Ben Tossell is extremely good at moving quickly and experimenting with all kinds of things. And he’s not afraid to “break” stuff along the way.
Ben has used that skill to grow his newsletter, Ben’s Bites, to over 110k subscribers in 13 months.
In his past life, Ben grew and sold his company MakerPad to Zapier in 2021. The way he built MakerPad is quite similar to how he’s been able to grow his newsletter.
He’s taken some of his learnings from that previous business and translated them into a wildly successful newsletter that has become a respected source for sharing how businesses are using AI.
But Ben started this whole thing because he didn’t know enough about AI and wanted to learn. Instead of just reading everything he could, he went about sharing his findings and a newsletter was a great place to do that.
What is Ben’s Bites?
Ben’s Bites is a daily newsletter curating the latest news, tools, and product launches in the AI space.
Ben started this as a way to help him learn more about AI and how he could use it in his own projects, and it turned into a fully-fledged business.
How Ben Makes Money
Here are a few ways Ben makes money from his newsletter business.
Ben’s Bites makes a good bit of its revenue from sponsorships…but that’s changing.
Currently, the main ad goes for $2,000, and buying a spot in the tools section is $1,200.
You can also buy a much cheaper “unclassified” ad for $200.
At the height of the “AI summer” as I’ll call it, he was filling most, if not all, the main spots. Now he seems to be averaging around 9-15 per month.
These are still great fill rates, don’t get me wrong, it’s just not the 18-25 per month he was selling before.
My guess is he’s pulling in around $20k-$26k per month in revenue from these main spots, and then the other stuff is gravy on top.
But, he’s starting to change his model up to be more of a paid newsletter.
Premium Content: Ben’s Bites Pro
Ben started publishing longer-form articles as an experiment and saw they were getting the most clicks every week.
It didn’t hurt that he was enjoying writing them too. So he decided to pull the trigger and test it out.
He went on to officially launch Ben’s Bites Pro on November 29, 2023.
While it’s unclear how many people have subscribed to this, he got a decent response and has sold at least 200 spots at the $100 price point.
At $150 for the year, it’s pretty in line with some other paid newsletters we’ve seen.
Every industry is different, but if you get even a 2% conversion rate of people signing up for the paid version, that’s 2,200 members.
At $150 per year, that’s a potential of $330,000 in paid subscribers alone.
Ben’s Bites Fund
Because he is so involved in the AI and no-code space, he’s able to see and get access to deal flow before many others would.
With the amount of AI tools coming into the space, I have to imagine that Ben’s making some revenue from affiliate marketing as well.
Although a lot of these companies are small startups that spin up quickly, so there might not be a ton of great affiliate programs to sign up for.
The Growth Timeline
So how did he go from 0 subscribers to 10k in 6 weeks, and then 110k over the course of 13 months?
The growth timeline you’re about to see shows hypergrowth, followed by a decrease and then growth restarting.
Don’t forget that Ben has previously built a business that gave him some learnings and experience around building and growing a community.
And I have a feeling that Ben accumulated some no-so-great subscribers over the timeframe from launch through August and decided he needed to clean his list.
I like this a lot, because it shows that you can have extreme growth, but sometimes that comes with a
The Growth Levers
Ben has used a number of growth levers to build his audience, but here are some of the ones that stand out.
📣 1. Become the reply guy. One of the more underutilized strategies I’ve seen creators use.
👥 2. Referral program. The referral strategy Ben has used is so simple, but extremely effective at driving subscribers.
📱 3. Paid ads. Instead of shying away from using this strategy, Ben used it to double-down on his growth.
🛠️ 4. Building tools for his community. Your audience is everything. By creating tools and product for them, you can continue to build that affinity.
🏎️ 5. Move fast, break things. Instead of second-guessing decisions, he’s gone full steam ahead at building and testing new ideas.
🔮 6. Attracting sponsors. Ben has essentially built his sponsor pipeline in public.
Alright, let’s dive into these and show you how he’s done it.
1. Become the Reply Guy 📣
One of the most effective ways Ben was able to grow in the early days was by becoming “The Reply Guy.”
If you saw a tweet about AI, ChatGPT, or anything even close, Ben was in the comments section. From the day he started his newsletter to the end of March 2023, he was doing this constantly.
Here are some examples of Ben in action:
Here’s a glimpse so you can see how often he’s doing this:
After this he wisened up and added a featured image on the page so the logo showed up when he shared the link on Twitter (you can see this in the upcoming examples).
Let’s take a look at some of his most impressive ones.
First, a reply to the CEO of Google who had posted about Google and AI.
This reply alone got 25.7k views, 35 likes, and 6 bookmarks.
I’d venture to guess he ended up with a few hundred subscribers from this tweet. Including some top folks at Google who hopefully shared it with other high-caliber people in their network.
Next, replying to Suhail, founder of Playground AI:
Such a simple format, but he found a lot of these concepts via Twitter, so why not comment and say he’s including it in the newsletter?
Where did he get this idea of being the Reply Guy from?
Apparently, this is something Ben and Ryan Hoover (founder of Product Hunt) used to grow Product Hunt in the early days.
I find this hilarious. It’s one of those growth things that not a ton of people copied (or stopped using) so it still worked when he did it for Ben’s Bites.
Why This Works
There are a number of reasons this works, but here are a few that stand out to me:
- Brand awareness – by plugging this newsletter under other AI-type news, he’s getting in front of audiences who are probably going to be interested in his content.
- More touchpoints – people need to see your newsletter a lot of times before they subscribe. This method gets him in front of similar audiences multiple times per day
- It gets people talking – lots of people don’t do this (or don’t do it well). He’s unapologetically plugging his newsletter, and people think “There goes Ben again!” 🙂 Seriously, I had multiple people messaging me during this time telling me to do a deep dive on Ben’s Bites because he’s “The Reply Guy.”
Do other people try this and fail?
It needs to be tastefully done and relevant.
If he were to say “I wrote about this thing, here’s the article” it would feel more self-promotional. But the way he is including it makes the person who wrote the tweet feel like they are a part of something.
2. Referral Program
7 days into the newsletter, Ben launched his referral program.
In the beginning, the setup wasn’t anything special. He didn’t have an image showing you what you’ll get, or a fancy referral setup yet.
It was essentially him saying here’s a link to share and you get my project tracker.
And for good reason! He was testing this out to see if it worked.
As we saw with Tomas Pueyo who started his email list with a Google Form, it’s best to spend time on the content, not worry about tools and fancy design at the beginning.
Over time, he added a more robust referral section as Beehiiv, the platform he uses, made this easier to implement as well.
Over the life of the newsletter, Ben has kept these referral rewards pretty much the same.
In the beginning, he was offering the full list of links he includes in the emails that you can filter and search.
He’s kept that one all the way through but has tested out the naming. You can see here that he calls it the AI Project Tracker.
I love this giveaway for a few reasons:
- It is no extra work for Ben (he’s curating these links anyway)
- In the database, he links back to the issue of the newsletter it was linked from, so people go back to his site and read it there. This brings more traffic back to his site and shows people the depth of what he’s created.
- It’s providing value to the readers.
- He gives it away for 1 referral so it’s a super light lift for his readers.
This is just a win-win overall.
3. Paid Ads
Ben is not shy about saying that he ran some paid ads to grow his newsletter. And why should he be?
Ben even said that he used to feel this way and never used paid growth for Makerpad, but that was silly.
There is a stigma in the community that “organic growth is king” and I’m not sure I agree.
I wouldn’t try and start a newsletter with just paid ads. But if you can grow it and find the right audience first, why not amplify that growth with some spend behind it?
Alright off my soapbox.
It looks like Ben started running paid ads around January, but really started running with them in February.
In this reply, he shared that he was running more ads at this point, which was February 27th.
I found a few Twitter ads to give you some idea of the creative and what was being tested.
The “Apple Notes” style ads are one that many newsletters have used – and apparently was working for Ben as well.
There is also this pretty creative one. Taking a quote from a reader and adding a meme over it. Another style we’ve seen newsletters be successful with, but using a very relevant meme for his community.
I found both of these in May 2023, but haven’t found a ton of more recent ads. I’m not sure if he’s pulled back the spend there. Maybe the cleaning of the list correlated with poor-quality subscribers from ads?
4. Tools & Community for His Audience
Not only is Ben moving quickly, but he’s also creating tools and things that his audience gets a ton of value from.
Ben Bites News
Ben Bites News is essentially a platform like Hacker News where you can submit top releases and links all around AI.
Other users can upvote these and you can filter them based on what’s “trending”, the latest ones, and the top-voted stories.
This is one of the releases that has stuck around and been pretty successful for him.
The beauty of this is it reduces some of the work he needs to do to actually find great stories. Other people submit them and then he can include some of the top-rated ones in the newsletter.
In February 2023, Ben created a Discord community for his audience as well. This is a place where people can connect and share ideas around the AI space.
It’s quickly ballooned and now has over 3,700 members.
Ben has done a few different hackathons, which developer folks seem to love 🙂 Essentially, they spend an entire weekend working on building a completely new project in 48 hours.
He partnered up with Dan Shipper of Every.to and they were going to be the judges.
This was a huge opportunity for the people who built the projects because there were a few huge prizes involved, includig a potential investment of $250k+
Ben’s Bites ChatGPT
Staying in line with the whole AI theme, ben went ahead and created a custom ChatGPT for Ben’s Bites.
Essentially, he’s included all the latest news and product launches he’s surfaced in his newsletter and made them into a database you can interact with using ChatGPT.
I think this is such an interesting way to take the exact types of content you’re writing about, and applying it to that content.
5. Move Fast, Break Things
Ben is one of those people who is just ready to move quickly and try new things when he has an idea.
There are a number of experiments Ben has tried with Ben’s Bites.
Some of them are relics of what he did with MakerPad, Product Hunt and Zapier, and others are new insights he wanted to try.
When Ben started the newsletter, he wanted it to be like “Milk Road” but for AI. If you’re not familiar, Milk Road is like Morning Brew for Crypto.
If you’re not sure what Morning Brew is….Google it 🙂
Back to Ben – he got really burned out/bored on day 3 of trying to create the next Milk Road.
So he changed it up.
2 days later? He changes some things around again.
Don’t be afraid to move things around, test new sections, and see what happens. When you have the data to back up if these were a good idea (clicks, replies, etc.) you can always go back to the previous version.
Maker’s In Residence
Another experiment he ran with from his days at MakerPad? The Maker in Residence concept.
This one didn’t last too long, but it was something he attemped for a while.
In December 2022, he tested out starting a community on Twitter for his readers.
Since a ton of his followers came from Twitter, I’m sure this made sense at the time. Although, these groups are notoriously hard to keep going from what I’ve seen being a part of them.
6. Getting Sponsors
While the growth levers I mention usually purely mention growth, this one is kind of a mix of growth and monetization so I didn’t want to skip it.
Ben has made some incredibly smart moves when it comes to monetization and getting sponsors.
One of the things I love about how Ben got sponsors was that he just talked about this openly on Twitter.
If he tries something, or has success with an experiment, he’ll share it on Twitter.
Customize the Pitches
Not only is he customizing the pitches when brands reach out to give it the best chance of success, but he’s also talking about this in public.
Someone got their content shared and they posted about it, he retweets it so his audience sees that too.
Sponsors are lurking all around you, you never know who is going to reach out and want to see similar results.
Here’s another example of Ben showcasing exactly how well his sponsored slots are working.
These are things that most people will never be open enough to share. But Ben is wide open with the data and while I haven’t got his confirmation, I’m sure
Build Your Own Sponsor Platform
After going through lots of headaches trying to book ads for a daily newsletter, Ben’s brother stepped in and built a customizable platform called Grizzly Ads.
This might not seem to help growth on the outset, but being able to just share a link to a booking page where people can pick dates and enter ad copy is a huge timesaver.
This lets Ben spend more time creating and writing instead of chasing people down for payments, etc.
It also turns into another revenue stream, depending on how they set up the business.
How You Can Replicate Ben’s Success 🗺️
I think there is a lot to learn from Ben’s story, but here are some of my main takeaways.
Don’t Be Afraid to Try Things
There are so many creators who struggle to get started because they have this idea of what they might want to build, but want it to be perfect.
Or they feel like they need to find the perfect idea to start.
Ben thought he had the perfect idea, and realized 3 days in that he hated it. Can you imagine if he sat around waiting to start because he wanted it to be perfect?
He wouldn’t have a newsletter with over 100k subscribers today.
If you have an idea, something you really are excited about, just get started. You can figure out all of the details later.
Or come to find out, you might completely loathe the concept 3 days in.
Be Open About Your Project
You can call it build in public, or being transparent. But in essence, showcasing some of the wins and losses you’ve had can really attract people to your brand.
Ben’s done this extremely well and has turned it into direct sponsorships.
He’s also built a loyal following by being direct and open about what he’s trying and sharing his learnings.
In a world where everyone is trying to hide behind an anonymous profile picture, being open and honest about what you’re working on is a huge leg up.
Become the Reply Guy
One of Ben’s most impactful growth levers in the beginning of his journey was being the Reply Guy.
He wasn’t bashful or nervous to talk about what he was building. And he was able to turn that into direct subscribers and get people talking.
If you do use this strategy, please make sure you’re not just adding garbage to the world. There’s enough of that, and it won’t work.
Quality over quantity is the goal with this, and most things with growing an audience.