How I Started A $140K/Month Flights And Holidays Deals Newsletter

$141K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
product
I Know The Pilot
from Melbourne
started May 2016
$141,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
1.08M
alexa rank
17.7K
followers
607
followers
market size
$570B
avg revenue (monthly)
$121K
starting costs
$29.7K
gross margin
25%
time to build
10 months
average product price
$49
growth channels
SEO
business model
Subscriptions
best tools
Mailgun, Azure, Later.com
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
22 Pros & Cons
tips
2 Tips
Discover what tools Garth reccommends to grow your business!
email
social media
Discover what books Garth reccommends to grow your business!
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi, my name is Garth Adams, founder of I Know The Pilot. We send out airfare and accommodation deals to our subscribers every day. While other travel deal sites rely on paid subscriptions, we have been 100% free from day 1.

Since starting in 2016 as an email list attached to a simple WordPress site, we have grown to have our own iOS and Android apps, custom sites, and a thriving social community. We expanded from Australia to include New Zealand and the USA - with localized versions of the apps, sites, and communities for each market.

At its height, we had over 780,000 email subscribers, 110,000 app users, and 550,000 Facebook fans. Traffic was over a million visits a month. We were doing it all with only 2 full-time employees and 3 part-time contractors, so in Feb/20 we hired another full-time developer.

And then the pandemic hit. Australia closed its borders and international leisure travel went to zero. Soon after, most of the country went into hard lockdown. For a travel business doing 95% international flights, it wasn’t good.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it back to how I got started, and then find out how we are doing now that vaccines are slowly being rolled out.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I have been programming one way or another since middle school. Once I was in the workforce, I was always working on my “side hustles”; Creating sites and promoting them through SEO. I created a few puzzle websites, but my travel site IWantThatFlight.com.au showed the most promise.

Marketing is everything! Before you build that SaaS or make that product, be very clear how you are going to market it (preferably a method that you have experience or a clear advantage in).

IWantThatFlight.com.au is a flight comparison site, similar to Skyscanner and Kayak. Before they expanded to Australia I was able to carve out a profitable niche. Once they arrived, however, their huge marketing budgets soon made it difficult to compete, though the products were evenly matched. Slowly but surely traffic and revenue were decreasing. As the sole provider with 2 young kids, I felt constant pressure to turn it around.

Over the period of 18 months, I read every case study on successful startups that I could find (the book “Traction” was particularly interesting). I noticed that people were occasionally sharing cheap flights on shopping deal websites. I tried posting a few deals that I found, linking directly to IWantThatFlight.com.au. Some deals did well, enough for me to post them regularly, but I was always subject to the whims of the deal sites & their members.

It was dispiriting to work on a great deal and have it do poorly due to a cheap burger deal coming out at the same time (true story!). The traffic when a deal went well was worth it though, and it took me another 5 months before I finally decided to start my own flight deals site from scratch.

I decided to make the flight deals site a separate site from IWantThatFlight.com.au so I could hire outside contractors to create the site and they wouldn’t have to know any of the IWantThatFlight.com.au code. IKnowThePilot.com.au started as a WordPress site. The MVP took just 2 weeks to build and cost only $400. I was keen to move away from relying on SEO for traffic, so hooked up a Mailchimp email list to the site from day 1. I knew that I would be posting new deals regularly, so I was hoping that subscribers would be interested in getting our emails a few times a week.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The first version of IKnowThePilot.com.au was a WordPress site built by a contractor for $400. It used Mailchimp to store the email list & send out the deals. Looking back, it was super basic - but I wanted to focus on the deals rather than the tech. It was even hosted on Godaddy (which worked pretty well, considering their reputation).

how-i-started-a-140k-month-flights-and-holidays-deals-newsletter
How the first version of the site looked

That version lasted almost a year and had plenty of custom coding. We even used it to power the IKnowThePilot iOS app (built by a freelancer who couldn’t speak English - challenging!) through the WordPress RSS feed.

Once we had established that there was a market for IKTP and we were starting to get serious traction, I decided to rewrite the site completely in VB.net and C#. The new version allowed me to automate much of the deal creation process. We could also use the Mailchimp API to send emails at deal creation, rather than have to log in to Mailchimp and manually send out each deal.

Our Mailchimp list grew and grew, and so did their bill - to over $15,000 a month. At that point, we had 500,000 people on our list and were sent around 30 million emails monthly. We wanted to shift to another email company, but there are not that many options once you have lists that size. We ended up moving over to a fixed-price plan at Mailgun. We now had to manage the list ourselves; handling subscribers, unsubscribes, click tracking, IP reputation management - but were able to cut the bill in half.

Work on the iOS app was extremely sporadic, mostly due to communication difficulties. I decided to have a local freelancer take over and contacted the freelancer in Hong Kong as the source code repository had not been updated since the first release. He didn’t respond to emails, and when I finally got through to him on Skype chat his brother answered. He told me that the freelancer had joined the army, and the laptop with the source code had been given to him as a present. And he promptly wiped the laptop clean.

So the iOS app had to be created again from scratch. Ouch!

Since then, we keep all code in GitHub, and make sure all changes are up to date!

Describe the process of launching the business.

I hadn’t heard of ProductHunt when IKnowThePilot.com.au launched in 2015, and they're certainly weren’t the plethora of Launch/Discovery sites back then that there are now. My plan was always for growth through sustainable, ongoing effort - some kind of marketing every day rather than a huge campaign every now & again.

I also recognized my own limitations, I am much more a programmer than a creative marketer, and I was still the only full-time employee. Initially, I added links to IKnowThePilot.com.au in deals that I was already posting on other sites, so I started getting regular (if small) exposure that way.

I also hired marketing freelancers. Over the next 6 months, I tried Google Ads (several times!), Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, and of course more SEO. The freelancers were not very expensive, so I could keep costs down while I tried each of them out. All but one bombed-out however, so maybe I was getting what I paid for? Luckily, one came through and we were able to start growing, and he still does work for me to this day.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Most companies need an excuse to get in touch with their customers - for us it is the opposite, we post so many deals (6-8 a day) that we have to allow the customer to choose often we contact them so that they are not overwhelmed. We also try to contact our subscribers on whichever platform they feel most comfortable - so not just email, but Facebook, Instagram, and native iOS & Android apps.

In the beginning, we sent our subscribers an email for every single deal. That worked at 1-2 a day, and we kept it like that till it hit 6 a day - but our churn rate was steadily climbing and it was time to invest in a better system.

Don’t just build it. They won’t come.

Allowing subscribers to choose to be sent only one email a day, or only a few days a week was an obvious step - but was not an easy financial decision, as we knew it would also reduce our traffic. Unlike paid membership sites, which earn revenue even if they never send subscribers a deal, we are motivated to send out as many deals that we think our subscribers may be interested in as possible.

We ended up re-writing our deals, so that people being sent 1 email a day received a summary of new and current deals, while people being sent every deal got much more detail on that single deal. Traffic was down for a while, but the reduced churn rate meant that overall traffic was back to previous levels within a few months, while subscriber numbers kept increasing.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Domestic travel has slowly been increasing and air travel with New Zealand resumed exactly one week ago, so the current situation is vastly better than at this time last year.

We have shifted to promoting domestic flight deals and accommodation packages. They are working well, but traffic and earnings are still down by 70% compared to pre-covid. People are hesitant to travel interstate due to sudden border closures, combined with domestic travel being cheaper and so paying less commission.

We have reduced our costs dramatically. Any fixed price contracts have been renegotiated to a “pay per use” and our headcount has been similarly trimmed. We are profitable and can wait till international travel resumes before ramping back up.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

2 years ago, we hired an optimization company to improve our signup conversion rate. At the time we were spending around $1500 - $2000 a day on acquiring new subscribers. We hired an outside agency that specialized in conversion optimization to help us. Going in, we made a few assumptions:

  1. At the amount we were spending on marketing, even a small increase in conversions would translate to significant savings.
  2. Tracking the success of the project (any increase in conversion percentage) would be easy.
  3. Once we had given the agency access to our signup funnel, they could complete the project without our help.

Unfortunately, only #1 turned out to be true.

The agency tried various “easy wins”, changing colors/text/messaging in our signup funnel but nothing made a measurable difference. From there, they wanted to try more ambitious changes - but that required changes to our webhooks, daily downloads of leads from Facebook, and changes to our database.

At the end of the 5-month project, it appeared that the conversion rate had improved slightly - but after comparing conversion rates to the previous year the improvement may have just been a seasonal trend.

The project ended inconclusively, but cost a significant amount. The bigger problem was that it had prevented us from working on other projects already on our roadmap which had been requested by our users & we knew to be important.

After this, we resolved to be more focused, and work on features suggested by our users or the market, rather than outside agencies.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Other than this, all our tools for discovering/publishing deals are custom-coded.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Not sure how helpful these are, but they were fun to read:

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

Marketing is everything! Before you build that SaaS or make that product, be very clear how you are going to market it (preferably a method that you have experience or a clear advantage in).

That might mean gaining a following on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/your blog before launching a relevant product. It could also mean having experience in SEO/SEM if you are going to use those methods.

Don’t just build it. They won’t come.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Garth Adams,   Founder of I Know The Pilot
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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