When I decided to build They Got Acquired, I set a goal of collecting the emails of 1,000 interested people — and I wanted to achieve that before we launched.
I knew having an email list was essential for a successful launch. We needed a great product, but we also needed people who cared about the value we were creating.
Yet today our startup launched, and whoop, whoop! Our email list is at 1,071. We made it!
And we made it based on a single landing page.
This is one of the biggest challenges as a pre-launch startup: without a full-blown website or product, it can be challenging to get potential subscribers to trust you.
But with a scrappy approach, it’s possible. This post explains the tactics we used to get our first 1,000 subscribers.
First, what is They Got Acquired? It’s a media company that showcases companies that sell for 6, 7, and low-8 figures, as well as the founders who built them. Anyone who signed up for our email list signaled they were interested in receiving that content in their inbox.
I got our landing page live in March 2021, so that’s when we began collecting emails.
But the first few months, I wasn’t actively working on the company. I picked up the pace — and so did our email growth — in September, when I finally had 30 child-free hours each week to work.
In the months following, the number of new subscribers directly correlated with how much I hustled. When I made subscriber growth a priority, I saw lots of new sign-ups. When I put it aside to work on other parts of the business, the growth of our email list slowed.
I took this scrappy approach both because I enjoy it, and because I wanted our first 1,000 subscribers, the core of our audience, to be top-notch. That way we could use the list as a jumping-off point for a referral program or paid social ads. We’d also get better feedback in the early days, which we could use to shape the company going forward.
Before we get into the tactics, here are a few tips on how to approach list-building during a pre-launch phase:
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the whole idea fleshed out or you haven’t started building the product. Not only will this help you suss out whether your idea has any appeal, putting the landing page up early will give you the longest possible lead time to collect emails before launch.
When you’re bootstrapping (read: don’t have a big marketing team and/or lots of money to put into marketing), it can take a while for the boulder to start rolling. A lot of the other pieces I had to get in place, like filling our content bucket and landing sponsors, had a finite “done” point.
But I knew the longer I had to build this email list, the bigger list we’d have at launch, and the more set up we’d be to make a splash. So I set this up first and did the rest later.
Our landing page was built with Carrd (love this tool). Messaging I included:
Here’s what our landing page looked like:
Once the landing page is up, it takes effort to get people there. Front-load some of these efforts, even though it means delaying work on other parts of the business.
This gets the slow burn started; it means the idea has more time to catch on, and subscribers have more opportunities to share with their networks.
Then even as you move your focus to other parts of the business, you will continue to (slowly) gain subscribers.
Now that you’ve got the approach, how do you actually get people to the page?
There are so many ways to do this; lean into the tactics that work for your skill set. In my case, that’s content marketing and networking.
Here’s what I did to get those first subscribers.
In the very early days, before we even had a way to collect emails, I shared the idea for the site on @kernal_ideas. This was in early 2021, a year before we launched. Kern.al is a free community for sharing startup ideas; you get feedback and connect with others who are keen to build it with you.
This was my first time sharing the idea publicly, and it got a decent number of upvotes. Because of that, the Kern.al team promoted the idea at the top of the website and in their newsletter, which helped it get more votes.
Here we are at the top of the homepage in Oct. 2021:
Once I decided to pursue the project and created the landing page, I followed up with the followers of the idea on Kern.al and let them know there was an option to sign up for the email list.
I sent lots of emails to people I’ve worked with or alongside over the years, letting them know I’m starting something new and asking if they knew any of any companies that had sold for <$50M in the last few years that we might cover.
Some offered ideas, and as a side benefit, anyone who was interested signed up.
In some of those notes, I let the recipient know email signups were our number one goal in the early days, so some contacts shared the URL with friends or colleagues as a way of supporting me.
This approach took a lot of effort because I personalized each email. In addition to helping me get some early subscribers, it also gave me a reason to check in with people I enjoy staying in touch with.
Twitter is a great place to find people who are interested in business, but I also really don’t want They Got Acquired to be one of those products that exists solely for the Twitter ecosystem.
I believe there are lots of people who want what we’re building who aren’t on Twitter, and I want to reach them! But we can work those efforts alongside increasing reach on Twitter.
It looks like I have a lot of Twitter followers (12K), but many of those people are remnants from when I used Twitter heavily in 2010 and wrote about different topics. So while that follower number brings some street cred, I have work to do to add people who actually care about They Got Acquired to my follow list.
A few things on Twitter worked well:
For example, we got a bunch of sign-ups when this tweet did well:
At the end of every interview as a reporter, I asked:
Is there anything you think is important that we haven’t talked about?
90% of the time, the person says: “No, just that…”
And gives the best sound bite / quote of the interview, summing up everything we talked about.
— Alexis Grant (@alexisgrant) January 4, 2022
For any Facebook, Slack and Discord groups I was already part of, I’d drop in a question about whether anyone knew of companies that had sold in the last few years for $100K-$50M, because we’re looking for companies to feature. Occasionally we got some good leads through this tactic, and it was also effective for getting on people’s radar and adding email subscribers.
Many groups have rules against outright promotion, and even if they don’t, people don’t tend to respond well when you shout about what you’re doing. Instead, find a way to involve them, a way to ask for help or advice. You’ll usually need to mention what you’re working on to ask the question. In some groups, I didn’t include the URL in the question; sometimes I’d add it later in the comment thread, especially if people asked questions about the company.
I participated in quite a few groups previously and was a genuinely helpful member, so it wasn’t me just showing up out of the blue. Some are free, and others cost money to join.
A few of my favorite groups that relate to business:
While overt promotion is looked down upon in community groups, here’s what’s acceptable: introducing yourself when you first join, and mentioning the company you’re working on. In fact, that’s usually one of the questions you’re encouraged to answer in your introduction, at least in business-related groups: What are you working on?
So I found a bunch of new-to-me groups to join. Some were free, others charged a fee.
The cool part about this is it has been a fun way to meet new people and learn new things, and it helped me get the word out about They Got Acquired, too.
Again, nothing overly promotional. Instead, I offered helpful information and mentioned TGA at the end.
This post, for example, was about how I sold a content company last year.
And this one detailed my experiments selling digital products over the last decade:
Before you can publish a thread in the entrepreneur sub-Reddit, you have to gain some street cred by leaving comments others find valuable enough to upvote. So I spent some time interacting in the channel before sharing my own post there.
I don’t think this has brought me more than a few sign-ups. But I enjoy documenting the process, so I might as well do it in a place where others might see it, if not immediately then perhaps in the future.
I first began sharing milestones on Indie Hackers on February 15, 2021. Should be fun to look back on later. Here’s my Indie Hackers feed for They Got Acquired.
Once we had a few hundred subscribers on our email list, I let those early adopters know email subscribers were important to us — and some of them shared the landing page with others as a way of showing support.
This share from @cindygallop at the #3percentconference is a wonderful example. She talked about They Got Acquired on stage before we even launched!
“@alexisgrant wants to redefine startup success. So she’s creating media platform @TheyGotAcquired to showcase acquisitions between $100,000 to a few million. Which is nevertheless lifechanging amounts of money for female, Black, of color founders” https://t.co/wyGxi4Szd2
— cindygallop.eth (@cindygallop) January 7, 2022
My email list for my personal site, where I’ve blogged for the last decade, is always a good jumping-off point for any venture. Some of those subscribers have read my work for years, and they’re always supportive of my projects.
I have about 5,500 people on that list. But it’s not super valuable for They Got Acquired, for several reasons:
Still, I pulled in some new subscribers from that send.
A lot of people knock LinkedIn, but I’ve found it to be surprisingly effective over the last few years for reach, making new connections and bringing opportunities my way.
I haven’t done anything particularly special on LinkedIn over the years to get engagement on posts, I’ve simply posted stories and helpful information there regularly.
Just because you’re in pre-launch doesn’t mean you can’t email your growing list of subscribers. Let them know what you’re building, what they can expect to see at launch, what your challenges are and what they can do to help.
This will ensure you’re top of mind in the months leading up to launch, and it might help your subscribers talk about your brand or forward the emails to friends.
They’ll also be used to hearing from you — and want to hear from you — after launch.
While we’re planning on a weekly email post-launch, our pre-launch cadence was more like one email a month. Here’s an example of an email I sent pre-launch; we had 906 subscribers at the time and it had a 67% open rate.
I’m eager to see how much faster we can grow our subscriber list now that the website is live and readers can get a better sense of the value we offer.
Once we get our launch feet under us, there are a few more tactics we’re excited to try for growing the list, including setting up a referral program through SparkLoop, and buying ads in other newsletters with similar target audiences.
I hope this gave you a few ideas for growing your own email list in the early days!