AMA: Alex Lieberman

AMA: Alex Lieberman

The Alex Lieberman AMA is happening on December 18th 2019 at 10:00AM PST (1:00PM EST)

Alex Lieberman, founder and CEO of Morning Brew, a free daily business email newsletter, is responsible for managing overall operations and resources for the company. Prior to founding Morning Brew in 2015, Alex was an Agency MBS Trader at Morgan Stanley. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, with intentions to follow his family’s career path in finance.
While at the University of Michigan, Alex ran a successful interview prep email service. Through this work, he realized his classmates – all aspiring business leaders – wanted a more engaging way to consume the news each day. This ultimately sparked his idea to launch Morning Brew.
Today, Morning Brew provides quick and digestible business news to more than one million readers, successfully changing the way young business professionals engage with the media.

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Alex Lieberman – Transcript

AMA with Alex Lieberman @ Morning Brew

December 18th, 2019

Thanks for having me!! Awesome to be hear. Happy to talk about anything really, but just a few things that I spend a significant amount of time thinking/talking about:

  1. Growing our subscriber list
  2. Being a first-time founder
  3. Challenges of being a founder
  4. Media business models

Hi Alex – how did you grow your subscribers?

Early on completely unpaid:

  1. college ambassador program
  2. cross-promotions with other newsletters
  3. our referral program

now a mix of paid and unpaid: about 60% paid, 40% unpaid

but we also put a ton of focus on the acquisition cost of high quality subscribers which we define as opening 6 of your first 12 newsletters

What was the biggest challenge you faced when growing Morning Brew? (a big fan here, btw!)

thanks for the kind words! biggest challenge was learning how to hire great people & being patient and focused on doing 1 thing well especially when we had a lot of shiny objects put in front of us. we did nothing but write, grow, and sell 1 newsletter product for about 3 years.

Hello Alex. How do you pick relevant, informative, useful, and real news to send out to your subscribers every day? Is it all automated or is it handpicked + what are some criteria you use?

hey Hans! great question & honestly the best person to answer that is our managing editor. – it’s not automated and it’s this balance of understanding our target reader so deeply, knowing the types of stories that our target readers care most about (i.e. consumer tech, consumer retail, and startups), and making sure there is good balance across all stories and it’s not too concentrated

How did you build out your monetization and hiring of journalists to make it a viable model for creating daily news?

Because we’re in the business of curation it’s a way easier/higher margin model to create. once you go into the business of creation (i.e. building a newsroom and doing original reporting) that’s a way harder task. it all comes down to being obsessive about creating value for a highly valuable demographic and having belief that if we do that we’ll be able to command very high CPM advertising….which has been the case

What tools can’t you live without in regards to getting the most out of your email program?

Forest Admin for database management/analytics Return Path for email inbox health/inbox placement (but it’s $$)

How do you handle going global to enter foreign markets?

Huge piece of interest/feedback we get.tl;dr – interested in it but a lot of unanswered questions that we have before we can go into it.what is the competitive landscape?what does the advertising market look like?do people value curation in the same way in other places?

What advice do you have for those looking to advertise on newsletters? What works and what doesn’t?

Make sure that the audience is engaged & that you have historical CPC’s from previous advertisers of those newsletters to reference. given they are finite audiences & email newsletter advertising is fragmented, having someone manage that channel is important

What did you do to really be able to make the work-life balance work? I feel like I’ve tried multiple times but really can’t step away or all hell breaks loose.

Don’t believe it exists. but also don’t consider what i do work. i fu***ig love it.

Go Blue! Love reading The Morning Brew every morning.

thanks so much and go blue!!

Hey Alex, what are the Brew’s plans for ‘community’ presence moving forward? Know you had a private Slack community channel for members at one point. What are your thoughts on the dizzying array of community solutions that are out there today?

We’re thinking a ton about this going into 2020. while a ton of community options exist, we think there are a ton of shitty community options and given the size of our trusted audience, we think we can have an impact. would love to hear what you think/what makes a great community.

Hi Alex, thanks for the ama. How do you understand your audience demographics? Through professional research? Surveys? Feedback, etc.? Maybe all of the above?

Mostly surveying.continue asking ourselves if we should add a post-sign up thingamajig to ask for more info.

Hi, huge fan of Morning Brew!! What are some new digital tactics you’ve tried out or expanded you use of in 2019 and how frequently do you use testing in your overall strategy? I’ve always wondered if my version of Morning Brew is different than what my friends or coworkers get!!

Thanks!!

  1. we’ve tested more paid google advertising, more advertising to longer-form content rather than our landing page, and reddit advertising
  2. everyone currently gets the same newsletter, but we do a/b/c/d test subject line at 5am each day

Hey, congrats on growing such an amazing business! At which stage and how did you start monetizing?

We monetized for the first time in q4 of 2017 and i believe we had 80k subs at that point. i think we could have monetized earlier but just didn’t have the resources

What are your thoughts on copycats/competitors in your space? How do you and the team work to continually differentiate Morning Brew to stay relevant and maintain strong open rates given competition entering this space?

I think it’s about awareness, not action.don’t make decisions based on competitors but be aware of what they’re doing, innovation they’re driving, and how you can be inspired by them.we do live in an attention economy which creates some sort of zero-sum game, but the need for curation is an ever-growing pie.also, we just focus on having perfect content/market fit.

What lessons can subscription services that sell physical products learn from the Morning Brew experience?

that email needs to be treated as a product, a destination, and not just a content marketing tool that’s an after-thought.

Hey, I started a Slack community over the summer, however, there is almost no engagement. How would you increase engagement and the number of members in the community if you have a small budget?

I’d go back to asking myself the cardinal questions:

  1. what need am i serving?
  2. who is the target audience?
  3. why is slack the best medium for driving community for this audience based on this need?

if you don’t have a great answer for all 3…. you should lol

Hey Alex, huge fan here since the beginning In terms of gaining advertiser/partner interest, what’s the ratio of brands reaching out to you versus your team reaching out to brands? What’s your most typical monetization strategy? Cost per impressions/clicks or is it fee-based?

Thanks so much! one sec going to ask sales brb.

50/50 inbound/outbound

We only monetize through native advertising in our newsletters and on our podcast right now, but we are putting a ton of emphasis on $ diversification next year. It’s flat fee pricing for our advertising.

Hi- How do you keep motivation high when content churn becomes a grind? How do you encourage creativity and freshness while also sticking to the constant deadlines?

Our managing editor does an amazing job of this. but it’s also about setting expectations properly up front and not beating around the bush of what the work is. but it’s also about allowing writers to work cross-functionally & pitch new “special projects”

Can you name a specific time when you realized what you were making would grow in to something big like it is today? If you can, how many subscribers/followers did you have at that time? What do you do in times when growth plateaus?

  1. when i saw a stranger on a nyc subway reading morning brew.
  2. pray.
  3. go back to the basics of understanding our growth goals, assessing our channels, assessing our churning practices, and see where there’s opportunity to re-allocate ad spend

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about getting subscribers? Thanks, Alex!

How vocal they are in responding to you. we get 200+ email responses a day.

How long did it take you to find your newsletter “voice”? We are launching a couple different newsletters to our various audiences, and I’m curious if you did avatar research, testing, etc, or let it happen organically over time.

So the OG voice was just me writing like i speak (because i wasn’t trained professionally). then once i couldn’t write anymore we had a voice editor (guy at michigan, where i went to school, who was in the business school but also in the improv troupe) that would edit for tone based on specific characteristics of the persona we wanted to create. then once we started hiring full-time we hired someone who married creative writing with great technical writing and had these pillars of voice (witty not silly, smart but not too serious, etc) that acted as the foundation and he built upon

Just asking out of curiosity: there’s tech brew and retail brew, any other expansion plans in the future? for example, how viable do you think expanding to a marketing brew would be?

Marketing brew is in fact launching in 2020

How many times have people told that you email is dead? I feel like it’s a trend that pops up every so often

You have no idea

What are some valuable lessons learned that are not general knowledge

about email? about running a business? about media? about managing people?

The everchanging tide for innovation and differentiation of a service that’s been provided before. to take on a challenge of starting a company that you called Morning Brew

I think we were forced into thinking about first principles surrounding content consumption and business news because austin/i were business people not media people and had no pre-conceived notions about how things should be done in media. we just thought from a reader perspective what does a reader want and how do we best serve that want.

On that same note, what do you wish you knew before you started morning brew?

Don’t rush hires. it’s everything to have the right people in the right seats.

Hi, how are you conducting research, market research of consumers (the word we’re supposed to stop using for customers… so I learned today)and potential consumers so that you better position and design Morning Brew to become the utmost awesomest place for consumption?

if you want my honest answer, we aren’t.if you want my more honest answer, we’re hiring to enhance research internally, but also make it a sellable asset externally.

Yo, I’m so impressed with how much Morning Brew has diversified. Business casual RULES and your posting game outside of the newsletter is pretty rad. How else are you looking to expand your content formats moving into 2020? Y’all gonna break into video even more?

wow, that’s the nicest thing someone has ever said to me. optimizing what we currently do, making them cross-platform franchises. putting tons of emphasis on social. launching a few more newsletters & a few more pods. & testing/launching a paid product

What do you think were the most important factors for getting initial traction with subscribers in the early days? 

Best in class content & being shameless/relentless about asking people to sign up. and implementing a referral program that had rewards that incentivized the right behaviors.

How did you identify patterns early on in getting to understand your audience?

we had the good fortune of people hitting the REPLY button en masse

led to very quickly seeing 3-4 things that people emailed us about every dday

like launching an audio version, like selling our swag, like doing events etc

Have you thought about starting a newsletter?

lol, has tesla thought about advertising in newsletters?

How is yor content team currently constructed? what mix of staffers vs freelancers?

0 freelancers, 7 full-time, by end of next year i expect it to be between 18-20

What are systems or processes you cannot live without in your business?, and for your team?

Using Notion, writing the 1-2 things that MUST get done each day, following TRACTION a book/business framework for creating process/transparency as you scale

They do a great job on overall leadership and hiring/firing/ meeting structures … awesome stuff. How do you find them in helping to implement processes like project management/ community management etc.? The in the weeds stuff? I’m always curious

so we literally just read the book and created the process ourselves, we’re not actually working with them

Did you build your email referral program in house? Or do you use a third party platform (viral loops comes to mind)?

yep in house, but it was done in three steps,

  1. used kickoff labs (out of the box solution)
  2. hired upwork developer to copy what harry’s razors did: https://viral-loops.com/blog/harrys-gathered-100k-emails-single-week-milestone-referral-program/
  3. had in-house person build custom

Nice, how was working with Kickoff Labs?

good at making the referral program easy, bad at having any website ux/ui flexibility, i’d recommend just skipping to step 2 in my list

As you venture into things like podcasting how do you keep the attention of readers in the newsletter over an audio visual medium?

the content just can’t be duplicative it has to be differentiated and “right” for the platform.

Where do you find the most growth?

on podcast or newsletter?

On Podcast?, Do you have plans to expand into video?

on podcast, right now it’s word of mouth & taping into our guests’ distributions, video. yes we plan on testing it at a small scale in 2020.

Just wanted to say I love the newsletter as well as the emerging tech brew. Daily reading for me.

thank so much, means a lot!

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