Last night, I launched a newsletter on Substack: Money Talk, on the highs and lows of personal finance.
It’s the first time I’ve ventured into writing about money in more than a decade as a journalist — you may have seen my byline in food and travel articles for CNN, Lonely Planet, The Independent, and many others in the past.
In my first post and mailout — sent to a small selection of close friends, colleagues and PRs I’ve worked with during my career — I detailed some of the reasons behind my decision to pivot so far from my normal beat.
Here, I’m going to discuss what that process was like.
Why a newsletter
I’ve been thinking about newsletters as a medium for a while, having seen some excellent ones out there. Sian Meades-Williams’ Freelance Writing Jobs comes to mind, but there are many other brilliant ones.
Several things put me off.
First, I already have a couple of blogs (In Pursuit of Food and Culture Explorer, if you’re interested), now largely neglected because I simply don’t have the time to write more than a couple of times a year outside the day job. How is a newsletter any different?
Second, newsletters feel weirdly retro. They’re like the dinosaurs of the 90s that people automatically banish to spam. So will anyone actually want to read mine?
Third — and this is slightly related to the first issue — what do I actually have to say?
And then I read this post on Substack, on what’s next for journalists. It really resonated with me because last week was a particularly brutal time for the journalism industry, with hundreds of jobs axed from top-tier publications. It also dispelled some of the worries I had.
Substack lets you monetise your emails and posts on a subscription basis, meaning this could actually turn into a day job rather than a hobby.
I did a late-night Google of Substack’s credentials and it seemed to stand up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a gamble — and you have to really deliver quality to get paying subscribers — but the fact that people are interested in getting newsletters is promising. It also echoes what Tim Grahl said in his book, Your First 1,000 Copies*, about the personal connection you have with your readers when it comes through an email format.
As for what I have to say, the pivot solved that issue.
I religiously devour personal finance content because I have a lot of questions about what to do with my own money and how I can shore up my financial future. It’s really the smart thing to do if you don’t have, say, a trust fund, big inheritance or a rich spouse to fall back on.
But there are lots of questions that aren’t answered to the degree of detail I want anywhere — these are the ones I will try to answer in Money Talk. The internet is noisy, so I also want to curate the most important money news each week for my audience.
The bonus is, it doesn’t clash with my day job the way my blogs do. I don’t have to think about whether the words I’m writing will make more money elsewhere than on my blog — the words for Money Talk will be exclusive to that outlet.
The Substack rollercoaster
The actual process of signing up to Substack is easy — you click the start publishing button and follow the steps — but there are a lot of peripheral bits to think about.
Like, what do I put on the about page? What do I want people to read in the automated replies when they sign up? Why should they pay me? The latter, in particular, was hard to get the wording right.
Clearly I’m no expert on establishing newsletters with a hot following, and I’m still figuring things out. So I thought about who I was sending my first post to, and who could sign up in the future, and went with that.
Fiddling with the wording of the automated emails is an important first step, but it’s also a bit of a distraction from the real work — writing the first post and introducing the project.
It’s terrifying to launch a new project. Even more so when it’s in an area that I’m not normally known for — it’s exciting but it also feels a bit like admitting defeat on behalf of my previous work.
So I spent a day labouring over a few hundred words that would normally take half an hour, stressing over the nuances. And just before 6pm, I hit send.
Yesterday was a really hot day. The hottest one of the year in fact, with temperatures soaring to 26C.
As I sat crouched over my laptop, my palms began to sweat for the first time. Chills gripped the knots in my shoulders while Substack told me how many people had opened their emails within minutes.
There was zero feedback for the first 30 minutes.
And then, my first response — someone unsubscribed.
It was like dropping into a pit. In that instant, the doubt was overwhelming — was this a really bad idea? Have I done the right thing?
A second response — someone else unsubscribed.
Fuck. Fuuuuck. Shit, shit, shit.
And then, a third response. A paid subscriber.
Wait, what? I’m taking a gamble, but they are taking that gamble with me — because at this stage, I haven’t published any content yet.
OK, it feels a bit like cheating because it wasn’t a stranger — my first subscriber was one of my oldest friends — but it also gave me the encouragement and uplift I needed in that moment.
In less than 24 hours, I got my second subscriber and an outpouring of encouragement from friends, colleagues and even strangers. It’s way more than I thought for the launch — I had expected lots of feedback, maybe a couple of shares and zero subscribers from my first post — and I’m beyond grateful.
Right now, as some say, I’m super pumped to create great content.
So why am I spending another day writing this instead of working on valuable content for my paying subscribers? Well, a little while ago I listened to a Freakonomics podcast about commitment — more precisely, about how to commit to something.
The idea is that if you want to do something, the more people you tell, and the more they hold you to account, the more likely you’re going to do it.
So this is me, telling everyone.
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