Nathan Barry is the founder and CEO of ConvertKit, a Inc. 5000 company that provides email marketing software for online creators – the authors, makers, podcasters, photographers, YouTubers, teachers, artists, and other creators building the future. ConvertKit has 19,500 paying customers that send over 500 million emails each month.
How did the concept for ConvertKit come about?
Back in 2012, I started writing and self-publishing books on design. I was surprised by how well they sold, but even more surprised that email marketing through MailChimp was driving the vast majority of the revenue.
With each launch, I kept learning new techniques to better grow and automate my list. Unfortunately, I also learned that MailChimp just wasn’t designed for these best practices. Things like content upgrades, tagging customers, and automating follow-up emails were only possible because I was able to hack around the tool.
So, I decided I was going to build an email tool built for bloggers and creators like myself. It would have these best practices built in by default. January 1, 2013, I started working on ConvertKit.
How was the first year in business?
The first year started off strong. Two months after first working on the idea, I got a simple version out to customers who pre-ordered. It was basic, but made it easy to put forms on your site and send automated emails to those who signed up.
I had set an ambitious goal to reach $5,000 in monthly recurring revenue after six months. That didn’t happen, but I made it to just over $2,000 in MRR. Unfortunately, after that, growth stalled and revenue stayed flat for the rest of the year.
What was your marketing strategy?
All of my successful business ventures have had the same marketing strategy: teach everything you know.
By working in public and sharing the journey, I’ve built an audience eager for each update on progress. A portion of those people fit the target market for the product and end up buying.
This worked really well for eBooks and digital products, but proved more difficult for getting a new SaaS company off the ground. It’s still the right strategy, but it needs the addition of sales to get that first traction.
After the first two years of flat revenue, I eventually made that switch and added direct sales to start to get more traction with the right market.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first two years were slow, largely because I hadn’t figured out the messaging and was working on the product, on the side. At the end of two years, we were making less than $1,500 per month.
Once I decided to go all in on ConvertKit and shut down my other business, revenue started to grow. Six months later (two and a half years into running ConvertKit), MRR was up to $5,000—my initial goal.
Three or four months after that, it had skyrocketed to $20,000 per month. By the end of the year, we were at $100,000 per month.
Today, nearly six years after writing the first line of code, ConvertKit brings in over $1 million per month. Inc Magazine named ConvertKit the fastest-growing company in Idaho and the 72nd fastest-growing company in the United States.
How do you define success?
Success for me is simply being able to do meaningful work with great people. It’s not the sale of a company, a certain revenue milestone, or something along those lines.
That’s why at ConvertKit we aren’t building to sell. So many founders put up with terrible work environments, bad investors, and poor team members because it is temporary. They think, “I just need to suffer through that for another year, then we’ll sell.”
That’s the escape lever they are waiting for. They are willing to suffer because they know once they achieve an exit, then they’re done.
By taking away the focus on an exit, we raise our standards. Now that teammate needs to be fired for being a pain to work with, even if they are effective at their job. You can refuse the funding from investors because you don’t need to grow absolutely as fast as possible.
Higher standards, combined with a longer time horizon, mean higher quality work and results. There aren’t any shortcuts. Instead, you do it right the first time. Just the act of running my business the way I want to is success to me.
What is the key to success?
For me, the key to success is building for the journey, not the destination.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Anything worth doing is going to take a lot of time. My friend Sean McCabe says to “Show up every day for two years.”
I’ve talked for a long time about creating every day, but I like that Sean adds a minimum amount of time. Too many people want instant results from their work. They work on a new blog or business part-time for a couple months and then drop it because they didn’t get results.
I made that mistake initially with ConvertKit—thinking that success would come with partial effort. In reality, accomplishing something meaningful takes focused effort over a long period of time.
What are some quotes that you live by?
Lately, the quote that’s been on my mind is:
“Your greatest gift lies next to your deepest wound” – Philip McKernan
We often look for external solutions to internal problems. Over the last few years, I’ve looked inwards to understand my motivation, drive, and wounds. From there, I’ve been able to build a better foundation to lead, serve, and learn. Rather than avoiding our deepest hurts, I think we should lean in and learn more about them.
What are some of your favorite books?
Three books I gift the most often are:
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Quite simply, this is going to take far longer than you think. That’s okay. Set your expectations, make progress every day, and keep learning. If you do that, you can’t lose.