Grow: How Nishant Jain boosted paying subscribers by crafting a clear use case
This is the continuation of our Grow interview series, designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack.
We invited Nishant Jain, author of The SneakyArt Post—a publication sharing posts and podcasts from his sketches and observations of how we live in cities—to discuss his insights on how he honed his pitch, stays true to his principles while focusing on growth, and quit a career in science to pursue his creative dream.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
The SneakyArt Post is a publication about the secretly drawn art of my world.
What do you feel you uniquely offer readers and listeners?
Every week I share moments of beauty found in ordinary instances of everyday life. In this way I help my readers be mindful of the “sneaky art” in their world. For example, this month I am searching my neighborhood [in Vancouver] for free libraries and sharing drawings of each one that I find.
Listeners of the SneakyArt Podcast tune in for my relaxed longform conversations with artists. They appreciate my ability to articulate difficult-to-grasp concepts, the enthusiasm to pursue curious rabbit holes, and my explicit policy of never interrupting my guests.
I believe longform conversations are generous to all parties involved in a way that shorter interviews can never be. Every conversation is a deep dive into not only ideas I find interesting but also the lives of my guests. Over time I have learned that I only have a good episode when I give the guest my most sincere and respectful attention. It teaches me to be a good listener!
For the audience, such episodes are an opportunity to go deeper than surface-level rapid-fire questions and to relate in significant ways with the speakers. Recent episodes include conversations with an artist who is biking from northern Alaska to Southern California, a tattoo artist who turned his life around after watching a reality show about tattoos, and a creative director at Google Doodles who drove 2,500 miles from Chicago to L.A. just to make a doodle about Route 66.
Growth by numbers
Started Substack: July 2020
Started podcast: September 2020
Total free subscribers: 2,830
Number of paid subscribers: 100
Posting cadence: I publish three times a week: twice for free readers, plus a Sunday edition for paid subscribers (who I call SneakyArt Insiders).
Types of posts: Drawings made on location, with related observations and thoughts. I share the best ideas from conversations in the podcast and my journey of self-education to be an artist.
Pricing: The idea was to fit this subscription into readers’ leisure expense category. The price is the lowest that I would allow myself to do and the highest I thought I could get away with.
Upselling free subscribers: Over the past few weeks, I have encouraged longtime free readers to become SneakyArt Insiders. It has been a successful summer, as I have increased my paid base by 25%. What has worked is being able to point to good past work, being reliable and consistent with the value I deliver to a reader’s inbox, and clearly stating what the paid membership enables me to do.
Why did you decide to go paid?
Going paid became a way for me to realize my dream of being independent. Sustaining myself with the 1,000 true fans model is an important goal for me. I quit a scientific career in order to become an independent creative. After being lost in the doldrums for a few years, I was delighted to discover Substack and to note the emerging trends of the creator economy.
At the moment of my decision to go paid, I was predictably nervous. So I approached it as a way to take my own work more seriously. Launching the paid membership meant crafting a clear use case for free readers.
It meant articulating a short, non-boring pitch every week. Both of these became useful exercises that helped me think dispassionately about my work and better understand how it might benefit a reader.
What insights can you offer other writers and podcast hosts about growing their Substack publication?
The only unique value your Substack publication has is that it is yours. Do not hide your personality. Do not argue against your own ideas. There are no rules. Everyone who signs up to your work is ready to go on whatever ride you choose. Give yourself the permission to make bold creative decisions and make mistakes. Give yourself the room to course-correct when the need arises. And keep going. There is no other way that I know.
Nothing works better than doing your best work. My podcast has grown organically by focusing on the needs of a specific audience (the global urban sketching community). The high quality of my work—before, during, and after the recording—has helped it sustain attention and convert even fans who did not have the patience to listen to podcasts, let alone longform conversations.
What have you learned about your subscribers along the way?
I have learned over time that SneakyArt Insiders do not care for paywalled content. Initially I put a lot of effort into carefully paywalling my best work, but the overwhelming majority of people who signed up only did so to support my work, with no paywall expectations. I now use the paywall only to gate privileged information for Insiders, like discounts and early-access opportunities.
What other useful experiences can you share?
This year, I am “learning in public.” This means sharing all my self-education efforts—the wins and also the failures—and the knowledge I have accumulated. Learning in public has been my most important tactic to circumvent my own impostor syndrome.
Secondly, do what you want and make it work. I have only ever done things the way I wanted. It has meant failing sometimes, even after putting in my best effort. But sticking with this simple principle has meant that I am always tapped into myself—my taste, my ideas, my preferences. These have been refined over time with each successive project.
I think more writers and podcasters should move forward with sincerity and courage. There is no virtue to diffidence. Announce yourself, be ambitious, and be uniquely yourself.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
Substack is my favorite way to learn about subjects I would not otherwise have the patience to research or read voluminous books upon. I read Casey Newton’s Platformer and David Mattin’s New World Same Humans to better understand the forces determining our future. I read Mike Sowden’s Everything Is Amazing because I do believe that everything is, indeed, amazing. Melanie Newfield’s The Turnstone helps me not get desensitized to concerns around the pandemic and climate change. Anticipating the Unintended, by Pranay Kotasthane and RSJ, helps me make sense of my home country, India, and understand the often counterintuitive principles of public policy.
What questions do you have for Nishant that we didn’t ask? Leave them in the comments!
To read more from this series on growing your publication, see our interviews with Michael Fritzell, Glenn Loury, Erik Hoel, Jessica DeFino, Mike Sowden, Elizabeth Held, Jonathan Nunn, Polina Pompliano, Michael Williams, Judd Legum, and Caroline Chambers.