Growing A Medium Publication to 70,000 Followers

The Story of Entrepreneur's Handbook

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hey! I’m Dave Schools, founder, writer, and editor of Entrepreneur’s Handbook, a top Medium publication with over 68,000 followers, dedicated to helping entrepreneurs succeed.

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Entrepreneur’s Handbook exists because I’m obsessed with the process of how to turn an idea into an income stream. I’m fascinated by this. It’s never formulaic.

Every startup idea and founder journey is different. Different teams, markets, products, economies, technology, etc. It’s always unique.

But it doesn’t mean there aren’t common patterns, lessons, and strategies that help all startups succeed. Entrepreneur’s Handbook seeks to surface these, which is why we have a saying, "How-tos are beautiful" — I look for articles that start with “How to” to add to The Handbook.

My "secret formula" for stories is inspirational personal journey + practical takeaways so that readers can emulate “what worked” in the successful founder’s story.

Entrepreneur’s Handbook has generated $1,000 a month, $400 a month, $140 a month, and $0 a month – it all depends on the partner we have, their goals, and budget.

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

Entrepreneurship was a core part of my childhood development. Growing up, my mother challenged me to sell, whether it was homemade chocolates, books, landscaping services, or modeling.

At college, I earned an undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship and a minor in communication.

Entrepreneur’s Handbook made its debut on Medium when one story caught fire (I sat down with a millionaire who operates 10 businesses while sailing around the world with his family). I had gotten lunch with a guy and took notes.

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Months later, I returned to that note on my phone and wrote the story and hit publish. The next day I woke up to see it in the Top (5) Stories on the front page of Medium.

The sudden traffic spilled over onto another story of mine (The 7-Step-Paul-Rand Logo-Test) that also reached the top five stories at the same time. Entrepreneur’s Handbook went from less than 100 views per month to over 100,000.

Business Insider, Quartz, The Observer, Smashing Magazine, and other major publications reached out and republished these pieces.

At the time, I was the director of marketing at a commercial real estate firm and writing for Entrepreneur’s Handbook on the side for fun as a hobby. It stayed that way for three years.

EH slowly grew and the publication added an average of 125 new followers a day.

In 2017, Inc. Magazine asked me to become a columnist, where I wrote several articles a month about entrepreneurship for Inc.com.

Soon I began putting some ideas together for how I could monetize. But it wasn’t as straightforward as I had hoped.

Since launch, how have you grown your publication?

Medium publications like mine operate as a standalone site (i.e., think of a Wordpress blog) but are housed within Medium. As a publication owner, I can customize the look and feel of the publication but it’s limited due to Medium’s UX and design constraints.

The benefit of having a Medium publication over something such as a Wordpress site is the automatic audience it taps into. Medium is essentially a social network and your content receives an immediate audience.

The drawback of hosting a publication on Medium is the lack of customization and control. For example, Medium recently removed the ability to add a custom domain to a publication.

Below are the top 4 ways I grew Entrepreneur’s Handbook, but note that there are no shortcuts to growing an audience organically. It requires volume + high quality content + luck, all of which are difficult to generate consistently.

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  1. Proactively reaching out to writers I loved. And getting rejected most of the time. But I’m proud that writers such as Nicolas Cole, Paul Jarvis, Kyle Young, Thomas Oppong and others have contributed to EH. I found them through Medium and Twitter.

  2. Being fast to publish new writers. Anybody can submit a story to EH for consideration. But I’m fastidiously particular with who and what I’m looking for. So when a new writer with an amazing story (one time, a Stanford student submitted an exclusive interview with Steven Spiegel, founder of Snapchat), I reach out as soon as possible (within an hour) to make them a writer and get the piece in the door.

  3. Write unique stories. If you want to stand out from the crowd, write stories nobody else is writing about, from people to ideas. If you spend enough time on Medium, you get a feel for what people like and don’t like. People like new ideas, new (ideally, better) ways to do something, and profiles of people with a story that’s never been told before.

  4. Network in person to find interesting stories and people to interview. Almost all of my greatest stories came from a serendipitous meeting at a networking event, or listening to someone speak at a conference and approaching them afterwards. Sell your writing skills to get access to someone’s incredible story. If you have an audience to give them, great. If not, people still love to tell their story. Just make sure you’re honest about it and seek to honor to them in it.

What are your thoughts on Medium?

Medium is an wonderful, frustrating platform with which I have had a love-hate relationship for five years. I remember when it was a closed platform and only professional journalists and authors could write on Medium.

One time, I had a back-and-forth with Medium’s CEO Ev Williams and he ripped apart one of my responses line by line.

Ultimately, I owe Medium the credit for any success I’ve ever had as a writer. Medium gave me a chance and continues to give a lot of people an opportunity to build a career as a writer.

Right now, I’m about to finish a project I’m really excited about called 30 Medium Writing Tips – it’s an email course that delivers one lesson a day for 30 days, based on the top stories and insights from the biggest Medium writers.

Describe the process of monetization. How did you make money?

In 2017, I quit my job to become a full-time writer. My wife was a travel nurse and made enough income for me to take 18 months to "go for it" as an independent entrepreneur.

My plan was to create a private membership for Entrepreneur’s Handbook. Back then, Medium allowed publications to launch their own private memberships with a paywall for content (this no longer exists because Medium adopted the membership model platform-wide.)

I’d rather publish four deep, helpful, amazing stories in one month than four short, forgettable, lightweight pieces in one day.

I charged $8/month for "Brew Projects" membership, which involved access to a private Slack community, a premium newsletter, and weekly mastermind calls with mentors.

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I had two metrics of success for the launch: 10 members in the first week, 30 in the first 30 days.

In the first week, 11 people signed up. I was pumped. The "Business Brewers" calls were productive. People were excited to turn their ideas into income. The membership provided a clarity, accountability, and mentorship for entrepreneurs to accomplish their goals.

But at 30 days, only 17 members were sign up.

Yet it seemed like it was going really well. I felt like I was really helping people, and the members were making progress on their goals.

Three months after launch, I decided to pull the plug. Brew Projects folded and I learned two valuable lessons:

  1. Use opportunity cost to make hard decisions. It’s difficult to know when to quit something. But by assessing where you’re investing time (i.e., money-earning potential) and being as objective as possible, it can reveal whether something is really worth your time or not.

  2. You can’t half-ass community management. Starting an online community is a full-time job with lots of hours required to increase engagement. I simply didn’t realize how much time it required.

(Read the full lessons learned in the post mortem announcement on Medium here).

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

At this point, Entrepreneur’s Handbook operated at ~50k unique monthly readers and made zero money. But it was still growing at 100+ new followers a day.

Then I received an email from a product company that was interested in partnering. We Skyped and negotiated a deal. They ended up partnering for $1,000 a month for three months, paying $500 up front and $500 at the end of each month.

Here’s the proposal I used to close the deal. It’s a Qwilr doc. Qwilr is the best tool for proposals I’ve ever seen.

Since then, I’ve had other partners come and go for various 3- and 4-figure deals. One of the best value props I can deliver is the 30k email subscribers to whom I can deliver letters through Medium.

Other than that, selling a full site take-over partnership requires a lot of work and I don’t actively push for it.

I’ve experimented with advertorials, where I charge a small editorial fee ($100) to let a company publish a paid placement in Entrepreneur’s Handbook. I’m very protective of what gets published in EH and will edit heavily to make sure there’s value in every story.

One partner saw a 12X ROI on their partnership with Entrepreneur’s Handbook.

My 2018 goal for Entrepreneur’s Handbook was to double to 80,000 followers. We’re on track to beat that number handsomely. I receive several partnership inquiries a week, so the plan going forward is to vet and set good-fit partnerships as they come in.

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

I’ve learned that in a volume game (content publishing), a quantity-at-all-costs approach comes with a price. I’ve deliberately chosen not to be a content farm. I’d rather publish four deep, helpful, amazing stories in one month than four short, forgettable, lightweight pieces in one day.

Perhaps this isn’t the best way to grow an online publishing business, but it’s helped differentiate Entrepreneur’s Handbook from the competition.

Entrepreneur’s Handbook isn’t the biggest startup publication on Medium. Not even close. I don’t have the views that other publishing businesses have when they’re publishing 4+ stories a day.

EH publishes 1-3 stories a week. But I make sure they’re really good stories. I get submissions every day and my acceptance rate is around one out of 25.

I’d rather publish four deep, helpful, amazing stories in one month than four short, forgettable, lightweight pieces in one day.

Be wary of publications that publish anything from anyone. They might spike in traffic early, but it’s not a long-lasting strategy.

If you run a publishing operation, you know that your stories earn you a reputation. If your standards are low, not only will readers pick up on that and leave, but you’ll also miss out on opportunities from entrepreneurs who don’t want their personal story to appear next to a typo-filled, click-baity, and link-littered self promotional story.

Instead, I get emails all the time from people who’ve been reading Entrepreneur’s Handbook for a long time and comment on the quality, originality, and depth of the insights in each story.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I put more time and money into EH to grow it. Right now, it’s a side project, a small source of income, a credibility booster, a marketing tool, a networking asset, a door opener, and a passion project that I would do for free. As a lifestyle entrepreneur, I’m happy with where it’s at and I don’t want pressure to interfere with the quality of the stories.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Entrepreneur’s Handbook is 100% hosted on Medium. This is simultaneously an asset and a liability.

Medium, as a platform, is amorphous and unpredictable. This has influenced my dependence on the platform, because Medium has slowly pulled back its support of user publications over time, especially recently with the partner program.

Medium itself has become more of regular publication with a regular subscription model.

Ev Williams’ goal (to "fix the internet") with Medium required experimentation: sometimes things worked, other times they failed with aplomb.

One of the many things that did not work was the "Wordpress approach", where Medium aimed to become the CMS and frontend for major publications, including Thrive Global, Matter, Film Rejects, and Femsplain. These publications have since moved off the platform and run their own sites.

As a publication owner, I’m concerned when I see the company make moves that demonstrate they’re leaving publications behind (i.e., Medium "magazines," partner program updates, and feature removals like custom domains).

On one hand, Medium automatically puts my work in front of hundreds of thousands of readers with no effort from me. On the other hand, I don’t have full control and it could go away tomorrow. Risky, yes, but it’s one hell of a ride!

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

Podcasts

I’ve listened to every single episode of How I Built This with Guy Raz and I’ve actually interviewed Guy Raz and asked what he’s learned from so many conversations with billionaires. HIBT focuses a lot on failure and how it’s a part of everyone’s journey. Helps me get inspired.

I also really like James Altucher for learning how to conquer fear, GaryVee for jolting my passion, Tim Ferriss for hacks and performance tips, and Cal Fussman for asking great questions.

Books

Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. It’s well written and outlines the sacrifice it takes to accomplish something great as an entrepreneur.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand helped me see the value of not caring what people think and enjoying your work.

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

Action creates clarity. You learn more in 24 hours of taking action than 6 months of researching. Fear (lack of clarity) fosters laziness. Early on, you’ll be tempted to analyze more. This is masked fear. Take action regardless of the fear and the goal will become clearer.

Teachers teach, coaches coach, and entrepreneurs fail. It’s part of the job.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Not hiring but always looking for partners for Entrepreneur’s Handbook! If you have a product that helps entrepreneurs succeed, let’s talk about getting it in front of 68k passionate creators, freelancers, marketers, designers, and writers! Here’s more about how partnership works.

Also, I’m always looking for writers who are entrepreneurs with an interesting story to tell!

Where can we go to learn more?

Publication

LinkedIn

Twitter

Instagram

Email

Medium Writing Tips

Personal website

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