Growing the pie for writers

We've acquired People & Company to accelerate and celebrate writer success

In 2014, journalist Anna Codrea-Rado, publisher of Lance, pitched a story to editors at a major news outlet about how YouTube personalities like Zoe Sugg were creating a brand new type of career and disrupting the media. The editors didn’t bite. 

“The gatekeepers told me I was wrong,” Anna recalls, “and I believed them.” 

Seven years later, the YouTuber economy is worth $16 billion and independent creators are building multimillion-dollar empires from their bedrooms. 

Anna was right. 

This is a market that has come from nowhere – and I know it, because I’ve been an adult for longer than YouTube has been alive and this kind of activity simply didn’t exist back in those ancient times (with some important exceptions like Homestar Runner). Before 2004, video-makers had few career options outside of traditional channels like TV and film, and few could hope to build a livelihood without permission from some higher-up. 

Those gatekeepers haven’t disappeared – CNN is still big, people still enjoy Hollywood movies, and in fact Netflix came along and added even more options into the mix – but there is now a massive new class of creatives who can support themselves independently through work they care deeply about. Less than a decade after Anna’s rejected pitch, we’re all now like, “Oh yeah, of course YouTubers are a thing”.

This market-expanding effect is something we aspire to with Substack. In our company’s founding essay, we envisioned a model that would unleash writing talent that wasn’t well supported by the dominant media structure:  

Substack serves writers who are striking out on their own. Some of these will be professionals who can quit their jobs and financially support themselves by channeling their expertise into publications that they control. Others will be part-timers who are otherwise employed as teachers, academics, laborers, insurance agents, administrators, salespeople – or any number of other jobs – but can now earn money by writing about their passions. Entrepreneurial writers and editors may band together to bootstrap media companies focused on subjects that aren’t well covered in the existing media marketplace.

Three-point-seven-five years later, we’re excited to see the previously unknown 22-year-old college grad building a hugely successful financial newsletter; and the product manager reinventing himself as a media entrepreneur; and the microbiologist creating an important public health resource for her state. But there’s so much further to go. 

I’ve always resisted the contention that the only writers who can succeed on Substack are those who already have large existing audiences. I like famous writers, but they’re not the only voices worth hearing (and writers who have built their media businesses from scratch on Substack agree). While we are proud that big-name writers have found a happy home on Substack, if that’s all we were able to achieve then we would consider our job not even half done. We think the true measure of Substack’s success will be in helping to create livelihoods for people who would otherwise never have had the opportunity to become professional writers. We succeed only when they succeed. 

So what are we going to do to stack the odds? We’ve been helping writers with fellowships, a mentorship program, a local news initiative, a focus on highlighting unknown voices, and our growing library of educational resources. But we intend to do a lot more to help the undiscovered, under-appreciated, and under-resourced writers of the world succeed with this model. 

To that end, I’m exceedingly happy to report that we’ve just acquired People & Company, one of the leading authorities on community-building, to accelerate and celebrate writer success on Substack. (This is what one might call a buried lede.)

People & Company was founded by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto in 2016. Bailey and Kevin have served as consultants for our fellowship and mentorship programs, and, together with Kai, they’re the authors of Get Together: How to Build a Community With Your People, published by Stripe Press. Bailey and Kevin are now leading our efforts to foster a new generation of writing talent (while Kai acts as an advisor). 

Bailey and People & Company community manager Katie O’Connell (author of a book about creating community around live music) are building an educational and support infrastructure for writers that will involve workshops, meetups (here’s one next week), office hours, training sessions, parties, and a hell of a lot more. And Kevin is building out Substack’s services for writers, including programs for legal support, health insurance, image libraries, and design. While these programs are starting off as pilots, we will make them more available and accessible to many more writers over time. 

We’re proud that Bailey, Kevin, and Katie are leading these efforts, and building teams to help. These people are the best in the world at what they do, and now they’re not only working for Substack, but they’re also working for you. 

We’ve always believed that a platform that supports independent writers has to be about more than just software. The current crisis that writers face can’t be solved with a beautiful publishing tool or a whiz-bang content management system. To really flourish, especially when starting something new, writers need a support structure to reduce the anxiety that can come with doing important work for the public. They need peer support; they need advice and guidance; they need access to healthcare and legal support and design and all the things that could be offered if the economics of the media ecosystem made a little more sense.

Being independent shouldn’t mean being alone. 

Interested in helping out with Substack’s community and services? Consider applying to be our Community Storytelling Lead or our Partnership Manager for Design Services

This is the fifth installment of my occasional column. Previous posts were about the return of blogging, subverting the attention economy, how traditional media can adapt to a new era, and helping writers derisk the leap to independence.