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How to Build a Profitable Business with Email

Imagine if your product was an email newsletter.

Not a tool for selling or a channel for promoting but the actual product that people paid for. Would you treat email differently?

Death to the Stock Photo is an email-first startup. The product – monthly photo packs for creatives – arrives in the form of a remarkably beautiful email packed with images. But the images are just the beginning.

In July of 2013, photographers David Sherry and Allie Lehman realized they had piles of hard drives full of unused photos that were just sitting around. Both creatives, they also recognized a trend of expensive and subpar stock photography taking over the web.

“We just started emailing people we knew and asked, ‘Are these photos useful to you?'” David says. The duo created a simple email newsletter in order to deliver their photos for free. To say the idea gained traction is an understatement.

David created an uncomplicated landing page that converted at nearly 50 percent. (The site has since been redesigned, but they left the original landing page up since it was so effective.)

death to stock first landing page

Friends passed the word along and within six months, 20,000 creatives had joined the movement. David and Allie had given tons of value without asking for anything in return – and their endeavor had reached the point where it was time to find out if their community was willing to support their mission financially.

“Six months in, we tested a premium plan,” says David. “It was cobbled together but it allowed us to test the idea without actually building anything.”

We’re building a sustainable culture of “Yes!” in a world filled with “No.”

Four hundred people signed up immediately, which validated their idea. With some revenue coming in and a number of lessons learned, they started building a simple but useful photo library for paid users.

They also used their new revenue stream to fund creative adventures like road trips and surfing expeditions. The photos from these trips helped grow their image library while empowering the creative community. Between David and Allie’s photos and stories, as well as the Death to Stock Photo community, the couple is seeing between 15,000 and 20,000 new subscribers every month.

Building a Business with Email

When it comes to marketing, Death to Stock keeps it simple: the product is everything. But David, an experienced marketer, has a few strategies that keep new and existing users happy.

The homepage, for example, is a simple split-screen that asks visitors to sign up either for the free monthly newsletter or a paid subscription. David wants everyone to have a choice, which is why he keeps the opt-in above the fold.

Death_to_the_Stock_Photo_home page

Death to Stock incentivizes new users with the free monthly photo packs, but David makes a point to overdeliver with every email.

A lot of companies will say ‘Join our list and get a free e-book.’ We don’t say that. But when people sign up, we give them something free. It’s a nice surprise.

Including a free downloadable image in each email has been key to their list growth and user engagement. As David told us in our massive email best practices guide:

Make conversion a habit.

When subscribers are accustomed to getting value from each email you send, it’s much more likely they’ll be ready to upgrade when the time comes.

death to stock monthly

Doubling down on the user bonus strategy, Death to Stock sends active users more emails than inactive users, rewarding engagement with more photos.

“We segment based on hunger,” says David. “We know that when people engage a lot, they have a pain point. We relieve that by sending them more content.”

And that’s just free for the non-paying subscribers. “Our secret is that we spend just as much time on free subscribers as we do premium subscribers.”

Even if you’re giving away free content, it should be held to a high standard.

Even with their enormous growth, David resists the temptation to send emails more than once a month.

“We just try to tune into our audience. We’ve never paid attention to time or day,” David says. “Most email marketers will say you should email at least once a week. But we just do what feels right.” Tweet this

What If Email Was Your Only Tool?

If email was the foundation of your entire business, what would you do differently? Here are a few tips from a business that’s earned more than 200,000 subscribers in 18 months:

  • Pare down your messaging. If you want people to take action, give them a single call to action. Too many buttons and links is distracting.
  • Give it away. Don’t be afraid to give without asking for anything in return. This is how relationships are formed.
  • Use email to validate ideas. Before you build a product, use email to test the market. Read more about this on Ryan Hoover’s blog.
  • Don’t oversend. Get to know your audience. It’s better to be a rare gem than a commodity.
  • Treat email like the product. In Death to Stock’s case, email is the product. Regardless of what you sell, imagine that people pay for your emails; it will hone your focus on what really matters.

How would you treat email if it were all you had? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check out Death to the Stock Photo.

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