May 13, 2015

How One Guy Used MailChimp to Make a Profitable Side Project in Just a Few Months

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Zachary Cohn has a weird talent. Or maybe it’s more of an obsession. Every day he monitors half a dozen websites and 10 or so Twitter accounts to keep on top of all the amazing airfare deals that bubble up on the internet and disappear just as quickly. Earlier this year, when he and his sister got back from a trip to South Africa ($270 round trip, Seattle to Johannesburg), he found an avalanche of Facebook comments from friends begging to be let in on his cheap airfare secrets. That’s when he decided to take it to the next level.

"I messaged 5 people who commented, ‘If you PayPal me $8 right now, I’ll add you to a list of people I email and text [with travel deals],'" he recently wrote in a Medium post about the birth of his service, Amazing Airfare.

All 5 took him up on the offer. Zachary didn’t have a website or a marketing strategy or even a name for his "company" yet, but he did have $40 and a few loyal subscribers. He could have stopped right there. But instead, he got to work.

If you build it…

He used Landerapp to build a landing page with analytics, set up a Formcrafts payment form and connected it to his Stripe account. Then, as the landing page sent him more subscribers—more than he could personally text—he set up a Twilio script to work for him.

Meanwhile, he was sending emails from his personal Gmail account—at least until his friend Kyle intervened:

"Your email is ugly. Here, use this instead," Kyle said. It was a MailChimp template.

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Zachary signed up and began sending his emails through MailChimp. He also implemented Zapier to automatically unsubscribe people from his MailChimp list when he cancelled their Stripe accounts.

(Interestingly, most of the services he used in conjunction with MailChimp to get Amazing Airfare off the ground are actually services we connect with through our integrations directory. Great minds, Zachary!)

Right when he thought he had a handle on things, he got a message from his friend Andy. "Hey, I love Amazing Airfare," Andy wrote. "I posted it to ProductHunt for you."

Cue 3,500 website visitors in 3 days.

More press coverage followed, and Zachary soon decided he owed it to Amazing Airfare’s new audience to streamline and upgrade the process. A self-described "shitty developer," he read up on MailChimp’s API and figured out how to "send an entire campaign just by answering a few questions from the terminal."

"What used to take 12 minutes now takes, on average, 28 seconds," he wrote of his MailChimp campaign creation process.

…they will come

Zachary tells us that, as of mid-May, he has a couple hundred subscribers. Not bad for a service that went from fuzzy, 2 a.m. notion to actual working product in less than 5 months. And his business philosophy is interesting…

"Because I went step by step, I kept validating this was worth working on," he writes. "At some point, I might have discovered I couldn’t get strangers to sign up. Or that there’s 100% churn after one month. But people kept signing up. And as months went by, people stayed subscribed."

…because it sounds like something we’ve talked about before when writing about MailChimp integrations:

"The fund speaks to our business philosophy—namely, that’s it’s wise to start small, fund yourself with paying projects, and build up a strong API."

In fact, Amazing Airfare’s paying customers have been so satisfied, Zachary explained to one Reddit user asking for a free trial, that he would refund a user’s subscription fee after a year ($96) if they can’t find a great deal—which he says will save them $300-$1400—during that time. That’s a confident business model!

While Zachary’s spends his time doing consulting and parkour and speaking events by day, Amazing Airfare is totally worth it as a side hustle. But it’s more than that, too.

"Working on Amazing Airfare is so much fun," Zachary writes. "The extra money is nice of course, but having a side project to go home to and hack away at, especially one that people enables people to go on crazy trips to Kenya, Brazil, or Indonesia that they’ll never forget, has brought me so much joy."