[LAST EDITED: 12/13/2020]
So this is my first “real” edition of Behind the Curtain after its slight pivot to focus solely on building Snowball. As a short reminder, Snowball is a newsletter (paid and free) about personal finance written in French.
My vision is to make it grow and to turn it into something way bigger than just a newsletter.
I’ll show you how this vision materialize. In short, you’ll see the story of Snowball unfolding in front of your eyes.
I’ll mainly look backward, but many times I’ll share with you my vision of the future. Of couuuuuuuurse, I know! We can’t predict the future. Yes, but having a north star is always a good idea to walk in the right direction. From time to time you might find an Oasis, or a very deep hole that might change your course, but the star is still there, guiding you in the right direction.
This edition will focus on the genesis of Snowball, before I knew I’d turn it into a bigger project. For your information, here’s a timeline of Snowball, you can see the important events underscored in pink:
👉 Today we will focus on the period ranging from January 2020 to April 2020, which encompasses:
Detecting a demand & offer signal: the YOLO Report.
Starting to build the project: finding the right medium, the right tool, and making sure this project is aligned with my “personal vision”.
Validating the demand: my first Linkedin post about Snowball.
Validating an early PMF (Product/Market Fit): my first edition of Snowball.
Let’s dive in. 🐳
Detecting a demand & offer signal
I’m currently reading a nice book about content called Content Inc. Pretty basic stuff inside if you’ve already been bathing in the marketing/content world for a while, but for the others, that’s a pretty great read. Anyway, there’s a nice diagram inside the book:
The author focuses on content when he talks about this diagram, but I believe you can apply it to basically anything. Your job, your side projects, your hobbies, and the company you’re launching.
Keep that in mind, we’ll come back to it later.
There are different ways to launch a company or a project:
Sometimes it’s because you know something the others don’t. For instance, you know that people will surely one day accept strangers in their house. That’s what the Airbnb co-founders knew. Or at least persuaded themselves they knew. That’s the Peter Thiel way of launching a company.
Or because there’s an existing product in a different country or region, but not where you operate. Your business is a copycat of another business. That’s the Rocket Internet way of doing business.
From time to time, it’s just because you want to build your own version of a business.
Some people just love to operate a business and could launch basically anything (pretty close to the copycat folks).
Other times it’s because you accidentally discover a demand that matches something you’re passionate about.
You guessed it, I’m part of the last group. But how did I discover that demand?
Right here —> The YOLO Report 2019.
Every year, I write a complete Year in Review of what happened in my life from a data standpoint. 2019 was the first year I added a personal finance section:
After writing this report and sharing it on social networks, I received more than 20 messages from both people I knew, and I didn’t know at all asking me questions about investing.
When that many people ask you the same question at such a low scale, well, believe me, there might be a gap in the market that you could fill.
The seed was planted in my brain. I could not stop thinking about it.
What could I do with this signal?
Starting to build Snowball
Making sure it’s aligned with what I want to do
Remember that diagram I showed you up there 🔼?
At the university, I found a passion for Economics and finance. Pretty quickly I started to get into the personal finance world and investing. I learned by doing. I was lucky enough to be in the US during the subprimes crisis in 2008. As you may know, the stock market shot up after this financial crisis, it was a great moment to get into it. Of course, one thing led to another and I got interested in everything closely or loosely related to wealth management.
Personal finance became a topic I was knowledgeable about.
In the meantime, I nurtured my passion to build stuff. Since I was a kid, I always loved to build things. Physical, or virtual. I guess I have to thank my elementary school teacher who made us build a website back in the early 90s, and my parents for feeding my love of constructing stuff (especially rockets). This passion grew up and matured with me. I still love to build rockets, but I feel more inclined towards web entrepreneurship (even though I’m a huge fan of SpaceX).
After my experience at Withings, I deeply thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and I even wrote an article about it in February 2019. Here’s an extract:
For me, this happened right after quitting my first job. Quitting a job and the following months are usually dedicated to some king of discovery/introspective period.
Not knowing exactly what you want to do and reflecting upon this, is probably the best way to find your vision.
For 6 months I thought about either launching my own company in the insurance landscape or joining an early stage venture.
In order to choose I deeply thought about what I wanted to achieve by picking one choice or the other.
After a while the answer became clearer and clearer: I wanted people to remember me for re-inventing the most important experiences of their lives such as Work, Finance, Education, Housing, Transportation, etc.
This did not come from anywhere but from a reflection I had one day while walking around in Paris with a beer in my hand.
(Yes beer walks, as I call them, are usually pretty intense introspection moments for me)
I asked myself a simple question:
Why, when we grow up, do we lose our child spirit, naiveté, and I-can-do-anything way of thinking? Why do we lose this crazy creativity?
The answer is pretty complex and I clearly don’t know it but intuitively I can comfortably say that education, pressure from society, financial constraints, the need to adapt to a complex world, and various fears surrounding our adult lives are responsible for losing this creative mind.
And god knows how this creativity will be important for us in the future. Please read this article by Dustin Timbrook: Want Your Children to Survive The Future? Send Them to Art School.
The question I came upon was: how can we try not to kill this creativity while growing up?
The answer to this question would become my vision.
My vision is to re-invent experiences or create new ones in order for people to live a simpler life allowing them to focus on and/or enhance and sustain their creativity as they grow up
This personal finance project was therefore totally aligned with what I wanted to do in my life, what I knew, and what I was passionate about.
I found the sweet spot at the crossroad of passion and knowledge. Remember that at this time, it was just a side project. Not an entrepreneurial project. But still, this topic quietly started to consume me.
The following question was. What kind of form will this project take?
Finding the right medium
Education was probably the easiest problem I could tackle in the personal finance realm. Education, therefore content, was also the easiest way to start building a community, and a brand.
On top of that, the initial investment needed to get started is very low. It’s basically free (except your time of course), and super easy today thanks to all the amazing tools the internet gave us.
Starting to build a community was something super important for me. If you build a strong community that believes in you, it’s not only super gratifying but also super powerful for your future growth. Look at Notion, Roam, or Apple. Building a super strong community, almost a cult, is an amazing unfair advantage and a moat for your company.
Education + community = written content. At least in my head, because I’m someone who favors written communication over oral communication. Podcasts, and videos were out of the equation.
Written content = blog OR newsletter OR both. Hard choice. Especially if it’s a side project, and you need to find the right tools.
Well, well, well…
Somebody made writing a blog, sending a newsletter, and building a community way easier than it was a couple of years ago: you guessed it. 👇
My colleague and friend, Benjamin Perrin who was our copywriter at Comet introduced me to Substack (if you read french please subscribe to his great newsletter Plumes with Attitudes).
I quickly fell in love with the product that was like the perfect child of a Medium that married a Mailchimp: a super-easy way to send emails while building a blog for free (their business model charges you only when you turn on the paid button for your subscribers.).
Substack would become my tool. I did not look for alternatives very long as I wanted to build something fast and to start receiving feedback from the market.
💡 Finding a name: at that point I had to find a name for my newsletter. It took me approximately 15 minutes to find it. I wanted something that could be easily pronounced in french and in other countries if I ever expand one day. The Snowball is the title of Warren buffet biography I read a few years ago. This title would resonate pretty well in the personal finance world, and on top of that, the universe you can build around the it is pretty interesting.
Validating the demand
Receiving a few messages from people asking me questions about investing was a first validation, but not a real one. It was more like a weak signal.
Before launching (and writing a single line of text) I decided back in February to write a Linkedin post.
What was my main goal at this stage?
To build a waiting list in order to see if people were interested in this kind of personal finance content. I basically pitched Snowball, teased a little bit, and asked people to like and comment if they wanted to receive a message when I’d actually launch the Newsletter. Here’s the original Linkedin message if you read french. This post garnered more than 1k likes and 1k comments:
The demand was there. If with my tiny network, I was able to gather more than 1,000 people to read my newsletter without being an expert, I knew I was into something.
I really want to highlight the fact that you DO NOT NEED more than 1k likes or comments on a LinkedIn post to start a project. Even if 40 people are interested or even 10 depending on the topic, that’s a pretty good signal. Don’t try to copy me. Just steal and adapt to your own case. When I wrote this post, I had more than 20k connections and followers on Linkedin so keep that in mind! If you don’t reach the same numbers, maybe it’s not because of your idea.
Validating an early Product/Market Fit
At this stage, I had what we can call an idea/market fit. I had an idea, and the market seemed to like it.
I did not know if people would like my content, I did not know if I would turn it into a paid subscription, hell! I didn’t even know what would my first edition of Snowball be about!
There was no product/market fit at all. The only way to crash test this was to write and send the first edition of Snowball.
Before that, I had to turn my waiting list on this LinkedIn post into real subscribers. How did I achieve that (+ a bonus)?
I wrote a new LinkedIn post saying that the subscriptions were open with the link of the newsletter in the comment:
At that point, I even teased a paid version asking people to comment if they’d be interested in beta-testing a weird paid version of Snowball (“paid, but that does not cost anything” was my catchphrase. It turned out not to be far away from the truth haha!). Around 100 people commented so I had a waiting list of potential paid users. Boom.
Thanks to a Linkedin automation tool called Linkedhelper, I collected all that people who liked my very first post, and I directed them to this new post asking them to like it in order to increase the reach of the post, and of course, I also asked them to subscribe to Snowball via the Substack link.
As you can see below, it helped me to reach more than 500 subscribers almost instantly. Without even writing a single edition of this newsletter.
People were interested in the idea. ✅
People were willing to enter their email address to receive some content from someone they never read before. ✅
Now I had to validate the product/market fit of the real content.
Many people ask me for advice about writing content. As I said earlier, I’m not an expert. I’m not a copywriter even though I like to write, but I can give you a few general advice that might help you to resonate with your audience:
Be opinionated. Just like a visual identity can differentiate your brand from another, your opinions can differentiate you from other writers or entrepreneurs. It’ll help you to create and gather a community around your project.
Write (almost) as you talk. Don’t write a master’s thesis, please. You need to put your soul in your content so don’t hesitate to trade perfection for authenticity most of the time.
Avoid jargon and acronyms.
Use a lot of metaphors and images.
So what did I do for this first edition?
Just like I did today for this article.
I opened Substack, found a topic I’d cover, and I started to write.
I did not plan anything, I didn’t write a plan or did preliminary research. I just started to write and researched things along the road. The plan naturally came to me.
I’m not saying it’ll be like that for you as many people need a nice architecture and a well-thought plan to start producing content, but I’m also saying that maybe you don’t need one… It’s always easy to hide behind a plan and to wait until you believe the plan is perfect. But you know what? It’ll never be perfect. So you’d better off starting doing things in order to gather feedback from your users/readers/clients…
That’s what I did, and this first edition was a true success! I received almost 30 likes on Substack, which is a lot when you look at other successful newsletters with way more subscribers than I had at this time.
For instance, Exponential View, which is a newsletter with hundreds of thousands of subscribers:
And the most important part: I received dozens of emails from subscribers telling me how much they liked this first edition:
🇫🇷 Merci pour ton email que j’attendais avec impatience et bravo pour le contenu.
🇺🇸 Thank you for your email which I was waiting for with impatience and congrats for the content.
🇫🇷 Un énorme merci pour ton travail et ta démarche, c'est vraiment le genre de trucs de la vie qu'on t'apprends pas à l'école et pourtant si précieux ! Je vais suivre à fond. Et je suis convaincu que ca m'apportera beaucoup
🇺🇸 A huge thank you for your work and your approach, it's really the kind of life tricks you don't learn at school and yet so precious! I will follow it up. And I'm convinced that it will bring me a lot.
🇫🇷 Merci beaucoup pour cette newsletter! J'attends celle de la semaine prochaine avec impatience 🙂
🇺🇸 Thank you very much for this newsletter! I look forward to next week's newsletter 🙂
That’s it, I had some kind of product/market fit!
It’s probably at this very moment that I knew I was into something bigger than I had expected…
You can read the second part of this launch here.
That’s it for today! Next time we will focus on launching the paid version. I’ll share with you some pricing tips and tools, the questionnaire I sent to users, and why I built the Snowflakes system.
I hope you liked this first edition of Behind the Curtain. My goal is really to be transparent about Snowball since I’m pretty sure that transparency always creates some kind of opportunities.
Don’t hesitate to transfer this email to your friends. :)
As usual, if you liked this edition, please click on the little heart. It’ll help me to gauge how much you like (or dislike) what I’m writing:
And finally, remember that I’ll always reply to your emails! If you have a comment or a feedback, you can always hit the reply button, and your message will land in my personal inbox.
Have a wonderful day.