A number of reporters and columnists these days are “going indie,” detaching from their previous employer and signing up with a site like Substack, Patreon or Medium to get paid for their writing by their readers. The motivations are usually blends of seeking freedom (to write at their own cadence and on whatever they want to cover) and the accelerating austerity at media companies from ad supported business models collapsing. Friends of mine like tech journalist Casey Newton have recently made this transition (he left Vox to launch Platformer) so I’ve gotten a bit of insider perspectives on the ambitions and economics of these launches.
Much of the discussion around the sustainability of this movement is focused on the math of converting readers (or followers) to paying subscribers. “If she can get just 10% of her 500,000 Twitter followers to pay $100/year…” is the type of simple analysis that accompanies both the glass half-full and glass half-empty outlooks, benchmarked against either their previous salary or some notion of what economic success looks like. And while this framing isn’t wrong, it’s very incomplete. It’s my belief that very few “Substack writers” will make 100% of their income from their newsletter and this won’t be a failure of the platforms but instead related to the nature of creation itself. Enter, the Multi-SKU Creator.
The biggest impact of someone like Casey unbundling himself from The Vox is that he is now an entrepreneur with a product called Casey. His beachhead may very well be a paid newsletter (it’s very good by the way) but the newsletter is just one SKU. Maybe the SKU he cares most about. Maybe even the SKU that makes him the most money. But it doesn’t have to be the only SKU. There could be a podcast SKU. A speaking fee SKU. A book deal SKU. A consulting SKU. A guest columnist SKU. And so on. And if he does several of these over the next few years, it won’t be about the success or failure of Substack (for him) but a mix of creative, economic and lifestyle goals. In fact, I’m such a believer in the Multi-SKU Creator that we backed a startup company called Stir.
Stir is kinda of like Square, if Square was built for digital creators instead of coffee shops. Their first products include a dashboard which allows you to combine your multiple sources of income into a single view, tools to support automatic revenue sharing among creative collaborators and an experiment to let you charge Twitter followers for access to a separate private feed. Even in their early days we’re seeing creators who span multiple platforms (YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc) and multiple teams/brands/partners. The end result is that there’s no one platform, no one product that fulfills all their needs. And no matter where they are creating, Stir can help them keep their head above water. It’s an exciting future and one that I believe will lead to all sorts of new voices finding their audiences.