The future of Substack

A few weeks ago, we hosted a discussion thread in which we asked writers what features they’d like to see in Substack. We got hundreds of responses, asking for everything from image captions to a mobile app. We were energized by the discussion, and just a little intimidated. To build something great, we have to stay focused and say no to a lot – there’s no way around that. But on top of that, we’re a team of just three people – Chris, Hamish, and Jairaj – doing everything from building the product to working with writers to customer support. We often wish we had the resources to move just a little bit faster. 

Well, that wish has come true. 

We started Substack because we wanted to build a better future for readers and writers. Today’s media environment is built on warped incentives, with writers and publishers forced to compete for people’s attention. Many who succeed under the current model are the ones willing to hunt for clicks by fomenting outrage or catering to the lowest common denominator. Many writers and outlets have become convinced that the only path to success is through reaching an audience of millions. It can be hard to see a way out. 

So many writers – whether they be journalists, authors, bloggers, academics, analysts, or industry insiders who share their insights with others – are forced to play a game where they don’t control their relationship with their audience, don’t always get paid, and have to worry about almost everything but their writing. Many writers are treated more like content gatherers than storytellers, sent to carve off slices of human attention to feed into a social media machine that seeks to addict rather than enlighten. 

But in every crisis there is opportunity. We believe that good writing, in all forms, has value, and that it doesn’t have to be given away for free. Substack is based on the simple idea that a reader can make an intentional choice to subscribe to a writer they trust to provide value. We give writers the tools to publish to email and the web and build an audience that they own. It’s free, and writers can add paid subscriptions whenever they want (or not). The only way we succeed is if writers using Substack succeed – we take a cut of their subscription revenue – and writers only succeed if their readers are happy. Everyone’s incentives are aligned. If a writer chooses to leave Substack, they can take their mailing list and content with them.

Subscriptions are powerful because they allow people to decide what they do or do not want to receive, and the economics are such that the audience numbers don’t have to be huge to be meaningful. If you can convince a thousand people to pay you $10 a month, you have enough to make a living. Even if your work resonates with only a small audience, you can still unlock tremendous value. 

And with Substack, you can have your cake and eat it. This model isn’t about shutting off access. You can publish posts that are free or only for paying subscribers. The free stuff affords you the opportunity to reach a wide audience, attracting readers to your voice, worldview, and quality of thought. And the subscriber-only content allows you to make money from the people who are deeply committed to you. Substack provides the tools for payments, publishing, analytics, and other resources to help you grow your audience. In other words, we do everything but the hard part: the writing itself. 

New firepower

In October 2017, we watched in amazement as our first customer, Bill Bishop, publisher of Sinocism, brought in six figures of revenue on his first day with Substack for his previously free newsletter. Bill’s launch was soon followed by Kelly Dwyer’s The Second Arrangement and Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s The Shatner Chatner, which convinced us that it was worth trying to make Substack work for many more people. Today, we have writers and topics ranging from crypto (Anthony Pompliano) and race and digital sociology (Tressie McMillan Cottom) to AI (Azeem Azhar) and Victorian literature, psychoanalytic theory, and trans femme style (Grace Lavery), and many more. Some writers have gone full-time on their newsletters and are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. More than 50,000 people now pay to subscribe to a Substack publication. 

But we’ve done all this with limited resources. While we graduated from the winter 2018 batch of Y Combinator and subsequently raised $2.2 million in seed funding, we’ve spent the last year working out of Chris’s living room in San Francisco. Now it’s time to add some firepower. 

Today, we’re announcing that we’ve raised $15.3 million in a Series A funding round led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from Y Combinator, an existing investor. Andreessen Horowitz’s Andrew Chen will join our board. 

We’ve known Andrew since before he joined Andreessen Horowitz because he has a widely read blog with a large mailing list. As with the other investors who had shown interest, we initially told Andrew we weren’t looking to raise money right now (a deal like this wasn’t really part of our calculus). But he proceeded with a charm offensive that included introducing us to the firm’s entire editorial team and a dinner with Marc Andreessen, who shared our conviction that we’re building something that matters. By the time we got to the term sheet, the entire process had taken less than a week – pretty much a best-case scenario for a company that wants to stay focused on building.

Through the discussions, we saw that Andreessen Horowitz cares about media. The firm has had a culture of writing from the beginning, but they’re also serious about editorial. Five years ago, they hired Sonal Chokshi, a former senior editor at Wired, to build the editorial operation, including growing the a16z podcast. A couple years ago, they hired Hanne Tidnam, a former senior editor at Princeton University Press who managed the literature and arts book lists there, and they have hired other editors since. Both Sonal and Hanne have been hugely helpful to us already.

We know that Silicon Valley venture capital and the media have often not mixed well, but we are committed to getting this right. We have a business model that works and that aligns our incentives with the writer’s. One of our founders, Hamish, is a journalist and author himself. We will never build ad tech into Substack, and we know that the media can’t be saved by algorithm. This Series A will help us to make substantial investments in our product, team, and network of readers and writers. It will allow us to build critical infrastructure, from get-togethers to fellowships, to help writers succeed and readers get the best possible media experiences. And it will let us continue to democratize the tools that writers need to create independent businesses.  

To all the writers who have put their trust in us: thank you. You are what makes Substack what it is, and we are determined to do right by you. Our focus remains the same as it was on day one: building a sustainable company based on a model that’s simple and fair. 

We believe that letting writers connect with their audiences on their own terms, and letting people subscribe to and support writers directly, puts the power where it belongs: in the hands of readers and writers. It's a model that can help build a better culture. That's why we make Substack, and we hope you’ll join us as we take it to the next level.

Don’t already have a Substack publication? Start one now.

(Thanks to Alex Kantrowitz for the picture.)

Three to read: Ann Kjellberg, Amee Vanderpool, and Mystery Person

This week’s featured Substack publications are...

Ann Kjellberg, Book Post

What’s it about? Book reviews and cultural commentary, featuring Jamaica Kincaid, Geoffrey O’Brien, Joy Williams, and more. 

Worth reading:Diary: April Bernard, A Reader’s Hygge

Key line: “Think of a fireplace, a hot mug of tea, comfy old clothes, conversation, and no need to hurry: that’s hygge. It is the opposite of having someone call you ‘an enabler of rape culture’ because you assigned Ovid’s Metamorphoses; it is the opposite of scrolling through Twitter to find someone to attack, or scrolling through Instagram to find someone to envy.”

Ann’s credits: Former contributing editor at the New York Review of Books, editor of the literary magazine Little Star, and literary executor of the estate of the poet Joseph Brodsky.

Further reading: “Wit, Wisdom, and Warnings from a Veteran of the New York Literary World,” Literary Hub.

Follow Book Post on Twitter

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Amee Vanderpool, Shero

What’s it about? Legal and critical analysis of political news from a female perspective. 

Worth reading:Breakdown of Trump’s 4th of July Failures

Key line: “The ticket-holding section looked like a costly VIP lounge for Trump’s personal cronies at taxpayer expense and as the day progressed, it became more apparent that this was really just an intimate little rally just for his people that would happen to be televised by CNN, as if it were actually for everyone.”

Amee’s credits: Playboy, BBC Radio, The Inanna Project, lawyer

Follow Amee on Twitter

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Mystery Person, Flow State 

What’s it about? A daily two-hour playlist of music that’s perfect to work to. 

Worth reading:Bob Hadley & Leo Kottke

Key line: “This week is focused on the trajectory of American guitar playing from ’50s fingerstyle to slide guitar-ambient. Usually we send out ambient/electronic stuff.”

Mystery Person’s credits: They tell us they’ve been “a music fiend since high school.”

Subscribe for 20% off

Three to read: Heather Havrilesky, Sophia Benoit, Vicki Boykis

This newsletter-recommendation post might be the start of a new series. If you’d like to see more of this, please let us know! 

This week’s three publications to read are... 

Heather Havrilesky, Ask Molly

What’s it about? Advice column from the evil alter-ego of The Cut’s Ask Polly

Worth reading: Does my oldness make me pointless?” 

Key line: “My evil words bring joy to angry people hearts and also just depressed people hearts and drifty in-between-feeling people hearts, because no one has the stones to be evil anymore.”

Heather’s credits: The Cut, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Awl, Suck.com; author of What If This Were Enough?, How to Be a Person in the World, and Disaster Preparedness.

Follow Heather on Twitter

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Sophia Benoit, Here’s the Thing

What’s it about? Funny advice for 20- and 30-somethings specializing in sex and relationships. 

Worth reading:You’re not her (boy)friend

Key line: “As a general lesson, if you want to know how someone feels about you, listen to their actions, not their words.”

Sophia’s credits: Lights Out with David Spade, GQ, The Cut, Refinery29, standup comedy.

Follow Sophia on Twitter

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Vicki Boykis, Normcore Tech

What’s it about? Making tech less sexy and more boring – and what technology means in the context of society. 

Worth reading: “Death by kipple

Key line: “I saw this phrase in a piece about adulting a couple months ago and I haven’t been able to forget it: ‘reverse cardboard origami’ – the process of breaking down Amazon packaging.”

Vicki’s credits: Long-time blogger and essayist, data scientist, creator of SovietArtBot.

Follow Vicki on Twitter

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Ask Substack anything (right now)!

Hello! The Substack team will be in this discussion thread for the next hour or so. Curious about the future of Substack? Want to know what we think about the state of the media? Dying to know the perfect tea brand? Try us!

(If you have featured-related questions, check out our last thread. For support-related questions, email support@substack.com.)

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A growth masterclass with Judd Legum of Popular Information

  
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Of all the writers who use Substack, no one is as good at promoting their newsletter as Judd Legum, publisher of Popular Information. Judd was previously the editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress and has also been a political campaign researcher and lawyer. I convinced him to join me on a special pop-up episode of the Substack Podcast to share his advice on how to run a one-man newsletter business, build an audience, and turn Twitter to your advantage.

Below, I’ve summarized some of the key takeaways. Enjoy!

—Hamish


Play to your strengths

“When I’ve been able to leverage my skill as a researcher and then turn it around and put it out in the newsletter and help inform people in a deeper way about something they care about – whether that’s been the corporate donations to Cindy Hyde-Smith or Steve King, or whether that’s been really diving in deep to the election fraud issues in North Carolina, or some of the more recent stuff I’ve done about Facebook ads or the corporate contributions to some of these politicians pushing abortion bans in the United States – that’s what the audience really responds to. And so knowing that, I try to look at what’s going on the news and see where is there a topic that I can research further and pull out stuff that’s really new. That’s information that people didn’t have and I think that’s what people value and are willing to pay for.”

People pay to feel empowered

“From what I’ve heard from my paid subscribers, it’s just that they really want to support this kind of journalism, and they feel good about it when I do that kind of work. They feel empowered and they feel more informed and so that’s what’s motivated them. And that’s something I didn’t anticipate either. I thought it was really just the paywall that motivates people and the fact that you were withholding content, but I think for most people that’s not it.”

Sell value instead of volume

“Most people do not want more email. So if the only thing you have to offer them is, ‘Hey, subscribe to this newsletter and you’ll get some more email,’ that’s not that compelling. But if you can create a different value proposition where you can say, ‘Look, I’m creating the kind of writing that you can’t find anywhere else and I need you to be a part of this and to support this work if you value it,’ then I think that people get into that. And they want to get it four times a week, but it’s not necessarily the idea of getting it four times a week that is going to be the motivating factor.”

Why he spent the first three months publishing everything for free

“I thought that if I could get people in the door and show them what I could do with their support, that maybe people would go for it. And I think that’s largely what happened, because that’s still been my best little, you know, two-week period, was right when I turned on the paid subscriptions and the people who had been receiving it during that free period were given an opportunity to switch over.”

The importance of free content

“If you think of it from a business perspective, because this is a little business that you start – it’s a newsletter but it’s also a business – the free content is by far the most important content for your business. Because one, it’s something that anyone can read and it can help grow your free list. And two, it’s what gets sent to your total mailing list and gives you an opportunity to convert people.”

If you don’t self-promote, you won’t get a promotion

“I think probably the easiest mistake is just to think that, ‘Oh, I’m just going to write and put it out there and we’ll just see what happens.’ I can tell you, nothing will happen. You’ve got to really work on it... If you’re trying to earn a living doing it, you’ve got to work on it. And in addition to your job of writing the newsletter, you have another job, which is you’re the marketing officer for your company.”

How to use Twitter to drive growth

“I don’t know the exact percentage of subscribers who first came on Twitter but I think it probably approaches 50% of my paid subscribers. And the way I use it is to give people essentially a thesis statement of what the newsletter is about that day. And I’ll do that in a thread of tweets. It might be 5 to 15 tweets where I lay out my main points or the things that I’ve learned. And then I try to use that to build up to a period where one of those tweets – not the first tweet and not the last tweet but somewhere in there – there is an organic place where I can ask people to sign up for the newsletter and that that’s the best way to get the information”.

Use Twitter to grow even if you don’t have a huge following

“If you don’t have a huge following to begin with, you can still be successful. And one of the ways to do that is to reach out directly to people and tell them about what you’ve written if you do it in a thoughtful way. So you’ve got to think about what your topic is, what you’ve discovered, what you’ve written about and think about who does have a large audience on Twitter and might be interested in that, and send them a nice polite note about that thing. And that’s still something I do on a targeted basis, even though I do have a pretty good following, because there’s people with even bigger followings and there’s also people with smaller followings but they have really engaged followings that you want to get your information in front of.”

Threads are better than single tweets

“One, it’s just more space in people’s feeds. Social media is a brawl for people’s attention. And it’s basically like sending eight or nine people into the ring versus one person into the ring to see what they can do, so that’s an advantage. I think you have a better chance of capturing what’s interesting about your newsletter in a thread than you do in a single tweet. And I think that, just as a matter of Twitter strategy, I know that creating a popular thread is something that is likely to get you new Twitter followers, whereas just an individual popular tweet is not. And I think that’s because a thread indicates that you are a thoughtful person.” (See example below.)

Tweet something valuable

“Anyone can tweet a link to their website, but you have to come up with a value proposition for why people should do it. I think the shortest way to explain the value proposition that works best for me is that you should do it to receive and support accountability journalism. But no matter who you are, you have to be able to succinctly describe the value proposition. If you don’t have that, it really is not going to matter how much you promote your website, because you haven’t given people a reason to do it.”

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