Introduction

Substack is having explosive growth in 2020. As a developer / niche blogger, I’ve been curious about what tools other bloggers are using, and how they grow blog traffic. So I looked into Substack and tried to find out what it does.

While doing the search, I also found:

This article documents my reasoning when looking at these tools. You may find it interesting if you are curious about blogging, how to monetize from your writing, or even how to build software to help content writers.

My impressions about these tools

Substack

Substack is the tool that is free for content writers. It helps content writers start a newsletter, build a community and manage the payments. Its business model is to take a 10% cut from writers’ earning, in exchange for all these services.

Substack-screensbot

With Substack, you get 1) a website that showcases your articles, and 2) Subscribe call-to-action (CTA) buttons / forms that are placed on the page where they are optimized to grow subscriptions, and 3) handles payment for you.

I think it saves writers some trouble for dealing with these hassles.

elink is a handy tool for generating content from bookmarks. If you are like who read and bookmark a number of articles during the day, it would be nice to turn the interesting articles into a post or a newsletter. elink helps exactly with that.

image

elink provides the easy UI to add web links, and also templates to generate a visually-organized digest like newsletter.

elink is using paid subscription business model. Using their free plan, I couldn’t create a post that I could embed in this blog. So it is quite limitted.

One doubt I have about elink is:

Aggregating the bookmarked articles like elink does, is it a good way to create content? Would audience enjoy reading your bookmarks?

I receive lots of newsletter emails everyday and I definitely don’t have time to go through all of them. I understand that, this is more of a question for content producers rather then elink. As a tool, perhaps as a tool, it can do something about it, e.g., gives writer a heads-up when too many articles are added in a single newsletter.

Ghost

Ghost is an open source alternative to Substack. With Ghost, writers have more control over the platform, like website design, payment plug-ins, etc. In terms of fees, Ghost doesn’t take the 10% cut from the subscription revenue. If you opt to use their hosting solution, you are paying a monthly subscription fee ($8 min).

As a developer, we can definitely host our own Ghost. It is purely on Javasript anyway. Essentially, Ghost is a modern version of wordpress.

Github pages + Google Feedburner

This is an alternative way of managing a blog, subscribers and generating a feed based newsletters. This article has a good tutorial about how to set this up.

My blog is also using this approach. Overall, if you are comfortable using Git and Github pages, this is also a low-cost way to manage newsletters.

There is also risk on relying on Google, which might kill Feedburner like what they did to Google Reader.

Indie Hackers / MakerLog

These two are mainly a forum like social network where makers / Indie Hackers post updates, exchange information about their side hustles and get inspirations from each other.

This is mainly to solve the motivation problem. I’m always curious:

As a lone writer, how can you stay motivated and produce good content all the time?

Value Proposition

We have to think about what values these products provide for writers. I categorize them into the following categories:

  • Help writers stay motivated (so it is mostly solved by social networks)
    • Indie Hackers
    • makerlog
  • Help writers create content
    • elink
    • PostDiva
  • Help writers manage newsletters
    • TinyLetter
    • Substack
  • Help writers build and maintain websites
    • Substack
    • Ghost
  • Help writers manage subscribers and get paid
    • Substack
    • Ghost

If you translate these into problem statements, we get that it’s hard to

  • keep being motivated for a long streak
  • create good content
  • manage newsletters
  • build blog websites
  • manage subscribers and get paid

Thinking from these perspectives help us think about the product. It would also help shape the customer conversations. For example, under the category of “Help writers stay motivated”, we can ask the following quesiton:

Is social network the only way to achieve the purpose?

These open ended questions can be a good starting point to clarify from our customers.


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Junji Zhi

Senior Software Engineer.