Five years of Substack, with Bill Bishop
Five years ago to this day, Bill Bishop relaunched his China newsletter, Sinocism, and for the first time introduced paid subscriptions. He did it on a brand new platform called Substack. Bill had been publishing Sinocism for five years as a free newsletter and despite a couple of donation drives had never made substantial money from it. By the end of the day that he published the first-ever Substack post, however, he had brought in more than a hundred thousand dollars.
Bill effectively launched two new life-changing businesses that day: his one and this one.
By that point, I had known Bill for ten years, since I was a reporter in Hong Kong while he was living in Beijing. In 1989, he had run tapes for CBS during the Tiananmen Square protests that ended in massacre. During the dot-com boom, back in the U.S., he co-founded the news site MarketWatch. Following that company’s acquisition, he moved back to Beijing and started a gaming studio (it didn’t work out). Then he started a newsletter to curate and interpret the news from China for an English-reading audience, mostly diplomats, policymakers, journalists, businesspeople, and academics. He had won their respect through his consistency, breadth, and insight, tracking a complicated country from the inside during its rise to super-powerdom.
A long-time Sinocism reader, I had seen Bill mention that, on the advice of his friend Ben Thompson, he was planning to introduce paid subscriptions. He kept on delaying, however, in part because it was a hassle to stitch together the various tools needed to run a paid newsletter. Chris (Substack’s CEO) and I had been wondering why more people didn’t try to use the Stratechery model that Thompson had such success with. One of our guesses was that the existing tools were just too hard to use. We thought we could maybe make it easier for writers.
In early June 2017, I sent Bill an email:
Hey Bill, I see you’re revamping your newsletter and putting a paywall in place. It just so happens that my friend—ex-CTO/co-founder of Kik—[and I] are working on an end-to-end product to make exactly this sort of thing easy. We think of it as Stratechery as a Service. Maybe you want to be our first customer?
A couple months later we sat with Bill in a Starbucks near his home in Washington D.C. and drew up the plans for the first Substack publication. Chris and Bill poked at a laptop to figure out how group subscriptions would work while I sat wondering what the hell they were talking about. I was grateful to be alongside a brainy tech guy who could build something awesome in service of writers, but also the perfect first customer: someone who knew media and tech inside and out, who was widely respected by many smart people, and who was willing to take a risk on a couple of guys with a vaguely defined startup idea. Our promise to Bill was that we would take care of everything except the hard part: we’d handle the admin, tech, and payments, and he could just focus on the writing.
On that same trip, Chris and I took a long walk around the Washington monuments and figured out the outlines of what Substack could become. We were worrying about another potential customer we had lined up, an NBA writer and data analyst who was going to use the paid subscription model for his website. His was a more complicated case than Bill’s since he had already done his own designs for the site and planned to launch with complex customizations, including the integration of a data site. Our plan was to build a subscriptions management system that would plug into WordPress. There was a lot of work to do and Chris was having trouble creating a product that would serve Sinocism and the NBA publication equally well. We were just a few weeks out from the start of the NBA season and starting to panic. We didn’t want to let the writer down.
On that walk, we came up with a clearer vision of what Substack would be. It meant that we had to back out of the NBA writer’s project (he took it well). Instead, we would focus on the Bill Bishop use case: help writers who don’t want to do any of the technical or design work themselves; build a product that makes subscription publishing dead simple; provide reasonable constraints that help writers do the right things by default. This way, it seemed, we could help many more people. One day, if we were lucky, Substack could become a network with millions of users. There could be user profiles, messaging, an app...
We built that first version of Substack around Bill and his needs, making special allowances such as giving him large-type Verdana for his site’s font and letting him center the text of his subheaders in the email versions of the posts. Bill also nudged us into taking care of his customer support, something we ultimately decided to do for all writers. Bill gave us feedback on the early development of Substack and continues to do so to this day. In fact, within days of his launch on Substack, he asked to invest in the company, an offer we happily accepted. Sinocism is still one of the top publications on the platform; it’s the number one by revenue in the News category. I would dearly love to tell you how much money Bill makes through Sinocism—I keep asking if I can!—but he’s too modest to disclose that information. Fair enough.
Without Bill, I doubt Substack could have become what it is today. His instant revenue gave us a strong story to tell when, in late 2017, we applied to Y Combinator, the prestigious startup accelerator, setting Substack on a path to explosive growth. His early use of the platform introduced Substack to tens of thousands of readers from around the world, many future Substack writers among them. His success inspired others to follow in his footsteps, leading to the development of an ecosystem in which now more than 1.5 million people pay to subscribe to their favorite writers. His name and reputation lent Substack an important measure of respect. Bill showed the way.
Happy five years, Bill. Thank you for demonstrating the power and promise of the subscription model. Thank you for a half-decade of important work. And thank you for helping to start Substack.