forward. I kindly went to all my old interviews that didn’t share revenue and asked them nicely. Most of them said yes! Unfortunately, not all of them did, and I had to delete a few interviews off the site :(
Anyways, I’ve had some amazing interview opportunities that I lost because they wouldn’t share revenue. However, I believe that one interview isn’t going to make or break Starter Story.
And I believe sharing revenue is what sets Starter Story apart from other blogs.
How many people finish my interview template after a couple days? Better question, how many people finish something when they say they will? Very rarely.
This is where I learned about the importance of persistence!
Once someone agrees to the interview I follow up aggressively until they finish it, or they give up.
There is an amazing tool for this called Boomerang. When I have an interview in progress, I have a perpetual Boomerang going on it.
Often, this happens:
That may look like a lot of work, but it isn’t if you use Boomerang, canned responses, and Gmail shortcuts effectively.
Here is one thing I wish I did sooner… Set deadlines!
A deadline is like a pretend date that gives who you’re working with some accountability. The date doesn’t really have any importance, but it provides a sense of urgency to get a task done.
I’m still experimenting with how to do this best, but since I’ve implemented using deadlines I’ve noticed better results.
Asking for revisions
If you’ve read my interviews you might have noticed that the quality is good and the answers aren’t your “run of the mill” answers you see on other websites.
Doing the math, on average, each interview is 2,464 words.
But this doesn’t just happen. I put a lot of effort into improving interviews and making them excellent.
This is because I put a ton on of emphasis on quality. I always strive for at least 2,000 words and I’m constantly asking my interviewees to dive deeper and explain more of the “why” on their answers.
And I do this with Google Docs. After I review the first draft, it looks something like this:
Occasionally I get a perfect interview on the first try, but I would say 90% of my Google Docs look something like this after I’ve had an initial read review.
This is a pretty time-consuming process on my end, but I believe it’s 100% worth it. There are a lot of popular interviews on Starter Story that didn’t look so hot on the first draft. And some that went #1 on Hacker News too.
Since my interviewees have already put a good amount of work into the draft, it’s almost never an issue to get them to add more, and I think they appreciate that I do this.
It’s what an editor of any publication should do - strive for great quality.
Systemizing everything I can
Being an engineer, one of my favorite parts of all this is using code to automate a lot of things that can be automated.
Starter Story is built on top of a custom CMS built by me - I’m not using WordPress, it’s built on Ruby on Rails.
Here are some things I’ve built/automated:
Generating new google docs using GDrive API
Every time I create a new lead in my CMS, it auto-generates a gDoc template that I can send to the interviewee.
This saves a ton of time (don’t have to manually copy the doc over and over) and it “ties” the gDoc to the lead in the CMS.
Google Doc -> Markdown conversion.
Since the google doc is tied to the story already, I can just click one button and it converts the doc into markdown and injects it into my CMS.
It’s not perfect, but it’s getting closer to being a “one-click publish”.
This is also what sparked the idea for this website, youdontneedwp.com.
All of my social media is automated. I talk about it a bit more in this Twitter post.
I have robots that post all new interviews to my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This saves so much time.
Email people when their post goes live.
Whenever posts go live, I email the interviewee that their post went live. I also automate other stuff like asking them for referrals or having them fill out what tools they use.
There are tons of other things too, like posting to reddit, scheduling posts for the future, and a lot more.
My content calendar for this month
I’m thinking of productizing this
So I’m thinking of building a product that can do a lot of the stuff I mentioned above, like automatic email followups, lead funneling, etc.
It would be useful for people that want to build a similar blog or website, or for someone looking to build a new “interview” content channel for their product.
A great example of doing this successfully is the Shopify Success Stories. They have interviewed over 900 stores.
If you’re interested at all or have some ideas for features email me.
UPDATE: I have decided to build this! If you’re interested in trying it out, you can learn more here.
My approach - the shotgun method
I want to end this blog post to talk about my approach and why I think it’s different than others out there and why I’m seeing success.
Consistent content is my #1 goal.
Consistency is key - always be pushing out content. Take action as quick as possible and always be moving forward. Every blog post is a potential traffic generator, big or small.
Stop caring about “that one big interview”. A small story is better than no story. Momentum is your best friend.
Maybe it’s cold, but I have learned to treat this whole thing like a salesman would. You get leads, you get rejected, but you can always close a small % of the deals.
When I got into my groove a few months in, I had a goal to release 3 pieces of content per week. Now I’m releasing closer to 7 posts per week. I plan to scale up to 10/week and soon after that, 20 pieces of content per week!
Quality is the #2 goal.
Always make sure to have a great interview or blog post.
Here’s my motto on any piece of content:
If it sucks, kill it.
If it’s mediocre, publish it but don’t promote it.
If it’s amazing, share it with the world and give it a lot of attention and love.
Respecting the learning experience
Most importantly, building Starter Story has been an amazing learning experience. And if you plan to build something similar (or build anything), try to treat it like that as well.
You never know what you might find - product opportunities, business opportunities, friends, a following, who knows!
Building this blog is essentially what sparked my idea for the 24 Hour Startup, and it’s helping build my foundation as a maker and entrepreneur.
Thanks for reading - reach out on Twitter if you have any questions or comments!