The fear of irrelevance, true growth, and email list myths

Niklas Göke
Jun 22 · 7 min read
Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

On January 7th, 2017, I started a weekly newsletter. For more than two years without fail, I sent those emails to my readers. Now, it’s time to stop.

Here are my reasons why.

1. I’m afraid of being irrelevant. But consistency and relevance are not the same thing.

No one ever spells it out for us, but I think all writers share this fear:

If you don’t publish, you don’t exist.

Especially in a world where information is published 24/7/365. Not just by influencers, authorities, entertainers, but by everyone. Every day you don’t press publish feels like a day of slowly drifting into irrelevance. But that’s not what’s happening.

As long as you’re working on something meaningful, we could care less when you show it to us. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be better tomorrow. In fact, I think consistency is the #1 thing that keeps people from being relevant after they’ve achieved a certain level of success.

They keep going at the same rate forever, but routine sets in and they start repeating themselves without saying anything new. I’ve noticed this “maintenance mode” in myself and it’s time to nip it in the bud.

You can publish seven articles a week, yet still be irrelevant. You might feel better, but your impact is not determined by feelings. It is determined by the quality of your work.

Speaking of which…

2. I’m not growing.

When I started my newsletter, I learned a lot from delivering a variety of content each week. I created my own types and structures of articles and stories and, over time, built a big roster of templates in my head. But, eventually, I started running out of time before my weekly deadlines.

When you’re starting out as a creator, consistency is everything. If you don’t learn to ship on command, you’ll never develop the level of professionalism you need. But the more you learn, the more time you need to get better. This natural relationship of quantity decreasing over time as quality increases is lost on most, but it’s exactly what dictates our limits.

Early on, you still learn a lot fast — the consistency helps you get better. But, eventually, that tops out. You can’t get that last 10%, make the jump from good to great, by sticking to your same old rhythm. You need to go big. And going big takes time.

Some of my best posts took a week to write. Whatever comes next will probably take longer. That’s okay, but it’s very hard to let go of the consistency you worked so hard for in the first place.

At least I have the numbers to justify it.

3. The newsletter isn’t growing either.

In 2017, over 13,000 people joined my email list. In 2018, around 6,000 did. So far in 2019? 2,000. There are multiple reasons for this.

One is I was promoting it heavily early on and now have stopped doing that altogether. The other is that people are just really tired of newsletters. They don’t want more and I can understand them.

In its heyday, my newsletter was picking up 2,000 subscribers in a single month. Now, it’s been shrinking for over a year. Plus, conversion rates are terrible. 23,000 people, 4,000 open your email, and 500–700 click. Spread those clicks among 4–5 links and what do you have? A big fat bowl of zero-impact cereal.

I know I’m lucky I’ve even gotten this far but, given the effort it takes to create the newsletter, let alone write all the content for it, it’s just not worth it.

Which is probably why…

4. It’s no longer a newsletter. It’s a status update.

And today, no one needs more status updates. When they first started, newsletters were about news. Those times are long gone. They’re mostly about what I addressed in point #1: “Hey, remember me? I’m still relevant!”

For the majority of the time, my newsletter consisted of two articles, one book summary, and one Quora answer, all of which was free to read. I also included what I was up to, what I’d been thinking about and what I found useful, what inspired me and what made me laugh. It was a neat, round, format. But, eventually, I was trying too hard to cram value into that format rather than just do something different that’s more valuable altogether.

I added reading times, then an “if you have time for just one thing” tip, all of which were thinly veiled excuses for saying: I know this is probably a chore for you, but here are some ways to make it easier to get through. Instead, I’ll now try to make better things — and only tell people about them when they’re ready. You know, like an actual newsletter.

There are some other reasons why I was hesitant to let my newsletter go in the past. They might scare you too. Here are some attempts at rebuttals.

5. “The money is in the list” is nonsense.

This is the first line any guru will throw at you. “You can sell directly to your list,” “email still converts best,” “you can’t sell high-priced items on social,” bla bla bla.

People have been selling all kinds of things for hundreds of years before email even existed. Tying yourself to one medium is just personal preference. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you do sell regularly to your email list, it helps to be present, of course. But I’m not, I wasn’t, and I never will be. So I don’t need the list to make money. What’s more, people get used to whatever you sell. Going to a $500 course from $3 ebooks? Good luck.

Can you make money from your email list? Absolutely. I did a five-figure launch on mine once. It’s cool. But it’s not the only way, nor the best way.

The truth is, the money is where you deliver value.

Always. And most of the value I deliver comes from writing, not sending emails — even if those also happen to be writing. I’m now working on a new kind of email, one where the email itself is the product, and I have no idea how that’ll go.

But don’t believe your list is your only or biggest asset.

6. “You own the list” is also nonsense.

That’s the second line all gurus will throw at you. “You don’t own your followers!” “What if Instagram disables your account?” Alright, calm down.

Because while you may own the contact information, which is unique to email lists, here’s what you don’t own: people. You can’t make them read your emails. You can’t force them to open or to click and you can’t make them stay.

What if I went from productivity and philosophy to talking about fly fishing? How many people would continue reading? Here’s another truth of business:

You always depend on other people.

You depend on your customers buying, your fans engaging, your contacts supporting. You depend on platforms, timing, context, and trends. None of that will ever change, no matter how long your list of contacts.

And the only way to succeed in a big way is to do great work people will love you for. Once they do, however, they’ll do so across platforms.

7. “I need a big list to get a book deal” is, yup…

…nonsense. What you need to get a book deal is a topic that works. One a publisher can get behind. Where they have clear indication that the risk is worth the reward. This is as simple as writing something that gets a million views.

I say simple because, as a writer, that sounds both easier and more fun to me than hassling 100,000+ people into subscribing to my email list. I can point to five posts right now that have been approached by publishers: a viral list, a viral essay, an iPhone guide, and two posts about cognitive biases and mental models.

I’d much rather spend my time trying to create something amazing and then strolling into a publisher’s office with proof in hand or, better yet, have them come to me.


There’s one more reason why I’m quitting my weekly newsletter: After I graduate college in a few weeks, my life will be completely unscheduled.

That, unlike most people, I am not afraid of. I thrive without imposed deadlines. I can set my own and I have enough discipline to see them through. I’m a lot happier that way.

But what good is it if I’m always running around, preparing yet another pointless email? I’d like to enjoy my time without boundaries.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your mom is the most excited person to read your newsletter, just call her instead. Better yet, go visit. Unlike email #3,427, that’s an event you’ll both remember — and it’ll likely help you do better work.

Is that not why we started our newsletters? To share true breakthroughs? If not, that’s all the more reason to stop hitting send.

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I’m also working on a book to help you live a balanced life: https://emptyyourcup.substack.com

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade