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Handling email without going broke

Bill Gates famously suggested email should cost around a penny per message to send, as a way to deter spam. It turns out he was lowballing that estimate. Commercial email is very expensive, at least for thousands of people. Popular services like MailChimp will charge a small business as much as 3 cents for every email they deliver, depending on the plan.

That’s just not going to work for us. Most independent developers have to keep operating costs down if they’re going to make any profit in a world of $1.99 apps– especially for transactional fees that add no value for our customers. If my personal email box is any indication, a lot of indies are using these services and paying small fortunes to do so. There is a better way.

While social media is a major force, we have no control over Facebook or Twitter. Even people who like us will rarely see what we’re doing there, unless we pay to promote posts. Email remains critical to building a community and keeping in touch with people who like what we make. This is how we will announce a new release, a holiday sale, a free community event, or almost anything else. In fact many online businesses would consider their email list to be their most valuable asset.

Bulk email houses charge a fortune

Email marketing services like MailChimp typically charge a monthly fee and additional fees depending on either the number of subscribers you have, or how many messages you send per month. For example, even the Standard Plan at MailChimp for a company with a modest mailing list of 5,000 subscribers will pay $75 a month plus overage fees. If you’re lucky enough to have a large newsletter with 50,000 subscribers, make that a base fee of about $300 a month.

MailChimp pricing, $75 per month
I can think of better ways to spend about $1,000 a year than on sending email. I thought email was free? Nice work if you can get it.
How we are hosting our own, for an order of magnitude less

Surely there is some way to run your own mailing list, but still handle bounced messages, subscribe / unsubscribe requests, etc.? After some research, I’ve come to like Sendy, a tool you host on your own web server, that integrates with Amazon’s SES (Simple Email Service). The cost of the low level SES cloud service is pennies on the dollar compared to email marketing companies.

While self hosted services obviously have more of an installation and learning curve than just setting up an account at some marketing company, there are big benefits. Of interest to developers, they don’t obfuscate most of the files so you’re welcome to edit the source code for your own needs. On the other hand, if setting up tables on a SQL database isn’t your cup of tea, they even have an optional installation service to help you get up and running. Hosting has very simple requirements, so if you’re interested all you need is:

  • An Apache web server
  • PHP & MySQL
  • An AWS Account (Amazon Web Services)
  • Sendy ($59, one time fee)

Now we can send emails to our hordes of adoring fans (which, admittedly, we’re still assembling), at a cost that doesn’t make us balance our checkbook every time we hit send. And we get pretty charts of how our newsletter was received. And look, not a single bounced message from our first attempt to email ourselves:

Charts showing basic stats on email list results

We are building Third Law Studio as a studio, so in the future we hope to offer publishing or other support to other indie devs and artists. Sendy gives us one example. We can actually host your email list for you, at a cost of about 1/10th what MailChimp charges, and still make a modest profit. If you’re currently paying these sky high fees, and are interested in doing business with a fellow independent developer instead, email me and let’s set up you up. (Sendy integrates with PayPal and automates the monthly billing; so they made it easy on us both.)

As of this writing, Third Law Studio is a new endeavor, with our first apps still in beta. But I’ll update this post later with more on how well our self-hosted service worked for us as we grew. Thanks for stopping by.

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