You don’t need a giant email list for a successful launch

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Have you been waiting to launch an informational product because you think you don’t have a big enough list? Then it's quite possible you’ve been missing out on sales.

We’ve found countless examples of people creating successful products with less than a thousand people on their lists. Four and even five-figure launches are possible with a small, dedicated group of subscribers.

Some people fear that their audience will shun them if they’re perceived to be “squeezing juice out of the lemon” that is their small email list. But the truth is: if anything, it might help them grow their lists.

Launching an informational product takes some thinking ahead. According to the Harvard Business Review, the number one reason new product launches fail is lack of preparation. So if you do decide a product launch is within the realm of possibility for your smaller-sized email list, you’ll need to get prepared.

What does that preparation look like? We reached out to the experts and the people who’ve done it before. Here’s how content creators squeeze out plenty of juice without ruining the lemon.

How to launch a digital product with a small email list

Story #1: Corey Haines

Corey Haines already had something valuable in his possession.

As a marketing expert, he would often refer to a Notion document he’d created for himself—a curated list of mental models, frameworks, and principles with little notes to himself.

Sometimes, when Haines was speaking to clients and friends, he would reference this document. It wasn’t too long before someone commented they would gladly pay to see it.

That sparked the idea: Mental Models for Marketing.

Haines purchased the domain, announced on Twitter that he’d launch within a month, and began his outline for the content. It took a few all-nighters, but he hit his deadline and had a successful launch.

In fact, the launch went so well that Haines decided to “rinse and repeat” his success. He created a second course, Refactoring Growth, using the same playbook that this time answered questions customers had about SaaS growth.

How to launch a digital product with a small email list
Corey Haines leveraged a successful launch with “Mental Models for Marketing” into a series of successful, time-limited courses. Image via Corey Haines

Statistics from Haines’ Launch

First course:

  • After running a pre-sale at 50% off, he made an initial $3,000. Satisfied that there was proof of concept, Haines got to work recording the videos for the course.
  • On the week of the launch, he earned $7,000 despite only having about 300 people on the list on the day he first announced the launch.
  • Haines set the full price for his course at $199, which allowed him to offer a 50% discount during launch without going below his target price of $99..

Second course:

  • For his second course, Haines realized the demand was there, and he doubled down, raising the price to $499, with pre-sales at $249.
  • With the same size of email list, about 300 people, Haines pre-sold $3,000 and then $7,000 at the time of the launch.
  • Both courses continue to sell “a few every month,” according to Haines—that is, when they’re available. In September, he switched to an “open/close” enrollment model that resulted in a “flurry of sales.”

Key takeaways

To date, each product has produced about $25,000 in sales. Not bad for an email list of 300. According to Haines, there were some important lessons learned along the way.

  • Build trust with your audience before you try to sell anything. Haines only launched his product after sharing his expertise with clients. He would refer to the document that eventually became “Mental Models for Marketing” as something he did for himself. This built up a tremendous amount of trust and credibility with his clients before trying to make his first sale.
  • Find out what you’re uniquely qualified to create. In Haines’ case, he knew he had viable ideas for products because people were already asking about them. In your life, what do people ask you about? What do clients need to know?
  • Creating an “enrollment” window is a natural way to create scarcity. You won’t be able to sign up for Haines’ latest courses until March. It’s that way by design. Haines notes that this “open and closed” model of enrollment creates a rush of sales each time.

Haines’ example shows that a huge email list is not a prerequisite for a successful product launch. But an email list is a cornerstone:

Corey Haines
Build an email list. It’s your main “owned” channel, and where people are used to responding to CTAs to purchase.

Corey Haines

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Story #2: Louis Nicholls

Louis Nicholls of had a similar experience: he was already helping people before he ever came up with the idea for a course.

In March of 2019, Nicholls had zero subscribers on any email list. But he was active on Indie Hackers, pitching in to help startup founders with their sales problems.

Like Haines, Nicholls had proof of concept from the outset. Nicholls reports that he was “to the point where I was getting several requests for help/feedback/coaching each week.”

Nicholls decided to turn his insights into a course. He put up a simple landing page and a pre-registration form using ConvertKit. He also created a waitlist so people could get first-look access at a $100 discount. The final piece of the puzzle was a lead magnet, “How to Avoid the 5 Biggest Sales Mistakes Every New Founder Makes.”

The process included minimal promotion. Nicholls posted it up on Indie Hackers and Twitter (with a following of only about 500) and did cold outreach to get guest appearances on a few podcasts.

By the time he was ready for his early bird waitlist, there were 194 people on board. Nicholls created a sequence of emails for this list, announcing the launch.

But Nicholls, focusing on providing value, only included the actual “buy” link on the fifth email in this sequence. He also created exclusivity by reserving only ten places for the initial launch.

He sold everything out on the prelaunch alone.

How to launch a digital product with a small email list
Louis Nicholls went from having no subscribers to his email list—to a sold-out pre-launch event, just two months later. Image via Sales For Founders

Nicholls was able to get a fast turnaround by May of 2019 thanks to tools like ConvertKit, Calendly plus Zoom for arranging meetings, and a static HTML page to serve as the launching pad.

Relevant Statistics

  • Nicholls’ product was a six-week, “cohort-based live course,” designed to teach early SaaS founders how to get enough sales to land their first 50 customers. Nicholls included one sixty minute session and Q&A every week, with additional coaching sessions via Slack.
  • Nicholls sold his course for $1899, or three monthly payments of $700, showing that you don’t have to have an entry-level price point with a smaller list.
  • All ten spots sold out on the prelaunch, creating a total revenue of $20,200—never requiring a full launch.
  • Nicholls used ConvertKit and SparkLoop to help fuel his referral program on an additional launch. He noticed that harnessing word of mouth this way helped him grow his list and boost sales by 56%.

Key Takeaways:

  • Create leverage in a small list through personalization. Says Nicholls: “I tagged subscribers who clicked on the ‘purchase link’ from the emails. If they didn’t buy within thirty minutes, I sent them an email to hop on a virtual coffee call with me to see if it would be a good fit.” Nicholls says of the four people who took him up on the offer, three of them bought: about $4,000 in revenue for 80 minutes of work. In this way, a small list was an advantage rather than a hindrance.
  • Establish proof of concept first. Like Haines, Nicholls had proof of concept because he already had people asking for his sales coaching. Nicholls had given away plenty of value by helping others on IndieHackers; it was his turn to provide value on his terms. Nicholls also created social proof through testimonials with many of these first students on IndieHackers.
  • Create exclusivity and scarcity. Sales for Founders, after all, is a coaching product. Nicholls couldn’t stretch himself too thinly. This naturally lent itself to a “first-come, first-served” offering. What many people might perceive as a disadvantage—a small list—became a powerful way to market and sell out on the prelaunch. Says Nicholls: “A time-limited registration with limited places increases urgency, which is good for increasing enrollments.”
  • Upselling. Nicholls created a bargain $200 offer that allowed founders to add a co-founder to the coaching sessions. Nicholls knew this would require no additional work on his end while creating more value for his customers.

Story #3: Samar Owais

Email strategy consultant Samar Owais first created The eCommerce Email Bootcamp with about 190 people on her list. She decided that this small list wasn’t a bad thing: with only 10 students, she could run a beta test to find out if the course was worth pursuing.

Like the other stories on this list, Owais knew there was some demand. Her subscribers, many of whom were copywriters, kept approaching Owais with questions about ecommerce emails.

Owais sent out her launch emails to a few key segments on her list, which included around 130 subscribers. Linking them to a Google Doc sales page for a test, Owais noticed that three people signed up almost immediately.

But that was it.

She’d established enough interest to show there was potential, but not enough to make serious sales. Owais set about growing her list through social media promotions, roughly doubling it with another 130 signups. Before she closed the offering, she’d reach her goal of 10 students purchasing the beta course.

How to launch a digital product with a small email list
Samar Owais turned an email list with fewer than 200 subscribers into a successful coaching course. Image via Samar Owais

Key Takeaways:

  • Personalization. Like Nicholls, Owais’ program was a coaching program featuring live workshops. And like Nicholls, Owais realized that personalization was the best way to leverage a smaller list. She encouraged everyone considering the course to talk to her personally. She used a low-pressure sales approach and was honest with customers who weren’t a good fit.
  • Multiple payment options. With a smaller list, even one customer with questions about the price point can drastically reduce the overall success of the initial launch. Owais created multiple payment options, including three and six-month payment plans, to make the course more feasible for a broader audience.

Owais also knew that she’d worked hard to get the right people on her list, and she didn’t want an overly sales-y, pushy approach.

Somar OwaisI would mention again and again (even on my sales page) that FOMO wasn't real. If they were short on money but long on time, they could learn this stuff on their own. All my course was doing was shortening the learning curve.

Samar Owais

At the end of the day, it was well worth the time. The course yielded nearly $15,000 in gross revenue—in spite of the small subscriber count on her email list.

Story #4: Erin Flynn

Erin Flynn of Streamline Design Profit built up an audience of web designers over a number of years. As a web designer, she previously released workshops to explain what she was doing to keep her own business streamlined and organized.

In 2018, she decided to change strategies. She would move Streamline Design Profit from a membership model to a signature course. She knew students who were buying up workshops piecemeal weren’t getting the full picture.

When she launched her new flagship course, she started out with a waitlist. The results were discouraging. Only about 40 people joined.

As it turned out, that was plenty.

In December of 2018, she gave her waitlist about a week to join her new program at the reduced rate of $500. About half of them joined, creating immediate revenue of around $10,000.

This was before public promotion, which she launched in January. When she did, the list ballooned to around two thousand…and the rest is history.

Relevant Statistics:

  • Like many of the other offerings on this list, Flynn created multiple payment structures, including a $997 price point for people who paid in full.
  • After early discouragement, she received about 40 students from the initial launch. With addition of those on the waitlist, she totalled about $50,000 in sales.

Key Takeaways:

  • Proof of concept. Noticing a theme yet? Once again, we have an example of a launch that wouldn’t have happened without first establishing a clear need in the target audience. In this case, Flynn had proof of concept by previously selling workshop events.
  • A small waitlist didn’t spell disaster. Flynn was initially disappointed in how few people were on the waitlist. But the eventual success of the launch showed that conversion rate will always be the most important variable.
  • Look out for your customers. Flynn didn’t just want to sell another product. She wanted to build something that would bring more value for her customers. Creating a more comprehensive, higher-priced product adds more value when leveraging a small but enthusiastic list.

Erin FlynnI think the big factors were that my audience already knew the kind of content I made and enjoyed it, as many of those who bought Streamline Design Profit were already customers.

Erin Flynn

The bottom line on creating a successful launch without a massive list

Each of the examples above demonstrates a few common themes.

  • First, you don’t need a huge email list to create a successful launch.
  • Second, if you can build “Proof of Concept” first, you can launch a product with a list of just about any size.

The key is determining what your audience wants, and then delivering a quality product. As long as you can meet a limited audience’s needs, they’ll be ready to buy.

Are you ready to launch your first digital product? You don’t need a huge list; you just need to take that first step in the right direction. Set up your digital product on ConvertKit Commerce with a free plan and get started today.

Start selling within minutes

As a creator, you deserve to get paid for your work. ConvertKit Commerce is ready-made to help you sell digital products.

Get paid with ConvertKit Commerce

Kaleigh Moore

Kaleigh Moore is a freelance writer who works closely with SaaS companies and marketing teams for content creation.

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