The Goodwill Growth Loop
Here’s how Substack’s secret growth loop works.
Someone starts a Substack. It’s usually someone smart who values independence and has something to say.
Through the product, we try to make sure they have a successful launch (one of the most important moments in the Substack journey) so they find subscribers right away.
Once they’re up and running, they see their readership and revenue grow thanks in part to the Substack network, which brings them subscribers they wouldn’t otherwise have. They start to fall in love with their experience on the platform.
At that point, they’re happy to tell their friends that they, too, should be on Substack, and the cycle starts all over again.
I like this cycle because it encourages our company to do everything in our power to maximize love among the writers using Substack. In fact, the imperative is baked right into our business model: We can make money only when writers make money. We have writers’ trust only when we prove we’re trustworthy. We can be happy only when they’re happy. But this system is great for writers for other reasons, too. It’s not just that it helps them find readers and make money—it’s that it also helps them pay it forward.
The last few years online have been so wearying. People are growing tired of scoring points on social media by taking each other down, or amassing followers by performatively showing that their ideological opponents are complete idiots. We’ve spent much of the last decade in a mode where online discourse is dominated by dispute instead of building together. Perhaps it is foolishly optimistic, but I believe most of us would really rather be helping each other. With Substack, we are trying to build a system that rewards that kind of thinking and behavior. The world is more than ready for a system that reveals the good in people.
Today, we’re rolling out a feature called Writer Referrals, which helps writers help other writers. Writers will now find an option in their publisher dashboard and in the “Buttons” menu in the editor that lets them send a referral link to someone they think would find value in publishing on Substack.
If a referral is successful, the referrer is credited on their Substack profile and receives an automatic recommendation from the referred writer. Over time, we’ll keep adding more benefits to referrals, all in the name of strengthening cooperative ties between writers on the platform.
Writer Referrals are just the latest in a growing suite of features that build on a “growth through goodwill” philosophy. Take, for instance, Recommendations, a feature that Lenny Rachitsky, the number one publisher by revenue in Substack’s Business category, has called “one of the most legendary, impactful features of any platform or marketplace.”
Recommendations embodies the lift-each-other-up spirit inherent in the community of writers on Substack. Rather than ranking algorithms deciding which writers get the most attention, writers have the power to recommend each other.
The goodwill growth loop is made even more clear with recommendation blurbs, where writers can add a few words about why they like another writer’s work so much. The recommended writer can then pin that praise to their Substack welcome page, giving new readers more reason to instantly subscribe. This way, a writer is incentivized to do work that attracts praise from their peers. In other words, you score points from doing good work for others.
There’s lots of room to explore and grow here. We will continue to work on features that help writers help each other, through things like mentions and cross-posts, and other initiatives that give writers the power to build strength together rather than letting algorithms determine their destinies. We will do this work not just because it helps writers grow and in turn helps Substack, but also because it makes for a better internet.
If that sounds like a good deal to you, perhaps now is a good time to start your Substack. And if you already have one? Tell a friend they should get one, too.
To add a custom referral button like the one above to your own posts, select the “Writer referral” button from the toolbar in the editor or visit substack.com/referral.