As a new founder, my first revenue goal was a humble one: make $1 on the internet. I am happy to say that I hit that milestone on Sunday (Jan. 31, 2021)! I can’t put into words how much positive energy it gave me. Having that first bit of real revenue for my business has given me confidence that I can make more. The words of Jack Butcher ring true:

This is an important milestone, but there is another reason I wanted to write about this. I earned this revenue in a way I never expected I would.

How I thought I would make money

When I started out, I imagined the process for earning revenue would look something like this:

  1. Choose a market and learn a lot about them.
  2. Identify a problem I can solve with software.
  3. Build software to solve the problem and charge money for it.
  4. Earn revenue when people buy the software.

In my journey with Sword & Source I would say I am still on step 2. I’m what the tech crowd would call “pre-revenue”. In my mind, I have still not launched a paid product.

So how did I make my first dollar?

How I actually made my first dollar

The first project I ever released was Novus Bestiary. It is a newsletter and website that releases articles on mythical creatures. I have slowly been building that email list over time. When I launched the website, I commissioned an artist to do some monster illustrations for the project. With the website completed, I still had some budget remaining for a couple more illustrations but I was not sure what to spend it on. I waited.

In December, I discovered the work of Patrick McKenzie. He taught me a lot about SEO and how to think about bootstrapping a business. In his talk Your First 60 Days he recommends that early founders “grind it out”. What he means is you should get yourself out there and talk to customers. Every single day.

I took the advice to heart. I realized that I had been building an audience with Novus Bestiary, yet I still knew so little about them. I wrote a note on my desk that said “Turn your audience into your friends”. My intention was to stop thinking of emails as broadcasts, and work on developing a real dialogue.

I exported a list of every subscriber. Every single day, I wrote an email to 3 to 10 people on the list to ask them about what was going on in their lives and what they got out of Novus Bestiary. When you hear the phrase “do things that don’t scale”, this is exactly the kind of action people are talking about. There was no way this approach would scale for me, but I got so much value out of it. “Grinding it out” has earned me collaborations on actual work, actionable feedback on my projects, and yes, my first dollar.

Selling an art print I never meant to sell

Remember my leftover art budget? I wanted to do something special for my email subscribers. Something to make it clear that I value them. I asked Marcel the artist to draw an illustration of a Draugr. The Draugr was the first creature I ever wrote about on Novus Bestiary. It seemed fitting as a subject. I was trying to communicate to my followers that I felt they had been with me since the beginning.

Once the illustration was ready, I posted it on my storefront and created a discount code that would reduce the price from $40 to $0. I sent an email to my list with the discount code as a thank you. I also mentioned that if anyone wanted to support my work they could feel free to leave off the discount code. I was curious to see how this experiment would go.

It did not work well. Only two people ordered the print and both of them used the discount code. I didn’t care about the money, but it was disappointing to see that there wasn’t much response to the gift.

Now we get to last week. I send my usual greeting to a subscriber to introduce myself. It leads to a lovely conversation with someone who has been following my journey from the beginning. After some back and forth, he signs off his email with these words:

PS I’d love to get you off £0 - what’s your top product for purchase?

My head was spinning. I was beyond grateful to hear such a strong sign of support. But I seriously thought I had nothing to sell! I was about to click send on my response, something to the effect of “thank you I appreciate you but please standby” when I remembered the Draugr. As a good capitalist, I wasn’t about to let this invitation to trade value for dollars slip through my fingers. I mentioned the art print and hit send.

A day later, I got the email from my Shopify store. He had purchased a Draugr art print for $40 CAD. I made $30.53 CAD profit after the fulfillment costs.

And that is how Sword & Source made it’s first dollar from a stranger on the internet. Not by selling software, but by casually chatting with email subscribers and selling one of them the artwork from a failed experiment.

The importance of talking to customers

There are several interesting takeaways for me.

I need to stop selling my work short. In my mind the Draugr art print was a failed experiment. In reality it lead to my first sale and could do more for me still. I recently had a conversation with my brother on our podcast about how surprised I was by the success of my last product launch. Brandon had believed from the start that I could monetize it and I always laughed him off. That’s another example of me not giving my work a fair chance to bring revenue to the business.

The journey of building a business is not linear. It is not a step by step process. It’s a lot more like exploring the wilderness. Each week I enter a new section of the woods and learn a little more to bring back to basecamp. I’m always free to go back and build more in a mapped area or strike out into an unexplored region. Any spare resource I find along the way goes into my pack and helps me on my quest in ways I never could have predicted.

Most importantly: I can not overstate the value of talking to your subscribers. My first sale was a big milestone, but it is not the only way these email conversations have benefitted me. I’ve learned so much about what people want to see, and met some true fans. If you are just getting started like me, listen to Patrick McKenzie and just grind it out.

Talk to your customers.