How Starter Story grew to 1.4 million monthly visitors and $500,000 in annual revenue
Founder Pat Walls discussed how he automated his process so that the site now operates as a sort of flywheel.
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The entrepreneurship world is full of success stories about startups that began as side hustles, but in 2016, Pat Walls learned firsthand how hard it can be to grow a company while simultaneously holding down a full-time job.
That year, Walls and a couple of other friends founded a B2B SaaS platform aimed at helping small brands sell products to retailers. He spent his days at his software engineering job and then devoted his nights and weekends to building a minimum viable product. Their hope was to get into that year’s Y Combinator and then use that as a launching pad to acquire investment and users.
But they didn’t get into YC, and their struggles didn’t end there. “We were hopping out of work to jump on sales demos and fixing critical bugs while on the job,” Walls recalled later. “We realized how hard it is to build a B2B SaaS app when you also have a full time job.” After several months of failing to gain any traction, they finally threw in the towel. “We shut down the company and moved on.”
The experience was demoralizing, but the entrepreneurship bug never quite left him. Walls now knew that if he were to launch a new product, it needed to be something that could be better managed as a side hustle. “I also wanted to do something on my own – without co-founders,” he told me. At the time, he was a big fan of the website Indie Hackers, which publishes case studies from founders on how they grew their online businesses. “I did find that a lot of content about entrepreneurship — from business publications like Forbes — didn’t really showcase real stories about entrepreneurs.” Instead, they largely focused on the small number of startups that raised massive amounts of investment from VCs. “I wanted to interview just regular people and share small business success stories, like how someone started a business that sustained their lifestyle, stuff like that.”
Walls didn’t have a track record as a journalist, nor did he even have a website to show potential interviewees, so he started out by interviewing friends of his on the phone. In October 2017, after he had completed transcribing a few of these interviews, he launched Starter Story. His initial plan was to use Wordpress to publish his blog posts, but after some initial frustrations with the platform, he ended up coding his own CMS.
Once Walls had a few sample case studies up on Starter Story, it became easier to convince other entrepreneurs to agree to interviews. Traffic was anemic at first, but some of the founders he interviewed started sharing their case studies on their social media accounts. He also had some early posts take off on platforms like Reddit, Hacker News, and Product Hunt.
Encouraged by this early success, Walls increased his production schedule and was soon publishing dozens of new case studies each month. Flash forward to today, and they’re now driving 1.4 million visitors a month and over $500,000 in annual revenue.
Not only does Walls now work on Starter Story full time, but he’s figured out all kinds of ways to automate his process so that the site now operates as a sort of flywheel. In an interview, he walked me through how he built this flywheel and the lessons he learned along the way. Let’s jump into my findings…
Some early wins
Early on, Walls figured out that there was no way that his interview process could scale. It just took too long to sit on the phone with the founder for an hour, transcribe the recording of that entire conversation, and then massage the transcript into a case study format. So he developed a Q&A template that he would email to founders so they could answer on their own. “One of the biggest challenges is getting people to write well,” he explained. “Founders are not always traditionally good writers. So we have this template and we have our main questions, things like: What's your background? How'd you come up with the idea for the business? How'd you grow the business? How'd you launch the business … et cetera. And then under those questions, we have a lot of what we call sub questions. They’re basically guidelines, like, ‘hey, you should write three to six paragraphs here and you should talk about this thing and this thing and this thing.’ So it does guide a non-writer into figuring out how they can write something compelling.”
When the first draft comes in, Walls then sets in with the revisions. “We will mark up the document with comments,” he explained. “Let’s say a founder writes, ‘We used SEO to grow the business.’ We’ll leave a comment that says, ‘OK, can you be more specific about your SEO growth strategy? Show us the articles that you wrote and give an example of a high performing article for you.’”
At the end of the entire process, Starter Story has a case study that spans several thousand words and touches on every aspect of the business, from the initial idea to the manufacturing to the marketing to the sales. Take this case study on a socks company called Hippy Feet as an example. At nearly 4,000 words, it walks the reader through how the founder stumbled into the socks-making business, why he chose to employ only homeless youth, how he found his customers online, and specific revenue and growth figures. It even features charts from the company’s website analytics. It’s easy to see why someone who’s researching how to launch an apparel company would benefit from such a case study.
One of Starter Story’s first big breaks came when Walls discovered the r/Entrepreneur forum on Reddit. The kinds of stories that were being shared on that subreddit were very similar to the case studies he published on Starter Story. There was only one catch: Reddit’s community is notoriously antagonistic toward self promotion. If you only post links back to your own website, you’ll quickly get banned.
Walls managed to find a workaround. “Instead of linking to the article, I would take the full interview and put it into the Reddit post, and then at the very bottom it would say, ‘oh, if you're interested in more stories, come check out our website. And that was the most self promotion that I would do.” As an example, check out this Reddit post from four years ago titled “$10K/mo selling a bidet product.” It contains the entirety of the case study, and the only link back to Starter Story can be found in a single line at the bottom. The post has over 400 upvotes.
According to Walls, some of the most successful Reddit posts would receive up to 100,000 views. “That would send maybe a thousand people to my website, and then maybe I would get 10% of those onto my newsletter,” he said. “So it was pretty small, but it was a big benefit in terms of building the brand of Starter Story, and then also finding more entrepreneurs to interview, because they would see that it would go viral on Reddit, and they’d be like, ‘well, I want to share my story too.’”
By this point, Walls had added an intake form where people could apply to be interviewed on Starter Story. This not only reduced the burden on him for finding new founders to interview, but it also created a sort of flywheel effect, wherein a case study went viral and he’d see an influx of new founders wanting to be featured.
A few months after launching Starter Story, Walls was approached by an email marketing company called Klaviyo, and they soon struck a deal that positioned the company as the exclusive sponsor of Starter Story, a relationship that lasts until this day. “We would put the ad at the top of every page, and then we put a native ad in every newsletter.”
By the end of its first year, Starter Story had attracted 439,856 pageviews and was generating $1,700 in revenue per month.
Over the next few years, Walls continued to chip away at the site during his free time while simultaneously holding down a job as a software engineer. Every month he saw gains in both traffic and revenue, and he continued to find new ways to make his content production more efficient and effective.
For instance, he leveraged his coding skills to build more automation into his process. “Like when the interview goes live, I would have an automated email go out to the founder that would ask them to share it on social media, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “Or I built this integration between Google Docs where the founders would write the content, and then it would convert with one click from Google Docs to my article format.”
Walls also started hiring outside contractors to take over the content production. This not only freed up his time to work on other aspects of the business, but it also allowed him to experiment with new kinds of content.
His biggest breakthrough came after he started taking information from his case studies and repurposing it within SEO-friendly pages. “We found that interview content doesn’t do well in search engines, because an interview doesn’t get straight to the point, which is, I think, the most important part about SEO: answering the searcher's query as fast as possible.” So he started creating landing pages with titles like “Start A Roof Repair Business.” Each page would have several categories at the top that included “summary,” “startup costs,” “businesses,” “pros & cons,” and “marketing ideas.” Each section pulled from both already-existing Starter Story case studies and outside data sources.
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The impact from this experiment was seismic. “It's been the biggest change in our business,” said Walls. “We went from 100,000 unique visitors to a million per month. Most of our traffic is now coming through SEO. A lot of people come in through an SEO-optimized article and then stay for the interviews, sign up for the newsletter, and so on.”
That level of traffic opened up all sorts of new possibilities for monetization. Walls added in things like programmatic advertising and affiliate marketing, but the paid membership was the real gamechanger. “We created a metered paywall,” he said. “You can read three stories per month, and then at that point you can pay to get full access to our 2,000 plus case studies.” His team also started building out searchable databases that make it easier for people to sort through hundreds of business ideas and marketing strategies, each one tying back to a specific case study. The membership costs $130 per year.
By this point, Starter Story had over 100,000 email subscribers, and its newsletters quickly became its best conversion channels. “If you look at our conversions, almost half of them come from the newsletter directly.” Walls launched the paywall in early 2020, and by May it was generating $5,400 in monthly revenue. A month later it was up to $8,000. When I spoke to him in October 2021, he was up to 2,000 members and roughly $250,000 in annual subscription revenue.
By that point, Starter Story had an annual run rate of $500,000. In just four years, Walls had built an impressive media business from the ground up, all without outside investment or support from co-founders. And for most of that time he managed to run it while holding down a full-time job as a software developer.
The next phase
There’s a term that you hear often in Silicon Valley, often as a pejorative: lifestyle business. It’s used to describe companies that generate a tidy salary for their founders, but they’re not designed to experience the hockey stick growth that VCs strive for. These companies often don’t receive much coverage in the business press, and their founders certainly don’t expect billion dollar exits on the horizon.
Walls had built Starter Story by writing about lifestyle businesses, but I wondered whether he was satisfied with running one himself. After all, he’d once tried to get into YC. Could he ever see himself pursuing investment once again? “I probably would take investment,” he said. But at the same time, he’s wary of the process; he knows that any potential investor would ask him hundreds of questions about every miniscule aspect of the business, from retention to growth rate to who he plans to hire. “It just reminds me of why I quit my full-time job and no longer have to report to people. I've been through the process of going through YC interviews and how stressful it is to impress these investors and build this narrative. That’s really just not that interesting to me. So the idea of going out and getting funding and getting rejected by a bunch of investors who don't believe in my vision, even though I already have something that’s working, it just doesn't sound like a good use of my time.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t see room for expansion. For instance, his affiliate revenue has thus far been anemic, mostly because he doesn’t have much time to devote to it. He also wants to find more user acquisition channels. “It is a little bit scary to have the whole business relying on search, because one big change [to the algorithm] could wipe us out.” He’s toyed with the idea of producing things like podcasts and TikTok videos, but he’s not sure whether the ROI would justify the time or expense.
And that gets to the heart of running a lifestyle business: you can only spend the money you have on hand. “Sometimes I have to bring it back down to reality and say, okay, we need to focus on the stuff that really works for us. We don't have a few million in the bank that we can just throw at a project.”
This reality is frustrating sometimes, but Walls doesn’t let it blunt his ambitions. At the beginning of 2022, he published a blog post listing his goals, one of which is to “reach 1 Billion unique individuals through Starter Story's products and media” by 2025. The post embraces the same kind of radical honesty that makes his website’s best case studies so compelling to read. “I have some fear that maybe I can't do it, or this is a stupid goal. But I need to be open... There's no more hiding when you state your intentions and purpose with the world.”
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.
I really enjoyed this, but more so it has helped me greatly and given encouragement to pursue a certain course of action. Thank you for producing and publishing this article, Simon.
Thank you for the insights. I want to start something similar in Europe and that gave me the courage :)