Deep Dive

Nathan Barry's Growth Tactics for a $256K Business

Published on
June 25, 2024
Matthew Gira
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Today, Nathan Barry is the CEO and founder of ConvertKit soon to be Kit. Convertkit helps creators who mean business and is primarily an email newsletter tool for creators. Today, ConvertKit makes over $40 million in annual revenue, has over 80 full time employees around the world, and is completely bootstrapped.

There’s a lot of cool stories about how ConvertKit became what it is today, but the story I want to focus on is Nathan’s journey from full time employee to creator.

This is a journey that Nathan was pretty public about on his blog and I spent about 20 hours going through all of it so you can potentially implement some of the strategies Nathan used to create his $256,000 business.

Nathan’s first iOS app

A screenshot of the OneVoice website from 2011. It has an image of the app on an iPad with a short description of what the app does to the left of the iPad.

On January 8th, 2011, Nathan Barry launched his first iOS app: OneVoice.

OneVoice was an iPad app that allowed people who couldn’t speak to be able to communicate with others. You could click on the icons or type in the app and the app would then speak through the iPad’s speakers.

This app was a little different than other apps on the app store at the time because it sold for $199 instead of $1.99 like many apps on the app store were selling for. In 2011, the average price for an app on the iOS App Store was $1.44.

For additional context, other solutions outside of the iOS App Store started at a price of $7,000 according to Nathan.

A screenshot of Nathan's comment about how other solutions outside of the iOS App Store start at $7,000.

When he released it, he had 3 sales on Day 1, so about $400 in revenue after the App Store took their 30% cut of revenue.

From there, as Nathan put it, he “focused [his] marketing efforts on Speech Language Pathologists who work with individuals needing this kind of device.”

He would contact them by phone or email, offered them a promo code for the app, and in exchange for their discount, he would get feedback on the app itself.

That ended up working pretty well and the app ended up with a total of $19,000 in revenue for the app by the end of the year.

Not bad for someone learning how to code.

At the same time Nathan was launching OneVoice, he was working a full time job as the lead software designer at a startup. He was making $60,000 plus benefits.

In October of 2011, Nathan quit his full time job to fully work on his iOS apps because he had more than just OneVoice.

He launched two more apps in 2011: Fluent & Commit.

These two apps never got to the point where OneVoice was in revenue. Fluent made a lifetime total revenue of $46 and Commit made about $10,000 in revenue (more on Commit later!).

Nathan’s blog post begins to gain traction

Nathan's blog post header from his post "How I Made $19,000 on the App Store While Learning to Code"

A month after Nathan quit his full time job, in November of 2011, a tipping point happened. Nathan published this blog post on how he made $19,000 on the App Store while learning how to code.

At this stage, Nathan was posting sporadicly on his personal blog for years and then in July of 2011, he became really consistent by posting on a weekly basis. None of the blog posts before this App Store post were big hits as Nathan’s website traffic seemed to have grown steadily from 100 total views in a month to about 200 daily views by the time of this post.

This particular blog post on how he made $19,000 took off after he posted it on Hacker News.

Now, this wasn’t Nathan’s first time posting on Hacker News.

Nathan's first submissions on Hacker News in 2010 & 2011

Nathan was all over Hacker News before this post took off there. That doesn’t mean he was posting every day in there, but he was active member of the Hacker News community. He was posting most of his blog posts on Hacker News since he started being consistent about his blog and most of his posts didn’t go anywhere. But, he was active member of the community by submitting his work there and was active in the comments on Hacker News. Nathan was first active on Hacker News in December of 2010 and didn’t have a submission to Hacker News drive any meaningful sort of conversation until his $19,000 App Store submission in November of 2011. That’s almost a full year of being relatively consistent in the Hacker News community.

That doesn’t mean the time before his post about making $19,000 on the App Store was a waste. He was still meeting new people and getting feedback on the work he was doing on a smaller scale.

Nathan even mentions in his 2012 Annual Review blog post that “posting on this site [his personal website] and on Hacker News [has] been invaluable”.

A screenshot of Nathan Barry's paragraph of how valuable Hacker News has been in his 2012 Annual Review post.

Transitioning from Software Designer to Writer

What Nathan’s $19,000 on the App Store post signifies is that Nathan could create content that people thought was valuable and that writing consistently was a valuable thing to do for his business.

Nathan also says he was inspired by Chris Guillebeau who was saying it’s so easy to publish a lot of stuff when you’re writing a 1,000 words a day.

Nathan tried on his own to build that habit, but after a few days, broke the streak. That’s why Nathan built his app, Commit.

Commit was a very simple app and would ask Nathan “Did you write 1,000 words today?” and Nathan had to hit the green yes button if he did. If he didn’t, the streak would restart on Commit.

A screenshot of the Commit app that Nathan developed

Commit’s revenue as an app was relatively nothing in the grand scheme, but it was way more valuable than that revenue as it led to Nathan eventually writing 1,000 words a day for 80 days in a row and him launching his first book, The App Design Handbook.

When he launched this first book, he had 800 people on his email list. His price for the book was $39.

Nathan launched The App Design Handbook on September 4th, 2012 and he made over $12,000 on the first day of it being public.

The App Design Handbook cover

Again, he had 800 people on his newsletter and his audience on other platforms was tiny. Nathan was still pretty active on Hacker News and was actively engaging with people on Twitter. On Twitter though, Nathan had less than 2,000 followers. Nathan has a tiny audience at this point and was making thousands of dollars from it.

By the end of 2012, The App Design Handbook had made over $40,000 in sales and his goal was $10,000 in lifetime revenue. The overall goal was that it would help Nathan drive sales to his services as a software designer which was his primary way of making a living at that time.

The App Design Handbook wasn’t the only book he published in 2012. On December 12th of 2012, he published his 2nd book, Designing Web Applications, and that made $40,000 in two and a half weeks. That’s wild.

His email newsletter grew pretty significantly in the three months in between his book launches. When he launched his first book, he was at 800 subscribers and when he launched his second book, he had 3,000 subscribers.

By the end of 2012, Nathan had over $140,000 in revenue from his consulting services, iOS apps, and books.

Jumping ahead to 2013, Nathan made $256,000 in revenue and almost $200,000 of that revenue came from Nathan’s three books! Nathan wrote another book called Authority in May of 2013 and that made over $65,000 in about 7 months.

In 2013, Nathan also started his now primary business: ConvertKit.

Nathan has talked a lot about his story on starting ConvertKit and did an awesome short documentary on YouTube about the start of ConvertKit.  I high recommend checking it out. It’s one of the most vulnerable and authentic stories about founding a company I’ve watched.

Enough about ConvertKit. Let’s jump into the weeds some of growth tactics Nathan used to get to $256,000 in revenue in 2013.

The Growth Tactics Nathan used:

Guest Posts

As mentioned, Nathan had a habit of writing 1,000 words a day and had that habit for over 600 days. When I first read that Nathan was writing 1,000 words a day, I just took it as he was writing on his own blog. I was entirely wrong.

Writing on his own blog was only about 15% of all of his writing.

A graph of where Nathan published his writing by percentages. Nathan's blog: 15%, Guest Posts: 20%, App Design Handbook: 30%, Software Design Handbook: 25%, Major Design Blog Chapter: 10%

He spent 30% of his words in places he doesn’t own. That was mostly on blogs he didn’t own, but he also wrote a chapter of a book for a massive design blog.

His guest posts on other’s blogs would help him get in front of those new audiences, help his SEO, and he was clever to include his own email courses in those guest posts so as new people learned from Nathan, they could directly join his audience.

Below is a graph from Semrush so you can see somewhat the impact these backlinks were making on Nathan’s search rankings. I don’t think it’s super accurate, but it seems to give a general picture of how it was helping Nathan when it comes to visits to his website.

Nathan Barry's organic search traffic from 2012 to 2014 (Semrush data)

Gumroad & Hacking Audiences on Platforms

One of the other communities Nathan was a part of was the Gumroad community. If you don’t know Gumroad, it’s a marketplace website for creators getting started. It’s been a place to post a digital product and have Gumroad be your payment processor. People can also find your products on Gumroad through their own discovery platform. In some ways, it’s a creator version of Hacker News.

Nathan was an early adopter of Gumroad in 2013 and had a lot of his book sales come from Gumroad itself in 2013 only. $152,000 of Nathan’s book revenue in 2013 went through Gumroad.

Now, I don’t think I can give credit to Gumroad for being the source of all those sales, it looks like Nathan just used Gumroad as his payment processor.

Given Gumroad’s hype and Nathan’s involvement in the early days, it does seem like it did play a part in Nathan’s revenue growth. How much of a part? I’m not exactly sure.

Nonetheless, this is a great example of how Nathan was using other platforms with larger audiences than his to create his own audience. He did this with Hacker News as mentioned before and a little bit on Twitter. Twitter seems to be a place where Nathan still to this day (but not as much), builds relationships with other creators.

Building Relationships

Building relationships is something that is so obvious when seeing how Nathan operates and grows. From the very beginning in reading his posts, Nathan is constantly leaning into communities and building relationships.

Nathan would be helping people in the Hacker News community, then him being at local tech and creator events in Boise, and then even him traveling to where communities are at conferences.

I have to say though - Nathan did tweet about the World Domination Summit a lot. Like a lot. Glad you loved it, Nathan.

This all might seem easy or the natural reaction is like yeah, we should be part of communities, but I don’t think it’s actually obvious or easy to do in reality.

Nathan was and is clearly intentional about building relationships with people to learn and build with others. A couple years ago, I heard Nathan say something like “entrepreneurship isn’t a one player game” and that really resonated with me.

When I see people posting about “oh, just grind it out in private and then once you’ve made it show up”, I now think to myself, I guess you’ll just be building nothing then because that’s not the reality for 99% of successful businesses.

Nathan has supercharged his personal and business growth by being with people striving for similar goals. He’s consistently found them on Hacker News, Twitter, and conferences. The platforms might change, but the concepts are still the same for anyone looking to build with others.