December 15, 2020

Why I Decided to Leave Substack

It was almost a year ago that I wrote a piece about me getting ready to leave Substack. I was spending the holiday season rebuilding the site on WordPress. I got pretty far in the site relaunch and then chatted with the team over at Substack and decided to stay.

A year later, I’m back here again. This time, I partnered with smart people to help me go from idea to execution. A week after the proverbial flipping of the switch, here we are. For all intents and purposes, it appears that the migration has gone pretty well. People are receiving their newsletter and, for those that want the archive, they are logging in just fine. (If you’re not, please let me know).

So, that brings us to the big question…

When everyone else is rushing to the platform and it’s experiencing some of its best months yet, why did I decide to leave? To start, let me explain why Substack is actually a pretty good platform to use.

When I first started A Media Operator, it was the easiest way to start writing, publishing and pushing out a newsletter—all while I was working a full-time job. Yes, I could have set up my own WordPress, published and then immediately built the newsletter. I know people that do that. It’s a hassle, takes time and, frankly, I wanted something simpler.

In mid-August 2019, when A Media Operator was first booted up, it was a very simple proposition: sign up and receive updates when I publish essays. I was able to very easily start writing, publishing and emailing. I was happy about that and, honestly, I don’t think A Media Operator would be where it is today if it had not been for that.

If you’re building a newsletter/blog with the goal of monetizing through subscriptions, it could be the right approach. And now that you can have your own domain name, it’s really not all that bad—if you’re just building a basic newsletter/blog.

A Media Operator is a year and a half old, though, and I had started to think about it as more than just a newsletter. In the long-term, could this become a media company with multiple streams of revenue? If so, won’t I need a technology stack that can support that evolution?

The answer was yes…

Website relaunches can be irritating. You have to be crystal clear about what you need versus what you want and prioritize. Especially when you’re running a lean operation, being incredibly focused is imperative. If you don’t, you’ll spend years trying to build something and still be stuck at square one.

I sat down and thought through the various business opportunities that A Media Operator could enter:

  • Ultra-premium community: Maybe it’s just a c-suite group. In the funnel from free to paid, this would be below paid.
  • Data & Research: Should I start building out databases of how much companies have raised, their revenue, team sizes, profitability, business models, etc.?
  • Consulting: I had already started doing this, so my goal would be to explicitly offer it.
  • Executive matchmaking: I’ve received quite a few questions from people asking, “do you know anyone that might fit this role?” Recruiters make solid money.
  • Media studio: Over the summer, I started thinking about what a media studio might look like. Could I incubate and launch new media companies with centralized services?
  • Events: Maybe I launch an event for a few hundred people, get some sponsors and bring people together post-Covid.

The product needs…

As I was looking at a variety of these opportunities, I realized something incredibly important… I needed to have complete control of my email list.

Remarkably, with Substack, you actually don’t. On the surface, it appears that you do. You build the list, you can take it with you when you leave and can email them whenever you want. However, that is different than having complete control of my email list.

There are many c-suite media operators on this list from various types of publications. There are also journalists, junior-level employees, individual creators and a variety of other people on the list. But when I was preparing to send a newsletter, everyone was created equal.

I had no control over the list when it came to segmentation. Let’s say I built that ultra-premium community. How would I market it? I obviously wouldn’t want to email everyone; not even everyone on my premium membership. It might not be right for them. I would need the ability to create a segment and Substack doesn’t allow that. It’s built for newsletter/blogs, not marketing operations.

Another thing that I was very interested in was creating evergreen content to rank in Google. I receive a bunch of questions around what ESPs, DMPs, CDPs, acronym this, that and whatever people should be looking at using. One idea I’ve had was that I could create evergreen content that digs into all of these tools, optimize them for search and then convert users to my free newsletter from there.

Substack doesn’t support that. Every piece of content is just a blog post, so it’s not like I could create a resource subdirectory on the site. Besides that, there was no simple way for me to do any optimization to the content. This is a basic audience development thing and I couldn’t even do it.

When we talk about our need for content to be more discoverable on Substack, this is something we’re talking about. Let me optimize my content. Google drives publishers a ridiculous amount of traffic and yet there was no priority there.

Other pages I wanted to launch… a contact page, a consulting page, a podcast-only page. I wanted to be able to create these bespoke pages that were unique to a specific business need.

On the topic of audience development, I’ve thought about creating a referral system. My current employer has built an amazing business with this. Why shouldn’t I do that here? The problem is that because Substack is a closed garden, it has no APIs that could connect with any other platform to support the incentives.

Another thing that was increasingly becoming important to me was the need to control group subscriptions. This is a hands-on process. A company will come to me and say they want to get some or all of their employees a membership. Typically, the person is already a paying subscriber. I would either have to:

  • Refund that person for their paid subscription and then tell them to sign up a second time, except this time, pick a group plan.
  • Go to Substack’s customer support, ask them to handle it, wait a couple weeks and then still have to explain to the user what to do.

Perhaps I sound a little irritated, but I put on hold a $2,000 group subscription because I was embarrassed about the process. The friction was too much and so, I simply waited. “I’m moving systems,” I told him, “and then we’ll do it.”

As I continued to think through what I was trying to build versus what Substack was supporting, I realized I was stuck. As far as I could tell, I would never be able to build an ultra-premium community, gated databases, create categorized evergreen content, have an event page on the site and the list goes on.

I had reached the point where the tail was wagging the dog… the tool was dictating my business.

The philosophy

It wasn’t just product needs that contributed to my decision. I also needed to think about what A Media Operator stood for and, conversely, the philosophy of Substack.

Let me explain…

One of the first pieces I ever wrote was about the importance of diversification. In the event that one revenue stream dries up, at least you’ve got another.

I feel that even more when it comes to the whole “creator economy.” This notion that everyone should have a paid newsletter is bizarre. Some content should be paid for directly while other content should be used as a tool to monetize indirectly. I know creators who write for free and earn a solid six-figure business just consulting.

To be more explicit, I imagine many of these creators are going to realize that there is good money to be made in advertising. Just look at what Packy’s building over at Not Boring. He has grown his list to 25,000 and is earning a healthy income selling a very benign advertisement.

I’ve seen the evolution of creators. When they first go on Substack, they pontificate about how advertising is bad and that it would distort the product they’re creating for the reader. Fast forward six months and suddenly, they realize that advertising is actually a perfectly viable alternative, especially if you do it in a clean way.

Substack, on the other hand, is fundamentally opposed to advertising. This is nothing new. But it made me wonder… if Substack is so against advertising and I am telling everyone I know—pubs and creators—that they should be thinking about an ad strategy, am I not in philosophical conflict with Substack? And if I am, why am I publishing on that platform?

I’m not saying Substack would need to build ad server-like tools or anything like that. But how about a simple means of counting the number of clicks on a link rather than just percent clicks? That’d be pretty sweet.

While not truly philosophical, I believe there is a far more critical problem that Substack needs to account for… who is its customer?

When you come to A Media Operator, you are my customer. I am then the customer to Pico, the CRM/registration system I chose to power AMO’s business. But you’re not actually Pico’s customer. I pay Pico, you pay me, the relationship is crystal clear. I can’t say the same for Substack.

You can learn a lot about who the customer of a business is based on their product development. As new features are introduced, who do they benefit? For Substack, I don’t get the feeling that it knows who its customer is and, therefore, its product development looks a little haphazard.

Take, for example, the recently announced reader app. On an episode of Decoder, CEO Chris Best said:

Something that we think about a lot is readers tell us, ‘Hey, I’m subscribed to six different Substacks now, and I want to read them all, and it sucks that they’re in my email inbox along with all my other stuff.

‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was one place where I could go and see all of these direct connections that I have, and that I’m paying for in many cases?’ That’s something that we’re keenly interested in.

To be flippant, they’re building Google Reader. That’s cool. Many of us wish Google Reader still existed. Except, here’s a question: how does this tool help the creator? I don’t see how it does. Rather than creating the tools a new media company might need to thrive, it’s serving a different customer.

Consider Shopify for a moment. They operate from the position of “arming the rebels.” Their customer is the shop owner and they spend all their time doing whatever they can to help that customer make more money.

Substack built a great tool for sending a newsletter, publishing a blog and even hosting a podcast. But then it sort of stopped. It never dove into building tools for audience development. It pivoted its focus to serving the reader. That’s fine, but slow iteration for your primary customer—the creator—is just not great business.

A few other random odds and ends that contributed to me leaving…

First, A Media Operator is a digital media company. But when journalists would write about it, they would refer to it as a “Substack” like blog or website. I also don’t believe in a tool’s brand being equal to my brand. It might sound petty, but multiple brands just confuse.

Second, because their brand is so front and center, I have to be incredibly vigilant about protecting mine. I recently stumbled upon a hardcore, rightwing, Neo-Nazi publication on Substack. I don’t know if it is still there, but if people are going to refer to my site as a “Substack” and then there are going to be Neo-Nazis publishing on the platform, that could potentially hurt my brand.

How I did it

When I announced the change-over last week, I broke down the tools that I am using:

  • WordPress & WP Engine
  • MailChimp
  • Pico
  • Stripe
  • Captivate

Those are the five tools that power my media company. But I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not a developer. Back in August, I tweeted that I was looking for someone and I was fortunate enough to have a member of A Media Operator reach out.

Ben May is the managing director at The Code Company, an agency dedicated to digital publishers building on WordPress. Most of their clients are very large media companies in Australia. But the reason I partnered with him was that he understood what I was trying to build. Because he read A Media Operator, I didn’t have to spend time breaking down what I do.

The process with Ben was straightforward. I walked him through the features I was thinking about over the long-term. We discussed some design styles that I particularly liked and then he went off and had his team mockup what A Media Operator could look like. His team then built the site, ran a basic script to get my content published on Substack over to WordPress (not as easy as you’d think) and before you know it, the site was done.

One thing I said to Ben was that I wanted the operations of the business to run the same as it had on Substack vis-à-vis one-click publishing/sending newsletter. He figured out how to connect WordPress to Mailchimp so that when I hit publish in WordPress, it sends the newsletter as well.

A big part of the conversation with Ben was how we should manage the subscriptions. We looked at a lot of systems. After going back and forth over where the business was today and where it was headed, we agreed that Pico was the right tool for me.

At the core of it, Pico does two things really well… it stores user data and it allows you to create various subscription packages. I can create rules based on where users are coming from, I can manage my group subscriptions and I can actually focus on building my business.

That doesn’t mean Pico’s the perfect tool. I’m not in love with the forms. I want more control over the style and user flow. I’m not the biggest fan of JS to power registration systems because it can slow things down. However, I’ve seen what the upcoming V2 looks like. I’m going to get more of the customization that I am looking for. The CRM is going to become more powerful. I’ve chatted with the team about the roadmap and I am confident that when I am ready to start adding more of the complicated functionality to A Media Operator, Pico will be in a place to support me.

Pico knows who its customer is. Readers might flow through Pico’s registration system, but at the end of the day, I’m the one paying Pico. And that means that it will continue to build tools that make it possible for me to grow.

Look… Substack was great. It did what I needed it to do at the time. But my ambitions for this company are greater than that. And so, I partnered with Ben at The Code Co and Jason at Pico to make this work. I’m excited for the future.

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