On Starting A Publishing Business And Making $110K/Month
I am the semi-retired founder of iPhone Life magazine, having launched the business 37 years ago. Today, we continue to deliver the same core product to our mobile device-owning customers: mastership of their devices - how-to-use knowledge that increases our customers’ productivity and fun. We do so even though technologies, marketing methods, revenue sources, delivery systems, company personnel, and leadership have completely changed.
Today, we sell easy-to-digest mastery of the iPhone through our flagship online subscription-based iPhone Life Insider program. We attract customers and advertisers with our practical, easy-to-understand, high-quality website content. There, visitors sign up for a free daily iPhone tip-of-the-day newsletter. We have over 3 million organic monthly visitors, and we send out 150 million emails each year. Our monthly revenue averages around $110K per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In the 1970s, I practiced and later taught the Transcendental Meditation program. To make a living, I returned to school to study computer science. I then worked for Hewlett Packard for three years as a software engineer. Even though I found the work challenging and out of my comfort zone, I confirmed that I could do whatever I set my mind to.
Meanwhile, practitioners of the TM program were invited to move to Fairfield, Iowa to meditate together to create an influence of peace in the world. My fellow engineers thought I was nuts when hearing of my intention to leave prestigious HP for a meditation project in the middle of nowhere. In October of 1984, I honeymooned with my wife Rita and drove from Palo Alto, California to Iowa.
Before leaving HP I bought at discounted employee prices, the first LaserJet printer (70 pounds) and the first true laptop, the HP110 Portable (9 pounds). To my surprise, I could not use the HP110 to print bold, change fonts, or produce graphics on the LaserJet. I reasoned that perhaps I could earn income writing software that allowed the laptop to take full advantage of the LaserJet. Unfortunately, few people owned such an odd combination of equipment which together retailed for $7,000 in 1985 dollars. Besides, I had no way to reach potential customers. Even so, I programmed “PrinterTalk” for my use.
One day, I burst out of my home office. Excitedly I told Rita that I would create a newsletter for HP laptop owners who didn’t have the time to figure out The Portable’s many possible uses … and I’d advertise PrinterTalk in it.
I knew nothing about running a business or publishing. I just felt strongly that ardent HP customers would appreciate a newsletter. Just as I followed my intuition and moved to Fairfield when it made no sense, I went forward with the business idea.
Describe the process of launching the business.
With the tradition of supporting former employees in startup ventures, a tradition that helped build Silicon Valley, HP agreed to send me addresses of the 2,000 HP Portable warranty registrants. In the mid-1980s, direct mailbox solicitations were like today’s email offers. I studied every direct mail piece I could get my hands on, noticing what made me want to buy things. As a young, enthusiastic, geeky, professional HP Portable owner, I fit the demographic and psychographic of my audience. Wording that moved me would probably work on my potential customer.
Integrity - always putting core values first — makes business effective, meaningful, and life-supporting.
With my laptop, LaserJet, PrinterTalk, and some editing help, I created a mailer. In it, I asked people to subscribe to a not-yet-existent newsletter about their HP Portable. I included a two-sided page jammed with tips and tricks. Without knowing anything about writing, designing, printing, or mailing a newsletter, I decided that we would be able to produce six issues a year. My wife, Rita, suggested a $55 subscription price. That number seemed as good as any. These avid HP fans spent over $4,000 on the HP laptop and necessary accessories. I reasoned that many would be willing to subscribe for $55 to learn how to use their equipment more effectively.
We hadn’t realized that a 1% response would have been good and a 2% percent response tremendous. In two mailings, 20% of the HP laptop registrants sent $55 to an unknown company in rural Iowa for a newsletter that existed only in my head. With the money, we had enough to start the company, so we cashed the checks.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
After sending the initial mailing, I received four dense pages of HP Portable tips and tricks from Ed Keefe, a fellow Iowan near Des Moines. I immediately called Ed, a computer science instructor at a community college. I said, “How would you like to share your knowledge with others by writing for our magazine? Oh, and I can’t pay you.” He said, “Sure.” I now had another writer besides myself.
At the same time, I had been talking on the phone with other knowledgeable enthusiasts who were calling to subscribe. The light bulb went off. My customers would be my editorial staff. Doctors, engineers, lawyers, managers, teachers, and CEOs called and told me how they used their HP Portable professionally and personally. During the call, I asked if they would write up their findings for other users. I began using their content in the first issue.
I cashed the first subscription checks in July 1985. By October, customers were calling, asking when they would receive their newsletter. I had lined up a local printer and written most of the articles but still had a lot to do before publication. In late October, I asked my artist friend, George Foster, if he could lay out our newsletter. George said yes, although I found out later, he had never done anything like it before. A decade before reliable desktop publishing, George took a printout of articles and specified the fonts, spacing, and graphics placements for the local typesetting company. Ron, the typesetter, retyped the text into his gigantic typesetting machines.
Together, George, Ron, and I edited, produced, cut out, pasted, and re-edited “type” on glossy whiteboards that we would give to a local printer. The three of us produced the first 28-page issue by staying up three days and nights, taking only occasional naps. We mailed our first issue on Thanksgiving, 1985.
I had chosen a creme-colored paper to help create a warm connection with the reader. In that first issue, I promised that together, in the pages of the newsletter, the reader and I would embark on an exciting, pioneering technological adventure. In the issue, I advertised PrinterTalk, the first in a series of software and used equipment sold through the newsletter.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Rather than covering all mobile devices and trying to be all things to all people, we have always gone vertical serving enthusiasts of a particular mobile device platform. The most important way we attract and retain customers is by continually improving and expanding our offerings. To do so for 37 years, we have had to stay strong and focused as a company– a simple slogan summarizes our core values: “Enjoy, Learn, Do Right.” Another key to our longevity in obtaining and retaining customers has been flexibility -- jumping on opportunities as they present themselves and having the courage to pivot the platform, the technology, or the revenue source when needed.
We transitioned from assisting users of HP Portables and Palmtops (1985-1998) to Microsoft Pocket PCs and Smartphones (1998-2007) to Apple iPhones and iPads (2008-present). We helped users master their devices by selling or giving away newsletters, magazines, software, used hardware, web content, daily email tips, and video tutorials, all the while providing vendors advertising opportunities to reach our customers.
We obtained customers from 1985-2007 mostly through informal partnerships with HP and Microsoft. HP included a free issue offering in every Portable, Palmtop, Handheld, and Pocket PC they sold, and Microsoft helped us get prime airport newsstand slots and give away magazines at major trade shows. Partnering with these major corporations was a huge boon but required an understanding of the internal pressures and mandates of HP and Microsoft employees and the ability to hear “no” ten times for every “yes.”
Not being able to work directly with Apple forced us, starting in 2008 to become more self-sufficient by building our website traffic and becoming proficient in online marketing. In 2011, at 63, I semi-retired and turned my company over to three brilliant employees in their 20’s. To survive, they had to transform our publishing company so that the bulk of our revenues would come from online products rather than magazine subscriptions and newsstand sales.
A creative decision about advertising sales helped keep the company afloat through the transition. We had been trying to sell our vast advertising inventory (magazine, website, email newsletter, podcast, email blast) as individual units to different parties. Instead, we decided to have only 10 advertisers and give each advertiser “the works,” an offer they couldn’t refuse. For a substantial fee a quarter, each advertiser would get a 10th of our vast quantity of print, podcast, email, and website advertising slots with analytics to show click-throughs. This strategy has netted us over twice the revenue than from before, happier advertisers, and a much smaller sales team.
Over time, my partners made the transition from print to online by developing an effective SEO-based sales funnel leading to our online Insider subscription.
iPhone Life Insider Sales Funnel:
- Our iPhoneLife.com bloggers create high-quality SEO-based how-to content.
- Visitors find the site through search.
- Site visitors are invited to subscribe to a free, one-minute, iPhone tip-of-the-day email newsletter. iPhone-related product vendors advertise on the site and in email.
- Email readers are encouraged to purchase an iPhone Life Insider subscription consisting of video tips and tutorials, live classes, iPhone Life magazine digital archives, an extended commercial-free podcast, and an “ask an expert” support service.
- Insider subscribers are asked to renew each year.
Here are several video versions of the email tip-of-the-day exclusively for Insiders.
Here is an iPhone Life podcast about iPhone gift recommendations:
Sales page for iPhone Life Insider
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Throughout 37 years of business, there have been many ups and downs. A particularly challenging period took place from 2015 to 2018 as magazine revenues continued to tumble with online sales not able to make up for the shortfall. Sacrifice, dedication, and focus allowed my partners to weather the challenge. Today, the future has never looked brighter.
We focused on the sales funnel. We began hiring SEO and email marketing consultants – top people with the best reputation even if their fees meant using them only a few hours a month. In 2019 we were averaging 3 million page views per month and were beginning to make significant progress in converting website visitors to tip-of-the-day newsletter subscribers and those subscribers to Insiders. Then, Google changed its algorithm which halved our monthly visitor rate. Because of our progress in a conversation, our revenues stayed constant.
We developed a two-fold strategy to drive more visitors to the website. First, with the help of consultants, we made changes to the structure of the website, weeding out old and redundant content so Google would give us more authoritative rankings. It took over a year, but finally, after a 2021 Google algorithm change, the work bore fruit.
Secondly, we went to our local bank, which had been doing business with us for 37 years. We showed them the funnel and a spreadsheet with conversation rates. We demonstrated that we needed a relatively small number of page views per month to cover the cost of a blog post. The bank loaned us money, and we hired more writers. Our team has almost doubled these last two years approaching 20 full-time employees. We are beginning to test Facebook ads to drive people to the site with initial success.
We also worked hard to increase revenue from renewals, the end of the funnel. We spent a lot of resources to improve the Insider experience in terms of more quality content and better useability. We were able to raise rates while still slightly increasing our per-year renewal rate.
New customers and strong renewals create a snowball-like effect in building our Insider customer base, which almost doubled over the last 18 months. After the fixed cost of producing Insider content, there is little variable cost. That means, every additional subscriber and renewer adds almost the entire $80 yearly subscription fee to our bottom line.
In addition, as we gain more traffic to our website, we increase revenue from our passive programmatic graphic and video ads, sold and placed mostly through partnerships. We can also continue to increase the pricing of our often sold-out 10 quarterly advertisers.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
- You must do three things to make a successful business: 1) Create a “Wow” product; 2) Know your customer; 3) Connect the product and the customer cost-effectively.
- Start with the goal and make an unshakeable commitment to achieve it. Goethe wrote, “At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you.”
- Generosity served our business well. I always wanted my customer, employee, lender, partner, or supplier to get more out of a transaction than I did.
- If you have a good product, want what’s best for the customer, and don’t make your wellbeing depends on the sale, selling is easy.
- Taking one full day a week off away from the business was the smartest thing I did for the business, my sanity, and my marriage.
- Keeping your word is the cornerstone of success and builds self-confidence and trust. If you always keep small promises, eventually you will be able to manifest anything you commit to.
- The culture, character, and purpose of a business are rooted in the entrepreneur’s underlying vision. That vision sustains, inspires, and empowers the business, giving it meaning and direction.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Gusto for payroll / HR
- Slack for communication
- Asana for editorial calendar
- Drupal for CMS + Fastly CDN
- Google Analytics + Webmaster tools
- QuickBooks accounting
- Trello for project management
- Google Workspace for team colloboration
- Microsoft Office 365
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It – Michael Gerber
I use this for a textbook in the course I teach on entrepreneurship. Simple language, simple story, powerful lessons about creating structure. I wish I read it before I started my business.
Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen – Donald Miller
A wonderful, simple, powerful approach to marketing – make your customer the hero in the Hero’s Journey. “If you confuse, you lose.”
Anything Michael Hyatt (Podcast, Books, Programs)
Wide range of practical business knowledge with a moral center.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
- Integrity — always putting core values first — makes business effective, meaningful, and life-supporting. From integrity comes trust, the glue of business. Trust allows for the flow of business activity. Without trust, a business falls apart. Our employees were confident they would be compensated. Our customers believed they would receive a useful magazine every two months. Our printer knew we would pay for 120,000 copies. Our banker had confidence that we would pay back building mortgages and loans. Running a business means making decisions all day long. In the heat of daily business activity, it is easy to cut corners to save time or money. I found that sooner or later there were consequences for ignoring my inner compass.
- Smart businesses hire carefully and fire quickly. I often did the opposite. In our growth periods, when desperate, I hired quickly, which could be a big mistake. In a small company’s family-like atmosphere, success comes from its people liking each other, doing jobs effectively, and representing the company well. I was too slow to fire, always hoping that things would work out. With the peace that followed a firing, I would realize that I should have let the person go six months before.
- Most people seem to have either a marketing or an operations mindset. A business needs both. My marketing, entrepreneurial, let’s-just-do-it way of thinking moved the business forward. Yet, it needed balance from a practical, hands-on, what-systems-do-we-need-to-create mentality. Without marketing, there would be nothing for operations to do. Without operations, the business would not keep its promises to customers. Marketers often want to bypass the rules and trivialize practical concerns. Operations people don’t like change, special cases, or complex sales offers. The operations and marketing departments must respect each other. As my staff grew, and I assumed a greater leadership role, I staked out the middle ground.
- I have donated monthly for 45 years and believe this habit has played a fundamental role in my success. Almost everyone associates money with survival. No money means no food or shelter. No money means business failure. To counter our attachment to money and fear of being without it, Rita and I decided on our monthly donations at the beginning of each year. Then, no matter what, like any other bill, our bookkeeper made the monthly payment. As we donated, our fear and desire to hold onto our money diminished. In business, the lack of fear and greed translates into clarity when making decisions about the money. The regular donation also diminished my aversion to money. When I began the business, I had the idea that making lots of money was somehow bad. That notion dropped as we started using some of our profit for causes that we believed bettered the world. The more we made in the business, the more we could give away.
- I recommend the Transcendental Meditation program, practiced by people as diverse as hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and director David Lynch. TM not only relieves stress but helps develop intuition. A quieter mind is more in sync with the rhythm of the marketplace. Given the incomplete information available for most business decisions, finely tuned intuition is often more important than analysis.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Link for jobs.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Free iPhone Life daily tips newsletter
- iPhone Life Insider program
- iPhone Life Podcast
About Hal Goldstein and his book about entrepreneurial startups:
Meditating Entrepreneurs – Creating Success from the Stillness Within
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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