6 months of Lowpass: A behind-the-scenes look
Happy birthday to me
Welcome to Lowpass, a newsletter about the future of entertainment and the next big hardware platforms, including smart TVs, ambient computing and AR / VR. This week: An update on six months of Lowpass, and a look at the way Discord is approaching working with third-party developers.
This week’s Lowpass newsletter is free for all subscribers; next week’s lead story will only go out to paying members. Upgrade now to not miss it.
Lowpass is turning six
Six months, that is. Still, time flies! And in honor of this semiversary, I want to use part of today’s newsletter to provide you all with a kind of progress report, share a few of the things that I have learned from becoming an independent newsletter operator, and lay out what I plan to do in the coming six months.
The progress report. Thanks largely to the support of my paying subscribers, I’ve been able to break some major stories over the past six months.
Lowpass was first to report about Telly’s ad-supported TV, live streaming coming to Meta’s second-generation smart glasses, Nreal’s rebranding to Xreal and, just last week, Sam Altman’s stake in AI hardware startup Humane. Lowpass also featured exclusive insights into Meta’s Horizon Worlds reboot, a look at ten years of streaming profiles, and a report about the future of Google TV, among many other stories.
As a blogger at heart, I’m proud that Lowpass stories have made it onto Techmeme multiple times. They’ve also been quoted by outlets from around the globe, including CNBC, The Verge, Engadget, PC Mag, Gizmodo, Platformer, IGN, Upload, SamMobile, NextTV, Broadband TV News and others. And yes, The Sun recently called my reporting here “hawk-eyed.” Thanks, I guess?
After testing out this whole newsletter thing for a few months at the beginning of the year, I was able to start Lowpass with a considerable audience, thanks to a deal with Politico / Protocol Media that allowed me to acquire the list of Protocol’s Entertainment newsletter, which I had co-founded a few years prior.
Lowpass now has almost 19,000 subscribers who have gotten close to half a million emails from me; more than 150,000 of those emails have been opened. On any given Thursday, anywhere from 5000 to 6000 people read my newsletter. And when I break news, thousands more regularly read my stories on the Lowpass.cc website.
I’ve also been blown away by the quality of subscribers I’ve been able to attract. Lowpass is being read by C-suite executives and other key decision makers of a number of publicly listed tech and entertainment companies, as well as startup founders, regulators and other folks you probably know. I’m not gonna name any names, but I was pretty surprised when my email provider’s analytics recently highlighted that a certain billionaire is among my most active readers, and has been opening every single mail since day one (no, it’s not who you think).
Lessons learned. Okay, confession time: I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started this newsletter. Sure, I had written a newsletter before, even for the same audience. But figuring out how much to charge for it? How much content to give away, and how much to keep behind the paywall? How to balance subscriptions with other types of monetization? All of that was new to me, and required a lot of gut-based decisions. Still does! But I am getting better at it, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Here are a couple of the things I’ve learned over the past six months.
Everything takes longer than you think. When I acquired the Protocol Entertainment list, I prepared myself that I would have to say good-bye to 25% of that audience almost right away. Protocol had shut down months before, and with countless tech layoffs, a lot of the emails surely were out of date.
Plus, some people who signed up for Protocol Entertainment did so because they were fans of Nick Statt and his past gaming coverage (which is understandable, Nick is great!) – but perhaps not all that interested in what I have to say.
The good news is that there was no mass defection. Sure, a bunch of emails didn’t work anymore. But when I sent out my first proper newsletter in April, only 89 people unsubscribed. I was beyond excited, as it felt like I had dodged a bullet.
Except, in the week after, 83 people unsubscribed. The week after that, it was 100. Subscriber defections have since stabilized, and are more or less keeping pace with new subscribers joining the newsletter, but it definitely has been taking people a lot longer than I anticipated to decide whether or not they want to hear from me every week. (In case you’re curious: Here’s my growth curve 🙂)
Running a business is hard work. I’ve been writing about tech companies big and small for more than two decades now, but nothing prepared me for all the little things you have to do when you run your own business – especially if it is a subscription business.
Credit card payments fail for weird reasons all the time. Confirmation emails get lost, or blocked by overzealous corporate firewalls.
The same is true for monetization. Lowpass is primarily a reader-supported publication, and convincing people to pay for it has been more challenging than I anticipated. Part of this may be by design: People who don’t pay still get an email every Thursday, and the majority of articles remain free for everyone. I still think that’s the right model, but I also find myself at a point where I have to convince more of you that it is worth upgrading to a paid subscription in order for me to keep going.
It’s all just media now. One of the most encouraging things about going independent has been that it hasn’t really hurt my ability to do reporting. I still get invited to developer conferences and other press events, PR departments still return my emails (those that did so before, anyway), and sources still tell me all kinds of tidbits (email me if you want to chat!).
Having those 19,000 or so subscribers definitely has helped with that. But as many bigger outlets are cutting back, or even shut down outright (RIP Protocol), more and more people also seem to realize that quality journalism can come from anywhere – scrappy newsletters like this one included.
What’s next. I have a lot of plans for Lowpass, which include everything from a redesign to new story formats to a referral program for readers who want to help me grow this thing. But I’m also a one-man-band with limited time and resources. In the near future, I want to prioritize the following things:
I want to hear from you. A bunch of folks have already been sending me feedback, either by responding to my emails, on social media, in the Lowpass Slack for paying subscribers, or in in-person conversations.
Still, thousands more read Lowpass every week without chiming in – and I want to get a better sense of what they are interested in, what’s missing, and what I can do better. I plan on doing regular surveys in the coming months, and I also want to reach out to some of you directly. Plus, I promise to be more active on the Lowpass Slack, which you can access after upgrading your subscription.
I want to do more events. I tested a virtual event format called Lowpass Filter Talks in August, and had a great conversation with AugX Labs CEO Jeremy Toeman about AI video during the inaugural Filter Talk (You can check out the recording here).
I want to do more of these in the coming months, and experiment with a few different formats. Some future events may be for paying subscribers only, some may be supported by a sponsor. Some may stream live on YouTube, some may happen in the metaverse. Stay tuned for updates!
I need to turn Lowpass into a more sustainable business. As mentioned above, growing the business side of this newsletter has been more challenging than I initially anticipated. Luckily, I have had some flexibility. My wife, who has been very supportive (thanks hon!), is keeping our family on health insurance, and I’m also doing some freelancing for other outlets. But to keep going in the long run, I do need to find ways to make more money with Lowpass that I have over the past six months.
This will include advertising and sponsorships, which I always envisioned as paying part of my bills. Getting that off the ground has been harder than anticipated as well, but I’m happy that I was recently able to secure the first multi-week sponsorship for Lowpass, which is starting this week. (Interested in becoming a Lowpass sponsor? Then please get in touch!)
Don’t like ads? Well, I’ve got a deal for you … No, seriously: Paid memberships have brought in the majority of this newsletter’s revenue to date, and they continue to be very important. In fact, I do need more of them. A bunch of you signed up right away when I launched this newsletter … and then, paid subscription growth came to a screeching halt over the summer.
Things have gotten a little better recently, but I’m still quite a bit behind where I need to be. So if you, or your company, can at all support the $8 a month / $80 a year price tag, please sign up to help me keep the lights on, and make Lowpass even better than it is today.
All in all, I couldn’t be happier that I took a chance on this six months ago, and that you all took a chance on me. Sure, some of the numbers could be better (seriously, at least a couple more paid subs this month would make all the difference), but I’m also very proud of what I have accomplished thus far, and excited for things to come.
Do you have thoughts on topics you would like to read more about? Things that worked over the past six months, or stuff that didn’t sit right with you? No need to wait for that survey – just respond to this email with your feedback. And thanks!
The idea of Brand Debt remains elusive for many executives, especially in engineering-driven cultures.
What starts as a shortcut on your Brand Strategy can cost you consumer trust, market share, and even your business. Brand Strategy goes beyond a quick logo and some colors, it permeates every customer interaction.
Why Discord isn’t cracking down on free APIs
This has been a bad year for third-party developers: First, Twitter / X shut down its free API, effectively putting an end to many third-party clients as well as bots and other services. Then, Reddit began charging for API access, which also forced many third-party clients to shut down, and resulted in a short-lived rebellion in many of its subreddits.
I couldn’t help but think of those two companies when I joined dozens of other reporters for a Discord press event earlier this week. During the event, the company previewed a host of updates that were officially announced today. And while some of them were fairly iterative (the dark mode of Discord’s mobile app is now even darker, apparently), one thing that stood out to me was the company’s embrace of third-party developers.
45 million people use third-party apps on Discord every month, the company revealed Thursday. This includes bots, games, and watch party apps that let people enjoy videos together.
Discord recently introduced monetization for third-party apps, which allows developers to charge monthly subscription fees for their apps.
The company is also looking for ways to simplify the use of these apps, and for instance not force server administrators to approve every single app their users want to play with.
So why is Discord embracing third-party apps while the rest of the world seems to be cracking down on them? The answer lies in its business model, Discord SVP of Product Peter Sellis told me during an interview following the event. “The consumer subscription model and the direct consumer monetization model is (our) superpower,” Sellis said.
Instead of relying on ads, Discord generates revenue with paid subscriptions, including its Nitro subscription service. Discord is now doubling down on that by bringing early access features to Nitro subscribers, and Sellis told me that third-party developers are actually key to Nitro’s success.
“With the way that Nitro is structured, more developers building more value into the discord ecosystem benefits our economic model quite directly,” he said.
Sellis joined Discord a little over a year ago after more than 7 years at Snap. “I'm pretty familiar with the ad-driven business side of things,” he told me.”APIs are really powerful, but also allow you to essentially subvert the ad-driven model, because you can pull a lot of the core functionality of those services out.”
That’s not true for subscription businesses, he argued. “You literally have people building their own custom discord clients, (but) the benefits of Nitro are still useful to those people.”
That’s not to say that Discord has cracked the code on monetization. The company laid off 40 staffers earlier this summer, including most of its entertainment partnership team, which had been tasked with bringing musicians, athletes and others onto the platform. Sellis didn’t want to comment directly on the layoffs, but signaled that it was part of a renewed focus on its core strength of helping friends connect with each other.
Netflix is getting more expensive, again. The streaming service is raising prices for two of its ad-free tiers; people looking to enjoy Netflix shows with 4K and with Dolby Atmos audio now have to pay $22.99 per month.
Can fitness be VR’s killer app? I wrote a deep dive on VR fitness for Proto.Life, the new publication from Wired co-founder Jane Metcalfe.
Netflix added close to 9 million subscribers in Q3. 30% of new subscribers now sign up for the company’s ad-supported tier where available, according to Netflix’s letter to investors.
A VR developer is suing Meta over fitness app deal that went sour. The developer alleges that Meta killed his app when it heard that he ws also working with other headset makers.
Bandcamp lays off half of its staff. As part of its sale from Epic to Songtradr, Bandcamp is making some deep cuts.
The first Quest 3 teardown is here. Turns out the battery is responsible for about a quarter of the headset’s weight, if you discount the headstraps.
Netflix is … becoming a retailer? The streamer is looking to open physical “Netflix House” locations starting in 2025.
TV viewers use more than 6 services every month, and 84% say they’re not overwhelmed by all those choices: Interesting insights from Vevo SVP Global Marketing & Research Julie Triolo.
What if Netflix had shipped vinyl records via mail? Or how about a Redbox, but for bread? Like … a bread box? I started a thread of fictitious media and entertainment pivots over on Threads. Go check it out, and feel free to chime in with your own suggestions!
Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!