What to do when your email list is worthless (bridging the gap between your hobby and your business).


I’m up to almost 10,000 signups on my email list – that’s a hefty amount, worthy of celebration.

Except that, using MailChimp, I’m paying $80 a month, or $960 a year.

I only send emails once a month or so, when I’ve finished some big project worthy of sharing or have a new book out.

Also, so far I’ve been careful never to sell anything.

My main business is book cover design, and I get enough work through client referrals, recommendations and natural searches.

All the other websites and tools I’ve been building are also free, and I give away most of my books.

Since my list isn’t bringing in any money, paying $960 for it seems a little outrageous.

Am I doing it wrong?

I asked a few online business savvy friends whether there was a cheaper alternative, and this was their feedback:

1. A list should be worth about $1 per month, per email.

That means, if I have 10,000 subscribers, I should be making $10,000 per month. This wouldn’t be so hard if, for example, I had a $100 product, or coaching service, and sold 100 a month. So in their view, $960 was just the price of business. The problem is only that I’m not using my list the right way.

2. You won’t earn any money if you don’t ask for money.

Some felt that my soft-sales, laid back attitude was my problem – I didn’t have enough backbone or the right mindset. I had to be confident of my worth and always make the ask, and demand to be compensated for my time. This is true to some degree; I do a lot of favors and work for free, because I enjoy helping people.

3. If you’re not making money, you have a hobby, not a business.

This is definitely true – and I would strongly urge anyone to start out to meditate on what this means.

This weekend I’ve been helping my brother in law set up a website for the beekeeping program and curriculum he’s developing for high school students. It’s a great project, and the guides and videos he’s developing will help a lot of people start their own clubs and learn how to keep hives. But he’s a little worried about finding the time to do it, on top of his day job.

If you have a passion or a hobby, there are lots of people who want to learn what you are learning.

If you can communicate well (in either writing or video) start a blog and share the content.

If you are sharing valuable content, you can expect to be rewarded financially, but you do need to think about where the money is coming from.

For my friends, the difference between a hobby and a business is that one is set up to earn money.

For me, the difference is that a hobby is you-centered (you do it because you enjoy it) whereas a business helps other people or provides something of value that they want or need.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something you love that is also helping, serving or providing for others – and if you focus on that overlap, you will find a way to make money. Even if you give away a ton of free content, you need to think about how you will structure your business and what extras you can add.

For example, my brother in law can sell his curriculum program to people wanting to start their own clubs. He could sell a high-priced version where he will visit the school a few times and train someone else to manage the club and care for the hives. He could make trendy Tshirts or products with slogans like “just beecause” or “bee the change.”

He could write books about beekeeping. He could apply for beekeeping community grants (or coach others on how to apply for them). Rather than just teaching one local group about bees, having a blog will let him teach the world and be viewed as an expert.

To sell or not to sell

If book cover design was my own business and I had no future plans, paying $960 a year for a growing list that doesn’t earn any money might not be practical.

Likewise, if you wrote a few books and are building a huge list of followers, your email list may not be doing much for you (people would probably join your list after they’ve read your books… so they wouldn’t be buyers, just fans.) You could notify them when you have a new book available, but it wouldn’t make sense unless you are publishing several books a year, and making plenty of income from your book sales.

It’s true I’m uncomfortable “selling” to my list, because I get dozens of emails of crap every day and I hate that stuff. I’m building free and useful resources for indie authors, and that makes people like me. Some of my friends would probably say I’m being a sap, and say that giving too much away if I’m not earning money is a waste of time. It’s only a hobby, not a business.

And that may be true if were running a business website only – but since I’m running a personal blog, what people think about me (my name, my picture and my brand) is pretty important.

I’m still surprised when I get emails saying how some article I wrote changed the life trajectory of somebody, or pushed someone else to finish writing a book, or helped them accomplish some other goals.

Today on my Facebook page I saw these two messages:

This site is awesome. This guy is priceless. Worth visiting.

I’ve just spent the last few hours going through your blog, and it’s been time well spent. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it – you add value with every graphic, quote or example that you give to make your point. You don’t just tease, and say “buy this to find out more.” I’m not an indie author at this stage, but the principles you discuss apply to me as well. Thank you for your informative and inspiring posts. You have given me so much to think about.

How awesome is that? From these two comments it’s clear that my site is “priceless” because I’m not selling anything!

Because I’m not selling anything, I can just give stuff away – free help, free advice, free templates and guides – without hiding the important stuff behind a price tag.

Of course I’m able to do this because it builds my reputation, and builds trust, and I’m already making my “real” money through book cover design on another website (I rarely use this blog to promote my book cover design services or write posts about book cover design leading to my other website).

But there’s nothing wrong with making money

I tend to earn as much as I need and then spend my time (and any extra money) developing new resources or websites, or focusing on writing my own books and hobbies. And I’m happy that people like what I’m doing with this website. I’m also happy that I stand out from all the other garbage online, which consists of short and unhelpful bullet point lists followed a link to a product or service.

But as I grow bigger, the costs add up. Along with the $960 for MailChimp, I had to upgrade to a premium VPS server to deal with all the traffic I’m getting (about $400/year).

Then there’s all the time I spend writing, building resources and websites to help other people be more successful, without charging for it (when I could be accepting more book cover clients and earning more money – usually around $50/hour).

So it’s no longer a case of choosing to give stuff away for free – I’m actually spending a lot of my own money helping other people.

Which isn’t a big deal, as long as I can keep doing it without needing anyone else to support me.

But at the very least, it’s practical for a blog – even a hobby – to make enough money to cover all the maintenance costs.

It’s also preferable, as long as you’re doing it, to make enough money that you don’t need to have a regular job (I don’t have that problem, since I’m already self-employed, but a lot of people are working for The Man to fund their hobby. Instead they should focus on earning money to quit their jobs so they could have more control and freedom, and produce important things that people value).

Also, I think earning enough to cover basic costs is a good goal. Instead of just running this website with no plan, the friction point of having to pay $1360 a year to run this blog will force me to think up ways to make at least that amount of money.

It gives me a real, solid number. It comes to just over $113 a month, which should be really easy to earn with a small ebook, a donate button, a shop with relevant products, or something else. It doesn’t mean I have to hard sell, or even notify my list at all. I could simply add it to my site and see how it goes.

Having no plan is planning to fail

Figure out the costs of doing business and how much you need to earn to maintain the lifestyle you desire. Get specific with the figures. Figure out how much you need to make and how it’s going to happen.

The Tortoise and the Hare (The long term plan)

Having a big following is valuable in ways that don’t always translate directly to sales and money.

Sometimes it’s nice to launch a book and hit the bestseller lists, or get a lot of reviews. I have at least 5 books in the works – and that doesn’t include all the fiction I plan to write.

Sometimes it’s good to help share a new startup or website.

Later this year I’ll probably develop a couple new writing sites – one of which will put all the resources and tools I’ve developed over the years together in one space, and charge a low monthly fee for access. Another might be a Nanowrimo type site with tools and resources to guide you through writing and publishing your book in 1 year.

If I ever reach 100,000 subscribers (I should get there in a couple years) I’m thinking of running a Kickstarter campaign to buy a big house somewhere magical and use it to run writing retreats with personalized book coaching.

So while I may be fooling myself, I don’t think I necessarily have a weak personality for “failing” to sell and focus on the money.

I think a lot of people just have one idea, or one service, and they need to be earning money from that so that they aren’t losing money all the time. They need to launch fast and start earning, to “verify” the idea. A lot of young entrepreneurs (70% of millenials think that term applies to them even if they’ve never made any money) waste a lot of time building things that nobody wants, or spend money developing something that isn’t going to be successful.

So most coaches and gurus get them to “Focus on the money” because it’s the clearest way to figure out quickly whether some idea is worth pursuing. You don’t want to spend years working on something nobody will ever buy (unfortunately this is what most authors do… but then they wise up and write books with more widespread appeal).

It’s definitely a complex issue: later this year I’ll publish “Not for Hire” – which will focus on how to start making money; because until you can choose to do whatever you like, including whether or not you want to work with new clients or whether or not you want to take a few months off, you aren’t really free.

“Not for Hire” means you can’t be bought – not because you are living a minimalist lifestyle and you don’t have expenses, but because you are already making more money than most people are willing to pay you.

But for me personally, I’m not just wandering around testing out random ideas and hoping one sticks. I have my eye on the finish line, but I’m in no rush to cross it.

The more followers and the bigger platform I have, the easier it will be to do amazing stuff down the road.

I’m wearing a lot of hats. Instead of building a business, I’m building a network of businesses. To an outsider it may look like I’m just running a blog that doesn’t make money (and worse, spending a lot on the upkeep).

But they don’t see what I see: they don’t see all the plans, all the half-finished projects, the vision I have of the future.

There’s no doubt I could be doing better, growing faster, organizing my content more professionally, and making more money.

Although I have pretty tremendous ideas for solving problems affecting lots of people, I present myself a little too casually to fit in with the super-star bloggers with glossy websites and professional headshots.

It’s true that money management is a skill I have no passion for, and my bank account is always close to zero no matter how much I make.

But I also know that having a big list, having a great reputation, and having a lot of friends and online relationships – plus having a whole bunch of desirable skills and expertise – makes it pretty easy to make a lot of money quickly.

So even if this site is losing money right now, in a year or two I might start a new website, or offer a product, and make $100,000 in a few days.

(Remember – 1 subscriber is supposed to equal $1 of real value a month: which can mean 1 out of 10 are ready to give you $10, or 1 out of 100 will give you $100).

Things to think about if you’re just starting

Are you running a hobby or a business (is it for you, or for other people? Are you doing what you want, or finding out what people need?)

Where will the money come from? What else can you offer?

How will you cover the costs of starting up?

What can you do that will make the most money with the least amount of effort? (For example, publishing a book is easy if you use Createspace for POD – people can order and you don’t have to do anything. But if you’re selling art, you need to display, then package and deliver each individual piece – you could be doing prints instead).

Instead of focusing on small amounts of money, focus on the BIG amounts. Don’t spend a lot of time making $10 widgets you can sell. Focus on premium, luxury products – not everybody can afford them, but if you only have to sell a few, rather than hundreds, you will have so much more energy and free time to grow your business.

Think of the things that are low risk but have a huge potential for payout. Maybe you’ve got only a 1/1000 chance of success but they could earn a ton of money – take a chance. Fail, try again, and keep failing until somebody says yes and you get a golden parachute.

“Passion” doesn’t automatically mean financial success. A business needs to make money – and if you want to live a “Creativindie” lifestyle, you need to make enough money to be generous, not just enough to support yourself.

Doing what you love is selfish. Find a way to provide value and help others using the skills or abilities you already have (or learn new ones!!) That said, offering personal skills and services is not a way to Big Money: you need to put together a platform that solves problems for more people than you personally have time for. So learning new skills won’t be as valuable as learning how to put together a business that can run without you.

Focus on the big numbers. Making a lot of money is about serving a LOT of people. Think about how you can connect with a huge number of people.

Think about what  huge number of people would like, enjoy, or share with others.

Anyway, those are some basics to get started – keep an eye out for “Not for Hire” which could be ready by the end of the year. If that sounds like a sales plug – it isn’t, I always let my email list know when and where they can get my books for free.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • MysticCowboy

    Hi Derek. I enjoyed your post, though I’m not clear on what the bottom line is. It sounds as if you are early in the process of thinking through your situation and are sharing that process with us.

    I totally appreciate your generosity. You give away a ton of valuable information. I can relate to your money situation. I recently shut down a blog that had exceeded its “unlimited” bandwidth and which would have required me to use a VPN at $40 per month. I’ve done that twice now. Neither was a business blog and I was unwilling to accept advertising on a personal platform, especially when one of the blogs was discussing comparative religion. It’s a tough call.

    OTH, I don’t think that using the site to more directly promote yourself would be obnoxious. The first time I really looked at your page layout I was surprised that you essentially buried the ads. We’re used to ads on websites. If they are done tastefully, as yours are, I doubt that you would offend anyone by making them more prominent.

    Your content is worthwhile. Your design aesthetic is good. You’ve obviously attracted an audience. There’s no reason that this blog could not pay for itself either through directing more clients to your pay services or by selling ads. This would take nothing away from your generosity, which I appreciate and applaud. I’d hate to see you burn out or get frustrated at the building costs.

    • Thanks for the feedback – it’s true this is more a ramble than something very organized. Basically I’m opposed to blatant selling, especially selling of things that aren’t extremely valuable; but I also want to help authors and artists focus on the money (making things people will like) – so perhaps I’m personally conflicted on the issue. It’s not that I don’t believe in selling things or charging what you’re worth – I do. But I don’t want to sell something just to have something to sell. I sometimes forget that people are actually reading my articles, so I should probably focus on putting out clearer directives towards creative success… but that’s what I write books for anyway. There’s only so much you can do with an article.

      • MysticCowboy

        I do thank you for your blog, and making your other materials easier purchase isn’t a bad thing. I’ve just ordered one of your books from Amazon.

  • Thanks for that info – I should have started with something like that. Now that I’ve set up on MailChimp I’m a little afraid to lose people if I transition, but I’ll look into it!

  • Every ad you place online should be 1 of any currency you hold in Lithuania 1 Litas, I’ve actually made so much money – You want at least +100% ROI. If you invest 100 you want 200 back, when you invest 200 you want at least 400 back

    I cant understand why people use mailchimp or aweber, and not feed burner? Feedburner is free. You collect the emails and send it 500 at a day with Gmail, 20 days in a month and you’ve just saved up 80 and everything else is profit.

    I can’t really understand the mentality of American people, why the hell they pay for things you can get for free? Here I’m talking not about piracy, but tools in general.

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