Since this is my first retrospective, let me cover my back story quickly.
In the last 8-9 years. I poured my heart building for other people. I've been an employee, a 2nd person in command, and a CEO. But when I decided to move on with my life, I realized all the things I built were part of the company's identity and I was still a nobody.
I didn't like that feeling.
I was 30 years old, there must be a better way.
So in late 2020, with all the skills and experiences I've acquired, I was set to become a bootstrapped entrepreneur finding my way in my favorite place - the Internet.
At the same time, I learned about "compound interest", a powerful concept that applies to everything around us: content, audience, investment... Ever since, I only want to work on things that are accumulative.
6 months later, I'm now often talking about Building in Public and encouraging more builders and entrepreneurs to be authentic and transparent in their journey.
Yet, I have been reluctant to share my online income.
Partly because it was $0 until now, and partly because I've been asking myself: what good does it do to the world if I share my numbers?
When I came across Monica Lent and her income reports and retrospectives, it hit me.
People are sharing what works and what doesn't work online, but without the business metrics, their advice can be out of context. E.g. someone can share that Twitter is an awesome platform for building an audience but if she doesn't acquire any revenue-generating customer from this channel, why does she suggest people to invest heavily in Twitter?
Numbers can lead to clarity and force us entrepreneurs to ask better questions on how to grow our businesses.
From Monica's sharing, I was able to learn the strategy and thinking behind how she grows her online businesses. And I want people following my journey to be able to get inspired to grow their businesses strategically.
That's why we're here.
The first 6 months = $0
I was a nobody on the Internet.
I didn't know where to start, so I began writing individual blog posts talking about my failure and learnings in my previous startups.
But I knew standalone blog posts don't make enough noise. I was seeking for an opportunity to create something bigger. When I came across Building in Public, I was fascinated by the idea of bringing in authenticity and transparency to business and personal branding. I felt instantly attached to it. And that was what led to the creation of the Building in Public Definitive Guide and now Public Lab.
Ever since then, I'm surrounded by a group of builders interested in Building in Public and authenticity. And I finally felt ready to build paid products to serve them better in March 2021.
My revenue from Nov 2020 to Apr 2021 was $0.
May 2021 Income Report
Net Profit: $755.99
Revenue $1040.5 - Expenses $284.51 = $755.99
- #30DaysInPublic Challenge May 2021 Cohort: $843 (one-off)
- Public Lab Community: $188 (MRR)
- Affiliate: $9.5
The numbers are nothing compared to what I earned in my previous roles in startups. But I feel good about the progress because I generated this revenue all by myself. I design, build, market, serve, and help as a one-man band.
And I know the beginning is always the hardest, I'm prepared that my patience will be critically challenged. Anyhow, I'm very grateful I hit $1k monthly revenue on my 7th month in this journey.
My goal is to reach $5k monthly revenue by Dec 2021 across all products. From 1k to 5k in 6 months? It is challenging but not unrealistic. It all comes down to my strategy for the next 6 months.
- Stripe (for simplicity I used 4% for 30DaysInPublic $49 and 9% for Public Lab Community $5): $33.72 + $16.92 = $50.64
- Outseta (1% subscription transaction) = $1.88
- Webflow: $40 (KevonCheung.com & PublicLab.co) / Hypefury: $19 / ConvertKit: $29 / Zoom: $14.99 / Outseta: $29 / Circle: $79 / Descript: $15 / Gmail $6
I'm not happy about the money I'm spending on certain tools. Stripe transaction fee is high (9-10%) when the dollar amount is small (e.g. the $5 monthly community subscription). Circle is charging a ridiculous amount of $79 because I'm using their integration with Outseta.
If I can figure another way to run memberships, I could go down to the $39 Circle plan. But for now, my priority is on driving revenue than lowering expenses. I can always come back to this.
And of course, I'm not including any hardware expenses here like laptop, camera equipments, mouse, and keyboard. I'm okay counting them as personal expenses for now.
A shift in my offering opened up a revenue stream
Public Lab was launched in March 2021 as a private community. I wanted to provide a safe space with valuable content, interactions, and connections for builders to adapt the Building in Public mindset.
Soon I found out a community wasn't the best entry point for some of them. Some builders need a structured program to be accountable and to push themselves.
Cohort-based challenges are gaining popularity these days because people generally love learning and executing with a like-minded group in a tight timeframe.
So instead of shifting my offering from a community to a 30 days challenge, I decided to launch the challenge as a new product so both products can go hand in hand, serving builders with different needs.
To kick off, I offered it to my community members for free and 17 of them agreed to start late-April. My main goal was to pilot the experience, collect initial feedback, and get early testimonials.
With that, I was able to quickly start promoting the 2nd cohort starting in May 2021 and I charged $49/person.
Honestly, it was cheap. But all I wanted was to see whether people have interest in such program and to get the ball rolling. In the early days, my philosophy is to always under-charge and over-deliver. I enjoy having customers who get so much value that they tell their friends.
There are a lot of advices around "increasing your price". Of course, it is easy to say after "you've made it". I prefer to stick to my own philosophy.
In May, this challenge has a revenue of $843 while the community has a recurring monthly revenue of $188. This tells me that to solve the same problem, there are many paths (solutions). A solution like community is slow but steady, a solution like #30DaysInPublic is fast but unpredictable.
My goal for this 30 days challenge is to maintain its asynchronous nature because 1) it is more flexible for everyone worldwide to join and 2) it is easier for me to manage.
I'm already exploring ways to increase the value of the program so that I can increase the price. I know this kind of program is at least worth $100-150. To add value, I added 15 videos on top of the 15 email prompts, and I designed 4 weekly group sessions to focus on small group interactions and exchange.
For my next cohort in July 2021, I've increased the price to $69-89 to reflect the new values I've built into the program.
My goal for this program is $150/person and $4,000 monthly revenue (26 challengers) by Dec 2021. This is why it is such a steal at the current price.
Many asked if I'd ever charge $250-300 for #30DaysInPublic, I'm not interested in going to such premium price point. I'd rather it is accessible for most starters.
Lots of moving parts in building a community
As I placed more focus on the #30DaysInPublic challenge in May, I was slow in moving the community forward.
There were a few key challenges I faced.
1) Lack of engagement
I intentionally kept it small at <25 people in the early days to safeguard quality and engagement. But after 2 months with most members busy doing the #30DaysInPublic challenge, I realized this strategy backfired.
A small community with no new members can be stagnant in terms of engagement and knowledge sharing.
It is important for a community to have more people because not all members are active all the time. Most are occupied with life and they all engage in the community in different ways.
So I did a launch to look for prospective members. And with the help of existing members to reshare (they're awesome!), Public Lab now has close to 50 paid members.
Slow and steady.
2) A community platform is not enough
I've been using Circle, a community platform in forum-style, for Public Lab. I like it because it is asynchronous so members can focus on high-quality exchange. I can't stand the live chat-style with Slack or Discord.
In the beginning, there wasn't a lot of community activities so the platform was unsurprisingly quiet. Members have no reason to visit!
And I was evaluating the engagement of our community based on activities on Circle. I was wrong again.
A community is a group of like-minded people coming together. The community and spirit can happen anywhere: on Twitter, via direct contact, at events etc.
As the community builder, my role is not just to create an active forum-style platform and measure engagement there. It is more important to create learning opportunities for different types of members and let them find the best values for themselves.
Learning that, I started a few initiatives for the community. I introduced live AMA sessions with inspiring guests, writing accountability group, and a monthly retrospective activity.
3) Increasing touch points
Circle is not accessible for most members as it is not part of their daily habits to go to this specific URL. It is important to introduce touch points to bring community highlights directly to the members.
And I started a monthly community newsletter covering the most important highlights in Public Lab. With more events and activities going on, I'm sure email (>60% open rate) will remain as a key communication channel.
Overall, running a community is sexy but definitely very hard. I have no plan to make a lot of profits from the community. At the moment, my goal is to expand it to be a safe space for 100 members in the next 2 months and provide as many values and connections to the members as possible.
Reviewing the best strategy to write content
Ever since I started this journey, I've been writing weekly blog posts capturing my latest thoughts and learnings.
The topics have been scattered based on what I feel like writing that week.
Based on my own observations, I can see that individual blog post is less shareable and accessible by audience. This is because when someone is browsing, she is essentially in a learning mode. She wants to read more related content and continue to form her own perspective.
I've decided to pause my weekly blog post and put more effort into creating mini products that are more structured and focused, providing more educational value and driving more growth overall.
This change of focus can also be verified by my website traffic.
And below are the page views from the last 90 days.
You can see I have a typo on the title so that total of page views for the guide's cover page was (2,545+1,633) = 4,178 in 3 months. Not bad.
The traffic started to diminish after mid-March as I shifted my focus towards building Public Lab and #30DaysInPublic. I haven't talked much about the guide on Twitter, and a lot of the traffic was coming in from Google's search.
Another mini product I created, the Making Twitter Friends Email Course, also proves that it has more impact to my paid products.
It has a significant overlap of subscribers with my weekly newsletter and paid products. On the left, 106 subscribers took Making Twitter Friends and also became my newsletter subscribers.
On the right, 28 subscribers took Making Twitter Friends and joined either the paid community or #30DaysInPublic.
Of course, it could be the reverse order where they were reading my newsletter or paid products then sign up for the free email course. I didn't verify that and am not planning to because I believe in the level of credibility mini products create.
What's up in June?
Public Lab should be a resourceful website by itself
Previously, Public Lab's website is purely 2 sales landing pages. People get there to sign up for the community or #30DaysInPublic. As a long-term believer in content, I envision Public Lab to be a website with lots of crafted content on developing an authentic online voice, building an audience, and growing transparent businesses. I revamped the website last week of May and plan to add in SEO-friendly content. I want to invest more in sustainable channels vs Twitter.
Be more strategic on content creation
Standalone blog posts are less impactful. It is time to write content that are similar to the outcome of the Building in Public Definitive Guide which people keep re-sharing to friends. Oh and definitely be more SEO-oriented!
Currently the top 2 ideas are listed on Public Lab's website:
- How to Build a Radical Transparent Business
- Starter Guide in Audience Development
How I am going to use Twitter
Twitter is awesome but I'm mindful that followers on Twitter can be scattered. If I want more real followers, I should start adding touch points bringing them to my blog and newsletter.
This way I can get connected to serious followers via a direct channel. To me, 200 email subscribers are always better than 2,000 Twitter followers.
Community, community, community
Not easy but I'm going to keep pushing. With no #30DaysInPublic cohort starting in June (next one is July 1st), I'm determined to focus on the few initiatives to help our members achieve their respective goals!