"I love you."
It’s a meaningful way to end an email—an aside to a lover; a greeting to a family member; an apology to someone you care for deeply. It’s also how Anand Sanwal frequently closes his daily business data newsletter.
He’s the founder and CEO of CB Insights, a private market intelligence firm. The company offers many analysis products, including reports and research-oriented apps and plug ins. But perhaps what it’s most well-known for now are the daily emails that have taken the tech industry by storm. If you look at the past few email subject lines, you can get why: "pizza-as-a-service (Paas)," "a unicorn gores an investor," "truth: startups are like kindergarten."
They are admittedly eye-catching given the voice and quasi-irreverence. That same voice is what led Sanwal to end with some iteration of "I love you." It got people’s attention, including VCs who have tweeted about the service and hundreds of thousands of subscribers (mine too—full disclosure: I wrote a few posts for the CB Insights blog while I was a freelance writer). The press has also become hip to the company—the New York Times has featured the company's data more than a few times.
A lot of it had to do with the tone something like "I love you" creates. "It was to see if people were reading or paying attention," Sanwal told me. Most emails that deal with business data are dry and lifeless—they attempt to be objective in form, which leads to dead prose and glazed eyes. He decided to insert tidbits into the newsletters one wouldn’t expect; "Easter eggs" as he calls them. "The goal is to be conversational and approachable."
Now, six years after the company first launched, the newsletter is going strong. In the first six months of 2016 it hit 171,000 subscribers. That’s up from 51,000 in 2014. According to Sanwal, the average "email open" rate currently hovers around 30%. For reference, the average "newsletter open" rate for most industries is about 20%-25%.
Since its start, CB Insights has aimed to be a data analysis company that focused on the private markets. It’s an onerous subject, and one that’s not necessarily new—information services companies offer myriad products that aim to do just this. But what Sanwal wanted to do after he left his cushy VP job at American Express in 2007 was to make a data firm that looked at private business trends. He saw people like Nate Silver and even businesses like OK Cupid doing interesting data-crunching in ways that hadn’t really been applied to this industry. He felt those kinds of trend-data approaches could help differentiate an analysis-based company.
He admits that the first few years were rough. Growth was slow, and people weren’t really taking to CB Insights. At the end of 2010, the newsletter had about 1,400 subscribers. In 2012 the readership eclipsed 9,000, but that still wasn’t the hockey stick growth a startup service needs.
The problem seemed to be presentation. "In the beginning, we had no personality," said Sanwal. Both the reports the company produced, along with the newsletters the CEO wrote had research (and just research). "We thought that B2B had to be boring," he said.
In 2013, he started to play with the model, trying to bring in new customers who might otherwise overlook the product. So he began inserting more of an opinionated spin on the content he produced. If someone had an opinion about a business datum, CB Insights would openly state that opinion. And they would put their name on it. The idea, said Sanwal, was to illustrate the "conversations we were having internally."
This seemed to work. Emails got forwarded at a much higher rate, and subscriptions began to ramp up. "The slope of our growth changed," said Sanwal. It became clear that making a more approachable and conversational tone made more people interested.
Its rise was also in direct correlation with a resurgence of interest in email newsletters. In 2014, beloved New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote about the uptick of interest in email. Media outlets began devoting energy and resources into simple newsletters, and readers seemed to be responding. Carr wrote:
Newsletters are clicking because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet, and having something finite and recognizable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaos ... That’s where email newsletters, with their aggregation and summaries, come in. Some are email only, others reprise something that can be found on the web. At a time when lots of news and information is whizzing by online, email newsletters—some free, some not—help us figure out what’s worth paying attention to.
And that was the kind of service CB Insights' newsletter was hoping to offer.
And this has translated into actual business. The newsletter is free, so it’s not a direct revenue stream. And the intent is to not only attract the nerdiest tech and private market wonk, but anyone who has even a passing interest in these markets and wants to get an inside look.
All the same, it has helped facilitate some huge transactions for the company. One newsletter subscriber told a friend about the service, which ultimately led to a $100,000 client deal, said the CEO. In total, Sanwal says that about $1 million of revenue in the last year can be attributed to the reach the newsletter has. He is planning to get to 250,000 newsletter subscribers by the end of the year, which he hopes will increase that revenue line significantly.
Most important is keeping subscribers interested. "We constantly experiment with things," said Sanwal. "I don’t think there’s a formula." The more people see things that catch their eye, the likelier they are to subscribe and sign up for CB Insights’ service. He plans to keep trying new things and seeing if they stick with readers.
Perhaps most surprising is that people have taken the time to respond to his emails. To the "I love you" alone he's received more than 1,800 replies—only three of them were negative. And when Sanwal forgets to dictate his love, that's when the real revolt comes.
For those few times the three words were omitted, "I get 200 emails where people are like, 'Hey do you not love us anymore?'" he said. As long as they keep subscribing, he surely does.