If you ask Don Day, he will tell you that the success of BoiseDev has been a long time coming.
First, it’s worth mentioning that for being a relatively isolated city – the next-closest city, Portland, is 5 hours away – Boise has a unique and competitive local news landscape. There are two daily newspapers, four weekly newspapers, three TV stations, an NPR station, and an Associated Press principal bureau – all in a greater metropolitan area of fewer than 800,000 people. Indeed Day estimates at least 15 different news sources in the Treasure Valley region.
When asked why that is, Day cites a few reasons: Boise’s relative isolation, its position as a relatively liberal city in a conservative state, and the historical “pioneer spirit” of the region.
Well, Day – as dogged and dedicated as his city’s pioneers – has published over 2,000 stories on BoiseDev. And now, fewer than two years in, he’s got multiple advertising sponsors, syndication deals, and is adding paid subscribers at his fastest rate yet – no small feats for a news site that, up until this year, was run solely by Day himself.
Like most bootstrapped businesses, BoiseDev’s beginnings came long before it became a ‘business’. In 2013, Day – still a journalist at KTVB, the local NBC affiliate – started tweeting about business filings in the Boise metro area. Their popularity led to an email newsletter Day launched in 2015, followed shortly by a website on its current domain. Day then left his job in 2016 to start a ten-month journalism fellowship at Stanford.
He was clearly onto something but still wasn’t sure if BoiseDev was going to be his next act. He wasn’t even sure if he’d return to Boise.
Sustained interest in his work (Day maintained BoiseDev from afar during his time away) made it clear that this could be a full-time endeavor. But he would have to go directly to his audience and ask them to pay.
Day set himself the goal of 500 paying subscribers in the first year…with no outside or personal investment.
“It was all bootstraps. No outside investment. No actual investment for me. Just dollar in dollar out."
A niche in a niche
Suffice it to say, real estate development news in Boise is a media niche within a media niche. The audience pool is only so deep. To reach his 500-subscriber goal, he couldn't go wide; he'd have to convince a significant portion of his total audience that his product wasn’t just worth reading (that, so much, was clear), but that it was worth paying for too. This meant structuring his product in a way that his would-be paying audience would find obviously invaluable.
Day also was constrained by more practical matters: There was just one of him (running the whole operation and doing the journalism), so while there was never a shortage of story ideas, he couldn’t personally produce an infinite amount of content. Necessity bred invention.
Traditionally, subscription news sites use a paywall strategy to put make some of their voluminous content free and put some of it behind a paywall – the free articles serving as a loss leader bait to pull readers in and get them to pay. This model didn’t appeal to Day. Not only did it contradict the public interest goals behind his journalism; he simply didn’t have enough content to spare.
Day realized that he could sell far more than just ‘access to articles.’ His audience was composed of busy business people who didn’t want to spend their day reading the news but didn’t want to miss anything important either; they also didn’t want to get news after their local peers.
So Day structured his premium product around these value propositions that he knew his audience would pay for: timeliness, convenience, and curation.
To make them timely and convenient, he sends his articles out via email before he publishes them on his website for the general public.
Day refers to this as a “timewall”. Paying subscribers get access to some stories before non-subscribers (“usually a few hours”).
“This gives a tangible benefit to members without locking everyone else out. It also eliminates that ‘antici-pointment’ factor. The stories are invisible to non-members until they are released. We don’t do this on every — or even most- stories, but it adds value.”
Also included in the email are other links of stories he thinks are important for the day, giving readers a sense of completion for the day’s news scan. The result?
“The open rate is around 70% every single day,” Day reports. “So people pay for it, they get it, they open it, they read it and it's made retention really easy. My churn rate is really low. Once people sign up, they stay with it.”
"A story is not just a story"
Day’s genius goes beyond the product-market fit he’s found with his premium membership. Day has a keen eye for leveraging every piece of content, repurposing the same articles he sends to his paying members to drive new traffic to his site, push leads down the membership marketing funnel, and generate extra revenue through licensing deals. It’s the economy you’d expect from a solo operator.
First, there is the email list, which is segmented to paying and non-paying subscribers. Day has found that the best way to market to readers who have signed up for a free newsletter on his site is not to send them offers – it’s to send them a sample twice a month of the content he sends to his paying members daily. This strategy reliably nets new subscribers with every email.
Moreover, keeping every article free on the site helps Day attract new traffic to the site.
“It’s really important for predominantly paid-newsletter businesses to have their own owned-and-operated home on the web,” Pico co-founder Jason Bade says. “Just because the newsletter is the product they’re selling doesn’t mean they don’t need a website with search- and share-able content they can use to attract new leads to sign up.”
And BoiseDev’s content does just that. With none of it behind a paywall, it can be readily shared on social media and used to build search engine traffic. Free traffic is key to acquiring new users, since Day can use Pico’s smart signup popups to convert anonymous traffic to free email newsletter signups.
Then, Day syndicates his stories to other competing outlets – driving name recognition and creating extra revenue at the same time.
“A story is not just a story,” remarks Day. “It’s a piece of content that can be licensed to a print newspaper, local TV news, and a variety of other sources such as real estate deals, radio, and with support from local businesses.”
Day also makes a once-a-month appearance on the local public radio station and has a content-sharing agreement with the local ABC-affiliate.
“It's just trying to look at it like, ‘How can I take the content and put it as many different places and try and monetize that?’
“And it's just a different way to think about it. Instead of just being like, ‘Oh, I publish a newspaper’ or ‘I publish a website’ or ‘I publish a-’, no – I create content. Let's think of how we can make that content work and make money and provide value to the audience.
“So people pay for it, they get it, they open it, they read it, and it's made retention really easy. My churn rate is really low. Once people sign up, they stay with it.”
(One Man) Band on the Run
Day’s sophistication on the product development and business model belies their simplicity. He only focuses on coverage that matters to his audience – nothing more. Such a members-first approach means no mug shots or crime blogs, no national news, and no page-slowing advertisements. Just a consistent beat of articles on the topics he promises to cover – usually three a day.
“In some ways this is easier because it's just words – words and a photo. It's nice. I've never looked at it as something challenging. It's just a matter of being focused, focusing, getting the work done.
“I think it's the TV news producer in me,” Day says. “You know, if you're producing a newscast, you have a hard deadline. If you're not done, the show still goes on the air and you have to be responsible for getting the content, getting it right.”
But “until the last couple months, I was entirely a one person show,” Day says (he has since hired two employees). This has meant spending no more time than absolutely necessary on the other parts of his business – namely the tech stack.
The tech stack is the business stack
Day was far too busy – between reporting, writing and editing, and striking local partnerships – to deal with a complicated tech stack. He needed a solution that was powerful enough to run his business, flexible enough to adapt to changes he might make to his product over time, and – perhaps most importantly – easy for his users to use (so he didn’t have to spend time helping them troubleshoot problems).
This meant not just choosing tools that checked a bunch of feature boxes but assembling a system that would be easy for both him and his readers to manage. Ultimately hassle-free for his readers doesn't just translate to higher signups and payment conversion; it means fewer customer service hassles for him too.
Aside from WordPress, which Day uses as his CMS, and Mailchimp, which he uses for email sending, Day’s entire audience tech stack (user accounts, signups, subscription payments) is powered by Pico (which in turn hooks into his own Stripe account for payments). The simplicity keeps Day away from tech challenges and focused on journalism.
“I actually got an email or a DM from somebody about a week ago,” Day recalls. “They subscribed to, I think she said, four different local news providers here in the area that provide some sort of digital subscription.
“It turned out that BoiseDev was the only news site where the reader could go in and change her credit card information, thanks to Pico’s integration with Stripe.”
Of course, part of this simplicity is the result of the business model Day has chosen. Refraining from running clickbait and invasive adtech is part and parcel to respecting BoiseDev’s audience and their time.
“We offer a membership program that is all about the user.”
One thing is clear – Day attributes the success and continued existence of BoiseDev to it’s subscription model, and the steady revenue that the model generates.
Surprisingly, the subscriptions have actually led to growth in a revenue stream he didn't expect: advertising.
“A lot of the people who have bought sponsorship were first members. Those people open the newsletter every day, the 70% open rate on the newsletter. They get it and they are important. They're leaders in town.
“Without the membership piece, I don't think the ad business would be where it is. The membership both drives revenue and it's driven the ads. That's not something I expected.”