The Substack Podcast

The Substack Podcast

Jul 09, 2020 55 min

Substack Podcast #018: Corporate governance with Francine McKenna 

We spoke with Francine McKenna of The Dig, a newsletter about accounting, audit and corporate governance issues at public and pre-IPO companies. Through her newsletter, Francine analyzes the most widely-held and widely-shorted companies in the world. After two decades of working for companies like KPMG and PwC, Francine’s original goal was to write a book. She started an anonymous blog, just to help her get material on paper. Over time, she amassed such a loyal following that she quit consulting, fully dedicating herself to her newsletter as an independent journalist. We talked to Francine about her career journey from accounting to journalism, her rigorous approach to writing and research, and how she grew a loyal following of readers across her blog and newsletter. Links The Dig, Francine’s newsletter Francine on Twitter Matt Levine, a business journalist that Francine admires Highlights (06:20) Why Francine became an early Twitter adopter, even though others in her industry avoided it (09:27) How Francine grew her audience, despite starting under a pseudonym, by analyzing metrics and reaching out to readers (17:34) How Francine keeps up-to-date by developing meaningful relationships within the world of academia (29:26) Francine’s transition from blogging to writing a newsletter (41:43) How Francine differentiates paid vs. free content On writing for herself: Frankly, I wanted to just write what I want to write, the way I want to write it. I like writing long, I like writing detailed. I like writing for an audience that already knows that they want to read what I want to read. I'm not interested in converting the unconverted, but I'd be glad to teach those who are willing to learn. On the loyalty of her audience: I have students who were just seniors in college or just about to embark on their career when they first started reading me. Now they're partners at the firms or they're professors in the universities. I've been at it long enough that I've seen people grow and they've seen me grow. Transcript Nadia (00:34): You write The Dig, which you describe as digging into accounting, audit, and corporate governance issues at public and pre-IPO companies. Francine (00:43): Yes, it's very similar to what I've been doing for the last 15 years in terms of writing and journalism. But I put a new brand spin on it for my Substack launch. Nadia (00:56): Awesome. I'd love to dig into, I'm going to be saying that a lot probably, dig into your background a bit since you had an entire career it seems. Several decades working in public accounting at KPMG and PwC, and all these big firms. Then you later went on to become an investigative journalist. You've had multiple careers it seems like. How and why did you make that transition from working directly in accounting to becoming a journalist? Francine (01:27): Sure. I like to say that journalism is my second profession. Because accounting, being a CPA, is my first profession or at least my original one. If you're an accountant, you're always an accountant. Now I'm using that subject matter expertise and writing about it instead of doing it. But I had been working in industry, in banks, and then in KPMG, KPMG consulting, its spinoff, BearingPoint. I worked in Latin America for a while. Then for PwC was my last job with a firm. I left PwC at the end of 2006 thinking I was going to write a book about the accounting firms in the global financial system. Of course, that went over like a lead balloon with agents and publishes. They wanted more sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I thought, well, I should start a blog in order to start getting some of that material on paper. Sort of see what people were going to respond to. I started a blog first on Blogger, which is the pre-Google Blogger version, anonymously. I was doing it sort of still thinking I was going to go back and work at a firm or at a company in the kinds of roles that I had been working before. A little worried, like all accountants are, about your reputation and getting on the blacklist of people who are not on the right side of the firms. I started it anonymously at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007. People started emailing me like, "Who are you?" Including from outside the U.S., because I was talking about the firms from a very critical perspective. The big four public accounting firms and their consulting arms: PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. Very few people have the freedom to talk about sort of the inside, the business end of those firms. Because you're usually either working for them or you're working for a company and you're dependent on them. Or you're somehow in the ecosystem of lawyers and the consultants, who are also dependent on their good favor. Very few people actually know what goes on inside the firms and are free to talk about it. People were really curious and then I realized, why am I writing anonymously? How am I going to get a book deal from writing a blog if people don't know who I am? I'm going to have to stand by my opinions. I put my name on the blog and it's called re: The Auditors. R-E, The Auditors. Like in re: a litigation, or in reference to the auditors. I started writing and lo and behold, that was the beginning of 2007, 2008. We started having issues with the subprime and then the financial crisis. The expertise that I had became very much in demand. Very few people could explain all the complex accounting and the role of the auditors in all of the different banks and companies that were under stress. At a certain point, I was at the point of no return because I had been so critical and had been talking so frankly about what was going on that nobody was ever going to hire me back in the firms or anywhere else. I had to just go forward and try to become a journalist and I approached that from the same sort of professional perspective that I did my previous career. And tried to learn from the best people and work for the best editors, and eventually ended up in a full-time role at MarketWatch in 2015 here in Washington, D.C. Nadia (05:41): Wow, it's funny hearing you talk about it. I didn't realize I guess that your blog was anonymous at first. It seems like there was this pattern of behavior. We have a couple of other Substack writers as well who write anonymously. And people who write in saying, "Can I start my newsletter anonymously?" I've seen it with sort of these industry insider kind of publications and writing. Have you seen this happening with other I guess anonymous Twitter accounts or blogs? It's just sort of I guess interesting to think about. Maybe in the past you had a whistleblower source that would go to media. Francine (06:17): Sure. Nadia (06:17): Whereas now people are just kind of doing it themselves and staying anonymous. Francine (06:20): Sure, sure. Well, I was a very early Twitter adopter. I've been on Twitter since April of 2008. Again, because as an independent journalist, I needed a way to promote my work, to let people know I was writing and what I was writing about. Some of my old technology consulting friends who were on Friendster said, "Oh, Twitter is a cool place to go. You need to go there and you can connect with people." No one was there. I mean, no journalists, no accountants and auditors for sure. No lawyers, all of the people that were afraid of social media stayed away for a while. But for me, it was a really good place to promote my work. I would run into people all the time, the accountants and the lawyers and the auditors and other... and then eventually the traders who started taking advantage. It was an early site that's still around, Stocktwits, which allows for... was using Twitter tags in order to sort of pull in information that people were posting on Twitter about individual stocks. That's much more sophisticated now. But the idea was people wanted to be anonymous because they had regular jobs. They were either worried about saying something negative and getting fired or saying something that was confidential and getting fired. Or ticking off somebody that was going to hire them later and not having a career. I mean, the risk-averse professions or anybody who wants to hold a job where they're employed by somebody else is going to be worried about if something I say or something I do is going to be... is going to break the rules or is going to somehow alienate me from my employer. In my case, I was an independent journalist. I didn't have anybody that I had to alienate. I had made a decision that I was never going back to the firms. It was sort of, hey, gonzo. 150% take it or leave it. I had to take the consequences of my actions. But a lot of people can't do that. People have obligations and responsibilities. They need to keep their day job and it's sort of a difficult balance. We run into that now. As a journalist, I run into that now with people who have great information. They want to be whistleblowers, but they need to be anonymous. They want to be sources. They want people to know about their expertise, but they don't want to have it come across as critical. I write critically and maybe they don't even want to be quoted in my newsletter, or in the past, even in my news stories. Because I have a reputation of being critical of the people that they are beholden to. It's a dilemma. You can't have it both ways. You either are willing to stand by your opinions and take the consequences, or you're not going to get fame and fortune, the whole thing. Nadia (09:27): How did you solve the cold start problem of you're writing this anonymous blog, but you want it to be read by people who you might interact with normally. But you don't want to tell them that it's you. How did you initially get your readership out there? Francine (09:43): As an accountant, I'm really into metrics. I looked for the tools that could help me see who was reading, how they were reading, what they were looking for. In the early days, you had tools. Even before Google Analytics, I've been subscribing to a tool out of the U.K. called Statcounter for now, gosh, it's going to be 14 years. They've got a lot of my money. The idea was that I could look. Even if it was five people clicking on it, I could see where they were coming from. I could see what keywords they used to search. That's not as easy anymore. Of course, there's much more sophisticated analytical tools that have developed over time. Every major media organization now uses all kinds of analytical tools to look at their traffic. Especially from social media, Facebook, etcetera, etcetera. But I was an early adopter of analyzing that data. If somebody came to my blog from another blog or from media, I called them. I reached out, I emailed them. I said, "Hey, I saw, I heard you went to my blog. How can I help you? What do you want to know? Why are you interested?" Some people were put off by that, but I met so many amazing people. People that I still work with and talk to today. Nadia (11:13): As an investigative journalist, and you were writing this blog from the beginning, and then also writing columns elsewhere and working at other media firms. How did you decide what went on your blog versus what you wanted to write in a column? How did you mentally separate personal writing and I guess professional writing is... Francine (11:34): I didn't initially. Not being from a journalist background, I didn't initially pitch anybody. I just wrote, the blog was my outlet. It was my place to put everything down and I write long and I write detailed. I was very linky and I would just... it was my diary of everything that was going on and my way to explain. It developed a following because in particular, people that were working in the public accounting firms at that time during the crisis, in the midst of the crisis. They were craving information about what was going on, in particular about what was going to happen if all of these banks went out of business. Those were their clients, and so when layoffs and other sort of more HR personnel issues came up, I mean, they just flocked to the blog. Because I would say, "Hey, this is going to happen." Or, "Hey, I heard they're going to have layoffs." Or, "Hey, the partners are going to get their pay cut." A lot of what's going on now in many industries. People crave that information because they want to know, am I going to have a job? Or how do I maneuver through this difficult situation? I was writing on the blog. People started asking me, media organizations, and I was promoting that work on Twitter mostly. People started asking me to be quoted in articles. The very first major media quote I have was from the FT, from Stacey-Marie Ishmael, who is now the executive editor at The Texas Tribune and has been at the FT and Buzzfeed and lots of other places. She asked me to comment on this live conference call at the SEC. She quoted me and said, "Blogger," which was extraordinary at that time. A blogger was not a legitimate quote source for major media. They were always asking me, "Well, don't you have a consulting firm?" Or, "Don't you work for a firm or a university?" They wanted some other kind of legitimate thing to identify me by. FT was kind of bold in that regard. FT Alphaville was bold in that regard. They were very big on the bloggers at that time. There was a whole group of a cabal of financial bloggers. The FinTwits early, early, early in the financial crisis. People who now are in some major media organizations like John Carney, who is at Breitbart and who was at The Wall Street Journal and CNBC. Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg. Felix Salmon, who has been everywhere. These were people who were blogging in the beginning of the financial crisis. First, they started quoting me. Then some outlets actually asked me to start writing. Then one thing I did have to do after only a couple of years, barely two years, is I could not do any other kind of consulting. I was doing some consulting, internal audit kind of consulting. The dilemma was, how can you write about stuff you're working at? How can you work at stuff that you want to write about? My normal conflict of interest hat came on. I had to make a rule, I'm not going to work if I want to write about it. I'm not going to write about it if I'm working on it. Well, I started wanting to write about things more than I wanted to work with them. I stopped doing consulting and lived on freelance and the kindness of strangers for a long time. It was a very gradual thing, people asking me to write about it instead of being quoted. That was a transition in and of itself because if you've been quoted in a major media outlet, they won't let you come back and write about it from a plain news perspective. You have to be an opinion person, opinion writer. Well, I didn't have the stature to be doing op eds, so I had to be careful too, if I wanted to write about something, not to be quoted by that journalist. And start gravitating towards writing about things. People came to me, I never pitched. People came to me. American Banker eventually came to me and asked me to do a column. Forbes came to me and asked me to do a column. I never pitched. It wasn't until later, after the crisis when things sort of calmed down, that I had to start pitching. By that time, there were a lot of people who were very aware of where my expertise was and what kinds of things I would be interested in writing about. I wasn't blindly pitching anybody and trying to convince them to let me write about the stuff that I could write about the best. Nadia (16:50): I'd love to touch on this point you mentioned about either writing or working on a thing, and kind of having the separation out between the two. Which I think is really interesting. I found at least for myself and in talking to other writers that sometimes you also need that mental separation. Just to be able to fully focus and kind of wrap your brain around one kind of problem versus the other. Then of course in your case, there's maybe ethical or just conflicts of interest as well. Do you find it hard to, as you kind of go deeper into the writing part and you have more time now between when you were working versus when you were writing. The cycles are pretty long. Do you find it harder to stay in touch with what's happening on the ground? Francine (17:34): That is a big challenge, in particular when you're writing about technical issues. If I'm writing about the business of the firms and how they're working with their clients, which is sort of the meat of a lot of what I write about, I have to stay in touch. What I started pretty early on, probably for the last seven, eight years, is I started having universities, professors, ask me if I would come out and talk to the students. I have a pretty heavy schedule and I do any talks or speeches to students. That's just free, that's a public service. That's me giving back to the profession. I go out and talk to students about what's going on in our profession. I bring stories from the headlines about accounting, audit, capital markets, corporate governance, etcetera. I give them real life examples because they don't really hear about these things in school. Certainly the recruiters from the firms don't tell them about any of the negative stuff. By going out to the schools and developing that connection, I have lots and lots and lots of people who want to help me get it right. In addition, you have all the academics. Then of course you have litigation, so you have all the lawyers. My sources are very broad in terms of people who want to help me get it right. I'm smart enough to know not to write without that support if you're writing about something that you don't know about, something new or technical. And to double check and make sure that my information about something is current. I have students who were just seniors in college or just about to embark on their career when they first started reading me. Now they're partners at the firms or they're professors in the universities. I've been at it long enough that I've seen people grow and they've seen me grow. Very loyal, loyal following. Nadia (19:47): It's interesting you bring up academia. I saw that you are an adjunct professor of business at American University. It sounds like you've just had a lot of exposure to the academic model. Something I've thought about is just how... where the line is drawn between academic research and journalism. Since in a lot of ways, especially in investigative journalism, since in both cases you're digging deeply into this topic. You're writing about your insights and sort of publishing it out to an audience, right? Did you ever think about maybe doubling down on academia instead of journalism? If so, why did you decide to focus on the latter? Francine (20:27): Well, I've been a teacher all my life from a kid. My mom thought I was going to be a teacher. I'm the oldest of six. We used to play school. We had enough in our family to play school in our basement. Teaching is sort of natural to me, even when I was working in the firms and consulting as a managing director, as a practice leader. My role is to develop other professionals and to guide and to teach and to... and then to teach clients how to use new software or how to do something correctly. It's natural for me, and I always wanted to find a way to also someday teach in a university. When I first started the blog though, the academics were not too crazy about me. Some of them were kind of snippy. I'm talking about in the early crisis periods: 2007, 2008, 2009. They did not like someone writing about these issues and not writing about it from an academic research perspective, from a very quantitative, statistical approach, heavy data. My writing was... they considered to be anecdotal. My opinion was that my anecdotal experience was pretty broad and deep. My sources were impeccable. I wrote like I audited. I gathered evidence and I supported my opinions with enough facts and documents and evidence that I thought made my case. They were not really crazy about me. I used to get a lot of criticism. "She's just this sort of carpet bagger academic." I was encroaching on some people's territory. However, eventually what it usually takes to win people over is you need those people who suddenly decide that they're going to be supportive instead of critical. There were some key academics who came out in support and started inviting me to speak at academic conferences. Suddenly, there was this whole group of academics who were hungry, again, for this outside point of view. One that was not allowed in some cases to be incorporated in their discussions, in their discussions of what to teach the students. In their discussions of how to interact with the firms from a recruiting perspective. They were just really sort of squelched. Some of them who had the power and the position to entertain an alternative perspective or a critical perspective started inviting me. That sort of won some of the academics over. Academic research was always something that I wanted to use to bolster my writing. I wasn't getting their cooperation. They were dismissing my work, they did not want to cooperate. Then the tide turned sort of at the end of the crisis period: 2009, 2010. Suddenly, I started having academics coming to me and wanting me to write about their papers. Some of them wanting me to look at their papers. Eventually to, how can I participate or contribute to their papers? I've got a lot, a lot, a lot of credits or citations of my work, and some thank yous in some papers at this point. Because I had ideas that many of the academics who had never worked in the profession would never have thought of. They were pursuing something that maybe I could contribute some kind of additional information or additional source that was outside of academic. It's been a really fruitful relationship. I'm one of the few business journalists who pretty consistently writes about academic research, and will get it early in the game and write a whole article about it, not just cite it. You can look on my MarketWatch, on MarketWatch, where there's a lot, a lot of articles that are just about an academic paper and applying it to what is going on in life. But I've also encouraged a lot of academics in accounting, in economics at the schools that I've been associated with, to write more... that has a more immediate policy impact. A lot of academic research, especially in accounting, is very esoteric. It's just spinning angels on the head of a pin. I was always encouraging, when I would go out to the schools, I would sit also with the PhD students and with the professors and say, "Tell me what you're working on." They would ask me questions and we would develop that collaboration. So that if they were interested in doing something more timely and focused on policy impact, I was always there to help people. Nadia (25:54): As you're describing this, I'm almost getting flashbacks to what's happening now with the current crisis and pandemic. In that there is some tension now around I guess incumbents or institutions and recommendations around both from a health perspective and economic perspective, and just on every level right now, of people trying to figure out, how do we take all the sort of established knowledge? How does that reconcile with a lot of the new and confusing situations that we're all in right now? Do you feel like there's any sort of parallel happening with that in your world of writing from the 2008 crisis that you describe and today? Francine (26:37): Sure. There are a lot of journalistic topics that lend themselves really, really well to leaning on research, using research, highlighting research. Obviously science or anything science-related is one of them, one of the most important ones. The problem is that no academic discipline is unchallenged by the influence of money. Every academic discipline has the lure of money from private sources, that encourages research in certain areas. Sometimes custom orders research in certain areas, whether it's science, economics, data security. I mean, you name it. Every academic discipline is hungry for funding. Some academics are willing to sell their platform for the opportunity to have it funded. And also for sometimes the fame or promotion that comes with getting funding from certain think tanks or certain professional organizations, or chambers of commerce, or whoever it is that are in a private funding situation. Just like journalism, just like media, you have to be very discerning. In using research in journalism, in looking at what research do you talk about, how do you report on it. Whether or not you should, how can you vet it? The most important thing is to look at who is behind it and who is funding it. That should be transparent. Sometimes it isn't, but journalists have been fooled over and over and over again by research that is coming to them, that is being pitched to them. The schools have professional media outlook, outreach to pitch research, new research to journalists. You have to, have to vet and check, where is it coming from? Why is it coming to me? Who is behind it? Why now? Why this research now? Make sure that you're not getting spun. Nadia (29:06): I'd love to move from, you talked about a lot your blog and now you've more recently picked up a new newsletter. I'd love to just sort of talk about that transition a little bit too. What inspired you to want to go from writing a blog for many years to now also having a newsletter? Francine (29:26): The blog had to go on hiatus while I was at MarketWatch. I started at MarketWatch in May of 2015. Even when I was writing freelance for Forbes or American Banker on a regular basis, you don't want to undercut work that someone is paying for by repeating it or scooping it on your own blog. Certainly that's not the best way to win friends and influence people. It's not necessarily the best way to get your work out there and showcase it. When you're writing about accounting and investigative corporate malfeasance, you also have to be careful that when you do the work, that it's very, very well edited and checked and verified. And that you don't make mistakes, or there's enormous consequences from that, including legal liability. One of the reasons why I joined MarketWatch full-time is because I wanted a full-time editor. I wanted that protection that comes with working for a large media organization. So that as I was writing more complex things with more consequences for corporations, things that were more high profile, that I would have that editorial and organizational protection. In exchange, I had to sort of put the blog on ice. I only put information about where I was speaking or, "Hey, I wrote this at MarketWatch." Or sort of promoting the things I was doing and what I was writing, rather than putting any original content on the blog. That went on for almost five years until this past November, when I decided to leave MarketWatch. I had already been aware of Substack. I had talked to Bill Bishop, who is one of your... probably your most successful newsletter writer. And had been in touch with Hamish and some of the founders because they were encouraging me. "When can you start using our platform?" I could not do that while I was working at MarketWatch. To me, it was not going to be worth it to do it, since I already had a blog, because I couldn't get paid. While I was working at MarketWatch, I couldn't convert to a paid subscription format and get paid separately. Can't do that. If I wanted to write something and not get paid, I had my own blog or I could ask permission. But in general, I didn't write anywhere but MarketWatch while I was at MarketWatch. I knew I was aware of the platform. I watched as it developed, I watched as functionality was added. When I decided to leave MarketWatch in November, it was an automatic decision that that's where I was going. I think I published my first article within a couple of days of turning on the lights on the newsletter. Nadia (32:40): Can you talk a little bit more about these trade offs between... In some ways, I mean, you've been writing about the same broad focus area and topic for a long time. But you've written about it on your own blog and then you wrote about it on MarketWatch. You've had other columns elsewhere and then you also had this newsletter. Just the sort of trade off of deciding. It's your same brain, but it's sometimes I guess temporarily rented out or owned to a different institution. Do you have a preference for one over the other? It sounds like sometimes there are just practical benefits to being under an institution versus not. But creatively, do you have a preference? Francine (33:17): Well, I think after almost five years at MarketWatch and looking around at the media landscape, I had developed the confidence that one, I had a large enough following. Two, that I could make sure that when I put something out independently, that it had its T's crossed and its I's dotted, and I would not have any issues. Which I have not had any issues. I've never been sued, I've never had a cease and desist. I've never had a takedown order on my blog since 2006. I was sued once for something that I wrote at Forbes, but it was actually just an extra thing that I wrote because Forbes was sued and one of their major reporters was sued by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal from Saudi Arabia. I got kind of dragged into that. Here I am having been independent all these years and I've never been sued because of my own lack of care or fastidiousness in making sure that everything is all locked up. The only time I've ever been sued is under a huge giant media umbrella. I was pretty confident that I could make sure that I protected myself and that I knew how to do things the right way. Frankly, I wanted to just write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I like writing long, I like writing detailed. I like writing for an audience that already knows that they want to read what I want to read. I'm not interested in converting the unconverted, but I'd be glad to teach those who are willing to learn. I had a mailing list, an email mailing list still from the blog that was pretty big. Almost 3000 email subscribers that never left me, didn't unsubscribe in all those years. I started with that as a base. I will say that that substantially increased just in three months. I've had more success than I ever imagined in terms of people pretty quickly subscribing on a paid basis, in enough volume to make me willing to keep going. I had set sort of this gate for myself that I would start the paid version in January. That was about a month after I started the newsletter in the beginning of November, or I'm sorry, the beginning of December. If I wasn't up to a certain level within three months, then I would have to go find a job. But I had no intention when I left MarketWatch of looking for another media job or even freelancing. Other than one op ed in the FT, I haven't done any of that since. Nadia (36:23): Can you talk a little bit about how you message paid subscriptions to your readers? How do you decide on your pricing? Francine (36:31): I have the good fortune of having a very good friend in Chicago, where I'm from originally. He was formally a marketing expert at Arthur Andersen before the collapse. He now runs a marketing communications firm for professional services firms, lawyers and accountants. He and I are... we're joined at the hip and the soul. We know each other's worlds. I asked him and one of his associates to help me sort of suss that out in December. To look at sort of what other publications that were focused on a very focused sort of accounting, compliance, risk management, lawyers. Sort of what other people were charging. I also looked at... asked them to help me draft some of the boiler plate kind of introductions and emails, and things that go out to people when they subscribe. Only so that I could sort of take myself out of that, sort of not be navel gazing all the time and get an outside, fresh perspective. But in the end, it's my product. It was a collaborative effort. They made very good suggestions to me. This was a paid consulting assignment, I paid for someone else's expertise to do that survey. I had an idea in my mind what I was going to do and they sort of confirmed it and I went with it. Frankly, on first glance, because it was so... I had such good results right off the bat. I thought, I'm charging too little. People were paying for the full year all at once. I almost thought, maybe I'm charging too little. I didn't put that price point in the right place to sort of convey, I'm providing something that is unique, original, and actionable information. That was the key. It was not just, I'm going to tell you something that I'm thinking about as I'm looking out my window. I wanted to provide company specific, actionable information that people could use to... that might influence their decisions about investments. I thought about it and then I thought, you know what? I'm not going to second guess. I'm just going to go with it. I'm sticking with my original plan for now, and it seems to be a price point that says, "I see a value in this, but I don't want to make it unattainable for somebody who is not a hedge fund or a big plaintiff's law firm or a big PR person from a big public accounting firm." I have all of those subscribers and those are people that have budgets to pay, universities. It's developing and now I have a few entities who are asking me about group subscriptions. Bill Bishop knows because I asked his advice. I saw that on his newsletter and I said, "Oh, people want to do that because people are worried about copyright protection." My newsletter, somebody subscribes at a university or somebody subscribes at a hedge fund or at a law firm. Then they want to circulate it to others. Well, these are all smart people that are worried about me getting pissed off and suing them for copyright protection. They're calling me and asking me how to make sure that I don't come back and give them a hard time about this if I find out about it. Thank goodness, so we're... so I crossed that bridge. That's what happens. You don't know until you do it and then you go from there. Nadia (40:49): That's funny, that's definitely something that's specific to your audience. But it sounds like you sort of turned that into an opportunity to be able to offer group subscriptions, which is cool. Francine (40:59): Right, so again, you have to get... I'm not a lawyer. I had to look around and see, what do other similar publications do in order to make sure people understand that they can't just re-email your newsletter that one person paid for, out to the other 50 people in their firm? I found some examples and I have a lawyer in the family. He helped me refine that. But again, it didn't take much because I'm a consultant, okay? I've written contracts for $10 million system implementation projects. I have some interest but also some aptitude for this stuff. Nadia (41:43): For people listening who might not be familiar with your world, did you find any sort of I guess surprise from people who had been following your blog for a while who... are they used to paying for this sort of information? Did you find that you had to message it different to them? How did you decide which posts to make free versus paid, only since you do write both? Francine (42:05): The decision right... I put out everything that I put out in December for free obviously. To get people to understand this is what I'm doing, right? To introduce to everybody who may or may not have been following my work recently. This is what I'm doing now. I put out some pretty quality stuff I think, right off the bat. The first story that I put out was one that unfortunately was spiked at MarketWatch, about Under Armour and why I thought Under Armour is under criminal investigation for their accounting right now. Highly successful. I mean, 10 times more than my mailing list, okay? In terms of views. It went out to everybody and then it got circulated 10 times over. I put out good stuff. Then when I started the paid version in January, I have to keep in my mind, I'm going to put under the paywall things that are company specific and that I think provide actionable information for investors. Or regulators, or lawyers, or accounting researchers, or people who are very interested in these issues. If it's not company specific, if it's not... if it's more educational, if it's more observational, then that's free. Again, making sure that people are getting something all the time and that people who are just signing up for free are getting something that they don't get anywhere else. But for those that are willing to pay, looking at how other newsletters approach that. You have to give people something that they're willing to pay for, something that they're not going to get anywhere else. I do promise nobody else writes about the stuff that I write about. Nadia (44:03): Now that you've been writing a newsletter for a little bit, how does it compare to blogging for you? Since I think for a lot of people right now, newsletters are sort of like a newer or different form. Even though they've been around for a while, the way that people write newsletters now is different. I think, yeah, there's a sort of parallel to blogging, but it's still different. Do you find that they are similar or different? Francine (44:24): They're different. One is that when I started blogging, mobile was not in there at all. It didn't matter, nobody read long blog posts on their phone. I mean, it was not an issue in 2006, 2007, until probably 2011 or '12 that you started seeing this focus on mobile. The other thing is, when I first started blogging, it was enough to just have a whole bunch of text that was really interesting to someone. You didn't have to mix it up with a lot of video or audio or whatever. I personally on my blog had this thing, because I like music and movies, I would always try to find some fun piece of music or film scene that I thought was sort of snarky or punny on what it is that I was writing about. It was to entertain myself more than anybody else. Sometimes people probably didn't even get the joke, but it was for me. I would put some photo or some piece of music or some snippet from a film up at the top. That was me, so none of that was really mobile enabled. It was not oriented for that. My blog was very, very, very dense, okay? It's not a top to bottom chronological format. I specifically custom designed it to look like a magazine. If you go there and you go to the front page, people usually come back to me and say when they go for the first time, "Oh my God. It's overwhelming, there's so much stuff." That was the exact effect I wanted. I wanted people to see, "Oh my God, she's so smart. She has all this information. Where do I start?" Until they dig in. I had really, really long time on site metrics. I mean people would, when they would come to my site, they would stay for hours. Because they'd just go from one thing to another. You can't do that with a newsletter. Your format in Substack does not lend itself to that. I write way too long for the Substack format, I realize that now. But I just wrote a 4000 word piece that went out this morning anyway. My pieces are hard to write on the phone. But then again, I read New Yorker articles on my phone. I read 5000 word Atlantic articles on my phone. There are nerds who do it anyway. But putting it in the newsletter, mixing it up with other links, video, photos, charts. A lot of charts, so the people who are looking at information and looking at it in terms of their investments. They want share price, they want charts, they want comparisons. I learned that in five years of MarketWatch. Writing for an investor focused site got me thinking about, why does the investor care? That's always the question I ask, why does the investor care? My mind has now been trained to that. I may resist it, I may push against it. But I know it now, I know that that's something I have to keep in mind if I want a post to be successful. Newsletters should be shorter, it should be punchier. It should have personality, but my writing has always had my personality infused in it. When you were at MarketWatch, when I wrote for MarketWatch, even though it was straight news, people said they always knew it was my piece. They could always see me behind the words, and that's my goal. Nadia (48:26): I really love that. I think there's something to what you're saying of... even your style of self describing, very dense or something that only nerds are really going to dig into for a long time. I think that is in itself a style, which is really cool to hear. Francine (48:41): A really good example of somebody I admire a lot is Matt Levine at Bloomberg. What he gets away with at a major media site in terms of writing a column that has 10,000 words and 19 topics. He's won the Loeb Award. I'm a Loeb Award judge, which is... the UCLA does this journalism award. He's won the Loeb Award for commentary. He does sort of the piece de resistance of dense business journalism in a fun, interesting, slightly snarky but always on point way. I sometimes say, "Does he not have an editor?" But in a way, that's sometimes good. Because the person and their knowledge shines through and those of us who are willing to take the consequences, we go, "Okay, fine, whatever. If somebody doesn't like it, well all right. Don't read it." Nadia (49:42): Yeah. In that way, I think it feels very newslettery to me in that it filters probably out for a lot of the general population. But the people that stick around are the people that fought through it and are really there to stay, which is cool to hear. Did you ever consider monetizing your blog when you were writing it, or do you think of monetizing your newsletter as sort of a picking out that thread where you left off? Did it never really occur to you to monetize before? Francine (50:06): Oh my gosh. I went through that over and over and over again because certainly people would ask me that question. "You're doing all this work, why don't you monetize it?" How could you monetize a blog back in those days? You could get sponsors, you could get ads. You could get somehow, I guess sponsors and ads, really. Well, the problem was that I was writing something about the business of the big four public accounting firms. As I said, you don't have too many people that can talk about the things that I talk about in the way that I do. Because very few people are free to openly express those opinions. In the same way, very few are openly able to sponsor or pay for a site that expresses those opinions. Sponsors were kind of hard to find. Anybody who was also looking to stay on the right side of the accounting firm did not want to be seen next to me. I had a couple of sponsors. One software firm that sponsored me for a while and then... that stuff is fickle. I tried Google Ads. I ended up with having the accounting firms advertising next to my articles, which was comical. Really what I wanted to do is I wanted to write. I did not want to run a website. The idea of cultivating sponsors, cultivating things like having paid webcasts or things like this, I didn't want to do that. I wanted to write. I ended up using the blog as a showcase for my writing and then eventually to get freelance writing and full-time writing jobs. Nadia (51:58): It does seem like that's sort of the way it... the only way you could really make money off your reputation before was that, right? If you wrote for your side projects, that's sort of how you grew your reputation. Then some other firm takes notice of you and offers you a full-time job, it sounds like. Francine (52:17): Right, right. I mean, the original purpose of the blog was to attract an agent and get a book contract and write a book. I never wrote the book. I'm trying to write one now because I have more time and the freedom to do that. But that was the idea, was to use the blog as a showcase for my writing, to let people know who I was and what I knew. What that led to was a journalism career and an opportunity to work full-time at MarketWatch. Nadia (52:48): Just to sort of wrap things up, you've been writing for a while obviously in a lot of different formats. How do you find and tap into new leaders? Do you feel like you've sort of found your sources and you're kind of doubling down on them? Are there any surprising sources of readership that you've experienced? Francine (53:06): Well, I would say in the last four or five years, the trading community, the community of people who are actively trading has just gone bonkers. There are lots of little niches and forums and other sites. I don't focus on that as much as I do on making sure that I'm writing about companies that people are interested in, that are actively traded, and that they're interested in, and that they have active questions. For that, I have to say that Twitter has been very, very good to me. Every journalism thing that I've ever done pretty much has come from having been on Twitter since 2008. Tweeting constantly, tweeting very, very frankly. Giving my opinion, answering anybody's questions, and letting people know, and developing sort of that reputation as someone who knows about accounting and auditing and the intersection with public companies and pre-IPO companies. At this point, when something happens and it's an auditor, I'll start getting requests. "Francine, can you re: The Auditors?" There are people who probably have no idea what my real name is. I see that when I meet them in person. But they'll ask me a question and I'll answer it. Why? In the interest of education, in the interest of peaking interest, in the interest now of getting them to read the newsletter. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Jul 02, 2020 57 min

Substack Podcast #017: Psychedelics with Zach Haigney

We spoke with Zach Haigney of The Trip Report, a newsletter covering the business, policy, and impact of psychedelics. With a background in clinical research and acupuncture, Zach has closely followed the psychedelics industry for years. As the topic started to gain momentum, he was inspired to write about it. Zach covers not just the business and policy landscape, but also the science behind psychedelics and their long-term cultural impact. These diverse focus areas have allowed him to gain a variety of readers, from psychedelic enthusiasts to investors, researchers, and clinicians who are building the emerging psychedelics ecosystem. We talked to Zach about why he’s excited about the psychedelics industry, his early days of writing his newsletter and building his audience, and why he believes independent publishing is so important. Links The Trip Report, Zach’s newsletter Zach on Twitter Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization that has been studying psychedelics since 1986 How to Change Your Mind, a book by Michael Pollan about the science of psychedelics 60 Minutes, an episode on how researchers experiment with psychedelics to treat addiction, depression and anxiety Psychedelics Today, a podcast on how psychedelics relate to human potential and healing Highlights (10:47) Why psychedelics are a hot topic right now (21:55) Why Zach believes independent publishing is important (27:40) The Trip Report’s community of readers and subscribers (36:42) How Zach grew his newsletter list, despite not having a preexisting audience or social media following (41:59) How Zach powered through writing in the early days and learned from other newsletter writers (47:12) Why Zach decided to start a paid newsletter On social media: Social media is a weird place. I don't know how to navigate it. I feel much more comfortable in the confines of a newsletter. The medium of the newsletter, where you're going to somebody's email is really ... it makes sense to me. I get it and I love it. On imposter syndrome: If you can use imposter syndrome when you're writing your newsletter, it's a great tool because it forces you to think about what you don't know, and use that to flesh out the questions of what you don't yet understand. That's great fodder for, at least, what I'm trying to do. Transcript Nadia (00:42): First question, which I'm sure a lot of people ask you, is how did you start writing about psychedelics? Zach (00:50): I've been watching the development of a few of the organizations that have been funding the science. There's been some research over the last 20 odd years or so of really small studies of looking at psychedelics for things like depression and cancer-related anxiety and some other indications. They're really impressive results for really challenging conditions. I've been watching this and watching it grow and I felt I missed the boat of a career of being involved in this space. I knew I wasn't going to go back to school to be a scientist or I didn't quite know how to get in. I started writing about it. Here we are. Nadia (01:36): Love it. I mean, it seems like you have been involved or in and around both Eastern and Western medicine and that you have an ongoing interest in the human body. I guess psychedelics helps bridge that gap. Zach (01:50): I spent my first stint in a career in clinical research right out of college. I did HIV and Hep C clinical trials. I managed what's called an expanded access program in phase two pharmacokinetic studies. That was really cool. I was planning to go to medical school and be a doctor. Just through whatever circumstances, I decided, at some point, to pursue acupuncture and Chinese medicine. I went to acupuncture school. After that, I did have a brief stint in Silicon Valley. That was a huge embarrassing failure. Nadia (02:30): Yeah. Been there. Zach (02:32): But yeah. I've been working with patients primarily for conditions like chronic musculoskeletal pain for the last five or six years. My research into the workings of the nervous system and pain brought me back into understanding psychedelics from a scientific perspective. It's really interesting. I thought I had this audacious idea that I might be able to offer some insight in that. Because I think that there's a lot of overlap and a lot of similarities, psychedelic as tools for spiritual development and as medicines goes back thousands of years across cultures. There's some parallels between that and Chinese medicine that I'm really interested in and I've just started to explore in the Trip Report. Nadia (03:33): Where do you see psychedelics fitting in? Since you've been around both clinical research and Chinese medicine, is there an ideal, I guess, in terms of whether you would like it to be taken into one of those specific disciplines or how you would like the world to see and treat psychedelics? Zach (03:52): Well, that's the $64 million question. What I've been thinking about is I'm covering the news that's coming through, especially in the business and the policy side of psychedelics. But I'm also trying to generate, just collect themes or concepts or ideas. One of the main concepts that we're grappling with or thinking about or communicating about is the different ways that this grows. We have what's happened recently in Oakland and Denver where there's been a decriminalization or really a deprioritization of psilocybin in Denver, and then entheogenic plants or things like Ayahuasca, POD ... or maybe not POD ... psilocybin in Oakland. That's one of these vehicles, so to speak of broadening access. Zach (04:54): On the other end of the spectrum is the FDA route. There's a few companies and nonprofits that are developing pharmaceutical grade psychedelics for prescription use. That's this really interesting area where there's going to be tradeoffs and pros and cons to all of these different means of changing policy and stuff like that. The way I'm thinking about it is there's two ... My perspective is I like decriminalization. Portugal has been this model for drug reform, where they've decriminalized all drug use. You're not going to go to jail for possession or intoxication, perhaps, maybe but drug possession has been completely decriminalized. You have this opportunity to rehab people rather than put them in prison. Zach (06:04): Anyway, the opportunity, I think, to conduct psychedelic assisted therapy, or guide, or journeys in a nonmedical context I would really love to see. That's where it might resemble more like a Chinese medicine and acupuncture approach. On the other end of the spectrum is the opportunity for the FDA to say, "The science looks great. Let's approve this as pharmaceutical grade drugs." That would then be delivered in a more conventional medical setting. I think it's going to take some time for these different options to grow and to blossom. But I'm hoping that there's a diversification and some diversity within the ways that people are able to access and use them. Nadia (07:02): It's simple. But there's this toeing of the line of wanting to frame it in medical terms to establish legitimacy, while also not doing a disservice to the nature of psychedelics, which inherently does have this spiritual aspect to it that a lot of people find very fulfilling. Are there learnings from what's happened with cannabis research, which is ... I’m just like a casual connoisseur of information in both these realms, but it seems it's a little bit further ahead. Is there anything that parallels what's happening in cannabis with psychedelic? Zach (07:40): From the science perspective, the body of literature in psychedelics is much larger and more expansive than we have for cannabis. That has to do with issues around funding and regulation and access to that scientist can get access to cannabis. It's a really weird, bizarre thing where they can only get it from a university that's growing in Alabama or Arkansas or something. Whereas psychedelics, it hasn't had, for whatever reasons, the capacity to manufacture it and create pharmaceutical grade psilocybin or LSD or DMT. In a hasn't been as difficult. There's been more research. Zach (08:27): On the other hand, I would say the patterns of use in cannabis are way different than they are in psychedelics. Microdosing of LSD and psilocybin is a little bit more how cannabis is used. But I would say that there's some overlap. These are Schedule 1 illegal substances that are moving through policy and science and reform. In that sense, psychedelics are somewhere between 5 and 10 years behind cannabis and marijuana. Zach (09:02): The predominant business model in cannabis has been as a consumer packaged good. You go to a store, cannabis store and you take some home and whatever. It's more like coffee than it is a pharmaceutical drug. Whereas psychedelics, what's being proposed by the FDA would be ... a same-day hospital visit where you go in for an extended period of time and then leave at the end of the day to a specialized clinic. They're categorically different in that sense. Zach (09:36): What's interesting is that Oregon has a state measure that is going to be on the ballot, presumably in November, called the Psilocybin Services Initiative, where they're creating a medical psilocybin system where there's going to be infrastructure and regulation around the manufacture and the sale, but that will go to a clinic. The access to natural mushrooms or whatever the patient decides would be through a clinic setting. That's really interesting. It parallels early days of medical marijuana in California, with the exception of the delivery model. There's a ton of overlap. There's a ton of differences. A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to figure out and tease apart the similarities and differences. Nadia (10:28): You’ve been alluding to this as you've been talking, but can you tell us a little bit just about why psychedelics are so interesting right now and what's changed recently in terms of policy and research? Maybe a useful exercise would be: what would it have been like writing a newsletter about psychedelics, say, 10 years ago versus now? Why is now an interesting time? Zach (10:47): Yeah, that's a good question. I would say the ... There's an organization called MAPS, which stands for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. Studies or science? I think it's studies. They've been around since 1986. They have been doing the slow plodding policy work and scientific work to bring us to where we are, so to speak, them and others. There's a couple other groups, the Heffter Research group. Zach (11:24): But the prohibition of psychedelics, I think it was in '71 the schedule ... the Nixon administration just caught wind of Timothy Leary, and the hippies, and got really afraid. That was in the early '70s. There was a ton of research that had been done up until that point, mainly in psychiatry around addiction, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, those kinds of things. It was really promising. Zach (12:00): The scientists in the 2000s, early 2000s had to start from scratch. Scientists changed dramatically. The tools available changed dramatically. There's been a recapitulation back to two or three generations ago of building the scientific body of work. One of those projects has been spearheaded by MAPS, which is MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Zach (12:36): They're in what's called the phase three of the FDA approval process where they're doing large scale studies on patients with PTSD to show efficacy and that it works. It's the final stage. There's a few other companies and nonprofits that are shortly behind them. It's like in the FDA approval process, it's a long grind. We're in the last year and a half to maybe two years with the first wave of psychedelics that will be approved. That definitely has something to do with it. Zach (13:25): Michael Pollan's book, How to Change Your Mind, was definitely a watershed moment because he represented "respectable culture" commenting on the benefits and his experience with psychedelics. That was definitely a ... They coincided, those two streams. I think the aftermath of that, which I think was published in maybe 2018. There's just been a huge surge. And then cannabis, the cannabis is the next wave of cannabis, so to speak, which some of us have some issues with that phrasing. But that's what it is essentially. I'd say those three things have combined into this perfect storm of, okay, we're in this period of time now where there's a lot of hype, there's a lot of cultural and media exposure to this new way of looking at psychedelics. It's just gaining momentum, and fomenting excitement. Nadia (14:32): It's interesting you bring up the Michael Pollan book that you feel that was, in my mind, just as an outsider watching it, it felt like the moment where this thing crossed over from being ... I guess, I would have expected the types of people I would want to follow along on psychedelics news, are people that are using it themselves, or have some deep personal interest in it, and it's this hush, hush. It felt Michael Pollan using his social capital to shed light on this topic made it suddenly then okay to talk to people about it and not have this fear around, “Do I look like I'm a weirdo or something if I talk about this thing?” Zach (15:13): Totally. I think there was also the ... I lived in San Francisco from 2005 until 2012. Whenever I go back to visit, it feels like a very different place. But one of the things I would say is, more kids or people that would have gone into other industries ended up in the Bay Area because of the rise of the technology industry. A lot of them then ended up going to Burning Man. That phenomena, I think, exposed a lot of people to just the expansion of the tech sector, exposed people to Burning Man, and Burning Man exposes people to psychedelics. It's something like that. Nadia (16:02): Almost helps normalize it a little bit of ... Zach (16:03): Yeah. Nadia (16:04): Yeah. A shared experience, shared cultural reference point that people can talk about in the Bay Area. Zach (16:10): Totally. Tim Ferriss is a major person that people know and he has talked about it in a few different instances on his podcast. There's a physician by the name of Peter Attia, who's got a great podcast. It's very informative, super high level. But his first episode was with Tim Ferriss, and they were talking about, essentially, the utility of psychedelics for a lot of these conditions. It hit an inflection point through various things. Here we are. Nadia (16:53): Yeah. I mean, it feels there's been this increase in the number of people who are writing about psychedelics. I can think of a couple different newsletters starting to cover this topic and you're starting to mention some names here. Can you paint a picture for us of just who or what else is out there in terms of trusted information sources around these emerging topics and where the Trip Report fits in? Zach (17:12): The key insight that I had or the thought that I had that gave me the thought that to start doing this was like, I thought the science is well covered by places like MAPS, the Heffter Institute, the cultural and the indigenous use, the spiritual uses is covered well by places like the ... one of the main organizations is a group called Chacruna Institute. They're a non-profit. They have a newsletter. They have a conference. They're well respected and a guiding voice into space. Zach (17:57): I thought there was this burgeoning industry forming here. It's going to be a really interesting nexus of consciousness, whatever that means to people, spirituality, neuroscience, healthcare, clinical research, capitalism, business startups, pharmaceutical industry. It was just this ... I mean, endlessly fascinating topics in their own right are all converging in this area. Zach (18:39): I thought there wasn't much in the way of coverage of what are the businesses forming in this space? What are the strategies? What are the plans? Are they going to be tackling decriminalization? Are they hoping for decriminalization that they can sell it, mushrooms in a market, in the way that we do with cannabis? Is it going to be strictly an FDA-approved route? Zach (19:08): There's all these questions and businesses forming about it. I thought it would just be an interesting way to 1) have an audience that would read. Because I started with the idea of like, I want to be like the Stratechery of psychedelics. That was the key insight. I thought that there was an opportunity to do that. I just wanted to explore and learn and use it as a self-edification tool to figure out what companies were trying to do. Zach (19:42): There's a handful of other peoples that are looking at, that are gearing their publications towards, what I would call day traders or people who are solely interested in the investment potential, because there's a handful of companies that are traded publicly up in Canada. I try to position the Trip Report. I guess it's constantly changing, which is a challenging thing. But as this people who are trying to build the long-term ecosystem. So it touches on news announcements and stuff like that from different companies. But I'm really interested in what are the long-term forces shaping the space, and what are the questions that we need to answer, and that kind of thing. Zach (20:36): From the more conventional vices consistently writing about it, more and more pieces are showing up in places like Fortune and Forbes. It's slowly growing into this space of more and more coverage. I mean, 60 Minutes had a special on psychedelics that aired last summer, again in October where they talked to researchers and participants in the cancer for anxiety trial. Yeah. Those are the other areas where news is getting covered, I'd say. My goal is to, I don't know, carve out this weird business policy, opinion analysis type of space. Because I'm just figuring it out as I go. Nadia (21:36): I kind of think about this interplay between independent newsletters, news sources, publications, and then the more traditional media that you're referencing. What do you think that independent publications can do for this space and psychedelics that traditional media can or couldn't? Zach (21:55): I think that one of the founding theses of Substack is a reader supported publication. Journalism, media has jumped the shark chasing clicks and selling ads and stuff like that. I just was really attracted to that. I also sent emails to publications, if they would take any of my writing and I never heard back from everybody. I was like, "Okay, I'll start my own." Zach (22:26): I don't know how to answer that question. I think what I'm trying to do is cater to people who are invested in this either because they work for companies that are forming. They are activists and advocates in some capacity. They have a personal investment in psychedelics. It's almost like a B2B with a ... what I'm calling B to fanatical C. People are really invested in this space. Even if they're not professionally invested in it, if that makes sense. That was an insight that I had that I thought this could work. This model could work. Zach (23:20): I don't know. There's a handful of podcasts. Psychedelics Today does a good podcast. Those guys have been at it for a while, four or five years. They have a different approach where they’re, I believe, I’m not sure what lineage they're a part of. But there's a transhumanist or, yeah, I guess, interpersonal psychology or transhuman psychology schools and fields that they have worked on. They're coming from that perspective, and they offer classes and stuff like that as a monetization tool. Zach (23:54): I don't see anybody else doing the "Substack model." But in terms of ... if you're writing for the reader, it changes the calculus instead of ... if you have to write to satisfy an advertiser or something like that. Nadia (24:20): I was asking just because I think the opportunity I'm seeing is for ... Substack definitely attracts a lot of folks that are focused on some particular niche or community. It feels almost like if I were trying to get my news on a topic that is maybe not super well understood yet, I would want to hear from people that are really deeply immersed in it. Yes, it might be nice every once in a while to get the 60 Minutes special and I can share that with my friends, or whatever. But I don't know that...they're not going to really have that same love, I guess, that this research and reporting. Nadia (25:03): There's some mental Venn diagram ahead, I guess, of topics that are rapidly developing and then topics that are not well understood. There's this really great opportunity to be a curator and a go-to person in that space where, yeah, if you're writing about a topic and tons of people are getting interested and not many people know about it, being the dedicated go-to person in that space is really valuable. Zach (25:28): Totally. Nadia (25:29): Something from your about page, it always sticks in my head. You said something about like, "Don't destroy your dopamine system looking for the light. Let me destroy mine on your behalf.” and I just feel that really speaks of the value of curators for these topics. Zach (25:45): Yeah. That's a good way of framing it. One of the things that is a constant, I don't want to say struggle, but an interesting thing to think about is what level of knowledge am I assuming of the readers and how much explaining needs to go into something? Which is just inherently I don't think there's ever going to be a definite answer to that question, but it's something to use for what I'm calling the Trip Report Pro, which is the paid subscribers, which goes out on Monday and Friday. It's a little bit more ... or maybe they're all conversational, but it assumes a little bit more knowledge, I think, I try, than the Wednesday post, which goes out to everybody. Zach (26:35): But yeah. Also that idea between curation and analysis and capture of different ... whether it's an article that was written or news event or topic, I mean, that's something that I'm constantly retooling and rethinking, and it's virtually different for every time I sit down to write. But yeah, I agree. I don't think I would be able to jump around from different industries or different topics and do it as frequently, for sure. Like diving into something that I've never learned about for two days to publish on deadline would be a real challenge for me. Yeah. I completely agree. That's a good way of thinking about it. Nadia (27:30): What is your community of readers? Can you tell us a little bit more about the types of people that subscribe to The Trip Report? You were talking a little about that difference between people that pay for it versus people that might be wandering in. Zach (27:40): I remember I was listening to, I think, an interview of Robert Cottrell, who writes another Substack called The Browser. He had a great insight where he was like, he asked you guys to not show him what people are clicking on. I have that same perspective of people. I get emails from readers. I connect with people in that way. I've had a number of conversations and Zoom calls and it's been really fun to get to know people that way. But it's a really small percentage of the overall readership. The dedicated readers, the people who are paying for the pro subscription, they're working in this space. They're attorneys, they're scientists, they're clinicians, they're people who have money on the line, who are investors. They're executives at the companies that are forming, on the one hand. Zach (28:46): Then there's, like I said, this fanatic ... fanatical maybe as a pejorative. But they're really into it, and they're super fired up about these questions, and what's going to happen, and how it's going to go and what does the future hold? There's a neuroethicist from Oxford, who's getting his PhD at Oxford, who's one of the early readers. There's a handful of pharmacy students and pharmacists who are interested in this because that's going to be a really interesting area of how this interacts with the pharmacy portion of the value chain in pharmaceuticals. Zach (29:36): It's pretty wide, I would say, of the ... and then, I really ... unless people have reached out or I've taken the time to Google them, I know there's a lot of people who I just don't know. But that's also cool, because I presume it's a pretty wide swath of people. Nadia (30:02): Do you talk to other folks that are ... I assume you do ... who are also involved in the psychedelic community? Where do you feel you get your trusted sources of information? How are you sharing this information? Do you have systems around reading the news or certain places, certain people you're talking to? Zach (30:24): I'm working on this. This is an evergreen topic of the process of collecting information, reading through it, distilling it, trying to figure out what interests me, what's looking to be turned into an article or a post or what headline deserves to be mentioned? I don't have a great system. I'm definitely not doing reporting. I'm not a journalist by training. I don't claim to be. Although I was just asked to write a piece for another ... for an outlet called Lucid News, which is another publication dedicated to psychedelics started by people who have been in this space for a long time and that was a really nice vote of confidence. I'm going to be doing some reporting where I actually reach out for quotes and check sources and stuff like that. Zach (31:26): But really, I'm flying by the seat of my pants to be honest with you. I collected. I got my Google Alerts. I scroll through social media. There's a handful of people who I have regular email back and forth with or phone calls just to check in and see what's going on and touch base. I would love to be more organized, because I'm up until 3:00 in the morning, too many nights a week trying to get this out and proofread. My sleep is definitely taking a toll. Zach (32:10): But I think that there's some value in working with the garage door up, I think is the phrase, that you’re kind of learning on the fly, showing your work. Actually in the last post, I said, "I appreciate your patience with the nature of this." I'm trying to figure it out. Not that anybody has complained or anything, but it's something I'm conscious of. Nadia (32:36): I think bringing out that side and showing that transparency and honesty is really appreciated by people because they know that you're doing all this work to bring them only the best stuff. I mean, you share. You mentioned Robert from The Browser, and I think it might have actually been another Substack writer. Gosh. I want to say it was Dan Shipper. I'm not sure. Someone who had interviewed him about his process. I think the title of the article was something like “The Man Who Reads 1,000 Articles a Day” or something ... some really crazy number. I'm sure I'm misquoting it now. But it just has stood out to me as this image of someone who is reading like a thousand or thousands of articles every day to only surface a few of the best things to someone else. Nadia (33:28): When you see that that process is happening regardless of how it's organized or what exactly they're doing, as the reader you’re just like, "Wow. I'm glad you are destroying your dopamine system on my behalf. Thank you. Please take my money." Zach (33:44): Yeah. I guess, there's a saying, "Only the paranoid survived" and I'm operating with that principle of ... I don't know what's too much. I don't know. I have this. I want to keep some space between the input and the feedback in the sense that I want to continually push the boundaries of my capacity to do it. Not to blow my own whistle. But it's like, when people reach out and they're like, "Dude, this is awesome." It's the greatest feeling in the world. But it can also eat away at the quality, if that makes sense. You can't get lazy with it. Zach (34:33): I feel I'm fighting that in some ways because it's just a ton of work and it's chaotic, and it's emotionally taxing. It takes a lot. I want to make people laugh and have an insight and have fun with it and there's a lot of work. When you're feeling lousy or bombed in, it's even tougher. Nadia (35:01): I think maybe one of the secrets to writing consistently is just it's a lot of emotional management. I've felt that with my own writing. I hear it from a lot of other writers ... and everyone comes up with these adaptive strategies. A lot of people, myself included, do just put up that mental wall where it's great to know that people love things. It does feel so good when someone says something nice about your work, but you don't want to let it get to your head or anything like that. You kind of just put it off in a corner somewhere and put up this mental wall and just kind of go heads down and do your thing and try not to be super affected by how it's being received. Because when it’s good, it’s good. Then when it's not so good, you also don't want to feel at the whim of, well, someone said something bad today. Now I feel terrible. Zach (35:49): Totally. Nadia (35:50): For me, it's hedging against ... it's nice when for the most part, you only hear positive things. But I don't ever want to feel that one comment can destroy my day tomorrow. Zach (36:01): I mean, that was ... I guess I didn't appreciate looking in on people whose podcasts and writing and stuff that I respect and admire. The effort that goes into it, I would say as a passive reader, which is how I consider myself up until I started writing newsletters and making an attempt at this kind of thing, and people actually reading it and paying attention to it. It can be challenging, for sure. I didn't anticipate that. Nadia (36:42): Can we talk about how you grew your list, because one of the reasons that I want to have you on this podcast was it, at least from my perspective looking in ... I mean, really you started, as far as I can tell, last fall, and you really just started from scratch. I just sort of have this mental image in my head of you being like, "Screw it. I'm going to start my own thing, and just start typing for no one for a while." Nadia (37:05): You've had this amazing success story of just growing your list and growing an audience with what feels just one thing at a time. As far as I could tell, you don't really have a social following or a preexisting audience that you were drawing from, and you're just like a mysterious figure online. How did you grow this list from nothing? Zach (37:30): Thank you. That's really nice of you to say. I'd say I started writing and I wanted to commit to being... authentic, is not the right word, but I wanted to have fun with it. You want to have fun with it. You want to ... like the term bleed on the page. I think it's Nietzsche who that quote is attributed to. But you want to leave it all out there. Zach (38:00): I grew up playing soccer and the term "leave it on the field" is a phrase of just give it your all kind of thing. What I mean by that is as a self-learning tool, which is research for your own interests, it has a different, I don't know, feel or whatever than if you're reading something from just another, I don't know, run of the mill article or something like that. I started with that in my mind. I didn't want to sway from my weird sense of humor, and memes, and inside jokes, and stuff like that, and cursing. I will curse and I haven't gotten any complaints on it when there's an F bomb in there. Really people who are professionals in the world are okay with it. That's a nice thing to realize if anybody's thinking about that. Zach (39:03): I started writing and I started sharing it on LinkedIn, and in Facebook groups, and then really rudimentary psilocybin, #psilocybin or #psychedelics in Facebook groups that are related to it. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell my partner. I didn't tell friends because I didn't want to ruin it, which I think can happen. It’s like, “Oh, what happened to your newsletter?” “Oh, I gave it up. Sorry.” I didn't want to put that pressure on me. I didn't tell my fiancé until I had 200 readers, until it was real and people were sharing it. Zach (39:54): Anyway, to get back to the story. I was just sharing in appropriate groups in Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn. That's just how I got the first maybe 200 to 400 or maybe 300 people. Then I stopped sharing it all together. Social media is a weird place. I don't know how to navigate it. I feel much more comfortable in the confines of a newsletter. The medium of the newsletter, where you're going to somebody's email is really ... it makes sense to me. I get it and I love it. I just can't stand—my palms sweat when I'm trying to think of a tweet that goes out to whoever. It's just been word of mouth. I mean, people share it. You can see how many times somebody has opened a Substack email. It’s just been that people share it. It's been word of mouth, which feels really gratifying. That was intentional. I wanted to stop promoting it just to see what would happen. Zach (40:59): Then occasionally, there's been a bunch of webinars and Zoom conferences and stuff like that. It's getting really nauseating. But occasionally somebody who's presenting will mention it. If I'm there, or if somebody's there, and they throw the URL into the chat, on the Zoom chat or something like that, there have been some good upticks... 50 readers all at once that was pretty cool. A CEO of one of the emerging companies told everybody to go read The Trip Report. I happened to be watching. I just put the URL into the chat and then just watched all these subscribers come online. It's pretty cool. Nadia (41:44): What was writing in the early days like, when you're writing for 10 people or whatever and trying to put together these high-quality posts, but then also feeling people aren't reading it. How did you mentally power through that time? Zach (41:59): My inclination is to say I listened to every episode of the Season One Substack podcast, because there’s so much wisdom in there from people who have done this. I was committed to ... I remember Bill Bishop talking about it, and Nick Quah and Luke Timmerman in particular. They just described the life, the type of career and work that I wanted, which is poring over a topic that you're super interested in, and passionate about, and capturing some of that value. I felt I had been doing that just in terms of reading stuff and thinking about stuff, whether it's acupuncture, whether it's pain science, whether it's psychedelics, whether it's Premier League Soccer. I was like, "Gosh, these guys are just doing it and it's awesome." Zach (42:51): Then Jessica Lessin had a good point where she was just like, "We picked up the phone and we started reporting. I knew that I had this goal in mind of doing this work." It was actually really liberating when no one is reading it because you can be more of yourself. There's less consequences of misspeaking. It wasn't until I had, what I thought was a huge following, because I never did this before that I got really tense. I got really nervous about it. Zach (43:27): The early days, it was so much fun. I mean, it still is so much fun. But it didn't have some of the pressure that comes along with it as it grows. It's amazing. Nadia (43:40): It's so funny. That's so true now that I'm really thinking about it. I feel now I really romanticize the earliest days of blogging for me where I go back on some of those posts. I'm like, "I would have been so embarrassed to publish something like that now." Careful. Zach (43:56): Yeah. For sure. Nadia (43:58): But it's so liberating then because no one's really paying attention. You're really just saying whatever you're thinking. You have to be like ... or you don't have to be. You should probably continue to think that way. But it gets a lot harder when more people are- Zach (44:10): It gets harder, for sure. But imposter syndrome is a great tool. I mean, most people are ... or I myself have held back from doing anything in any of the areas of interest that I've had throughout my life or career, whatever, just because, "Oh, well, I need to go to school to do this." But if you can use imposter syndrome when you're writing your newsletter, it's a great tool because it forces you to think about what you don't know, and use that to flesh out the questions of what you don't yet understand. That's great fodder for, at least, what I'm trying to do. Nadia (44:50): It speaks to ... you mentioned this a little bit throughout our conversation, specifically, this idea of just learning. It's something that you're doing because you're deeply interested in this topic and you're trying to learn it for yourself and you're trying to make sense of it. Then you put that on paper, and then maybe other people benefit from it. But there's so much intrinsic motivation there as well. Zach (45:08): I mean, it's a labor of love, for sure. But yeah, it's been so rewarding. It's been so much fun. I never thought I would be able to do this. I have, by any stretch of the imagination, it hasn't reached where I needed it to be to make this a full-time thing. But yeah, it's been awesome. Nadia (45:28): Is there anything you would have done differently from the early days of trying to build up your lists just knowing what you know now? Zach (45:36): I had the initial idea in May of last year, just about a year ago, and I started it. We moved from Brooklyn to Maine. I had to start my whole ... get my business up and going here. I took time off there. I wish I kept going. I wish I just kept going through. Because I took maybe a four or five months hiatus from ... and I mean, granted, I only had 10 readers at that point. When I picked it back up it was essentially starting over. But consistency is just the thing and I knew that going in ... I don't know. I'm not comfortable yet with promoting it and marketing it and speaking up for myself, if that makes sense in any way. I'm pretty passive with the calls to action. I'd like to get stronger with that. Nadia (46:35): That’s one, I think totally just also a mental challenge for a lot of folks, of just like, “I'm going to write this and I'm going to talk about it. It's going to be awesome.” That was a little challenging. I will say ... I mean, so we can talk a little bit more about your paid subscriptions as well because you offer ... started offering Trip Report Pro in February. That is just really, in itself, a very bold thing to do is to start asking people for money. I’d just love to hear a little more about why did you decide to go pay to that moment? How did you message that to your readership? Zach (47:12): I started, it was October 22nd or 23rd that I picked it back up with 10 or 15 readers. There's a great little group called Indie Mailer, which is a paid newsletter discourse group that I stumbled upon. Somebody was, "Why wait until you have X number of readers? Why not just start now? People who are going to value it are going to value it." I was like, "That's a good way of thinking about it." Because in my mind, I had this number of how many free readers I needed to get before I turned on to subscriptions. Zach (47:59): But a few things happened. My business, my acupuncture practice was just not going as well as I was hoping. It was pretty slow. We found out that we were pregnant with our second child. I needed to make money. I needed to at least contribute more to the family, because I was spending a lot of time doing this. Those are two things that are unrelated to it. But after enough people signed up, I didn't know what a good open rate was. But when you and I talked a few months ago, and you told me what a good open rate was, I was like, "I kind of have that." It was a gut impulse. I think I announced it on February 2nd. Zach (49:00): I just decided, “Okay, I'm onto something. People seem to like it. People are sharing it. People are showing up.” I think that was one of the reasons why I stopped posting it on social media, was to see what organic growth it could have in the absence of my own sharing it. That continued to grow. I thought I was onto something. I thought I had enough conversations with people who I thought were in a position to be willing to pay for it. They could expense it in the company that they're building that's in this exact niche. Zach (49:38): I just said, "We're going pro." As the great Hunter S. Thompson quotes "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," and things were pretty weird. It was like there were rumblings of things out of China about COVID-19. It hadn’t yet hit here. It was very fortuitous timing, because I asked people to come on board a few weeks before that, before that happened. I created a call-to-action. This is what I'm trying to do. Don't burn your dopamine system by crawling the web looking for updates in the psychedelic space. I got you covered. I did that for a few weeks. Zach (50:34): I think I have a call-to-action right at the beginning and then right at the end. Then I started putting it at the end. Because I figured if people had read all the way to the bottom, they might be interested in that. I'm retooling how I'm going to continue to do that. I haven't been as aggressive in promoting the subscriber content. But I've also talked to a handful of people who are like, "Oh, yeah, dude, I keep meaning to do that. I just haven't done it yet." Zach (51:04): Yeah. It was a gut feel and life circumstances, like “I want to commit to this. If I give myself another two deadlines a week, then that's enough motivation to write, and the sooner I start, the quicker I get to this being 100% what I'm doing as a career.” I had the motivation out of that just to get going. Nadia (51:29): Awesome. So bold. I really love it. Zach (51:31): I'm also painfully naive to digital marketing and the media landscape. There's definitely some dumb luck. I didn't know what I was doing. I still don't know what I'm doing. I'm just figuring it out as I go and operating by feel. Nadia (51:46): I mean, it seems to be working well. Your intuition is good. You have one free post a week and then you have two paid ones. Has that changed at all just how you thought about writing for your broader readership and community and now writing for this smaller subscriber base? Zach (52:03): Yes. Yes. I think about this all the time. I think about the business model and how to make it better, and how to create a better product. I feel if we were to translate this into startup sort of speak, I'm still working on the product. It's how I think about it, and I’m not as focused on marketing. I'm doing more referencing and linking back to what I've already written and using that a little bit more. If anybody reads Ben Thompson's Stratechery, he has this uncanny ability to know what he said in 2016 October. You know what I mean? He's able to link that. Zach (52:49): I'm trying to create a system where I can better understand what this bit of news relates to what I've already said about it and written about it. And then what are the larger... themes or concepts or evergreen topics that will be with the space. For example, this concept of open science is an important issue and an important thing for people to understand in psychedelics. It comes from a different domain where social sciences are having a lot of trouble replicating foundational research. This open science initiative was a way to promote more of the methodology and the process of the science, and that's being advocated for in psychedelics. There's an ethos in the space of this open collaboration compared to conventional pharmaceutical stuff where it's very hyper competitive, and you use patents to block competitors and stuff like that. Zach (54:00): Anyway, that's a topic that I want to figure out how to link to with everything that comes through the news. Managing those three buckets of information, I think, I use the paid subscribe subscription posts, Monday and Friday, to write more longform thinking out loud. This is how this connects to this. What just happened to this? Which connects to this topic and this theme is what I'm trying to do. Whereas the Wednesday, for everybody, is I'm just letting it rip with a little bit of that process and more curating news. I guess the short version of that long rambling answer is the Wednesday, the free post is more curation. Then the pay subscriber posts are more in depth analysis, if you will. Nadia (55:02): The more you write over time and the more you develop this personal repository of knowledge and thinking over time, you see common themes and topics develop. It's almost like it becomes more and more valuable over time as that knowledge base grows. Just to wrap up a little bit, given that you're in this very rapidly developing and interesting and exciting world of psychedelics, when you look back at this time, and 10, or 20, or 50 years from now, what role do you hope that publications like yours will have led? Zach (55:34): I'm thinking of it as iterative sense making. We're continually in ... it's circular learning. We're coming back to themes and topics and ideas and processing new information and new announcements and the growth of the space in a way that it's almost an ongoing time capsule, I guess. That's how I think about that. I don't know if that would be a viable way of thinking about it. If somebody is writing a column for The New York Times or The Atlantic or something like that, but I'm hoping that it's one ... if I can turn this into some punctuated summaries of the last six months or a year or something like that, or use it as a reference for writing a book or something down the road. That's how I envision it. I definitely ... You just said 50 years, if I could be doing this in 50 years that would be so radical. That'd be awesome. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Jun 25, 2020 50 min

Substack Podcast #016: Finance with Kevin Muir

We spoke with Kevin Muir of The MacroTourist, a newsletter about trading and investing that aims to make finance fun. Formerly a proprietary trader, Kevin quit his job at a bank in the early 2000s to start working for himself, and he still trades his own capital to this day. Kevin started keeping a journal about trading, but so many people asked for his opinions that he decided to share his writing publicly. Today, he shares his passion for the markets with a loyal following of paid readers, who love his almost-daily updates on his trading portfolio and breezy, irreverent writing style. We talked to Kevin about his motivation to write about markets, how he differentiates his content from others in the finance blogging world, and how he transitioned to a 100% paid newsletter. Links The MacroTourist, Kevin’s newsletter Kevin on Twitter The Reformed Broker on CNBC, a finance blogger who uses Twitter effectively Highlights (04:26) The world of finance blogging (06:06) How Kevin uses Twitter as a tool for blogging (08:23) The start of Kevin’s writing journey and how he grew his readership (15:19) Why Kevin’s writing style is distinct in the world of finance blogs (26:13) How Kevin came to Substack after experimenting with other writing platforms, including WordPress, Squarespace, and Mailchimp (35:02) Why Kevin decided to switch to 100% paid subscriptions (42:27) How paid subscriptions allowed Kevin to learn more from his readers On getting started: The one piece of advice I'd give is, just keep producing content, and it's going to go slow at first. But then the power, as I say, the power of compounding will cause it to accelerate. On keeping a writing schedule: I always tell them [new writers] to write and write on a regular basis, because one of the things that a lot of people do is, they go and they start writing and then they fall off. They don't bother with the discipline of it. A lot of times people are desperate for content, but what they don't want is for you to go away for two months and then you're back for two episodes and then you're gone. So I always told people to make your schedule and stick to it. On giving and receiving from readers: I realized that as people started reading it [my newsletter], it ended up being something I could give, so that I could receive back some information. And that's how it really kind of morphed for the longest time, I said, “I'm just going to write this thing, put it out there, and then I'm going to receive back as much as or all the effort that I'm putting into it.” I felt like it was coming back at me, in more than enough, to pay for itself that way. Transcript Nadia (00:27): You write The MacroTourist, which you described as an almost daily email about markets. From my poking around, it kind of looks like finance with a bunch of memes involved, and very breezy, irreverent style that definitely caught my eye. And it seems like that breezy fun style has also sort of dictated your career path. From what I can tell, you've kind of had a very interesting path of getting here from trading for other people, trading for yourself, and now also writing about trading. So yeah, just diving right into, what is your day job right now? How did you end up here? Kevin (01:02): Okay, well, in the nineties, I actually was an equity derivative trader at a Canadian large bank. And so, what they do is, we sit around and we make markets for institutions like pension funds, and we trade blocks of stocks. And in my case, I actually traded ETFs like index derivatives and other fancy stuff like that. And I was very fortunate because I got that job in the nineties when I was actually...I hadn't yet finished university. And I got the job because, as my boss told me at the time, there was guys better at computers and there was guys better at trading, but I was the right mix of both. Kevin (01:46): And back then there was very little computerized trading. And what I was...I had that ability to kind of bridge the gap. And so, I was hired to handle all the index clients and it was a very entrepreneurial firm. And before I knew it, they had gone from me just covering clients, to me trading for the bank, meaning taking positions, until finally I was the basically head risk-taker for the equity derivatives for most of the late nineties, during the dot-com bubble. Then what happened was our daughter was born and she was born with a heart defect that was fixed at birth. Kevin (02:25): It was one of these things, the wonderful doctors came in and they operated laparoscopically and fixed her problem. But it was one of these moments in life where you kind of sit back and wonder what's important in life. And I decided that there was more than just trading and I wasn't having as much fun because the bank was becoming increasingly like a bank, and less entrepreneurial. So before the market crashed in 2000, I hung up my skates, and I kind of semi quit/retired. So I came home and I thought to myself, "I can go work for a hedge fund or do something like that, but I can also go try trading for myself. And if it doesn't work a year from now, I could go back and work for a bank or a hedge fund and nobody will remember that year." Kevin (03:14): Well, one year turned into two. And then turned into five. And next thing I know I've gone 15 years, just trading for myself with another guy. And during those periods, it was kind of lonely at times. So I started writing a blog, or it was actually more of a journal when I first started, because one of the things they encourage traders to do is write down your thoughts. And people would phone me up and say, "What do you think of the market?" And I would just say, "You know what? Here, I'll send you off what I wrote to myself." And that's how the MacroTourist was born. And for the longest time it was just a free thing I like to... because I don't work for a bank anymore. And because most research is often boring and not very kind of fun to read, I do like to make it a little more fun. So at the very least, I always say to people, "I hope to make you smile." Nadia (04:06): I definitely, going through some of your posts, I was giggling to myself... and I don't even understand finance, so it was great. Your goal has been achieved. What is the world of finance blogging? I don't even really necessarily know, is that the right term that you'd use? There are other people that write like you, but what you're doing is so different. Kevin (04:26): For sure. There are a lot of blogs out there. And one of the things that a lot of people as well do in finance, is that we're big Twitter users, and it ends up being that Twitter is the perfect vehicle for traders and investors, because what you want is basically real time information flowing back and forth. So there's many people that will be on Twitter posting kind of long form, string together 20 tweets that they kind of give their views, and they include charts. And then there's some that go off and actually go and create full-on blogs. There's a very famous guy called The Reformed Broker that's on CNBC, and he originally started as just a broker that wrote a blog, until he parlayed into a million plus Twitter followers, and a job on CNBC. Kevin (05:16): So it's definitely something that's out there. One of the problems that occurs is that anybody who works for a large firm is often hindered by compliance. Compliance basically means legal sign off, because if you're registered as an investment advisor, it's difficult for you to write. So there's a whole slew of guys and women very similar to me, in that they don't work for anyone but themselves, and are posting information out there like my blog. Although I would say that my style's a little unique, the fact that I'm writing a finance blog is by no means unique. Nadia (05:57): Did you.... because it seems like you're somewhat active on Twitter as well, did Twitter come before blogging? Did blogging help with Twitter? Kevin (06:06): No, so I hated Twitter. When I first turned on Twitter, it felt like a fire hose coming at me and I didn't really understand how to use it. And then for the longest time I would write my blog, and I would just put a link to it on Twitter just because I felt like I had to. And then I noticed that some guys would be taking my blog, and taking a couple of charts from there and putting a little sentence or two on it. And they would be getting all these retweets and all this information. And I realized that it was kind of a tool that I could use to promote myself a little bit. And it is frustrating, Twitter is, it's a great tool and then it's also a great kind of almost drug, that you have to be careful of, because you can find yourself getting sucked into a lot of holes that waste a lot of time for no productive use. Kevin (06:57): So, the way I use Twitter is, originally, it was just a way to get my brand out there. It's still that way. I do say that having a large Twitter following is actually beneficial to traders, because when I need some information or interested in a point of view, I might just throw it out there and say, "Hey, does anyone have this report?" Or, "Does anyone know what's going on with this stock?" And it's really quite helpful that way, Twitter. Nadia (07:30): Do you find that the people you're talking to on Twitter are similar to the people that are also following your blog, or is it different sort of? Kevin (07:35): So I have a lot more people that will follow me on Twitter than the blog. So I do find that they are often different, but there is also some huge overlap, but Twitter ends up being a little more fast moving information, where the people that are reading my blog are probably not the type that are interested about every tick and staring at Twitter all day. So, there's kind of more traders that are glued to screens, I would say on Twitter, and then on the blog it would be more, there's still some traders reading it that way, but there's a lot more kind of serious, longer term investors. Nadia (08:16): If you started writing before you're using Twitter, how did you get anyone to read in the first place? How did you end up growing your audience? Kevin (08:23): Well, so when I first started writing, I just... as I said, I wrote it for myself, and I just ended up putting it out there because a couple of guys asked for it. And then I said... they kept phoning me back and saying, "Can you send me what you wrote today?" And I said, "You know what? I'll just put it on the internet." And although I had always kind of in the back of my mind said, "It'd be great, if I could do this kind of, and actually people would read it." It was never originally something that I set out to do. Kevin (08:57): And there hit a point where after doing it, I realized that it was actually, people were reading it and it was just getting passed around kind of by word of mouth, that I kind of understood that it was not only could it eventually be something like what it's turned into, a letter that people pay for, but it was also a great tool in the meantime to network and to learn about markets, and to be able to talk to different people. Kevin (09:23): So I really used it as a communication tool, because one of the problems was, when I used to work at a big bank, people would give you a fair amount of kind of just, I don't know, respect is the right word, but at least you had a certain sort of authority because you worked at a bank. When all of a sudden it's just a couple of guys sitting around an office banging around SMPs, it doesn't actually air itself to somebody that, if you wanted to talk to an economist at a bank that anyone would bother talking to you. So, I realized that as it kind of, people started reading it, it ended up being something I could give, so that I could receive back some information. Kevin (10:03): And that's how it really kind of morphed for the longest time, I said, "I'm just going to write this thing, put it out there, and then I'm going to receive back as much as all the effort that I'm putting into it." I felt like it was coming back at me, in more than enough, to pay for itself that way. And so in terms of, how did I do it? It's just slowly. I still remember going from 100 to 200 Twitters and I remember it crossing in a thousand. And I'm sure for... I don't have that many really, when you look at people with a hundred thousand or a million. But it’s just kind of one of those things that the power of compounding just ends up working. Kevin (10:44): And one of the advice I always give people when they say, "How did you go about doing it?" I always tell them to write and write on a regular basis, because one of the things that a lot of people do is, they go and they start writing and then they fall off. They don't bother with the kind of discipline of it. And so people want to... a lot of times people are desperate for content, but what they don't want is for you to go away for two months and then you're back for two episodes, or three episodes and then you're gone. So I always told people to make your schedule and stick to it. Kevin (11:17): And in fact, when I first started, I forced myself, at a certain point when I realized it was real, something that I wanted to develop, I forced myself to write every day, no matter if I didn't have anything to write about, I just figure out something to write about. And I remember reading Jonathan Coulton, he’s this kind of independent music guy, and he did an experiment where he forced himself to write, I can't remember, it was like 52 songs in 52 weeks. And he just... he would put it out there for free, and it was something. And I kind of took inspiration from that, because nothing like a deadline of having to write something and publish that day, to force you to come up with some ideas. And not only that, it ends up making you a better writer. Nadia (11:59): So true. I find myself often telling other writers also, consistency is the most important thing and it sounds really boring, because it just means you have to get into it for a while until someone notices. But it's when people start following you, they want to know that they're going to keep getting something. And personally, I only commit to a monthly newsletter because I can't bring myself to write every day. They really admire that. I think it's like, I imagine if you're writing everyday kind of takes the pressure off too, because you're like, "Well, if this one's okay, then maybe the next one's better or something like that." Kevin (12:29): Well that's true. You're absolutely correct, that if you do, you're going to have some doubts and then you're going to have some great ones. And the other thing that I've found over the years is, I can't even predict my good ones. Like the ones that seem to resonate with people. There's ones that I have spent ages on, worked hard on, thought, "This is the greatest thing I ever write." And then I send it out there and it's crickets. And then there's something else that I just kind of have a whim and I just polish off something, and it's all of a sudden, everyone's going like, "Oh, that's so amazing. It's so like a different way to think about it." So, it's difficult and I completely agree with you. Just the discipline of doing it, whatever your timeframe is, whether it's a monthly, weekly, daily, just do it and do it consistently. Nadia (13:09): Do you ever feel like... I guess, who is agreeing to get an email every single day for me in their inbox? Kevin (13:17): I don't know. Well, maybe it's different, in finance we get inundated with tons and tons of research emails. So, it's actually not that unusual to have somebody write every day. And in fact, there are guys that are right on, even way more than every day. So, it's really... like when we go look, if you were what's called a buy-side trader, meaning a client that's getting serviced by all the big brokers, your email, you might get 500 emails in a day. So, one of the things that I was always amazed about, is that when I would go look at people that would take the time to read it, I was always thankful and very appreciative, because I understood how much competition there was out there, and how many other people were reading it. So, that's one of the things that I never want to take for granted, because there’s so many different people out there that offer such great products, great services and stuff like that. So you should always be appreciative of the people that spend the time to read your stuff. Nadia (14:25): It kind of takes me back to just thinking again about your writing style and again, not having read a lot of other finance things, but it definitely stands out and it's definitely memorable, because it is just so fun and light and easy to read. And you were saying that, when you went sort of more independent, you had room for yourself, it was another way to help build credibility, which I think is so true. Like when you don't have a company, brand or something behind you, then it's sort of, well my writing and my voice is sort of like your portfolio and builds your credibility, is a culture of people that are into your stuff, I guess I'm sort of surprised that on the one hand it's sort of building your credibility. On the other hand you have this incredibly irreverent style. And so, is it just that people enjoy reading that sort of humor? Do you think like... are you operating in a more buttoned-up kind of world? Is it a corner of finance that's a little bit less buttoned-up? Kevin (15:19): So, I would say that most finance is less buttoned up than it seems. And especially on the trading side, in fact you would almost argue that there are a bunch of bores, and this is more how you would talk, like how you would speak to each other at bars and how when your traders are speaking. And so one of the things that I guess my writing is also more real. It's almost like the difference between seeing an essay that you hand your professor versus a note you send to your friend. And that's kind of how I would say... and one of the things I will say, is that I've noticed a change in style. So when I first came up with, I put a picture with a meme on the front of each and every one of my posts. Kevin (16:11): And I took that idea from another guy's blog in Canada, that wrote kind of a real estate blog, but he didn't put any kind of... he didn't tie it into his article and he didn't put any writing over it. He just took a funny picture and put it at the beginning. And I thought, "Well, that's a great idea, but really you should tie it in and try to figure out a way to make it kind of feed into the article." And when I first did it, it was something that very few people in finance, I don't think I'd ever seen apart from this one guy's real estate blog, I'd never seen anyone do it. Kevin (16:41): And I've noticed that there's more and more people doing it, and to the point where you're even seeing banks and they're kind of the last to do it, they're doing kind of more funny things. So like that, I definitely kind of sense a different tone in terms of, people have become less buttoned-up and there's less formal writing style. And the whole world is going more casual, and finance was probably one of the ones to be last to do that. But I do definitely notice that there's been a trend in that direction. Nadia (17:14): Has anyone ever been surprised when they meet you in real life versus you in writing stuff? Kevin (17:20): Well, so my wife always tells me, she says like, "You don't swear in real life. Why do you swear in your thing?" And then she always says, "It's almost like you're trying to be cooler on the writing than you actually are." So she definitely kind of laughs at me about that way. And I don't know, other people read it and they say, "Oh no, that's just like Kevin." So I don't know, maybe I portray something different to my wife than to the guys on the trading desk. But I do think that it's... I think people find it refreshing, because it's definitely more honest and more real than most writing that they're getting. Nadia (17:59): I can definitely see it also just being the kind of thing that people want to share around, and talk about and forward to their friends and things like that. Do you feel like you have a sense of this point of... how did your list grow to the size that it did? How are people finding it now? Is it now that you do have a more active Twitter presence? Is it through that, how do you find subscribers? Kevin (18:23): So I do also a bunch of... I have a podcast, there's a bunch of different media type, alternative media finance stuff. And I was lucky enough to get involved in that, and people would phone and ask for me to appear on their podcast. And I remember I was so scared the first time I did it, and I stumbled, and I thought to myself, "I'm never going to be asked again." And then luckily enough, they took pity on me and they asked me to come back. And I just... for the longest time I said to myself, "Just keep doing it until you get better at it." Just like my writing, I felt like the same way, I was like, "Keep doing it until you get better at it, and you will get better. It's like anything else, you practice long enough and you get better at it." Kevin (19:08): And I forced myself, people would see it and I'd force myself to say yes to radio interviews. So I remember I would go down, and it didn't matter if it was a Saturday morning show, that probably only 200 people were listening to. I forced myself to do it, just so I would get practice speaking. So I've been lucky enough to have a presence in this kind of alternative finance community, that's helped me with getting exposure. And so, that's one of the big things. And the Twitter, I kind of figured by now, everyone that follows me on Twitter, probably knows about what I do. It's not like it's going to be a surprise that they kind of find that I write this letter, but it's just... what it does is, every now and then on Twitter, I'll do something. Kevin (19:56): I remember I made this one tweet storm, I was on vacation, I had this real big view about something and I made this tweet storm and I made it funny. It's kind of almost like one of my letters, but I did it on Twitter and it went viral. It just got over a hundred thousand people passing it around. And all of a sudden, somebody that had a radio show on SiriusXM, asked me to come and talk about it. And so I went on to that, and then it just kind of, then you get more and it just kind of builds on itself that way. So, the one piece of advice I'd give is, just keep producing content and it's going to go slow at first. But then the power as I say, the power of compounding will cause it to accelerate, and then all of a sudden your first from 100 to 200 Twitter followers is tough. But then from 1000 to 2000 is actually almost easier. Nadia (20:54): It's interesting to think about all these different interviews, or sort of public artifacts that you're leaving around. It's like people end up finding those later, right? Like someone is probably always discovering some interview you did that was pretty popular. And so every time they find that, it's almost like a passive income for getting more subscribers or something because they're just littered around the internet. Kevin (21:15): Right. And you know what the problem is? I did this one, it was called Interview With Traders, and I am hesitant to say, because everyone's going to go listen to it. And it was one of my first ones I did and I really wasn't very comfortable. I didn't know how to speak properly. Not that I'm great now, but I was really bad then. And I just... even now, I cringe as I think about it, but I didn't realize it. When afterwards I asked the fellow, "How many people do you have listen to this?" He goes, "I don't know, 60, 80,000." I was like, "What?" I was like, "I just spoke to a football field. Right?" Kevin (21:47): And to this day, I still have people coming to me and saying, "I just stumbled upon your interview chats with traders." And I completely agree with your analysis that those kinds of things, when you get those opportunities, it stays on the internet forever. They say, what goes on the internet never leaves and stuff. I guess, there's terrible things when something bad stays on the internet, but there's also good things when something good like that stays on the internet. Nadia (22:15): Do you ever find that you hit plateaus with growing your lists? You were saying, 100 to 200 is hard, getting from a thousand to thousands is easy. Is there a point where just like ... I think we've talked a fair amount now about how to get your first hundred subscribers on it, because it comes from friends and family and you're sort of just passing things around, but then sort of that longer term growth, was there a point where you were just like, "I don't actually know how to get more people coming in?" Kevin (22:47): I didn't actually think about it like that. I just kept thinking about doing what I do, and I just thought, "Okay, I'm going to do things that interest me and I'm going to continue doing it and hopefully it interests other people." And I just always would say yes to any opportunities and it's definitely lumpy. It doesn't come in a nice smooth, steady plateau, like that one chance freak, tweet storm that I did that. Then I got on to SiriusXM and I was shocked. My Twitter exploded, my followers exploded from that. You'd be surprised. I might've been sitting around kind of incrementally going up, up, up a little bit, a little bit, a little bit, and then there's this one opportunity and then all of a sudden, boom, it accelerates from there again. And now it’s sideways again, blah, blah, blah. Kevin (23:31): And then the next thing will happen. And maybe one day it'll stop growing, and they'll plateau. And that's so be it and that's life. But at the end of the day, I don't actually sit around trying to do that too much because the way I operate it, I write stuff that I would like to read. And I'm almost just doing it for myself, and then hoping that I'll find my audience that also likes to read it. And I really think that's important because there's lots of times that I've kind of been tempted because I've seen, "That article there, if I did that, I bet you I could get a lot of people that would follow me." Kevin (24:12): But then I wouldn't really be doing it, things that I'm truthful for and it's not something that would be really me that would be almost like a business that's like, I don't know. I wouldn't want to have my name on that. I don't know how to describe it, but I want to do stuff that I'm proud of, that I believe in. And hopefully, if I keep putting it out there, people will find it and other people that kind of feel the same way as me. I'll find my audience. Nadia (24:37): I really love that. I think it's also, I feel like having that sort of attitude is what will keep people writing in the long-term as well. Because once you're... if you're thinking about in terms of, well what am I going to do, that's going to get a big hit? Or what are we going to do that other people are going to like? Versus, "I like doing this thing, and I'm just going to keep doing it and write the things that I want to read." And you could do that indefinitely. Right? Kevin (25:00): Right, yeah. And if my list goes down, like so far I've been lucky that it hasn't, but if it goes down, so be it. And those are my crew. And those are the people that I'll write for. I can't tell you how many times I've been writing. And I'm glad that you find it fun, because I also find it fun and I'm laughing as I write it sometimes, in there thinking about it, I'm like, "I'm making a funny picture." And it just makes me laugh, and I just, I get joy from it. And ultimately, I think that comes through. I think people see that I enjoy doing it and that's important. And above all else, I don't want it to be a job that I'm like, "I got to write again." Nadia (25:37): Right. Kevin (25:37): And the moment it does that, I'm probably not going to be writing stuff that people really want to read. Nadia (25:44): Yeah, I love that. And curious, you've been writing since before Substack existed. And now you're on Substack. But when you started, it sounded like it was something you were doing for friends. And so, I guess sort of from an infrastructure perspective, what were you using to ... at what point did you even start collecting email addresses, and how did you start managing that? And then, at what point did you decide to move over to Substack? Kevin (26:13): Okay. So, you're right. I've done a variety of different platforms. I think, let's go through them all. Probably started on WordPress, moved to Squarespace, eventually went to Jekyll, which is a static blog, and wrote our own... I had my old business partner who would write code for me. Most of the time with the emails, I think I exclusively used Mailchimp. I would tie it into the websites. And so, that was kind of the tool that I used for the longest time, whether it be a WordPress, Squarespace or our own Jekyll kind of statics blog, we would usually send out the emails via Mailchimp. Kevin (27:00): Now Mailchimp is fine when you've got a small little list that you're doing for friends and family. Once you get to a larger number, it starts costing and it actually starts costing a lot. And it's one thing to write and spend your time for free. It's another thing to be sending out this list and shelling out 200 bucks a month, for something that you're giving away. And so, this is one of the things that I found. I was actually, I hit this point where, I kind of was looking for alternatives to Mailchimp, because I found Mailchimp very expensive and not everything I was hoping for in terms of ease of use. Kevin (27:43): And I went and looked, and I experimented with Sendy, which is in a platform using Amazon's email sending, but that's complicated. You had to go make Amazon, kind of, instance in the cloud. And although I did figure it all out, it wasn't something that was easy. Then I went and looked at, there was another one that I can't remember what it was called, Sendmail. There's a variety of different, cheaper ones that I kind of looked at. And I'll be truthful, this is how I came upon Substack. Kevin (28:16): One of my buddies writes a blog on here, and he had sent me something and I liked the looks of the email that he sent and I kind of looked at it and I was like, "What's this all about?" And I read about it, and then I saw that you guys offered the ability to go and to send emails for free. And I thought to myself... And I was like, "You guys said it right there." You said, "Look, if you never charge for your letter you can still send it." And I guess I'm going to end up being proof that your marketing strategy works, because I ended up choosing you guys. That's how it started. Kevin (28:55): I sent you off my list, and I imported it and I started sending, using your Substack to send off my emails because I was looking for an inexpensive way to send it off. When I first sent you the list, I had unfortunately at one point gotten, I don't know how to describe this. Some Chinese like bot program imported, it went bananas one time and my email list went from 10000 to 30000. And then I thought I cleaned it out, but I hadn't cleaned it out properly. And so when I imported it all, and then sent out my first email list, your tech staff looked at it and said, "A whole bunch of these aren't working right." They were going to some weird address. And I was shocked because here I was, I wasn't paying you guys anything and you guys were taking the time to come and say, "Look, there's something wrong here. There's all these crazy bot ones. Why don't we clean this out for you?" Kevin (29:54): And I was like, "I really like these guys. This is terrific." And I was just shocked, because literally I didn't ask you, you guys came and said, "This will work a lot better this way." And I thought, "What a great firm." And so I kept looking, and then I hit this point where I decided I was going to pay for it, charge for my letter. And so I had gone back and forth between maybe using Ghost, which is kind of a WordPress platform, that also includes the ability to send off emails. And I was going and looking at it and then I was looking at the whole, how I would go about taking payments. And then I looked at your solution and I thought to myself, "I've already been impressed with their service. Here it is. These guys seem to really know what they're doing, and I can go and turn this on basically overnight, really easily turn this on. And they'll handle all of the billing and all that stuff." Kevin (30:52): And I think it's more than a fair price. How much you guys take. I think it's completely fair and I thought, I'm giving you guys the benefit of the doubt. I'm going with you guys. So, your marketing of giving this wave, allowing people to send free emails worked completely with me, because I ended up using you in the long run for it. And I can tell you, I've been nothing but ecstatic about the way that you've helped me go through this whole process. I've never charged for anything, so I had no clue when the Stripe payments started coming in. I was nervous about stuff. Kevin (31:25): Somebody emailed me back and said, "No problem." I had some problems with some visas not going through. I emailed, and it was again taken care of right away. It was a wonderful experience, and I can't tell people enough how pleased I've been with Substack as a kind of a model for me. Because one of the things is that, I'm a single in terms of, I don't work for a firm. I just work for myself. And the time, in terms of billing and all that stuff, is really important to me. I don't have time to do all this. And so, I found it a seamless, wonderful experience, and I'm just so pleased that I chose Substack. I know that sounds a little like I'm doing a sales pitch, but it's true. Kevin (32:16): I remember one time somebody said, they emailed me and said, "I see you on Substack. Do you mind if I talk about it?" And I say, "You can talk about it anytime you want, because I'm so happy with these guys." It's been so great from that experience. Listen, I still have, just to show that I do have my complaints. The fact that I have to put Substack in the... I can't have a custom domain. I'm sure you guys hear that all the time. Nadia (32:42): We've heard it, once or twice. Kevin (32:46): So, I will say, that is my one huge kind of... listen, I actually thought about it long and hard because of that custom domain. And I ultimately said, "You know what? I'm going to not bother. I'm going to live with the domain." And I would highly suggest everyone else do the same and not worry about it. But if we're chatting now, here's another vote for a custom domain. Nadia (33:11): It is definitely something we've heard from a lot of people, and something that we're trying to solve. Kevin (33:14): Yeah, fair enough. I get it. There's some bigger issues and it's not easy to kind of do that, but anyway, it's been- Nadia (33:24): Good to hear, despite that you're still with us, which is awesome. Kevin (33:27): Yeah. Nadia (33:27): We're really glad. Kevin (33:28): Listen, at the end of the day, adding a Substack isn't that big a deal. Just for those technically inclined, I just really pointed, I forwarded the domain so that when you do go to my root domain, it actually goes to the root So, it's not like people had to redo their links and stuff like that, it actually can still work. It just doesn't work as clean as it might be. Nadia (33:58): That's all right. Yeah. Because you used to have the which was... you had your blog hosted on a separate website. Right? Kevin (34:05): That's correct. Nadia (34:05): And then you also did your email newsletter through Substack. And then when you decided to go pay it or add paid subscriptions, you decided to just sort of combine those two things together. Kevin (34:18): That's right. I just didn't want to bother, I wanted to keep it all one and the same. And I've been really happy with the whole experience. I find it very pleasing to the eye, and it's easy. It's not too complicated. It's very snappy. Some of the, like when you get a WordPress that has too many plugins and stuff, it very quickly kind of blogs down. I've found none of that. I've had no problems with any sorts of not saving, writing half a post and losing it. That hasn't happened at all. It's been nice, it's clean, and it works. And that's the most important thing. It allows me to spend more time writing, and less time worrying about technology, which is ultimately what I was looking for. Nadia (35:02): That's exactly what we aim to do. I would love to hear more just about, I mean, you decided to launch paid subscriptions, I mean really you just switched completely to paid, pretty recently and so, yeah, I'm curious, after years of writing for free, what made you decide, “screw it, I'm going to go add paid subscriptions?” Kevin (35:23): So, I did it for a variety of different reasons. I guess at a certain point, I kind of felt like, "Okay, I'm offering enough value that I feel like I should get paid for it." So, and I looked at a lot of times, other people would send me notes and say, "Listen, I'm doing this for... I'm making money on this and you're doing this for free. Can you stop it?" They were like kind of mad at me. So, and it was increasingly taking time, and that was the other thing, as I did it more and more, took time. And I found that there was more and more people that were kind of contacting me as I did it. Whereas at first, it was great when they were contacting me and I'm still appreciative of everyone that ever contacted me. Kevin (36:09): But it was getting to the point where I was having... I was becoming overwhelmed with the amount of contact that I had, and I had a choice. I could either just stop, start ignoring people, which I don't really like doing, or I could turn this into a business, which was always kind of my dream and my goal. So, I decided just to take the leap of faith and to turn it into a paid subscription. And so far so good. There's been a lot of long-term, long time MacroTourist readers that were very supportive and I'm appreciative of all those who just immediately signed up. Kevin (36:46): And if they're listening now, thank you very much for your business. It enables me to actually focus more time on it. I feel like my last posts have been better than they ever were, because now I feel like it's a job and I can actually devote more time without worrying about having to make a living as much on the side. Nadia (37:06): Can you talk to me a little bit of your thinking of ... so a lot of writers that add paid subscriptions, also continue to have some free posts, but you went 100% paid and you just said, "You know what, it's just entirely a fee." I think you used the term a fee-based newsletter. What was your thinking on that, of did you consider doing some free posts? Kevin (37:25): Right. So, I did listen to that. In fact I see that you guys actually encourage writers to do that. I chose not to, and I'll tell you why. I also chose to do no discounts. And I know that your system offers discounts, and I just said, "No, this is the deal, I don't want people to sign up for a letter and then feel like, if they waited six months, they would've got a better price." So I committed that there's nobody who's going to get a better price, wasn't going to be offering deals later to get more subscriptions. Kevin (38:07): And then in terms of the free stuff, although I haven't completely kind of eliminated it, I don't think that it's fair to those who are paying for me to do it, in terms of giving it away. And so, it just kind of, it was what made me feel comfortable. It's like I was kind of thinking about it from a point of view of, if I was buying the product, what would I want? And I'd want it to be an exclusive service that I've paid this money for, and I don't want it going out to the other people for a lesser price. Nadia (38:44): Yeah, that was really cool. And I think it makes sense too, given your particular audience. And it sounds like it's... I mean, I love the phrasing of your announcement too, where you started in respecting your readers’ time. It really came from, to me it seemed like it came from a place of understanding what your readers wanted, what they valued, and doing it in a way that was uniquely yours, and unique to your audience. And it seems to be going really well. So... Kevin (39:07): Well, yeah, I promised them, I said, over the years when I've collected the emails, I've often said, "You will not get spammed by me. If you're like, basically, I'm either going to be sending you content that I'm proud of or that's it." And so, when I went kind of pay, I decided to send one announcement. I said, "This is the announcement. I'm doing this, these are the reasons I'm doing it. This is what I hope to make better." And I went through my list of kind of improvements, I was going to make to my letter and then I said, "And I won't be bothering you again with, about this." Kevin (39:43): Because one of the things that really bothers me, as someone who's signed up for these, are those emails that are basically nothing more than just kind of marketing material. And they're kind of half written articles that just end up being teasers, to try to get you to pay for the whole thing. And that just always left me with a bad taste in my mouth. So, I vowed that I was never going to do it. And I've stuck to that philosophy and that promise I gave to my readers. Nadia (40:17): Love that. How did you decide on pricing? People are paying $35 a month, is that right? For ... Kevin (40:24): Yeah, so it's $35 a month or $350 for a year. I looked at other people's, basically the competition and even at that price, some of my buddies that also write letters told me I was too low. I did want to go... I didn't want to start too high. I figured that this is the way I thought about it. I can always raise, I don't want to ever lower. So, I kind of thought I'm going to go to my level, that at that point, if it doesn't work at that price, then I don't want it, then that's, I don't want to do it for money. And so, it doesn't matter. And that's how I looked at it. Kevin (41:05): Now you have to realize though, that my audience is a little more niche than other people, so I'm never going to get the million subscribers. This is just never going to happen for me. It's like I write about very... you have to be very interested in markets to read my letter. And so for me to price at a level where I'm going for a million people, it's just never going to work. I'm just not going to get it. So, I would rather pick something that I think is fair. And as I said, I ended up choosing a level that was comparable. I picked other newsletter writers that do it, and I said, "Okay, that's where they are. I'll go on the lower end." And as I say, I can always increase it later if it's successful. Nadia (41:54): And it sounds like writing for a smaller niche. It's almost like one of your goals. At least from reading your announcement where you mentioned, you're able to add comments now, because before, when you had free posts, you didn't really want random people kind of coming in, or just sort of having this fire hose of commentators, and feeling sort of overwhelmed by reader requests. And so, having this, having paid subscription sort of, it allows you to sort of focus on this smaller audience of people that are more dedicated, I guess. Kevin (42:27): That's for sure. And one of the things that I like to say is, that was again, a reason I chose Substack is I was like, "Look, they have comments. It's easy." And in my post that you read, I obviously, I said why I previously didn't have comments because free comments, there's a very famous website in the financial community called Zero Hedge. And Zero Hedge has got many, many, hundreds of thousands of readers. And he used to go and republish my pieces. And over the years, I would often let a lot of people republish it. I was basically, "Yeah, sure. It's free, more exposure for me the better." And so, when I would go look at the comments I was horrified, and it wasn't just my articles. Kevin (43:13): It was just like, in general, comments, just like, I don't know. It seems to be, it's even worse than Twitter. It was just horrifying. It was like... and although I try not to let it bother me, I'm still human. And so, I never turned on comments because it seemed too easy for the trolls to come out. And so now I was like, "Okay, if somebody's paying and they have an issue with me, then I don't mind them putting in the comments. I don't mind us talking about it as adults and respectful adults." And I think you get rid of all the trolls. And it's not to say people won't disagree with me. I have never had a problem with people disagreeing with me, or wanting to present a different view. Kevin (43:56): It's just those people that almost just seem like they want to fight for the sake of fighting. And generally those people that do that, they're not willing to pay per month for it. So, one of the things was, it was a pleasure to turn on the comments and I've loved it. It's great. And I get to interact, and get to see some feedback and stuff, with my readers and it's been terrific that way. And it's actually, it's been a kind of, one of the better parts of going to paid, is that I've been able to turn on the comments. Nadia (44:27): Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Definitely something we've heard from other writers as well. Kevin (44:32): That's good. Yeah. Nadia (44:34): Yeah. There's something about adding. If you care enough to pay and comment, then you're probably a different kind of person than that. Kevin (44:41): Right, yeah. I just didn't see us getting rid of the trolls, and that's all... that was just basically it, as much as I try to not let them bother me, they just do. And you're just like... and I do have a funny story though, about trolls on Twitter. So a lot of people block on Twitter. And the thing about when you block is that the other guy knows the other person knows that you blocked them. And I refuse to let anyone know that they've gotten to me. So I just mute them. So, meaning that I don't see what they're doing. So they're just kind of yelling at me and doing it. I kind of get a chuckle thinking about them just yelling into a void. Nadia (45:17): Love it. Kevin (45:19): Because if you block them, then they know they got to you. So nobody ever knows who I've viewed it or not. Nadia (45:26): I was talking to somebody who says he does the soft blocking a lot on Twitter, where you just, you force someone to unfollow you. And then they get really frustrated. Because they're like, "I thought I followed this person. And then they keep getting unfollowed." But it's not like blocking. It's like, this person blocked me. Kevin (45:39): I didn't know. You could force unfollow? Nadia (45:43): Yeah. Kevin (45:44): I didn’t know that! Nadia (45:44): I think it's like, you block and then you immediately unblock. I've done it with a couple of people on Twitter. Kevin (45:48): I didn't know that. Nadia (45:49): And then they're not following anymore. So, if you want a new, subtle trolling patrol strategy. Kevin (45:55): That's it, there we go. Nadia (45:58): Yeah, I mean, so just to sort of wrap things up, is there anything you've discovered since getting paid that was surprising to you? Is there anything you're going to change based on reader feedback? What are your plans for the future? Kevin (46:11): Well, has anything changed? Well, there have been some things, unfortunately I went paid right in front of this financial crisis, which is kind of like some people said, "Terrible timing." And other people said, "Great timing." And I will tell you that, I have been completely, unitedly going crazy from the markets, because this is really unprecedented times. It's been a hundred, it's been a century since we've had a pandemic. And the markets just don't know how to deal with it. So it's been very busy that way. Kevin (46:46): And so, I haven't had a chance to really do some of the things that I wanted to do, in terms of putting portfolio recommendations and stuff like that. So, although I've turned on comments and I've done a few other things that I said I wanted to do, my full kind of move into, my kind of end version of my letter is not quite there yet, but having said that, the comments have been very helpful. It makes me understand what people are interested in reading. So, there's been a couple of ideas. I have a list of posts that I want to write, and I kind of just write them down quickly. It's been great kind of... one of the things is that a lot of these people that used to email me and I would take the time to email them back, Kevin (47:30): I said, "Listen, why don't we do this so everybody can read it?" And it’s not just me and you that are conversing, and everyone can gain from the knowledge. Because a lot of times, listen, the people that are reading my letter are often smarter than me, and actually have much more knowledge, especially about certain industries or certain parts of the market. For me, I call myself the MacroTourist. And the reason is that, for those who don't know finance, it's actually a derogatory term. Kevin (47:57): And what it means is, it used to be traders that would come in and just kind of wander into something, not really knowing what they were doing, a big macro trade and then they were tourists, and then they would make a mess and then leave. And so, it was kind of part of myself, making fun of myself kind of style, to call myself that. But one of the things is that, when I write about such a variety of different topics, meaning that, I don't just stick to one topic, I basically work on a whole bunch of different things, that there's people who know more and they might read my letter and kind of comment, and give me ideas or give me some more kind of color, in terms of how it's working. Kevin (48:39): And sharing that with the kind of my reader and my community actually really helps everyone, not just me. So that's, again, why I like the comments so much. And in terms of other things that I'm going to do, no, I actually just... I can't tell you how much I've just been pleased, how easy it was, how great. I'm just going to continue doing what I love doing, which is writing posts and letting you guys handle all the back office stuff. Nadia (49:08): Sounds good to us. Where should people find you if they want to check out and follow your work? Kevin (49:13): Well, so I guess, I should give you my Substack email. I mean, our Substack kind of domain. And so, it's And if you want to follow me on Twitter, you can go ahead @kevimuir. You're from San Francisco, so you know all about John Muir. Nadia (49:32): That's right. Kevin (49:33): And so, I can always tell people from the West, because they always ask me if I'm related to John Muir. Nadia (49:38): And what's the answer? Kevin (49:40): No, you know what? Muir is a pretty common last name, so I don't think so. It is always fun though, going and seeing your woods and- Nadia (49:49): Yeah, you got to pretend ... Kevin (49:51): Yeah, that's right. Nadia (49:53): These are my woods. Awesome, thanks for joining and chatting with me. It's a really great conversation. Kevin (50:00): Well, thank you very much for having me and thanks for the great product. I really appreciate all your hard work, and I look forward to being part of your community for some time to come. Nadia (50:08): Thanks. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Jun 19, 2020 44 min

Substack Podcast #015: International news with Erin Cook

We spoke with Erin Cook of Dari Mulut ke Mulut, a publication covering news across Southeast Asia. Erin started her newsletter early in her career while working for a daily newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia. After she found that broader regional news was lacking, she decided to expand her focus across the ASEAN region. We spoke to Erin about how international journalism has changed over the years, how independent writing helps her be more nimble as a reporter, and why it pays to have friends that tell you to charge more. Links Dari Mulut ke Mulut, Erin’s newsletter Indonesia, dll, Erin’s podcast, co-hosted with Hayat Indriyatno, about Indonesia Ayolah, Erin’s spinoff newsletter covering the Indonesian elections How Walt Hickey of Numlock News expanded to multiple newsletters Highlights (07:37) How international journalism is changing (14:29) Balancing newsletter writing, podcasting, and a weekly column (18:43) Finding and reporting on stories in low-coverage regions (25:29) How she grew her list (27:58) How she thinks about paid subscriptions (34:44) Starting a spinoff newsletter, Ayolah, to focus on the elections (37:21) Subscription pricing for an international audience On covering regions that are overlooked by newspapers: It's hard for the big mastheads to take a punt on a country like Laos or an issue like coronavirus in Laos. But for me, I already know that my audience is interested. They've signed up specifically for news on countries like Laos. So for me it's easy to sneak under the radar and I know people are interested, so it's a no-brainer for me. On the importance of building an audience before charging: can't just be like, "I'm doing this and here's the paywall." No, you do have to establish that very quickly. And if you're someone like Matt Taibbi, he's got his credibility built in. But if you're someone like me, you've got to just hustle it out for a little bit longer than maybe you'd like to. Transcript Nadia: (00:35) You write a publication called Dari Mulut ke Mulut. Did I say that correctly? Erin: (00:40) Pretty close, yeah. Nadia: (00:41) - which is a shortcut to Southeast Asia, you report on news and analysis and features from across the region. Erin: (00:50) Yes. Nadia: (00:50) All right. I thought it was cool that you mentioned the meaning of your publication. Erin: (00:58) It's such a great term, it comes from Indonesia. And Indonesia has all these brilliant idioms. So Dari Mulut ke Mulut literally translates to, "From mouth to mouth," but it's used more as both word of mouth and gossip, so I thought it was perfect for what I was wanting to do. Nadia: (01:16) Yeah, I think it plays really well into this very conversational writing style which you have, which actually feels like someone is just learning from someone on the ground the gossip, but then with a deeper reporting lens. Erin: (01:27) Yeah, well, that's definitely the aim. Nadia: (01:30) It's coming across great. I’d love to hear just a little bit about your background and how you got here. I know you've had experience writing and covering the Southeast Asia region for a while. Erin: (01:40) Yeah, I started the newsletter very early on in the career, actually. I was initially, probably like a lot of Substack users, started off on a Tinyletter years ago. And I was working for, in Jakarta, one of the English daily newspapers there. And it was really interesting to be in what's probably one of the biggest cities in the world in such a fascinating region, and really struggling to find news from elsewhere within southeast Asia. So that inspired it, so I was just reporting on Indonesia, but there'd be all these links between Indonesia and Singapore or Malaysia or the Philippines. But you'd have to go to a Singapore news website to find out more about that aspect, or a Filipino news website to find out more about them. So I really just wanted to bring it all together in one place so it's easier for everybody else. Nadia: (02:36) Can you give us just a little bit of, I guess, context for people that don't live in Southeast Asia? What is the coverage like there right now? Erin: (02:44) No, that's a good question. I'm very shorthand about it now after a few years. So it's based around the ASEAN bloc, which is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is vaguely the European Union of southeast Asia. And that's, I can list them all if you like? Nadia: (03:04) Curious, yeah, why not? Erin: (03:06) Yeah, so we go Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar. And I also include Timor-Leste in there, which is not yet a member of ASEAN, but I really hope one day they will be. So yeah, like to include them in there as well. Nadia: (03:28) So you're in Indonesia but you're covering Southeast Asia. Are there other outlets that do this sort of regional focus? How did you decide where to narrow or expand your scope, since you could be reporting just on Jakarta, you could be reporting on the whole region? Erin: (03:43) I think Jakarta is really interesting because it's home to ASEAN. So it's got the Secretariat there, and the areas that I've lived in in Jakarta is very close to there. So ASEAN is probably more prominent in Jakarta than it is anywhere else in southeast Asia, so that really piqued my interest. I'm from Australia, and we don't really hear that much about ASEAN. So I just followed that for a while, and then was a bit half-interested and half just seeing that there was a gap there that a newsletter could fill. Nadia: (04:23) Do you feel... I guess I'm just imagining if you were a newspaper employing 50 people or whatever, you'd be able to cover an entire region. For you personally as an independent writer, how are you finding new sources and things to write about in areas that you aren't physically in? Erin: (04:39) It's really, really difficult. So I've been doing this now for about four years, I think with the last 2 1/2 on Substack. So the first year was really, I'll never go back and reread old newsletters. It would be a cringe. Nadia: (04:55) Never read your own writing. Erin: (04:55) Exactly. But I've been lucky to be in the region when there have been momentous occasions. So I've been here for huge elections and important movements with the ASEAN bloc. So there's always something happening, and when that's reported on by some of the brilliant journalists from across the region it paints a broader picture of how the region got here. And I'm very lucky that I get to travel so much because of how close-knit ... Well, until recently, of course, because of how close-knit the region is. It's really easy to get from Jakarta to Singapore, to Singapore to Bangkok, or over to Manila just for a couple of days. It feels exciting, everybody wants to talk about what they're covering, what they're reporting on, what they're reading. And just buy a couple of beers and soak that up. Yeah. Nadia: (05:57) I'm picturing almost like really a literal manifestation of the name of your publication. Erin: (06:03) Pretty much, yeah. Nadia: (06:04) Sort of like passing on through word-of-mouth from friends and things in different countries. Erin: (06:07) Exactly. And it's really cool because it just starts up being journalists whose work I've noticed over the years and will go now on my way to ... If I see their byline I'll definitely be clicking on it and reading that. And everybody's so nice and friendly. So just send an email, "Hey, I'm coming to KL," and they'll be like, "Great. See you on Wednesday." Nadia: (06:29) Do you find that process of getting new information and talking to people and having sources, is it different from ... Do you approach it differently as it's your newsletter, you can write about what you want, versus working as a journalist at a newspaper? Erin: (06:44) No, definitely. I think that more traditional ... I've been thinking about this recently as the industry changes dramatically over the last few weeks. I don't think, yeah, it doesn't compare to regular on-the-ground reporting, in that the people that I call up and have quick conversations with are always academics who have covered a particular niche for decades, or other journalists who are just pointing me in the right direction of which books to be catching up on. It's not so much getting out there and talking to regular people, which is one thing that I genuinely miss. And it's not so much ... I don't know, it's not as grinding, which is good. It's not the same, deadlines are self-imposed so it can be a bit more flexible. Nadia: (07:37) You mentioned everything that's been happening in the past couple weeks as you were explaining that. Which obviously can refer to a lot of different things right now, given that we're in the middle of it all. I don't know if you've seen, just because I live in my own bubble of, at least here in the US there's been a lot of talk just about media outlets shutting down and laying off workers and stuff. Is that something that is also being experienced abroad? Is the world of foreign news and journalism different in any way from ... Erin: (08:04) Yeah, from what we've seen, foreign journalism I think probably caught a bigger hit from the more broad collapse of print media in the last decade or two decades, or however long it is now, than it will during this particular crisis. There used to be dozens of foreign journalists in all of the major cities in Southeast Asia, and that's not really a thing any more. Which is a bummer, but on the other side of that, I think we're also seeing Western outlets, and I say that with US, Australian, and European ones particularly, that are a lot more ... And I think it's pushed by editors, a lot more interested and more trusting of having local reporters report on their own countries, which is a brilliant thing for someone like me who wants to really get to know the news. Erin: (09:05) It makes a lot more sense to have someone who's from Jakarta, speaks fluent English and fluent Indonesian, and knows the back story of every politician to be covering Indonesian politics than someone that's just been dropped in for three years and then moved on to wherever else is next. Which isn't to say that there isn't brilliant foreign reporting coming out of us foreigners, I think some of the most interesting stuff comes out of, when you arrive in a new place and you can truly see how different something is. Which I think is a problem that I face when I try to report on Australia. I think it's a problem a lot of people face when they report on their own thing. But I think we are heading into a really, really exciting time for Southeast Asia journalism, where yeah, there's just going to be more and more brilliant local journalists rising. And I think that should be applauded. Nadia: (10:06) This might be a really dumb question, but it's only because I don't know anything about this topic. Why didn't they employ more local correspondents before, or why is that a shift? Erin: (10:17) No, I think that's a fair question, because I think it's probably a diverse answer. So I think Southeast Asia, I definitely can't speak for anywhere else, but because of how ... This is a pretty deep one. Because of how colonialism worked across the region, there are some countries that are much more coveted in speaking other languages, like Singapore's language is English and Philippines, great English because of the Americans. And Malaysia because of the English. But then for countries like Indonesia, where there was, not everybody spoke Dutch anyway and English was great, but it's not at the same level that it is now, it would have been seen as a much better move for desks back in the olden days to send journalists from London or Sydney over to do it and work with local reporters who probably could have just done it themselves, to be honest. Nadia: (11:22) Got it. As I asked the question I realized I was probably walking into a history lesson. Erin: (11:26) There's so much interesting conversations that come out of that, because all around the region, so many of my good friends that I catch up with across the whole place are Thai or Indonesian or Filipino, and they have the most brilliant takes on this sort of stuff. So yeah, if any listeners are interested in that, search out more, because there's a lot of brilliant conversation around foreign journalists, foreign correspondents, and who can do it and who should be doing it. Nadia: (12:00) How are the newer correspondents making themselves known? Erin: (12:06) It's tough because especially in the very, very big cities, especially in Manila and Bangkok and Jakarta, where it's tough to rise to the top just because the pool is so big, but I think the answer is the same everywhere, and it's Twitter, which is for better or worse. Nadia: (12:24) The magical piece, yes. You see so many Substack writers that come in from these other public platforms where they've built an audience on Twitter, or we've seen Instagram, LinkedIn, surprisingly. Erin: (12:40) Oh, whoa, yeah. Nadia: (12:42) Just wherever. So you're building this audience elsewhere and then people are excited and engage with you there, and then Substack becomes this place to say, "Okay, I have a following, I have fans, and come talk to me over here in this more semi-private place." I see it as, one step leads to the other, which is nice. Erin: (13:02) Yeah, no, that's always amazing. Any time I see someone announce their new Substack they'll get hundreds and hundreds of retweets. I'm like, "Damn, all right, go for it." Nadia: (13:14) Yeah, really. More of that's happening lately too, which is great. Erin: (13:19) Yeah. Nadia: (13:20) So you write a newsletter, but then you also have a weekly column, and then you also have a podcast, is that right? Erin: (13:25) Yes, podcast is on hiatus at the moment, just because I've had to come back to Australia and it is pretty crazy over there in poor Jakarta, so we're just on break for a moment. But we'll be back. Nadia: (13:41) Got it. Erin: (13:43) And yet the weekly column with The Diplomat is very similar to the Substack publication, actually, but just with less jokes and a bit more serious. Nadia: (13:55) It's your professional face. Erin: (13:56) Yeah, exactly. Nadia: (13:57) Do you like having this balance of lots of different projects? That's something I really like about a lot of writers. You can express yourself in lots of different ways. Erin: (14:05) It's fun, isn't it? I feel like, what's that thing, you can't half-ass two things, you have to whole-ass one thing? I think I got too excited when I first realized that you could do all these cool things out there. Once I spent a year just working solely on the Substack, that's when it was much easier to turn these other projects into actual things. And it was so much better, actually worked out that time, yeah. Nadia: (14:29) How do you feel about expressing yourself through writing in a newsletter and speaking on a podcast? How do those two things compare for you? Erin: (14:38) Oh, I think it's very different. I think I'm always just going to be a natural writer. It's just easier to self-edit and work out what you're saying. And even with the podcast that I do with my friends at General Media, which is Indonesia dan Lain-Lain, they'll kill me if I don't shout it out. Even then it's very ... I don't know, just very nervous. But when you write you don't have that. You sit in your bedroom, and if it didn't work out you can just restart and send it an hour late. Nadia: (15:14) It's true. I do feel like, I don't know if other people feel this way, but I feel like I can ... So many people are either one or the other of, they really love expressing themselves through words and typing and really love expressing themselves in speaking in person. I tend to get a lot more tongue-tied speaking, which makes writing a lot more appealing. Erin: (15:32) Oh, for sure, for sure. I think it's a total skill to be able to just do that natural-sounding podcast thing. I'm not there yet. I'd like to be there, but I don't know. Nadia: (15:42) We're getting there. Erin: (15:43) Yeah. Nadia: (15:46) And on Dari Mulut ke Mulut you also have different kinds of posts, right? So you have the Monday email that goes out that's keeping people informed about the news, and then you have these dedicated feature posts that you send out. How did you decide on this editorial strategy of different types of posts for different types of readers? How does that work for you as a writer and for your audience? Erin: (16:08) This is going to sound like I'm probably sucking up a bit too much to Substack. Nadia: (16:13) Oh, please. Erin: (16:15) So the Monday one, that's usually really, really long and quite intensive. That takes me a full day to write, and it's still a bit fun, but it is very serious ... Because a lot of the stories, even with the last few months with the pandemic, prior to that a lot of the stories in the region are horrible atrocities. And that makes it really difficult to write about. So things like that, very serious in tone, and that's pulled out for ... That's a premium one for the paid subscribers. And when I was trying to work out how I wanted this to look exactly, it was right at that time that I think Hamish sent out a big email recommending the best way to do it for everybody, the scheduling, where it was something like one premium and then two free ones a week. And that's what I've been aiming for since, and that's been perfect, I think that's worked really well. With the pandemic, though, I'm trying to publish at least three times a week, and that's mostly just free, because it's so important. Nadia: (17:28) Yeah, I'd love to hear more about that, just because the pandemic's affecting a lot of people in different ways. I've noticed you've done more COVID related reporting now. Does it feel like it's just another hot issue that maybe has an extended period of coverage, or does it feel like you're actually having to think about things in a different sort of way? Erin: (17:46) That's interesting, because when it first started, southeast Asia was the first region outside of China to have known cases. So that began for us, I think, in January Thailand confirmed its first case, late January. And then the Philippines was the first death outside of China. So it's a beat that this region's been on for probably a few weeks sooner than New York, but it feels like a lot longer. And initially it seemed like it was just another big, big story and it would be something that I'd be covering for the next few months, but alongside the regular news that we get out of here. And then it very, very quickly just dominated everything. And I don't see it coming back from that for a few more months yet. Erin: (18:43) Which is interesting, because then you've also got some really important stories that are just being totally buried by this that is hard to ... I know it's out there, but you can't find it because the reporting isn't there, which is a bummer, but I understand. So that's part of the reason why I've started commissioning original pieces from other reporters in the region, particularly for areas that are under-reported completely. Because we do see a lot of areas that, they just aren't, there's either horrible media restrictions or they're just seen as too small, too insignificant, I guess, to be covering. Yeah, so I've started commissioning pieces around coronavirus in those sorts of areas to fill that gap. Nadia: (19:39) That's really interesting. I saw that you did one in, I think, Laos, is that right? Erin: (19:43) Yes, yeah, I've got another one from that same writer running today, which is amazing, because Laos is, alongside North Korea, one of the only two media black spots in Asia. Which is weird, because it's still got bigger press freedom ... Larger? I don't know. Stronger press freedoms than Vietnam, but still, that's what that reporter says. And it's just really, really hard to get a real idea of what this pandemic actually looks like out there. Nadia: (20:21) You call them media black spots in the sense that there just isn't enough coverage for the region? Erin: (20:24) Yeah, just nothing coming out of there. They've got, Laos is probably the hardest one to cover. Because there's Radio Free Asia, which has been there for a while, but there's also a bit of ... Some people don't really enjoy having Radio Free Asia speak for countries like Laos, given its history. But at the same time, it's one of the only ones there that can report on some of these huge stories. Laos is integral to China's dominance in the region, and if Radio Free Asia is the only one that's going to do it, or Voice of America, then that's just the way it has to be. Because there's no local media, or at least not large local media, I should say, rather. Nadia: (21:14) Do you think there are ways in which being an independent writer and an independent reporter can be an advantage in this sense? Because I know you said this correspondent is anonymous, which I don't know if that's for specific reasons or not, so without revealing the identity of this person or anything like that, is there an advantage to, "Okay, well, I know someone who lives in this region that's being under-reported, but I have a following, I have an audience, and we can directly pipe this in," instead of trying to go through these outlets that... Erin: (21:45) Yeah, very easy to sneak under the radar. Plus, it's hard for the big mastheads to take a punt on a country like Laos or an issue like coronavirus in Laos. But for me, I already know that my audience is interested. They've signed up specifically for news on countries like Laos. So for me it's easy to sneak under the radar and I know people are interested, so it's a no-brainer for me, I think. Nadia: (22:19) Yeah, that's really cool. Do you, because you are serving readers in a bunch of different countries, even if it is all the same region, do you find that readers are interested in stuff from different countries, or do they just want to hear from their own country? Erin: (22:32) That's an interesting question. I did a bit of a shout-out, well, not a shout-out, I don't know if that's the right way to put it. I sent an email around to premium subscribers last week or the week before, because I noticed that I hadn't sent a premium one, like members only one, for a few weeks, because it's all been coronavirus. And I said, "I want to keep reporting for the premium audience, so what is it that you're interested in? What do you want to be hearing about at the moment?" And it was really interesting that the array of people who responded, I think, is probably pretty representative of my audience. So it was a couple of Australians that have lived and worked in the region for a long time, a few young ASEAN nationals who have studied abroad and have since returned to the region or are still studying, and just a couple of friends, just be like, "Oh, hey, yeah, sounds cool." Erin: (23:34) And that was really interesting, because it was mostly just like, "I want to hear what's happening with human rights, I want to hear about, is there ..." I think we were seeing this around the world, but some not-so-great politicians using the pandemic as a cover to force through some more ... I don't know, some problem ... How do I put this? Some draconian laws, or exploiting this to stamp out and demonize dissidents, which we see in a couple of countries in the region a lot anyway. So this is an easy way to exploit that crisis. Or more about the bloc itself as a body. Which was interesting to me, there was nothing about, "What is it like for expats in Hanoi?" Or, "How do I get home from Singapore?" Or whatever. I really appreciate that my audience is very interested in the region, not in how the region affects them in their own country. Erin: (24:56) And that goes as well for readers that I know are ASEAN nationals. It's not, "How does Indonesia perform compared to Thailand?" Or whatever. It's very, "What is my country's place in this region and what does that look like overall?" I think that's very cool, I'm very grateful for that. Nadia: (25:18) Sort of an advantage of having this regional focus too, that allows you to zoom out and be a little bit more holistic in the stories that you talk about. Erin: (25:25) That's a good way to put it, yeah, definitely. Nadia: (25:29) You mentioned the responses you got as this microcosm of what you see on your list, which reminded me I haven't even asked you, how did you grow your list early on? Erin: (25:39) I know, it cracks me up because it's literally by word of mouth, and that's the name of the newsletter. Nadia: (25:44) Right, everything comes back to the title again. Erin: (25:47) When I first started, and I think I was still ... I don't know, I still think of myself as a bit of a baby journalist, but I was very much a baby journalist then. Less than two years in Jakarta, no idea what I was doing, sort of thing. So I didn't have all that much credibility then. So initially the list was just friends and friends of friends, I think, especially friends like Australian friends, who have studied or traveled or lived in the region. They were particularly interested, most other people weren't. But I think the biggest thing for me was the consistency, to be pumping it out continuously and just getting a bit better at it. Because it's not just getting better at getting it out in time. You just have to know your s t a little bit better each time as well. And that was a tough thing. There is a lot of learning curves when you'll hit 11 different countries, all with incredible histories and incredible presence. Erin: (26:52) And once that started building credibility a little bit, it got pushed by a few people that were really, really helpful. So especially Alan and Richard from Splice Newsroom, which is a Singapore media. They do original reporting about media in the region, or help newsrooms in the region brand membership programs and that sort of thing. And I think having their stamp of approval really helped a lot in establishing that credibility. As well as a few of the think tankers and foreign corrs who have shared it on Twitter. Every time that happened there'd be 100 new people on it, which is good. Nadia: (27:38) Yes, always a great strategy. Erin: (27:42) Yeah. Nadia: (27:44) So you started in 2016, is that right? Erin: (27:47) Yes. Yeah. Nadia: (27:48) And then you went paid, or you added paid subscriptions about two years into that, which I think was around the time you also joined Substack. Erin: (27:56) Yeah. Nadia: (27:58) What made you decide to go ... Erin: (28:00) Well, this is weird, because I started, I hadn't heard of Substack until a very good friend of mine, who used to work for Coconuts Jakarta but has since moved back home to the US, and he started Indonesia Intelligencer with them, which is a paid subscription looking at Indonesia very, very in depth. And I hadn't heard of Substack, and he told me about, and I was like, "Oh, s t, I'm doing that." And I just jumped straight over. And I've since taken over his job, so thank you, Aanant, twice. And I think it got to the point where I was doing so many and I was getting consistent and I was learning so much and I was working very, very hard that it became a bit of a ... I was like, do I really want to be working on this 20 hours a week for nothing? Apart from a bit of credibility when I pitch somewhere? So I think I came to Substack at the perfect time for leveling myself up. Nadia: (29:07) Did you find that there was maybe a trajectory of, you mentioned you started when you were super early in your writing, in your journalism career, and I guess there was some sort of mutual transference of credibility as you were writing more and having this newsletter, and then there is this point, it sounds like, where it was like you've gotten some measure of credibility early on, but then it's this next phase of, "Well, now if I'm putting 20 hours a week into this, then maybe there's something ..." Erin: (29:38) That's it. Nadia: (29:38) Performance. Erin: (29:40) Yeah, turning it into a part-time job as opposed to just something you do. Instead of a hobby, I guess. Nadia: (29:50) Right, yeah, it's just interesting to think about, there's this reputational or credibility benefit that comes, and then at some point it's like, "Okay, I get that, but I'm still putting a lot of time and work into this." Erin: (30:03) Yeah, this is like anti-advice, because I think this is where a few newsletters might go a bit wrong, where it's like there's ... And I love the advice that Substack gives about this, because you can't just be like, "I'm doing this and here's the paywall." No, you do have to establish that very quickly. And if you're someone like, I'm going to say his last name wrong, Matt Taibbi? Nadia: (30:26) Taibbi, yeah. Erin: (30:27) Taibbi. He's got his credibility built in. But if you're someone like me you've got to just hustle it out for a little bit longer than maybe you'd like to. Nadia: (30:39) Yeah, absolutely. I'm really glad to hear you say that, because that's not anti-advice, that's good advice. Erin: (30:44) Good. Nadia: (30:47) Because we see all sorts of people come to Substack, and some people have huge audiences elsewhere like I mentioned, of big Twitter followings or whatever, and then they come here. And this is just the natural next step, and they've already built that audience somewhere, and that audience, some portion of that audience is going to follow them to Substack. Erin: (31:01) Yeah. Nadia: (31:02) But then some people join Substack and are really just starting from scratch and building a list from literally zero. And the way that they need to think about growing their publication is just going to be different from Matt Taibbi or whatever. Erin: (31:20) Absolutely, yeah. And what I really like about Substack is that it's not just like, "Okay, here's your platform, go have fun now." I feel like Hamish is in my inbox more than anyone. And you now. Nadia: (31:31) Mine too. Erin: (31:35) It's not just about ... I don't know, I really, really appreciate that there's so much helpful advice and ideas about how you can build it and work out what it is exactly that you want from it. Because it'd be so easy to just be like, "Okay, this is the platform to use." But I really appreciate that, it's definitely helped me a lot. Nadia: (31:57) Cool, I'm glad to hear that. You're now also being a part of it. Erin: (32:01) Yes, I've made it. But I think that's actually ... More unsolicited advice, actually read the emails from Substack. That helps a lot. Nadia: (32:12) Yes, I will support that as an occasional writer of those emails. Please read our emails, they're important. Erin: (32:17) And the threads, threads are amazing. For one, it's incredible to read what all these different people are doing with their newsletters. Some of them are so obscure and amazing, so much helpful advice from a lot of people that have been in the same position. Nadia: (32:33) Yeah, it's funny, after having conversations with writers we start to hear ... When you said “be consistent” I smiled to myself, because it's something that I've heard a lot of people say, and I feel like it's really an intangible thing, where someone's trying to grow their list and they're like, "What, just keep writing? That's not the answer." But it's like, no, that actually is a huge part of the answer. And it's funny that so many different people arrive on that in their own separate ways, regardless of what they're writing about. It is a really big thing. Erin: (32:59) Yeah. Nadia: (33:00) Yeah, it's funny, I actually just did a thread this morning, today or something like that, and I saw two folks I know, that they each write newsletters about watches, like timekeeping watches. And they found each other on the thread and I was like, "Oh, yay." Erin: (33:14) That's awesome, bringing people together, yeah. Nadia: (33:17) Yeah. So people read about all sorts of things, which is great. Erin: (33:19) Yeah. It's so cool. Nadia: (33:21) How did you decide, you were talking about paywall stuff, so how do you decide which of your posts you're going to make free and which ones are going to be paid? Where the value lies? Or did you experiment with different things before? Erin: (33:32) Yeah, and I'm lucky, I've got a very smart, angry friend who's a businesswoman. So she was really like, "This is what you've got to do." So thank God for her. Nadia: (33:43) Fantastic. We all need a friend like that. Erin: (33:47) Exactly. And it was very clear to me that the ... I think I had to work out what my base was, what my audience is. And the people that pay, overwhelmingly, are people that work somehow in the southeast Asia area. So that's either people that work at think tanks or academics or risk analysts or whatever. They're the ones that pay, so it made sense once I had talked it out with my pal that the really in-depth, long-ass one on Monday, which goes into every big story of every country, would be the one that's actually ... I shouldn't say actually valuable, but the one that people will pay for. And then the side ones are more just stuff that I'm really interested in for one day. So that's just how I broke it down. Nadia: (34:44) I'd love to hear you talk a little bit more about the side projects. You did this spinoff newsletter, Ayolah, that ... Erin: (34:52) Yeah, Ayolah. Nadia: (34:54) My pronunciation here, but just to cover the Indonesian elections, and then it sounded like the elections happened and then you were like, "I'm going to keep this spinoff project to continue to cover other elections," which I thought was cool. We don't have a ton of examples, but I love finding examples of writers that are doing spinoff newsletters. So yes, please inspire other people to do it. Erin: (35:16) Yeah. Well, I liked it, and then the Indonesian election happened, and then that was it. I was like, "Okay, that's the last election for a while in the region." So that's very much on hiatus at the moment. Because last year was a big year. Indonesian election happened around the same time as the Philippine midterms, which is huge, and the Thai election, which was very complicated and messy in a different way. So between the three of them, those elections were taking up way too much space in the regular newsletter. So it just made a lot more sense to just pull it out and do it somewhere else. Because there'd be days, weeks where it'd be like 3,000 words, which is double what I aim for, just because so much happened in Indonesia in the last four days on the election. I'm like, "Oh, God." So pulling it out made a lot more sense. Erin: (36:11) And it's something I want to continue doing, but I don't know. It's going to be weird, we don't really have ... We've got two elections this year, one's definitely happening, one I'm not sure about in Myanmar, and that'll definitely be coming back. Nadia: (36:27) I see, interesting. Erin: (36:28) But that one's totally free as well. I don't think that's worth ... I see that more as feeding people towards the main one rather than a stand-alone side project, if that makes sense. Nadia: (36:42) Right. Erin: (36:42) Yeah. Nadia: (36:43) Yeah, totally. We have another writer, Walt Hickey, who does, he has his main newsletter, which is a data lens on the news, and then he does a whole bunch of different side projects and is very vocal about this being a really great thing. Erin: (36:56) Yeah. Nadia: (36:56) Which I think is a great thing. And he talks about it in a similar way, of these side projects feed in mutual directions back to my main list. And the nice thing about having a main list and then spinning off with a side project is, you automatically have an audience of this side project. Erin: (37:12) Yeah. Absolutely. Oh, all right, I'm going to search him out. Nadia: (37:17) Oh yeah, we actually have a post about it, I'll send it to you. Erin: (37:18) Oh great, cheers. Nadia: (37:21) Where he talks about this. Oh, no worries. And how did you decide on pricing for Dari Mulut ke Mulut? We have a minimum price, but then I'm sure for pricing for different markets that aren't necessarily, they might just have a different scale. Yeah, how did you work that out? Erin: (37:42) No, that's a good point. I started off with the ... I'm not sure if it's still the default, but I started with the $5, $50 thing. And then that same angry, this woman friend, told me to put it to $7 and $70. But that seemed crazy to me so I just split the difference and went $6, $60. Nadia: (38:00) You really split the difference. Erin: (38:05) But I agree, I think pricing people out of the market's a bummer anyway. It's especially so in southeast Asia, where I don't want southeast Asian people to not be able to read about their own region. So I've left it at $6, but any national from an ASEAN country or Timor-Leste under 30 gets a free subscription. So that just worked out easily for me. Nadia: (38:35) And I saw student subscriptions as well. Erin: (38:39) Yeah, and that's also, I think somebody at ... It's always funny, I can always tell when somebody at a university's mentioned it because I'll just get 40 requests all within an hour. I'm like, "Oh, great, Hong Kong University's given me a shout-out, cheers." Nadia: (38:56) Do you know how they're giving you ... Is it they're sharing it somewhere in a publication? Erin: (39:01) I don't know. Sometimes I ask, because some people are ... I don't know, sometimes students seem a bit scared, like, "Hello, I am so-and-so and I study this." I'm like, "Oh, thanks." And sometimes they're a bit more chatty and I'm like, "Hey, where did you find out about this?" And they'll just tell me. And usually it's just been shouted out in a lecture or something like that, Facebook groups. Nadia: (39:24) That's great, again, speaks to the power of word of mouth. Erin: (39:26) Yeah, totally. Nadia: (39:29) So you've been writing the newsletter for a long time, well before they were cool, which I think is awesome. Since newsletters have become this more of a trend and more of a thing that people understand in the past year or two, how have you seen things change? Did you find that people thought or talked about your newsletter differently early on? And has it changed your writing style at all as expectations have changed? Erin: (39:54) Yeah, I think people have stopped calling it an email blog now, which is cool. Yeah, and I think there's a lot more ... I talk about this all the time. Isn't it so weird that email is cool now? Do you remember five years ago getting an email and you're like, "What is this?" Nadia: (40:11) People thought email was dead, they're always saying it's dead, but right now it's definitely not dead. Erin: (40:15) No, it lives again. Yeah, it's interesting to see that people are so willing to pay for an email newsletter. I didn't really think that was a thing, but yeah. I don't know. Nadia: (40:34) Because you did this in 2018, which was, I think, basically when Substack started. Erin: (40:40) Yeah. Nadia: (40:41) And it really wasn't a thing. Even now it's often difficult to explain to people that this is a thing that you pay for it. So you really saw it at the early days, I think, when people weren't ... Erin: (40:51) Yeah, there's an Australian that lives in London, I can't remember her name, but she sent out a newsletter for years and years, and I think she's old school, am I allowed to say MailChimp on the podcast? Old school MailChimp one. Nadia: (41:04) Yes, you can say anything you want to. Erin: (41:07) So I was a bit like ... And I think initially mine was modeled on hers, where it was very like, "These are some interesting links I read this week." And that's how it started. But I don't know. There's just so much room for creativity on it that I think didn't exist a few years ago, or some of the ideas just never existed. And this thing now with popping in audio as well, that's crazy to me. You're developing so quickly. Nadia: (41:39) Yeah, hope so. Yeah, it is funny, I feel like links were the gateway drug for a lot of newsletter writers, where ... I have a newsletter that I don't write nearly as frequently as yours, but I think early on I also thought of it as, this is just where I share, I dump a couple links when I've written something or whatever, and then I think at some point there's this mental transition that happens where you're like, "Oh, I have this platform and people are opening my email." And then start talking a little bit more because you're on stage, you might as well be saying things. And then it develops into this narrative style. Erin: (42:16) Yeah, that's exactly it, yeah. Nadia: (42:19) Yeah. It's really cool. Well, cool. Thank you for joining and chatting with me. Is there anything else that you want to mention here for people that are just starting to write on Substack? Erin: (42:30) Oh, I don't know, that's a good question. Because I think the best thing that I did was sign up to just about every free list on Substack I could find. A lot of the political reporting on there is American, which is, unless you're American, probably too much American news. But signing up and reading as many other newsletters as I could was probably one of the most helpful things I did in addition to reading the Bangkok Post every day and all that. Learning to do it by watching other people do it has been really, really valuable. And I think not only is it interesting and you learn so much interesting stuff reading other people's, but it gives you a bit of inspiration and a bit of, some ideas about how you can use your own, develop your own, which I find really valuable. I still do it. I've been doing this for four years and I still read everybody's to see what's ... Nadia: (43:37) That's impressive. Lot more to keep up with now. Erin: (43:41) Oh my gosh, yes. It's interesting, I feel like they're getting longer as well. The length of an email, I swear, used to be like 700 words max. And now I sit there reading Hell World for an hour or two. I'm like ... Huge. Nadia: (43:55) It's true, I think it's that stage mentality again, we're like, "Oh, I'm still holding the mic, so better keep going longer and longer." People keep reading it. Erin: (44:04) Exactly, exactly. Yeah. Nadia: (44:08) Cool. Thank you. And where should people find you if they want to check out your work? Erin: (44:11), which ... I almost regret giving it that name because it's D-A-R-I-M-U-L-U-T.substack. And there I think you can find links to everything else I do as well. Nadia: (44:27) Yes, we'll link to it in the show notes. Erin: (44:30) Brilliant. Nadia: (44:31) Awesome. Thanks, Erin. Erin: (44:32) Thank you so much. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Jun 11, 2020 52 min

Substack Podcast #014: Healthcare with Nikhil Krishnan

We spoke with Nikhil Krishnan of Out of Pocket, a newsletter that’s tackling healthcare with an entertaining and approachable voice. While working on the healthcare research team at CB Insights, Nikhil started an industry newsletter that grew to 90,000 people. He then worked at a clinical trial company and now writes about healthcare full-time on his own newsletter, which he started earlier this year. We spoke to Nikhil about why he’s trying to make healthcare more interesting, his early paid experiments, and how to grow a thoughtful reader community, one person at a time. Links Out of Pocket, Nikhil’s newsletter Get Real, Nikhil’s online community experiment Matt Levine’s daily finance newsletter, Money Stuff Nikhil on Twitter: @nikillinit Highlights (04:31) On making healthcare feel accessible to more readers and how to value expertise (10:39) Being a writer vs. being a practitioner (19:15) How he grew his list on Instagram, Twitter, Slack, and LinkedIn (29:56) Experimenting with different paid offerings for readers (37:27) Building a community that maintains high-quality conversations (43:03) Subscription tiers and price differentiation On figuring out which experts to trust: I think the key is really finding people who are flexible experts. Like people who have studied their field for a long time, but also still remain default skeptical of their field. And once you find those people, really attaching yourself to them, I think is really important. I try to use those people to spitball thoughts off of pretty frequently. On writing about healthcare: [Matt Levine’s] newsletter is literally one of the funniest things I've ever read. He's so masterful and I don't care about finance, just to be clear, but he makes me care about finance, because it's so good, funny, and well written. And I'm thinking to myself like, "If finance can do this, healthcare can do this." Transcript Nadia: (00:23) You write Out of Pocket, which has one of my favorite one-line descriptions, which is “healthcare, but funny.” And you have this sort of elaboration that US healthcare is a joke, and it may as well get funny. Nikhil: (00:35) Yeah, exactly. I think people in the US probably empathize with that. I try to keep it as short and punchy as possible. Nadia: (00:44) Yeah, I was thinking maybe people outside of the US don't find healthcare funny, but if you're in the US, you immediately understand the appeal of this newsletter. Nikhil: (00:51) I think it's one of those things where in the US, it's gotten so absurd that it's now funny. You know how when movies are so bad that they're good? But if you're watching from the outside, you're like, "What is going on?" Nadia: (01:05) Exactly. Or from the inside. Nikhil: (01:06) Right. Nadia: (01:06) So you started this pretty recently, just this year and it seems like the response has been great so far. I know you have a long history of doing healthcare research previously. So we'd love to hear a little bit about how you got here and why you ended up starting a newsletter about healthcare. Nikhil: (01:21) Yeah, definitely. So for some background, after college, I went to a company called CB Insights for about four and a half years. For those people who don't know, CB Insights basically tracks tech trends, just generally starting with private markets and kind of data happening in the startup universe and then expanded into kind of just tech in general. Nikhil: (01:42) One part of the CB Insights kind of business is the research team, which I was a part of and helped to build out and more specifically helped build out our healthcare research team. So I was doing that specifically for about three years or so. Part of I guess our growth strategy at CB Insights sites was to create these newsletters using the data that we had and put interesting things together. And so when we were building out the healthcare research side of things, one of the things I had to do was basically create our healthcare specific newsletter. And I was trying to think how I could make the newsletter different. Nikhil: (02:20) We had some data, which was interesting, but there were a lot of healthcare newsletters that had data in it. So I figured what I could do better than other people in the kind of health care newsletter landscape was be funny, which is pretty low bar and health care. So I was like, "I could definitely be funnier than these people." I started to kind of inject humor into the newsletter and that was pretty on brand for the rest of the CB Insights newsletter. It was kind of this snarky, humor-filled kind of content. Nikhil: (02:52) And we realized pretty quickly that it filled I think a really big niche for people. I think generally people are looking for tools and content, etc in the business world the same way they consume it in their regular lives and having a funny industry-specific newsletter sort of filled into that. Nikhil: (03:10) So anyway, I wrote that newsletter and I got to about 90,000 people by the time I had left. And after that, went to a company called TrialSpark where I was on the partnerships and business development team, basically creating new business lines and types of partnerships. And it's a clinical trial startup for anyone who's curious. And then yeah, about two and a half months ago or so, decided to leave to pursue Out of Pocket full-time. Nikhil: (03:39) I'm actually doing two newsletters, funny enough. One is sort of a side project called Get Real, which I'm happy to talk about later, but the main one I'm working on is Out of Pocket. So I saw the need for kind of funny, approachable, digestible healthcare research. I think a lot of people... I think it's really exacerbated now during kind of the COVID endemic that there really aren't that many good approachable sources of information for people and we're really seeing the divide of "healthcare experts" and then "healthcare novices". Nikhil: (04:13) And I think there isn't a good way to bridge people from knowing nothing about healthcare to learning about healthcare, it's a very uphill battle and I want Out of Pocket to kind of be an easier way for people to get involved in healthcare and then level themselves out. That's the long spiel of my life. Nadia: (04:31) I love it. It's funny. It feels like we've seen on the Substack, there are all these sort of drier industries like... Well, I think they're dry. Like finance and trading, healthcare in your case, venture capital. And so they're sort of attracting these meme makers. It's always just sort of something dry but then also made funny and entertaining and approachable. Nadia: (04:59) For me, coming from the world of open-source software, there were people that were developers on the ground and then there were also people like Tim O'Reilly, who were sort of translating what was happening there to a broader audience. Do you feel like your audience attracts mostly healthcare nerds and insiders, or is it people that are interested in understanding healthcare? Do you have to be a healthcare nerd to get the jokes? Nikhil: (05:22) What I try to do with the newsletters is make it understandable for average people regardless of their healthcare knowledge or experience, but I do like to insert some deep-cut references for the people who are pros. I tried to kind of bridge both worlds. I think the other reality is, most people in healthcare are usually experts in their own domain within healthcare. Healthcare is a lot of different industries: it's pharma, it's hospitals, it's insurance, etc. I think for a lot of people, they might know their own specific domain really well but are still novices when it comes to the rest of healthcare. Nikhil: (06:02) The goal for me is to make sure that I was approachable as possible for anybody. And I try to do as best of a job as I can for giving all the context you need within kind of the realm of one given newsletter. So, try to explain all the acronyms that are relevant, provide one-mind contextual sentences that are helpful about other parts of the industry. But the idea is that every newsletter should theoretically stand on its own and you should be able to read it as kind of a lay person. What I'll probably end up doing as the newsletter develops is having more backlinking to sort of primer style posts. So if you're confused about something, you can kind of backlink your way into the stuff to give you context. Nadia: (06:48) Can you talk a little bit more about this expertise issue of... I think this is especially true in healthcare where there's this fear, especially for people that aren't necessarily familiar with healthcare, they're not exactly sure who to trust, and I think there's maybe some especially tension with this and the cross over to tech where at least my experience of tech being that a lot of people emphasize an amateur point of view and saying, "You don't have to be this credential expert in order to speak authoritatively about what's happening." But I think there's a fear for people that are consuming that information of like, "What if I'm trusting the wrong person?" And like, "I don't have the context to necessarily understand which thing is good and which thing is not." From your position, how would you counsel I guess, a reader to think about that? And then also from your position, how do you balance the things that you know about versus the things you don't know about? Nikhil: (07:43) Yeah, totally. I think healthcare field is probably more acutely than any other field because it's very heavily kind of credentialed as a whole. I get it. Most physicians are spending decades of their lives to become experts in their field and to have someone who's kind of armchair epidemiology stating things when they've learned it for two weeks, you can probably understand why someone who studied this for 10 years might be a little peeved or kind of like skeptical. At the same time, I think some of the most interesting observations have come from people who are outside of the healthcare industry, even if there's like a higher noise-to-signal ratio. Nikhil: (08:29) I think the problem is that the two sides have acted very antagonistic towards each other as opposed to hearing each other's arguments and kind of finding interesting middle ground. I think there's still a lot of room there. So to answer your question a little bit more specifically about if you're a reader and you're thinking about healthcare, what in healthcare information to consume and digest, I think for one, there are obviously credible and less credible sources. And I think part of what I've been trying to do is follow people where networks of people I find credible also find those people credible. Nikhil: (09:10) If there are people who I've seen consistently seem to have really interesting thoughts historically and have trended towards correct, and then they endorse other people or their work, then I view it with a higher level of credibility. So it's a little bit more about focusing on the people specifically. Nikhil: (09:32) And then, for me, personally, in terms of things I know and don't know, I really try to try my best to build my own base knowledge first and then consult with people who I think are experts in their given field on where they think improvements can be made. I try and poke around the edges a little bit based on what I know is kind of like a novice in a lot of these areas and see how they respond. But I think the key is really finding people who are flexible experts. Like people who have studied their field for a long time, but also still remain default skeptical of their field. And once you find those people, really attaching yourself to them, I think is really important. I try to use those people to spitball thoughts off of pretty frequently. Nadia: (10:19) I really like that. It sounds like there's one aspect of it that's about using people you trust almost as credentials. And then, how to find those people sounds like part of it is just looking for people who are inherently skeptical, but also well-read and understand what they're doing. Nikhil: (10:37) Yeah, exactly. Nadia: (10:39) Do you find that you're in a different position to understand this kind of stuff? Because you're sort of looking more broadly at research and overall trends as opposed to being a specific practitioner, for better or for worse? Nikhil: (10:51) Yeah. I think there are pros and cons to the place where I sit. I think for one, I think I understand the worlds of healthcare and tech, a little bit better than anyone who sort of siloed in each of their specific domains. And then two, one thing that I really appreciated about my time at CB Insights is that actually when I started, I was covering healthcare but I was also covering consumer packaged goods, construction, agriculture and autonomous vehicles, which is mile wide, half an inch view on any of these. What was really, I guess nice about that is that you can actually see interesting trends across industries and do better compare and contrast of why different things happened when they did. Nikhil: (11:40) So for example, if you look at autonomous cars and you see the relationship between kind of like OEMs, manufacturers, etc, and you look at Pharma and try to understand what the difference is between the manufacturers and supply chains, you can see really super different dynamics at play, because of how patents work, of how consolidated the supply chain is, how specialized it is, etc. So it was nice actually seeing a lot of industries concurrently because it became easier, it became more interesting to kind of view them in parallel with each other. Nikhil: (12:16) I don't view that as very differently than when I'm viewing different parts of healthcare itself. So even looking within healthcare to see how health insurance works, versus how maybe auto insurance works, for example. They're very different dynamics. Health insurance is way more proactive in terms of trying to deliver care to patients versus auto truly access, catastrophe insurance. Nikhil: (12:46) I think being able to kind of sit at a bird's eye view makes that really fun and interesting, but simultaneously, there's going to be a lot of frontline really nitty gritty stuff that I'm going to miss out on. One piece of advice a mentor sort of gave me which I think was really useful was to try and alternate your career between really macro and then really micro viewpoints. And so at CB insights I was obviously sitting in a more macro stage, and then at that TrialSpark, it was working on really nitty gritty problems and really being on the front lines of things. And now I'm kind of oscillating back to the macro side. And so both gives you kind of like a industry lens on how your industry is changing, but then you can see on the ground, how does that actually impact the day to day operations or something. That's- Nadia: (13:36) I really love that. There's sort of a parallel there to the blogging versus building thing that I've also heard of. Sometimes it's really good to be zooming out and thinking about stuff and sometimes it's really good to be on the ground and they inform each other. I found this for people doing any sort of independent research or writing really deeply about a topic. It's so important to get both those things and a lot of people don't necessarily get the luxury of being able to do both. Nikhil: (14:00) Yeah. A hundred percent. I think being forced to write for a long time really made me realize actually how difficult the process of crystallizing your thoughts really is. And then, also feeling confident enough in the stuff you write to put it out in the public sphere, knowing that there's a high chance you'll probably get roasted over something you got wrong, which is just like reality of putting stuff in public but being confident enough in yourself to put that stuff out is really important. Nadia: (14:29) How does writing a newsletter at CB Insights compared to writing one on your own now? Are there tradeoffs here with editorial independence versus reach? Nikhil: (14:40) Yeah. I mean, there's definitely a lot of differences. One, when I was at CB Insights, my only job was to create the analysis. Now, we're doing my own. Writing is one portion of it, but other portions are like, how do I market this properly? How do I come up with the drip campaigns for people who are... There's a lot of logistics stuff in the back end. And then also, thinking about product roadmap is very different. Because obviously at CB Insights, we had an entire product team and the CEO is obviously very... Had his own vision for the product and the target customer was Fortune 500 and the goal was to sell more of the CB Insights data product. So, obviously very different motivations. Nikhil: (15:26) On being on my own, one had to think about different monetization channels. And then therefore, what does the product roadmap look like for a different channel? That's definitely different. And then editorial independence wise, there's obviously writing on your own, you definitely can write as much as you want. One thing I will say that I miss is... When I was at CB Insights, two things that were really helpful were one having really good editors. I can't stress enough how much having good editors really leveled me up as a writer and an analyst, because it forced me to basically distill my thoughts into things that people who are not healthcare people could understand. And that was really important. Nikhil: (16:13) Obviously, there's also the copy editing stuff, which I'm awful at, which, as anyone who's on these newsletters has probably seen at this point. And then the second thing was having co-workers to balance ideas off of was really useful. And obviously, being a solo writer, that poses its own challenges. And it's important, I think to create your own networks to bounce ideas off of other people as you're writing them. That was another I guess, struggle of going solo. Nadia: (16:43) Can you talk a little more about that? Just about how... Does having the newsletter now, has it led to you finding people that you can talk to about this kind of stuff? Nikhil: (16:54) Oh, yeah. Definitely. I mean, not only will I say that... I think I've built a network in healthcare people that I feel like I can balance ideas off of pretty regularly to fact check myself as well as come up with new ideas, but the newsletter itself is actually drawn an interesting kind of cross-section of people in health care who are masters of domains in their own area and are very willing and happy to chat about any topic that they feel like they're experts in which is awesome, because one thing about healthcare especially and I'm sure this is the case in a lot of other "legacy industries" is there's all these just like layers to it, that I still to this day I'm learning exist. Nikhil: (17:40) You'll discover there's some random industry that sits between two healthcare players and actually, billions of dollars pass through it. I'm like, "Wow! I just never knew these people existed." Once they... A lot of people will reach out and be like, "Hey, I work at this company. We do X, Y, Z thing. We're the wholesaler to wholesalers." I'm like, "What? How is that even an industry?" And then, will kind of like lead me to the rabbit hole of either chatting with them pretty quickly or looking into it myself and just learning way more just because they made their presence known as part of the industry, a part of the chain that exists. Nikhil: (18:23) It's been great to kind of riff with these people who are kind of masters of their domain. The other thing I will say is also people who at least for now, opt into reading out of pocket are typically the kind of people who wants to be kind of flexible experts. And so the nice thing is that it sort of creates this self selection mechanism of people who sign up for the newsletter and then also are motivated enough to actually reach out and say, "Hey, I really like this. Here's a quick paragraph on things I'm interested in and we're building here. I think you might be interested." There's a higher likelihood that those people are the flexible experts I was talking about before. And so I'm always very happy to chat with them and understand how they're thinking about their field. Nadia: (19:15) How did you grow your list for Out of Pocket? How did these people find you initially? Nikhil: (19:20) Yeah. I mean, I will say that I think I sort of built a following on Twitter to begin with by again, sort of shitposting my way to glory on the healthcare side of things. Definitely the initial cohort was people who were following me on Twitter or LinkedIn or something like that. And then since then, I've basically been reaching out either cold to people in different industries. I started an Instagram. My first ever Instagram, I'm not on Instagram personally so this is a journey and a half for me, I really truly feel like a total Luddite when I'm trying to use Instagram, but trying my best there. Nikhil: (20:02) But yeah, a lot of cold outreach. I think I'm going to be doing a lot of interviews with some people who have their own followings too. And well, I have been also asking people to post it in different kind of healthcare specific Slack channels, etc. So, really just trying to find any area where there seems to be healthcare interested people who kind of want to level themselves up or are interested in following trends in healthcare, etc. The pandemic has obviously proven to be an interesting kind of environment to do this in, because I think there are a lot more people who are now interested in learning how healthcare works. And so I've been trying to ride that trend a little bit. Nadia: (20:45) Are there a lot of pockets that already have, since... I don't know anything about the world health care of people that already sort of clustering and talking about this in different forums, if you're sort of I guess, looking to borrow or siphon off parts of other people's audiences? Nikhil: (20:58) Yeah. I mean, there's definitely a lot of people... There are definitely a lot of healthcare channels where people are talking about things. Lots of healthcare Slack groups, lots of other newsletters that are just generally about health care. Lots of, just I guess, different audiences. I think I'm the only person who's specifically trying to use humor and memes and stuff as their differentiating factor. Nikhil: (21:25) Those definitely exist. I think that a lot of this is for... I don't know how many of these communication channels are specifically targeting people who are not healthcare experts who want to learn about healthcare. I think a lot of these channels target people who are already in the industry and the whole point of Out of Pocket is sort of to make it more accessible for people. I usually have to find some other channels or partner with people who are also just attracting people who want to learn more generally and maybe it's not healthcare specific, it's just, "Hey." These are ambitious autodidactic folks who want to learn more about how the world works, not necessarily about healthcare, but those are I think, also good audiences to kind of show my wares basically. Nadia: (22:23) Can you talk a little bit about writing about healthcare on Twitter versus Instagram, which sounds like it's a new format for you and then also on Substack of just... how do the means transfer on Instagram versus on newsletters? Do you prefer one over the other? Nikhil: (22:38) It's so fascinating to see how... I mean, this is more of my anecdotal experience. I don't know if this was true for everything or not, but the audiences are so different, I will say. I think part of it is just... And it makes sense. People are going to these different avenues for different reasons. If you've opted in to sign up for an email newsletter, there's way more flexibility into the amount that you can write for the newsletter, obviously. Nikhil: (23:08) I take liberty with that and I try to create emails that are long and kind of in-depth. Because the format sort of allows for that. And I want people also to forward it and share it with other people because they thought it was informative. Twitter, I think people want to just bite size pippy anecdotes or stories. They want just the interesting part of the entire newsletter, they don't necessarily want all the context that's associated with it. And then for Instagram, it's almost entirely visual. There just aren't... There's no text. Nikhil: (23:45) Even trying to use Instagram for the first time, it's so funny because I'm like, "Man, why can't I link my newsletter in this?" And then my friends are like, "Dude, you only get one link." I'm like, "Oh, okay. This is very different." I'm trying to figure out... I think it's funny because I think memes are the great lowest common denominator across all of them. People just like memes. And I also think that if you can have basically a meme summarize whatever your main point is, and it helps I think solidify the takeaways for a lot of people, but they work well across different platforms. Nikhil: (24:23) And then the last thing I will say is that my whole shtick in life is trying to blend my personal and professional worlds very closely together. I think I'd like to reduce the delta as much as possible from who I am as a professional to who I am as a person where I think a lot of people try to keep those worlds separate. And so I think me posting on LinkedIn as if I'm a individual who's again making trash memes on the internet makes me seem a little bit more humanizing and I am not kind of writing this LinkedIn poetry about things. I'm trying to just be who I am as a person on LinkedIn, which I think maybe is not normal for a lot of people. But yeah. Anyway, I think there's a lot of medium differences but I'd like my style and tonality and personality to kind of show up no matter where it is. Nadia: (25:18) I didn't realize you're also on LinkedIn. You've really hit every channel possible. Nikhil: (25:22) I'm trying. I'm trying out here. Nadia: (25:26) There are actually a number of Substack writers that have built their audiences on LinkedIn. And then are also building on Substack. And I guess for me, I didn't realize there was so much going on but it sounds like it's become more attractive as a platform for sharing things in the past couple of years. Am I crazy? Where did this come from? Nikhil: (25:43) I think a lot of industry people still use... I think a lot of people who are, who are deep in their industries still use LinkedIn a lot. I was talking to a friend once and we were talking... The conversation of default social networks came up and he said LinkedIn and he to this day still gets roasted over it. I don't think people would ever out word me in the middle out of this and I also think, candidly I think anecdotally there seems to be a bit of also an age gap and difference or also a role difference and gap. Nikhil: (26:12) If you're... I think primarily, in a lot of sales marketing roles, LinkedIn is really important. I think it really just depends on the channel you care about. I will say that, I found that LinkedIn is a... So two things. I think one, LinkedIn is a great place to shill your wares to coworkers that you used to work with who maybe you're not... You don't have personal... You're not connected with on personal social networks. And then the second thing is, I think LinkedIn has a way higher noise to signal ratio or quality of readers just generally. So it really depends on what your goal is as a writer. Nikhil: (26:54) I think if you just want to get eyeballs on your stuff, then LinkedIn is great for that. I think if you're trying to do more interesting things with your readership specifically, then I think it's a bit of a crapshoot to get people from LinkedIn. Nadia: (27:13) Actually, I wonder about something related, which is, did you feel like when you had a newsletter, you're writing at CB Insights that it could be, I guess, as much of a calling card for lack of a better term versus Out of Pocket in that both are technically these branded newsletters that are... It's not like it's your personal newsletter or anything, that you're just kind of writing about whatever you're thinking about. Like they have a very specific focus. But in one case, it feels like you're, I guess writing for a company versus something that you've spun up yourself. Do you feel like one attracts more people to you than the other? Nikhil: (27:48) Yeah. I mean, I think the CB Insights brand was really strong. And so that definitely helped open a lot of doors both in terms of getting new readership because it was very it easy to sort of be like, "Hey, you've seen the CB Insights newsletter? We're doing the same thing with healthcare." People understood then what they're kind of getting into versus Out of Pocket, which is sort of a new approach to it that I have to sell a little bit more. And then the other thing is there's a lot more cross posting on the CB Insights newsletters too. Nikhil: (28:23) If you're interested again, in general corporate strategy, and you're a healthcare person, then you're probably signed up for the main CB Insights newsletter, and we'll tell you about the healthcare one, and you're probably interested in that. So there are definitely benefits to that. I think writing as a person has, I really have to focus a little bit more on selling me the person as opposed to any brand that I'm associated with. And that's definitely harder, but it's also something that I've tried to do a little bit more deliberately through the course of my life, especially just writing on my own personal blog and trying to build up my Twitter followers and posting on LinkedIn and all that kind of stuff. Nikhil: (29:08) I want people to know that I do know what I'm talking about a little bit as an individual and so, there hopefully is some merit to me writing as a solo person. I'll also say I've also leaned very heavily on people who I think like deeply believe in the stuff that I'm doing and writing about and working on as an individual to be a lot of the early evangelists of stuff. Having that support from people is really helpful especially in the early days. That's one of the benefits of also writing as a person as opposed to a brand is, I'm really leveraging my relationships to kind of help with distribution. Nadia: (29:56) Makes sense. I'd love to talk about the paid Slack experiment that you announced recently, which I thought seemed cool. It sounds like it's available only to people that subscribed out of pocket and sort of building upon this list that you're creating. Why did you decide to go with a paid Slack as your first paid product experiment? Nikhil: (30:14) Yeah. For some context, I'm doing a paid private Slack for Out of Pocket members where you have to fill out a form, I'm vetting the people who are coming in, then charging per month and also having a very heavy hand in sort of helping a moderate both in terms of... Mostly in terms of discussion starters and kind of curating events and some homework for people to do, etc. Nikhil: (30:41) So, that's the first product. I think there's a few reasons why I went down this route. I think a lot of people on Substack, probably their default monetization path is, "Hey, let me monetize the Substack." And I totally get it. But for me, like I said, the goal here is to help people are healthcare curious, get more involved in healthcare. And I think by forcing people to pay for the Substack, that kind of goes against the general principle of trying to get newcomers into healthcare. I wanted to try some other monetization experiments before I went down that route. Nikhil: (31:19) The reason I decided to do a kind of paid Slack channel is one, I think there's still a gap to having... There's still a gap right now of a really small group of healthcare operators specifically, who are building things, want to share tactics and advice and also are really, really interested in not just kind of asking for favors from a Slack channel, but more building a real community and kind of actually being somewhat friends with each other. If you were to go to a city and someone in that Slack channel, actually lived there, would you hit them up? And trying to actually get that happening. So stuff like that. Nikhil: (32:04) I also think that having a curated group of people, and understanding their thoughts about the industry is really important for me to understand for in terms of future things I'd like to write. And also in the future, I'd hope to use this kind of vetted group of people to, I don't know, either put out surveys and get their general sentiment on things and really get a true understanding of what I think they're happening in the ground. I think there's still a lot of room to build good healthcare communities. And I think this Slack is sort of one step to that. Nikhil: (32:43) It's probably worth also just explaining a little bit about what I hope Out of Pocket is in the future and how the Slack kind of fits into that. I really would like Out of Pocket to essentially be the onboarding mechanism for people who are interested in getting involved in healthcare. And so understanding trends and what's going on in the industry is one part and that's where the newsletter fits in. But I'd like to actually help people learn from nothing to being an expert. And that can start with basically crash courses. Eventually going to a three day intensive to help understand exactly how this part of healthcare works, maybe it's clinical trials or how does health insurance reimbursement work. Nikhil: (33:27) So that's where you learn about a really specific slice of healthcare, the newsletters to help understand trends in the industry broadly. And then once you're sort of in the weeds of healthcare itself, how do you connect with other people who are also in the weeds of healthcare, and that's where the Slack channel fits in. That's kind of the overarching product thought process. Nadia: (33:48) You refer to sort of this being a way for people to... Out of Pocket, in general being a way for people to familiarize themselves with the world of healthcare. There's still some self selection, I guess, or is there, around... It's not just necessarily someone who has zero... It's just sort of a casual, like I would love to learn a bunch more. Are there people that are coming at it from maybe like an investor perspective or an analyst perspective where they kind of need to get up to speed with healthcare? Or are you aiming for an even more general audience than that? Nikhil: (34:23) I think it's a little both. I think it's... Even when I think especially for a lot of startups, and I've seen this across a lot of friends who have joined startups, a lot of them join these companies maybe from... They go from tech to a digital health startup or something. And there isn't a great onboarding process in a lot of cases to understand how their industry works normally, and then how the startup works differently and what pain points they're trying to address. Nikhil: (34:48) So I kind of think of this actually as like almost external bootcamp to understand how your industry works also. So it could be from an analyst side of things, it could be from an actual operator side of things. It's funny because I went to... I did a Wall Street financial modeling boot camp just kind of for s s and giggles, maybe six months ago or so. And it was funny because people went around the room to introduce themselves and basically every single person who was there because their company paid for them to be there as part of their onboarding process, whether that was onboarding into a new team, or onboarding into like an investment bank or etc. And then they got to me and it was like, "Hey. Yeah, I'm just here just because..." And it made me realize that like, "Oh, there's a lot of people here," just because their company doesn't do their training internally. They do their training largely externally. Nikhil: (35:44) When I was at TrialSpark, and I joined, I really wanted to understand the nitty gritty parts of the process of how clinical trials worked. And there are a lot of courses that are either really cheap online and $50, but no real accountability into like, learning in and they're really dry and boring, or there's these two-week fully immersive $10,000 courses and it's like, that's also not what I needed. I sort of taught myself and asked a lot of questions with people at the company internally, but I think it would have been really useful if even before I had started working to do like a three day intensive to learn the process. I'd like Out of Pocket to eventually move there. Nadia: (36:31) Had you thought about doing video courses or some sort of educational content? It's just interesting. A discussion group is so different from that. Nikhil: (36:40) Yeah. I think that's eventually where I'll move. But the discussion group is more just because... And frankly, it's one because I think corporate budgets for education are just way lower now, given it's a pandemic. And two, I think the audience was self selected into the Out of Pocket's Slack/my general I guess friends and followers are usually more deep in healthcare. And so this seems like actually just an easier to lift to start with. But eventually I would like to go into this educational component to get people leveled up either through video courses, or maybe it is in person boot camps or something. But yeah, basically moving into that area. Nadia: (37:27) And so you had this like... You touched us a little bit, but you had an application process. It's capped at max 15 people, there's homework. It's like, the bar is high. And you make that really clear to people that are I guess, thinking about applying it. Like, this is something that they should take seriously. Is there's maybe some crossover here with Get Real, which you mentioned early on about your experiment to create more authentic connections? I'm assuming all this is sort of done to keep Slack conversations interesting because they sort of die, they often die after the initial launch and everyone being sort of excited. I think that fear keeps a lot of people including myself from starting to Slack. What are some of the things that you've learned either from Get Real or from doing this, of just how to keep conversations interesting and at a high bar? Nikhil: (38:18) Yeah, totally. And you sort of have, I think, seen the connection here, but get real has been my community building experiment on the side. And again, for context, if anyone's interested, I was going through my quarter life crisis three years ago, so I started this newsletter where I ask a question each week, I answer it and then I get other people's thoughts and post my three favorite answers the next week. And that's sort of the gist. Nikhil: (38:46) What I've learned about good communities, I guess it's they hinge on a few things. One, you need really active key members/moderators. There's always a few people that you need to be constantly kind of keeping the conversation up and engaging people, other people in the group. And it usually has to be more than one person. I would say it's one, two, maybe three people who are really, really active participants and group members to kind of normalize the idea of participating regularly. That's one thing. Nikhil: (39:21) Two, is you can't scale it very fast. I think this is a trap that most people fall into, especially when you're monetizing directly off the people who are in the community or whatever is you start a community, a few people join and you seem to have a really high-quality group, then you raise a seed round or a series A round and then you just put all that money into paid marketing or whatever, and just dramatically increase the size, but then the quality drops inevitably. Nikhil: (39:53) You have to be, I think, really deliberate about how you grow the community and I think it's very tempting to just grow very fast. But I've never once seen a community that grows fast that managed to keep the community feel. And then the third thing is, I think by requiring work from the members, people are more invested in the community itself. I think generally, the internet community is at least in V1, and maybe this is changing a little bit, but most internet communities, they try to lower the friction joining as much as possible to get as many members as they can, usually because they're volume-based communities. Nikhil: (40:38) I'm trying to actually increase the friction so that the people who join the community really are serious about it. And if you... It's a lot... It's going to be work. Like you said, there's some homework, there's as an application. If you are willing to jump through all of those hoops, then you're someone who probably cares enough about this and you will find other people who care enough about this that I think that will select for people that are wanting to be a part of a good community and then therefore will be better members of the community. I'm trying to increase friction and make it harder to be a part of this community, but make the reward, I guess more worthwhile. Nadia: (41:19) I like that. It makes sense with all the different places that you're writing about this stuff that... It's sort of like there's this drip filter of someone might just casually follow you on Twitter, and then they might be like, "Oh. I'll sign up for this newsletter." And they're like, "Oh, maybe I'll try out the Slack." And it's like... It's sort of cultish in a way of thinking something like level zero, level one, level two or something, of getting all the way up to like that, paying money to talk to you. Nikhil: (41:48) Yeah. For one, I promise it was not as engineered as you make it seem. It was just very random. And two, I'm totally cool with being friends with people for free. You don't have to pay to be my friend, but I think of it a little bit more. I think the tiering thing is right. I think the sense of... I want people to opt into whatever level they feel like they want to give the commitment to, which is why this is... There are different products that are targeted towards different levels of like, I don't know, healthcare experience and commitment. Nikhil: (42:30) So, if you're someone who is just healthcare curious, I don't want you to have to do a lot of work to be a part of... To get something out of this, out of Out of Pocket. There's a level that works for you too. But if you're someone who is really trying to meet people who are just as ambitious as they are in terms of stuff they're trying to build in healthcare or just as deeply knowledgeable, then there's something for you too. So I'm really trying to like create products for those different tiers of kind of expertise and interest. Nadia: (43:03) It feels like that's one of the most important shifts from, for lack of better terms, “volume-based” monetization versus “context-based” monetization, where I guess just think about advertising or this sort of core belief that you have to make money off everybody that's looking at your stuff. Whereas, I think one of the cool things that you can do by having these more filtered places is... It's fine if 90%, or 95, or whatever, most of your people are just completely reading all the free stuff and you make nothing off of them. And that's fine, because there's some smaller group that's willing to pay a lot more that sort of subsidizes it for everyone else. Nikhil: (43:45) Yeah. I think that's totally right. I think one interesting thing, for Get Real, I don't really treat that as much as a business right now. It's more of a side project, but I started a Patreon for it because obviously there are some costs associated with just even running it. But I went with a tipping based business model because I think one of the interesting things is people get different levels of utility out of any product or any, I think even any newsletter. Nikhil: (44:15) When you create... When you don't have tiers of subscription, I actually think that you kind of have a cut, like a loss. You either have a... listen man, I'm blanking on- Nadia: (44:30) Deadweight loss kind of- Nikhil: (44:31) Yeah, yeah. Deadweight loss. Thank you. I'm getting PTSD from Econ 101. Nadia: (44:36) Me too. Nikhil: (44:37) You have like a deadweight loss basically. People who actually probably would have been willing to pay more because they got more utility. And then you also lose a lot of people who probably were willing to pay less, but still get some value out of it. And the price point you picked is just a little bit outside of their range. And so I think that... I think having the tiering is really important because you want people to sort of stay in your universe, per se. And then pay the level that they care about or the level they get utility from to minimize that deadweight loss. Nikhil: (45:09) And I think if you just pick, one specific price point for one product, etc, then you're... I think you're doing yourself a disservice. So, yeah. I'm interested to hear how other writers have thought about different product tiering if they have, but that's sort of the way I've thought about it. Nadia: (45:28) It seems especially relevant for people where's someone who's paying might be paying... I guess they have access to a corporate sponsor or whatever. They could charge it to some sort of corporate expense account. And then you also probably have people that are just sort of casually interested and want to do it for themselves. So you're sort of catering to a lot of different budgets as well. Nikhil: (45:51) Yeah. I also think... One thing I've noticed, at least one thing I've noticed is that there are some people who are just like voyeurs for the most part who are just consuming content and maybe don't necessarily want to be a part of a community, etc, but when you start talking about topics that those people are specifically experts in, it's awesome to have them as part of the newsletter so that they can chime in. Nikhil: (46:14) And so the problem is when you, I don't know, maybe do like a weekly... When you do like a monthly recurring revenue business, there's some people that are not going to get as much value every month that they do, but you don't want to lose them because in the months where they are specifically experts in that area, then it's awesome to have them there. And they can chime in when they feel like it. And so I really like those people really on the edge who are on the fence about getting involved or not because I think when they do... When it is something relevant to them, their contributions are awesome. I wouldn't want to exclude them, if that makes sense? Nadia: (46:57) Yeah. How did you decide on your pricing for the Slack group? It's a good price. $20 a month? Nikhil: (47:06) I got to tell you, there is no science to this one. I have some people that are like, "Man, that's like really high. I spend this much per month on Netflix and this is double that." And then I have people on the other end being like, "Dude, you're charging too low. People are looking for this. Their willingness to spend is probably way higher." And I'm like, "Wow. I really, really don't know what the answer is." And so, I'm being totally honest with you, it's random. It's very random. It's what I feel like I would have paid if I wanted to join Slack that was valuable. And the pricing is probably going to change over time. Nikhil: (47:48) There's going to be probably different... Some people may be grandfathered in until this pricing, maybe they'll have to drop it or increase it. It's weird because it's kind of like the in between of what an individual willingness to pay would be like, which is a little higher than that and then it's probably way lower than what a corporation would pay. And so I'm curious to see what this kind of middle of the lane pricing looks like. It's an experiment. We'll see. We'll see how it goes. Nadia: (48:20) Yeah, I love that. I love that you're just sort of taking this very experimental approach to absolutely everything that you're doing. It feels like you're building this sort of mini media empire, but you're testing out all the different waters and seeing which things resonate, which is really cool. Nikhil: (48:35) My third or fourth newsletter was about experiments with too many confounding variables. And the irony is that I think... I don't know if I'm going to do that, but we'll see. Nadia: (48:48) If you had to point to like, I guess to get philosophical as we're wrapping up here, what would you say is sort of the center of that whole brand or empire, all the things you're trying like? Is it you as an individual and your reputation? Is it like a certain content format that you're sort of the bread and butter of everything? Nikhil: (49:06) I think it's a combination of the two. I think it's really just about me as a entity that sort of informalizes healthcare, using humor, using very everyday language, etc. I think that just the world of non-healthcare and healthcare has gotten so divergent that there have to be more channels to bring them together and make people who are not in healthcare understand how healthcare works, people in healthcare to be better about explaining what they're doing. Nikhil: (49:38) And I guess one of like one of the people who are doing that, and so this may be right now at least centers on a lot of the stuff I'm doing but I'd like you to expand past just me. I'd want more people to kind of get involved to be. Maybe it's people within the Out of Pocket community who are teaching other people about areas that they're experts in but doing it in a way that is sort of on the same kind of brand of accessible funny, informal like this is me teaching you as an individual if we were at a bar or getting a drink, rather than, "Hey, I'm giving you like a corporate pitch presentation about what we do." Nikhil: (50:20) So, yeah. The goal for Out of Pocket generally is just in formalizing healthcare a little bit, and I hope more people are interested in doing that. Nadia: (50:33) Great. It reminds me of talking to folks in the finance Twitter kind of world who say that there was a time when not many people were doing that and now it feels like a lot of people are doing it. So it seems like you are sort of at the beginning of that with healthcare. Nikhil: (50:46) I think it's really funny you mentioned that because finance in particular, I think, has this amazing army of this pseudo anonymous, hilarious, but very highly analytical and technical group of people. Even just whether it's on Instagram or Twitter, a lot of the fintech anonymous accounts, they're really smart and they're very funny. And actually, the inspiration for Out of Pocket came from Matt Levine. Nikhil: (51:14) And I think his newsletter is literally one of the funniest things I've ever read. And he's so masterful and I don't care about finance, just to be clear, but he makes me care about finance, because it's so good, funny, and well written. And I'm thinking to myself like, "If finance can do this, healthcare can do this." And so yeah, it's funny you mentioned finance, because that's exactly the trajectory I hope this takes. Nadia: (51:40) Me too. It's been really fun to watch so far. Nikhil: (51:43) Thanks. Nadia: (51:44) Thanks for joining in chatting. Where should people find you if they want to check out your work? Nikhil: (51:49) Yeah. You can come to the Out of Pocket Substack which is I write about the things on my personal blog. It's And if you're interested in joining Get Real, it's because you can do cool things with URLs now. And also on Twitter @nikillinit. That's basically where my most half-baked thoughts are. So happy to chat with anyone who's interested in learning more about healthcare. Nadia: (52:21) Awesome, thanks. Nikhil: (52:22) Thanks so much. Get full access to Substack Blog at
May 29, 2020 48 min

Substack Podcast #013: Local news with Tony Mecia of The Charlotte Ledger

For our inaugural Season 2 episode of the Substack Podcast, we’re pleased to chat with Tony Mecia of The Charlotte Ledger, a publication focused on local business news in Charlotte, North Carolina in the United States. Tony started as a regular journalist who decided to strike it out on his own. He started a newsletter and spread it the old-fashioned way, relying on word-of-mouth from friends. Today, The Charlotte Ledger is a full-fledged business: when we spoke, Tony had just started hiring freelancers and adding new contributors to his team. We spoke to Tony about the local news ecosystem, the freedom that comes with writing for a subscriber audience, and his mission to create the sort of local news publication he’s always wanted to read. Links The Charlotte Ledger, founded by Tony Facebook’s announcement about giving grants to 400 local newsrooms to support COVID-19 reporting, including Charlotte Ledger City Hall Watcher, a publication about the Toronto City Council Importantville, a publication about Indiana politics Highlights (04:38) How Tony uses a personal angle to differentiate from other local news outlets (10:58) How he grew his list, despite the challenges of a geography-based audience and not having a big name initially (16:49) The local news ecosystem in Charlotte, North Carolina (22:41) How he launched paid subscriptions (33:55) Bringing on freelancers, growing Charlotte Ledger to multiple contributors and writers On getting started: I just started out like most people would. I worked here for the paper for 12 years. I left in 2009. It's not like I had a massive social media following or that I was some well-known name in Charlotte by any stretch of the imagination….The piece of advice that I liked from Substack was like, "Okay, look, you can sit around, you can plan this all you want, but actually, why don't you start writing? Just start doing it?" On the freedom that comes with writing his own publication: I feel like I'm doing some of the best work in my career. I feel like I'm making a difference just hearing from people, making connections with people, and working with people I want to work with. It's been really exhilarating. Transcript Nadia: (00:39) You write The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter, which you describe as, "Fresh and real Charlotte business news that makes you smarter." This is Charlotte, North Carolina, by the way, for people that are listening. I would love to dive – Tony: (00:53) Yeah, a lot of times people get Charlotte confused with Charleston, which is in South Carolina, or Charlottesville, which is in Virginia, but no, Charlotte is in North Carolina. You're right. Nadia: (01:00) It's funny. All of the Southern states picked their cities to start with Cs. Tony: (01:05) Right. Nadia: (01:08) I would love to dig into your background. Before this, you worked at The Charlotte Observer, which is a local newspaper, and then you freelanced for a while. Then, you started The Charlotte Ledger about a year ago, and so I'd love to hear a little bit about that trajectory and how you went from being a full-time journalist to… Well, now you're also a full-time journalist who's working for yourself. Tony: (01:32) Yeah, sure. Well, I'll just start talking and if you have any questions, just feel free to interrupt me. Nadia: (01:37) Sure. Tony: (01:37) My background is a journalist. I worked at a newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, for about 12 years. Left there in 2009 as many newspapers around the country started downsizing, buyouts and that kind of thing. Freelanced for a while. I was on staff for The National Magazine for a couple of years. It folded a little over a year ago, and so I started looking around and I said, "Well, gosh, I guess I could go back to freelancing for freelance national publications or websites or what have you." Tony: (02:07) I started looking around in Charlotte and realized, well, the scene for local news was really... The newspaper had shrunk a lot. There weren't a whole lot of innovative new digital publications, but I felt like there was still this appetite for local news. I figured, "Okay, look, I have some skills I can bring to bear." Just your normal reporting skills, such as they are, calling people up. What's a news story? What's interesting to people? Writing things in a way maybe that's a little bit interesting. I said, "Well, maybe I could start something up that sort of helped address this issue of a lack of local news?" Tony: (02:50) You see this around a lot of communities. I mean, yes, nationally, okay, if you're in New York or Washington or Los Angeles or San Francisco, there are any number of publications, national and local, but some of the mid-sized cities like Charlotte and smaller cities, I really feel like that local news has really taken a beating over the last 10 years. I said, "Look, I've got some skills I could bring to bear. Maybe I could start something up that sort of addresses this need." Tony: (03:19) Started looking around. I don't remember how I first saw Substack, but I came across Substack and I started thinking, "Wow, maybe I could start something up", because I had seen all of these national newsletters. You see Axios and The Hustle and The Skim. These were all nationally sort of business-y focused. Because I do that on the local level, just focused on Charlotte. Charlotte, just so you know, it's in a metro area of about 2.5 million people and the City's about 900,000 people. Tony: (03:52) I figured, "Okay, maybe I can just kind of give this a go and sort of see if there's a market for this. Is this something that people would be interested in?" The thinking would be use sort of old-school journalism, making it fact-based, making sure it's accurate. Having those be important values, but then also making it kind of punchy and lively and easy to read with a little bit of a voice. The idea was not super long sort of thumbsuckers in the business. Not these really long articles that people have to wade through, but, "Hey, can I do something that's sort of punchy?" I figured, "Okay, so take those skills, put them in this kind of new format, focus it on Charlotte, and then see if there's an interest and kind of see where that goes." Nadia: (04:38) I found this really interesting because you went with this newsletter format and you talk about Charlotte Ledger as a newsletter even though it sounds like you were inspired by these national newsletters and you're applying that to a local market. Are there any other sort of local newsletters that you know of in Charlotte or elsewhere as you've been doing this? Have you found inspiration from other people who are trying similar things with local news? Tony: (05:03) Yeah, that's a good question. I can tell you locally in Charlotte it's a little bit different than what other people are doing. The traditional model on a newsletter that the main newspaper and the other media in Charlotte do is they use the newsletter as a way to drive people to their website, which a lot of news organizations do. The different here is that I am saying the newsletter is the product. I don't really need you to click anywhere. I think it can create some bad incentives. Tony: (05:33) If my model is that I'm selling advertising on a website and I need you as a reader to go to that website and I'm giving you a newsletter, then the incentive is create a bunch of sensationalistic articles and teaser headlines and clickbait to get you to click through to go to that website so that I can sell advertising off of it. I don't like that model as much. I would just prefer to actually just do responsible journalism, put that in the newsletter, and whether you click on... I have a lot of links, the things that I reference, but whether you click on it or not, it's sort of immaterial to me. It's really more about if the goal is to serve your readers and develop this connection with your readers, then I want to serve the readers. Tony: (06:22) I want to do what's best for them. I don't want to necessarily be having them have to navigate to websites and go to a bunch of different places. I want to establish myself as, "Hey, The Charlotte Ledger is giving you everything you need to know. If you want to know more, you can click here and go to the other sources, but you don't have to do that." I think that's important is that if your customer is your reader, then that suggests one way to go, but if your customer is really your advertisers, then that creates a different way to go and you're not necessarily always your readers. I guess I would make that point. Tony: (06:57) Then, as far as, are other people nationally doing this? I talked to the people at Substack and they gave me a few names of people who are doing similar things. I talked to a guy in Toronto, we emailed. He's doing one called City Hall Watcher, which is not on business. It's focused on, as the name suggests, on municipal government in Toronto. It goes through lobbying reports and he talks very specifically about what's going on in Toronto city government and developed a following out there. Tony: (07:32) I've read some of the other ones on Substack. There's one I think it's called Importantville, which I think is on Indiana politics. I looked at that a little bit. It's my impression that there are not a lot of newsletters that are just squarely focused on local news and using the newsletter as the main platform for local news. There are a few other, I guess, examples here and there, but there aren't a whole lot that I've found. Nadia: (08:04) Do you ever find yourself having to explain this when you're reaching out to people for interviews or comments? Or, when you are the publication breaking news – and it sounds like you've broken a bunch of news in Charlotte – how do you position yourself to people that might not necessarily be familiar with the model? Tony: (08:19) Yeah, that's a good question – Nadia: (08:19) Or do people not even notice the difference? Tony: (08:21) Yeah, I mean, some people don't really understand the model. Of course, then, when you're starting up, most people have probably never heard of you, so if I say, "Oh, yes, I'm calling from The Charlotte Ledger", people are like, "Okay, what is that? I don't know what that is." Then, it's, "Oh, it's an E-newsletter", and in their minds they think, "Oh, it's like a small-time thing." It suggests that it's pretty small, and yes, compared to the circulation of the main metro daily newspaper, it is fairly small. Tony: (08:50) Then, I've had people say, "Oh, hey, here's something that would be good for your blog." It's like, well, I understand, it's written in a blog-y, sort of conversational style, but I have to constantly explain like, "No, the product is", I say this a lot, "The product is the newsletter. I'm not trying to sell you or get you to go somewhere else." It's like, "The newsletter is what I'm delivering to you and that's what I really want you reading." Tony: (09:20) Even though, obviously, Substack does back up to a website and people do get their information in different ways and some people probably just get it from the Substack site and some people get it through the email, that is a question I get. It's like, "Well, why are you doing this as a newsletter? Why wouldn't you just set up a website like most people?" It's like, "Well, there are a lot of good reasons, I think, not to just have it be website-based and that if you're website-based, you're having to drive people to that website. Tony: (09:54) The way you typically do that is through social media. You go on Twitter, you go on Facebook, and I think as we all know as anybody who's looked at the publishing industry in the last few years knows, those big tech companies, they really kind of cut you off at the knees. You post something, if you have 2,000 followers, you don't know how many of those 2,000 followers are really going to see it. You're kind of dependent on those tech companies and the social media companies to drive people there. When you have a newsletter, you have a direct connection to your audience. I've got their email addresses, Substack has their email addresses. It just goes directly into their inbox and it shows up there until they opt out of it and say they don't want to receive it. Tony: (10:34) It's harder to acquire those customers. It's a little trickier than just getting them to click. You have to get them to put in their email address and some people don't want to do that for understandable reasons, privacy reasons or whatever, but once you have those, you can develop a good relationship with those people. You're deepening that relationship. You're not just kind of saying, "Oh, I just want you to click and move on to the next thing." Nadia: (10:58) Makes perfect sense. How did you seed your initial email list? I feel like this is an interesting question for you in particular because your ideal niche audience is a geographic one and not to say like an online interest or community. When you're doing something that's online, how do you reach all of these people who care about Charlotte, the physical location? Tony: (11:21) Yeah. No, that's a good question. Well, I just started out like most people would. I worked here for the paper for 12 years. I left in 2009. It's not like I had a massive social media following or that I was some well-known name in Charlotte by any stretch of the imagination. You see like The Athletic, their model is to peel off the best-known sportswriters from the papers and hire them onto The Athletic and to get all of their Twitter followers. That doesn't describe me at all. What I did was I did what most people would do. I started up... The other piece of advice that I liked from Substack was like, "Okay, look, you can sit around, you can plan this all you want, but actually, why don't you start writing? Just start doing it?" Tony: (12:01) I didn't plan it out that much. I had kind of a concept in my head. I did one, I did a couple maybe, and then I went on LinkedIn, since it's sort of a business publication, LinkedIn was I think kind of helpful, Facebook, Twitter, and just said, "Hey, friends. I've started this newsletter. It's focused on Charlotte business news. I'd love for you to check it out. Let me know what you think. It's an E-newsletter. Here's how you sign up for it. We're going out three days a week." That kind of thing. Tony: (12:31) Right off the bat, I had probably a couple of hundred free subscribers I think in the first three or four days. Then, I just kept producing content, kept producing newsletters. Was doing three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, just a variety of things and, again, trying to do it in a way that not everybody else in town was doing it. It was important that I have content that was differentiated. Tony: (12:54) There wasn't just the same thing that the main newspaper and the alt-weekly, and the digital entertainment publication and everybody else was doing, but it was actually trying to break news or tell you something you didn't know or identifying a trend and then trying to do it also with a very Charlotte kind of voice. This isn't something that could just have been produced in New York or Chicago or wherever, but this is actually specific to Charlotte and it's making reference to things that people know in Charlotte, those touchstones in Charlotte. Tony: (13:25) Just started doing it, put it on social media, and then kept producing content. Then, asking people, "Please, if you like it, please tell your friends." It was a lot of word of mouth, and then also as I would report stories and talk to people, interview them, would follow up with them afterwards, send them the articles. Say, "Hey, I quoted you in this article. Let me know what you think. If you like it, feel free to sign up for the newsletter and tell a friend." That kind of thing, so it's sort of on the front end and on the back end, trying to just build it. Over time, it took a while but people kept reading and the free list kind of kept growing from there. Nadia: (14:06) It's actually really incredible. I had no idea it just started truly from friends and family kind of start since you've had such awesome list growth since then. Tony: (14:18) It's been encouraging. Nadia: (14:19) How do people continue finding it? I know you mentioned in your writing that it's just sort of word of mouth. Do you have any sort of like shape around that? Or is it just sort of like somehow it's spreading between people that are reading it? Tony: (14:34) Yeah. You know, I don't really have great visibility into that. If you have a website, the metrics that you have on a website, you can see all kinds of things like, who are the readers? How did they get there? Substack has some of that, but oftentimes when somebody signs up, all I really have is the email address for the most part. I don't necessarily know how they got there, whether it's a friend of mine telling the friend, or whether they happen to Google a topic and came across it and signed up. I don't have a lot of visibility into that, so I can't really tell you. I just kind of know what I've done and I can tell you that I believe is kind of word of mouth. Tony: (15:16) Then, occasionally, a lot of it is content-driven, too. Not all of it, but if I have a big story, if I'm able to break a story and beat the competition on a story and then they recognize that it's a story and write about it and happen to credit me as breaking it, that is helpful, too, sort of leveraging those audiences who have bigger audiences. If the audience of The Charlotte Observer sees, "Oh, this was first reported in The Charlotte Ledger", well, they're much bigger than I am, and so if somebody reads that and says, "Well, what is The Charlotte Ledger? Let me check that out." That can be very helpful, too. Tony: (15:52) It's not just about the content because a lot of times, I think, you can have really good content and nobody will see, it, but there are ways to kind of... Partnerships are kind of a big thing in a lot of these circles to help leverage someone else's audience to grow your audience. Then, you mentioned them and it helps their audience. It's not exactly everybody scratching each other's back kind of a thing, but it can oftentimes sort of work out that way. I mean, there are different partnerships that I've kind of developed that I think have been helpful, but it's not like there's just one major one. Nadia: (16:28) That makes sense. It feels like those two things almost go hand-in-hand of having really great content and then also doing that extra work to make sure that you're maximizing the surface area of people that are going to be able to discover it, but if people are discovering it and it's not good or you write good stuff and no one's discovering it, then it's not going to work out either way. It definitely seems like you've got both. Nadia: (16:49) I'm curious, as you're talking about making reference to local news in Charlotte, I confess, I really just don't know very much at all about the world of local news except that I hear headlines that it's dying. I'd love to hear a little more explicit of your take on within Charlotte, who are the major players or institutions? Within that, what is local business news like since you focus specifically on business news? Does it have the same sort of trajectory that we're hearing about local news? Is there a different sort of revenue model? Is there anything different about that sort of space? Tony: (17:27) Yeah. Well, I can just tell you a little bit about Charlotte, and I hope that doesn't bore people, but it just kind of helps you understand the competitive environment here. Obviously, the biggest player for many, many years was the big metro newspaper, which in our case was The Charlotte Observer, where I used to work. When I was there, we had a print circulation of 250,000 people. That was about 15 years ago. Now, the print circulation is more like 60,000. It went from a newsroom of 250 journalists to now a newsroom of 40 journalists over the span of 15 years. You can see that the main metro newspapers are shrinking and so they can't do the sorts of things that they used to be able to do even though there's still an audience for the kind of work that they used to do. That's sort of the main one. Tony: (18:09) As far as business, we have a business journal, The Charlotte Business Journal. They have a print product. It's weekly. They have, obviously, a digital product. They do a lot of events. They channel a lot towards events and awards and sort of selling ads to the business community. There's a new-ish digital publication in town called Charlotte Agenda. It's entirely online, started five, six years ago. It's received some national attention. I mean, a lot of their coverage traditionally has been on dining and entertainment, sort of geared toward Millennials, the people in their 20s and 30s who are just moving to town and want information. Mostly directed at that group. They've made some moves in the last few months. Hired a journalist from The Charlotte Observer. They brought in another one from The City Magazine. They're trying to bulk up sort of their journalism chops a little bit. Tony: (19:22) Obviously, you got the public radio station. I've got a partnership with them, actually, where I'm on the air once a week talking about Charlotte business news, so that's sort of a nice little thing where it kind of gets me a little bit of exposure and gives them insight into the business news and they don't really have a business reporter for the most part. You have the TV stations. That's I think a little bit of a different audience there. They still have a fair number of people watching TV news. Tony: (19:51) Then, there are a number of other publications. There's the alt weekly, there's The Charlotte Magazine, there's any number of other, and I'm probably leaving some off, but a number of smaller publications. It's not that there's no coverage of local news in Charlotte. There definitely is, it's just it's a big city and the number of journalists working in Charlotte has definitely declined over the last 10 or 20 years. I think there's room to be doing more things. As it relates to business journalism, the big players often is thought of being The Business Journal, and circulation-wise, I think their print circulation is somewhere between 10 to 12,000 or something like that. Actually, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe I'm confusing that with their digital circulation. They're sort of the big player. Tony: (20:46) I'm trying to do content that's different than they do. I'm trying to sort of make it a little bit punchy, trying to make it a little bit fun, shorter, kind of quick hit pieces. Again, my audience is the reader. I am not dependent on advertising sales to big companies, so I don't have to soft pedal it toward big companies, for example. If I'm working for the reader, I can be truly kind of independent and I sort of live or die on what the readers think, so for journalists, that's always sort of what you want is to be working for the readers. That's just sort of the lay of the land here. Tony: (21:37) I think just generally a lot of people I talk to in Charlotte, they sort of lament the decline of local news and they say, "Oh, this is great that you're doing this. Charlotte needs something like this. Good luck to you. I hope you can grow it. I think it's a good thing." It's probably a little bit of self-selection bias that they like what I do and they tell me they like it. I'm sure there are people that don't like it, but you don't have to please everybody. The numbers are such, to make this work as a viable business, you don't need 200,000. If you can just kind of sort of do the math and say, "Okay, if I have a thousand people and they're paying a hundred dollars a year, well, you can do the math and say, 'Well, okay, that's how much money this brings in.'" Tony: (22:24) The numbers are not as big or as daunting. I think you're finding that probably not from other Substack writers that there's a saying that, "All you need is a thousand dedicated fans who are willing to pay you", and you can make a living off of that. I think that's definitely true. Nadia: (22:41) I'd love to dig into this model a little bit more for you. Tony: (22:44) Sure. Nadia: (22:45) You went paid pretty recently, actually, adding paid subscriptions to The Charlotte Ledger. I think it was like a year into you were starting to write. Did you know that you were going to eventually make this a paid thing when you started it? Did it start out as just as like, "I'll see where it goes and if I can get enough people to sign up"? Why did you finally decide to go paid? Tony: (23:07) Well, yeah. When I started, I mean, I knew Substack's model and I knew that that ultimately would probably be the endgame. When I started it up, I said, "Well, let's just see if there's a market for this." I didn't really know and you never really know when you start. I figured, "Well, if I start it and nobody really reads it, then, okay, maybe I'll sort of move on to something else and figure something else out." It kept growing and I kept adding free subscribers. It was about the rate of maybe 200 to 300 free subscribers a month or so. It was fairly consistent numbers on that. Tony: (23:43) I kept it free for a fairly long period of time. I know Substack probably would have recommended a shorter period for that, but I really wanted to get the free numbers up because I perceived that it might be harder to kind of keep growing that free list once you switched to paid. I really wanted to get that number up. I had initially thought, "Oh, it'll be great if I could get to 10,000 free subscribers." I had no idea how long that would take and I never got anywhere near that, but after about eight months, I was at about, I don't know, 2,000, 2,500 free subscribers or so. This was I think back in November. I think it was about 2,000 free subscribers back in November. Tony: (24:26) I said, "Okay, well, here's what I'm going to do." I put out a post and said, "I'm going to go to a paid subscriber model starting in late winter/early spring and here's why. Here's the rationale." It's all of the things that if you read anything that Substack puts out, it's all the same sort of thing, direct connection with the reader, develop a community, giving you important insight, if you value it you should pay for it, those kinds of things. That's a little tricky, too, to tell people. A lot of times people are used to getting news, especially local news, for free. We can get a lot on the internet. You can watch it on TV. It's like, "Well, what are you adding that is making it that I should pay for it?" Tony: (25:07) Again, the argument I was trying to make was, "I'm giving you something you literally cannot get anywhere else. If you want to know about the Trump Administration and what they're doing, you have dozens and dozens and dozens of potential sources for that, but if you want to know what's going on in South Charlotte on this particular plot of land where developers are wanting to build a shopping mall, you're not going to get that anywhere else except for The Charlotte Ledger." It was making those sort of arguments. I did that in November, announced that in November, and then in late February, I did another couple of posts. I said, "Okay, we're going to a paid subscription model. Here's how it is. Here's how much it works, or here's how much it costs, here's how it works." Tony: (25:47) I said, "$9 a month or $99 a year." Then, I also had a premium tier that I aimed at companies and people who wanted to give more. It was $379 a year. I sort of laid that out there. By that point, I had about I guess around maybe a little more than 3,000 people on the free list. The first day, it was great to see. I put it out there and then, boom, it just started coming in. After being like basically at zero revenue for 10 months, to actually have some money coming in, I can tell you, Nadia, it was just a great feeling to be able to do that and say, "Okay, this is very validating here." It's personally validating to know that people want to pay for what you produce, but it's also nice to have some money coming in. I've used a few freelancers and kind of gone out of pocket for. It's just nice to be able to kind of get some of that money in. Tony: (26:54) The first few days, there was just a pretty big spike and I basically left open this two-week window where I said, "Okay, I'm going to switch to paid subscriptions", but then the first paid post was going to be March 11th, sort of ramped up. I had a bunch of good content lined up. I had some good freelancers who had written some really smart things. Just try to take advantage of that two-week period as much as possible. Got a bunch of people signing up. Money kind of came in. Did that first paid post March 11th. Again, I saw a pretty good increase. You all had said... I had talked to Chris or Hamish and they had said, "Well, you can probably expect at the beginning you'll see a rush and then at the end you'll see a rush", and that's exactly what happened. Tony: (27:43) We did that first paid post March 11th, and then I was thinking, "Okay, I'll have some money coming and I'll kick back and sort of figure out the next step." Of course, that's right when this coronavirus stuff started hitting. I mean, my timing on switching to paid was actually pretty fortunate in the sense that if I had waited any longer, it would have gotten completely lost in all of the coronavirus stuff that's going on. The timing wound up being pretty good. Nadia: (28:10) Did you find that... You started reporting also, obviously, on how the crisis has been affecting Charlotte. You got this awesome grant from the Facebook Journalism Project to focus on reporting about the crisis in Charlotte. Did you find on balance that the crisis has been... I don't know exactly how to – Tony: (28:39) I understand what you're saying. Nadia: (28:40) Yeah. Tony: (28:42) Yeah. I initially was going three... well, I'd gone three mornings a week and then right before I announced that I was going to start switching to a paid subscription, I added a fourth day a week on Saturdays, which I had envisioned as I'm going to basically kind of roundup the news of the week and also use that as a way to point people toward the paid content that free subscribers wouldn't have seen. Saturday was going to be it's a free content day. The paid days would be Wednesdays and Fridays, and so the free days would be Mondays and Saturdays. The Saturday one was going to be a roundup, pointed people toward the paid content so the free subscribers could see and say, "Oh, wow, that sounds really good. I should subscribe." Tony: (29:24) That was my initial conception. Then, the coronavirus thing hit and I kind of had to make a choice. I could either sort of lay back and kind of stay on that schedule of what I was doing and keep the focus on business news as I had been, but I kind of felt like if I did that, it would... It's hard to write about just business stories when you have all of this stuff going on locally in which you don't really have enough journalists in town to cover it all. I kind of made the decision. I'm like, "Okay, we're going to ramp this sucker up. We're going to go from four days. We're going to come out now as much as we can." We've been going... As we're talking, this is recorded in the second week of April, and we've been going every day for the last month pretty much, seven days a week and a lot of that's with freelancers. I can't crank out that much content. Tony: (30:22) That's just saying, "Okay, look, this coverage is not necessarily business coverage, but it's important to the community. A bunch of the businesses are kind of shut down anyway, so let's just do good coverage." I've always thought, "Let's just do good material that's local rather than say, 'Oh, well, that's not a business story so I'm going to ignore it.'" It was sort of that decision where it's like, "Okay, let's go to seven days a week." It's not like there's any shortage of things to write about. It's not like some artificial thing where I'm saying, "Oh, we need to go to seven days a week. What are we going to put in tomorrow." There are multiple things going on every single day, so I sort of decided to do that. Tony: (31:08) Then, actually, the number of paid subscriptions throughout, they've continued to come in. I mean, it's not like they were during that two-week period where I had announced the paid subscription but hadn't turned it on yet, but we'd be getting a few every day. That's been positive. The nice thing about this model is that if you do good work and people like it, they subscribe. That's just very validating. That's just a very positive, positive thing, I think, not just for The Charlotte Ledger, but I think it's positive for the community. Tony: (31:44) That's one of the arguments, too, is that, "Look, this is a community good. This is something that actually Charlotte needs and it is good for Charlotte." That's really the motivation in starting it up. It wasn't like, "Oh, how can I make a bunch of money? Oh, I'm going to start a local media company. That's a genius move. That's a way to like cash in or whatever." I wouldn't advise people if they're in it for the money, starting up a local media company is probably not where you want to be just generally. Go into like Fintech or something like that. If you do the work... I think our work is good and I'm happy there are paid subscribers who agree. Nadia: (32:28) It's cool hearing the story about how you started to add in more coronavirus coverage to your business coverage because, to me, it feels like the kind of thing that having this more independent model is better suited for it. People are subscribing because they care about your perspective and you're offering them this point of view and this style of writing that they're not going to find anywhere else. Yes, you are a business newsletter and you're focused on writing about business news, but when something crazy sort of like once in a century happens, it's also possible to write about those things and have people say, "I'm here because I love your perspective on things. I want to hear what you think about all of these things." Right? Tony: (33:09) Yeah. That's been kind of interesting, too. If you come from a traditional journalist background, you're sort of programmed to just be completely neutral, right? I tried to have a little bit more opinion and a little bit more edge. I find that people... I don't know. I know that people tend to read and tend to consume what they agree with, but I get nice notes. I got one the other day from somebody saying, "Hey, I completely disagree with you on this, but I love The Ledger. I think you're wrong on this, just so you know." That kind of thing, which is kind of a nice... You can have like a respectful dialogue. It's one of these things that you kind of always want to have, that sometimes you hear about people trashing each other on social media or whatever. It's actually kind of nice. That's kind of been positive, too. Nadia: (33:55) As you were bringing on, you mentioned that you've had freelancers who are also helping to write for The Ledger. You recently announced that you brought on a managing editor and you have a contributing editor and you have like a whole kind of staff now that you're spinning up. You've got swag I saw, which seemed great. It's starting to be like more of this thing now. Given that part of the origin was you had this sort of specific voice and perspective that people are subscribing to, what is it like bringing on more people in that sort of context going from just you writing to people writing or whatever number of people writing? How do you sort of manage that? Tony: (34:39) Yeah, that's a good question because when I started this up, I kind of didn't really know like, "Okay, well, I'll just kind of try this on a lark." Then, you kind of do it and you get kind of locked in where it's like once there's a little momentum behind you, it's hard to just say, "All right, I want to do something else", and pull the plug. There are actually now a whole bunch of people who are reading and then they got freelancers and all of this. No, I basically said I was going to bring in... I knew when I was ramping up to paid that it would be nice to have some other content and other people providing content to take the burden off of me. Tony: (35:12) There are a number of journalists in town who have left the newspaper or are available who are now freelancing that I knew and that I could reach out to. I knew I would have this money coming in as soon as I turned on the paywall, so I was able to basically kind of borrow against that, pay some of the freelancers to do a little bit of work. It's like on the one hand you want to kind of keep the voice and keep the kind of tone and attitude. Sort of as you grow, I don't necessarily want to force people who are writers to just develop my tone and my attitude. I still try to write as much as I can, but during this whole coronavirus issue, it's like I definitely need freelancers to do that, to help out with that coverage. Tony: (36:08) As you mentioned, I did apply for a grant from Facebook and they came through and they've been funding a bunch of local news initiatives related to coronavirus. I got a $5,000 grant from them, so that helps pay freelancers, which is a big help. I just brought on this week, as we're talking here in the first part of April, a managing editor. It's someone I've known for 20 years who was at The Charlotte Observer. She decided to leave and come onboard with The Ledger, which is great. That is something that you kind of have to manage a little bit, again, but if the proposition is we're telling you things that you don't know and we're breaking news and we'll maybe give you some feature stories here and there, I think it's okay to have a few different voices. Tony: (36:54) There's this whole thing now where people sort of identify with personalities. I've never really been comfortable kind of being like the front person on this or my face associated with it or whatever, but I acknowledge that's sort of the reality now. I think it's okay to bring in multiple people. I think the results, I hope, will speak for themselves. Nadia: (37:20) They definitely do. Something I really love about just reading some of your writing is that this like heart and this mission really come through. You do explicitly say that you're doing this because you really want to offer something new and not just provide yet another kind of local news option. You're really trying to push the medium forward and push the conversation forward, which I think is just so awesome. Nadia: (37:42) It's made me kind of think like, you know... Maybe this is sort of like more of a philosophical question, but do you think of The Charlotte Ledger as... Would you put it in the bucket of a newspaper? Or a newsletter? Or is it like you and a bunch of other awesome people who are essentially freelancing with a platform? As you think about your plans for the future, as you think about growing, what sort of bucket do you mentally put it in? Tony: (38:11) Yeah, that's a really good question. I think the important thing and sort of the philosophy I have behind it is like I just want to tell you stuff that you don't know and stuff that makes you smarter. I think what Substack has proved is that there are multiple audiences for many, many different things, whether it's feminist poetry or 15th century literature or current events or tech or whatever, there are multiple, multiple audiences. What I'm trying to do with this is say, "Okay, my audience is people in Charlotte who are interested in their city and what's going on in their city and want to learn stuff about it and get insights and information that they can't get anywhere else." Tony: (39:00) As long as we're kind of doing that, whether it's my voice or whether it's someone else's voice or whether it's a combination of voices, I feel like that's going to be okay. I think that's going to kind of work itself out. I just want to constantly be doing just smart stories and sort of things that aren't obvious. I think we're going to be able to do that even as we have different people providing that information. I guess it's sort of a hybrid of all of those things that you mentioned, so it's sort of like a newspaper in that sense, but it's also kind of like a blog in the sense that it's kind of chatty and conversational. Tony: (39:45) It's also very kind of staccato. We're not doing a whole bunch of long-form stuff. I mean, we could. There are ways to do that. We could put a long-form thing on the website and excerpt it in the newsletter. There are all kinds of possible combinations. It's sort of a mixture of all of the above, but I'm trying not to make it just purely opinion thing. What I really wanted to do is not just be reactive to what everybody else is reporting, but I really want to do original pieces and have people talking about us and looking to us as a source of information. Tony: (40:23) The other part of it is, if you're serving your reader, you can kind of be above the fray. I don't mind if The Charlotte Observer or Charlotte Agenda or The Charlotte Business Journal, if they've got a good story, I don't mind mentioning it and saying like, "Hey, you should check out this thing in The Charlotte Business Journal they had on how many people are paying their rent this month during the coronavirus", or whatever, and you could link to it. I want to establish us as a trusted source that is sort of agnostic about where the information comes from. Tony: (40:54) A lot of places, that's not a traditional news mentality. The mentality traditionally, certainly in local news, is, "Hey, if you have a story, you promote that story and you kind of pretend that like nobody else exists." That just doesn't reflect reality. I have no problem. If somebody has a good story, I'd like to send them to the story because I'm working for the reader. If I can say to the reader, who is my customer, "You should go check out this story over here", then that serves my reader. It might give a click to this other publication, but that's fine. It's just kind of a different mentality, so I don't really know quite what bucket to put it in, Nadia, but it's kind of a hybrid, I guess. Nadia: (41:38) What is it about, I guess, everyone else's model that makes it harder for them to do that? Is it just because they are more about driving readership numbers and having exclusive information does that better? Tony: (41:53) Other models that are out there, I think... I just really like the model. I like having that direct connection with readers. It's just very simple, it's very straightforward. It's like in pretty much any other industry that if you find value in something, you pay for it. I think in media, a lot of times that can get very confused if you're very dependent on advertising. Tony: (42:14) I think it can be kind of confusing toward readers toward, are your interests in looking out for the readers? Or are they in looking out for the advertisers? Is this paid content? Are advertisers paying for this content? Or is this legitimately your honest opinion? I think it can get very confusing, I think, for readers. I don't care for those models as much. I would prefer to do what I'm doing with a direct connection to the readers. I think it's a little bit cleaner. Nadia: (42:43) This has made me wonder how you decided on your pricing, especially given that for local news, I guess, people are sort of mentally used to maybe more of an advertising model. How did you come up with your numbers? Tony: (42:55) Well, I had months and months to kind of think about this and work on this. I'd loved to tell you there's some scientific reason I settled on $9 a month or $99 a year, but it was really just sort of... A lot of people said, "Don't underprice." I had a few people who had newsletters that told me that. Then, the other part is if it's a business publication, and I sort of straddle that line between just doing pure sort of business stuff and things that are little more sort of direct to consumer, general kinds of things. I said, "If you're a business publication, you can probably command a little bit of a higher price because people are going to be able to expense for this business." They can put it on their company credit card and they can write it off as an expense if they're a small business owner. Tony: (43:44) You can kind of capture some of that. I think the minimum on Substack was $5 or $6 or something like that, but I said, "Okay, let's go up to nine. Part of it was also kind of marketing, thinking, "Okay, like when you go buy gas, it's like $2.19 and nine-tenths. I was like, "Let's keep it under 10. Let's go nine", and then same thing on the yearly." I said, "Let's go 99 because it sounds cheaper than a hundred I think mentally." That's sort of like I said not really scientific but that's sort of what I landed on. Nadia: (44:23) Makes sense. Just to sort of wrap up the conversation a bit, now that you've been doing this for a while, I'm wondering just from the personal side, what has it felt like to write for essentially yourself or for the reader versus writing for The Charlotte Observer versus the tine that you spent freelancing? You've really seen all different aspects, I guess, of doing local journalism and the good and the bad. Just would love to hear from a personal side, how does it compare? Tony: (44:55) That's a really good question. There's positives and negatives. The one thing is, it's extreme... Well, I mean, let's just break it all down. It's extremely liberating to just be able to kind of write whatever you want to write on the one hand. You have a whole bunch of freedom that if you're coming from a traditional media organization, you might not have if you have an editor that doesn't want this kind of story but wants that kind of story. I can pretty much do what I want to do, on the one hand. Tony: (45:26) Now, on the other hand, I don't really have, or I haven't had until lately, really an editor. Editors can actually make stories better. If you have a good editor, that can really make all of the difference in the world. On the one hand, the good news is I didn't have an editor. The bad news is, I don't have an editor, so that's kind of a plus and minus. The other thing I'll say is that since I'm sort of doing this for myself, I'm a lot more invested in it and I'm willing to spend more time in it than I would if I were just an employee of somewhere. This is kind of my baby. Tony: (45:59) Fortunately, there is something like Substack that allows you to do something like this, but it's like I was able to create this, and so I'm invested in it and I'm invested in its success. That is very motivating. It makes me spend a lot of time on it because I want it to be good. I don't just want to do it kind of halfway. I really want it to be good. The downside of that is I wind up spending a lot of time, a lot of late nights, a lot of getting up early in the morning, a lot of kind of extra phone calls, a lot of things. Tony: (46:35) It's tremendously fun and exhilarating and there's a whole strategy side of it that I haven't really had to deal with before but that's kind of interesting and neat. It's not just the writing, but there's the whole marketing side and the business side and all these kinds of partnerships and things like that. That's tremendously fascinating and it's also a little daunting because it's like, "Do I really know what I'm doing here?" Tony: (46:56) There are pluses and minuses, and I'm sure you hear this from a lot of other Substack writers, but it's like you can spend a lot of time. You can really pour your heart into something and spend a lot of time doing it because you want it to be good, and so that's just sort of a consideration. I guess if you're just somebody who wants to kind of occasionally write, it might not quite be the thing for you. There are a number of pluses and minuses, I guess. Nadia: (47:28) Sounds like an adventure. Tony: (47:31) Definitely an adventure. It's been a lot of fun. It's been really tremendous and it's been great. I feel like I'm doing some of the best work in my career. I feel like I'm kind of making a difference just hearing from people, making connections with people, and working with people I want to work with. It's been really exhilarating. It's been a lot of fun. Nadia: (47:52) That's a great note to end on. Thank you, Tony, for joining and chatting with me. Tony: (47:57) Thanks, Nadia. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Mar 04, 2020 16 min

How Delia Cai grew Deez Links from zero to 2,000+ signups

We invited Delia Cai, author of Deez Links, to speak to an audience of Substack writers in New York about how she grew her newsletter to 2,700 signups. Delia started her daily media newsletter as an intern at Atlantic Media. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can also check out the slides from Delia’s talk.. Takeaways Be your newsletter’s wingman. Talk it up to everyone. Borrow other people’s audiences to reach new readers. Build credibility by getting other people to write about you. Why Delia started a newsletter I write a newsletter called Deez Links. It’s basically a daily-ish media newsletter that sends you a link to something worth reading, tied to the larger media industry. I started Deez Links four years ago, when I was just out of college. I had an internship at Atlantic Media that was cool, and not cool, in that I spent all of my time just reading news about the industry, and I was writing corporate memos. It was cool because I was learning a lot about digital media, but I was also just sitting in a cubicle all day, not interacting with other humans. This was 2015, 2016, around when newsletters like Today in Tabs and Ann Friedman's newsletter were getting a lot of hype. I was reading those and I was like, “This is so cool. I want to try to do this. I want to try to write in some kind of outlet that isn't just in corporate memo speak and maybe I can just do this for my friends and it will just be a funny thing that I do during the work day.” So I started Deez Links. It was on TinyLetter. I made the logo in three seconds in MS Paint. It was an extremely lo-fi situation. I sent it out to my friends, friends from college, and friends that I worked with and I was just like, “I'm going to do this every day. Let me know if this is interesting.” I had no real aspirations for it other than just getting in the practice of writing about something every day. Deez Links grew to about 500 subscribers by 2018, which was fine. It was mostly people that I'd met on the internet, or just people that I knew personally. Then I moved it to Substack in 2018, and since then it's gone through this amazing growth trajectory to where I had 700 subscribers and got a shout-out in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. We're also doing this merch store which is really cool, which has taught me a lot already about ecommerce and supply chains. Deez Links was mostly people that I'd met on the internet, or just people that I knew personally. Then I moved it to Substack in 2018, and since then it's gone through this amazing growth trajectory to where I had 700 subscribers and got a shout-out in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. Looking back over those four years, it seems like there's this very calculated path to growing the newsletter, and I have to be totally honest and admit there was not. I was just bumbling along. This was my passion project. I just tried a bunch of things, so I’ll share with you the three buckets of things that have worked out for me. Be your newsletter’s wingman So the first one is super obvious. It's just to be your newsletter's wingman. I think the really wonderful thing about newsletters is they're so personal. They're tied to you and your name most of the time. Bring it up to your friends, your work friends, while applying for a job. I put my newsletter in my resume. And I was like, “I don't know if this is work appropriate, but this is what I got.” When you start a newsletter, you may not have a lot of cred to go off of. You don't have a built-in audience unless you're already a writer on other platforms, and I didn't have that. I was just out of college. Your first 500 subscribers are going to be the people who are just naturally invested in you, your friends and your mom. So you should make your newsletter an extension of yourself and bring it up all the time when you're talking to people in your circles. I think the trick to this is always consider how to widen that personal circle, whether it's going to meetups, going to hangouts, or interacting with people on Twitter and making Twitter friends, which is my favorite thing. That way you're always adding to the circle and you're being your own best advocate for the newsletter. Then at the end of the day, after you've bonded and had a normal human social exchange, you can say, “Yo, I have a newsletter. I write about X, Y, and Z. I would love to know what you think about it.” Telling them to Google it, or even texting them the link, is super easy. That way, you’re treating it as a way to stay in touch with people that’s less weird than, “Can I add you on LinkedIn?” It's like “Hey, we bonded. Do you want to support my art a little bit?”, which feels like a more natural ask. Borrow other people’s audiences The second tactic I stumbled upon was borrowing, or being exposed, to other people's audiences. I think this is the most effective one. I ended up coming across this tactic in three different ways. One was with classifieds. When I first started out, I was thinking, “I'm a young woman in media. I feel like other young women in media would like this newsletter, what are they reading right now? What am I reading right now?” I loved Ann Friedman's newsletter. She had this huge subscriber base, mostly women, and her newsletter is tied to current events and news as well. I feel like that's my audience. And she does this thing where she’ll place classified ads on her newsletter. It costs $50 to write a 140-character line about why you should subscribe to Deez Links and put the link in there. So that went out in her newsletter and I got 70 subscribers from doing this, which doesn't sound amazing, but when I first started out, it was like great. I didn't have to meet 70 people to do this. I just put an ad in this newsletter with a very loyal following. The other tactic that I accidentally came across, in terms of borrowing other people's audiences, was doing weekly Q&As. I first had this idea in 2018 where I was like, “I'm just going to do a Friday Q&A with someone in media, just ask them questions about their job.” Like if you cover Congress, what do you have to wear? What does that mean? Or if you do PR for the avocado industry, do you get free avocados? Just dumb questions that I would ask my friends anyway. I started doing them with my friends, and then once I ran out of friends to bug, I started branching out to people I really admired on Twitter, people I knew from work. And just realized this golden rule of how the internet and media works: if you interview someone, they're very likely going to share it with their following, and that's how you get exposed to their audience. If you interview someone, they're very likely going to share it with their following, and that's how you get exposed to their audience. For example, I did an interview with Alana Hope Levinson, the Deputy Editor of MEL magazine earlier last year. When it came out, she shared it with her followers. And she had a huge Twitter following. Then MEL magazine tweeted out to all of their readers, and I was like, “Oh, this is how it gets done.” With each weekly interview I do, I've noticed I get a handful of followers, especially when it's someone who has a very loyal following and audience of their own. Finally, honestly, the single biggest boost I got in terms of sign-ups was through a newsletter swap with this lifestyle site called The Good Trade. I wasn't super familiar with them, but their managing editor reached out to me at some point last year. I don't know if she found me through the classifieds, but she was like, “I love your newsletter. We have one, too, it's called The Daily Good. It seems like maybe we would have the same kind of audience. Let's do newsletters.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” But I had no idea what that even meant. I was just like, “I'm open to anything.” What I found out it meant was basically just plugging each other's newsletters. They wrote their own line and I put it in mine. So I wrote, “If you love a good semi-spicy newsletter, subscribe to Deez Links and you get a daily-ish link to something gossip worthy happening in the media industry.” And that was it. As soon as their newsletter went out, my inbox was just completely spammed and I got 400 sign-ups in one day from this. And I was like, this is really crazy. I didn't even know this community, this audience existed. Get credibility The third bucket of tactics is to get institutional cred. I mean that in very loose terms. One of the biggest things that worked out for Deez Links was when this email platform called Revue wanted to do a survey of the top media newsletters in the industry. It was a very unscientific poll. They were just reaching out to people in newsletters and saying “Hey, can you plug this poll? We just want everyone to take this survey.” So I put it in my newsletter at the time and said, “Hey guys, if you like this newsletter could you vote for Deez Links in this survey?” I only did it because I thought maybe it would be really funny if we got in the running. But it turned out that enough of my subscribers voted for Deez Links that it showed up in the top five between America Press Institute and Digiday Media, really legit places. When this came out I was like, “Oh my God, this makes us so legit.” And so again, people in industry were talking about it, there was a lot of buzz. A lot of people were like, “What is this one that I don't recognize? I'm going to Google it and subscribe and see what the deal is.” So when that came out I got about 200 subscribers. Finally, the one that I'm most proud of is when Deez Links was named in Vanity Fair. I'm going to be totally candid and tell you it's because the editor who wrote this piece is a friend from college. When she was researching this piece, she talked to me and was like, “What do you think? What are some people that you think would be good to talk to?” And so I was like, “You should talk to the Substack people. You should totally mention these newsletters.” We just bounced ideas off each other. Then she just did me a hugely gracious favor and quoted me directly and included Deez Links in this piece about the state of newsletters. That was huge, because it felt like this vote of confidence. When this piece went out, I got around 200 or 300 subscribers and bragging rights forever. I do want to acknowledge that there was a huge advantage in terms of starting my newsletter when I had a day job in media, and still do, and it automatically exposes me to this whole network of people with these followings and power, like the way the Vanity Fair writer had when she was writing this piece. I also want to acknowledge that there is nothing that media people love talking about more than their own industry. So that also was a huge help. But nevertheless, I do think that no matter what industry your day job is in, no matter what your newsletter is about, it's a really good exercise to just think about, “Who is my intended audience? What do I think that they're listening to or reading now? And how can I find these middlemen or platforms that can serve as a megaphone for reaching this audience?” Growing your subscriber base is like making friends It's like when you move to a new city and you don't know anyone. You can go and try and meet people one-on-one, but it would take a long time. The better route is to call up your super-popular, super well-connected friend in the city and be like, “Hey, can you introduce me to all of your friends?” And they do, and that's just so much faster. You get exposed to these various communities a lot quicker, and you come with this vote of confidence from your popular friend. It's cheesy to think about growing your subscriber base in terms of making friends, but I do think that it speaks to this very personal nature of newsletters. You're sliding to their inbox every morning, or every week, and your subscribers can just hit respond and tell you what they think. That's something really precious and beautiful. It does take longer to build up in ways that, say, maybe blogs were different. But I do think it's worth investing in those relationships, because once you become friends with these people, they’re there for you forever. They'll introduce you to their friends, and then your community just keeps on growing. For more advice on growing your newsletter, check out how Sarah Noeckel's Femstreet went from zero to 5,000 subscribers. Photo by Bess Adler Get full access to Substack Blog at
Mar 04, 2020 22 min

How Emily Atkin turned her climate change newsletter into a six-figure income

We invited Emily Atkin, author of Heated, to talk to an audience of Substack writers in New York about how she successfully launched paid subscriptions. Emily left her job at The New Republic to start Heated, which offers original reporting and analysis on the climate crisis. Her newsletter is now her full-time job, bringing in six figures of revenue. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. Takeaways Focus on building your free signup list first. Announce a paid launch date. Offer a discount for early birds. Every day during your launch week, give people a different reason to subscribe. A day before your first paid post, make a final pitch. I write a newsletter called Heated. It’s been in existence for five months now, and it’s going well. It’s my full-time endeavor. Being able to make a living off my writing has always been my dream since I was in college and I took my first journalism class. Eight years and a lot of failures later, Substack provided me with a platform to be able to succeed. It’s honestly allowed me to achieve my dream. I make more money now than I had at any salaried journalism job. I make more money now than I had at any salaried journalism job. I’m going to talk about how to grow your free newsletter into a paid newsletter. At this point, you’ll already have had a newsletter for a while. You’ll have enough subscribers that you think you can convert some to paying. You’re ready to go. I’m going to share the tactics I used. You can adapt these however you like. I only launched my paid newsletter a little over two months ago, and I’m already in the six-figures range. I’m not a genius; I just followed a formula. Make your newsletter free for as long as you can Step one is to make a free newsletter, and make it original. Make it consistent. I think consistency is really important; that’s something I’ve heard from a lot of my subscribers. I have a little over 20,000 signups on my free list and a little over 2,000 on my paid list, including subscriptions I’ve given away. Give your newsletter away for free for as long as you possibly can. Especially if it’s getting a lot of traction off the bat, and people are like, “I would like to pay you for this. Can I pay you for it?” Don’t let them. Hold on for as long as you possibly can, because almost all the paid subscriptions you’ll get will be conversions from your free list. People don’t just sign up and pay. They want free content first, so they can decide if they want to pay. From my analysis, the average amount of time that people take to convert from free to the paid list is about a month, although I don't have much data yet. Give your newsletter away for free for as long as you possibly can. People don’t just sign up and pay. They want free content first. Foster your community. Make people want to pay for your stuff. Market your newsletter in a way that will almost make you uncomfortable, because it sounds like you're just talking and promoting yourself all the time. Announce you’re going paid So you've done all that, and you're ready to launch your paid subscription. Don't just put a paywall up. Give your readers at least a week's notice. I write my newsletter four days a week, Monday through Thursday. So, two weeks before I put up a paywall, I said, “Okay, guys. Now's the time. It's been three months. Next week, I'm going to give you the ability to pay.” I wrote that on the bottom of a Thursday newsletter, the last one of the week. I told my readers that I've written this newsletter for free because I wanted to demonstrate its value first. I said that next week, I’ll start accepting payments, and I'll announce the rates then, but it’ll still be free all of next week. Once you turn on payments on Substack, the format changes. You unlock the ability to write preambles to your newsletter. That's where I did my marketing. I went personal on it. I was like, “Guys, I'm scared. I quit my job to do this. Please don't let me fail.” That's another thing about newsletters. You can get personal. I did some positive marketing for this, too. I was like, “If this works, imagine how many more people we can reach; if I can hire a research assistant; if I had a copy editor...” Kick off a paid launch week The next week is your paid launch week, where you remind people every day that you’re going paid, but you still keep all your content free. Make sure your content is really good all week. Put in extra work. Every day, in your preamble, try to give a different reason why people should subscribe. Set your price high – higher than you’d think. During your paid launch week, offer a discount. I did 25% off the first two days and then 20% off the second two days so I could say, “All right, you missed 25% off, but you still have 20% off”. Then the price goes up from there. For day one, I focused on a personal appeal and giving a discount. I made it feel like: “Today’s a special day, cue the air horn sounds!” Especially after you've been giving stuff away for three months, you've built up a community, so it should feel like, “Yay, now it's your turn.” I made a personal appeal there that was, “I gave this to you for free, but it's not sustainable for me. I want to be able to do this every day. I want this to grow. I have so many aspirations for this. We, together, can make this a thing. Let's make it a thing.” People are like, “Yeah, let's make it a thing!” I also do this thing where for every 100 people who sign up, I'll give 10 subscriptions away to people who need it. It helps. It's good because it helps grow your paid list, but it also gives your stuff to people who can't afford it. People are like, “Oh, okay, if I can afford it, I’d also like your writing to go to somebody else.” For day two, I used the excitement from day one for momentum. You can send different emails to your free and paid list. So I sent an email to those who’d paid on day one that was like, “Guys, you signed up. Yes. Thank you so much. You're amazing.” Then I sent an email to my free list that said, “If you're getting this message, that means you didn't sign up. How dare you? After all I've done for you.” But then I said, “This is the last day you can get 25% off, so you're going to want to do it today.” Build upon your momentum from day one. Include quotes from people on Twitter who are signing up for your newsletter, even if it's just one of your friends. For the next two days, experiment with different tactics. You know your community, so you’ll know best what would appeal to them. For day three, I tried this messaging about how the fossil fuel industry poured billions of dollars into disinformation. My newsletter is about climate change, but it's specifically about powerful people and climate change. So for day three, I used that angle. I was like, “Let's combat this with information. Let's produce journalism that makes the truth louder than their lies. That can only happen with your support.” On day four, I didn't do any marketing. I just did an ‘Ask Me Anything’ [AMA]. I used the discussion threads feature on Substack, which is a way to interact with your subscribers. On that day, people had a lot of questions about the paid launch, so I was able to go in there and answer their questions. I did five newsletters this week instead of my usual four, because I just wanted more opportunities to promote my launch. I decided to make my last day something big, to demonstrate the value of this work that your money would buy. On the last day, I launched a project I had been working on for a long time. I published a large anthology of fossil fuel advertisements. There was an embargoed study in there, some interviews, all this stuff. Instead of having my marketing preamble at the beginning, this time I did it at the end. I said, “This is an ongoing project. There's so much we're going to do, but it can only happen with your support.” Make your final pitch By the end of this week, you've asked people to pay you every single day. It’s now the weekend. Take a break. The last thing that happens is to make your final big pitch. For me, this was the Monday after my paid launch week. This will be the last time your newsletter is free. After my final pitch, I put up a paywall, and now 75% of my content is paywalled. I told my readers that after three months, this will be the last time you're going to get it. Write a post explaining everything that you've accomplished while your newsletter was free. If you’re thinking about going paid, you should always keep a list of every good thing that has happened, like getting a nice email, a good tweet, seeing your work cited in another publication – just any way you can say you've been influencing the conversation or making people feel good. You want to be able to say, “This newsletter is original in this way. Nothing else like this exists.” Write a post explaining everything that you've accomplished while your newsletter was free. You want to be able to say, “This newsletter is original in this way. Nothing else like this exists.” That's what I put into my final pitch. I showed what I’d accomplished in the past three months. I had sections about how this reporting is making a difference, how it’s shifting the national conversation, where it's been cited. Every amount of praise that has ever happened, I put into one place. “Vox called it great. Earther called it wonderful. Environmental Health News called it a unique blend of insight and smartass.” Back when my newsletter was still free, I’d done a survey where I asked people to tell me why they liked the newsletter. I compiled that into a spreadsheet and used it for marketing. I was able to say things like, “Six people said that they felt less alone when they read this newsletter. It's helping you guys feel better, and that's what makes me feel better. So let's keep this going.” Your first and your last pitch are the days where you’ll get the most subscribers. The first day you launch, you get a lot. The second day, especially if you do a two-day discount, you get a lot. Third and fourth day, you're like, “Uh-oh, it's over.” And then on the final day, you’ll get a lot. The final step is to put up your paywall. After you do that, your daily audience will become much smaller. At that point, I probably had 18,000 free signups. All of a sudden, with my paid subscribers, it's 1,000. For the majority of the week, I'm now writing for a much smaller audience, which is actually way easier, because they like me enough to have paid me. After launch week is over, you might panic because you think it's all over and no one will ever pay you again. But just keep that process going. Every time you have a free newsletter, try to say something to encourage people to go paid. How do you know if you’re ready? You might be asking yourself, “Am I ready to launch?” So I came up with a list of considerations that might help you decide: How many free subscribers do you have? Conversion rates tend to be around 4 to 10 percent, according to other Substackers I’ve talked to. If your free list isn’t very big, consider waiting. How much money do you want to charge? Have you asked your subscribers what they’re willing to pay, or looked at similar newsletters to yours? What impact have you made that you can point to? People like knowing they’re supporting something meaningful. Have you asked your readers for feedback? What makes you original and worth paying for? Before you launch paid, you should feel really comfortable saying why your thing is different than anybody else's thing and why it should exist. You’re going to have to make your case and do a lot of shameless self-promotion around it. It’s going to be awkward. Get over it. If you have a highly specialized niche audience, you might be ready. That means people who like you, really like you. Some of the best advice I got was that you don't have to please everybody, but you have to please some people a lot. Not everybody has to like you, but a small amount of people have to really like you. Your impact doesn't have to be big. Use language to make a small impact seem bigger. We were cited in this local paper with a circulation of 20,000. That might not feel big to you, but people like to feel like they're part of something. That's why the newsletter model works. Your readers want to feel like they're part of this community that's growing and making a difference. The most important question, though, is: Do you feel ready? The most important question, though, is: Do you feel ready? This process is really different for everybody. Since starting my newsletter, I've talked to many other Substack writers who are going through this, and their newsletters and communities are so different from mine. Their subject matter is different. Not everyone is a reporter. Some of us do creative writing. Some of us compile links. We all have different communities. In the end, I feel like you'll just know. Even if you're scared, you'll have a gut feeling that you think it might be time, and you might be willing to make it work. Just trust that feeling, because that's what I did, and I'm still winging it. For more advice on launching a paid publication, check out our guide to going paid. Photo by Bess Adler Get full access to Substack Blog at
Mar 04, 2020 15 min

How Walt Hickey of Numlock News expanded to multiple newsletters

We invited Walt Hickey, author of Numlock News, to share with an audience of Substack writers in New York how he thinks about spinning off multiple newsletters for fun and profit. Walt started off with Numlock News – where he writes about the numbers behind the news – then added paid subscriptions, an Oscar Awards supplement, and a book club. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. Takeaways Multiple newsletters are a lightweight way to experiment with new ideas. Use your main newsletter to create spin-offs, so you never have to deal with the “zero subscriber” problem again. Get creative with your paid subscriptions. You don’t just have to send one free and one paid post. Depending on your topic, you might consider publishing paid content during a peak season, quarterly in-depth reports, or more. I run a newsletter called Numlock. It’s a daily morning newsletter about the numbers inside the news. I started it after working at FiveThirtyEight for about five years, where I’d started a newsletter called Significant Digits. As a guy with a math-y background, I realized that my biggest liability as a person in journalism was that I needed to get better at writing, and doing something every day was a really effective way of practicing. I really enjoyed writing that newsletter, and then it hit a point where the scuttlebutt was that FiveThirtyEight was going to be sold. I looked at where Sig Dig was and realized there was more value in there than we were currently unlocking. The open rate was great. People enjoyed receiving it. In building the case for why FiveThirtyEight should keep me, I actually built the case for why I should leave and start my own newsletter. I did that, and it's been great. How he started multiple newsletters My main newsletter is Numlock, it’s my bread and butter. It’s what I've been doing for more than two years now. I have a product that I think is good, and that my audience thinks is good. As a result, I have a good “in” with people who enjoy reading my work. If I were to describe Numlock in Uber-for-pizza terms, what I think of is, “It's Good Morning America for nerdier folks.” This being Substack, at a certain point, it came time to monetize, so I launched a Sunday edition. For $5 a month, I talk to either a writer who wrote a really cool story that I put in the main newsletter, or I talk to an author who's got a good book out. This is a really fun way to add value. If you think about traditional media ecosystems like late night shows, there’s a reason they have written jokes in the beginning and then an interview at the end. It’s because interviews are easy to book, and people tend to like them a lot. It’s a nice way to have something that’s less work than the newsletter itself, but gives people more insight into the stories that we find. But I’ve also started a couple of other spin-off newsletters, one of which is the Numlock Awards Supplement. I’m a culture writer, and I love predicting the Oscars using math. It's a good time. I started about two years ago and wanted to keep doing it. I think we learn a lot about ourselves, and how we can predict things, through this institution that is very obscure. It's a fun little puzzle. So I started a pop-up award season newsletter. It runs from November-ish, or whenever I feel like starting it, until Oscar night and the week after. It's a nice opportunity to talk about a thing I'm really passionate about, but not have to throw it at my traditional people who just want to watch Good Morning America and never talk to me again. That spawned another idea. I love engaging with audiences, and discussion threads are such a cool feature that Substack has built. I wanted a way to tap into that without compelling people who just enjoyed the passive nature of newsletters to participate. So I thought, again, having interviewed a lot of authors and seeing the response that that gets, my audience is one that enjoys reading things, learning new things, cool ideas, cool books and stuff like that. I figured one way to expand that was through a book club. The Numlock Book Club is kind of a democracy, and it's also kind of an experiment. The idea was we're going to vote on books to read, and then we're going to vote on these books. Whatever book you pick, we're going to read, then it's basically just going to be a managed reading thing. We've gone through three so far. We're in the middle of our fourth, and it's really fun. You get a chance to cover things that you wouldn't normally cover. You get to engage with readers that you might not normally be able or willing to, based on how you normally interact with your newsletter. Spin-offs make it easy to try new things Here’s the real reason that you should make spin-off newsletters. Who’s having fun in media anymore? I think about this question constantly, because I'm having fun in media, but many other people are not. So I made this list of all the people I could think of that are currently having fun in media: Top TV talent Private equity capitalists extracting enormous quantities of wealth for a style of business operation not entirely unlike the episode where Tony Soprano busted up that camping store Walt Disney People who make a living directly from their audience People that get residuals from NBC television shows that aired in the '90s and early 2000s Jake Paul I can't be any of these except for one, but it’s really fun. To give you an example of other people who’ve tried this, I’d like to highlight the example of the McElroy brothers, which is a family of brothers who have podcasts. They started with a podcast called My Brother, My Brother, and Me. Then they tried to do one episode about Dungeons and Dragons, and it went well. So they spun that off and made a podcast called The Adventure Zone, which ended up becoming a lot more popular than the original podcast. Eventually, they started adding some other weird spin-off podcasts. Some of these then turned into other opportunities to cross-promote. The idea is, if you like The Bachelor, you can listen to Rose Buddies. If you like medical history, you can check out Sawbones, which promotes everything else they have. Everything they do internally plugs into one another. So if I’m a person who likes the first thing, I can eventually wind my way to other things that I like. Maybe you don't want to listen to Sawbones, but you might be really down for The Adventure Zone. And this also turns into other opportunities like a book, or a graphic novel, or the fact that they had a podcast called The McElroy Brothers Will Be in Trolls 2 and eventually it happened – they're in Trolls 2. Spin-offs are great. They address a lot of things that are annoying about starting a newsletter from scratch, namely that you know the people who like you the most already. They're the ones who currently subscribe to your newsletter. So you can reach the people who are most likely to subscribe to your other newsletter. Spin-offs are great. They address a lot of things that are annoying about starting a newsletter from scratch, namely that you know the people who like you the most already. The Golden Rule I've found is that every new subscriber is slightly easier to get than the previous subscriber, because networks scale. It's very difficult to go from zero to one. Going 10 to 11 is easier. Going 99 to 100 is easier than that, and so on. So you never really need to relive the “zero-subscriber newsletter” that really takes guts to send. As long as you come into it like that, you can say, “I don't know if this is going to last forever. This is just a fun little thing I'm going to do on the side.” But your spin-offs have an opportunity to bolster the way that you interact with your audience. You might get that hit. You might make a sidebar newsletter that ends up being bigger than your initial one. Nobody really knows what's good anymore, but experimenting a lot is a good way to try that. Also, collaborations are great. I do my Oscar Awards one with the person I’m dating, who knows much more about the Oscars than I do. Get creative with paid subscriptions The internet spent a lot of time figuring out how to really optimize ads. We know a lot of ways to make money off advertising to people. We also now know that, yes, subscriptions are great. Last night I wondered: what is the average frequency with which a paid newsletter sends out paid posts? I pulled the top 25 Substack newsletters and found that 14 of the 25 were sending about even amounts: one paid post for one free post. Some were more like me, where you do five free, one paid. And then some were the opposite direction, where you get five paid and then one free per week. So we know what tends to do well when it comes to subscriptions, but I want to point out a few other business models that I think people should try. There are different ways to use subscriptions that are not simply, “Half my posts are behind a paywall and the other half is free.” For instance, you can use what’s almost like demand-based pricing. If there's an election going on, in October lots of people are going to be interested in that stuff. And so maybe you have something that’s like, “We're an elections newsletter. In October, only paid subscribers get the really timely material.” On the other hand, you could have a paid-only edition that arrives quarterly or yearly. You just have to figure out what you need to promise and then deliver on that. It doesn't need to be once a week. It doesn't need to be twice a week. It doesn't need to be once a month. As long as you figure out your social contract with your readers, you can do whatever you want. It can come in the form of, “I cover an industry and once a year, you're going to get a big report from me and that's what the money's for.” You can promise to do 20 paid-only editions per year and only send them when there's actually news on your beat. I'm not going to monetize my Oscars newsletter, but maybe I have one that’s awards all year-round, and then I only send the paid editions when the news is hot, which is going to be in January and February. There are all sorts of ways that you can use ancillary newsletters to both experiment with content and experiment with delivery formats. For more advice on growing your newsletter, check out “How to build community around your publication.” Photo by Bess Adler Get full access to Substack Blog at
Jun 21, 2019 40 min

A growth masterclass with Judd Legum of Popular Information

Of all the writers who use Substack, no one is as good at promoting their newsletter as Judd Legum, publisher of Popular Information. Judd was previously the editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress and has also been a political campaign researcher and lawyer. I convinced him to join me on a special pop-up episode of the Substack Podcast to share his advice on how to run a one-man newsletter business, build an audience, and turn Twitter to your advantage. Below, I’ve summarized some of the key takeaways. Enjoy! —Hamish Play to your strengths “When I’ve been able to leverage my skill as a researcher and then turn it around and put it out in the newsletter and help inform people in a deeper way about something they care about – whether that’s been the corporate donations to Cindy Hyde-Smith or Steve King, or whether that’s been really diving in deep to the election fraud issues in North Carolina, or some of the more recent stuff I’ve done about Facebook ads or the corporate contributions to some of these politicians pushing abortion bans in the United States – that’s what the audience really responds to. And so knowing that, I try to look at what’s going on the news and see where is there a topic that I can research further and pull out stuff that’s really new. That’s information that people didn’t have and I think that’s what people value and are willing to pay for.” People pay to feel empowered “From what I’ve heard from my paid subscribers, it’s just that they really want to support this kind of journalism, and they feel good about it when I do that kind of work. They feel empowered and they feel more informed and so that’s what’s motivated them. And that’s something I didn’t anticipate either. I thought it was really just the paywall that motivates people and the fact that you were withholding content, but I think for most people that’s not it.” Sell value instead of volume “Most people do not want more email. So if the only thing you have to offer them is, ‘Hey, subscribe to this newsletter and you’ll get some more email,’ that’s not that compelling. But if you can create a different value proposition where you can say, ‘Look, I’m creating the kind of writing that you can’t find anywhere else and I need you to be a part of this and to support this work if you value it,’ then I think that people get into that. And they want to get it four times a week, but it’s not necessarily the idea of getting it four times a week that is going to be the motivating factor.” Why he spent the first three months publishing everything for free “I thought that if I could get people in the door and show them what I could do with their support, that maybe people would go for it. And I think that’s largely what happened, because that’s still been my best little, you know, two-week period, was right when I turned on the paid subscriptions and the people who had been receiving it during that free period were given an opportunity to switch over.” The importance of free content “If you think of it from a business perspective, because this is a little business that you start – it’s a newsletter but it’s also a business – the free content is by far the most important content for your business. Because one, it’s something that anyone can read and it can help grow your free list. And two, it’s what gets sent to your total mailing list and gives you an opportunity to convert people.” If you don’t self-promote, you won’t get a promotion “I think probably the easiest mistake is just to think that, ‘Oh, I’m just going to write and put it out there and we’ll just see what happens.’ I can tell you, nothing will happen. You’ve got to really work on it... If you’re trying to earn a living doing it, you’ve got to work on it. And in addition to your job of writing the newsletter, you have another job, which is you’re the marketing officer for your company.” How to use Twitter to drive growth “I don’t know the exact percentage of subscribers who first came on Twitter but I think it probably approaches 50% of my paid subscribers. And the way I use it is to give people essentially a thesis statement of what the newsletter is about that day. And I’ll do that in a thread of tweets. It might be 5 to 15 tweets where I lay out my main points or the things that I’ve learned. And then I try to use that to build up to a period where one of those tweets – not the first tweet and not the last tweet but somewhere in there – there is an organic place where I can ask people to sign up for the newsletter and that that’s the best way to get the information”. Use Twitter to grow even if you don’t have a huge following “If you don’t have a huge following to begin with, you can still be successful. And one of the ways to do that is to reach out directly to people and tell them about what you’ve written if you do it in a thoughtful way. So you’ve got to think about what your topic is, what you’ve discovered, what you’ve written about and think about who does have a large audience on Twitter and might be interested in that, and send them a nice polite note about that thing. And that’s still something I do on a targeted basis, even though I do have a pretty good following, because there’s people with even bigger followings and there’s also people with smaller followings but they have really engaged followings that you want to get your information in front of.” Threads are better than single tweets “One, it’s just more space in people’s feeds. Social media is a brawl for people’s attention. And it’s basically like sending eight or nine people into the ring versus one person into the ring to see what they can do, so that’s an advantage. I think you have a better chance of capturing what’s interesting about your newsletter in a thread than you do in a single tweet. And I think that, just as a matter of Twitter strategy, I know that creating a popular thread is something that is likely to get you new Twitter followers, whereas just an individual popular tweet is not. And I think that’s because a thread indicates that you are a thoughtful person.” (See example below.) Tweet something valuable “Anyone can tweet a link to their website, but you have to come up with a value proposition for why people should do it. I think the shortest way to explain the value proposition that works best for me is that you should do it to receive and support accountability journalism. But no matter who you are, you have to be able to succinctly describe the value proposition. If you don’t have that, it really is not going to matter how much you promote your website, because you haven’t given people a reason to do it.” Get full access to Substack Blog at
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