💰Why & How I Monetized My Newsletter Snowball

Hi everybody!

I hope you’re doing great!

So where were we? Last week I told you how I got the idea from a tiny signal, how I got my first subscribers, and how I validated some kind of Product-Market fit. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you to do so in order to better understand today’s issue.

Today, I’ll focus on the monetization part of the story. This part of the timeline:

👉 Today we will focus on the period ranging from April 2020 to June 2020, there’s a little mistake in the timeline above. Anyway, here’s what we will cover today:

  • Why going paid?

  • How to split Snowball in 2 (free vs paid): how to define the added value of the paid version?

  • How to price Snowball?

  • The launch of the paid version

  • Why going all-in? From a side project to a project

Let’s get to it! 🎯


Why going paid?

I’m not sure there’s a universal answer here, but let me tell you why I did it.

First, when you see that people like what you do at scale (meaning more than just your best friends, and parents), it’s natural to think about how you could make money out of it. Especially if you spend a lot of time doing it. Your time has value, and you should always remember this! Always think about the opportunity cost of doing something instead of something else. Which tasks have more value? Keep that in mind. 👇:

Second, because let’s face it, charging something, and being paid for the stuff you’ve built is extremely fun and fulfilling. I did not know what kind of feeling I’d have to expect, but I knew that this would make me feel great. Not because I greedily love money, that’s not really the case, I’m more into freedom, but because this money you receive from strangers is a sign of the underlying value you are offering to them.

When something is free, it’s hard to see the value you’re offering, but when someone has to take out her credit card to pay for something, you know that you’re truly adding value (most of the time, it’s not a universal truth. Think about addictive products).

Third, really linked to the first point, I was actually waiting for reaching 1,000 free subscribers to start to really think about monetizing the newsletter. This point was reached on the 29th of March time or about a month after the official launch of Snowball.

That’s when the monetizing gears started to spin.

I won’t hide the fact that I thought about monetization before that moment, I did not think about it overnight, but it wasn’t formal thoughts.

Now, let me tell you how I split Snowball in two: the free version, and the paywalled one.

How to split Snowball in 2 (free vs paid): how to define the added value of the paid version?

Before even starting Snowball, I had this vision of launching something around the investing universe that would be free, but paid, yeah. Free, but paid. 🤷‍♀️

Like everybody, I have quite a few thoughts running through my mind. One day I thought about making people pay for a newsletter in which I’d show them how I invest their money, and I would give them 100 % back + a part of the profit I’d make in a year. If I lose money, that’d be on me.

Remember that life is not like a box of chocolate but more like a video game…

You walk around, pick up some items you have no idea what they’re made for, and at one point in your life you’re in front of a problem, a situation, or a choice to make. You check inside your items’ vault, and you realize how important this item you picked a few days, months, or years ago was in order to solve this situation.

This idea about investing people’s money was some kind of item in my video game.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to create a strong brand and a system that would make the community more involved in the overall business, and a system that would align their interests with mine.

I actually started from there when I thought about the paid version of Snowball.

How could I build such a system?

I’ve always been a big fan of transparency in business because it can inspire people, and it’s also a way to receive more feedback from the outside world. That’s actually, and partially why you’re reading these words right now.

I knew I wanted to share my financial figures (revenues, number of paid subscribers, etc.).

I also knew I wanted to redistribute a part of my profits to people.

My first idea was to give back these profits to an organization dedicated to education. I kept that idea for later.

But this idea led to another.

What if I considered Snowball like a startup, and my readers like startup employees, or Snowball like a company, and readers like shareholders?

Bingo!

My cashback system was born.

I would give 20% of my profits to an organization (or create my own), and 20% to my paid subscribers through a system similar to a startup equity framework.

This system, in my opinion, is extremely virtuous:

  1. It fits perfectly well in my personal finance/investing universe and brand

  2. It’s a bit geeky and makes people think. When people think, they usually build a stronger bond with your product and brand

  3. It aligns my interest (making Snowball bigger and more impactful for society), and my paid subscribers’ interest (accessing valuable content at a lower price thanks to cashback). Indeed, the bigger Snowball becomes, the more cashback paid subscribers will get. It’s not a Ponzi scheme at all if you’re asking yourself the question ;)

  4. It’s original and different, which creates more word of mouth

This “feature” of the paid version would not be the most valuable feature for me, but the most striking, the cherry on top of the cake that people notice, the “wow” feature.

To summarize it, when you subscribe to the paid version you receive some “equity”, a number of “shares” (they’re not real shares), based on your rank as a subscriber. The first 200 paid subscribers would get 600 shares, from 200 to 500 paid subscribers 300 shares, and so on.

Then me, myself, and I brainstormed a little bit to think about other “features” that could differentiate the paid version from the free one.

Here you need to understand that in the newsletter world, it’s usually commonly accepted that you need to make your best content free. That’s why I chose to keep my 2 long-form guide-like issues per month free. They would become the freemium version of Snowball adding enough value for people to stay, and enough value to make them think that maybe there could be even more value behind the paywall (there actually is more value behind the paywall if you wonder), but it was fine to stay on the freemium side. I did not want to rush people or to be too pushy.

So I listed everything and I came up with this list in my Notion dedicated to Snowball. sorry for the Frenglish:

I was seeing everything clearer at this point.

I just had to make this list final before thinking about the pricing and to validate these features with potential subscribers. Talking about pricing. 👇

How to price Snowball?

Pricing… When you start digging, you fall into a deep, deep, deep rabbit hole. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would make this premium version free for students and people facing financial issues.

I can’t tell you how much time I spent playing with my Gsheet to make some kind of projections. Playing with the price, with conversion hypothesis, with growth hypothesis, with the cashback system…

I probably lost a couple of days (48 FULL HOURS) in front of this Gsheet, but at one point I just had to drag myself out of it and to start acting instead of thinking.

Remember the Steve Jobs quote that says:

You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Well. Remember when I told you that when I officially launched the free subscriptions for Snowball on Linkedin I also teased people about a paid version (I had no idea, but it was just in case), and asked them to comment if they’d be interested in it?

Well…

…Another item I picked in my vault!

Based on this wonderful spreadsheet with countless hypothesis and formulae:

Including the cashback system:

I decided to tap into this pool of people that were interested in this paid version of Snowball.

I bought a Typeform license and built two different Typeforms, with two different pricing methodologies.

The two Typeforms had the same core part that was meant to validate or invalidate the “features” or added-value of the paid version of Snowball. Here’s the detail of this core part:

  1. I described the idea behind the paid version: The idea of the snowball club (code name) is to continue to offer you the free version that you have been receiving for several weeks, but to add an "overlay" accessible only through a monthly (or yearly) subscription.

  2. I described the vision of the paid version in more detail: The vision of the snowball club is to bring maximum value to people who want to (re)take control of their personal finances + those who want to go even further.

    The Club is a form of investment with a positive return on investment for you. In a few words :

    1. Minimize your chances of losing money.

    2. Maximize your chances of making lasting gains.

    P.S.: I will allow students + people with financial difficulties to access this paid version for free.

  3. Then I asked them to grade from 1 to 10 the listed propositions: Let's start by seeing which parts of this paid newsletter would be of interest to you.

    As usual, 1 = not at all interesting and 10 = super mega interesting!

    1. A short + PDF version of all newsletters only for subscribers of the paid version. 1-10

    2. In finance (and in all other fields) quality information is what makes it possible to make good decisions and therefore to succeed.

      I will propose a weekly email of the best articles in finance, eco, crypto, etc. with a summary and without blah blah blah blah. Sent exclusively to paying subscribers

      Articles from quality sources including paid sources. 1-10

    3. An exclusive mobile application for club members to keep track of their budget, find out in real-time how much is left to spend, save money, etc. 1-10

    4. An exclusive stock picking app based on my portfolio + portfolio of other readers who will have made more than X% returns over the last x years. 1-10

    5. An app to chat in real-time and share tips with the community. 1-10

    6. Note-taking and summaries of the best books, essays, and long articles on finance, eco, crypto, real-estate, etc. 1-10

    7. Exclusive complete how-to guides to launch side projects (real estate, newsletters, etc.). 1-10

    8. Goodies sent once a year. 🎁 1-10

    9. Receive annual "dividends" based on snowball revenues. A kind of "cashback" that increases with the number of subscribers and can pay you back several months of your subscription. Beyond paying back several months of your subscription, it can even be a nice bonus if one day there are a lot of subscribers 💰! 1-10

    10. Part of the income is donated to associations to fight against poverty and inequality. 1-10

    11. Exclusively track my investments in detail with a quarterly report on Google Docs/sheets. Shares bought, sold, portfolio evolution, ROI of side projects, etc. 1-10

This first part helped me to pick the features that could add the most value to my readers and to discard the others. I got results like that:

Short versions were not valuable at all, but:

Weekly recap yes.

Same for the stock-picking part.

Then after all these questions, I asked a very specific one:

Having read the previous questions, would you be willing to pay for the snowball club? We'll talk about the price right after ;)

A large majority said yes. 91 % in the 1st survey:

And 71 % in the second:

And another question about what would they make think twice before paying for Snowball. The main idea here was to detect fears and to erase them in future communication. Here’s the question:

What are for you the main obstacles to paying for a newsletter like snowball?

  1. I'm afraid the content won't be useful

  2. Budget too tight

  3. I don’t like this kind of content

  4. I don’t understand the added value

  5. Others

I got this results:

For those who do not read french, the main frictions were about the quality of the content and a tight budget.

At this point, I used two different methodologies to price the product:

  1. First methodology: Would you be ready to pay 4€ for the features we talked about before? If yes I’d ask them: would you be ready to pay 5€, and so on until they say no.

  2. Second methodology:

    1. At which price would you find the subscription so pricey that you’d not even consider subscribing: 5, 8, 12, 15, 20, 25, 30, other

    2. At which price would you find the price so low that you’d doubt the quality of the content? 5, 8, 12, 15, 20, 25, 30, other

    3. At what price would you find that the subscription starts to get expensive without it being out of the question to subscribe. You would just have to think a little bit more to make a decision? 5, 8, 12, 15, 20, 25, 30, other

    4. At what price would you find that the subscription is really a great deal and you would buy it right away? 5, 8, 12, 15, 20, 25, 30, other

Why using two different pricing methodologies? Just to avoid biases as much as possible.

Before doing this pricing survey, my hypothesis, and my vision to make Snowball available to the masses made me think about a price lower than 10€ and superior or equal to 5€.

The pricing survey (gathering around 60 people) gave me a price close to 5€.

Based on my intuition + this data, I set this pricing:

  • 6€ per month

  • 60€ annually

  • Free for students, and low income persons.

If you speak french here’s the first Typeform and here is the second one. You can play and answer as they’re just copies of the originals.

Launching the paid version

It’s late April 2020, there are about 1,300 free subscribers. I have my Premium feature, and I have my pricing for the paid version of Snowball.

I’m ready to package the Premium Version of Snowball.

I set up my Stripe account.

I connect it to Substack.

I set up the paid subscribers’ emails on Substack.

I set up the “subscribe” page on Substack that simply looks like that:

And I write the email announcing the launch of the Premium Version of Snowball. For french readers, or if you want to translate it, here it is.

In this email I focus the communication around the main thing that differentiates me from other newsletters: the dividend/cashback “feature”. That’s even the subject of the email:

A world first 🔮

In this email I explain:

  1. Why I’m launching a paid version (for a bigger impact, because it’s fun, and because my time is valuable)

  2. The price

  3. I explain the dividend/cashback innovation

  4. I explain that 20% will be redistributed to organizations

  5. I explain the added value of this Premium version

  6. I explain in more detail the genesis of Snowball, and why I want it to be impactful

  7. I explain in details (like here) how I came up with this pricing

  8. I explain the price breakdown (substack fees, stripe fees, 20% for orgs, 20% cashback, etc.)

I remember sending this email on the evening of the 28th of October while we were under lockdown in Paris, and instantly receiving more than a hundred stripe notifications on my iPhone. I even took a screenshot showing my inbox this evening:

What a great thing to truly feel this kind of interest in something you’ve built!

On the 29th of April, less than 24 hours after sending this email, I had a grand total of 166 paid subscribers.

My heart wished for such a success, but my brain kept it closer to 20 to 30 subscribers max. “In your face brain!”, my heart must have said!

Anyway. That was the launch.

“Great launch!“ as Trump could have said, but why did I decide to go all-in and dedicate most of my time to Snowball?

Why going all-in? From a side project to a project

Let’s go back in time a little bit.

Around late 2019, I had a discussion with Charles, the co-founder, and CEO of Comet (my previous company) telling him that I’d like to quit my permanent position at Comet to become a freelancer (but still work for them). The idea was to transition into the entrepreneurial world smoothly. Of course, Charles accepted my proposition.

Another Item. This move was delayed because of a pandemic, but just for a few months.

Fast forward.

When I saw the Gross Annualized Revenue curve growing and growing on my Substack dashboard I knew that this was the perfect project to get myself into entrepreneurship:

  • A topic I love

  • A topic with (potentially) a strong impact on society

  • A project with traction

My decision around May was to work full-time on Snowball for the upcoming months, and maybe years.

That’s actually when I received this message from Anh-Tho:

But, I’ll leave this for the next edition of Snowball.


That’s it for today! Next time we will focus on the co-founder/turning-Snowball-into-a-real-company part.

I hope you liked this second 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 (the famous video games items 🙃).

Don’t hesitate to transfer this email to your friends. :)

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Have a wonderful day.

Yoann. ❤️