Substack?? (lol wtf)
Why I'm publishing on Substack after two years of open hostility towards it.
In October of 2020, as Substack was taking off in popular culture, I published a hit piece about it (lol). Not for silly culture war reasons, mind you. Instead, I argued that Substack is a sketchy bet for anyone serious about building a business around their creative work. I'd been in the online business and marketing world for about seven years at that point, and from my vantage, it felt like Substack came with too many shortcomings and tradeoffs for those of us optimizing for 1,000 true fans.
When I re-read that article, I cringe a bit, because I'm nowhere near as harsh or critical as I used to be. But I stand by much of what I said in that piece. I still wouldn't trust Substack to be the central piece of infrastructure for my own business.
So why, then, have I started a fresh publication here?
Substack has made meaningful progress on solving the single hardest problem creators face—growth and marketing.
I've become extremely dependent on twitter for my own growth, and I'm feeling a bit rattled and vulnerable due to the drama unfolding over there. It's clear I need to diversify how I reach new readers and customers.
I've been overthinking my creative output lately, and just want to be prolific and imperfect for awhile. So I'm planning to write 100 smaller posts in 100 days, all while experimenting with Substack to see how quickly I can grow an audience here from scratch.
So first things first. Substack deserves a ton of credit for relentlessly chipping away at the problem of helping creators grow. It's the pain point every creator feels most acutely, especially in the early years. Truthfully, I never thought Substack could solve for this in any meaningful way. After all, it's not a really a software problem, but a problem based on the quality of individual creators' work, their marketing skills, and their network.
But over the last 18 months, Substack has been quietly shipping a stream of referral and growth features, all while continuing to soar in popularity. None of these features have been particularly show-stopping on their own. But taken together, and combined with Substack's network growth, they are cumulatively adding up to undeniable results. I have a few friends who write here, and they've all told me their lists are growing faster than ever, with 30-40% of said growth coming from within Substack's network. Which is pretty fucking impressive.
The thing that makes these features possible is that Substack is moving towards being a social network of sorts. Sure, it's still a tool that helps writers and podcasters reach/monetize their individual audiences. But increasingly, Substack is breaking down the barriers between individual creators, and making the entire centralized network more social and permeable. That's the key that unlocks these growth features. Substack's reached a critical mass of writers and podcasters by subsidizing the infrastructure costs of web/podcast hosting and email sending. Those writers and creators have, in turn, onboarded millions of readers and listeners. And then Substack started adding features to make it easy for creators to direct their audiences to others on the platform. It's pretty brilliant tbh, and it appears to be working.
Truthfully, I love the current tech stack that underpins the Ungated world. But as much as Ghost is the superior piece of publishing technology, and ConvertKit is the superior email marketing tool, neither come with Substack's built-in growth tools and network effects. Being on Substack right now virtually guarantees you'll grow your list more quickly and easily, especially if, like me, you've made a lot of twitter friends who also write on Substack. It genuinely feels like low-hanging fruit that I'd be borderline crazy not to pick??
Which brings us to twitter. Yikes, what a shit show. Just two weeks into Elon's ownership, and the vibe over there is feeling downright apocalyptic. Twitter has never been a stable, profitable business. But now, thanks to the chaos, advertisers are fleeing, and twitter's going to have an even harder time meeting its huge debt obligations. I'm like 80% confident that even if twitter enters bankruptcy, it will stay online in some capacity. The platform is too influential in the culture, and has too many high-profile users who love it, for it to get wiped offline completely. Just as Automattic purchased tumblr a few years ago, my guess is some tech giant will gladly pick up twitter for pocket change and keep it alive as a PR win.
Regardless, all of this drama has left me feeling anxious and unnerved. I've spent the last two years completely reinventing my approach to social media and marketing. And twitter has been the epicenter of that renewal. It's become my single favorite place on the internet, where I make new friends, reach new customers, and spread my work. Yet I've been operating as if twitter would clearly be around forever, which opened me up to risks I'm not comfortable with. I'm entirely too dependent on twitter, and if I value longevity and long games as much as I claim, I need to start diversifying the ways I reach new people.
All of which brings us back to Substack. Yes, I still have doubts about its long-term viability as a company, given how much VC money it's raised, its expenses, and the way it monetizes. Maybe I'll write another article about that at some point. But for now, all I know is that putting my writing on Substack comes with benefits I wouldn't get anywhere else. It'll help me diversify how I reach new people, while requiring relatively little additional effort on my part. As long as I can keep exporting my email list from Substack, I will gladly use this platform as a place to grow and connect.
So yeah, sometime in December, I'm gonna fire up the ol' keyboard and start publishing daily here. I've been accumulating all sorts of ideas and insights about the future of digital creativity and marketing, and how these things intersect with the meta-crisis and the need for paradigm change. It's time for me to stop being so protective of this work, open up the faucet, and let it flow into this new digital playground. Should be fun.