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I went from 6 to 500 substack subscribers in 9 weeks. A summary of what I did with all the stats.

I started writing a weekly Chinese tech analysis newsletter on Aug 13th 2020 with 6 subscribers. I am now at 510 subscribers as of Oct 16th 2020. Proof.

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I’m super surprised and grateful to all my readers and subscribers, but you didn’t come here for my gratitude journal. You came here for some cold, hard stats and what worked for me along the way. So let’s get to it.

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I started the newsletter during a two-week hotel quarantine after landing in China. I didn’t promote it to my friends or family since my topic is relatively niche (and my performance anxiety would have drastically increased in front of loved ones). After putting hours into crafting my first article, I pressed publish and also posted it to Twitter and GGV’s chat group on China tech.

Crickets.

Tumbleweeds.

But I was signal boosted by some very kind people (like Vinoth, Rui and Ollie), which meant others could find me eventrually. My first big spike in sign-ups came from an endorsement from a kind blue tick on Twitter without any prompt from me.

Woooo recognition!

My next big spike came from me just asking people to subscribe to my newsletter. This single thing didn’t even cross my mind until I saw someone else do it. So a tip is to ask people to subscribe, nicely, but ask. This was again signal boosted by some kind people. I’ve annotated the rest of my growth journey here:

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Standing on the shoulders of Twitter giants and getting some help from Hacker News and Reddit
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Conversion rates has been averaging around 12%

Growth tactics that worked for me:

  • Maintaining a presence on Twitter — I see Twitter as the top of the funnel, if you like my Twitter writing, you probably would like my newsletter.
  • Posting in relevant subreddit communities — though it’s still a lot of trial and error. China and tech-based forums were indifferent to my stuff, but a longform based subreddit dug it (though they had some mean comments).
  • Submitting to HackerNews — I had 1 article go viral and 6 that did not. So it’s a volume game. I didn’t do anything special just submitted and waited for the algo to do its work. An interesting thing about HN is that it drove a lot of traffic without much conversion (esp compared to the Reddit spike), but it led to a lot of subsequent spreading.
  • Getting featured in other newsletters — Being in a tech niche means that tech curation newsletters (of which there are many) are likely to pick my stuff up. Special shoutout to Sarah who listed me in every past issue of Femstreet for the past 5 weeks without knowing me and without me asking her to. She’s a champ.
  • Direct and straightforward call to action while not being pushy — as mentioned above, ask people to subscribe but no point in being pushy.
  • Asking readers to share my work, and them coming through

Strategic actions that helped:

  • Quality writing — Since I am an unknown on the internet in a small niche, the only thing that would get traction was high-quality work. So I spent a lot of time and effort on writing these posts to break through the noise.
  • Niche topic of interest with less competition — My subject matter and style is relatively under-covered on the English internet given it is at the intersection of three topics with varying barriers to entry — technology analysis, strategy and modern China. That means there’s less competition for attention in my space but conversely no established community that cares about this.
  • Being credible within my circles of competence — I put my name and bio prominently on the newsletter because people respond to credibility. I worked in venture capital for more than 5 years; I speak Chinese and now live in China. I try to stick to what I know well.
  • Consistency of delivery — I used to worry about other tech newsletters. After writing for more than 7 weeks, I finally grokked the jogging monkey truism from Bojack Horseman:

“Everyday, it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part”

Writing something every week that I don’t hate is time-consuming and difficult. It’s often a slog. But this is the case for everyone. The fact that I’ve consistently put in the time is a competitive advantage. Not everyone who wants to start a newsletter can do this. New and old readers can also trust that I will deliver.

My biggest issues right now:

  • Lack of feedback from my readership — I don’t know my readership well though they are engaged (50%+ open rates every week). I never thought there could be a downside to growing quickly but here we are. I’m going to focus more on communicating with my readers for the next few weeks to get their perspective on why they read my work and what they’d like to see more of.
  • Performance anxiety — when I had 150 subscribers, I thought I would be elated if I ever hit 500 subscribers. But as the weeks passed and the subscribers grew, I became more anxious about producing good work — after all, I’ve got 500 people to disappoint now.

What’s next:

  • More collaborations with creators I respect and want to learn from
  • Figure out what the future for the newsletter looks like
  • Refine new growth techniques which I’ll post about in due time

I’m very thankful for the support of Vinoth Jayakumar, Ollie Forsyth, Rui Ma, Sarah Noeckel, Meri Beckwith and Alex Flamant. Biggest thanks to Alex T and Noah S who consistently help me proofread and give me thoughtful feedback ❤.

Follow me at @lillianmli to see what I get up to next.

Heretic. @lillianmli on Twitter. I write a longform newsletter on Chinese tech at https://lillianli.substack.com/

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