For this issue of the Letterlist interview series, maker, writer, and neuroscience post-grad, Anne-Laure Le Cunff, talks about leaving the corporate tech world to go independent, launching the Maker Mind newsletter, and her take on newsletter business models.

Tell me about you, Anne-Laure. Where are you? Where did you grow up?

I’m French-Algerian, originally from Paris, and currently based in London. I lived in a few other cities, such as New York (selling French wine), Tokyo (studying at a Japanese university) and San Francisco (working for Google). I’m currently running Ness Labs, a studio where I create content and products to help makers achieve more without sacrificing their mental health. This includes Maker Mind, a weekly newsletter about mindful productivity, and Teeny Breaks, a Chrome extension reminding people to take mindful breaks along with science-based tips.

What else are you working on?

I’m also a part-time student at King’s College London where I study neuroscience. As part of Ness Labs, I provide support to startups and bigger companies as a consultant in consumer psychology, marketing, and mindful productivity as well. Finally, I run an online magazine for indie entrepreneurs called Maker Mag.

You exploded onto the online maker scene in the past year. What do you do to stay inspired, productive, and prolific? (especially with all these projects going on).

It’s a virtuous circle. The more productive I am, the more inspiration I find, and vice versa. I find inspiration in all the projects I work on, whether my own personal projects or client projects. Working on new things leads to interesting challenges and conversations, which feeds my creativity and inspires my writing.

Let’s unpack your consulting work a bit… What do companies misunderstand about consumer psychology, marketing, and mindful productivity? Can you give an example of how you solved a client problem?

Very often, I have clients coming to me and saying something along these lines: “We have this great product. We’re working really hard. We’ve followed all the steps. But somehow, it’s not paying off.” What I work on with clients is helping them understand why it’s not paying off.

Sometimes, they haven’t done enough consumer research. They think they have talked to their users because they’ve sent a couple of surveys, but they’ve never actually picked up the phone to have a proper chat, or they haven’t watched their customers use the product. As a result, they actually don’t know much about what their users want and how they think.

Other times, they’re working hard, but on lots of different things, sometimes the wrong things. This is what we try to unpack when I do mindful productivity coaching. How can they do less and achieve more? What should their focus be? What are the highest ROI and comparatively lowest effort strategies they can apply?

One of my clients is a founder who used to be completely burned out. He had raised a lot of money, had a motivated and talented team, and yet he had to force himself to get out of bed in the morning and put a smile on his face to not show his team how stressed he was. We literally sat down in front of his calendar and worked together to re-shape his whole schedule, by focusing on the important and making space for mental self-care. We still have occasional check-ins and he’s much more relaxed now.

How did Maker Mind come about?

I have always been fascinated with the weird ways our brain works. When I started studying neuroscience, I realised that lots of the stuff we were studying could be applied to the everyday life of entrepreneurs and knowledge workers such as myself. In these lines of work, our brain is our biggest asset. It can be game changing to really understand how it works in order to make the most of it. I also always loved writing. Noticing that newsletters were having a come back, I decided to start one at the intersection of neuroscience and entrepreneurship.

What do you think is driving this newsletter renaissance? Is there a risk it’s getting too crowded?

People are tired of being fed random content. They’re becoming more mindful of the way they take care of their brains. This means a desire for a more curated content experience. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through useless posts on Facebook, they’d rather read a handful of high-quality newsletters and listen to some great podcasts. And I don’t think there’s a risk it’s getting too crowded. There are going to be millions of niche newsletters catering to everyone’s taste. Just like blogging, it doesn’t matter if each of them has a small audience, as long as the readers enjoy the content.

Kudos on the successful Maker Mind launch on Product Hunt. How strategic were you about it? What did you learn from it? What was most surprising about the experience?

Thank you! I wasn’t super strategic about it— I recently discovered the newsletters category on Product Hunt, and figured I would give it a go. But it was the fifth time I was launching on Product Hunt so I knew more or less what I was doing. The most important thing I learned is that it’s important to wait until you have a loyal and engaged audience before launching a newsletter there. The launch wouldn’t have been this successful if it wasn’t for the support of the existing readers. The most surprising was probably how well it did. People come to Product Hunt to discover the latest products—I wasn’t sure a simple email newsletter would fare so well.

Let’s talk newsletter economics, even indie publishing in general. Ads, subscriptions, products, something else? Discuss.

This is such an interesting topic. What’s great about newsletters is that you get to experiment with lots of different business models in a fairly easy way. Many newsletters use a combination of ads, sponsored content, paid memberships and additional products. In my case, I want to keep the newsletter free, but I’ll start having highly relevant sponsors supporting it. It’s all about making sure the sponsor actually brings value to the readers and that it’s a product the author would actually use themselves. I’m also working on an online course about mindful productivity, and will also create a members library of exclusive content in the future.

I’m obsessed with other peoples’ process – how does Maker Mind come together. What’s your workflow? What tools do you use? Who else is involved?

It’s a one-woman show! I basically block an hour and a half every morning, first thing when I wake up. I make some tea, sit down in front of my laptop, open a new document in Google Docs, and check my list of ideas which I manage in Google Keep. I constantly write ideas in there—when I chat with friends, work with clients, watch stuff online, when I read blogs or books or listen to podcasts. It’s just a couple of words that often end up being the basis for the title of the article.

Then, every Thursday, I open MailChimp and I write the intro of the newsletter, which is a quick update of what’s been going on during the week as well as an overview of the content. My newsletter has three sections: “Brain food” with links to my articles, “Brain candy” with links to good stuff from around the web, and “Brain hack” which is an exclusive mini-article inside the newsletter with an experiment readers can try to be more productive and more creative. I schedule the newsletter at the optimal time recommended by MailChimp, and voila!

You had a great job at Google and left to do your own thing… What were you thinking?

As much as I enjoyed working at Google—great projects, great colleagues—I felt like I wasn’t ready to settle for a corporate job, and I wanted to start my own thing. I was privileged to be in a situation where I could afford to take that risk. Being an entrepreneur can be more stressful but also more rewarding. I get to set my own hours and to work on what I want, anywhere I want.

Living the dream, right? But what’s been the biggest downside / challenge to going indie?

It’s probably the lack of stability and unpredictability in terms of revenue. There are months that are great, and others where I barely make any money. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster and it can be stressful at times. But I wouldn’t exchange my current life for anything—I love the freedom!

Where are you going with Maker Mind? How does it fit into your bigger goals?

I want to build a community of mindful makers who are committed to learn, unlearn, and relearn throughout their lives. The newsletter is only the first step. The bigger goal is to create a school that will allow people to study topics that are unfortunately not covered in the traditional education system, such as critical thinking, emotional resilience, confidence, mindfulness, how to manage their mental health, effective communication, and more.

What big idea would you love to work on if you had unlimited time and money?

I would probably work on something like Neuralink. The idea of completely unlocking the power of our brain is fascinating. And there are lots of therapeutic applications, too. People who currently cannot express themselves due to illness or disabilities would be able to communicate with everyone and access all the information they want. We would also be much more productive which would allow us to spend more time on things that really matter.

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