It would be hard to overstate just how big 2023 was for us. In January we made the decision to take control of our destiny and bring all of our marketing and communications efforts in-house. This was a huge change, and definitely not without risk. How did that work out for us? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
- Added nearly 200k direct subscribers.
- Direct monthly recurring revenue (MRR) increased 162%.
- Overall MRR increased 16%.
- Direct subscriber churn decreased from 9% to 4.4%.
- Direct subscriber lifetime value (LTV) increased 41%.
In short: we have more subscribers, they pay us more, and they stay longer.
Before we go too much further, the elephant in the room:
Historically we’ve talked about total subscriber counts. For context, we started 2023 with about 650,000 total subscribers and ended with about 680,000 total subscribers. Focusing on this number made sense when Nebula was available as part of a bundle (which drove many of our signups) but for 2023 onward might be a distraction. Since the goal for 2023 was to grow direct subscribers, and since direct subscribers are the only contributors to revenue as of 2024, we expect overall subscriber count to stay fairly flat as those viewers convert over to direct subscriptions, while revenue will continue to grow significantly. Direct subscribers are simply worth a lot more revenue. Going forward, we’re only interested in direct subscriber metrics.
Bringing Nebula’s marketing efforts 100% in-house was the single largest driver of growth for us over the last year. It’s also the biggest risk we’ve ever taken. Speaking frankly, this move was terrifying. Running the campaign wasn’t a huge departure — we’ve been doing that for years — but paying for it out of our own cash reserves meant burning cash until the new revenue could offset it, and we didn’t have that much cash to burn. We were literally betting the entire company that our audience would pay more for Nebula as a standalone service.
Subscription service marketing is very much a numbers game. If you imagine the average lifetime value of a Nebula subscriber is $75, our target cost to acquire that customer should be $25. Nebula costs $5 per month, which means that it would take us five months to break even. That doesn’t account for churn — the rate at which customers cancel their subscriptions — so we were racing against time to hit a point where revenue growth pays back the initial marketing investment.
Our solution was to emphasize annual subscriptions. We removed discounts for new monthly subscribers, making annual the more attractive option. Annual subscriptions are $50, or $30 if you sign up using a creator link, so the hope was that enough people would choose annual that our up-front cash would be more offset. Our most optimistic and aggressive models had us hitting equilibrium in Q3.
In reality, it was instant. So many customers chose annual that our first-month revenue was more than the cost per acquisition in the very first month of the campaign. We make more money from new subscribers than we pay to bring them in. This, combined with a lower churn rate, means that it’s in our best interests to keep investing in the creators. Nebula spent nearly $5m on sponsorships in 2023.
Every penny of our marketing budget is spent paying our creators to promote Nebula to their audience. We’ve never seen anything perform as well as sponsorships. We’ll certainly expand our marketing over time as we seek awareness beyond our current audience, but I don’t ever see a world where we stop paying the creators to promote. It’s simply too powerful.
In product marketing, there are goods and services which are up-market, meaning they’re higher quality and appeal to more discerning customers, or down-market, meaning they’re relatively inexpensive and generally lower in quality. Being part of a bundle meant that Nebula was an add-on. A thing you get for free. Inherently down-market. Shifting to direct subscribers was about increasing Nebula’s value perception.
At the beginning of the year we started placing internal emphasis on prestige. Will a given feature, Original, or event move Nebula up-market or down-market? Unbundling was definitely an up-market move. Red carpet premieres are up-market moves. If we want to keep pushing in that direction, we need to dial up our Originals slate.
Nebula started life as “education-y streaming service where you can see your favorite creators’ videos early and ad-free.” This year, inspired by the cultural impact of The Prince, we recognized an opportunity to do something big — bridging the gap between “YouTuber” and traditional media and entertainment — and we’ve spent much of 2023 investing in our development and production pipeline. This investment has led to some big changes, like bringing in Jet Lag creator Sam Denby as our chief content officer. We also hired a communications director (publicist) in order to be more intentional about how, when, and where we make announcements, specifically hiring someone whose background is entertainment, not creator economy or technology. The effort has paid off, getting us some ink in Variety and more attention behind the scenes from more traditional sources. Some of our projects in development have been announced, like IDENTITEAZE and Dracula’s Ex-Girlfriend, but that only scratches the surface of what we’re working on.
Still, these prestige-play, up-market projects simply cost a lot more to produce. We could wait for the money to come in and build slowly, or we could find another option.
Every business needs capital. There are four basic ways to get it:
- Start out rich
- Borrow the money and pay it back with interest
- Sell equity and give up some long-term upside
- Make so much money from your customers that you don’t need options 1–3
The parasocial nature of our creators’ audience relationships creates a kind of trust. Nebula, as an extension of the creators themselves, inherits that trust. It’s why, I think, our marketing efforts have been so effective. Rather than take a loan or take investment from venture capitalists, we decided to experiment with lifetime memberships as a way to let the audience themselves place a bet on us.
Simply put, a lifetime membership takes the full presumed value of a Nebula subscriber over some period of time and moves all of that future money to today. We intentionally chose a price higher than what our data tells us is the average lifetime value of a customer, and we stated very clearly that this was not the best deal. The only reason to buy a lifetime membership is to support Nebula and help us invest in more big-idea Originals. A lot of people seem to like this option.
We’ve turned lifetime memberships off and on a few times over the year, trying to protect against a scenario where total monthly signups is negatively impacted. To our surprise, in every single test the total number of non-lifetime signups goes up when lifetime is available, and better yet, those additional sales are almost entirely for annual subscriptions. The existence of a lifetime option anchors the annual plan as the best deal.
How well did it go? Lifetime memberships generated more than $4.1m in sales in 2023. Turns out the best way to raise funding is to ask our own customers to help us make bigger Originals. What a beautiful privilege that is.
Trajectory is hard to map at the moment, in part because so much has changed over the last year, but more specifically December was nuts. Our five biggest days ever for signups all happened in December. The month saw new records for single-day watch time, daily active users, monthly active users, cash flow, revenue, and month-over-month revenue growth. Our biggest month ever by all metrics before Christmas.
Will this pattern hold? December had a lot going for it — several new Originals, a Real Engineering video specifically about our streaming infrastructure, a major announcement from Abigail Thorn, a ten-minute teaser from Lindsay Ellis. Oh right, and a new season of Jet Lag featuring Michelle Khare.
Another major driver was folks switching over from the bundle, which we expect to persist across 2024. Our forecasts remain conservative, but who knows.
2023 was a year of change and growth for us. We did a ton of work behind the scenes to overhaul operations, taking the ethos of our Snow Leopard initiative and applying it to every single facet of the business. This effort was, silently, the most important change we made all year, bringing focus and clarity to every team in the company to act as a single machine rather than a system of loosely interconnected parts. Along the way, we brought more creators into day-to-day operational roles, intentionally blurring the lines between staff and client to ensure everyone was on the same team. At present, content development, talent management, in-studio production, and marketing are all led by creators.
Our mission is to elevate our creators. To elevate their work. To elevate the medium. This isn’t a collection of “YouTubers,” this is a community of journalists, philosophers, filmmakers, experts, and storytellers whose work deserves to be taken seriously. 2023 was about developing into a mature and sustainable independent business, but everything until now has been defined by what the creators have helped us build. 2024 onward will be defined by what we help our creators build.
A year ago I wondered if I was crazy to think we could pull this off. I won’t say it was easy. It wasn’t. But we did it, better than I ever could have dreamed. To every single person who has ever signed up for a direct Nebula subscription: thank you.
Nebula’s biggest competitive advantage is hundreds of amazing, talented, empathetic, clever people working together on a shared vision and a common goal. I’m proud to be one of them.