How Rosie Sherry builds communities around email

There are no cheap hacks for newsletter growth.

“I hate being sold to,” says Rosie Sherry. That guiding intuition, a sentiment most developers would second, helped Sherry build the software testers community Ministry of Testing from day one to over 100,000 members, while also leading community at Indie Hackers and building side-communities like Indiependent for bootstrapped founders and Rosieland for community builders.

Emails, all too often, are mere tools for selling—selling subscriptions, SaaS, or at least subscribers’ attention to advertisers. Developers are the most sensitive to the first whiff of sales. They’ve been burnt too many times by email newsletters that ramped up the marketing overtime, making them the most skeptical of subscribing to your list—and the first to bounce and unsubscribe.

Sherry navigated that skepticism and built a churn-resilient audience of developers by writing for herself, with the community in mind. “I like to focus on delivering value and on what gets me excited,” says Sherry. “If I do the opposite, then that is when people start unsubscribing.”

Email for Community Building

“Great communities thrive on repeatability,” wrote Sherry. “The rituals, the culture, the gatherings, and the expectation settings.”

An email that arrives in your inbox every Thursday morning, without fail, isn’t a community on its own. But it can be the seed from which a community blooms, the repeatable ritual where early community members learn inside lingo and build camaraderie.

“It’s all one big community flywheel,” says Sherry, where the Ministry of Testers creates content for newsletters, tags and shares community content to raise interesting and new voices, and promotes events and conferences. The ideas from one feed into another, with email tying it together.

It’s not that email is the only way to build community. Rosie prefers RSS, shares content on blogs and social media as well, and maintains that “I’m not sure there is a best channel.” Comments sections, forums, ad-hoc groups in social networks, “wherever people come, community naturally arises,” says Sherry.

Email just has a few things that make it particularly conducive to community building. Emails arrive in one of the few chronologically-ordered feeds that’s not ordered by a social algorithm. They’re free-form, flexible enough to be anything you want. They’re easy enough to spin up, for the low price of the minute it takes to start a newsletter. They have comments built in with replies, sharing baked in with forwarding. They’re opt-in, so community members feel safe to subscribe knowing there’s always an out. And newsletters typically have an archive (including Buttondown, with customizable archives including comments and RSS feeds if subscribers prefer that over email), important as social proof, “that you’ve been around, which shows that you care, and hopefully that you or your company won’t disappear as soon as the next hype cycle comes around,” says Sherry.

Best of all, there’s no right or wrong way to build an email newsletter. You can make them as quirky or zany as you want, in the spirit that’s driven indie publishing from zines to blogs.

The only danger is when you have your eyes on the short-term numbers, on churn rates and subscriber growth and click-throughs, you lose sight of the uniqueness that got your newsletter subscribers in the first place. Then it’s a slow path towards irrelevance, as your core initial audience churns away.

Rosie Sherry keeps three core ideas in mind with her email newsletters to stay on track:

  • Talk about your people
  • Stay interesting
  • Be you

Talk about your people

How would you start a developer-focused newsletter and get the first 100 subscribers? “I would start a weekly roundup newsletter and focus on sharing people’s work,” says Sherry. That kicks off a flywheel of growth, as you tell people that you featured their work, they subscribe and tell others about your newsletter, the new subscribers share your posts, the larger audience helps you invite more influential guests, and on and on it goes.

Not that the trick only works for the first hundred subscribers. Even with a thousand times as many followers, Sherry still sends a weekly “summary of the community” email featuring what’s happening in the world of software testers. “Being willing to spend time to research and share what is happening in the market is an act of love that most people aren’t willing to dedicate themselves to,” she says. After all, “the world is co-created,” says the Ministry of Testing’s About page.

Curating and sharing streamlines sending emails consistently even while struggling with writer's block, for one. It gives a dual-purpose to the time you spend learning and researching your vertical to stay sharp and prevent marketing creep. And it gives you an excuse to connect with the community.

Find something interesting. Feature it. Then let the person who created it know and thank them for sharing. Don’t expect anything, but the odds of them reciprocating, subscribing to your newsletter and sharing it, are far higher than they would have been without the outreach.

One share at a time, you’ll keep your existing audience engaged and grow a new following of people who are glad you shared their work or who are existing fans of that developer, creator, or product.

A share will spark more ideas you can expand on in your own writing. Questions you could ask that person, then expand into an interview with unique content for your newsletter.

“Share people’s work and bring them traffic,” says Sherry. “It never fails as a strategy.”

Stay interesting

Don’t obsess over numbers, Sherry advised the Indie Hackers community. Obsess instead over alignment.

There’s a reason people signed up for your newsletter. They agreed with your takes on software development, appreciated the community creations you shared, and wanted more. That’s your north star.

“People stay subscribed when they're truly interested in what you have to offer,” says Sherry. “Quality over quantity of subscribers, always!”

Dive deep into a code issue that’s bugging you, or go down a rabbit hole about why a technical standard is the way it is. If someone unsubscribes, they likely weren’t a great fit for your newsletter anyhow. That’s not worth worrying about.

Share a new feature with a bit more of an upsell than normal, then see your churn rates tick up, and it might be time for a bit of self-reflection on if you would want to read the emails you’re sending if you were on the other end of the inbox.

“Newsletters are there to deliver value and stay on topic,” says Sherry. “Developers don’t want to waste their time. Newsletters should aim to respect that and live it as part of their ethos” If you can deliver value and save them time, they’ll stay subscribed. If, more like social media, your newsletter feels like a waste of time, they’ll churn out.

The delivery matters as much as the message. Say your technical deep-dive is split into a 7-day drip when it could have been a single article; as Sherry says her reaction would be, “what a waste of my time!”

It’s not that you can’t sell anything, that your email needs to be purely altruistic. What is true, though, is you’ll only maintain and grow your audience if your newsletter is consistently filled with things people want to read. True for every audience, but especially for developers who are most likely to bounce at the first sign of sales.

Be you

Curation can get your newsletter started. Community-led content and interviews can elevate others’ voices and build your audiences together.

But you and your unique takes are the critical ingredients that make a newsletter unique.

“I like to focus on what gets me excited,” says Rosie about her newsletters. “This naturally ends up reducing churn.”

So it’s not just curating new things from your subset of the developer ecosystem, or talking to any new voice in your industry. It’s choosing the ones you find interesting, talking to the people you’re most excited about, then using their ideas as a springboard to dive into your ideas.

“Combining talking about your people with your own insights or takes gives you an added opportunity to stand out from the crowd,” says Sherry.

The goal is to create something only you could pull together. Write the newsletter you’d have subscribed to, if only someone else had done so first. Then, one insightful takeaway and one collaborative feature at a time, you’ll build an engaged audience of people attuned to your wavelength.

It’s not that you should only “scratch your own itch.” It’s that you should trust your instincts and be honest with yourself. When something feels like marketing and sales to you, cut it or rewrite it until you—even when you’re most honest with yourself, lying in bed at night—don’t feel like it’d annoy you if you received it. When something feels interesting enough to pursue it, trust your inner child on the bet that other developers in similar positions would find the same thing fascinating. When you’re having a bit of fun with your wording, when you’re sharing something a bit esoteric every now and then, go for it—it’s you, the people showed up to listen to you, and they’ll get bored and churn away if you lose your voice.

One email at a time added to the archive, you’ll build up trust, have your letters to point to as proof of expertise, have newfound connections who appreciate you sharing their work, have an audience waiting to see the next thing you’ll uncover.

“There are no cheap growth hacks to make the numbers look great.” That was the first thing Rosie Sherry shared when asked how to keep developers subscribed and interested. The path is showing up consistently, involving your community, and being yourself. One email at a time, you’ll build a community that trusts your emails enough to, perhaps, want to contribute their ideas or attend your meetups or use your APIs. And you’ll have fun writing that newsletter you wanted to read anyhow.

What customers say about Buttondown

Doesn't matter if you're sending out irregular updates to a few dozen friends, or marketing your business to a thousand recipients. It is absolutely a joy to use. The documentation is great. And Justin provides the best support I have ever encountered. Amazon isn't the world's most customer-centric company, Buttondown is.
Tilde Lowengrimm
Head of Strategy, Red Queen Dynamics
I made the transition from MailerLite and I have no regrets. I also like that Buttondown focuses on the essentials by design and keeps me grounded and centered on what really matters.
Arthur Cendrier
Author, Thoughtful Inquiry
Overall, Buttondown has been terrific to work with and I recommend them for anybody who's thinking of starting a newsletter or moving over like I did.
Andy Magnusson
Customer Engineering Leader
Wanna know how good Buttondown as a product experience is? I upgraded to Basic before sending the first email, and then upgraded again two days later.
Zak El Fassi
Founder, Zaigood Labs
Mailchimp lost me due to their inferior product and the nightmarish merry-go-around experience with their overseas support team. Buttondown won me over with their superior product and second to none customer service.
Sav Tripodi
CEO, Sanico Software
Your support is amazing and I deeply appreciate how available and helpful you are. I LOVE being able to turn tracking pixels off. I didn't even realize this was an option when I signed up and am SO HAPPY to not track people.
Andrea Mignolo
Method & Matter
I'm also impressed with how responsive you are, and how you directly answer customers. Makes it really clear that signing up for your service was a good decision.
Nicole Tietz-Sokolskaya
Software engineer and writer
Very happy with Buttondown, works smoothly, it's very configurable and I love the minimalist design of the UI. It makes me focus on my writing. Plus, I'm super happy to support independent software and I should mention - the support I receive whenever I have a question is warm and quick :)
Martina Pugliese
Data scientist and storyteller
I just tested the RSS to Email feature for one of my blogs and it was incredibly easy to set up. It took me about 30 mins to figure out the same feature in Mailchimp.
Nicolas Bernadowitsch
This long weekend I fulfilled a long-standing promise to myself to switch my RSS-to-email provider from Mailchimp to Buttondown, and it’s been such a great experience. It’s cheaper, more flexible, less cluttered, and it’s run by Justin Duke who is just delightful and answered a bunch of my questions over the weekend (even though I asked him to please not!).
Rian van der Merwe
Director of Product at PagerDuty
I've been wrangling half a dozen tools to get my stuff up and running recently, almost all of which had some hiccup. Buttondown had zero. It did everything I expected and needed the first time.
Catherine Cusick
Self-Employed FAQ
I, like almost everyone else I've seen talk about Buttondown, am IMMENSELY happy and impressed with your customer service. It turns out we can have nice things, which is really refreshing.
Ed Yong
Staff writer, The Atlantic
Email makes the world go ‘round, and Buttondown is how I manage it all for my keyboard projects.
Tim van Damme
Founder, MVKB
It's a truth, that should be more universally acknowledged, that Buttondown is the best newsletter software. Simple, does exactly what it sets out to do, and reasonably priced.
Noel Welsh
Founder, Inner Product
Buttondown is the perfect fit for my headless newsletter use case. And I contacted support with some specific requests and Justin responded within 30 minutes with great answers and a nice pinch of charm.
Sam Roberts
Software engineer, Tamr
Hands down the easiest way to run a newsletter - and the free version is generous!
Javeed Khatree
SEO expert
With API and Markdown support, you can build workflows that make it so easy to write.
Westley Winks
Peace Corps
I’ve never enjoyed writing newsletters as much as I do with Buttondown.
Kevin Lewis
You Got This!
Buttondown remains the easiest thing I use regularly, and I am grateful for that.
It's a humble app doing a common job but with end users in mind.
Si Jobling
Engineering Manager
Buttondown has been an amazing experience for me. The service is constantly being improved and customer service is the best. My newsletter with Buttondown has grown from a fairly small list to over 15,000 subscribers, and it hasn't broken a sweat yet.
Cassidy Williams
CTO, Contenda
I switched over to Buttondown from Mailchimp because of the difficulty I had with Mailchimp's campaigns, so Buttondown's easy and user-friendly system has been a genuine breath of fresh air.
Jessi Eoin
Illustrator + Comic Artist
You’ve truly built a great product that I feel good about using (vs a monopoly from our tech overlords).
2030 Camp
I love how personal Buttondown feels, especially compared to Mailchimp, Convertkit, and services like that.
Simen Strøm Braaten
This product has been exactly what I’ve needed!
Nathan Bird
Podcast host, Chattanooga Civics
It's already so refreshing compared to the mega companies.
Casey Watts
Author, Debugging Your Brain
Definitely will be using for the foreseeable future. It’s a great service and I feel well cared for. Thank you!
Phoebe Sinclair
I’m a sucker for elegant UI and I really love your site, but above that I think your product has so much value for so many different people. I’m not a coder, I’m only familiar with the bare basics, but I was able to figure out and utilise Buttondown quickly.
Claudia Nathan
Founder, The Repository
The killer feature for me: Buttondown will take an RSS feed then automatically slurp up the content (in their words) and then send it to our subscribers. Job done. They seem like a good company too, so I’d say this is a winner.
Andy Bell
Founder, Set Studio
As a recent user of Buttondown, they are super on the ball. A week ago I discovered a security vulnerability and reported it on Friday afternoon. They acknowledged and fixed it in under two hours. On a Friday night! Talk about going above and beyond for your users!
Predrag Gruevski
Principal Engineer, Kensho
Well may I just say your support experience is already approximately 1 billion times better than ConvertKit. Excited to be switching!
Michael J. Metts
Author, Writing is Designing
Privacy focused sending and sign up form; lets me focus on writing - editor is "just" markdown; simple, elegant design template looks like a blog post; the founder is amazing - he's helped with every question I've had, even outside of Buttondown.
Joe Masilotti
Founder, RailsDevs
We need more nice and professional services like yours on the web.
Tobias Horvath
Designer and developer
No one is paying me to say this, but I love @buttondown so far for my lil newsletter. It’s so smart, simple, and attractive (and to my knowledge, not actively anti-trans!). Customer service is also legitimately excellent.
Julie Kliegman
Copy chief, Sports Illustrated
I love it! It lets me breathe, not compete as I write with other writers.
Devin Kate Pope
Writer and editor
It’s a pleasure working with you. Thank you! (And what a contrast with Mailchimp, where I spent two weeks and a dozen of emails trying find out why our form goes down sometimes (only sometimes), and never really got a real answer.)
Anton Sotkov
Software Engineer, IA
Buttondown exemplifies how I wish most software worked, and I hope to achieve a similar thing with the software I develop in the future.
Matt Favero
Software engineer
It feels incomparably good to be able to email just like a guy named Justin when you have a @buttondown question 15 minutes before you’re about to blast a Geistlist email. (Not a guarantee but wow this guy is human-level good.)
Jacob Ford
Designer About Town
Enter Buttondown, Justin Duke’s lovely little newsletter tool. It’s small, elegant, and integrates well. And it is also eminently affordable.
Will Buckingham
Your settings page is a joy to use and everything about Buttondown makes me happy.
Gareth Jelley
Magazine editor
have been on Buttondown for ~18 months and I can't recommend it enough.
Elizabeth Minkel
Podcast host
You really do make ALL other customer service look terrible by comparison.
Chris Mead
Improv teacher
There is a caring person on the other side of this software, which is one of the things I like the most about Buttondown.
Keith Calder
Film & TV Producer
I’d also like to add that @buttondown is an absolute joy to use. Hats off, Justin!
Elliot Jay Stocks
Creative Director, Google Fonts
Shoutout to @buttondown and @jmduke for building an amazing bootstrapped product for newsletters, all while being very open to feedback and connecting directly with customers 🙏 Easily one of the most enjoyable product experiences I've had.
Den Delimarsky
Head of Ecosystem, Netlify
if you are looking for "newsletter tool for hackers" i tentatively believe the answer is @buttondown full api, compose in markdown, good docs for setting up domain auth, simple subscribe form HTML that you style yourself (or not)
Brian David Hall
Author, Your Website Sucks
I really like @buttondown as a blogging platform, it has the simplicity of Substack but the corporate culture is less toxic.
Chad Loder
Extremism researcher
I worked with @buttondown and asked for some new payment support beyond the supporter single tier / pay-what-you-want options. Justin was great and built it in just a couple days.
Dan Hon
Author & consultant
I write nonfiction and I use @buttondown - indie, GREAT personal customer support, very nice default styling, all the options I want including ones to protect my readers' privacy
Sumana Harihareswara
Open source maintainer
I use @buttondown because it does exactly what I need (manage subscribers and send markdown emails), not more and not less 👍 As a bonus it's made by an indie dev which I love!
Max Stober
Founder, GraphCDN
If you’re considering running an email newsletter, or if you already run one and are considering a change of provider, I highly recommend @buttondownemail. Super-easy app, very fair pricing with a generous free tier, and exemplary support. 💯
Peter Gasston
Technologist and speaker
imo @buttondown is easily one of the best-designed services i’ve used in recent years, if you have a substack you should really consider switching!
Kabir Goel
Engineer, Cal
Thanks for getting me excited about email newsletters again.
Garrick van Buren
I'm very thrilled that I can just write in Markdown without having to deal with email builders and all that crap.
Parham Doustdar
Thanks again for all the help! You’ve really turned something super complex into something super easy – sending new issues is as simple as firing off a text message.
Kartik Chaturvedi
Thanks for creating a simple way for people who want to, like, put words in a hole and have it sent to people... I am just thankful that something just nice and human exists on the internet.
Emmanuel Quartey
I tried 3 other newsletter services today and I felt like wanting to rip my hair out. They were all painfully slow. I'm so glad I found Buttondown.
Mohamed Elbadwihi
I’ve found Buttondown to be a great fit for my workflow and have been delighted by all of Justin’s thoughtful features and improvements to the product.
Michael Lee
Like seriously, so many lovely little easter eggs in one could-be-boring service.
Alexandra Muck
I just switched over from Tinyletter and I'm really excited to have found a place to host my tiny newsletter that doesn't seem like it's assuming everyone sending newsletters is an email marketer / growth hacker.
Tessa Alexanian
I'm in love with the simplicity of Buttondown.
I’ve used similar tools in the past and Buttondown is by far the simplest to use and most promising.
Fabrizio Rinaldi
Thank you for creating such a simple and brilliant tool. I’ve just signed up and the experience has been smooth and painless (the docs are great too!)
Oliver Holms
As a developer who has hated every email system I've ever used this is so nice.
Drew Hornbein
I wish I still wrote a newsletter just so I could use buttondown again. It’s like that.
Steven Kornweiss
No credit card required. Only pay for what you use. Cancel anytime.