Everyone Should Start a Newsletter. Yes, That Means You!
Lessons from growing this newsletter to 3,000 subscribers
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I crossed 3,000 subscribers on this newsletter last week. And if I told my former self that I’d be writing a newsletter after leaving Netflix, I would’ve never believed it.
As an engineer, I thought the only business worth building was subscription software. But since delving into the newsletter world, I’ve realized that newsletters are better than software businesses in almost every single way.
It’s faster to write an article than it is to build an app.
It’s cheaper to operate because there’s no code to maintain.
It scales better than software because as the subscriber base grows the time to write a newsletter stays the same.
Newsletters can even charge the same subscription fees that investors prize in software businesses as well.
Take the newsletter “Pragmatic Engineer” by Gergely Orosz, an ex-Uber manager. This is the #1 tech newsletter on Substack and has over 300,000 subscribers.
Based on my napkin math, if 5% of his readers convert to paid subscribers then that means he has around 15,000 people paying him $15/month. If you multiply 15k people by $15, he makes $225k PER MONTH.
Multiply that over 12 months and we are talking about a 2.7 million dollar business per year.
Let that sink in for a second.
2.7 million dollars from a newsletter.
Granted, 2.7 million is on the higher end of estimates because he still has to pay fees and taxes. But still his one person newsletter makes more in one year than what most people make in their lifetimes.
Even if you keep your newsletter free, the revenue you can earn from sponsorships or course sales is not trivial.
Jack Raines has a finance newsletter with 30k+ subscribers, and charges 1k per sponsorship slot. He sends these newsletters twice a week, which means he’s making about 8k per month from sponsorships.
Even for my humble size of 3,000 subscribers, I’m starting to see results. Each newsletter issue I send drives about 1 or 2 course sales each. This is how in January I sold $350 in courses, and almost cracked $400 in February last month, a new record.
The lesson here is that newsletters are serious businesses, and you’ve got to get on the newsletter train ASAP.
How to Get Started With a Newsletter
There are two main platforms that people write newsletters on: Substack and Beehiiv.
Most people recommend starting on Substack because it’s free to start and easy to setup. They also launched several game-changing features such as recommendations which helps with discoverability and have prioritized improving SEO.
However, if you turn on paid subscriptions, the 10% take rate from Substack is quite high. Imagine if you were like Gergely, you would have to pay at least 200k in fees to Substack every year.
Beehiiv on the other hand charges a flat subscription fee that doesn’t scale with your subscriber base. And if you’re under 2,500 subscribers, it’s free.
Substack also has an issue where they don’t allow you to set canonical links for your articles. Canonical links are how you tell Google which website is the master source of your content.
For example, if you cross-post your article on 5 websites, but set the canonical link to your blog, then it’s your blog that will show up in the Google search results, not the other websites.
Substack’s inability to let creators set canonical links is a serious issue because it means you must use Substack as your primary content host. But if you can’t tell Substack where the master source of your articles are, do you really own the content?
On balance, it’s a toss-up between starting a newsletter on Beehiiv or Substack. You can’t go wrong either way.
Many people tell me how they want to start a newsletter, but worry that they “have nothing to write about.” But the issue with writing is never a lack of topics to write about, but not enough time to write about everything!
So to get started, I recommend centering your newsletter around 3 questions.
What could you talk endlessly about?
What type of content do you regularly consume?
What do people ask you for advice on?
Using your passions for a newsletter
The topics you can talk endlessly about are a rich source of newsletter content. By definition, if you can talk endlessly about it, you will never run out of content!
Any of your interests and hobbies qualify. Think of your friends who talk endlessly about the NBA, music, K-Pop, entrepreneurship, AI, crypto, and more. Each of these could be a newsletter on its own.
For example, Avinash Kunnath is a writer from my alma mater UC Berkeley. He is a huge sports fan and goes to all of the Berkeley athletics games. He started a Substack where he documents his takes from each Berkeley game. Now it has turned into a forum for Berkeley fans to discuss their athletics program. So Avinash managed to use his passion for Berkeley sports to fuel his newsletter content engine.
Curation as a Newsletter
The content that you consume daily is also a starting point for your newsletter as well. You probably listen to so many podcasts and read so many articles. You just have to organize them, write quick summaries, and boom - you’ve got a newsletter!
I like this curation-as-a-newsletter approach because you are already doing the research in your free time, so you might as well share it with others. Plus, you don’t have to be a good writer to be a curator. It’s more about the quality of your resources rather than the quality of your writing.
And third, it takes less time than writing full-length issues. The founder of TLDR, a tech newsletter says curating his newsletter only takes him about 30 minutes a day. That newsletter now has almost 1 million subscribers. Mind blowing!
Answer People’s Questions for Newsletter Content
What people ask you for advice on is the world telling you what content to make. So write articles answering those questions and turn that into an advice-column newsletter. Since readers have an endless number of questions, this is an endless source of content as well.
For example, a few weeks ago I wrote about how I went to a relationship workshop by Amy Chan. She wrote that she started her career writing a relationship column where she answered readers’ questions. Each column could’ve easily been a newsletter issue.
The benefit of starting an advice column is that people asking you questions is validation that people care. So it’s guaranteed that they will like your content.
How to Grow the Newsletter
First off, you can have a perfect newsletter website, but if the content isn’t good your newsletter won’t grow. Lenny of “Lenny’s Newsletter”, the #1 Product Management newsletter on Substack once said that all his time spent testing things like referral programs paled in impact compared to making sure he pumped out quality content.
So content is always king!
That said, I have noticed a few tricks that help drive my newsletter’s growth.
I used to promote my newsletter issue only once a week, but I recently started posting “teaser” posts. The day before I publish an issue, I announce on social media how I’m about to drop a post, and I link to the newsletter below.
This ALWAYS drives extra subs, so I highly recommend doing two posts: a teaser post the day before you post, and a post the day when you actually post.
Another way to grow is to piggy-back off of other people’s audiences. Look out for other big writers and see if you can guest-post on their blogs. That way you can reach a larger audience and a portion of them might subscribe to your newsletter as well.
Whatever you do, make sure it’s beneficial for the other party as well. This means you have to:
Post consistently to show that you’re serious
Make sure your guest-post is relevant for THEIR audience
Make sure the content is of the highest possible quality.
It’s a privilege to guest-post with others, so if they give you the stage make the most of it!
Every article you write is like a product. And just as marketing is critical for any product to succeed, you can’t only hit publish and expect your newsletter to grow. You have to spend time distributing your articles as well.
One example of someone who has mastered distribution is Harry Dry of Marketing Examples. He revealed in an interview once that he spends 8 hours per issue on distribution: 4 hours cross-posting on various forums, Facebook groups, and online communities, and 4 hours engaging with comments.
He spends more time distributing than most people spend on the article itself!
We must follow Harry’s example and go where our audience may be. Because I post a lot of engineering content, I often post in other engineering forums, which includes:
I also post articles that are relevant to entrepreneurship in:
IndieHackers (a community for SaaS developers)
Asian Hustle Network (a Facebook group for Asian American entrepreneurs)
Several online communities I’m in
Whatever you do, remember to follow two rules:
Don’t post your newsletter on other sites if it’s not relevant to the type of content they expect. For example, it doesn’t make sense to post a cooking newsletter on HackerNews since HN expects content about technology and engineering.
If you re-post on other sites, make sure to point the canonical links to your website so you get all the SEO juice for yourself.
Future Plans for This Newsletter
Starting this newsletter was one of the best decisions I made in 2022 and brings me tremendous joy. I look forward to writing for you every single week.
That said, I’m testing a few things to improve the growth rate of this newsletter.
First, I created a free e-book as a gift for everyone who subscribes. Check your welcome email to get yours.
Second, I’m planning to talk to SEO consultants on how to capture more traffic from Google rather than letting Medium or other sites get the traffic from my articles.
Third, I plan to focus more on partnerships and reach out to other big newsletter writers to see if I can guest-post. You may see some articles from me on other newsletters soon.
But regardless, here’s to 3,000 subscribers on this newsletter. I look forward to riding this train with you to 4,000 subscribers and beyond!
Whenever you're ready, there are 2 ways I can help you:
“Beginner’s Guide to Medium in 60 minutes” - where I break down my entire writing process and show you how to grow your Medium following.
“How to Be an Engineer Influencer” - where I teach W-2 employees how to diversify their income streams by building an audience on social media.
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Excellent advice Michael. Thanks for sharing!
great article! really appreciate the info on distribution.