When the Cabrera Brothers launched the Free Bundle website in 2014, something odd happened. Around 15,000 avid gamers subscribed to its newsletter on its first day online. By the end of the week, they had amassed around 120,000 email subscriptions from all over the world.
Oh. My. God.
It was an overnight success. You don’t see many of those.
Their strategy was simple; they created a website that showcased independent game developers’ work. People could download the games absolutely for free; no credit card needed, no PayPal, no commitments whatsoever.
At the time, the most relevant website of the type was the Humble Bundle; gamers could pay as little as a dollar there, and, in return, they would get to download a bundle of up to five or six games. The more money people were willing to spend on the bundle, the more games they had in return.
But being game developers themselves, the Cabrera Brothers saw how difficult it was for the independent developer community to get their games showcased there. Back then, there weren’t many “indie games” getting published, so most projects would tend to go relatively unnoticed by the press and the players.
So they acted.
It was a one-night operation.
The website’s design was reasonably more minimalist than the competition’s. It displayed a list of five to six games people could download for free. A counter, so each downloaded game would count towards one download from the website, a logo, a newsletter sign up box, and another counter. The second counter displayed the days and hours that people would need to wait until the next bundle was up.
It exploded, literally. The first couple of visits came from friends in the gaming industry who shared the initiative with their followers. But then came the infamous “Reddit effect.” Thousands of visits piled up by the minute, crashing the website repeatedly, hosting bills piled up even faster after that.
News about the Free Bundle began to appear on PC Gamer, CNET, and even on Amazon’s own Twitter feed. Everybody in the industry talked about the crazy way some independent game developers were showcasing their games; they gave them away for free.
At the end of the first week, the Free Bundle went from having 0 visitors to suffering thousands a minute. From having no newsletter subscriptions to having more than 120,000.
Then, they threw it all away for an even crazier idea.
As independent game developers began to publish their work on Steam and consoles, exposure became less of an issue. Javier Cabrera, one of the brothers, being a writer himself, decided they needed to change the website’s approach. This time, they would help self-published authors to have their work showcased.
The Free Bundle Magazine was born. The minimalist website changed to display writers and their short stories, which were now freely available for anyone to read — an abysmal difference to what other magazines of the type offer.
But of course, they had to inform their newsletter subscribers they would not be showcasing free games to download anymore. A few days after sending the opt-out email, their total amount of subscribers went from 120,000 to a mere 7,000.
Then came the GDPR, and the number went down even more. In total, only a shy 3500 were interested in hearing about Fantasy & Science Fiction from the original Free Bundle mailing list.
But that did not discourage the brothers, who felt they were only just getting started. There is nothing like a little adversity to steer determination into the heart of a Latino. They do come from a lineage of conquistadors, after all.
So instead of backing down the idea or cry over spoiled milk, they doubled on their bet. Overnight, without giving the entire ordeal much thought, the brothers sat down and crafted a brilliant marketing campaign they called “Anyone Can Be a Writer.” The campaign, consisting of a few post-its on the office wall, aimed to encourage writers to send their work for review and approval.
I wrote about it here:
It was a success. By being forward and direct, the brothers managed to re-create the viral effect. In a few days, the subscribers’ count for their mailing list went from around 25 a day to a steady 1,700. By the end of the campaign, they had about 25,000 subscribers, from which 16,000 became active readers.
And all without investing a single dollar into advertising.
So how the Cabrera Brothers managed to grow their mailing list from the ashes again? I had the chance to interview one of them about the fiction podcasts they launched for their magazine earlier this year. At the moment of writing this medium post, I’m still working on that story, but from our talk, I gathered that what happened had more to do with their attitude than with whatever strategy they followed.
They tend not to overthink things very much, especially their strategies. Instead, they act upon an idea and carry it out. If it doesn’t work right away, then they make sure to work on it until it does. But there isn’t a lot of overthinking or planning in the process.
For example, they tried to book a flight to the South Pole this year.
They wanted to mix the audio for one of their podcast episodes there only because the story’s setting happens to be the South Pole. When they couldn’t make it there, they didn’t settle. They went as far as they could, that is “Tierra Del Fuego”. Jules Verne wrote a novel about it in his Lighthouse at the End of the World. They stayed two weeks there, mixing the audio for their podcast and using background noises they got from researchers who traveled to Antarctica.
There wasn’t much thinking about it. The brothers simply grabbed their gear, booked a flight, then made it happen. They didn’t stop thinking about the weather or plan for it too long; they just did it.
So the lesson would be:
Don’t think. Act.
Also, expect failure, but be ready for success too, because when it comes, it does unexpectedly. And success can be as disastrous as a failure if you are not prepared for it.
When their newsletter subscribers count went from 120,000 to 3,500, they didn’t even blink. They told me they were ready to lose all of their subscribers if that was what it took to build the magazine.
So, above all else, be bold.
Alessandra Horton is a freelance writer and editor. You can read her in places like Medium. She is currently taking an indefinite hiatus from Twitter.