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Substack is a verb

Profile picture of Zayn PatelZayn Patel
Mar 13, 20239 min read

Substack has quickly evolved from an email newsletter service into a verb that people use similarly to “I’ll Google it” or “Let’s take an Uber.” It’s now an ecosystem that gives writers a voice without permission from a mainstream publication and gives readers a denser index of content than they’d find in a mainstream publication. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Substack is their team’s ability to execute its long-term mission, set in 2017 by the founders.

The advice most PMs and product-oriented founders give (and receive) is to talk to users and make something they want. In this post, I thought I’d flip this advice, share what I want as a Substack user, and send it to the Head of Product, Sachin Monga.

In an episode of Lenny’s Podcast, Sachin mentioned Substack had split their product teams into readers, writers, and infrastructure. This essay focuses on the first two.


  • Substack Notes: There are many good pieces on Substack but no built-in ways to save or retain the knowledge for later. When I read a Substack post, I take notes either through the Quick Note feature if I’m on my iPhone or, if I’m on a desktop, via a Notion document where I copy and paste paragraphs of the author's writing to comment on. Neither are optimal from a UX standpoint or a Substack data perspective.
    • On the user side, because I'm a heavy note-taker/like to follow up on what I read later, I usually read Substacks on my desktop. This reduces my minutes reading on Substack from 180/week to 60-80/week. And the negative consequences are apparent: fewer reader minutes means I am limited in what I can discover or read. The note-taker might be a small percentage of Substack’s user group. Still, I’d be curious about where people access Substack (mobile or desktop) and their behavior on the platform.
    • On Substack’s side, users taking notes on the platform means they can read more places and on the go. I’m tying in my earlier point because I think Kindle and Apple Books are optimal for on-the-go reading because of the app experience, but Substack isn’t. Notes also provide Substack with more user data because you can see what they’re interested in reading. This can be an input to the reader recommendation engine. It might be cool to add instant recommendations too. For example, if I write ‘I wonder what Duolingo did to launch product growth’ in my notes, the back-end runs a search query to see if there are any blogs on Substack that match this title or provide an answer to this question and lets me know the blog it found is in my ‘saved for later’ tab. Before, they’d go to Google to answer the question. Now, you search while they continue to write a note. And, maybe this feature helps some readers convert to writers because the feedback loop between reading; taking notes (pseudo-writing); finding evidence or an article to support their writing (pulled from Substack); and generating a blog is faster. They’re more likely to ship their thoughts and questions into the world. All of this data is proprietary to Substack.
    • Readwise is what good looks like for highlights and spaced repetition. Kindle is great for highlights, notes, and dictionaries (which can be Substack first, Google second. Meaning if I’d like to search the phrase ‘What Georgism Is Not’ because I see it in a Substack piece, I’m taken to an index of other Substack articles that include keywords that might offer a better explanation than Google), and async community (I can see what others have found exciting and highlighted too).
  • Better search, especially for niche content: When I search ‘Space Race,’ the first three blogs [1] are race matters (about Ron Desantis and equity), race for college (about college admissions), and Asbury revival (chapel service). The publications are mainly irrelevant to my search too. If I write ‘Space Race Substack’ on Google, the third link is an article about working in the Space Race. The first and second links me to a Space Race publication about emerging technologies in and out of Space. As you’ve mentioned before, one of the benefits of Substack is empowering niche, interested-in-nerdy things-type writers. Still, if readers search for something nerdy and can’t find the writers on Substack talking or referencing that content, they’ll likely move on. For example, when I searched this on Spotify a few weeks ago, I found a podcast on Anchor that reviews the history of the Space Race. I mention the Spotify example because it’s simpler to find niche creators there than Substack, at least based on the search experience. I wonder if it’s easier for niche creators to spend time writing long posts on Quora or Reddit instead of Substack because search is better there. Apple acquired a startup in 2013 called OttoCat that improved search indexing for the App Store; I’d be curious if this is a strategy Substack could borrow.


  • Bounties: Bounties are an excellent way for readers to get paid for helping writers. I mention this idea in the writer category because writers post bounties, and readers fulfill them. Replit is what good looks like for bounties. They’ve taken Fiverr’s freelancer for everything idea and scoped down to the developer market. The developer market is similar to the writer market in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious is the programmer (writer) ships software (blog) that’s consumed (read) by the user. You can re-read the sentence replacing the word before the parenthesis with the expression in the parenthesis, and see the similarity between the writer and developer market. One of the product exploration questions I like to ask is: what are people already stitching together that a company hasn’t built? In Substack’s case, writers ask their readers to edit and give feedback on their essays [2]. In other cases, writers cover real-time events like the hazardous chemical explosion in East Palestine. But there’s a coverage problem. The writer is located in New York, 534.8 miles from the event, making it challenging to provide readers with the most factual, real-time coverage. Bounties can help in both cases because they incentivize reader activation and improve the writers’ content. In the East Palestine example, a writer can post a citizen journalism bounty requesting real-time information from residents in East Palestine in exchange for 500. In the writers asking for editors example, writers can post an editor bounty requesting 30 minutes of feedback in exchange for 30. The numbers are arbitrary, but the concept creates value for readers, again making them likely to remain on the platform to boost the two-sided network effect that Substack offers.Bounties indirectly touch on two other ideas, monetization for writers and open-source journalism. I wrote about both in an essay about the All-in Podcast, but I am quoting them here because they fit.
    • Open-source journalism: For an unfinished post, for example, I can envision the blogger asking for help from the All-in community to finish the rest. Contributors can submit their changes, and before it's live, the blogger reviews and ok's the post, like a pull request on GitHub. If the writing is approved, those contributors can begin writing for AIM too.When listeners of the pod begin writing more than anomalous guest columns, AIM's impact will be felt because these aren't traditional journalists. These are smart people who have something to say and trust the All-in community with their thoughts. I anticipate this model creates a flywheel that leads to more unfinished posts, open-source journalism, and AIM writers.
    • Monetization: Although monetization isn't a focus of the All-in podcast, I think an idea like Balaji's Media Fund can be tested here. Here's the tl;dr: people get value from listening to the All-in podcast. Some of these listeners might be founders. If a founder decides to sell their company because of a comment made on the podcast, you will get 1-2% of the deal because your value resulted in a monetization of some kind. This sequence of events was publicized at the All-in Summit, and I expect more stories like these to manifest this year.
  • Ways to track off-platform citations: Off-platform citations include Youtube show notes that link to Substack, Twitter posts, etc. In my writer dashboard [3], I can see where people are coming from, but it’s too broad to be actionable. Suppose I knew what Twitter account posted my Substack or how it was cited on Youtube. In that case, I could double-click into that context to learn more about the poster and postees, and that research would help me expand my market or exploit a market that already reads my content.
    • Analytics: As a writer, I ask when do readers stop? A visual distribution of when readers churn is helpful. I wonder if frequent writers would pay Substack to audit their content analytics and provide them with a rich quarterly analytics report that includes some non-obvious information like:
      • What posting schedule works best for readers? This could be calculated based on which days of the week their readers read the most Substack versus when those readers read their Substack.
      • Which Substack’s are their readers reading the most?
      • How many of their readers are Substack writers, and when did they become Substack writers?
    • I envision this being useful if Substack builds a tool (assuming you don’t already have one) that gives Substack information on the behaviors of their readers and writers and then makes a private API available for their writers to get this information on their publication. This type of implementation has been coined Knowledge-as-a-Service (KaaS), but I haven’t seen any superb ML tools that do this yet.


[1] Why Substack needs better search

[2] Evidence for bounties on Substack

[3] Why substack needs better analytics

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