$3k MRR with 600 paying members writing about mindful productivity - Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Ness Labs

Anne-Laure inspired me with this conversation covering how she grew Ness Labs to over 600 paying members ($3k MRR), how to be mindfully productive (backed by her research as a Neuroscience masters student), and what we can do as a community to be more inc

Anne-Laure Le Cunff is the founder of Ness Labs, a learning platform dedicated to mindful productivity while also studying neuroscience part-time at King's College with her masters. Previously Anne-Laure worked at Google leaving that job in 2017. As part of Ness Labs, she creates some truly exceptional content that I've had shared with me time and time again, which is evidenced by her 19,000 strong email lists for her newsletter, Maker Mind.

Here's what we covered in this episode:

On Ness Labs
  • Tell me a little about your back story and why you started Ness Labs?
  • What is Ness Labs?
  • When did you start generating revenue?
  • What have you done to grow the membership & newsletter subscribers?
  • Neuroscience at King's College on the side! How does that help you research and write articles?
  • You're a proponent of building in public, what are the benefits of this for indie hackers?
  • You have a sizeable audience, how do you cut through the noise / deal with the inbound?
  • What advice would you give to aspiring female indie hackers navigating a male-dominated sector?
On mindful productivity
  • What is mindful productivity?
  • You're a prolific writer, how do you get so much done?!
  • Time management article
  • It can be long and hard to grow a side-project / business, how do you stay motivated?
  • As indie hackers, what are the best ways to stay on top of everything and not get overwhelmed?
  • Taking care of yourself. Sleep, taking breaks, journaling. Why is it important and why do so many people neglect it?
Quick fire

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Full Transcript

James: Anne-Laure, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing? 

Anne-Laure: Great. Thanks for having me.

James: Good to have you. Tell me a little bit more about Ness Labs for people who don't know? What's it all about?

Anne-Laure: Ness Labs is a platform for ambitious makers, knowledge workers, creators who want to be their most productive and creative without sacrificing or mental health, and so it offers content, a community, and also coaching for people to achieve these goals.

 James: Yeah. And where did you come up with the idea? 

Anne-Laure: I both at Google and while working at startups, I went through burnout and I think lots of ambitious people have this experience at some point in their work life. And when I was looking for resources to help me go through this, there's actually wasn't much out there. So it started with this goal of helping people really taking care of their mental health at work.

I've always been fascinated with how the mind works, how the brain works, how do we think, or where do ideas come from? How do we make decisions? So that's always been an area that I've been really curious about.

James: Yeah, absolutely.   Where are you at now in terms of subscribers and revenue with Ness Labs? And was it always generating revenue?

Anne-Laure: So  in the first six months of Ness Labs, most of the revenue was coming from sponsors. And I didn't really like this model because it meant having to chase them, a lot of back and forth. Also quite irregular revenue where some weeks, I have three sponsors reaching out and saying, "hey, can I start with the newsletter?"

and some weeks there was no one. I figured that really wanted to have some recurring revenue that I could, even if it was growing slowly, sell something that is a bit more stable. And at this point I have about 600 members and the Ness Labs community generating about $3,000 a month.

And that doesn't include all of the, one time revenue that nest labs leaking through books and other products that I'm selling.

James: It's amazing how you've grown it and I think that there'll be a lot of indie hackers who are at that level where they're trying to build something up and deciding on a monetization model. Why at the start did you go for the sponsorship route and also, how did you start to build your newsletter list, which made it appealing for sponsors?

Anne-Laure: At the very beginning, with the sponsors, I didn't really have any outbound process. I just grew the newsletter and I made it clear with the little inserts and signed it, that there was a spot here. So if any reader was also either an entrepreneur or working at a company that was relevant to the audience, I was reaching that they could just reply back and claim that spot for the next newsletter. There was no outbound work, but I think that making it very clear that this spot existed and also having a very niche topic made it appealing to sponsors because they could in one go reach a certain amount of people.

The audience; I can really think Twitter, I think, for most of my subscribers.   

James: How beneficial has that Twitter following been for you? Cause you have about 30,000 Twitter followers. And over how long was that built? Was there a specific time where you just started growing or was it quite linear?

Anne-Laure: It was very linear and slow for years and I think up to  two years ago, I only have 3000 followers. It took off pretty recently. And I think it's because I really changed the way I used it. I used to just post whatever articles I was reading, not really contributing value.

Whereas now I'm really trying to help people and I really use Twitter to work public. So I really show people my process. I show unfinished articles. Sometimes I ask questions.

I do polls where I really ask the community, what do you think about this? Should I write about this or that? And I think the fact that I switched from just broadcasting content on Twitter, to working in public with the garage door open, has been one of the main reasons why my following has grown so fast in the past year.

  I think lots of entrepreneurs make the mistake of falling prey to the planning fallacy. Where you spend so much time trying to figure out how am I going to go about this? What's the best framework to build this? And which library should I use? And how am I going to do this and that? And I think for me, building in public is a way to fight the planning fallacy, where instead of waiting until they have something absolutely perfect that I can put in the world, I just share little nuggets of my progress and I can get feedback much quicker.

So it shortens the feedback loop too, which is especially I think for indie hackers that don't have a lot of resources, is a great thing to do because instead of wasting a lot of time and money potentially going in the wrong direction, you can very quickly adjust. And so that's, for me, that's one of the main benefits of working in public.

James:  You talk about mindful productivity a lot. What is mindful productivity?

Anne-Laure: So a lot of the productivity strategies and content that is out there are really about getting things done. It's about productivity for the sake of productivity and it's about getting as much stuff done as possible. Mindful productivity is about taking a step back and asking yourself, do I really need to do this thing?

Am I the right person to do it? Is it the best way to go about it? And it's really about being mindful of the way you work, the way you think, the way you feel. So you can be your most productive while also taking care of your mental health. So you can work on something and being there for the long run. And I think it's particularly relevant for indie hackers, where very often you're a solo entrepreneur.

You're the only person having to wear all of these hats and do all of these things. And as we mentioned, there's just so many hours in a day.

James:  Sometimes they might feel overwhelmed with the amount of stuff they've got going on, all the different hats they've got to wear, prioritization and maybe some even struggle with loneliness. What are the best ways to stay on top of everything and not get overwhelmed?

Anne-Laure: The most important thing is to create space for self-reflection. A big mistake that we make, especially when we're passionate about our business is to keep on pushing through. And when we do this, we very often miss some early signs of potential burnout and burnout can actually be quite easy to manage if you catch it early.

So making sure that however busy things get, creating that space and that time for self reflection and for really thinking about how do I feel right now? Am I feeling rested? Am I feeling tired? Am I feeling anxious? Am I feeling excited? Do I have enough time for thinking about what I'm doing right now versus just going through my to do list, without any reflection.

So that's, for me, the number one most important thing when it comes to mindful productivity is taking that time, and it can take different forms. In my case, I block one hour every Sunday evening where I just write and journal.  I look at what went well, what didn't and what I want to focus on for the next week.

Other people find that having a thinking buddy is also helpful, where you have one person and every week you block an hour and you literally ask yourself, how are you doing? How is your week? And what do you expect from the coming week? So there's lots of different ways to go about it, but creating that space and blocking time for it is the most helpful thing.

James: Why do you think a lot of solo founders and indie hackers tend to neglect that?   

Anne-Laure: There is a lot of toxic productivity advice out there where some successful entrepreneurs talk about how the wake up at 5:00 AM and then they go for another run and  they work until then 10:00 PM. And they also miraculously have time to see their friends and family.

This is toxic. I'm not saying they're lying.  If this is really the life you're living every day, this is really their routine, good for them. That works for you, but projecting what works for you onto other people and creating this insecurity for other entrepreneurs, we're thinking, 

"Oh, I'm not as productive as I should be, because look at this person."

  So I think definitely one reason is all of the productivity porn that is out there and that's giving a false image of what productivity to read looks like and what can you achieve.

And the second thing is, geuinely people being passionate about their work. When it's your own business, very often, you care a lot more than if you're working for another company and that's a good thing, but that also needs to be managed. So managing your passion is also a very important thing.

James: Yeah, I'm from the outside Anne-Laure, you're a  prolific writer. How do you get so much done?

Anne-Laure: I block time for the things that matter. And I don't mean blocking time by filling my whole... if you look at my calendar right now, it's almost empty. And I block time for the things that I really want to achieve each week. So for example, I have an hour and a half blocked every morning  to write. Every Monday I look at my calendar and I'm like, okay, what are the top three things that I really need to do this week? And I make sure they happen. If the rest doesn't happen, that's completely fine. So I don't actually think I get more done than other people, but I really focus my efforts on the few things that I really think matter. 

James:  I'll leave a link to your time management article, where you actually have a screenshot of your calendar with some of those recurring events in the show notes. 

I'd like to sort of round off on a topic which is women indie hackers  in this community that  is male dominated, both indie hackers and tech. What advice would you give to both, women in the hackers and us guys on what we can do to help include female indie hackers?

Anne-Laure: I'm very lucky that very early on in my indie hacker hacker journey I found a group called Women Make . It's led by a woman called Marie who's amazing and has fostered this great, inclusive  community where women can come and talk about their business and their challenges and ask questions and work together.

So my advice for women who are looking to connect with other women who are also solo entrepreneurs would be to join that group.

James: What about the guys? What should we do be more inclusive? 

Anne-Laure: There are a few things that I think would be helpful. First, if you're on Twitter and you ever do these threads where you're listing other entrepreneurs or resources that are helpful to other people, just check the list very quickly and see if there are women in it. And that seems like a simple thing, but the number of times I see those lists of saying, here are the best entrepreneurs in that field and there's no women in it. 

 And the second thing in your interaction with women also online, don't assume they don't know what they're talking about. So many interactions where I post something and obviously Twitter only has  280 characters and so I just post a short version, the number of mansplaining that I get sometimes where I have men jumping in my replies and saying, Oh, actually also this and this. And I know. I actually study those things. It's a tweet. You would not be doing this to another man, but you're doing this to me.

James: Yeah, I think that's sound advice. And thanks for being open about it. On that thing we'll round up on a few quick fire questions. The first one being who are some good female in the hackers that we can all follow?

Anne-Laure: Yeah, so I'll have so many. Marie Denis, who's the founder of Woman Make, first. She's amazing. Steph Smith. who works at The Hustle now, and who's an amazing  content expers, SEO experts. There's also 'Clo', who, is a UX researcher and she's doing amazing work, understanding how to create websites that actually convert . There's Rosie, you mentioned who's amazing. And she needs community at Indie Hackers and she also creating her own newsletter  and I think right now, 75% of her content is behind a pay wall. And she's spoken about it and experimenting with it . I have so many but that's going to be my like three ones for now.

James: And then final few questions. Best book for indie hackers? I've heard, you mentioned How to Change Your Mind before, so a different book to that.

Anne-Laure:  I would recommend 50 great myth of popular psychology. 

 James: and favorite podcast to listen to, you

Anne-Laure: I don't listen to podcasts.

James: Refreshing to hear. and then finally, what are you most excited about for the future either personally or in business?

Anne-Laure: I think in the future, I'm going to keep on working on the same mission, which is helping people be as creative and productive as possible.  I don't know exactly how that's going to look like, but this is also why my company is called Ness Labs. It's  really a lab where I can experiment and try new things and see if they work or they don't. So I'm currently working on creating an online course, for example, and if this is something that works, I might create more in the future and if it doesn't, I may take Ness Labs in a different direction.

James: Amazing. Anne-Laure, thank you so much for joining the podcast. I've thoroughly enjoyed this.  

Anne-Laure: Thank you.