Louis Nicholls — Growing Your Newsletter

Reading Time: 34 minutes

When it comes to building an “owned audience,” nothing beats an email list. Louis Nicholls is a newsletter expert, and he shared with me how to monetize a list, how to grow it reliably, and why cold emails are often done spectacularly wrong.

Louis will show you how to do email right.

What We Talk About

00:00:00 Why did you choose to build SparkLoop?

00:05:23 Grow an audience, monetize a list

00:09:07 How do you maintain customer quality in a network?

00:14:55 Advice on how to cross-link your knowledge with other channels.

00:18:48 How much is too much in terms of “buying” subscribers?

00:21:59 What makes a newsletter word of mouth-worthy?

00:27:48 Struggling with self-promotion

00:31:51 What makes a good or a really bad cold email?

00:36:44 Why all cold emails look the same

00:42:57 Why a good message is never cold

00:48:57 Borrowed audiences always have risk

Louis Nicholls 0:00
Once you get to 100 ish or 200 or so subscribers is when you start to think about those channels in terms of, I have three buckets that I like to set them in, which is basically trading money for new subscribers, trading your time for new subscribers, and then putting in investment into flywheels and organic growth, basically scalable growth. And I think over time, how you invest into those three, your needs change.

Arvid Kahl 0:24
Hello, everyone and welcome to The Bootstrapped Founder. Today, I’m talking to Louis Nicholls, founder of SparkLoop. Now, Louis is a newsletter expert. And we talk about how to get started with a newsletter, how to grow a readership around it. And we even dive into cold emails and what most people do wrong about them. So here’s Louis.

Why did you build SparkLoop? That’s one of the things that I always wanted to know really for this. Because SparkLoop is a newsletter recommendation tool in a space where people are constantly complaining about being saturated with new status. That’s just how I feel about the whole newsletter space, a whole lot of complaints. So why choose to build a software as a service product in that space right now?

Louis Nicholls 1:17
Yeah, well, I mean, I didn’t choose to build it right now. We chose to build it about three years ago. I don’t know if I would start SparkLoop in the same way today. Obviously, the landscape is very different. But what happened was, I was doing some some marketing consulting with a sort of a friend of a friend. And they ran a newsletter. I didn’t really know that much about newsletters at the time. But I was helping them with some marketing stuff. And they asked me, hey, Louis, do you know how we can add a referral program to our newsletter? We really want to make an easy way for our subscribers to share with their friends. I thought, well, that’s just such an obvious thing that must exist. So I’ll google. And I Google and nothing really comes up. So I think, okay, who would know about this? And I reached out to my friend Manny, who is now my co founder at SparkLoop, who ran a pretty successful referral tool, like a generic referral tool called ReferralHero. And I thought, well, maybe ReferralHero does this. If it doesn’t, he’ll know where I should go, basically or where my client should go. So I asked him, and he says, yeah, we don’t really do that. That would be kind of difficult and a lot of manual work to make it happen. I don’t really know anyone else who does this. I can’t recommend you anyway. But it’s kind of funny that you say that because you’re the third person who’s asked me about this this week. Interesting pattern there, maybe we should take a quick look. So we, you know, we take a quick look. And we talked to some other people. And originally, I thought, well, this is just going to be part of referral hero. I’m kind of bored right now. I’ve sold my previous business. I haven’t figured out what I want to do. My girlfriend at the time was fed up with me sort of sitting around the house and cooking bread and you know, stuff you do and you don’t have anything to do. So yeah, I thought, okay, I’ll just help Manny with this. I get along well with him. It’s a fun thing to work on. I’ll do some of the sales stuff help and do some customer development, some of the stuff that’s sort of less than his sort of wheelhouse and he was obviously full time working on the other business. And we realized, yeah, this is definitely a really interesting thing. It’s going to be very different to ReferralHero, even though it’s referrals. It’s underneath the hood, the onboarding flow, the messaging, the marketing, all of it’s very different. So it needs to be its own standalone product. And at that point, why don’t we just sort of partner up on it and do it together. So that’s how it happened.

Arvid Kahl 3:51
That’s really cool. Like, that sounds like a truly validated approach to building a business. Because obviously, when somebody tells you, this is the third time I’ve heard this. You know, the pattern is quite obviously there, you just have to recognize it. Really cool. I do like the product and I use it for myself of my own newsletter. And what I’ve found over the year that I’ve been involved in it, so I don’t think I’ve been a customer for just a year but doesn’t matter. I’ve watched it over time. I saw it changed a little bit. And what I saw most recently is that you’ve built this kind of network in the product you use, like your own tool to connect people to, you know, amplify each other’s lists, essentially. Was it an intentional idea at the start?

Louis Nicholls 4:36
It wasn’t an intentional idea, sort of on day one of SparkLoop because SparkLoop wasn’t an intentional product at all, at least from my point of view. I can’t speak for my co founder, maybe he had secret grand plans that he never told me about. But at least from my point of view, it was more of a hey, these are some people I really like working with. Here is an obvious problem with no obvious solution. That we’re really in a good place to solve better than everyone else because we have all of this huge advantage from ReferralHero, basically. So we jumped into that and we started it. And the focus for us and the focus for me as a founder with all the businesses that I’ve started, has never been on like solving a problem. I really don’t care about solving problems. What I care about is helping people and helping people to achieve a specific outcome or result, right? So when I went into that, I was just thinking, how can I help these newsletter operators grow their audiences, monetize their lists basically just be more successful in business in ways that is easy for me to do and that no one else could help them do? So it was really obvious to sort of, you know, we’re starting with referrals, but I’m not trying to build the best referral product. I’m trying to help you get the best results for your newsletter. So what are the ways that we can help you do that? And there were some parts of it that we saw happen sort of organically, like we saw, for example, people using the call referral tool to say, well, I don’t want to give you a t shirt for 10 referrals or you know, stickers for five referrals or something. What I want to do is take this referral link and I’m going to give it to another newsletter. And I’m going to use it to track how many subscribers they send my way when they recommend my newsletter and their newsletter because this is the easiest way to track that, you know, directly and be confident that the results are real, basically. So I saw people doing that and I was talking to customers a lot. And I thought, well, that’s interesting. It’s useful, they’re using the product in a way that it’s not intended to be used, presumably, because there’s no other better way of doing this. So let’s dig into it. And then we found, okay, there’s a huge opportunity to do this. So we built that out. And then we expanded that sort of logically based on what people were asking for. And that’s just sort of how it came to be really, it was just watching people use the product, trying to stretch it and really listening to what they were hoping for.

Arvid Kahl 6:54
I think that’s a great strategy, like the fact that you validate new feature ideas through this emergence of how people use a tool. I mean, that presupposes I guess that you build a tool that is flexible to be used. And that flexibility, I think, is in the product by just having links be the main feature of it, right? I did wonder about this. How did you validate hubscribe, your cross connection subscribing feature? But this sounds like you just saw people using it anyway. And you just kind of formalized it into an actual feature. Is that right?

Louis Nicholls 7:28
Yes, yeah, I mean, hubscribe is a little different because it wasn’t something that they were already doing. That was a mixture of an idea that I’d worked on as a previous project that I just sort of never really was super interested in. So it was basically the exact same upsell mechanism. But for e commerce businesses, basically, where they would share leads together after someone buys. And so I’d had that in the back of my mind pretty much since the beginning of SparkLoop. But I was just waiting for the sort of the right time and to see if that’s something people would be interested in using, right? So it’s more seeing opportunities and really understanding the business. And I don’t think you need necessarily to like, you don’t need people to be using your products in weird ways to find the opportunity. If you’re close to customers, if you’re talking to customers and they get on a call with you, you’re not just talking about your product the entire time. A lot of the time, they’re asking you questions because they say, hey, you sit down all day, every day talking to people who are a couple of steps ahead of where I am as a newsletter operator. You know, probably at this point, there are very few people who spent more time talking to lots of different newsletter operators than I have over the last couple of years. I mean, really, it must be a handful at most, who’ve spent this much time doing it. So let’s say you have all this data, you have all this insight. What tool should I be using for this? How are people doing that? Do you have any idea how I can solve this? And then you get all of these sorts of opportunities where people are saying, look, I have a problem here. I have an issue here. I don’t know data here. I’m losing money or losing opportunity to make money here. And you can just sort of connect the dots, ask more, and decide what you want to be to be helpful with.

Arvid Kahl 9:07
So I guess, having talked to these many hundreds, if not 1000s of people, that gives you a kind of an indication to who you can trust to use your product the right way, right? Because I was wondering like how do you maintain customer quality in a network in product kind of business that you have? Because you know, adding a bad apple to this community of people who want to legitimately build new service, that would be a problem. How do you kind of vet people?

Louis Nicholls 9:33
That’s a great question. And we are early and we probably don’t have all the right answers yet. So what I default to is to be slightly too cautious and to do things manually for as long as possible until it becomes impossible, right? So we’ve built a situation where there’s a manual approval system. You have to be you know, a real human on the SparkLoop team who knows newsletters, will take a look at your newsletter, will ask you questions and it’s quite easily with a newsletter that remembers a history of what you’ve written. You can see whether people like it. You can see if it’s good, it’s very difficult to fake, sort of to fake a newsletter. It would be a very weird thing to do just to get access to the networks so that you can send people new subscribers. I mean, I’m sure someone will do that. There are weird people who tried to break things all the time. You know, it’s a weird place the world. But yeah, it’s I think that the human touch is probably the way we do it.

Arvid Kahl 10:32
That’s kind of the human touch in general, is why I think you said it’s also interesting because there’s an actual person there. And your tool gives another layer of credibility and authenticity to people because they come from a vetted community. I quite appreciate that. Let’s talk about newsletters a little bit because I run one. You run one. You see many people run many newsletters. I want to encourage people to build an email list because I just think it’s the best way to kind of de risk your platform dependencies and to build something that you own in a sense of that you have access to. And over time, nobody can really take that list away from you, unless you’re too lazy to export it and your email service provider goes down, you know, but there are ways to own the list reliably. So when somebody is starting out building a newsletter, what are reasonable expectations that they should be setting for themselves to not burn out on it? Or to not, you know, like overshoot the reality that is out there in the field, where like I said in the beginning, there is quite a saturation in many industries?

Louis Nicholls 11:37
That is there is a saturation of newsletters. There is definitely the opposite of a saturation, I’d say, a dearth of quality newsletters. I think because a newsletter is really, it’s not information. It’s not news. It’s someone’s point of view. It’s their perspective, it’s their opinion, it’s the relationship with that specific person, right? And that’s each of them is unique. So I don’t think there are too many newsletters. I don’t think people get annoyed by having good quality newsletters. I don’t really know anybody who has too many newsletters in their inbox. What they have is a lot of newsletters in their inbox that just are sort of, you know, not really well thought out summaries of links to blog posts they’re written over the past week or two, right? Or someone else’s written, but not particularly well curated stuff, which is no shame to them. But you know what I mean, there is it’s not the case that like there’s too many newsletters, I don’t think. So setting expectations is a really interesting challenge because on the one hand, I think that well, let me back up quickly on that. So I think there’s two ways that people approach writing a newsletter or approach wanting to build a newsletter. There’s, I think it’d be kind of cool to write some stuff on this topic. How do I do that? Where do I start? How do I make this successful, right? And then there’s also I want to build a newsletter or I want to build a media business and I want it to be big and I want to monetize it. And it’s a serious project. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a labor of love. It’s not kind of an experiment, it’s a real thing. If you’re the second type, where you really want to make this big thing, I think, in general, you should be very, very aggressive. And I think you should look at how people are growing their newsletters today in general and say, no, those goals are way too slow. People who are smart, who figured this out, who are doing this well, are just exploding their audience growth way faster than average. And you should set very, very high expectations. And we can talk about how and why and maybe what that looks like. If you’re more sort of the normal case, where it’s oh, I have some cool ideas. I’d like to write, you know, maybe it’s a blog post or two, but I should probably write that as a newsletter so that I can connect to the audience. And I want that relationship with them directly and build that over time. In that case, what I would normally suggest is just take the path of least resistance, go wherever you can that makes it easy to write and to get into a writing habit. And the most important thing in that case, I think, is to not just write the newsletter, but to share your thoughts very publicly in every public space that you can where your audience hangs out. So if that’s Twitter, great! If that’s LinkedIn, great! If it’s indie hackers, if it’s medium, Facebook groups, wherever it is, wherever your audience is, you want to be having those conversations in public, not just sort of hiding them away in your newsletter because you’re a newsletter writer. I think at the beginning, it’s very important to be everywhere.

Arvid Kahl 14:55
That’s a very interesting insight. Because, I mean, I’m all over the place but that’s because I have a lot of time. Not everybody has the benefit of just spending the whole day in their basement building their media business, right? So I often feel people want to focus and prioritize one thing and you know, owning a list, having a newsletter that they control and where they can essentially say what they want to whoever they want to. That seems interesting, but you’re saying that the newsletter is just one of many ways of distributing your knowledge and the other ways also matter in that sense. Do you have any kind of advice on how to crosslink these things like with the whole flywheel effect, where one source leads to the other? Do you have any expertise in how people can make this work for them?

Louis Nicholls 15:44
Yes, definitely. And we can definitely talk about that, that tends for me to come slightly later, it’s after that initial push, right? So it’s once you get to 100 ish or 200 or so subscribers is when you start to think about those channels in terms of, I have three buckets that I like to set them in, which is basically trading money for new subscribers, trading your time for new subscribers and then putting in investment into flywheels and organic growth, basically, scalable growth. And I think over time, how you invest into those three, your needs change. To begin with, though and again, we’re excluding people who are just look, I want to write some cool stuff. I don’t care how many people read it, right? If you’re one of those people, that’s amazing. That’s not right or wrong, it’s just, you know, go for it. That’s cool. I’m not talking to you now. If you’re talking to someone who really wants to grow a newsletter and get you know, 1000s of subscribers and monetize it and so on, what I would say is, don’t even begin to write the newsletter until you’re really confident that the day that you announce that newsletter in the places where your audience hangs out, just by posting there, you’re going to get at least 100 subscribers. If you don’t have that connection to the audience, if you don’t have the respect in that space, if you don’t know the people well enough that they would be excited to jump on your list, you know, probably 100 or so, you’re probably not ready to write a very good newsletter for them anyway. So I would spend more time learning from them, getting to know them, establishing yourself sort of publicly in that community before you even bother, you know, setting up an ESP and sending an email and all that kind of stuff, really.

Arvid Kahl 17:14
So just like with any other entrepreneurial effort, doing the actual product work is not even the main part of the business. Oh, man! That’s gonna be disappointing for everybody who just wanted to write and send an email just now. But yeah, I get it, obviously, like there’s a lot of preparation to get people excited to then listen to you. And I felt the same way. I think I started my newsletter a couple months after I had my blog going. And the blog was where I already wrote. So the newsletter kind of turned into an extension, a different distribution mechanism for that. But I had the audience that was then interested in not having to go to my blog every week, but getting it in the inbox. So I had my pre warmed and initial seed audience and that grew over time. That’s very interesting. I want to talk about the buckets because I feel this is something that you introduced me to conceptually, just now and you know, in the past through all your writing and the things you’ve been been sharing publicly on Twitter, which by the way, is a great thing to follow you on Twitter because people show it because they like gonna learn a lot from your but the buckets are interesting. Let’s talk about the paid buckets, like the put money into audience growth bucket because as somebody who is on social media a lot having to deal with people who bolster the numbers by buying fake followers and that kind of stuff, that has always been my perspective on buying subscribers. It’s totally wrong. Obviously, it’s not. Like obviously, it’s a continuum. It’s a spectrum. And I wonder, where do you draw the line? Where is like buying access to describers? Where is that click bordering on fake or on over using the means of buying? I don’t know if that makes sense. But like, how much is too much in terms of buying subscribers?

Louis Nicholls 18:55
Yeah, it’s interesting because you’re never buying a subscriber, right? I would never suggest because I mean, you probably could buy subscribers. You could literally go out and buy an email list of 50,000 subscribers and import them into your ESP and send emails to them. It’s probably not very illegal, but I suppose you could literally buy subscribers. I’ve heard some rumors, but actually I won’t share them. But some surprisingly popular large newsletters did do that in the early days and they never talked about it. But you know who you are. I won’t name any names. So actually, that is something that people have done. But I think when you talk about buying subscribers, what you’re really talking about is sort of buying their attention for a second, right? You’re buying the opportunity to get in front of them with something interesting. So in order to then effectively be able to convert them to be a subscriber and for them to then stick around, you still got all of your work ahead of you. You still have to say something interesting to them in that opportunity you’ve paid for to make them want to jump it in the first place. And you still have to then engage them and give them good content because otherwise they’re going to unsubscribe. So if you can do both of those things, then you’re also quite likely to grow well, organically. And really, you have to be, you know, the things you need to do to grow effectively when you have a paid newsletter or when you’re doing paid acquisition is the same stuff that you need to do for organic acquisition. You’re just putting a bit more fuel on the fire, basically, right? So there’s no point, you can’t just rely on paid. And the reason you can’t just purely rely on paid is that with newsletters, you have churn, right? So every time you send an email, people will unsubscribe either because they don’t need it anymore. They’re overwhelmed. They’ve sort of if you have a newsletter, like, you know, like yours, well, maybe they’re just not in a phase of their life where they’re bootstrapping anymore. Maybe they’ve moved, you know, on. They’ve had kids. They’ve, whatever it is.

Arvid Kahl 21:00
That’s awesome. That’s the best kind of churn, right? When people just graduated out of the kind of category that you’re in. Yeah, I love that.

Louis Nicholls 21:07
Exactly. Maybe they’ve built their business, sold it, and they don’t need your advice anymore. Perfect, it was what everyone wants, right? So if you have that as your newsletter grows and grows and grows, more and more people, even if it’s the same percentage of your audience are going to leave, right? If you’re losing 1% every day, you know, that’s when you have 1000 subscribers, that’s 10 subscribers. If you have a million subscribers, that’s what is it 10,000 subscribers? Yeah, every day, so you need to be adding 10,000 subscribers every day at that scale, just to even stay the same size. And if you’re relying completely on paid growth, then that becomes very, very, very expensive. And it doesn’t scale very well. Because to get 10,000 subscribers, you have to pay more per subscriber than to get 5000 in most cases because you’re really scraping the you know, the bottom of the barrel at that point. So you need some sort of inbuilt flywheel as well, some sort of unfair advantage.

Arvid Kahl 22:06
Would you consider this to be like the shareability of a newsletter? Or is it something else, because that’s how I know it from SaaS businesses, right? If the business is so cool that you just want to share it with your peers because it’s going to empower them just as much as you and thereby everybody else, then you kind of, then you want to share it. But there are businesses out there also in the SaaS space, that where you get an edge if you use it and you don’t share it. And so shareability for some businesses is low because you know, if you get an edge over other people, you’re not gonna tell them to use it. So I wanna say, working for a newsletter, what makes the newsletter word of mouth worthy?

Louis Nicholls 22:44
Yeah, so first of all, I don’t think you necessarily need word of mouth. I think for most newsletters, that probably is your opportunity to have an unfair advantage is making a newsletter that’s so good. And having an inbuilt mechanism, whether that’s referrals or just sort of an intrinsic motivation to share that people do. I think that’s the one that pretty much every newsletter unless your newsletter is around like weight loss or job hunting. Really, those are the only two categories I’ve seen where referrals and word of mouth hardly ever works. Everything else, you almost need a strong word of mouth component if you want to grow past a certain point. That said, you could also just have some other unfair advantage, the scalable. For example, you could be amazing at SEO. You could be partnered with a business or newsletter that just has huge amounts of traffic and consent subscribers through to you. You could be a very prolific creator on Twitter or LinkedIn or Instagram or Tiktok or whatever. And just have so much organic traffic and so many organic eyeballs on you that you can use that to get your newsletter growing. So there are different ways you can do it organically without having to pay. But you need some kind of unfair advantage and the one that is most sort of reliable and that everybody can do, especially with a newsletter is I think word of mouth.

Arvid Kahl 24:18
I guess that also feeds into your whole presence on other social media channels, right? If you can empower people to talk about you and share the things that you do, your newsletter is going to be one of those things that they will talk about. I think that is something that I see a lot of creators do pretty well, like they use, like not the user reviews that people give freely, like without being asked as means to get more subscribers and then people use that review itself to explain what the newsletter is to other people. So I guess getting reviews is an interesting thing. We should talk about that, like how would you?I’m a person who wants to get reviews on the newsletter and I don’t get many because people just read them. They’d send me emails telling me oh, yeah, this was great. But they don’t talk about it on social media. How can I kind of encourage them to do that?

Louis Nicholls 25:09
Yeah, that’s I mean, if you want private reviews, normally, you would do that in the context of just asking them to reply directly, right? So I think in the welcome sequence is often the best place to do that. It’s an interesting one because it’s good to collect that information. I often like to do it with a simple sort of yes or no sort of feedback poll. You know, what did you think about this article? What do you think about today, just click on this link. And then when they click on the link, if it’s a good one, obviously, you ask them to say a few words in a text box that they can fill in. If it’s a bad feedback, you ask them why so that you can improve, hopefully. And yeah, that’s one way of getting some of that that private feedback. I think if you want people to share publicly, there’s a couple of things you need to do. Firstly, the most important thing probably is to have a culture of sharing in place. So if your newsletter subscribers, see other subscribers sharing publicly saying it’s amazing and see you thanking them for it, that becomes sort of like the expectation that becomes the culture of your newsletter, basically. And it just feeds off itself. That’s why it’s always so important with a referral program. For example, if someone wins a prize or something, you should always try and get a photo of them with the prize. You should include that in the newsletter. You should say thank you on social media as well just really build in that sort of feedback loop and make it really like the expected thing that everyone else is doing, right? Because back to all that nudge theory stuff from like, what it was, like 10 years ago. After that, you then have a couple of different things, right? Well, you have to make it super easy for people to share and to say thank you and say what they like about it. So you should suggest something for them to say. And you should give them a one click option to share that, then you should also tell them or make it easy for them to know where they should share or who they should share with, right? So they don’t have to think about any of this stuff, you should say, you know, be very specific. Go and tell your friends on Twitter or share with your best work colleague or whatever it is something like that. And make it incredibly easy. Give them the message that you want them to say. And then you want an incentive. And ideally, you’d have a mix of both an intrinsic incentive and an extrinsic incentive. So a reason not from outside, like just a reason why it’s good for them to share, even if they weren’t being given anything. Plus, then also something on top that they’ll get if they do share basically.

Arvid Kahl 27:47
It’s always been a problem for me coming from the engineering background, where we’ve been taught by, not gonna name the universities and places that taught me that, but that all marketing is bad and all asking people to do something for you is equally bad. Like it’s kind of build it and they will come apply to everything else, which is horribly wrong. So I always struggle a lot with asking people to give me something in return for something that I gave them, which is why I don’t have anything like this in my newsletter because I fear probably on a very subconscious level that just asking them will make them not like the work that I put in there. How can I overcome this? Like, I know I’m almost there, but I still don’t have it in my newsletter. How can I make this an easy choice for myself as the creator to make asking people easier for me?

Louis Nicholls 28:42
It’s a good question. I mean, why are you happy to charge money for your products and services, then if you’re not happy to ask people to, you know, to take actions in return for something?

Arvid Kahl 28:57
I know that this is like a mental model that is kind of wrong that I have of my regular work, my writing every week. I feel like with the books and with the course, there’s been this kind of discrete event, right? You built the thing, you finish it up, you edit it, you polish it, and then you put it out. Obviously, I did all of this in public. So I know that work in progress stuff was perfectly fine and people are happy with it. But for this kind of periodical that my newsletter is on my podcast I have a hard time asking. So bizarre. I have no problem asking for sponsors. They pay me money to be in there.

Louis Nicholls 29:31

Arvid Kahl 29:31
But I have a hard time asking the individual reader to give me some of their credibility towards their audience. It’s kind of bizarre. I don’t know, I wish I knew how to overcome this easily or not even have this problem, but I feel I don’t want to intrude on our relationship that I have with this person reading my stuff. I don’t want to commercialize it at this very moment where they’ve just read something that might inspire them to do whatever they want to do in their business. So maybe that’s what it is. I don’t want to, there’s a sanctity to them reading my newsletter. That’s how I feel. And what I’m very grateful for them spending 10 to sometimes 20 minutes going through the whole thing that I came up with that week. And then I don’t want to cheapen it. That’s my perspective. But is it cheapening the experience? What do you think?

Louis Nicholls 30:20
Oh, I mean, I’m sure there are ways that you could make it cheapening the experience depending on how you would incentivize people, right?

Arvid Kahl 30:28

Louis Nicholls 30:28
Definitely! I don’t think those would be particularly effective, I think. So with your kind of newsletter, I mean, if you think about it sort of from the creators perspective, you’ve invested a lot of time into creating something really useful for these people and it’s free and you want to get in front of more of the same kind of person to help them. So this person has now received this really useful, you know, really interesting article from you completely free. You’re not saying you have to go and share this. You’re not saying you have to pay for it, you’re not saying you know, you have to do this. What you’re saying is, look, if you enjoyed this, if you know someone else who would find this helpful, it would be great for me if you would help get this in front of them. It would be a nice kind thing to do for them as well to put this in front of them. And it would just mean a lot to me if you want to say thank you to me. You know, I don’t want you to give me $5 via tip jar. I don’t want you to whatever else they could do purchase something. I would just really appreciate it if you would share it with someone who’s going to get value out of it. I don’t want you to put your credibility on the line. Definitely not! I don’t want you to say something that’s not true. I don’t want you to annoy people in your audience. I just want you to know, if you have an audience that you think would find this fun. Even if you literally just DM one or two people who you know, are working on something similar and we get value out of it, why not share with them? It’s good for them. It’s good for everybody. And it’s really nice way of making me feel good about making this content. Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything. There is nothing wrong with that. I mean, I can understand sort of that the mental hurdle of feeling like you’re maybe asking something, but I don’t think there’s any real issue with it.

Arvid Kahl 30:38
Yeah, because there’s also a relationship that we already have, right? It’s not just that they collect the thing and then click the confirmation email. They willingly read the thing before and they have for often weeks, months, sometimes years been reading my newsletters. I think what I have to overcome is the fact that it is fine to ask, it is not fine to force to push, but it’s fine to just ask, right? Because what’s the problem with that, really? And I kind of want to transition to another topic here because it just came came up in my mind. Because we were just talking about having a relationship built already and having people transact. They read I sent, they read I sent back and forth and we’re building this rapport with each other. I would call this a very warm, maybe even a hot relationship because there’s this constant thing going on. But there’s one thing, which is quite the opposite of that, that I really, really don’t like. And it’s also email related. It’s the cold email. I kind of want to talk to you about this because you probably have some experience in what makes a good or a really bad cold email. And one question that I always wanted to ask you over the last couple of months. I’ve been been thinking about you as the person that could probably give me the best answer to this is why do people send emails that they wouldn’t open themselves? What is going on in our like marketing community with that?

Louis Nicholls 33:35
It’s a good question. I don’t send emails that I wouldn’t open myself. I don’t think many successful people do. And I think where this comes from, you have to sort of take a step back and think about where if you look at bootstrapped founders today, solo founders, indie hackers, where we learnt marketing and the people we’ve looked up to because bootstrapping was a relatively new thing. And you have some examples of sort of odd ones out who didn’t do this, but very, very few. Really, the majority of us who are working in sort of software today, where we learnt marketing and sales is from VC backed companies about 10, 12 years ago, roughly, is when that started happening, right? That’s where the playbooks came from people get predictable revenue. And the, you know, I’m blanking on the names of the books, but Gabriel Weinberg spoken all those traction and all those different books, right? It’s all from those sort of VC backed playbooks where they had a very particular challenge. Someone gives them a bunch of money and says, you’ve got to show results in x months, so that you can raise more money so that you can then show more results and have more money to show more results, right? So you’re on the clock then and the rules that apply to you there. Don’t apply to us with more calm bootstrap businesses. Because what you have to do in that market, if someone gives you $10 million in sales, you have six months to get as many customers as possible. The logical thing to do is to email everybody who might even possibly be a customer. And just pray and pray and hope that you hit that 1% who were ready to convert today totally makes it’s not really ethical or moral. But it makes sense from like a logical business perspective to do that if that’s your goal, right? Obviously, for us, we’re not trying to do that. We’re not trying to annoy 99% of the market and get 1% to buy, right? That’s not very useful for us long term with our businesses. But we don’t know any better, right? If you go and look for cold email examples, it’s from the people who were doing it back then. So that’s really I think, where it comes from for us. And then also, you’ll have you know, scammers and people who are offshoring. And they just have to do the spray and pray because they don’t have any other way of doing it basically. They don’t have any way of prospecting or qualifying. It’s just how their business models work.

Arvid Kahl 36:01
Yeah, it’s funny, how you mentioned like the VC world as the origin of this, that makes a lot of sense. Like, if you think that a successful business will be one in 100, then you have no problem emailing 100 people only expecting one to convert. That’s very different for people who want to build like sustainable revenue focused businesses where every potential interaction is important, not just because you might make money, but just for the social trust that you might establish, even with the person that you treat well when they say no and them talking to their peers. I think email blasts like this, they just destroy so much more than they do good for you if you write cold emails as a founder and thanks for saying this. That makes a lot of sense to understand where this is coming from. And it probably also explains why all cold emails look the exact same, right? Like there are people all using the same weird handbooks from the late 90s, that’s what it is.

Louis Nicholls 36:58
They’re changing, right? So cold email has diverged over the last, I want to say probably since about 2016. And it’s going in two directions. So firstly, is quickly on that the reason that all cold email annoys you and looks terrible is because I’m not picking on you here. But it happens to me, it you happens to everybody. You only notice that some things are cold email when it annoys you and feels terrible because that’s how you expect to feel when they’re cold emails. So if someone says to you and they’re like, I don’t know you. But hey, I’m working on this thing that I heard you talk about this on the podcast. And it’s really cool. Can I just send through a demo or something? That’s not a cold email to you. That’s some guy who listens to your podcast. And once you meet back and you think it’s really cool, but it is a cold email is just a good one, right?

Arvid Kahl 37:45

Louis Nicholls 37:46
It’s not the case, it’s the same thing as like, all advertising doesn’t annoy you. You buy stuff from ads all the time. It’s just the ones that you see and recognize as advertising are the ones that annoy you. So you think they all annoy you, right? It’s the exact same thing. But when it comes to cold emails, exactly, yeah. It’s not even just obvious. It’s just the ones that are bad, right? You notice advertising when it’s bad or you notice it as advertising, either when it’s bad or when it’s spectacularly good in a way that’s meant to make you notice that it’s good advertising, basically, right? But yeah, when it comes back to cold emails is basically splitting up into two ways. So on the one hand, is the approach that I really prefer because it’s what I’m better at and I think is slightly just better for the world in general, which is to say, no outreach should be cold outreach, it should become warm outreach. So you should learn a lot more about the people you’re emailing or messaging. You probably shouldn’t be emailing them, in most cases, you should be messaging them somewhere else. And it should feel almost like a warm outreach. They shouldn’t feel like someone’s messaging them out of the blue. It should feel genuine and they shouldn’t notice it as cold outreach basically should be very, not personalized. I don’t like personalized because I think someone would say they need personal, right? So it should feel personal, should feel unique, should feel legitimate. The other approach is to say, we’re going into this arms race of escalating personalization, basically, where you try and trick people. So it started in like 2012-2013 was like, hey, first name, how are things going at company, right? And that was kind of new and exciting. So people thought, oh, this person must really know me. And then of course, now everyone’s cottoned on and you’re probably better off not mentioning that stuff. Because as soon as someone says, hey, first name, reaching out to your company, you know it’s a cold email. You know they haven’t looked at it because no human speaks like that, actually. So it’s almost backfired. So now they’ve moved on to including, like artificially generated images, right? Whether it’s like a screenshot with their name on it or something, which again, worked for a while, people got wise to it. So they’ve had to escalate that now to videos that are dynamically generated, where the name is inserted with, you know, the text to speech with the person’s voice and all that kind of stuff. So they have to keep escalating that sort of arms race and they’re gonna reach a point where, well, either AI can successfully do cold outreach for us, which I doubt is gonna happen anytime soon. But I’m not an expert or you know, you’re gonna get diminishing results there. And all the time, the same people have just been plodding away and actually understanding their audience and doing personal outreach have been getting really good results.

Arvid Kahl 40:23
Yeah, the emails that I look at are the ones that don’t feel personalized. But the ones that feel personal, I think that’s a big distinction that it feels hard to accept as a technologist, right? Because everything we do, everything we touch is like, can we automate it? Can we turn this into a process that we can like, outsource to some technology somewhere and then in the end, it’s really not about that. It’s about building a relationship, building a warm connection to a person and using the tools we have to amplify it, instead of like overcoming it, right? You don’t want to not have that connection. You want to keep the connection, but you want to use the tools to make it easier. Thanks for that. That’s a really good distinction. That makes a lot of sense.

Louis Nicholls 41:04
If you’re doing cold outreach, this is something I used to say in my I used to teach a course on sales for founders, mainly for technical founders. And what I used to say was, the actual message component of your outreach probably is only really affecting about 20% of the outcome, it’s really not the most important part. It’s all of the context around that message that is important. Which is why if you’re reaching out, say, if I’m reaching out to you and I email you from Louis at SparkLoop.app and let’s say we don’t know each other, right? Pretend this is a horrible world in which we’ve never become friends and the bad timeline, the darkest timeline, right? So let’s pretend that for a second. So I email you from Louis at SparkLoop.app. You don’t know who I am. Maybe, you know, you haven’t really come across SparkLoop before for some reason. It could be a really good message, but you’re not really giving me any credibility. I’m in your inbox, it probably means I want something from you. Other things are in your inbox. Yeah, there’s not much context to me. If I DM you on Twitter, you’re gonna go and you’re gonna see oh, there’s this guy. He’s on Twitter. So he follows me on Twitter. That’s kind of cool. He’s been following me for a while really interesting. Maybe we’ve interacted before with a like or a comment or something, but in a genuine way, you know, that comes across and you don’t remember me, but sort of there’s a good impression there. And so you check out my profile. Who is this person? What does this person want? Again, you don’t follow me, we don’t know each other. But you see 10 people that I follow and I really respect follow this person. You’re going to read my message to the end, just in case, basically, in case you’re missing out on something that’s a friend of a friend and they’ve told you to recommend them or you know, there’s credibility there. And I think that’s the key part, right? It’s that the context of the message is so much more important than the message itself.

Arvid Kahl 42:57
So a good message is never cold. It’s always like swimming in this lukewarm kind of contextualized world, where you kind of know or at least you have a way to backtrack to a person that you know and trust. And like social trust is everything, right? Establishing the kind of peer to peer trust system, which is why cold email to me, obviously does not include the things that are not cold, right? So the messages that people send in a smart way. Because I know that people send like, my inbox is usually other people’s to do lists, I’m aware of that. That’s how it works. But if I know that I can help them, they can help me, it’s a whole different conversation than hello, first name in weird brackets, right? With the font of my name and my business is different than the font of the rest of the email, that kind of stuff. You know, it’s kind of she has low effort, you call it that and also no connection and where there’s no connection, I don’t want to build one. It’s kind of up to them to build one with me before they asked me something. Yeah, makes a lot of sense. I would like to get to the connection thing again because I wanted to talk to you about owning the list. That’s something that you hear all the time, own the list, own the list. What do you think about platforms out there, like Revue or Substack these kinds of things? And with Revue in particular, as it is winding down supposedly, like supposed to go away? Do you think it’s a risky thing for people to use these kind of all inclusive platforms? Is that something that you see as a potential platform risk where email supposedly was like not prone to be risky? And in that regard, what do you think about these platforms?

Louis Nicholls 44:42
Oh, we’re getting political in my space. I need to be careful here. Don’t wanna annoy anybody, you know.

Arvid Kahl 44:52

Louis Nicholls 44:53
So no, no, I’m joking. So, I mean, Revue is winding down now, right? So I think there’s shades of gray here, right? It’s not black and white. I think in general, if you’re just starting out, just go with whatever, it doesn’t matter. Just start writing. If you’re not sure, if you want to run a newsletter or if it’s gonna be big, just go somewhere that you can start writing. Again, the most important thing is to be present in your sort of in your community anyway, so where you write isn’t a huge deal in the beginning. That does change, but changes later, if you know you want to build up the newsletter business. You really want to choose a platform that’s going to make sense for you. Because what happens over time, is what I call kind of like salami tactics or small cuts, right? If you choose an all in one platform, for example and it doesn’t do everything that you’ll need later, you’re never faced with this sort of decision point where this one small thing that you want to change right now is worth the effort of moving everything to this different platform that supports it. But over time, each week, each month, you’ll be faced with 10, 100 overtime of these small decisions, each one of them after the other. So it’s never quite by itself justification to move, but you end up being 10 or 100 times worse off, basically. So that’s like the business perspective on why you should be very, very careful with these all in one platforms, right? Is the water will be sort of slowly warming up and you won’t be able to jump out because it’s never quite big enough temperature change to get you worried. But in the end, you end up someone’s dinner basically. That’s the business perspective, the sort of the worry about the relationships, I don’t think you own your audience, obviously. You don’t own really the list, but you own your relationship with your audience, right? You own those contact details and you can decide what to do with them. And I don’t think Revue was an issue there, really, obviously, that’s why it was winding down even less so. Because I mean, they were just an ESPN for all intents and purposes. They didn’t insert themselves between you and your subscriber. They were very clear about that. It’s your subscriber, you own the relationship, we don’t email them on your behalf, we don’t consider them our subscribers. That’s fine. That’s great. I think you need backups anyway, just in case something changes, like with a Revue, like when MailChimp for example for Russians, right? Rightly or wrongly, just decided no Russians can get access to their MailChimp account and can’t even export their subscribers to some somewhere else. Yeah, that’s an interesting thing they did. So you always want to have a backup. But at the same time, if you look then at something like a Substack, for example. That’s basically saying, look, we’re giving you all this stuff for free. And we have some very interesting language around like, these are your subscribers, but we also kind of call them our subscribers. And we’re a newsletter platform when you sign up. But we’re also saying that we’re not a newsletter platform. We’re a platform where creators can grow their audiences or connect or users can connect with great writing or whatever they’re calling it today, I don’t know. But the point is very clearly that they email, they consider your subscribers to also be their subscribers and then not very clear that they will always consider your subscribers to be your subscribers and that you will not always necessarily have the option to export that direct relationship with those subscribers and move it somewhere else. So personally, with that kind of platform, with platforms where they do everything all in one, you do have to kind of say, well, if I’m giving you the way that like you own the way that I make money, you own the relationship with my customers and my subscribers, you can contact them on your behalf without asking me. Are they my subscribers? Or are they your subscribers? And I’m sort of borrowing them? I’d be very worried about that if I paid any attention over the last 10, 12 years. What happened with Facebook and everything like that.

Arvid Kahl 48:57
Yeah, borrowed audiences always have the risk, right? You have these great synergy effects in there because they can suggest cool things. And they can make things happen because they own the network between people. But yeah, ownership is like hertz concept on other people’s platforms, right? That gets it’s always a pretty good idea to find a way to export things reliably. I personally believe that you should do this on a monthly basis. And you never know what might happen, right? It’s like the Russia thing with MailChimp. Yes, is one of the biggest examples here. Good, good to know that you see those risks as well because I was wondering about it. And I wanted to see about your perspective from somebody who’s been talking to a lot of newsletter creators. Wow. Thank you so much, man for sharing all these things today. That was a lot of good new set of stuff. A lot of good email stuff. And even some sass insight that was a wonderful conversation. Where do you want people to go to find you, follow you and give you access to their email inboxes?

Louis Nicholls 49:57
Oh, well, I mean, I would love for you to connect with me on Twitter is probably the best place to find me. I’m sure you can stick a link in the show notes. So people don’t have to decipher my name, how it’s spelt is a little bit weird.

Arvid Kahl 50:09

Louis Nicholls 50:10
And then otherwise, if you’re interested in newsletters and you would like to grow your own one faster, I don’t think you necessarily need to go and sign up for SparkLoop straightaway. But the Send and Grow newsletter that we send out every week is I think, pretty good. I write it myself. And

Arvid Kahl 50:26
It’s great!

Louis Nicholls 50:27
I think it’s a worthwhile read.

Arvid Kahl 50:28
Oh, it definitely is. I’m subscribed and I can tell you it’s pretty good. So yeah, go ahead, like follow him on Twitter and sign up to his wonderful newsletter and check out SparkLoop. It’s really cool. I use it. It’s wonderful tool. Thanks so much for being on the show today.

Louis Nicholls 50:43
Thanks for having me, Arvid. It’s been great to catch up again.

Arvid Kahl 50:46

And that’s it for today. Thank you for listening to The Bootstrapped Founder. You can find me on Twitter @arvidkahl. You’ll find my books and my Twitter course there as well. If you wanna support me and this show, please subscribe to my YouTube channel, get the podcast in your podcast player of choice and leave a rating and a review by going to (http://ratethispodcast.com/founder). Any of this will really help the show. So thank you for listening and have a wonderful day! Bye bye

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