Alex Lieberman: The 8-Figure Email Newsletter (Morning Brew) – Noah Kagan Presents

Check out the Noah Kagan Presents Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • The best ways to manage anxiety – get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise
  • Advice on creating an email newsletter:
    • Create a newsletter people actually want
      • “If people like something, they become your best evangelist and salesperson”
    • Be your own consumer – write about something you yourself would want to read
  • Advice on finding an email sponsor:
    • “Find the person who really, really, really wants to get in front of who you know your reader is”
    • “Find the person whos price and elasticity is so high because they NEED to get in front of your audience”
    • Approach people who are already spending money on advertising (like on Facebook/Instagram ads or in other email newsletters) and offer to solve their problem more effectively
  • Morning Brew currently has two advertising spots – one at the very top of their daily email and one further down
    • What do they charge? – It’s based on unique opens, but the higher position currently averages ~$25k/email, with the lower averaging $15k/email
  • Building a great company takes TIME and COMMITMENT
    • “If you expect something to happen overnight or even over a year, you’re setting your expectations the wrong way”

Intro

Managing Anxiety

  • “There are 3 core things I need to do to balance myself – sleep, eat well, and exercise”
    • “I make sure I don’t skimp on those when I’m anxious. If I do, it just starts a downward spiral.”
    • It’s simple stuff – “But doing it for 20 years straight is really difficult”
  • What is Alex anxious about today?
    • Not being in the office and falling behind on work
    • His living situation (he doesn’t go into detail)
    • He’s flying on a private jet tomorrow and is worried about it crashing
    • In general – it’s when a lot of small things add up
      • “The things where there’s ambiguity and I feel like I’m not in control, that’s where I get the most nervous”
  • How else does Alex manage anxiety?
    • He regularly talks to a therapist (every 2 weeks) and meditates
  • But one thing to remember
    • If your life is always great and you’re never anxious, perhaps it means you’re not pushing yourself hard enough outside your comfort zone
  • How does Noah deal with anxiety?
    • His big go to is making a list of whatever he needs to get done

If someone were to describe Alex…

  • “I think they would say I’m definitely the creative in the bunch, the one who’s shooting out idea after idea after idea, with no ego attached to them”
    • “Probably 8 out of 10 of my ideas are going to be complete shit”

Escaping Email

  • Up until 2 weeks ago, Alex was spending 3-3.5 hours a day answering email
    • He finally hired an assistant (his mom) – why?
      • He made a list of things he was/was not good at (or didn’t enjoy doing)
        • “I started making sure that I was on a path to no longer be doing anything in that second column…I’d be doing myself and everyone on the team a disservice otherwise”
      • This decision cut back the number of emails Alex personally has to deal with from ~350 to 75

Building an Audience

  • Alex and Austin started the Morning Brew newsletter in 2015
    • By April 2018, they had 180,000 superscribes
    • by November, they hit 700,000
    • In February, they surpassed 1 million
  • “Building an audience is really freakin’ hard”
    • But here’s the key thing that really helped originally – Alex was his own consumer (he’d been reading the Wall Street Journal for 12 years prior to starting Morning Brew)
  • Advice on creating a newsletter:
    • “The hardest thing is actually realizing there’s a newsletter to be created”
      • “Email has become so sexy in the last few years that people just say they want to create email now” (similar to how everyone’s flocking to podcasts)
      • You NEED to ask yourself:
        • What’s the appetite? Who are you writing for? Who is the audience”
        • Is email the best delivery mechanism for the above? (you can’t assume it is) – Different audiences consume content in different ways
      • So to sum up – create a newsletter people actually want
    • Write for yourself
      • This is why it’s a good idea to be your own consumer
      • If you’re not writing for yourself, at least surround yourself with people you are writing for, so you know you’re actually creating something they’ll give a shit about
  • “Think of how many media brands there are and how few have actually built an audience that gives a shit about them – that’s where there’s real opportunity”

The Early Days of Morning Brew

  • In late 2014, Alex sent out the first versions of the newsletter while attending the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan
    • It was just a PDF attached to an email – “Market Corner” was the original name (and only Alex was working on it at the time)
    • Alex describes it as a “daily business roundup”
    • He continued to send it out EVERY day (besides weekends) – PERSISTENCE
  • Alex originally used LISTSERV to manage the email address
    • At first, he added everyone to the email list manually (the first “sign ups” were friends & family as well as few friends who he had been helping prep for job interviews)
  • “The original product (the email) looked like such shit…it was horrible”
    • BUT – it was good enough that people wanted to share it 
      • Word spread and the list grew to about 1,000 subscribers (Alex was still adding email addresses to the list manually)
  • What else helped?
    • The original ~200 subscribers were very engaging and quick to give feedback (so they had a fast feedback loop)
    • Another principle that Alex kept in mind:
      • “If people like something, they become your best evangelist and salesperson”
  • Over winter break of his senior year, Alex brought on his co-founder, Austin Rief
  • In March 2015, the newsletter changed names to Morning Brew (they also started using MailChimp)
    • The original logo was created by a senior at the University of Michigan in the arts department
    • The writers, at the time, were unpaid “college writers who just wanted to get involved in creating better business content”

Growing Morning Brew Early On

  • One tactic – they printed out index card shaped pieces of paper with business riddles and handed them out on campus
    • The answer would only be given if you signed up for the newsletter
  • Alex and Austin made a bunch of flyers for the newsletter and would put them in the common areas around the Ross School of Business 
    • Janitors would obviously throw them out – but they kept on doing it
      • At some point, the school eventually told them to stop
  • Austin and Alex spoke to a TON of business classes/clubs around campus explaining what Morning Brew was
    • At the end of their talks, they’d pass around a sheet of paper collecting email addresses
      • Why not just tell people to sign up online? – It was too much of a physical barrier

The REAL Growth

  • Today, Morning Brew’s referral program makes up ~25% of their growth
    • At 3 referrals – you get access to Morning Brew’s Sunday edition
    • At 5 – you get stickers
    • At 10 – you get an invite to their Facebook group which contains a ton of high-quality business discussions
    • At 15 – you get a phone wallet
    • At 25 – a Morning Brew t-shirt
    • At 50 – a Morning Brew crewneck sweatshirt
    • At 75 –  a Morning Brew mug
    • (They’ve spent “tens of thousands” on the referral program, but – “the acquisition cost for each referral is negligible”)
  • They also occasionally do giveaways
    • The most popular – MacBooks Giveaway Days
      • On these days, they give away 2 MacBooks – one to someone who had referred a new subscriber and 1 to the person that they referred
      • Alex estimates that on these giveaway days they increase their list size by ~mid 5-figures
      • But they key – you only get the referral credit when someone double opts-in (to prevent spam sign ups and people gaming the system)

What growth strategies didn’t work?

  • Cross-promotion and partnerships with other email newsletters
    • “So few partnerships actually work out and end up being worth your time”

Getting to 1 Million Subscribers

  • ~250k subscribers came from the referral program
  • ~15% of the million signed up after landing on their website
  • The other 60% were through paid acquisition
    • Things like Facebook and Instagram ads
      • Originally they targeted anyone aged 18-45 in the United States who showed an interest in business
        • But over time, they discovered female subscribers cost 3x more to acquire (so for a short period, they only targeted males)
    • Why so much? – The acquisition costs were pretty low for a high-quality subscriber (someone who opens 5 out of their first 10 newsletters)
    • They’ve spent over $1 million so far on paid acquisition

Looking Forward

  • Alex and Austin Rief (his co-founder) are trying to decide the ultimate direction for the business
    • They could just keep it under the category of a “lifestyle business”
    • OR – they could reinvest money back into the business, build a product, and then sell it to their growing audience in 3-4 years
    • OR – they could sell the business (it’ll be hard to ever replicate their recent 2018-2019 growth)
  • Here’s what Alex does know he wants out of life and work:
    • To feel like he’s providing a service that helps people
    • To feel like he’s working around really smart people and being intellectually challenged
    • To not ever have to worry about money again
    • “What motivates us seems to be helping people”
      • “Every time I hear about the Morning Brew helping an individual subscriber …those stories never get old to me”

Email Advertising

  • “Find the person who really, really, really wants to get in front of who you know your reader is”
    • “Find the person whos price and elasticity is so high because they NEED to get in front of your audience”
  • The first revenue Morning Brew made was from an ad deal with the University of Virginia ($700 for one ad)
    • How did they get the ad deal?
      • Alex received a sponsored message on LinkedIn from someone in the admissions department targeting him for one of their master’s program.
      • Alex messaged them back stating that his audience might be of value and…boom
      • THE KEY – Alex targeted someone who was already spending money on advertising and offered to solve their problem more effectively
        • LESSON – Find people who are already spending money on advertising (like Facebook ads, Instagram ads, or in other email newsletters) and approach them

Advertising with Morning Brew Moving Forward

  • Alex has found that they’re starting to get too expensive for many advertising targets (he hints that their rates are approaching $50k for one email appearance)
    • How do they charge? – Based on the number of unique opens
      • But in the future, Alex thinks they’ll start charging a fixed fee
    • Morning Brew currently has two advertising spots – one at the very top of their daily email and one further down
      • The higher position currently averages ~$25k/email, with the lower averaging $15k/email

The Morning Brew Podcast – Coming soon?

  • Noah suggests that Morning Brew start a short daily podcast where they read their newsletter content
    • But….then their newsletter opens might drop
    • And….they’d have to eventually monetize, and Alex doubts it would move the needle much in terms of their overall revenue
    • AND….Alex has concerns about the podcast advertising space
      • What if the frequent podcast advertisers (ZipRecruiter, Butcher Box etc.) decide to change strategies?
  • “I think a lot of people are going into podcasts just because they hear other people are”
    • You need to ask yourself – “Is this the best channel to deliver our message to the audience?”
      • (because often times, it’s not)

Wrapping Up

  • Building a great company takes TIME and COMMITMENT
    • “You have to love what you’re doing and feel so passionate about the value you’re providing”
    • “If you expect something to happen overnight or even over a year, you’re setting your expectations the wrong way”
    • “I haven’t gone a day in the last 4 years where I haven’t thought about Morning Brew – THAT’S the mentality you need to have”

Random

  • If you don’t open a Morning Brew email for 4 weeks straight, you’ll get a re-engagement email asking if you still want to receive them
  • Morning Brew just branched and launched a separate Emerging Technology newsletter
  • Morning Brew currently has a 3 person advertising sales team
    • 75% of their efforts are outbound 
  • Companies Alex is fond of:

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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