Discover more from Your House Machine
How to start a Substack
Collected research and resources to get you started
I need to disclaim what follows with: I’m no expert on this. I don’t consider myself a success story (yet).
But I’m sold on the power of this medium. It’s kind of like I’ve found this cool map, and I can’t guarantee it leads to treasure but I’m on the path and I invite you to join me.
So let’s check it out!
What it is
Substack is a platform for writing email newsletters. Yes, it feels old fashioned and I’m all about it. With zero technical knowledge you can set up a newsletter and start writing.
People subscribe to your newsletter, and eventually you can turn on the option for your readers to pay you for the newsletter. Usually this is somewhere from $6-15/mo, though people who write professional topics that help people with their jobs can charge much more.
Obviously you need a topic you feel passionate about, something you’re an expert in (which can be your own life or thoughts), and something that will interest other people. Definitely think carefully about this from your audience’s perspective and have a sense of who you’re going to be writing for.
Why Substack is different
Substack brings back long-form writing, which I for one have dearly missed! It also importantly allows writers to “own their audience” — Substack captures email addresses for obvious reasons. If you decide to leave Substack, you can take those email addresses with you.
This is very different from Instagram, TikTok, etc, where if you leave the platform you leave your audience behind.
Substack also has a goal of getting writers paid by their audience for producing valuable content. This is also super different from most other platforms. You don’t need to promote products or do brand partnerships. There is no middleman — you get paid directly by the people who value your work.
(Note: you don’t have to “turn on paid” right away. It’s advisable to build an audience first, establish a rhythm and trust, and then you offer the option for people to pay for subscriptions. Substack has a lot of resources about how to make this transition.)
And here’s the clincher—Substack makes its money off paid subscriptions, just like its writers do. They take a 10% cut from whatever you make, and thus their incentives are aligned with their writers. They only make money when YOU make money, so they spend a lot of effort trying to help writers succeed.
Examples of successful Substacks
Reading other Substacks is a great way to get a sense of how it all works. Here are three large ones in very different categories to give you a sense of the breadth of publication types.
My friend & former coworker Lenny's Newsletter about product management
He has almost half a million subscribers and makes over $3 million per year in subscriptions
Example of professional newsletter
Former reporter quit her job to write a newsletter about culture, overwork, more: annhelen.substack.com
Shoe-gaze newsletter about a woman’s life and thoughts: mariandrew.substack.com
A cartoonist’s nearly wordless Substack: liana fink.substack.com
Growing your Substack
Starting a Substack is one thing. Actually getting a substantial readership is very much another. They say getting your first 100, then 500, then 1,000 readers takes waaaay longer than you imagine. But if you can be consistent and stay the course, it does get easier to grow as you get bigger.
Most people drop out in the first couple months, so if you can simply keep publishing weekly for many months you’re way ahead of most people. So that’s good, but you likely need to do more.
I’m a former Growth Product Manager at Airbnb. In the Growth world we are all about funnels and finding growth levers. I apply this thinking to growing my Substack, which has helped me put structure around my efforts.
Understand your funnel
The first thing to think about is your growth funnel. Here’s a generic one:
You should customize the funnel to apply to whatever you’re growing. In this case, we’re thinking about a Substack publication, so the steps might look something like:
Acquisition - get traffic to your Substack
Activation - get people interested in reading
Retention - get people to sign up
Referral - this might be engagement, like adding comments, sharing on their social channels, etc
Revenue - here’s when you go paid and convert subscribers to paid subscribers
As you can imagine, it doesn’t make sense to think about the final step (Revenue) if you have very little traffic (Acquisition). So your efforts are best spent at the top of the funnel. Of course, you have to think about Activation and Retention, or else you won’t capture the benefit of acquiring traffic.
It’s all a balance, but thinking about the health of your funnel is a good way to frame your priorities.
This gets into advanced stuff, but the funnel is an amazing tool — for instance, looking at conversion from one step to the next is a good way to understand the health of your funnel. Sometimes a step will “break.” Like maybe you get a ton of traffic but no signups. That means your Activation step (landing page) needs work. Or you have lots of signups but no one is engaging with your content — you may not be writing in a way that resonates. Maybe I’ll do a separate post about the Substack funnel and how to assess how yours is doing.
Find growth levers
Now that you understand what your funnel looks like, you need to identify growth levers. These are actions you can take that grow your metrics (in my case, and most early writers’ case, this is subscriptions). Often the things you think will work don’t, and the things you didn’t expect to work pay off.
Because of this, it’s useful to run a ton of small, low-effort experiments to figure out what your best growth levers are. Here are some examples and ideas:
Promote your newsletter on your own social channels
Ask other writers to recommend your newsletter, which links their growth to yours
Get links to your publication from traditional media (this has ended up working great for me, but I don’t see many other writers try this approach)
Write guest posts on other Substacks
Here are more ideas from Substack, including a video I found helpful from a writer:
Here’s another resource from a Substack writer:
And another summary of how to grow from a writer making 6-figures:
I suggest making a list of growth experiments you can do. Don’t invest weeks of time into a single experiment (which I did at first and it was a total bust!), but rather plan on a few experiments per week, then watch to see what works. Then double down on that lever.
Something I tried that paid off really well was partnering with a couple writers from Apartment Therapy. I pitch them ideas and send photos, they write the articles and get paid by Apartment Therapy, and their articles include links to my newsletter which drives subscriptions. It’s a win-win-win. This has been my main source of subscriptions, which seems rare for a Substack (usually the main source is from within the Substack network).
More research & how-to
Substack itself publishes great content on growing your publication. Here’s their “Grow” series: https://substack.com/grow
Great interview/podcast with Lenny about how he did it and how he's making $$$
Podcast interview with a leader at Substack about what the company is all about
I’ll keep adding to this list as I find great resources