Quitting Mailchimp and Moving My Small Business Email Marketing to Sendy For a Fraction of the Cost

Email is the most important marketing medium for businesses, especially in the age of declining free social media reach. Email is the only way to communicate with your customers directly, and they get to choose whether to interact with you or not.

For almost a decade, I’ve used Mailchimp for my email marketing at Anglotopia. I’ve generally been pretty happy. I accepted their regular prices rises in stride because my business was successful, and it could afford it. But what happens when the business is struggling and can no longer afford it? The almost $300 a month I was paying to Mailchimp began to really, really bite as Anglotopia has struggled over the last 18 months.

I also began to become disillusioned with the service. I always respected Mailchimp in that they were a bootstrapped startup that eschewed Venture Capital money and followed their own course, too much success. But Mailchimp had a shift in strategy recently – they want to become the center of all marketing for a business. They added feature after feature, features I didn’t really need or want to use. I didn’t need another way to pay for Facebook and Instagram ads. Then they started doing questionable things like funding original short-form content. I would be presented with the weirdest things when I hit the login interstitial screen.

All I could think was that my $300 a month was funding crap like this. Meanwhile, the email side of their business wasn’t really improving or innovating much. They didn’t really add new features to the drag and drop email builder. Email list management, by far their most important task, is, at this point, a nuts & bolts type of service that anyone can emulate.

Looking for a way to cut costs, I began to research the possibility of leaving Mailchimp. As someone whose business grew and was successful because of it, this was a hard decision to make. But I’d had enough. I needed a better way.

There are plenty of Mailchimp competitors, and I tried quite a few of them. But I kept coming back to one major problem – most of Mailchimp’s competitor’s pretty much match Mailchimp’s prices simply because they can. There isn’t really a much cheaper alternative. I felt trapped. I needed email marketing, but it’s just too expensive.

That’s when I started thinking about the fundamentals of email. What is the most important thing? List management is easy. Sign-up APIs are easy. Drop and drop email builders are pretty common, and there are many free ones. I came to the conclusion that the most important things to me was deliverability — the simple idea of being able to reach as many of my subscribers as possible. So, open rate and clicks were my most important metrics.

If I could safeguard those, then I didn’t really care which service I used.

I heard about Sendy earlier this year and dismissed it. It sounded too good to be true. Parroted by many of the marketing blogs – that have an affiliate interest in selling it – I didn’t think it would work for me. Sendy is a script that you can install on your own server to manage your email list and sending. It uses Amazon SES, which is a simple email sending service provided by Amazon Web Services (like Mandrill or Sendgrid). I’d never heard of it, frankly.

I did a bit of research and was put off by blog posts that said Sendy required a complicated sever install that you would probably have to hire someone to do. So, another cost. Then you’d have to go through the sign-up process with Amazon and be approved to send (which can be tricky).

Sendy would control your email sending; Amazon SES would send the actual emails.

The cost of this? Sendy costs $59.99 to license for a single user/website. Amazon charges $.10 per 1000 emails sent. It simply sounds too good to be true.

Surely, deliverability would be an issue. Would Amazon have deliverability that’s just as good as Mailchimp, a trusted email sender? Looking back, it’s a stupid question to ask oneself – of course; Amazon has good email deliverability. It’s bloody Amazon.

Anyway, there was enough iffiness to put me off of giving it a try mostly because I was too cheap to spend the money on the software and hire a developer while still pay Mailchimp’s inflated prices. I went back to researching alternatives. I did not find one. And I continued to stick with Mailchimp and watched the price rise again recently.

I’d had enough.

There was also a big unanswered question of how I would build my emails every week. The Mailchimp builder was good enough. Sendy doesn’t have an email builder, you just paste the raw HTML code, and that’s it. Of all the alternative services I tried, I actually really liked the email builder that Mailerlite uses – its RSS integration is much nicer and flexible than Mailchimp’s. I really struggled to find an email builder I could use with Sendy; the only one people talked about in searches was defunct.

A few months went by, and I finally decided to research Sendy some more. I looked at their documentation on the website and read through the installation process and realized it wasn’t actually that hard. It was something I could easily do within my skill level (it’s very similar to installing WordPress). I even had a server I could throw it on. More searches on building emails taught me that I could actually keep using the Mailchimp builder for free, and just cut and paste the email code into Sendy. It was a Eureka moment.

So, I pulled the trigger and bought the software, figuring a $60 investment would save me more in the long run. I downloaded the software right away and had it up and running on my server in less than an hour. I signed up for Amazon SES and waited for approval, requesting 75,000 email sends a day (I have about 60,000 subscribers across all my lists and figured this would do).

I did a few tests to familiarize myself with Sendy, and it worked flawlessly. I waited a day and was approved for sending by Amazon at a rate of 50,000 emails a day at 14/emails a second. I figured this would be plenty. I followed the directions to link Sendy with Amazon SES, and everything was set up in an afternoon.

I decided to test initially with one of my smaller lists to get the hang of things. The list had 9,000 subscribers. I exported from Mailchimp, which was easy. Importing into Sendy was a little troublesome. No matter how I formatted the CSV file, the importer would not take it. In the end, I just cut and pasted the list in batches of a couple of thousand address at a time into the importer box.

I had no issues getting my newsletter template/code from Mailchimp (all you have to do is go to ‘view source’ in your browser when the test preview is open). My old newsletter looked fine. But it was, in the end, my ‘old’ newsletter. I remember Mailerlite and really liked the idea of overhauling my newsletters. So, I built a new template there and used that for my first newsletter send. It looked a lot better. I had to make a few minor changes to the code to update the ‘View in Browser’ and ‘Unsubscribe’ links, so they didn’t go to Mailerlite but to my Sendy site.

The real test would be deliverability, open rate, and clicks. After doing many, many tests to make sure things were just right. I hit send on my first deployment of the Londontopia newsletter to 9,000 subscribers, sending from my own server.

You can see what it looks like here.

Sending was slow. It took 5 hours to deploy to 9,000 subscribers. This was intolerable and was practically a deal-breaker. I need the emails to go out fast. Deliverability must be fast. Mailchimp is fast; it has that going for it. Turns out, after poking around the settings, that I’d set it up wrong. Amazon was allowing me to send at 14 emails a second, Sendy was set to send at 1 email a second. Spoiler, when I deployed the next Londontopia newsletter, it sent in less than 30 minutes (but I ran into other issues, which I’ll share later on).

Deployment was successful, and I watched my analytics and watched the stats provided by Sendy. Open rate was off to a strong start. I would need a couple of days to judge the stats. So, I continued to check things several times a day over several days. Eventually, my open rate matched and even exceeded what it was with Mailchimp. Sendy provides basic stats: open rate, location opened, and what was clicked. I liked this, Mailchimp basically tracks a user across the web, Sendy just tracks the basics. Much less creepy. There’s the usual data on bounce rate, unsubscribes, etc. That was at the same rates as they were in Mailchimp, so nothing of concern there. I run clean lists.

Here’s an example of the stats page:

I really liked that the email is hosted on my own server. You really have complete control of everything. I decided to register my brand’s .email domain and use that for email sending. I worried this might also affect deliverability, but it didn’t appear to. Click rate was a little lower than I would have liked, but I chalked that to the new design. Engagement was still strong. It cost a total of $.80 in Amazon SES to deploy all the emails. $.80. That’s it.

So, after this one test, I was pretty reassured that this was the direction to go in. For the first time in a long time, I was very excited about a business move. I would be saving almost $4000 a year – enough to pay for a trip to Britain for two. So, with the next monthly bill from Mailchimp due in a few days, I moved quickly to move my data from one service to the other. Mailchimp, to their credit, makes this very easy. It’s just an export of a few CSV files. It didn’t take long at all to get them into Sendy.

I created a new email template for my main newsletter in Mailerlite and also created some new eCommerce email templates for my online store list. Everything went smoothly, and I was really proud of the new designs and how slick everything looks. I would be giving up a lot of commerce tracking, but honestly, that data in Mailchimp isn’t that useful when Google Analytics provided better and more accurate data on this anyway.

Here’s a sample of the main Anglotopia Newsletter.

My second week with Sendy was about getting used to it, learning its quirks and deploying all my emails for the whole week with it. It was a little time consuming, but open rates stayed the same. Still, though, click rates were a little lower. But the response from my readers was good. And people still continued to buy things.

There was one major issue – by increasing the send rate to 14 emails a second, this overloaded my cheap shared hosting (I don’t use this hosting account for my main websites). The server kept hitting its resource limits and going offline. This was slightly annoying, so I upgraded the server to the next tier, but again I still had the same problem. I reduced the send rate and it only overloaded on large email sends. This is a short term solution. I will need a more permanent server solution that won’t go down when sending. Thankfully, Sendy keeps sending until the whole list is deployed, so if the server exceeds its resources, it just resumes when it comes back online. I will likely need to get a VPS or cloud hosting, which can be done affordably and I need new hosting anyway (my next problem to tackle is finding a new, cheaper hosting for all my websites, I have someone in mind).

After looking at the data and becoming used to Sendy as a platform, I made the final decision to ditch Mailchimp. There was one hiccup – I’d forgotten that I was using Mandrill, which got acquired by Mailchimp, for all my transactional emails and WordPress emails. This had an easy solution – I could actually use Amazon SES for all of this, I just had to install a new plugin to send all those emails with SMTP. Problem sorted. This took about an hour to sort out.

I also needed to update all my subscription forms and website popup sign-ups. The major ones have been done, but I’m still in the process of doing this across all my sites. Sendy has an API that most of the major services talk to. It’s just a matter of going through and updating everything. But as of two weeks ago, all my new email subscribers are going directly into Sendy. I also need to work on the email messages that go to new subscribers and brand everything. In addition, I want to create some automations (which Sendy supports).

I could make a clean break from Mailchimp.

So, I went into my account settings and ‘paused’ my account. I would not be billed for this month. I could continue to monitor everything, and if I don’t like what I see, I can simply reactivate my account. That’s fine for now. If everything is fine by the end of the year, I’ll go in and clear out all my data and say goodbye to Mailchimp for good.

This solution is not ideal for everyone; you do need a bit of techy knowledge to get this setup. But once you do, you have complete control of your emails for a much lower price. I’ve gone from spending almost $300 a month on email marketing to less than $25. It felt pretty good this week to not get charged by Mailchimp. It’s one less thing I had to stress about and figure out how to cover. I’m very happy with Sendy so far. I hope anyone considering ditching Mailchimp finds this useful. It was very hard to find something like this when I was doing research, so I hope an unbiased look (I’m not trying to sell anything here), is useful to anyone else looking to make this change.

Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments below.

The Indiana Landscape That Went to War

Rural Indiana is a place that evokes two things: flatness and corn. And, for the most part, you would be right. Indiana is indeed a very flat place (at least in the big middle). And corn is the preferred crop, though that has given way somewhat to soy. So, it’s not a place that evokes being the engine of war.

For a brief period in the 1940s, it was the engine of war.

Indiana is blessed with geography. It’s at a crossroads in the USA – of the roads and of the railways. This makes it useful in times of war. And during World War II, a small town just outside of LaPorte, Indiana became one of the biggest munitions factories in the world: The Kingsbury Ordnance Plant. Driving through the Indiana landscape, if you didn’t know it was there, you would never notice it. But it’s there.

Here you had a vast open space, well connected to the rail network with close access to the Great Lakes (and thus the Atlantic Ocean). It was in the middle of nowhere but close enough to major cities that finding labor would not be hard. It was located thousands of miles from the nearest coastline, so it was safe from foreign bombardment and air forces. And it would be easy to disguise the operations within the landscape. It’s remoteness also made it safe: if there was an accident, it’s damage could be contained.

Kingsbury, Indiana became a wartime boomtown. The American war economy was a boom time, which, despite wartime, was most welcome after the austerity of the Great Depression. There was a labor shortage, and thousands of people had to be lured to rural Laporte County Indiana, then only home to 16,000 people (today, it’s population is still rather small at around 110,000).

Thousands of workers, at one time over 21,000, were brought in from all over the country and lived in a newly constructed town called Kingsford Heights. It was one factory, one-industry town. Shrouded in secrecy. Many employees were women since the men were sent away to war. It was dangerous and dirty work. Many had health issues for the rest of their lives.

The Kingsbury Ordnance Plan sprawled across 13,000 acres. There were dozens of factory buildings, each connected to the railways, separated by safe distances in case of accidents. An entire infrastructure was put into place to support the factories. Machine shops. Water towers. Warehouses. Canteens. Offices.

And here, they made the bombs, shells and bullets that fueled the ‘arsenal of freedom’ that was sent over to Europe. That supplied our allies. That leveled German and Japanese cities. That led us to victory.

Kingsbury did its job. And when the war was over, it wasn’t needed anymore. It was briefly reactivated for the Korean War but has been abandoned since 1960. And by abandoned, I mean that it’s mostly still there, rotting away in plain sight.

While the security cordons and military patrols are long gone, the infrastructure is still largely there. Many former factory buildings, built with reinforced concrete are now warehouses, and there’s a vibrant core of businesses that operate in them. Other, less useful buildings have been left to rot and are falling down, leading to the picture of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You could film The Walking Dead here and not need to dress the set.

Much of the area was returned to farmland or given to the state of Indiana, who set it aside as the Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife area. In these places, you can wander around in overgrown fields, dotted with former munitions stores, steel doors long broken into. These ghostly bunkers, a remnant of a war long gone, sit there, abandoned in the landscape. They’re too difficult to demolish. Too dangerous to demolish. So, they’re still there. And will probably be there for hundreds of years.

There are dozens of them. Inside is the detritus of decades of teenagers up to no good. Garbage. Graffiti. Drug needles. If you grow up in Kingsbury, it’s a cool place to hang out in the dark nights of rural Indiana. When you walk amongst these silent sentries, you only hear the wildlife and the occasional gunshots of the people there to kill it.

It’s a scarred landscape. But a landscape where the wildlife has returned and is thriving. Even where the signs warn you that the land is contaminated and never to enter, they grow corn where they can, on land that one hopes isn’t still contaminated. There are large areas where nothing grows but grass. In the winter, when the land freezes and unfreezes, local farmers have reported hearing explosions as long-forgotten buried munitions manage to still explode.

When you approach by road and see the former factories, now working warehouses, it’s a chilling sight. It’s very reminiscent of a concentration camp. Railway lines go to each building, the complex is still surrounded by barb wire and is guarded. What are they doing in there? A few hardy people live out here, in mobile homes or industrial buildings converted to homes. It’s a muddy, dirty place. Many work the land that surrounds them.

In the areas that are no longer fenced off and part of the Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife Area, you’re free to wander and explore – at your own risk. You can walk along the streets that are now mostly grassed over. Peek inside the former munitions stores. Listen to the birds and the silence of rural Indiana. Despite what the place represents, it has a harsh beauty to it. And I love it.

It feels like walking through a town that was abandoned and razed. It’s weird walking through a cornfield surrounded by paved roads. This was industry. This was war. Now, it’s nature. And this is life.

The most chilling thought when you visit this place is that when you realize that most of the infrastructure is still there. The roads are still there. The rails are still there. The fences and buildings are still there. The electricity and water towers are still there.

It could all, quite easily, be spooled up again to manufacture death and destruction.

Walks: The Lighthouse, Michigan City

The Lighthouse in Michigan City, Indiana
The Lighthouse in Michigan City, Indiana

I’ve started walking again. I have been diagnosed with high blood pressure which means I need to take medication, eat better and be more active. I choose walking to be more active. So, here I’d like to show the interesting things I see on my walks. This is the iconic Lighthouse in Michigan City, set out on a concrete pier. The day I visited was windy and cold. I could not walk further than this, as the waves were too dangerous – I could have been swept away.