We’re starting an interview series with successful bloggers and writers who have managed to turn their writing passion into a lucrative endeavor.
First up is Anne-Laure Le Cunff, a neuroscience student and the founder of Ness Labs, a research studio dedicated to mindful productivity. Today, Ness Labs has successful a blog, a newsletter and a whole community that are all managed by Anne-Laure herself.
In this interview, learn how she successfully grew Ness Labs and her reason for growing the community, how she writes consistently everyday, and her tips on how to build a business.
Hey Anne-Laure! Thank you so much for talking with us! The last 2-3 years have been a wild and very public ride for you. You experienced burnout, left Google, launched the first version of Ness Labs, broke up with your co-founder, learned how to code, created cool products, and today, you’re managing a blog on mindful productivity with a very successful membership community tied to it. You’re very resilient. Do you ever think back and realize the ups and downs of your own trajectory? You’re certainly no overnight success, and we mean that in the best way possible
Anne-Laure: It does feel like a crazy rollercoaster when you put it this way! I do an annual review at the end of each year, but I have not really taken the time to look back at the past few years. Lots has happened indeed. I left my job at Google because I didn’t want to have a predictable career with a step-by-step manual leading to specific outcomes. Looks like I succeeded at that part.
On writing constantly
All right, let’s go back a bit. It’s the summer of 2019, and you just published your first article for the Ness Labs blog. What were you expecting?
At the time, I created the Ness Labs blog with one objective in mind: better understand what I was studying at King’s College for my masters in neuroscience. It’s based on the generation effect—the idea that you will better learn stuff when you take the time and energy to phrase it into your own words.
Since then, the blog and newsletters have taken a life of their own, beyond my neuroscience studies, and have become an integral part of my business.
You’re very prolific. Since then, you’ve written and published almost everyday, reached the front page of Hacker News almost every other day, and have successfully created your own community. All right, so first off: how do you write so often and at such a high-quality?
Instead of waiting for my elusive muse, I use time blocking. I have one hour blocked in my calendar every morning to write. That’s the first thing I do when I open my laptop. In terms of quality, I think it comes with practice. Instead of trying to polish an article for two weeks, I publish it, then incorporate the feedback I receive from people, and learn from these suggestions for future articles.
How do you decide which ideas to write about?
I have what I call a writing inbox with lots of ideas I can pick from when I sit down for my daily writing session. Any time I read or hear something interesting—this could be from a book, a podcast, or a conversation with someone—I add it to that list of ideas. It’s a very long list with enough content to last me a few months at least, and I constantly add to it.
Do you have a writing system or a process to maintain this output?
I see it as cultivating a mind garden. I seed my mind garden with lots of raw notes. I then connect the dots between notes to see if anything interesting emerges—Conor White-Sullivan, the founder of Roam Research, calls this idea sex. I then take the most interesting ones and turn them into actual essays to publish on my blog.
On running Ness Labs
Care to explain Ness Labs and the community in a few words?
Ness Labs is a place for ambitious people who want to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health. Beyond the free articles in the weekly newsletter, members get access to a private community, with a forum, virtual events, deals on mindful productivity tools and apps, exclusive research reports, tutorials, and more.
From breaking up with your co-founder to successfully creating a community through your own writing on mindful productivity, what lessons helped you achieve this level of success today with Ness labs?
My biggest lesson is to learn by doing. I see too many would-be founders and creatives fall prey to the planning fallacy. There would have been no way for me to predict what Ness Labs would look like today when I was trying to figure out what to do a few years ago.
To me, building a business is about failing like a scientist. Scientists don’t design experiments for them to succeed; they design experiments to learn something new. Any failure becomes a new data point you can then build upon.
Ness Labs, Maker Mind, the blog and the membership program all deal with neuroscience and mindful productivity. But they’re also products that are distinct from one another. Do you feel like your audiences for these 4 products differ from one another? How so?
Ness Labs is the umbrella brand for all the products I offer and experiment with, and the mission is actually the same. The audiences differ in the level of commitment they have to better understanding their mind. Some people are happy with a few weekly articles about the applications of neuroscience to entrepreneurship; others want the opportunity to discuss what they learned with fellow members. I built Ness Labs in a way that allows me to cater to these different levels of curiosity.
You’ve recently reached $1k MRR! Congrats! How did the idea of a paid membership programme come about?
Most of the revenue generated by Ness Labs last year came from my consulting work. Consulting work is unpredictable and not scalable. I wanted to create a source of revenue I could consistently rely on so I could focus on what I love doing most: learning and creating educational content.
What was the process or strategy behind launching the membership program?
As with many of my experiments, there was no complex strategy behind the launch of the membership program. I asked myself: what extra value can I provide to subscribers?
It took me a few days to build the basics—which fortunately with Zapier and many other SaaS tools is fairly easy nowadays—and I launched it in my weekly newsletter.
I was really testing the waters and didn’t expect to make $1,000 on the first day. I do suspect many members joined solely as a way to support my work.
What’s your goal for Ness Labs? Where do you want it to go?
I want to build a sustainable business that enables me to keep on learning and connecting with fellow curious minds. I often think of Pieter Levels who basically created his own personal haven with Nomad List. It may sound selfish, but that’s what I want Ness Labs to be, and I think that’s one of the most motivating reasons to keep going.
Do you have any news or updates about you or your projects you’d like to share with us?
Earlier this year, I had the very first person come and work with me at Ness Labs for a few months as a Researcher in Residence. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, and I think I’ll do it again in the future. I like this model where someone curious, driven, and independent can come and work on a research project for a few months, and we both get to learn a lot in a short amount of time.
Any tips on how writers and bloggers can turn their pet project into a real business?
If you want it to build a real business, you need to commit. You need a consistent schedule, and you need to show up. Be realistic: don’t launch a daily newsletter if it’s not compatible with your other responsibilities. Show up, learn in public, and you will be well on your way to building a business.