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The State of Karlstack
you don't get to 100 paid subscribers without making a few enemies
This red line shows when I transitioned to being a full-time Substack writer in March 2022:
Here is my subscriber growth, again with the red line marking when I went full-time:
I have seen some other Substack writers moving to knockoff platforms that charge a lower commission fee, since Substack charges a hefty 10% fee. Here is a DM from one of my Twitter friends:
I think this guy is making a big mistake by switching to a lower cost alternative. Yes, he is saving a few % in lower commission fees, but sacrificing a huge network effect —this network effect just doesn’t exist on “Scriber” or “Beehiiv” or “Ghost” or “Mailchimp” or whatever. My metrics, for example, show that 80% of Karlstack subscribers already had existing Substack accounts or came directly from a “Substack platform feature” such as recommendations.
Revue, Twitter's newsletter subscription service, is probably the only newsletter platform that might be able to challenge Substack’s dominant network effect.
I do not trust Revue for 2 reasons.
Twitter/Revue is strongly anti-free speech, while Substack is strongly pro-free speech. Fundamentally different corporate values.
Twitter’s track record when it comes to handling acquisitions and non-core features is poor e.g. Vine, Fleets, etc… none of their experiments ever seems to stick around, they never seem truly invested or committed to the product. Substack is going to be around for the next decade; Twitter could get rid of Revue on a whim tomorrow.
The only real competitive advantage Revue has is that they offer a one-click subscribe button embedded into Twitter profiles, but shrewd Substack writers have already hijacked this feature by creating zombie Revue accounts that exist solely to funnel subscribers from Revue to Substack.
Prior to starting on Substack, I had never written anything before. I have now written 92 Substack articles, which was always the whole point: to practice writing. Some of these articles were short and quick, but more often they get criticized for them being *too long.* To me, this is the beauty of Substack; it allows for long flowing investigations, meandering deep dives, rambling screeds, meticulously researched essays, or quick little updates. Whatever you want. This freedom enables a certain magic that doesn’t exist in legacy media.
I am approaching 1 million cumulative views on Karlstack articles… I should hit that milestone sometime in the next 0-2 months!
An optimist might say this is exponential growth:
A pessimist might look at my 82 paid subscribers and scoff. This is your full-time job?! Each of those 82 subscribers is paying on average $7 CAD per month, you can do the math if you want, it adds up being roughly a 82*$7*12 = $6,888 CAD annualized salary.
A realist might look at the month-by-month numbers since I went full-time.
April: +6 paid subscribers
May: +16 paid subscribers
June: +14 paid subscribers
July: +10 paid subscribers
August: +9 paid subscribers
My conclusion, after looking at all of these metrics, is to trust the process. Keep grinding away. It’s working, continuous effort is the key to success. I wrote 55 articles in the past 5 months of full-time work, and I think that is a sustainable pace. I will probably write ~55 more articles over the next 5 months.
A year ago, I thought it was impossible to hit 100 subscribers — the idea was an outlandish pipedream! Now the 100 paid subscriber milestone is within striking distance.
What’s next? 1,000 paid subscribers, of course. That would actually translate into a proper adult salary. It might take a couple of years to get there, but as I grow and become a better writer, I believe I will get there. The future of media is decentralized, and I have a running head start in this new world order. I have planted my flag.
This head start is especially important because discoverability on the Substack platform improves as your newsletter gets more popular, I think. Growth begats growth. More people read you, more authors recommend you, then you get recommended to their readers as well. Many platforms are like that. You have to bootstrap and get the ball rolling yourself, but then the platform starts more effectively promoting you afterwards.
That is the biggest knock on the Substack platform: due to poor organic discoverability, it is nearly impossible to build big subscriber bases from scratch as an unknown writer. Hardly any unknown names succeed. Substack is working on fixing that discoverability problem e.g. by creating the Substack app, but it is an uphill battle. If we are being honest, we all know that 99% of successful Substacks are successful because the author is already a big name and brings a huge audience with them from other platforms.
I am not saying those successful authors don’t deserve their success. They surely put in the work to grow their big audiences in the first place, to grow their brand, to have established writing careers. But they didn’t start from scratch on Substack. They had an advantage.
I feel lucky to have gotten over this initial hump, and I feel humbled to have managed to build a small audience despite being just some random guy who has never written anything and started with 0 subscribers and 0 name recognition. I consider that a huge victory in and of itself, and I am deeply grateful for each paid and free subscribers.
The reason I am being so transparent about these metrics and publishing strategy isn’t to brag (who would brag about such a low annualized salary?) but because many people have been following my Substack adventure from day 1, and they seem to enjoy being kept in the loop. They have seen me transition from “guy who has never written anything in his life before” to “guy who has written almost 100 articles.” I am sure I will be a totally different human when I evolve to “guy who has written thousands of articles.” I am excited to become that person.
I am especially humbled to have 82 paid subscribers because up until now, subscribers don’t get any tangible benefits. I imagine the pool of people who donate for journalism simply because the concept of freedom of speech makes them feel warm and fuzzy is very very small, which makes this 82 number very good.
Up until now, when you clicked on karlstack.substack.com/subscribe, the only benefit listed for paying Subscribers was this:
I have now changed this to:
The new model is that every newsletter is free to receive and remains free to access via the website for seven days. After that point, it goes into the archive, which is exclusive to paid subscribers. Early subscribers benefit because they have the archive in their inbox and can always access it there. The incentive for new readers to go paid increases over time as the archive grows.
I will also be trying to sprinkle in more subscriber-only posts.
This model is inspired by this post:
I made this change because my current free-to-paid conversion rate is 3%, and Substack gives the guidance that “We tend to see 5-10% of free subscribers convert to paying subscriptions, with 10% being a rate to aim for.” Now that I actually offering tangible benefits, I think my 3% will probably double to be more in line with average conversion rates.
Which brings me to my re-brand — you may have noticed that I have a new logo and tag-line:
This new subscription model and new branding reflects a renewed push for 100 paid subscribers. This adventure is a learning process, and I expect to keep iterating over Karlstack as I work towards 1000 paid subscribers. I was always naturally kind of shitty and incompetent at marketing / growth / business development, but I am figuring it out.
I have some more growth hacks up my sleeve. For instance, I am in the middle of collaborating with several other Substacks — I will be writing guest posts for them. Word on the street is that guest posts are the quickest way to accelerate growth, because you gain access to someone else’s audience, and they gain access to yours. I am always open to writing or hosting a guestpost. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter and I would be happy to collaborate with other Substack writers.
I have also been considering starting a YouTube and/or TikTok channel to market my articles… Apparently, this is an incredibly effective way to generate organic discovery, but I never really considered myself a “YouTuber,” I don’t know. I am thinking about it.
Substack now gives you the option to embed audio, they call this their “voiceover” feature. You are supposed to embed the audio at the top of the article, and then narrate the entire article. More and more Substack articles are being done this way.
I have been considering doing this, but I’m not sure. I don’t know why anyone would want to hear my voice, but I don’t think it's so much that people would want to listen to me, specifically, it's that a lot of folks seem to prefer audio versions, sort of like a podcast. I don’t know. If you have any strong opinions about this voiceover feature, please let me know in the comments. I am curious if there is any demand for it.