Round-up #1 — Over a year in
More round-up than a Hollywood cowboy film, more learnings than a Twitter thread (probably)
I don’t intend on doing these round-up type things very often, but I think I’m long overdue a reflection on my various Substack activities. Over a year in, what have I learned? Has it been worth it? But more importantly than anything, have I enjoyed the journey?
Some context before the context
I began by writing this with all the best intentions. I intended to be a good little Content Creator, providing you with a list of useful learnings that you could go away and put in your lovely little personal knowledge management system. But somewhere about half way through writing this, I realised I’m not that person anymore. I realised it’s next to impossible for me to write something like that now without wanting to immediately kosh myself over the head.
So, I insincerely apologise. You get this instead.
I have provided many learning points throughout this newsletter. They’re in here as footnotes. However, not all of them are learnings, or indeed, points.
If you like reading acerbic and increasingly acidic and occasionally satirical work about the internet, stick your private email address into my public box.
I now publish two Substacks. One is an absolutely barmy podcast, the other (this one), is a mix of essays and short fiction mostly about the internet:
They both started from one Substack, in May 2021.
Allow May to introduce May-self
May 10th, 2021 was the first time I sent one of these things. Of course, it wasn’t the first email newsletter I’d sent. I work in marketing. I’ve had more failed email newsletters and blogs than I’ve had successful ones. Of course, my first Substack I wrote was arse-puckeringly cringe.
I was teetering on discovering that the last year I’d spent writing 10 tweets per day to reach the dizzying heights of 5,000 Twitter followers was a gigantic waste of my time. I’d started a Substack because I thought I should, but not because I wanted to write. Wanting to write was a hidden third desire, depsite me telling myself that I really wanted to write.
Due to that, my initial schedule (yes, I had a schedule, that’s how serious I took it) was frantic to say the least. I had the idea that I just had to throw lots of content at people and they’d instantly subscribe—something that didn’t prove true and we’ll explore later on in this email.
I started with this schedule:
The Monday Visual - a doodle with some words
The Wednesday Audio - a podcast
The Friday Writerings - some kind of essay
It didn’t last long.
From memory, I did the following:
I created around 15.45 The Monday Visuals
I have recorded 72 The Wednesday Audios
I have written a number of essays (I can’t be bothered to count them)
I dropped The Monday Visual pretty quickly. It was boring to me, thus it was boring to the reader. I only threw it in because I figured I should pester my email list 3 times a week. In retrospect, I haven’t a fucking clue why I thought that was a good idea. It’s a fast way to get marked as spam or unsubscribed.
It was the writing I really struggled with on Substack, which was somewhat of an issue. I couldn’t find my voice, I couldn’t find topics that interested me, and I couldn’t find interesting ways to say it. My writing was infrequent in the early days, which definitely hampered how fast people chose to subscribe. I languished for a long time because I was focusing on my podcast and the silly doodles more than my writing.
Eventually I began to discover my voice and what I wanted to write about. The voice came first. I began to experiment with weird formats and structures (on pieces like this), which gave me a confidence to write. Because I’m a designer, I often see the presentation of something just as important as the content. Before this, I couldn’t work out an outlet for it.
It lead to pieces like this:
And when I began to figure out my topic (the weird topic of navigating this online world), I put out some essays I’m proud of:
But I only figured out my voice and what I wanted to talk about by getting several soundboards, expensive recording equipment, and making an extremely weird podcast.
That crazy podcast
The crazy podcast never began as a crazy podcast. As part of my Sincere Value Adding Efforts, I decided I would take on a challenge to make a useful podcast about Wednesdays, released every Wednesday. I quickly realised that my attempts were futile. There really isn’t that much to talk about Wednesdays, and finding things to talk about every Wednesday was difficult. So, I improvised.
I began to throw in the occasional joke. The occasional sound effect. Ah, that sound effect was funny, I’d say to myself. I’d do it again next week. The week after, I’d accidentally say something wrong (I said ‘two hundred and wundth’ instead of 201st), then that became another thing I’d do because it amused me. Slowly, the podcast began to unravel.
As it unravelled more and more, it slipped into a truer sense of what I was. I’m quirky. I’m a bit weird. My sense of humour is odd. The podcast became an outlet for everything I can’t get away with in my serious day-to-day life, and I relentlessly began to take the piss out of the whole world of self improvement and marketing.
I accidentally—I think—made something that’s quite good. Over a year on, people still comment on every episode. I’ve built up a little community of loyal listeners having a laugh alongside me. It’s fun. I hope I’ve improved Wednesdays for others in the same way it’s improved them for me.
It’s funny. I’d previously spent a couple of years trying to be deadly Mr Serious online. I’d made serious podcasts. I made serious interviews. I was serious on Twitter. Nobody ever paid attention. From the very first episode of my very much less than serious Wednesday Podcast, people joined in and started sending me messages. I discovered it was easier to get caught up in an obsession with ‘being professional’ online than it was to just be myself and make what I wanted to make because it would have made me happy. I’m glad I discovered it. For everyone else, there’s still LinkedIn.
Splitting off the podcast from my writing
In July 2022 I decided I was going to focus on a completely separate Substack for writing (this is it), and make The Wednesday Audio dedicated to just that. It didn’t seem to make all that much of a difference to my podcast, but it’s allowed this writing Substack to grow much quicker than the podcast. Since July, I’ve added over 100 new subscribers to this Substack, and The Wednesday Audio has slowed down quite a bit.
I attribute this to previously having everything on one Substack. It’s hard to decide to subscribe when you’re not sure what it is. Making smaller and more focused Substacks is the way that’s worked for me. It’s easier for somebody to make the decision to subscribe when they’re absolutely sure what they’re getting with every post. I was doing a hell of a lot of different things on one substack before. I mean, I wasn’t even sure what it was meant to be, so I don’t know how anyone else could have been.
For me, it’s proven to be the right decision to split out my podcast from the writing. It’s allowed me to be more focused creatively as well. Over time, I think it’ll pay off for the podcast too as Substack continue to improve their podcasting features.
Where I am now (stats for the fans etc.)
The Wednesday Audio stats
May 2021: 100
October 2022: 450
This Is Not Value
July 2022: 388
Octoer 2022: 508
As you can see, the writing Substack has grownmuch quicker than the podcast substack. Substack as an organisation has been making some pretty big leaps on the podcasting tools over the last year, but I can't help but think that people are used to coming to Substack to read, and not listen. If you have a Substack dedicated to audio, I can’t imagine it’ll ever grow as easy as a written one. But again, if your desire isn’t to grow, ignore this observation.
There’s something to be said here of the 0-100 hypothesis too, something which I am making up right now but something I’ve observed over the years. It was extremely difficult to get The Wednesday Audio from 100-400 subscribers. The progress is slow, you have to keep turning up despite the fact nobody seems to care. But then all of a sudden, you look back and you have a respectable body of work that somebody can look back through. When you’ve got to that, it’s much easier to convince somebody to subscribe from 400 subscribers.
Writing (or recording) a few Substack posts is a coincidence. Writing a few dozen is a dedicated body of work that looks considerably more impressive to the potential reader. It’s been much easier to add followers to this Substack as I’ve continued past the 450 subscribers mark.
In true timeless Content Creator fashion I’ll give you some ‘learnings’, in no specific order.
My writing is always the most liked and commented on work, regardless of how good I think the podcast or a visual is. I doubt this will ever change as Substack is known as a platform for writers.
People are always thoughtful when they comment on Substack. It is one of the nicest places to be on the web.
Regardless of whether you’d eventually like to make money from your Substack or you’re just doing it for fun, write because you want to, not because you have to.
Ultimately, people will subscribe to you because you’re being yourself. Every second you are copying somebody else’s style will be another second you’re not being yourself. I apologise for this aphoristic but ulimately true observation. Sometimes I can’t help writing in tweets.
The recommendations features in Substack are top class. Try and get some people to recommend you.
Conversely, recommend and champion other Substacks that you like.
Comment on other people’s work if you’ve read it. It’s always nice to know somebody has read your work.
Substack often feels like Old Internet in the best possible way. People are on here, creating things and commenting on other people’s work. I hope it continues.
If you want to write, please do it. It is magical, transports you to another time and place, and is the easiest way to meditate without needing to meditate.
Yes, I am spitting this sentence out of my mouth, The Wednesday Audio style. But I am being sincere.
Such as this one. Not useful, or even a point. But you get what you pay for.
Learning point: keep better records. It was harder that it should have been to figure out when I started this Substack.
These are the level of humblebrags I am known for.
Learning point: if you can’t remember a number for something but you need to include a number, add a decimal number. It looks accurate, and nobody will question its specificity.
Learning point: occasional honesty is worthwhile on Substack. Not total honesty though. Keep them guessing. This is why I don’t like the phrase ‘honesty is the best policy’. It’s not true.
Actual learning point: Don’t send emails or come up with ‘ideas’ for your Substack just to fill in the days or to appear like you’re being consistent and regular. Make good shit, and if that isn’t as regular as you wished it could be, make it when you can. Don’t compromise on quality purely to be more frequent. Nobody has ever said about a Substack: “I like it, but I just wish they’d send me more emails.”
Learning point: people come to Substack to read writing.
Learning point: it’s probably one of the most important points that’s overlooked by most Substack-writers. Figure out your voice, and what you want to write about. In a sea of other writers, you need to work out what you’re going to be known for. If you just want to write on here and have fun, ignore this.
Learning point: make that thing you’ve always wanted to make but been afraid to make because people will laugh at you. Who cares what they think?
I hate using the word ‘grown’ over and over like this, but its the best word for the moment. Sorry.