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Meet the startup that wants to help you build a subscription newsletter business overnight

Substack says it’s time to tap your inner Ben Thompson

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Here’s a deceptively simple way to make it in the media business: Write a newsletter and convince thousands of people to pay you for it.

Boom! Instant, one-man success.

That’s the model Ben Thompson pioneered with his Stratechery newsletter a few years ago. Now a new startup says it can help you do what Thompson did.

Substack won’t generate a following for you, and it won’t write your columns. But the company says it has tools for everything else you need to launch a subscription newsletter: Publishing software, a payments service, design help, analytics etc.

The company is led by Chris Best, a co-founder of messaging service Kik, and former tech reporter Hamish McKenzie. Best and McKenzie say they’ll charge their users around 10 percent of the subscription revenue they generate — “more than Patreon (5 percent) and less than iTunes (30 percent)” Best says.

Today the company gets its first real-world test: Bill Bishop, who writes the well-regarded China newsletter Sinocism, is going to use Substack to launch a paid version of his newsletter, charging $11 a month or $118 a year for daily updates.

Bishop says he’ll keep offering a free version of Sinocism, which currently has 30,000-plus subscribers, but hopes that the paid version will replace money he used to make running a consulting business.

Bishop figures he can make a living if he converts 1,000 of his readers in to paying customers, and figures he’ll do much better than that.

It seems to me that the real challenge in the paid newsletter business — or any content business where you ask customers to pay you directly — is making stuff that people want to buy.

Thompson, who is cited frequently by Bishop and the Substack guys as their inspiration, half-agrees with me: Yes, making content worth taking out your credit card is hard, he says. But cobbling together the services you need to service the business is a pain.

“Getting a thousand people to pay for your work is really hard. Having to have technical skills — that easily scale to multiple authors — unrelated to what you produce is an unnecessary barrier.”

Here’s a chat I had with Thompson about his business at last year’s Code Media conference. If you want to see this kind of stuff up close and person at the 2018 edition you can sign up here.

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