Balancing Craft And Commerce With Nathan Barry From ConvertKit

    Categories: Author Entrepreneur

The aim of an author-entrepreneur is to balance craft with commerce, making a living while creatively fulfilled. In today's show, I discuss how creators can earn a living with Nathan Barry, who moved from non-fiction author to software developer, focusing on email marketing for online entrepreneurs – people like you and me!

In the introduction, I talk about my personal creative challenges right now as I head towards 10 years as an author-entrepreneur. Plus, I'm working on How to Write Non-Fiction, a book and course that a lot of you have asked for.

This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.

Nathan Barry is the author of three books, a software designer, and the founder and CEO of ConvertKit, which helps creators earn a living through email marketing.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • How writing his first books inspired Nathan to create ConvertKit
  • Managing the balance between craft and commerce
  • Committing to an idea for the long-term despite short-term financial squeezes
  • Balancing the positive and negative sides of ambition
  • How ConvertKit solves problems for authors
  • The creativity inherent in communicating with our readers
  • Beginner tips for starting with ConvertKit, whether you have a list already, or are starting from scratch

Click here for my tutorial on how to build an email list with ConvertKit.

You can find Nathan Barry at ConvertKit.com and on Twitter @nathanbarry

Transcript of Interview with Nathan Barry

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from the creativepenn.com, and today I'm here with Nathan Barry. Hi, Nathan.

Nathan: Hey, thanks for having me on.

Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.

Nathan is the author of three books, a software designer, and the founder and CEO of ConvertKit, which helps creators earn a living through email marketing.

Now, very exciting, Nathan, you started out in programming but then you wrote several books including “Authority” which is all about self-publishing.

What did you learn from writing books that lead you into starting your larger online business, ConvertKit?

Nathan: Probably the first thing that I learned is that you could actually make money from writing books and self-publishing. I had this idea because I'm writing technical books. My background is as a software designer and I was writing books on how to design software.

I was writing those books not because I was like, “I'm gonna put this out there and the sales are going to make me plenty of money.” I was putting it out there because I was like, “I want more consulting gigs.” I want more people to say, “Oh, you know what? I want to hire Nathan to design my iPhone app because he wrote the book on how to design iPhone applications.”

I was looking at it from that angle. The first thing that surprised me the most is like, “Oh, you can actually make meaningful amounts of money from this.”

And then the second thing that surprised me is that, after I wrote those two books and I was just very public and transparent with the whole process, and the revenue that it made and all that, is I started getting asked way more about, “Okay. How do you build an audience? How do you self-publish? How do you earn a living from your books?”

Then I was getting asked about how to design software. People are like, “Yeah. Yeah, cool. That software thing is great. What's going on here? How do you do this? I wanna do that.”

That's where I took it to ConvertKit. “Oh, there's a whole bunch of people who want to know how to do this and are already doing it.” Because, I think, for most people outside of the world that you and I run into they're just like, “You earn your living how? You're a blogger. Oh, you're an author. Okay, that's not… But you can make money at that?”

But then once you get in our circles, you're just like, “You absolutely can make money at it.” You and I can list off dozens or hundreds of names of people who do it quite well and so it's not even this crazy exception anymore.

That really drew me to ConvertKit like, “Okay. I can make tools just for these people exactly and not for like the general business world.”

Joanna: I think, that's really interesting and I'm particularly interested in why you chose self-publishing rather than following the model which most people do. Was it that you've always had the entrepreneurial control freakery that so many of us have?

What did you see in self-publishing that made you want to choose that route originally?

Nathan: Something that I've had for a long time in my career is just expecting that no one will choose me. A lot of people do this where they pre-reject themselves. They're like, “I could ask for this. I could try to get a publishing deal. They would never choose my books.”

I've had to work a lot to overcome that of like, “Oh, hold on. I'm not gonna reject myself before I give someone else the opportunity to go first, you know.” And so I'm just getting more comfortable asking for things.

Self-publishing, no one tells you, “Uh, you're good enough to self-publish. I'll give you the self-publishing stamp of approval. You're allowed to self-publish.” No one says that and so it's just like you just decide to do it and you get to do it. So that was part of it.

Another part is that I wanted to go quickly. I didn't want to spend two years in this. I wanted to spend nine months. When I set my mind to something I just want to do it.

And then the last part is the person who has the closest model for me in this world is Chris Guillebeau. I came across his stuff pretty early on. I went to his World Domination Summit Conference. There's been seven of them and I have been to the most recent six. I missed the very first one.

But he just had this great example of publishing books and guides and courses and he's self-publishing them, choosing an audience. And so I was like, “That sounds great. Whatever Chris does, I'll do that.” And that's worked out pretty well in life.

Joanna: Absolutely. Oh, that's interesting. I've been reading your yearly round-ups, which I do as well, and I love reading this because you can really see changes over time, obviously. And you have children. So there's physical changes, new people in your life.

But what was interesting to me was in 2014, you posted the up and down graph of your income from info products around the time you decided to pivot.

It's interesting because you said you were surprised that you could make money with info products but, obviously, they came a point where you were like, “There's a tradeoff.”

Was it the hamster wheel of creation, or what made you switch from writing, publishing into software?

Nathan: There's a couple things. My background is in software design, and so I wanted to design software, not just to teach people how to design software.

I found this little bit of time where I was loving building an audience and all those other things, but I was starting to get a little frustrated. “I'm teaching stuff that I haven't spent as much time doing.”

I haven't opened Photoshop or Sketcher or written code about this stuff recently. I wanted to get back to doing that. I also wanted a new challenge.

I felt like there's certainly people who have done self-publishing in information products far better and far more successful than I had. But at the same time I was like, “Okay. I know how to make $250,000 a year doing this without any new challenge.”

I had learned the skills to do it on that level, and I looked at the people who are taking the revenue a lot further. They run these businesses doing a million dollars a year or something crazy like that.

I looked at their businesses and it wasn't something that I wanted to recreate. I didn't want to have seven employees to help me run this course business with giant launches and this one big open and close launch every year. And then the rest of the year I have all these payroll costs to worry about, and I just didn't want to run that kind of business.

I was looking for a new challenge to get back into software and to solve the problem that I had where I was using MailChimp but I was frustrated by it. And I was like, “Okay. I can do better.”

There's a little bit of arrogance in there that, I think, most entrepreneurs have in some way where you are like, “Really? No. No. I can be better than this.” Whether it's, “I can write a better book or I can build a better company or solve this problem better.” So that got me into it and then for me it's a problem of focus.

For the first almost two years of ConvertKit, I tried to do both at the same time. It took me a long time to learn that I'm just not good at that. There are some people who can multitask lots of things.

So like I'm writing this book, I am doing all these other things, I'm guest-posting on these blogs. I'm just doing everything. And I'm coaching my kid's soccer team at the same time. Like, come on. Why can't you be as awesome as I am? And I'm just not good at that.

I was trying to start a software company and I was even trying to write new books. But I was trying to continue this, all the current books relaunch them, all that kind of thing and I just couldn't balance it well.

I made the decision to quit the books and let them coast down to whatever they were going to drop off to and to focus entirely on ConvertKit. And it ended up being a really good decision but there is definitely times where financially, in the short-term after making that decision it was not great. But in the long-term it worked out really well.

In my latest review post I have those graphs of, “Here's the information product revenue and it goes from like 15,000 to 100,000 next year to 250,000,” and then it like goes down the other side quite a bit. “Oh, that graph looks terrible.” No one would ever want that for their business.

And then in the next graph I overlay it with ConvertKit's revenue. And the numbers on the info products are so small, that they barely even register on the graph compare. “Okay. That was the trade-off.”

And so if there's something that you really want to go after I would just say make sure to focus. Get clear on what that is and then clear up enough space so that you can actually focus on it.

Joanna: What's interesting is you talk about modeling there and you've broken away from what Chris Guillebeau was doing. But one of the things you have done which does model him and is, I think, fantastic. I've been watching your videos. You have Craft and Commerce conference which I wanted to ask you about because you have made creativity part of ConvertKit. I bought many…and you've got Craft and Commerce, which is what I believe and absolutely. But many creatives struggle with mingling, creating and doing like you're still doing but also with money.

What are your tips for managing the balance between craft and making a good living?

Nathan: There's two sides of it and you can go wrong on either extreme. I think, we've all come across them. The internet marketers in the sleazy sense of the term. I think of these people as they're looking for one weird trick to make money on the internet. “As easy as possible, how can I make money? Facebook ads are working super well for you? Okay. I'll do that.”

There's no thought to the art that they're creating, the craft. It's just 100% about as much money as quickly as possible.

And then you get the people on the other end who are the artists who say, “I would never sell out. I'm just… it's 100% about the craft. I'm going to toil away in my studio for absolutely as long as it takes.” And it's so unfortunate that you can't earn a living as an artist.

And you get these two different worlds and I just want to bring them together. And I want to say, “What if you cared really deeply about who your art is for and create…like, putting in the work.” You're not looking for these shortcuts. You're not looking for, “How can I get to this as quickly as possible?”

How can I spend the next 5 years, 10 years becoming really good at this one skill, and then how can I get it out to as many people as possible?

So it really is whether it's teaching them something else or exposing them to art or great stories or whatever. Get in front of as many people as possible and then understand the artist should be really, really well-paid. I really like some examples from Jeff Goins in his book “Real Artists Don't Starve,” which by the way is one of my favorite book titles of all time.

Joanna: Jeff has been on the show to talk about that book.

Nathan: Yeah. But, you know, he just talks about how artists in the Renaissance and earlier were wealthy individuals. You're contributing something meaningful. You're incredibly good at what you do and you should earn a living from it.

And so the conference is all about bringing these two ideas together, and so no one is like, “Hey, here is one of your tricks that I used to double my income last year.”

Something James Clear is giving a talk about, “These are the habits that I crafted over time that enabled me to write on the schedule, that enabled me to build this audience, that enabled me to make this income.” And so the more I can get people to bring those ideas together, that just makes me so happy.

Joanna: It's great. Now, you mentioned focus, but you also mentioned that the early years of ConvertKit that were a bit of a dip. What are some of your mindsets, attitudes for getting through that dip because many of the authors listening are in that dip. They want the craft but they also want the money but we both know there's a period where there isn't both. It is a slow burn.

How did you get through those early years of no money?

Nathan: The first thing to realize is that anything worth doing is going to take far longer than you think. Far longer than even conservatively estimating how long it's gonna take.

We have this idea at ConvertKit that we put on our t-shirts and posters and laptops and everything else and it's just, “Create every day.” And, you know, just putting this consistent work in.

For me in writing that's writing a thousand words a day and that's something I learned from Chris Guillebeau, and adopt that in. My longest streak was 650 days in a row of writing a thousand words a day. It turns out if you do that you can push through a lot of stuff.

There's actually this post on Reddit that I came across just a couple of weeks ago that I really enjoyed and it was someone talking about…they were talking about overcoming depression. And complacency where you're just like, “I'd feel like I didn't accomplish anything.”

But they had this concept that they talked about a non-zero day. And I really like that because it was, like, you're not trying to accomplish a lot. You're trying to make a lot of progress on your book. It was just anything more than zero.

And then you line up a bunch of non-zero days in a row, it could be that you wrote 10 words. It could be that you spent 20 minutes writing down title ideas or whatever else. But like if you're really struggling to get started then you want to line up a bunch of those non-zero days and then later you might raise your challenge like try to write 100 words a day.

But it's like creating really consistently. And then my friend Shaun McCabe, his site is seanwes.com, he has that create everyday idea taking it further. And he has this coaster that he does or, I think, that hand illustration stuff, but he just talks about show up every day for two years.

And there's this author who was like, “I want to do that.”

Do you want that enough that you're willing to work on it every single day for two years? Often the answer is, “No.” And then you're like, “Okay, well, maybe it's not where it started.”

People are like, “I think I can accomplish this and so I'm gonna do it.” And they're like, “I will break down that time in two months, you know.” And so it's like okay. It's worth doing if you can do it in two months but is it still worth doing if it's going to take two years?

When I hear of people there are like, “I tried to write a book but it didn't work out for me,” Or, “I tried to start a blog but I didn't get any traffic.” And I'm like, “That's great. How long did you work on it?”

And they're like, “I work on it every weekend for like three months.” I'm like, “Okay. Let's try something a little different; do it every day for two years and then you're allowed to come to me.” And say like, “Look writing a book is not for me. Blogging is not for me.” You know, “This isn't working out. I genuinely tried.” But you have to set those expectations correctly.

And then the software world for me it was just, “I'm going to make sure that ConvertKit is better in some way.” Maybe I fixed a little bit of copy so it's more clear. Maybe redesign something, build a new feature but it's better every day at the end of the day that it was at the beginning of the day.
And that's one of my stuff and I just create every day.

Joanna: My husband has been a coder. And I know some people believe that only writing fiction is creative but when you say create every day you also mean coding as part of creativity, don't you? I know some people listening won't really understand that but can you just explain from a techie perspective.

Why is coding so creative?

Nathan: A lot of creativity is as solving problems or really just making anything, but coding particularly is about solving problems, and how you're going to creatively solve this problem so it works efficiently. It's easy to understand. It reads clearly.

Jason Free talks about how they try to hire people who are clear writers and good writers because if you're a good writer, you're a clear thinker, because that's a skill, to be able to translate these ideas and put them down so succinctly.

They even they want their programmers to be good writers because even though it's a different skill it points to this clear thinking. And so being able to clearly express these ideas whether you're doing it in words or in code, it's the same concept. I apply the idea of being a creator to pretty much everything.

This weekend I got a new table saw out in my shop in the garage and I was out there building stuff. And my best days are the ones when I make something. Whether it's writing a blog post, or like this weekend, I made a new cutting board, out of wood. I just like to make stuff and I apply it in pretty much every industry.

Joanna: I agree with you. We all know that when you start a business, when you build a business, you are going to be working quite a lot of hours. But you have a young family, and you've got these other things, you play soccer or football, as we call it over here.

How have you managed in the difficult times the balance, since you've been having your young family, your relationships, your own creativity with building this multimillion dollar business?

Nathan: The first thing is I work from home and a minute ago you probably heard a three-year-old not having the happiest Monday afternoon. At times I'd be teaching a webinar or something, I'll be like, “And that's August. He's not super happy.”

Working from home has its pros and cons for that I can be around, be a part of family life a lot more than I would be able to otherwise. I just gain a lot of time just by killing off the commute in the first place.

But then the other thing is I can put in time when other people aren't willing to work or you don't want to go home for the day. And so kids go to bed by 8:00 or 8:15 at night and that leaves me a good hour or two hours.

The other thing is, I think, you just have to be more disciplined overall. I would tend to write down what I'm going to do next. So, prep my work. As I'm wrapping up for the day, I'll write down clearly what I'm going to do the next time I come back to the computer. So when I come back to this computer, I'll look and wonder what I should do. Let me catch up on everything. It's just like, “No.” It's clearly stated what I should be doing next. So I can just start that.

And that's the kind of thing that I'll often fit in on a Saturday morning or some of those times. I definitely put in a lot of hours. You have to balance going and doing things like going to the park or whatever else.

I like 2:00 in the afternoon with the kids when everyone else is at school and working. I'm allergic to crowds just in general. Not actually. Whenever other people are like, “Oh, everyone's going to the lake on a Saturday.” You better believe that I'm there on a Friday morning with the kids.

Joanna: You're in a podcast with a lot of introverts. We get that.

I wanted to switch gears and ask you about ambition because, I think, it's another word like money that many creatives struggle with. On the one hand, yeah, I want to win a literary prize and be on the stage with Stephen King. And then, on the other hand, it's like, “Oh, no but I mustn't win that.”

I think to take things up a level, you have to be ambitious to drive through those thresholds that you have.

How have you balanced the positive and negative sights of ambition in yourself?

Nathan: That's a tough one because, I think, the balance would be ambition, contentment, gratitude, and everything along those lines because it's so easy to be constantly pushing for more. Whether it's from book sales or software revenue. It's never enough. We're always trying to hit a higher level.

And you're like, “Really? Like, it's already exceeded my wildest dreams. Why is this not enough?”

I think it's challenging once you've hit some level of success to keep creating and keep pushing yourself from a position of contentment.

If ConvertKit did not grow at all from now on, will I be content? And then what you want to come to is what I really want out of it is the, “I want to keep learning and I want to keep growing and I want new challenges.”

It's not that I need more revenue or more Twitter followers or something like that, but I do need more challenges. So those other things, the audience size or the revenue tends to be, I guess, just a way of keeping track of the new challenges that are coming up.

When you approach it that way you can be really grateful for the success you have and feel content. And still feel ambitious because you don't want that contentment to drive a lack of motivation. And none of us want to become a person who says, “Yeah. I had the bestselling book and you know what? Now I'm going to go to the beach and hang out because those royalties pay me enough money.”

We didn't sign up to be writers or creators or entrepreneurs to get to a certain income level and then check out. You've got to keep pushing those limits and you have to keep learning but at the same time, you have to do it with gratitude. Ambition and gratitude together, I think, are really, really powerful and then you don't get trapped in a frustrating cycle.

Joanna: I agree with you and it's the fun part, too, right? Learning something new is the fun part. I'm learning about screenplays at the moment and writing a screenplay adaptation.

It may never make me any revenue but I'm learning a lot.

Nathan: Yeah. That sounds like it's putting you fairly far outside of your comfort zone. You might have been able to write in the style that you're used to and published that and the types of books that you're used to. And you're like, “Okay. I'm going to push my comfort zone, by 5% or 10%.”

The creatives that probably are going to struggle the most are the ones who are really, really afraid to fail. If you use your six already as like who's someone? I think of Andy Weir. He wrote “The Martian,” right? Insanely successful book. Like, just wildly successful and he might feel all of this pressure for his second book to be absolutely incredible, right?

Because he wrote “The Martian.” He can't come out with a mediocre book now. Whereas maybe if you had a mediocre book and then you wrote a better book like… So you can either approach it two ways.

You can say, “The success that I've had, it's going to paralyze me from creating further because the bar is so high.” Or you'd approach it and be like, “Yeah. That worked out well. Let's go try something crazy and ambitious. And if it fails, that's totally fine because I'm the guy who wrote ‘The Martian.' I at least have that success.”

You can approach it in two different ways and one paralyzes you and keeps you from creating. And the other like gives you this freedom to try totally new things.

Another example would be like, George W. Bush, the former president of the U.S., taking up painting. Is his painting amazing? No. But he achieved becoming president and now he's painting. He's not worried about failing at painting.

Now, he moved on to something totally different. He's not thinking people are like, “Uh.” You know, whatever you think of his presidency, no one is like, “Oh, because you achieved that high level, now you should also be good at this totally other thing.” He has no fear of failure and so he's pursuing something that he wants to.

Joanna: I totally agree with that. That's why I love J.K. Rowling because she could just be resting in her castle, on her pillow, but no. She keeps writing. She keeps producing because she's a creator and she'll never be done.

We're never done until we die, right? And that's also the fun part.

Let's circle around to ConvertKit because you've mentioned a number of times solving problems and serving customers as well. There are a lot of email providers out there.

What problem did you see in the market that lead you to build ConvertKit?

Nathan: There are a couple of problems. I was using MailChimp at the time. And at first, I was completely shocked that email marketing works so well because it's been around forever.

I launched my books. This is in 2012. I launched my first book and launched it to an email list of 800 people. And nearly all the sales came from that email list. I went to a friend of mine who've been doing online marketing for a long time.

And I was like, “I don't know if you noticed, but it wasn't Twitter or Facebook or Instagram that drove the sales. It was email like drove all the sales.” Email drove more than all of the social platforms combined. And he's like, “Uh-huh. We've known that since like 2001.” I was really late to the party there, but once I learned that I just kind of became obsessed with it.

And then I started learning all these best practices. I wanted to implement everything that I could. If this is working and I have no clue what I'm doing how well could it work if I actually applied best practices?

There was things like tagging your customers or, they're really common now, but back then a new thing with content upgrades. Basically, if you at the end of your blog post you're having a call to action or an email opt-in that was specific to that post, you get a higher conversion rate. And if you try to do that in MailChimp, you'd end up with all these different lists where to do that for every single one you had to create a new list.

And I was like, “Okay. That's no problem.” And then I realized that MailChimp was charging me. It's the same person on each list. They are charging me twice. I'm like, “Wait a second.” Now, I understand why you're supporting and recommending that I do this. And then someone would buy and I'd put them on a third list. And then I was like, “Okay. Now, we tag for this. There's a bunch of these problems that we can solve.”

It was really just a matter of me realizing, “Oh, MailChimp and all these providers are built for small businesses.” And as much as I'm a small business, the U.S. Department of Commerce defines small business as 0 to 500 employees. I was like, “That's a pretty big range.”

ConvertKit, it's a pretty good sized business I feel like and we have 30 employees. And so we're still at the absolute bottom end of that small business range. MailChimp and others are serving small businesses. That's such a broad range and that explains why they don't have all these things that are best practices for our industry because our industry is less than 1% of who they are trying to serve.

And so that's why I was like, “Okay. I can solve my own problems, build the tool that I want and then rally people together who have the same problems.” And then I get to not feel bad about saying, “No,” to people.

Someone will come along who has this enterprise software business. And they are like, “Oh, we can use ConvertKit if you just build this functionality.” I just feel like, “Thanks but it's not for you.” Go use something else because ConvertKit is email marketing for creators. And so as creators, we have a different set of problems and I just think we can solve them better.

Joanna: This is a big question because I know a lot of authors have resistance towards email marketing because it doesn't feel creative to do emails. I think that's what it comes down to. I know I'm resistant to doing emails because I'm like, “Oh, I'd rather be writing a story or something like that.”

What can you tell people to convince them that email marketing can fit under that creative banner?

Nathan: It's just a different media type. It's written words.

The first problem that I think a lot of creatives make when they get into email marketing is that they like really focus on design. They think, “Oh, I'm going to design a great looking email.” But that's like using the weirdest canvas.

Email is a terrible canvas to design on. It'd be like painting on cardboard or something. It's not any good for it. Email is for writing and it's for telling stories and it's for connecting with people because you get this really personal connection, whether you have 20 people on your email list or 20,000.

They're signing up so that you can get into their inbox every single day or every week or every month. And so to be treated that way as like this little group of people who want to hear about whatever you're working on, and get the inside scoop, they want to hear about your ideas that aren't fully fleshed out.

You're supposed to be working on your novel and you have this idea of this other short story. And you're like, “Oh, but I can't. Let me just distract from the novel.” No.

You can write that short story that's three pages long and send it out to your email list. And they'll love it because they're not just a fan of your writing, they want to be a fan of you. And they want to know the story behind it.

And so, for me, it ends up being this community that I can talk to and say, “This is what's going on. This is how the book is coming. This is what I'm up to.” And it ends up being this creative outlook because, I think, I lower the standards. And I don't hold it to the super high standard where I have to be perfect or anything like that.

It reminds me of a quote, I can't remember the lady's name, Sandra something, but she talks about how if you hit writer's block, lower your standards and keep writing. And, I think, about that because, I think, a lot of people hit some kind of writer's block when it comes to email. Like, “What should I send? I have to get this perfect. I have to have the perfect sales copy on my page to sell this book or whatever else.”

And it's like, “No, you don't.” Be genuine, create.

I had launch emails where I'm promoting a book that I came out with, and said, “Hey, I think you will like this. Here's why.” And it's like a couple sentences and then, “Here's where to go buy it.”

There's no perfectly crafted sentences that I'm absurdly proud of or I think the wordplay is just perfect. It's just like, “Here's why I made this. I think you'll like it. If you do, let me know. If not, let me know what I can do better on it.”

And you take that approach then it just feels like you're using email as a way to share whatever you created with your friends rather than perfectly crafting every interaction or worrying that you're doing it wrong.

Joanna: As you're saying that I'm wondering if authors particularly have an issue with this because we use language, and because we want our language to be perfect and polished and we're used to working with editors. Maybe I'm just thinking now for myself, maybe that's part of my resistance but you're saying it doesn't have to be that way.

Maybe it's more like talking rather than finished prose.

Nathan: Yeah, for sure. And along those lines, I think, writing emails you can even talk them out and record them. No one ever complains about talker's block and how that's not a thing. The biggest thing about it is if I say something poorly and I can see that slight look of confusion on your face that you don't understand it, I can just try and say it again better. It's much more of a state of consciousness. I can just get these ideas out there and improve upon them as I go.

Whereas with writer's block, everyone is trying to get it perfect. And they write it out and then they hit the backspace key a bunch of times.

I think, with email, you get to try out these ideas. You have this idea and you write it out and send it out to the list and say, “What do you think?” And then like for me, at some point in the future, when I write another book, a lot of the content from it will be ideas that I've tried out with my email list beforehand, of trying to like flush this out. “What do I think of this? I have an idea but it's not fully formed. So let me write it.” “Now it's a little more concrete. Let me send it to the list. Let me have some discussions over email.”

People have some other stories they share and then six months later, when it comes time to write the book, or who knows when I'll actually write my next book, but then this idea would be a lot fully-formed.

I think of it as a playground and then it's just fun. No one goes to like a playground of a park and is like, “Am I playing correctly? Let me make sure that I'm playing the right way.” Because, otherwise, that would be terrible.

Joanna: I love that. Now, we are almost out of time, and we're going to do a webinar. I'll link to that in the introduction, but just give me two things.

Are new authors going to start on ConvertKit? What is a particularly good thing for them? And then if they have a list already but they want to take things to the next level, what is one thing that's good for them?

Nathan: If you're just getting started, then the first thing that you want to do is start gathering email subscribers. A lot of you will hung up on, “What exactly would I give them?” We can cross that bridge when we come to it, but first start growing the list.

Put something out there and say, “Either join this list and the first thing you'll get is a sample chapter of the upcoming book.” Or a lot of famous authors, I think it was author, Adam Grant, he wrote…I was missing all the books that he wrote. But he's written a lot of great books in like the research and nonfiction space. And his newsletter is just once a month, his ideas that he sends out. And he's just saying, “Hey, if you like my books, you'll also like this.” And that's not like a strong sales pitch with newsletter but it's sign up, get some more details, etc.

Start with that; just a form or a page on your site, you know, your site.com/newsletter. And it's just, “Sign up to get whatever I'm working on.”

I like what Derek Sivers does. He's written a bunch of books. I bought “Anything You Want” which is one my favorites. He has, I think, sivers.org/projects and he just takes the approach of like, “This is what I'm working on.” That's an easy thing to tell someone.

If I'm a fan of your work, somewhere else then I want to know what you're working on now. And so you can to take that approach. You could say, “Sign up for my email list to hear what I'm working on most recently.” And once a month, you keep people updated. That will be the easiest thing if you just dip your toes in the water.

If you have a list already and you have subscribers coming in, then it's time to add a little bit of automation to it. Don't go crazy with these automated launches and all that stuff. There's a time for that down the road, if you want to.

For now just think, “Okay. If someone is brand new to my work and they sign up to my email list, what is it that I want them to know? What ideas are fundamental to what I believe that you should know before you read the blog post that I wrote yesterday?”

There's that post that I wrote two and a half years ago that you should probably read to understand how I see the world or maybe it's just some my best work. That short story that's buried in the archives that I'm so proud of, or put that in an email sequence. So that after they sign up the next day they get that in their inbox.

And then two days later, they get another one of your favorite things. And then two days later there's a link to Amazon to go buy that book. So that you're automating some of those things and making sure that your new subscribers who are discovering you this week are getting the stuff that you put out years ago, and are getting a pitch to go buy a product.

Because let's face it, that's part of your art. And we're all about combining the craft and the commerce and so you have to actually ask for the sale.

If you do it in an automated way with your emails, then you only have to, I guess, get over that feeling of selling one time. As you put it in the automated sequence and then ConvertKit will do that for you. And you don't have to be like, “Oh, man. I gotta sell today again.”

You just write that once and it ends up doing the work for you going forward.

Joanna: I do you love that and I've recently moved over to ConvertKit, which is why you are on the show. I moved over because was so frustrated mainly with the tagging and segmentation elsewhere, which is definitely a more developed thing once you have a list but it does make it very easy.

And, I think, also it is a very friendly system. You don't have to be techie. It just looks like … I hate saying like MSWord because that's complicated, but if you can type on MSWord you can use ConvertKit, right?

It's not technical in that way.

Nathan: We've worked really hard on making it easy to use. And I have this unique advantage in having an entire background in software design and user experience and all that. And then also being a creator and just saying, “I'm going to build what I want, then kind of nothing else.”

Combining those two things has been special. And so now it's fun to be able to serve so many creators. We've got a little over 17,000 creators using ConvertKit and paying for ConvertKit. So it's fun.

Joanna: I'm a very happy one of them. So tell us where people can find you and ConvertKit online.

Nathan: Yes. So ConvertKit it's just at convertkit.com. One thing there to check out is go check out “Tradecraft.” It's linked to from the home page. That's our monthly online magazine and we cover a different topic every month. So whether it's how to create your first product.

The one that comes out this week is all about how to teach webinars if you ever thought about doing that yourself. We cover a different issue every month. We like have photographers and illustrators working on all of that.

It's a pretty high-quality production and, of course, go sign up to ConvertKit. But then on my site, if you want to know what I'm up to, it's just nathanbarry.com. I write a little more often now than I did before, and maybe the year-end review post would be a fun place to start. That's what I just published.

I do one every year, have for the last seven years now. And so, I think, they're really fun because they're all snapshot of like not only an update in life but like a snapshot of your worldview, and what you thought was possible at that time and like your outlook on life at the time. So, I think, that would be most fun.

Joanna: They are. Great. So thanks so much for your time, Nathan. That was brilliant.

Nathan: Thanks for having me.

Joanna Penn :

View Comments (9)

  • Good interview with Nathan. I liked his comment about "Talker's Block." Yeah....no one gets talkers block. Very good point. Also, I appreciate the fact that you are always examining your business and where you want to go long-term. It seems in the self-publishing space...there is so much (still) about producing (which is important...obviously) and not enough on the kind of long-term careers we are trying to create as indie writers. And how to truly balance art and commerce. Thanks for keeping that philosophical approach in the indie author arena. This is one of the reasons I increased my Patreon pledge to this podcast. You are looking at the industry from several dimensions and giving indie writers a broader outlook than just write, publish, and repeat. Thanks Joanna.

    • Thanks Marion, and I'm glad you feel I am bringing a longer-term perspective to the indie space. It's something I continue to focus on over the short term sales stuff :)

      • You are welcome, Joanna.
        I have a suggestion for a future show. I was listening to a conversation this morning with Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro. They were talking the debate between "Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction" and how Ishiguro's novel, The Buried Giant crossed some kind of boundary that it was not supposed since he used fantasy tropes in the novel. Ishiguro wondered where those deep-seated prejudices came from. I began thinking about where those deep-seated prejudices come from in terms of self-publishing to indie publishing. Even if someone writes a book as a vanity project...who is it really hurting? No one. I would like to listen to someone examine similarly to the Gaiman/Ishiguro conversation about where these deep-seated prejudices towards indie publishing came from.

  • Hey Joanna and Nathan!

    Great episode! :)

    It is true ....

    Building a successful business in this industry takes time and effort. Big success comes from big work. That's just how it is.

    It is the consistency of the amount of work you put in that can take you far.

    If you have a dream and vision, you know in the back of your mind that all of the time you are spending building something will be well-worth if you just persevere.

    Thank you so much for sharing so much value in this one episode!

    BEst regards! :D

  • Another very useful interview i'm 99% sold on convert kit - although i understand that book funnel can assemble a mailing list without needing a third party mail agent ?

    Incidentally I used to manage the Thames path (along with the Ridgeway as I've mentioned before) so when you pass those lovingly installed signs, and cross the hand crafted bridges think of me and my volunteer team sweating (and swearing) holes in the ground. (2006 to 2010 but hopefully some of it still survives)

    • I use BookFunnel for distributing free books and now also selling on SELZ, but it is not designed as an email client. Different tools for different purposes!

  • I've used Mail Chimp for years and it's not difficult but I snese something is missing and it looks as though Convertkit has gone one step further. I really enjoyed this podcast, actually, I enjoy them all. I'm recovering from flu and have listened to a whole bunch of back episodes in the last few days.

  • There are so many useful and interesting ideas in this podcast, about living and working in two worlds -- writing and selling, the creative world, and the business world. ... And I had been hearing good things about CovertKit, so now I will try it this month, after watching the February 20 webinar ... Thanks very much to Joanna and Nathan.

  • This was such an awesome podcast. Although I don't currently use Convertkit, I will consider it in the future. Building an email list is so important to growing a business.