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How Ben Thompson built Stratechery into a one-man publishing empire

“The internet enables niche in a massively powerful way.”

Ben Thompson has established himself as one of the smartest analysts and clearest thinkers on the media and technology industries. And he has built an interesting, rather unusual business, self-publishing his Stratechery blog and subscription-based email newsletter from Taiwan, where he lives.

How and why did he do it? Thompson explained today at our Code Media conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, Calif.

“I felt I had insight to offer that people would find valuable,” Thompson told Recode Senior Editor Peter Kafka, by focusing on writing about technology and business strategy and not just products. Thompson was working at Microsoft when he started the publication in 2013, and launched his subscription business — currently $10 per month, or $100 per year — in 2014.

“The internet enables niche in a massively powerful way, where you can focus and be really good at one thing,” Thompson said. “And because you’re not constrained to a geographic area, you can reach the entire world. I have subscribers in 30 countries.”

How many subscribers?

“A lot.”

(Thompson announced that he had 1,000 subscribers way back in 2014, implying he was already at a $100,000+ annual run rate several years ago.)

“If you can get a niche and own it, you can do something valuable there,” Thompson said. “And the key thing is, the business models come with it. It had to be subscription. To do an ad-based sort of business, you’re just getting backed up behind Facebook and the New York Times like everyone else, and there’s no way to break through.”

Peter Kafka interviews Ben Thompson at Code Media.
Asa Mathat for Vox Media

Kafka asked: What about joining up with a venture capital firm and collecting a big paycheck as a “public intellectual” as others have done — a group that includes famous dot-com-era analyst Mary Meeker, who’s now at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Benedict Evans, who built a following on Twitter and now works at Andreessen Horowitz. “That seems like a better life than having to schlep $10 subscriptions.”

“People underestimate the scale of the internet,” Thompson said. “Certainly I work hard, but the amount of work I’m doing today is the exact same amount of work I was doing three years ago. The only difference is my income is 100 times higher. And it’s because that $10 scales, and it scales very, very well.”

“And I’m glad those VC guys are interested, but they’re also all subscribers — I can assure you of that.”

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