How Growth.Design went from zero to 130k subscribers

51 pieces of content.

That’s all it took Louis-Xavier and Dan from Growth.Design to build a 130k+ newsletter over four years.

That’s less than 13 pieces per year.

And we’re not talking a B2C Newsletter with broad appeal to millions of people. Something like James Clear or The Morning Brew.

No, Growth.Design is a niche B2B.

It's two product designers going deep into the psychology of design (put into practice).

Most of us have more content on our site than the Growth.Design guys, but not a fraction of the same subscriber numbers.

So what’s the hack?

It makes sense that people like Ann Handley, Simon Sinek, Cal Newport, and Brené Brown, could rise to the top with no tricks beyond publishing quality insight.

They were starting out when the blogging landscape was bare and YouTube was hungry for organic content.

But the guys at Growth.Design started out in 2019. I thought the content game today was little and often. Not deep and infrequent.

That's the advice I keep hearing anyway.

What did they do, with such a small volume of content, to get those kind of signups for a B2B newsletter in a short space of time?

We'll get to that, but first...
Who and What is Growth.Design?

NB: If you already know Growth.Design, you can probably skip this video.

Content aligns with value proposition
“We wanted to educate the product teams all around the world to build experiences for the customers, because we worked together in the past few years and we saw a few points, a few pitfalls in the product company where we didn’t listen enough to the customer, so that’s something that we want to switch with Growth Design and really focus on educating product teams around the world.”

- Louis-Xavier from Growth.Design
Growth.Design had a clearly defined 'who' - Product Teams.

And a 'what' - We'll teach you how to build better customer experiences, led through insights from customer interactions.

It's one value proposition, delivered through different offers.

And just so we’re on the same page, here’s my interpretation of an offer:
It’s not the product itself. An offer is one way to package, present, and deliver your value proposition.
Offers change depending on the prospect and their specific requirements. You play with variables like price, speed, audience, guarantees, and services.

But the value proposition is constant.

Check out what the guys were selling when they started out with Growth.Design:
Growth.Design Offer
It’s case studies plus custom projects around product led growth.

Their content marketing is one offer of the value proposition.

They breakdown famous digital products.
Growth Design breakdown famous brands
Then present tips on how to improve user growth and retention through design.
Growth Design Tips on growth and retention
One offer - Give us your email, and you’ll get these case studies delivered to your inbox for free every couple of weeks.

Another offer - Want the same breakdown process applied to your product? Back in 2019, that was $20k+ and they only accepted two clients per quarter.
Here's the Growth Design Value Prop
You see the alignment?

It’s beautiful!

Their free content attracts the exact person who would be interested in their $20k paid offer.

Now, most of the free subscribers aren’t in the market for a $20k custom case study. But you can bet plenty are (as demand has increased, at the time of writing this, it's now $90k.)

And the free stuff is an example of what it would be like to work with them.

As Jack Butcher puts it, it’s proof of work (and thinking).

But here’s the reason the free case studies had such a significant impact…
They treated content like a product
Whilst competitors are pumping the social algorithms with content and engagement to get eyeballs on their (often average at best) material, Dan and Louis-Xavier didn’t.

All their time and energy was put into the content - delivering enormous value and doing it in a unique way.

The first step meant getting as close to their ‘customer’, or subscribers, as possible.

In their words, ‘the first 50 subscribers were hard to get’. So, whilst they were small, they did the kind of customer research that doesn’t scale.

They created a Slack channel where every single signup was listed and enriched using data pulled from Clearbit. 

Then, they researched those people, looked at their LinkedIn profiles, and created a really personal email asking them why they subscribed and what they wanted to see more of.
Growth.Design Subscriber Research
That data informed rapid product (content) improvement, because nobody makes incredible content straight out of the gate.
That's why they iterated ... a lot
Originally, Growth.Design launched their case studies on a platform called Slides, which helped them deliver a fully immersive experience.
Early Growth.Design on Slides
But it was a short term play whilst they built their own site, and at first the new site didn’t replicate this immersive experience, which proved to be a flaw.

Here's Louis-Xavier explaining what went wrong with the new format:
So they reverted back to fullscreen mode by default. No more text. No more blog posts.

The comic book stories they’re famous for now.
And that style you see today, they didn't stumble upon it.
It was part of an ongoing evolution
Particularly during their first 6 months.

In those early days, Louis-Xavier was posting every case study to Designer news, requesting ‘brutally honest feedback.’

He received it, acted on it, then tweaked the delivery for the next case study.
Ongoing customer feedback for Growth Design
They were rapidly improving the content according to market feedback, making minor changes that combined to have a big impact.

Which was a significant contributor to the rapid growth that followed.

After launching their case studies in early 2019, they had 9k subscribers by the end of the year.

And the format was critical, because here's the thing... 
Product teardowns had been done before
What they were doing wasn't new.

But it was different. Not necessarily better, but different.

And in terms of positioning and content, different is better than better.

They weren't the first to publish product breakdowns.
UserOnboard versus Growth.Design
Louis-Xavier even referenced himself on the forums:
Louis referencing Useronboarding
And prior to Growth.Design, Louis-Xavier had been writing long form product articles on Medium years earlier.

Those articles were in-depth and high quality.

And got zero traction.
Not because they were bad
They simply weren't unique. 
But not everyone liked it
In those feedback forums, plenty of people said so.
Growth.Design did get some negative feedback
But Louis-Xavier and Dan had the confidence to stick to their guns.

They knew when to take feedback and when to ignore it.

Whenever I've written a piece of content on social that did well, it'd always get negative AND positive comments. The stuff that didn't move the needle, that'd get neither heat nor traction.

There's no love without hate.

You need the love. It’s the love that keeps attention. It’s the love that spreads the word. It’s the love that reaches out because they want to work with you.

It's the Purple Cow.

Growth Design created a Purple Cow.

They weren’t the first to do UX breakdowns.

And maybe they’re not the most knowledgeable experts in the field.

But, when it comes to making unique content on product design, there’s no doubt, they’re the kings of the field.

But this all leads to one final question. 

They nailed the content, but how did they get it in front of the right people?
A Simple Distribution Plan
“98%+ of our growth was pure word of mouth.” - Dan Benoni
That may sound overly simplistic, but that really is how Growth.Design went from 0 to 130k+ subscribers.

So let’s break it down a little…
"We are what we have." - Russell W Belk
If someone asks, 'Tell me about yourself', you'll probably list a mixture of hobbies, objects, relationships, experiences, and job titles that define who you are.

That's how we articulate our 'inner-self'.

But how do we decide which objects and labels capture that sense of identity?

It depends on the group we're part of.

For most, actions are driven by an innate desire to maintain or increase social status within our community.

And word of mouth only happens in that context - when the sharer consciously or subconsciously believes that the act of sharing will earn social currency.

A clear connection between content and the community it serves is key.
How word of mouth travels
That explains Growth.Design's rapid organic growth because they intentionally targeted product teams that were active and organised in online communities.

They then made content specifically for that group.

They got into the weeds of product design. They correctly assume that the audience is already knowledgeable on product growth, so they cut straight through to non-obvious observations and tips.

And because they nail the execution, two things happen:

Firstly, it's clear to product people that this is for them (no ambiguity).

Secondly, readers share it with other product people because it's great content that reinforces their identity as smart, tasteful product marketer, designer, or developer.

It’s like telegraphing who you aspire to be.

It's not watered down to attract a broader market.

And when you know who those right people are…
You go find the community watering holes
Starting out, and with an audience of zero, Louis-Xavier and Dan started seeding their content in the places where their audience hung out.

Places like DesignerNews, HackerNews, Indie Hackers, and Lobsters.
Growth Design seeding content in forums
That got initial traction.

It led to the initial wave of word of mouth.

Product people hang out, on Discords, Facebook groups, Slack groups, and just like you’d share your favourite show or band with friends, they share product related content with, particularly when it’s completely different to anything else out there.

And amongst those people sharing, Growth Design picked up the odd influencer too.

Harry Dry was a fan early on, regularly referencing Growth.Design on podcasts and forums during his own personal journey to building 130k subscribers.

And blog posts and podcasts throughout the web would frequently share the Growth.Design case studies.

These were blogs and shows created by product related writers and speakers, so they had a concentrated audience of product teams. And when you keep hearing about the same brand, as they would have, you might not check them out on the first time you heard them, maybe not the second, but you probably will on the third or fourth time.

And, getting towards the end of 2019, they launched on Product Hunt.

At this point, as they’d say in tech, they had product-market fit plus a few thousand true fans ready to back them.
Here's Growth Design's growth in the first year
And the best part of all?
This was all minimal distribution effort
Their distribution game was and, at the point of writing this, still is low touch.

Sure, they have followers, but there’s not much engagement. 
Growth.Design social engagement
They haven’t needed it.

Word has spread on its own.

Maybe they could do more to repurpose the content, but as a team of two, that would have split their focus and distract from what really matters. The website and newsletter.

It’s been an unshakable focus on audience, feedback, and product, that took Growth Design from 0 to 130k subscribers.

Plenty of hard work, zero hustle.
Key Insights from Growth.Design's Content Strategy