One Year of Writing on Substack
(21st May 2021)
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One evening, at around 8 or 9 PM, I stood in my kitchen hunched over my countertop with my laptop screen open, staring intently. I called my partner through to the room and showed her what I was looking at. I had just made $1 online.
This was sometime around March 2020. The exact date is somewhat blurry to me now, as most of 2020 was, but it was during a period where the UK had entered the first lockdown as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
I was working from home with my computer set up sprawled across my kitchen, and it was the night that I had made my first digital dollar.
Most will find that the memories that are most vivid in their brains are those which make them secrete the most emotion.
Whether it is the pain of some physical trauma, the joys of bringing home a puppy, or some other event where emotions are heightened. The mind creates associations with the externalities that are present during those times. The feelings, sights, sounds, smells and even tasted that we experience at the time.
For this occasion, I remember that it was a surprisingly damp but warm day, untypical of the post-winter season in Scotland. I also remember the rush of excitement of earning a dollar, however insignificant that might seem now, from work that I had created myself.
Fast forward one year from that point, and I have left my job and now do this full-time.
I have been writing on Substack for one year now and wanted to take today to share some of my learnings from that short journey.
It is my hope that at least one person may take some inspiration from this post and do something similar. For others, it might be a useful batch of insight into the process.
I shared a small chunk of my backstory, as context, in a piece I wrote last week titled ‘reflections on noise’, but for consistency, I will go through it once more now.
My name is Conor, I am 25 years old, and I have been writing about investing since I was about 18. At that point, it was mostly physical writings in a notebook as I was learning how the investing world works. I was, and still am, a student in this respect.
I firmly believe that if you don’t look glance back and cringe at the work you did one year ago, then you are doing something wrong.
I was born in Scotland, raised across Germany and England, and re-located back to my home country before my secondary school years.
During my secondary education, I decided that I wanted to study economics. The desire to study economics was borne from a business management class that I took at the age of 16/17. Never before had I felt as compelled to participate in a classroom that when I was in this particular class. I found the inner workings of businesses fascinating.
The following year, I took the remainder of the business-related classes that my school offered, which included enterprise, accounting, and business administration.
At the age of 18, I was accepted to study economics.
During my time at university, studying a range of business, investing, and economic courses, I gradually discovered that I did not want to become an economist.
There seemed to be a prevailing thread that ran through each of these disciplines, and that was psychology. As much as I was interested in the macro side of my studies, the microeconomics modules were by far my favourite.
After a batch of accounting and corporate governance classes in my first year, I had decided that I wanted to start investing, so I did. That journey can be saved for another time, however.
What is important, is that after graduating with my undergraduate degree, I arrived at a crossroads.
I no longer wanted to be an economist, and I was not ready to sacrifice the privileges that being a student offered (i.e spending only 12 hours per week in a classroom). More importantly, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I had just met an amazing partner about 6 months prior to that, so didn’t want to dilute my free time with a job.
I decided to sign up for another year, to study for a Masters in innovation and entrepreneurship. In truth, I selected this programme because I felt it was mostly related to the work I had already done in my undergraduate course and would be the easiest to manage. I was not mistaken. It was a doddle.
At times, I forgot I was even a student, apart from the times when I had to hand in an essay. I was a digital student before that was forced upon students in 2020. I attended my first week’s classes and decided to complete the rest of my course from the comfort of my house, whilst I worked on other things.
About 3 months into my course, I found a job as an analyst. I had told them I completed my Masters already and was just waiting for the semester to officially end. In truth, I had two semesters left, one populated with classes, and the other assigned to write a dissertation. Then, about 2 months into my new job, I enrolled in the CFA.
I knew (thought) that I wanted to become involved in asset management. During my job at the time, it was mostly data analysis of a wide range of securities, working with investment managers, and other tedious tasks.
At this point, I was coming to work at 6 AM, where I was the first in the office by several hours, and would spend this time (and my lunch break) studying for both the CFA and my Masters degree.
Eventually, I completed my Masters and life was more manageable. I remained content at my job for a few years.
Fast forward to February 2020, and I opened a Twitter account, to share some of my ideas and meet like-minded investors. By this point, I had become competent (relative to experience) at understanding businesses.
Then the lockdowns hit, and I suddenly had a WFH office and loads of free time on my hands. I had noticed that a lot of the people I was speaking to on Twitter had a lack of understanding of basic accounting.
I then wrote a 190-page digital book on the basics of financial statement analysis. This was mostly a text that would allow a reader to be able to read an income statement, a cash flow statement, and a balance sheet. It also includes 4 or 5 examples of me walking through a few companies and explaining what I saw and why that was important.
I finished the book and placed it on a platform called Gumroad and sold it for ~$10. Fair compensation for the amount of time I had spent working on it, I felt.
Within a month, I had sold enough copies that it came close to matching my monthly salary. This was more than likely a matter of being a peak moment in Twitter onboarding, where enthusiastic new users had come to the platform after being locked in their homes, mixed in with a global interest in the stock market after the apparent “lifetime opportunity” that arose after it began to sink in March.
I am not sure, but it was definitely a strange and highly engaged period of Twitter history, which likely helped my sales to a large extent.
Anyway, so I sold a few copies of this book, and the feedback was great. People had told me it helped them understand the basics of reading financial statements, which is was the intention was.
At this point, after making a few bucks, I began to understand the power of digital content. Or rather, the value that came from controlling your own revenue streams.
As a side note, when I was 19/20, I read a book called ‘The 4 Hour Work Week’ and put it down when it began to discuss outsourcing my life. I found it to be corny. I also spent the first two years of my adult life binge-reading a range of autobiographical books from the likes of Richard Branson and Howard Schultz. I didn’t necessarily want to build a business at the time, but the freedom of creating something really caught my attention. When I reflect, I think that had an influence on my personality today, despite not thinking much about it at the time.
From that, I have always had an underlying belief that I want to work for myself. I had no idea how that would ever to fruition, but I still felt it.
On Christmas eve in 2019, I registered a company with the UK government. I had no intention of actually doing anything with it (it lay dormant for 2 years), but I had found a name that I liked, and I wanted some tangible motivator to subconsciously push me in the direction of one day doing something. It cost £12 to register. This was before I had ever considered writing content, and months prior to me making a Twitter account.
I had sold some copies of this book and had noticed that this was not a sustainable product. There was no recurring revenue. Similar to how old software companies used to generate sales. Big lumps at the beginning, and then smaller lumps as time passed on.
Similar to how software companies work today, I figured a recurring revenues model would work better.
I had realised that I love writing and wanted to do so on a frequent basis, so I had figured a newsletter would be the best way to do this.
I started a newsletter, on Gumroad, and would post once per week, on a Sunday, about the events that took place in the market that day, as well as covering some financial statement analysis of one company each week.
This proved to be too demanding. Hilarious in hindsight considering what I would do next, but it was demanding.
Writing on the weekends did not work for me. As I was still working full-time, the weekends was my free time, and I began to neglect other aspects of my life, in pursuit of writing this newsletter.
So, after a month, I canned it.
Have you ever seen that episode of Friends when Pheobe tells Rachael she is not pregnant, only to see her become upset? She then tells her that she is, in fact, pregnant, but wanted to let Rachael experience her true emotions towards whether or not she wanted a child. Risky move, but it made Rachael realise that she did want a child.
Not quite the same, but after I stopped writing my original newsletter, I felt sad. It was as though I was throwing something away. I had to try and figure out a way to make it more manageable for me.
Then I discovered substack.
So, I discovered Substack in April 2020.
After a few weeks of sulking about the loss of my old newsletter, I had decided to give it another go. The format of the Substack platform spoke to me a lot more than the clunky features of Gumroad.
Substack seemed more fluid, more natural, and for whatever reason, more freeing. I gather most of this was my own perception, and likely more so related to my frame of mind at the time, but I digress.
Instead of writing at the weekends, I had decided I would not write during the week. I usually woke up at 6 AM and would have an hour for lunch, so figured I could write for several hours a day, and publish my work on Substack that way.
The content was largely focused on the analysis of businesses.
I had ~500 or so readers from my old newsletter, which I would be bringing over to my new newsletter.
I called the publication ‘Investment Talk’.
Now, my initial plan was to post a few times per week and utilise my mornings and lunchbreak for content creation.
What actually happened, was me working until ~8 or 9 PM every weekday, posting 5 times per week, and suffered from some burn-out.
For whatever reason, I posted every single day (minus weekends) for about 6 months. At this point, I began to notice the early signs of burnout.
So, preemptively, I made the decision to cut the days from 5 to 3.
This helped slow down the burnout, but I still felt it.
So, only a few months later, I removed all the constraints from my frequency.
This was hugely freeing.
This was largely a process of trial and error and included me conversing with my readers on a frequent basis about the changes.
Over these 12 months, the frequency changed, the content sometimes changed, and the newsletter changed direction slightly.
Every time, I would ensure that I would communicate these changes, and my reasoning, to everyone.
Some people would leave, citing that it was not what they signed up for, which was fair. Others would support me, and tell me they didn’t care about frequency, and just enjoyed the content. These people were by far the majority, and this gave me the strength and conviction to keep going.
Someone once told me:
“Write for the audience you want, not the one you have”
So, I took that to heart and did it. Thankfully, it worked out.
Only 3 months ago, did I finally figure out what the magic formula was, for me.
I will have one guaranteed post per month, which is the centrepiece. This would be a fairly long research piece on a company chosen by subscribers each month. Outside of that, it would include my own personal equity research, market commentary, guest interviews, and more conversational pieces (like this one), but with no schedule.
I wanted to remove the confusion and make it clear what a subscriber would get from signing up. One deep dive, and then a bunch of extra stuff they can choose to read or ignore. In my opinion, the monthly deep dive is what should cover the majority of the subscription cost.
I realised that frequency or quantity is not as important as quality.
People would rather read one great piece of work, than 5 average pieces of work. The feedback that I had sourced from my subscribers confirmed this as well.
Leaving my Job
So, some of you will know that I now am blessed enough to write on Substack as my full-time job.
As the revenues were becoming substantial enough to push me into new tax brackets, I decided to recall that dormant company I created two years prior, and use it as the parent company for my Substack revenues, for tax efficiencies.
Then, a few months later, I was offered a life-changing opportunity.
Part of the power of ‘The Great Online Game’, is that you meet an incredible amount of smart people along the way. I have connected with many experienced investors who, as a young investor, have learned a lot from.
Through Twitter, I have been offered jobs without ever having to show a resume.
But one connection, who shall remain nameless, but some will know who they are, changed my life in a huge way.
But first, some context.
By ~March 2021, I had grown the newsletter to just shy of 5,000 readers (total readers, not all paid). At this stage, it was almost enough to support me financially, without a job. I had figured that within another 12 months or so, it would be at a place where I could think about leaving my job.
The stream of net ads (note, May is a partial month) was healthy, and the stream of new paid subscribers was consistent enough to warrant my conclusions.
I had it in my mind that I would attempt to leave my job sometime in 2022. So long as I could afford rent, food, and have the ability to continue investing, I would be happy.
So, I had that goal in mind, and then someone approached me and offered me a Substack Pro contract.
Now, I can’t go into the details of this contract, but what I can say, is that this would effectively gift me the ability to support myself for around one year.
In effect, I would be sacrificing the bulk of my cut on sales, in place of upfront instalments from Substack. It was a fair deal for both parties and negated some of the risks for me.
I wouldn’t be working for Substack, and things would continue on as normal, but this would provide me with the security that I would be able to survive for a year without additional income.
If you imagine a bridge for a moment. Now imagine that I want to cross that bridge, but between me and the bridge is a lengthy stretch of shark-infested water.
It’s too long to jump, and swimming there might leave me in an unfavourable position.
The bridge, in this case, is my desire to pursue Substack full time. That’s where I want to get to.
The shark-infested waters represent the dangers that I would be welcoming into my life, should I quit my job prematurely and struggle financially. This was a comfortable job that I would be leaving behind.
The gap between me and the bridge represents the time it would take for me to get closer to my goal of leaving my job. With every additional paid subscriber, that gap would get smaller.
Now, all Substack did was bring that bridge within an inch of my feet, allowing my step onto the bridge and do this full-time.
In short, the deal was attractive enough that I quit my job within minutes of signing the contract, that same day I was offered it. This was ~2 months ago.
Here are some thoughts
There is no guarantee that after a year, the newsletter will be able to support me financially. As I write this today, it could not support me just yet. I still have a long way to go in that respect. I think at ~10,000 readers, I would be able to attain that goal.
So, when the Substack deal is done, I might have to get another job. To me, that would be a failure.
The thing is, that isn’t such a bad failure. I really had nothing to lose. As comfortable as my job was, I didn’t enjoy it. I have no dependents, and I am young enough that I can build myself back up from a disaster. I have a loving family also.
Some will say that I could have worked my full-time job still, and earned substantially more money.
That is certainly true. In reality, I probably could have managed to do both for another year, but at what cost?
Right now, thanks to Substack, I have never felt as free physically, or creatively. I have time to think and reflect. I can wake up at 9 am, go pick up coffee and cake and eat it in bed with my partner.
To me, that’s worth sacrificing another salary.
There are a plethora of artificial, intangible, considerations that make people doubt themselves. The inner-saboteur as Ru Paul would phrase it.
I suffer from imposter syndrome a lot, as I am sure most young investors do at some stage. This is just self-doubt. You don’t get anywhere by believing you don’t deserve to be there.
Will I actually meet my goal in time before the Pro deal expires?
Candidly, I have no idea, but I would rather have tried and failed than not have tried at all.
I know, for sure, that I will be writing for many years to come, regardless of what happens.
Some Learnings from The Experience
Here are a few of the core learnings that I have experienced along the way, that I think will be useful to anyone wishing to pursue the same path:
Write for the audience you want, not the one you have.
Growing behind a paywall is hard, so ensure you have a healthy stream of quality free content for free readers. For me, this manifests itself in the guest interviews that I conduct, as well as bi-weekly market talk issues, and occasional articles.
Making changes that will support you mentally should not be an afterthought. You write best when you are most comfortable.
Read other people’s work. I personally subscribe to a handful of substacks, and other similar newsletters. Learning from other’s is a powerful way to learn. You can pick up ideas, and learn how to be a better writer.
Underpromise and overdeliver. Don’t apply unnecessary pressure on yourself. People like to be pleasantly surprised.
Get comfortable not knowing what is going to happen.
Quality outweighs frequency. People would rather read one great piece each month, than 1 average piece each week.
Speak to your audience. I host a discord for subscribers to mingle, and for me to source ideas of what is and is not working.
Listen to what people who unsubscribe have to say. Some of my best ideas have come from people who left the newsletter.
Be honest. If there is one I think is important, it’s to be candid. I am open to admitting when I was wrong. More importantly, for the work I produce, I am not a cheerleader for the companies I write about. I like to outline the good and the bad, and given my honest insight.
Lastly, don’t compare yourself to others. People will write about other niches, they will grow faster, experience greater levels of success in shorter periods of time.
Learn from them, don’t resent them.
With respect to learning from others, I’d like to shout out @borrowed_ideas on that front. MBI does work that is similar to mine (I am a paid subscriber to his great service). I once reached out to MBI a while back, saying I would be writing deep dives (which his whole thing). I wanted to make it clear I was not trying to compete with him.
“There is no competition. Our only competition is our quality of work. increasing the TAM is more important. competition is not”
As well as offering me support in my pursuits. This struck a chord with me, and I learned a lot from it. Being not fixated on competition but, rather, being focussed on ensuring your quality of work speaks for itself.
Also shoutout to @stockjabber. This guy is 21 years old and is killing it writing about stock market fraud, and the short-side. His newsletter, the Bear Cave, is wildly more successful than mine, in a shorter space of time, and he is 4 years younger than I.
I have learned so much from Edwin already, as someone who is open and honest about his own journey with Substack.
Instead of looking at yourself and thinking “what am I doing wrong”, look at others and think “what are they doing that works and how can I learn from that”.
There are many more that I have learned from, about investing and writing, but it would take me another post to fit them all in.
Here I will share some additional details for anyone interested in pursuing a newsletter, or for those who are just curious.
After 12 months of writing this newsletter, where the niche is largely investing-related content, the total email list (free and paid) has grown ~830% YoY, reaching close to 5,500 readers.
By this time next year, I hope to increase that by a further 100% for the YoY comp, amounting to over 10,000 readers.
Net ads per month (excluding the partial month of May) amount to 471.2 additional readers each month.
Paid users have grown over 12 times since the first month of May and typically grow between 5% to 30% per month in the current day. This excludes the wild growth rates at the inception of the newsletter.
The current split of paid readers is roughly 50% monthly subscribers, 32% annual subscribers, and 17% lifetime subscribers. Moreover, around 1% of paid subscribers have been gifted an annual or lifetime subscription by someone else.
After I signed the Pro deal, I removed the lifetime subscription. This will be reinstated once the Pro deal is over, for fairly obvious reasons. Additionally, I was finding that a substantial number of people were opting for a lifetime initially. As a recurring revenue business, that is not ideal. Something to consider if you offer them.
This composition has remained fairly stable over the last 6 months, with a decline in lifetime from ~20% to 17% over the last few months since I stopped offering them.
I wrote this piece today to share some insights, mostly for others who are maybe looking to take a similar path.
I hope that at least one person got some value from it.
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Lead Analyst at Occasio Capital Ltd