How I built a high-quality content engine

Profiles on building Jan 23, 2020

By Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Editor-in-Chief @ Maker Mag

Fundraises and rocketship growth dominate the news in Silicon Valley. But in the shadows of this dazzling realm, there is another tech world — one of indie makers, weekend hackers, and side-hustle developers.

In late November 2018, I was curious whether a publication showcasing this “other” tech scene would find an audience. I decided to find out.

Two weeks later I launched Maker Mag on Product Hunt. We hit the #3 Product of the Day and won a Golden Kitty for the project.

My curiosity was satisfied — we had an audience and momentum. But there was a problem: I was out of time. My two-week sprint to launch Maker Mag was fun, but unsustainable alongside my main gig. To keep the magazine going, I realized that I needed to build a content machine that could run on its own.

Over the next year, I built a writers network that published 3 to 5 high-quality 800-word posts per week. Our audience rapidly grew from 0 to 3,000 subscribers. We reached an MRR of around $2,000 in sponsorships. Then, around one year after launch, Maker Mag was acquired.

The craziest part was that in all that time, I never spent more than 6 hours per week on the project.

We were able to do all of this because we relentlessly focused on good operational design. The lessons we learned on this journey are applicable for anyone who wants to produce regular, high-quality content with limited time and resources. Here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Finding and recruiting a team

The key to our success at Maker Mag was our team — a remote network of 70 writers and 3 editors, all of whom worked as volunteers.

How did we get so many people to write for us?

A publication like Maker Mag is a flywheel. Writers write articles. Articles draw an audience. The audience attracts more writers, looking to be heard. More content grows the audience. And so on.

So in order to get writers, we needed to start our flywheel. We effectively did this by brute force. During my 2-week sprint from idea to Product Hunt launch, I cranked out many of Maker Mag’s first articles myself.

Yes, it was a lot of writing. But if I had just pitched an idea to potential contributors, nobody would have climbed aboard. Just like with writing itself, showing is better than telling. With the success of our PH launch, I could now give writers something they valued — an audience.

Where does one go to find volunteer writers? Wherever your audience hangs out. Perhaps it’s forums, Facebook groups, Reddit threads, events, even other blogs — but in any case, you’ve got to meet people where they are.

Maker Mag found some great pockets of contributors within the communities like Product Hunt and Indie Hackers. I’m also very active on Twitter, and was able to connect with a bunch of writers by messaging indie makers and hackers directly.

You might be asking, “Why would anyone write for free?”  It’s important to remember that even though you’re asking for a favor, you’re also presenting an amazing opportunity. The people who contributed to Maker Mag were usually motivated by three things. First, they were passionate about the subject. Second, they valued the chance to add to their portfolio of published work. And third, they enjoyed the legitimacy and networking that comes from people reading your ideas.

After bringing on our first few writers, I invested in operationalizing our writer onboarding. I built a slide deck that explained our mission, culture, instructions for submitting ideas and drafts, and requirements for getting articles published. We also used Notion to build a company wiki, our “source of truth” for decisions and documentation (more on this below).

Thanks to these streamlined procedures, we were able to onboard 50 writers in our first month.

Step 2: Building a content process

Now that we had a writing and editing team in place, we set a target of publishing 5 new articles per week. To ensure that we could consistently hit our goal, we built a pipeline that looked like this:

Idea generation → Research & writing → Editing → Publication

Idea generation — The limiting factor on our publication schedule was not actually writing capacity, but ideas for original articles.

To ensure that we had a deep reservoir of fresh ideas, we built an environment for creative collaboration. This took the form of a shared Google Sheet. Any writer could add ideas to this sheet, even if they didn’t want to write the article. Likewise, any writer could pick up ideas from the sheet by writing their name next to it.

Another successful tactic was sourcing article ideas from readers. In every email newsletter we sent, readers could click a button to submit a story idea. At peak, around 60% of our articles came from reader-sourced topics.

Research & writing —  Once a writer assigned themselves an article, they could start the writing process. Articles were often based on interviews with makers and entrepreneurs, or original research. How this happened was up to the individual writer. We found that letting writers self-manage their research process was generally effective, and meaningfully reduced organizational overhead.

Editing — When a writer submitted a draft, it would be reviewed for basic grammar, content, style by our team of 3 editors. For articles that required only light revisions, we made the edits ourselves and prepared it for publication. Articles that required major edits were sent back to the writer to fix up.

Publication — We published our newsletter and new articles every Tuesday. For each article, I would find an appropriate header image on Unsplash, and push it live on Wordpress and Mailchimp.

To grow our subscriber base organically, we published on 3 channels: Twitter, email, and our website. When we published on Twitter, we tagged the subject of the article (e.g. a founder we profiled) and the writer. This helped expand our reach as the subject frequently retweeted and mentioned us. New people found Maker Mag and the traffic to our content and our subscriber base grew steadily.

Step 3: Engaging contributors at scale

After a couple of months, the content creation process stabilized and we had 50+ contributors. I stopped writing articles myself, and focused instead on managing our growing community.

At first, this task meant hours every week giving direction to writers and answering questions. Here, again, building a system helped me save time.

The first thing we did was to build an internal wiki on Notion. Now, every time I wrote up an answer for a question, I would paste it into the wiki for later re-use. Then, if someone asked me the same question I’d answered before, I could just point them to the wiki.

As the wiki increased in length and complexity we linked Notion to Slack using Zapier and added custom shortcuts to help contributors find details faster. For example, we added shortcuts like /submission process, /style guide, and /editorial team which would bring users immediately to the relevant Notion page.

For questions that were more complex or infrequent, we also set up a channel for Q&A. This enabled the writer community to engage in helping other writers. This Slack channel had an unexpected benefit. The contributor community drew closer together by helping each other. It also kept Maker Mag top-of-mind for contributors even when they weren’t actively working on articles.

Final thoughts

The experience of building Maker Mag taught me about managing a community, generating ideas, and publishing content. I believe a lot of what I learned is applicable to the broader world of content marketing. Here are my top takeaways to share with anyone looking to do a similar thing.

Write it yourself first. Writing a bunch of articles yourself is an effective way to start your content flywheel. But that’s not the only reason to do it. Your first posts set the voice, tone, and audience of your publication in a way that echoes forward. Doing your own writing also makes you a better manager by imparting empathy for your team.

Use themes to keep it consistent. It can be overwhelming to begin writing about a new topic. Picking a few themes can help you stay focused and build a cohesive narrative. I started out by picking 3 themes: Profiles of makers, strategy advice for bootstrapping, and lists of products to help makers achieve their goals. This focus was invaluable for getting our first 20 articles out.

Finding writers is not as hard (or expensive) as it sounds. If you are getting traction in your idea from the “do it yourself” phase, there are probably others out there who want to talk about the subject or space as much as you do. Even if your content is for your startup, if the content is genuine and backed by an authentic mission, you should be able to find interested contributors.

Timelines and tools

Time required

  • Finding a team: Creating a first onboarding process should take less than a week. Researching and posting to channels where you can find potential contributors should take a week. It took us 2 months to recruit and onboard 70 contributors.
  • Content process: Designing and building your content process takes 1 - 2 weeks.
  • Managing a community of contributors: 2 - 3 months. This process takes time. We needed to observe how contributors engage with the community, what were the most common questions asked, and only build scalable FAQs and content after we engaged with our community in an unscalable way.

Tools