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How I Built a Business on Substack: One Year Later
What I learned about subscription newsletters
I launched this Substack on August 2nd, 2021, so now’s as good of a time as any to discuss the experience of running a subscription newsletter business and what it takes to make it.
Publishing multiple articles per week on top of running multiple other businesses is a grind, and like any activity with a long-term grind phase, it teaches and transforms you. Here’s how.
How to make it on Substack
If you want to make it you have to be an excellent writer. If your writing abilities aren’t in the top 1% then you’ll never make any money on Substack.
How do you know if you’re a top 1% writer? The same way that you determine your skill level at anything.
If no one has ever complimented you on your writing ability (unprompted), then you’re not a good writer.
Good writers almost always get a holy shit! reaction when people read their content. If you’re not getting that on a regular basis then you don’t have what it takes. It’s that simple.
A Substack isn’t a lottery ticket. Creating a BowTied account and launching a half-assed newsletter with poorly-thought out articles that read like high school essays from a C student isn’t a shortcut to making it.
Writing is by far the most difficult way to make a living that’s ever existed. I have no idea why it appeals to lazy people. You can’t publish a boring-ass article every two weeks and expect that people are actually going to pay you money for it. If you don’t give a shit then no one else will either. Enjoy your $275 MRR from your pity subscriptions paid for by people who don’t actually read anything you write.
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A Substack isn’t a content site
One mistake I see many people making is treating their Substack like it’s a regular WordPress site.
The two couldn’t be more different.
Yes, they both involve creating a massive amount of written content. But the goals are VERY different.
When creating an Authority Site on WordPress (or another CMS platform), your goal is to write SEO articles that target specific keywords in your niche so you can rank highly in Google. This drives traffic to your site which you can then convert to income from affiliate conversions, e-commerce sales, or ad impressions.
You need to take the opposite approach with Substack. You shouldn’t be trying to gain organic traffic from Google because it corrupts the content creation process. People subscribe a particular Substack because they want unvarnished content directly from a single person. The reason they give you money is because they enjoy your expertise, personality, and voice. They don’t want to read articles targeting every single variation of a keyword. No one wants to pay for articles that are formatted like standard SEO content.
They want authenticity.
People pay for a Substack subscription because they want to read great writing. Your voice is the greatest determinant of your success or failure. You can’t hold back AT ALL if you want to attract subscribers.
SEO articles can get away with being boring (for now) because the content itself isn’t the product. The content is a means to an end (getting the traffic to convert).
With Substack, the content is the product and it needs to be perfect. The insane quantity of both free and paid content online means that you can only capture value by being in the top 1%.
The 98th percentile isn’t good enough. You have to be the best.
Yes, it’s possible to make a living as a writer
I currently make more than the average middle class salary each month from subscription revenue alone. People are willing to pay money for good writing.
High-quality writing is so rare that when people find it they can’t open their wallets fast enough. A great writer can change the way you view the world and the way you live your life just by how he arranges words on a screen.
Think about how profound that is.
Every day you skim through multiple articles, e-mails, and social media feeds. Most of it mediocre noise. But every once in a while you come across something that snaps you out of the dull haze of your modern lifestyle. It makes your mundane surroundings feel as meaningful as they once felt when you were a little kid, even if the feeling only lasts for a moment.
That’s what people are paying money for.
They aren’t subscribing for utilitarian reasons. Just having knowledge about a topic isn’t enough. You have to give your readers the profound feeling that they’re seeking, even if they don’t consciously know that that’s what they want.
It’s not for everyone. To be a good writer means that you have to fully embody Nietzsche’s advice and “become who you are” (I bring this quote up a lot). You have to leave a part of yourself in your writing if you want to have a shot at making it. And that only applies if you’re talented. The real tragic part is that, for most people, putting their personality into their writing won’t help them at all because what they are is the living embodiment of mediocrity in human form.
If you’re a “regular guy” then no one will ever give a shit what you have to say. You have to be somebody. If you’re an empty vessel then it’s game over. Your readers’ minds are the ones who are empty (in a sense), and you have to fill them up with content that reflects your world view and makes them think in a way that’s different from what they’re accustomed to.
In the past year I learned a lot about a very different type of content business from the affiliate sites that I’m used to running.
There are benefits and disadvantages to both. Overall I’d say that creating a successful Authority Site is much easier because you’re marketing to stupid people (and because the writing doesn’t have to be good enough to pay for).
The average intelligence level of a Substack reader is MUCH HIGHER than what you’ll find in genpop. You guys keep me on my toes every day and make sure that I have to push myself to keep creating high-quality content.
I can’t wait until August 2023 so I can write about the lessons I learn this year.
Free articles on Second Income Strategies are supported by:
►Jasper AI - Use an AI assistant to write your content faster and easier. Jasper creates original content for meta descriptions, emails, subheadings, post headlines, website copy, and more. I use this tool to automate some of my content creation and free up valuable time to focus on higher-level tasks.
►Namecheap - Set up your first website with a few clicks. Follow an easy and intuitive process to set up a domain name and hosting. This is the first hosting provider I used and is great for beginners.
► Surfer SEO - Learn the exact phrases you should use in your articles to help them rank. After entering a keyword Surfer gives you an exact word count, image count, paragraph count, and specific keyphrases so you can boost your article to page 1 in Google. I consider this a “must-have” tool.