How I grew this Substack into a profitable business in just 12 months
Everything I've learned over the last year about starting, growing and creating a Substack that's built to last. Plus a very special date for your diary.
The full version of this post, as well as the Q&A session at the end and access to my Substack masterclass on January 15th is for paid subscribers only. You can upgrade and get access to this, as well as all my weekly columns and writing group by clicking on the link above
This time last year, I was sat at my desk thinking: ‘I should start a Substack.’ I desperately needed a new creative project. Plus, I was itching to write more, since leaving behind my 23-year old career in journalism. But here’s the truth, I was scared. Really scared. I was scared of not being good enough. Scared of not being able to keep it up. Scared that people would roll their eyes if I asked them to subscribe. Or worse, laugh when I asked them to subscribe and pay for the privilege. Why would anyone pay to read my work, I asked myself? When I was the editor of big, glossy magazines like ELLE and Cosmopolitan, people cared about what I had to say. Now? I was just another voice whispering into the ether.
So for the first few days in January I did nothing. I tended to my garden. I cleared out my wardrobe. I made organised folders on my computer in the hope it would make my desktop look a little less like it had measles. I read books. I read other people’s writing on Substack. And then I brooded.
I am a journalist by trade. It is what I have done for over two decades. I have never had a problem putting my work out into the world. But then, I have always had deadlines and editors and agents, who are, in many ways, Muster dogs, for the recalcitrant writer. Without these things, I’m not sure I would ever have published a word.
Because here is what most writers do: they wait for a sign. A bolt of inspiration that is so powerful that the words come gushing out, like blood from a vein. This of course, doesn’t happen. Ever.
What happens with most writing is that you layer it. You dump down a few words and ideas, knowing full well they will never be read by anyone. They are your scaffolding. The bare bones. They are the foundations on which you will continue to pour more words and ideas until you have something which looks and reads a little like a story.
The writer Neil Gaiman puts it more eloquently:
I think it’s really important for a writer to have a compost heap. Everything you read, things that you write, things that you listen to, people you encounter, can all go on the compost heap. And they will rot down. And out of them will grow beautiful stories.
And so this is what I decided to do on January 4th 2022. I started to write. And write. Before I knew it I had a short, fairly amusing little piece to publish. It was no great work of art, but it was a beginning.
That piece inspired the name of my Substack, Things Worth Knowing. The truth is, I hadn’t given much thought to a name or a logo or any of things people use as an excuse not to get started. I chose it simply because it was a phrase I quite liked and no one else appeared to have taken it.
I got a few hundreds followers in that first week. So I published another story. And then another. I kept it free in the beginning so that as many people as possible could read it, and instead asked those who had enjoyed it to share it with their networks. (Yes, I cringed when I asked this).
I set myself a target: 2500 free subscribers by the May. When it felt like I was not going to reach it, I asked friends to share news of my newsletter, or pushed even harder on my Instagram. The numbers went up and up.
Strangers wrote to me so say how much they enjoyed what I had written. Some people even started to pay to support the writing I spent many hours on. Buoyed by their support I decided to start a writing group with lectures and writing prompts. People came. And stayed.
It’s been 12 months now and I’ve almost hit my goal of 10,000 free subscribers. I’m also making a very healthy side salary from my hobby- the same salary as a full-time senior writer on a magazine no less.
I am not a special case. Yes, I have some sort of profile, but I know many writers and creators who have far smaller profiles than me who have more subscribers and make far more money.
And so, I wanted to share with you below what I know works. This is a culmination of having spent the last year working with writers (disclaimer: my day job is head of writer partnerships for Substack UK) as well as what I have learned myself. It includes everything I know that works. All you have to do is follow this advice, get your head down and keep writing. Ready to hear it? Then read on AND hear about my masterclass on Sunday 15th January 2023. (Those who can’t make it can be sent a link).
Let’s start with point 1…