Three to read: Henry Abbott, Kelly Dwyer, Jordan Sperber (basketball edition)

The NBA season is about to start, so this week’s three publications to read are... 

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop

What’s it about? Investigative reports, hardcore analysis, and informed insight from TrueHoop founder Henry Abbott, David Thorpe (ex-ESPN), and Judy Goodwin. 

Worth reading: TrueHoop projections: Players set to explode

Key line: “If we did a sober analysis of typical historical trends, who would you expect to improve most? Twenty-one-year-old guard Trae Young, who can score like the wind but hasn’t been able to play effective defense? Or 23-year-old Ben Simmons who can basically do everything except shoot?”

Henry’s credits: Award-winning basketball writer, formerly of ESPN (which acquired the first version of TrueHoop). 

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Kelly Dwyer, The Second Arrangement

What’s it about? Deep dives, digressions, and jokes about the NBA, its teams, and occasionally Steely Dan.

Worth reading:  “The 1999 Bulls weren’t going to go 50-0

Key line: “Phil Jackson needed a break, he had been at this mill for a decade by 1999 and, like most others associated with the Bulls during the final three-peat, Phil was keen to be known for something beyond acting as Michael Jordan’s co-worker.”

Kelly’s credits: NBATalk.com, Sports Illustrated, and Ball Don’t Lie (Yahoo Sports); plus, Substack’s second-ever publisher

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Jordan Sperber, Hoop Vision

What’s it about? Detailed data-driven analysis of college basketball from a coach’s perspective, including audio and video.  

Worth reading: Is experience over-rated?”

Key line: “Nearly every preseason Top 25 list comes with a line for ‘key returners’ and a line for ‘key losses.’ The person generating the list uses intuition to determine – given those returners and losses – what to expect from that team in the next season. That process usually leans far heavier toward art than science. But thanks to Bart Torvik’s self-titled website and its list of returning minutes for every team, we can take a slightly more data-driven approach.”

Jordan’s credits: Former Division I college basketball analytics and video specialist, host of Solving Basketball podcast. 

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Two years of Substack

What’s passed, what’s happening, and what’s next

Two years ago today, we launched the first Substack publication: Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, a newsletter about China. Chris, who was taking time off after leaving Kik, had built a prototype in the spare room of his Kitchener, Ontario, apartment, by lashing together Stripe, an enterprise email delivery tool, and some quickly-built web publishing software. We convinced Bill, who knew Hamish from his days as a reporter in Hong Kong, to be our guinea pig, since he was planning to make Sinocism a paid newsletter anyway. None of us knew if it would work. 

We had started Substack based on the belief that there had to be a better way for writers to make money from their work. The media business was already in terrible shape. Two decades earlier, Craigslist had killed the newspapers’ classifieds business, and now Facebook and Google were taking away the ad business. Newspapers were shutting down, journalists were losing jobs. At the same time, social media products had become so compelling that we found ourselves trapped in an attention economy that prized “engagement” above all else, so that all the rewards – shares, likes, reach, impressions, and dollars – accrued to those who produced work that provoked extreme responses. Rage had become a powerful currency.

If great writing were to flourish on the internet, the media world needed an alternative to online advertising. We believed that direct payments between readers and writers provided a better way forward. With subscriptions, the emphasis is placed on an ongoing trust relationship between reader and writer. The reader – not an advertiser – becomes the primary customer. A writer of a subscription publication can only do well if the reader feels well served – and if they succeed with that, then even a relatively small audience is enough to support a lucrative business. 

In our founding essay, we envisaged a universe of subscription publications that would provide satisfying experiences for readers and financial sustainability for writers:  

Precisely targeted and curated content means less noise. In fact, by attributing a dollar value to such content, people can make more focused decisions about their consumption habits. Instead of allowing ourselves as readers to be vulnerable to the social media platforms that war with each other to monopolize our attention, we can instead be selective with our media choices, honing in on the interests, writers, and localities that we find most meaningful.  

One example we had in mind was Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, a hybrid web and email publication about technology business models that costs subscribers $10 a month or $100 a year, and which we estimated was making at least $1 million a year from subscriptions. Why weren’t more people doing that? Because Ben had a rare combination of skills. Not only was he a good writer, but he also had the product sense to invent a new kind of publication, the business sense to figure out a sustainable financial model, and the tech savvy to cobble together the long list of tools needed to make it work.

We asked ourselves: What if we could take care of everything except the part about being a good writer? If we could reduce the startup costs for such a publication to virtually zero, what potential might be unlocked? Perhaps in the future there could be a million Ben Thompsons. There could be a subscription publication for every conceivable niche, giving readers access to writing that the current media economy doesn’t support. In such a world, a new generation of writers could make a living doing the work that matters most. 

We wanted to live in that world. For society to work well, people need trustworthy and independent sources of information and storytelling – but the events of the last couple decades have been pushing us in the wrong direction. The promise of the internet has always been great – a global community that can share information freely and instantly, fostering connections that wouldn’t otherwise be possible – but the reality has not been so rosy. The dominant ethos in the early days of the internet was that information should be free, so advertising offered the main way for digital media businesses to make money. It was never the intention, but that online ad model has created serious problems, eroding trust and devaluing the work done by writers. But we still believed in the power of the internet as a force for good. 

Why couldn’t we build a network where readers subscribe directly to the writers they trust? It felt like an ambitious thing to attempt, but Chris felt like it would be a good product, which helped convince Hamish. Hamish felt like it would actually work for writers, which helped convince Chris. Our partners Cara and Steph believed in and supported us, which convinced us both.

We dropped what we were doing and, relying on our savings, went full time on Substack. We began convincing our friend Jairaj, a talented developer, to join our founding team. Getting Bill to agree to be the first Substack publisher was the next crucial step. 

On October 18, 2017, Bill sent a letter to his readers

I wanted to personally thank all of you for sticking with me over the years. The Sinocism blog became the Sinocism China Newsletter in the Spring of 2012 after Beijing blocked sinocism.com. An email newsletter was a workaround and it is quite gratifying to have grown from a few dozen readers to more than 30,000 subscribers today.

The daily newsletter is moving behind a paywall on Monday.

We were all scared shitless. If this experiment didn’t work, it would be bad for Bill, bad for Substack, and an abrupt end to our experiment. 

But it turned out okay. 

By the end of that day, Sinocism had brought in six figures of revenue. 

A new media ecosystem

Bill’s launch was successful because the work he does is great and because he had built up a loyal readership over years. Still, it helped us feel that we were onto something and we began to form a plan to realize the goals that we laid out in our original essay:

  1. Recruit writers of great newsletters so that instead of paying to send email they could get paid for the important work they were doing.

  2. Open up the platform for all writers to start their own independent publications.

  3. Create better ways for readers to discover and read the writers they care about.

  4. Expand into community features, audio, and video.

  5. Continue to fight for this new media ecosystem, built on trust, that pays creative people for their valuable work.

After Sinocism’s launch, we were able to attract writers of a diverse group of publications, including The Shatner Chatner, by Daniel Ortberg, co-founder of The Toast, and an anonymously authored newsletter called Petition, about the bankruptcy industry.

In early 2018, we opened up registration to all and made it possible to use Substack to start a free publication. If you were a newsletter writer who didn’t like the idea of a subscriber cap or paying to send emails, we offered a modern publishing tool, no limits, and no fee. If you were a writer who missed the glory days of blogging, we gave you a home for your blog – except this time it came with a mailing list. If you were an established journalist, you could use Substack to go independent, with a website, email distribution, and the ability to get paid directly by the readers who care most about your work. 

On Substack, you choose what to publish for free and what to make available only to paying subscribers. The beauty of this model is that you get to reach the world and also publish for an intimate audience. When a writer publishes something great, it can blow up online, garnering hundreds of thousands of views and dramatically growing their mailing list and earning potential. This has happened with Luke O’Neil’s piece on the effect Fox News has had on families, Cari Wade Gervin’s exposé of an anti-LGBTQ Tennessee congressman who was busted soliciting sex with young men on Grindr, and Matt Taibbi’s critique of the media’s handling of “Russiagate,” to name a few. 

Two years in, we’re thrilled by the work being done by writers who use Substack. With Popular Information, Judd Legum, the former editor in chief of ThinkProgress, has been holding social media giants to account for their political advertising practices and exposing how corporate dollars are put to work in political campaigns. Emily Atkin is reporting on climate change accountability issues in Heated, a venture that she quit her job at The New Republic to start. The author and comedian Samantha Irby is writing about pop culture and food with hilarious verve, including a daily breakdown of what’s happening on the courtroom TV show Judge Mathis, in books/snacks/softcore. Nicole Cliffe, another of The Toast’s founders, curates Reddit, writes about Jesus, shares pet photos, and hosts a thriving intellectual community at Nicole Knows. Meanwhile, publications have emerged to cover a myriad of issues and subjects, including the NBA, music criticism, the business of Hollywood, women’s sports, international affairs, faith, astrology, cooking, eating, books, beat-making, municipal politics, crypto, trans issues, transportation, the culture wars, English Premier League soccer, the sake industry, MMA, and Chicago theater, among thousands of others. 

More than 50,000 people now subscribe to a publication on Substack. We are processing millions of dollars a year in payments, with writers making a range of incomes from pocket money to supplementary income to “this is a serious business!” levels of cash. We’re encouraged by the progress and have raised money to set Substack up for a long future, but we know this is just the beginning. There’s so much work to be done, so much more to prove, and so much more great writing yet to be produced. 

What’s next

So, where to from here? Well, we’ll keep following the plan. 

We’ve always thought that this new era of publishing can be more lucrative than the one that came before. The media is going through an upheaval, but that doesn’t mean that people’s appetite for the written word has diminished or that this is the end of the line for journalism. On the contrary, we see an enormous opportunity in this moment of reconfiguration, where new voices will emerge, new kinds of businesses will be built, and everyone can benefit from rewarding relationships based on the exchange of culture. 

To accelerate the advent of this new media economy, we’ll build increasingly powerful tools to help readers and writers. We will make it simple for groups of writers to work together on Substack publications. We will do more to support local news and help independent reporters get the resources they need to do fearless journalism. We will improve every aspect of our product, including more support for community features, podcasting, and video, with richer analytics all round. We will help writers grow their audiences, and help readers fall in love with writers they otherwise may never have discovered. We will put everything we’ve got into building a better future for news. 

If you are a writer interested in using Substack, even if you’re not sure you ever want to do paid subscriptions, we’d love to have you publish with us

If you care deeply about the future of media and think you might want to work on these challenges with us, please check out our careers page. Maybe you even want to follow us on Twitter and sign up for our blog

Two years ago, we wrote that we believe great writing has intrinsic value and that it doesn’t have to be given away for free. We said that what you read matters, and that there has never been a better time to bolster and protect those ideals. Our conviction on these points has only grown stronger.

So, thank you, so much, to all the writers and readers who have helped build this community so far, and for showing the way forward for a new generation of publishing. We now have the foundation for the kind of ecosystem we dreamed of when we got started. There’s so much more to come. 

Three to read: Phil Plait, Ariel Meadow Stallings, James Maynard

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

Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy

What’s it about? The universe, as interpreted by astronomer, mad scientist, and goat herder Phil Plait. 

Worth reading:0g dancing, coal crossing over

Key line: “This is a fascinating — and quite honestly tremendously exciting — stat: Solar and wind power have dropped in price so much that we could replace nearly 75% of all coal-fired power plants and immediately save money for consumers. For most of the U.S., just operating and maintaining coal plants is now more expensive than installing solar/wind from scratch.”

Phil’s credits: Author of Death From the Skies!, the book Bad Astronomy, and SYFY’s Bad Astronomy blog (formerly of Slate); talking head on the Discovery Channel and other TV shows.  

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Ariel Meadow Stallings, Arielist

What’s it about? NSFW personal development, notes on the publishing business, and “lapdances for god”

Worth reading:Confessions of a divorced wedding blogger

Key line: “Four years on the other side of my divorce, I’ve come to understand that failed marriages aren’t mistakes. These days, I look at photos of newlyweds and don’t want anyone to run… I think to myself, ‘Ooh, I hope you’re ready to sink your teeth in!’”

Ariel’s credits: Author of Offbeat Bride, Pros Before Bros, and From Shitshow to Afterglow; bylines in The Guardian, Dwell, Modern Bride, and more; publisher of Offbeat Empire.  

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James Maynard, The Cosmic Companion

What’s it about? News and history of astronomy and space exploration. 

Worth reading: The Cosmic Companion October 5, 2019

Key line: “Astronomers discovered previously-unknown galaxies in a cluster from the early Universe, organic material was detected erupting from the geysers of Enceladus around Saturn, and a new idea suggests dark matter could be fuzzy.”

James’s credits: Science journalist, web developer, former owner of a science store.

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Thread for publishers: Ask Sarah Noeckel anything

Yesterday we published a guest post by Sarah Noeckel about how she grew her Femstreet newsletter to 5,000 subscribers and built a thriving community for women in tech. Now, you can ask her how she did it. Jump in!

(And thank you, Sarah!)

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How Sarah Noeckel's Femstreet newsletter went from zero to 5,000 subscribers

Four things I learned from curating 100 newsletter issues and building the Femstreet community

Today we’re publishing a guest post by Sarah Noeckel, writer of the Femstreet newsletter, dedicated to bringing greater visibility to women in tech. Sarah just brought Femstreet to Substack (thanks, Sarah!). Tomorrow, she’ll be doing an ask-me-anything thread to share more insights about the community she has built. Tune in here at 1pm EST to participate.


TL;DR: I’ve built a newsletter, a Slack group, a brand and an events programme. Femstreet turns two and these are the four things I learned: Niche doesn’t mean small. Focus. Genuine personal brand is important. Create for the best readers, not all the readers.


💯 newsletters later, here’s a bit of a recap on how, when and where it all started:

I launched Femstreet in September 2017 from my bedroom (not a garage) in Maida Vale in London. I didn’t have a defined business goal — I simply started the newsletter out of frustration, hoping to solve a personal problem. There was an increasing number of female founders and funders sharing learnings from their experiences in building businesses and investing, but no single well-curated source of knowledge from these amazing women. I wanted to shine light on them, and Femstreet was born.

The beginning was slow and lonely. At that point, it probably took me more than 15 hours every week to curate the newsletter (these days this process is a lot more streamlined). I didn’t have any like-minded newsletter buddies to bounce off ideas and growth hacks. But all that changed for the better when I started to meet my readers. After a dozen coffee meetings and Zoom calls with founders and investors across Europe and the US, I had a much better understanding of what my audience wanted and knew that I was onto something good. In March 2018, I started to get more interest from VC funds in Europe, one of the first of which was Dawn Capital, a VC fund I ended up joining 10 months later.

Two years later, we have built a strong community that is highly engaged and active online and increasingly, offline.

Here are a few stats:

✉️ 100 newsletter issues;
📈 5k subscribers globally waiting for Femstreet to hit their inbox every Sunday morning;
🌎 We are international: 50% based in the US, 40% Europe; 10% RoW
📖 Average 48% open rate (Industry average: 16%); Average click-through rate: 38% (industry average: 2.59%);
💬 ~700 Slack channel members since its launch in March 2019;
🤝 Held 10 events across NYC, SF and London this year

Who is the Femstreet reader?
Based on data collected in the past three subscriber surveys.

Readers come from all over the business world:

  • Founders, CEOs and their teams at tech companies (Dropbox, Uber, Stitchfix, Revolut, Away, Amazon, KRY, Clue…)

  • VCs around the world (a16z, Accel, Lightspeed, Kleiner Perkins, GV, Atomico, Point Nine, Alven, Northzone, Cherry Ventures etc)

  • Investment professionals at PE firms and investment banks including JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Silicon Valley Bank

  • Professional services (McKinsey, KPMG, PWC…)

  • Media (Bloomberg, Forbes, Fortune, Sifted, Crunchbase)

  • Students from the world’s top business schools (Stanford, Havard, MIT)

They all have the following things in common:

  • General interest in entrepreneurship, investing, technology

  • Ambition — hard-working, want to challenge the status quo

  • Community-oriented — genuinely helpful to one another

  • Curiosity — want to learn more, have opinions, want to build something new

  • Women (comprising 90% of our community) — it’s called Femstreet after all!

I have learned a number of lessons over the past two years of writing this newsletter and building this community in an ever-changing social media world, the most important of which are:

1. Niche doesn’t mean small. Like-minded people will find each other.

In the past, whether it was a newspaper or a radio station, mediums of communication were primarily built around a single parameter — location. Initially, I focused on growing Femstreet in Europe, but 50% of our subscribers are now based in the US. I quickly noticed that I had to target a type of persona that can be found anywhere. Femstreet allows people to come together around specific ideas, passion and identification: to accelerate the success of female founders and funders.

There are so many people around the world that want to connect, push this forward and that will find each other. What has this taught me? The future is a niche audience, but niche doesn’t mean small.

2. Focus.

As Femstreet grew, I started talking to our subscribers. After all, they are the best supporters of growth and an inspiration for content. Their input allowed me to make the newsletter continuously better and start to build engagement with our community offline. This year alone, we hosted 10 events in SF, NYC and London, launched a Slack channel for our most engaged subscribers, and started to turn our readers in champions. Given the scale of our mission, we will always be a work in progress with a dozen new things we could start: a referral program, a job board, sponsorships, workshops outside London, dinners with experts… However, I decided to focus on two things only: content and connectivity/community. I’ve learned that you can only create with quality when you maintain focus.

3. Genuine personal brand is important.

In recent years, there has been an unquestionable uptick in the volume of email newsletters, given it has never been easier to start one. To stand out, it’s important to establish a consistent, differentiated and intimate connection with your readers.

It’s easy to get excited by a large number of subscribers. But what makes a difference is linking content to an authentic personality.

When Femstreet hits your inbox every Sunday morning, I want it to feel like hearing from a friend. Two years ago, I decided to put myself out there and just be myself, and it has been incredibly rewarding.

4. Create for the best readers, not all the readers.

Community is a shared experience that people can connect over, both physically or digitally. Initially, I didn’t explicitly set out to create a community — I thought I was just creating a newsletter. But as we grew, it became incredibly natural to find good content, understand what people are interested in and how I could best create this newsletter. Without the interactions outside of my writing, there is no way I would have come this far.

I don’t aim to please everyone, but rather write for a few real faces that I know share the excitement that I have. When creating content and building a community, you have to listen to superfans and ensure you are building for them. My narrow focus has been proven to be an asset for the development of Femstreet’s brand and our authentic audience in an entirely organic way.

What’s next?

It’s been an incredible journey so far. I’ve mostly curated the past 100 issues in my spare time on Thursday and Friday nights. During the Femstreet US tour in July, I’ve spoken to hundreds of community members and started to reflect on the assets that I have built so far: a newsletter, a Slack group, a brand and an events programme. As highlighted earlier, focus is important. Hunter Walk recently said, “When communities grow too quickly, the existing norms can sometimes get disrupted.” I came to the conclusion that it is now time to take Femstreet to the next level. We have now moved to a new email infrastructure to improve the experience for our Slack members, and we will also launch a premium offering before the end of this year. Stay tuned for my plan for the next 100 issues in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, please continue to reach out, engage, and share ideas!

Lots of hugs,
Sarah


Thank you.
I am incredibly lucky to have met so many amazing people over the past two years. Massive thanks for all the hours spent testing ideas and for your ongoing support: Natalie Sportelli from Lerer Hippeau, Jenny Gyllander from Thingtesting, Lina Wenner of Firstminute Capital, Nikita Singareddy of RRE & NTT, Josh Kaplan of MorningBrew, Ashley Brasier of Lightspeed Venture Partners, Annie Case of Kleiner Perkins, Taylor Majewski of Product Hunt, Lola Wajskop and Yousif Al-Dujaili of Hummingbird Ventures, Reda Bensaid of EightRoads, Cat Lee of Maveron, Jane VCErik Stadigh of Crane VC, Jessica Lin at Work-Bench, azeem of The Exponential View, Meghna Mann of Util, Bryce Keane and Sophia Bendz from Atomico and last but not least — my wonderful colleagues at Dawn.


For those who aren’t familiar, Femstreet is the leading community for women in tech, entrepreneurship and diversity in Venture Capital. We aim to accelerate the success of female founders and funders through greater visibility, connectivity and support. Today, we strive to accomplish our mission through our widely read newsletter, an engaged community on Slack and through meet-ups and events.

👉 You can follow @Femstreet and subscribe to the newsletter here.

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