Substack is a subscription network for independent writers and creators. It's home to some of the world’s most beloved writers like Margaret Atwood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Roxane Gay, Michael Moore, and Patti Smith . Launched in October 2017 , there are now more than 17,000 writers earning money on the platform . With over 35M subscriptions, of which 2M are paid , the top 10 publishers collectively make over $25 million annually. The platform’s popularity has seen the company's valuation surpass $500M .
Community has been an important part of the network’s success, helping to make it the go-to platform for writers striking out on their own . In this deep dive, we look at how Substack kickstarted a community of writers that powers its growth, and how it has enabled thousands of micro-communities to form around publications on the platform.
✔️ Origin Story: How Substack and its community programs got started.
✔️ Sparking the Flame: The initial programs that ignited its community growth.
✔️ Stoking the Fire: How it has evolved community activities as it has scaled.
✔️ Return on Community: The value it creates for members and derives for its own business.
Co-founders Chris Best, Jairaj Sethi, and Hamish McKenzie came together to create a new economic engine for independent writers . Chris had shared a draft blog post with ex-journalist Hamish  about how he thought the ads-based media economy was incentivizing the wrong things, like divisiveness and shock-over-substance storytelling. Hamish agreed but suggested that the problems weren’t what folks were struggling with, knowing what to do about them was. In response, rather than finish the post, Chris proposed Substack instead, with a plan to build an alternative media economy not based on online advertising, but one that monetized through subscriptions . The goal was to create an all-in-one service to let writers get paid by reaching audiences that value them  and making it simple for writers to start a subscription publication became its mission . As its name implies, what they then began to build was an integrated stack of tools for writers to take care of everything from blog and email publishing, to payment collection and analytics .
Its business model is simple - it takes a 10% cut of the revenue writers earn through its platform . This aligns the interests of Substack and its writers - it only makes money when writers do .
Substack went on to launch alongside its first publication, Bill Bishop’s Sinocism newsletter, on October 16, 2017 .
The launch was a hit and Bill made six figures of revenue on the first day . This proved out Substack’s model - people could replace a full-time job with publishing on its platform .
Bill Bishop was an established writer whom Hamish knew from his days as a reporter in Hong Kong. This became their initial approach to growth, courting known, professional writers and bringing them over to the Substack platform . Hamish and Chris initially did this themselves, reaching out to a handful of writers they knew or thought could make a big impact . In time this turned into a robust program and they went on to raise over $85M  to use some of that pay advances, give grants, and other financial incentives as part of its Substack Pro offering . This also involved building out a range of services for high-profile writers, like legal support, health care, help with editing, and design asset creation support, too . Overall, this has been successful. Reporters from outlets like The New York Times and Buzzfeed have started publications on the Substack platform .
Landing big names helps in a few ways. When prominent writers move over to Substack, trust builds among both writers and readers for the platform . Plus, it got them a bunch of press coverage, too - after all, writers love to write about other writers .
However, its goals are lofty. They want to address the problems that a broken media ecosystem is causing society . Plus, taking just a 10% cut means it needs billions in revenue to justify its valuation and produce a return for investors. Following its last funding round, it began its outreach efforts internationally, approaching established writers in Romania, Brazil, India, and elsewhere . But taking a Masterclass-type approach could maybe scale to hundreds or thousands of writers. Substack needs tens or hundreds of thousands. Creator platforms are a hit-driven model, while top creators can amass huge audiences and generate substantial incomes, the vast majority of creators write for a handful of readers  and never turn on monetization .
What’s more, writers own their subscriber lists , meaning they’re free to move to another platform if they don’t see the value in Substack. To make their business model work then, it needs scale and it needs to be sticky. Making this happen required a vast network of writers and they turned to community to help deliver that.
Substack has two main audiences - writers and readers. It could have created a community for readers, or connected readers and writers, but they firmly focused on building writer-to-writer connections. As Bailey Richardson, Head of Writer Success at Substack, says, when deciding where to start with community you should be asking “Are there people who have an outsized impact on your business? Are there people for whom, if they help you advance your business in some way, it's good for them and it's really good for the business?” . For Substack, it was writers building businesses on its platform that ticked those boxes.
Substack hired Ellie MacBride as Community Lead in September 2020 to help kickstart its community efforts. It later brought in a community consultancy, People and Company, which Substack went on to acquire in March 2021 . Through that acquisition, Bailey Richardson and Kevin Huynh joined Substack full-time, with Bailey building out community, marketing, and writer success teams, and Kevin going on to become VP Operations, thus instilling their community-led approach throughout the company.
Substack already had an established Writer Team, who foster one-to-one relationships with pro writers through a high-touch approach. The learnings here didn’t apply to fostering a community of emerging writers, so they were very much at the ‘spark the flame’ stage .
Their ‘who’ were those Hamish describes as the “undiscovered, under-appreciated, and under-resourced writers” on the platform . The thousands of writers who may be passionate about their publications but have yet to realize their full potential. By connecting these emerging writers, they thought they could improve their chances of success and help make Substack’s network of writers more robust along the way .
An important part of the Get Together method is selecting a ‘Why theme,’ which explains why people should come together and keep coming back. For Substack, that ‘why’ was guidance. Bailey explains that writers “Were super confused about how to run their business. There was a big gap between what our team's internal knowledge was about how to use Substack and what writers had access to” . So with the help of Katie O'Connell, who also joined Substack via the acquisition of People and Company, they started to spin up some programs to give emerging writers everything they needed to turn their publications into a successful, independent media business beyond the software itself .
At the core of these programs was identifying and sharing best practices that creators can learn from . As Fiona Monga, who is now VP Partnerships at Substack explains, “A lot of this subscription model at scale is new to a journalist or writer… running a business on Substack is in a lot of ways, a new idea,” so there’s guidance needed to help a creative person make the transition from writer to solopreneur . And as ever, imposter syndrome never really goes away. There’s a need for support and reassurance, as Nadia Asparouhova, who worked on the Substack Writer Experience team says :
“One thing that is surprising to me, and continues to surprise me, is that regardless of how big or small a writer is, it seems like this feeling of ‘oh gosh, am I good enough or will anyone listen, or will anyone pay for my thing?’ is persistent”.
Plus, maintaining motivation is essential. In a subscription model, you need to publish week-in week-out, so connection to other writers for inspiration and emotional support is a win-win. Emerging writers get the support they need, but “It was good for our business as well,” says Bailey. “The more knowledge there is about how to use Substack well out in the world, getting spread with or without us doing it, the more likely writers are to succeed and Substack's business succeeds” . So they got to work and started building programs to empower writers to help each other directly and at scale .
Early on, Substack experimented with using Circle as the home for its community . However, this didn’t stick, and they decided to make use of their own platform a constraint of their community work .
This wasn’t easy, Substack has “pretty primitive product features for community engagement,” admits Hamish. “Most of the community activity on Substack happens in the comments sections or in simple discussion threads prompted by the writers” .
They started with several big-bang, branded programs and activities to kickstart the community.
One such program was Substack Bridge, a two-month-long, guided mentorship program . This involved matching emerging and established Substack writers for a series of private, virtual sessions focused on topics such as improving their creative process, community building, and monetizing their work. The goal of the program was to support emerging writers as they settle into their domains and grow an audience on Substack .
“My two key results with this… was getting at least five writers confirmed to be mentors for the first pilot, and then at least 75% of those… saying they'd be interested in participating again,” says Ellie. “We actually ended up with twelve mentors for the pilot.” The announcement got over 50,000 views , resulting in 1,000+ applications from prospective mentees in four days for just 12 open spots .
Requirements for both mentors and mentees were light. Mentors had to agree to be available for a minimum of 2 hours per month by phone or Zoom and respond to emails from mentees within 3 days . Mentees needed to have more than 100 subscribers and to have been publishing content at least once per month . Then Substack matched applicants to mentors whose expertise was complementary, providing the mentors with 2-5 applicants to consider, from which they chose 1 as their mentee .
The program itself ran from October to December 2020  and Substack was relatively hands-off. They sent an email intro between the mentor and the mentee, then left it to them to figure out their meeting cadence. The suggestion was to set up 2-4 virtual calls on either a weekly or biweekly cadence, with a couple of them opting to do longer, more involved monthly calls . However, they made sure to support mentors by creating a toolbox of resources. They had previously experimented with a more casual mentoring program where mentors would do phone calls. Ellie says, “For a lot of the mentors, it was exhausting for them” explaining that they felt like they had to “host this experience… rather than have it be this two-way thing” . So Ellie created a toolbox, which consisted of some conversation starters and weekly prompts for mentors and mentees to consider throughout the program, making it more collaborative and taking the burden off mentors to know what to do next. Mentors could also interact with the other mentors and had a direct line to the Writer Experience team for support .
Given the popularity of the program, they wanted to provide value to the 988+ applicants who weren’t chosen. They followed up with each one, providing them with a selection of resources and an invite to a beta of a silent writing event. “That also gave me an opportunity to pilot this event and see how it worked with a smaller group of people,” remarked Ellie .
Another such example was Substack On!, the company’s first writer conference, which ran in January 2021  and took a team of 20+ people to put together . This included panels, workshops, and a full day of talks from writers of all shapes and sizes, including Bill Bishop, Casey Newton, and a keynote from Chris, the CEO .
These hands-on programs were followed up with more scalable versions, called Substack Go and Substack Grow. Bailey stresses the importance of such early-stage, non-scalable activities :
“You have to do all of these different things that are not maybe scalable to just build those relationships, get those people to participate.”
Adding that, it’s important to fight the temptation to skip this stage. “I often think doing the work to get the first group of people really excited about whatever you're building is the only way to get permission to get to step three or step four,” says Bailey. Through this work, their efforts began to transition from “sparking the flame” to the “stoking the fire” stage .
Substack Go was a month-long program that connected writers to help them kickstart a publishing habit. The program combined a private publication on Substack, where the Substack team published daily bite-sized tips on a strategic theme and participants could connect in discussion threads . This was complemented by a set of virtual meetups via Zoom calls  with Writer Roundtables to discuss the themes in the daily tips through facilitated critiques. The program had a light application form, which Katie says “creates just this little layer of friction… And if people took the time to thoughtfully fill that out, it signaled to us that they might invest more thoughtful time in the actual program” .
Starting in January 2022, they hosted 500 writers split into groups of 8-10 by category, stage, and region . The idea was to promote an understanding of Substack fundamentals, connect people to a squad of peers, and establish a writing and publishing cadence.
Substack Grow was a series of six sessions covering the essential knowledge writers need to grow their readership and paid subscriptions . Growth was a common pain point for emerging writers. As Judd Legum, author of the Popular Information newsletter, says "Building an audience is probably the trickiest part for most folks. Especially getting your first thousand subscribers" . So this is an area the Substack team created a lot of resources around. Substack Grow included weekly live sessions and opportunities for members to engage in a private publication, like in Go. It was enacted through six Zoom calls, which they then recorded and summarized for consumption by the wider Substack community not involved in the program .
“We had a lot of insights and data on who might actually be a great fit for this program,” comments Katie. “So we actually sent out personal invitations to people. And I think that when you're trying to do a community for the first time, having a couple of people in the room who are going to thoughtfully show up, bring the energy, and then… create the culture… is really important” .
Another facet the team began exploring was rituals. In Get Together, the “bonds between members are fostered through the rituals they practice together” and Bailey remarks that they didn’t yet have “regular ways for writers to interact with each other” .
Back in December 2020, they had experimented with establishing such a ritual with Writing Hour. They’d “play some chill instrumental music, set a timer for an hour, then send you off to work on whatever you’re writing,” says Ellie. The premise was simple, but it was intended to help writers maintain a consistent writing practice . Once the hour was done, folks had the option to “hang out a bit longer to meet other writers in small groups,” explains Ellie. Anywhere from 175 to 300 people would turn up and the events were organized using Luma .
One ritual that did stick was Office Hours. Often office hours events are based around Zoom calls, but true to their Substack constraint, theirs are discussions hosted on a publication . They’ve been happening “almost every week for two years,” says Bailey. It’s a “1-hour slot where we have an open, almost AMA with our writers” . The idea is to bring writers together to share guidance on burning questions about publishing, growing, or monetizing on Substack.
The Substack team joins in, with its founders being known to attend too, and they run these hour-long Q&As . One benefit of them being on Substack is that there’s both a synchronous and asynchronous component. So the team commits to being there for the hour, but then other writers are free to post questions and answers to continue the conversation after the team leaves . Since “everyone's name is linked to their Substacks, you see these great moments of people in the comments, finding each other,” says Nadia . As a result, Office Hours have become the big thing that the community comes back to all the time . Bailey notes that “We see higher retention rates in people who read our publication actively and participate in office hours,” too .
The final stage in the Get Together methodology is ‘passing the torch.’ Here you begin to establish leaders within the community and things gather a momentum of themselves so that you’re no longer behind everything that comes out of the community. Nadia says “There’s a temptation to be the center point of these events and control the conversation” but the real goal is to be “more of the lubricant or the accelerant” than the fire itself .
A key way to do that is to spot those who keep turning up. Katie says, “We've hosted office hours… and we have some writers that have been there for over half and even more”. So having spotted these enthusiastic members, they “reached out to those writers directly and just thanked them for their participation, we’ve gotten on the phone with some of them, sent some of them swag, and just made them feel celebrated” .
Another way they do that is through its monthly shoutout threads. Once a month, Substack writers and the Substack team share what they’ve been reading and inspired by . Bailey remarks “I think the storytelling about the community and that kind of rhythm of featuring people is really essential to opening up relationships. It's like a natural vehicle to start a dialogue with someone” .
Hannah Ray is now Managing Editor at Substack but was previously Storytelling Lead - a position dedicated to curating and spotlighting the best content and creators on the platform. Writers are “not always so self-promotional, and they don't always want to tell their own stories,” says Hannah. “So a lot of what I'm doing is really helping them share their stories with the broader Substack community” . Interviews are an important aspect of that, “We host and publish interviews with writers who have succeeded on Substack to share their tips, data, and insights,” says Bailey . They feature writers on their own branded publications, as well as on their homepage, on the Discover page in their app , as well as on productions like their podcast . This content aims to both educate by lifting the lid on the business of running a Substack  and also “feature role model writers for the rest of the writer community to see,” explains Bailey . Adding that “it's one thing for us, like the brand, to say something, but another thing for a writer who's succeeded on the platform to say it” .
By raising up key members of the community, they’re hoping to encourage prospective future leaders to step forward. “You may start doing a lot of the work and a lot of the organizing yourself, but you have to switch modes eventually and get people in the community to lead and organize the things,” says Bailey. In doing so, “They will ensure that the Substack writer community is resilient, authentic, and distributed” and it’s a necessary step to transition to the ‘passing the torch’ phase . You can already see this starting to happen with its Meetups program.
The Substack Meetup program aims to amplify and celebrate the communities of writers gathering so that more people can get involved . They’ve been hosting meetups for a while but only began actively promoting the program in October 2023. Already, they’re seeing some traction with 12 meetups due to run throughout February 2024 in towns and cities across Europe, America, and Australia, for example . “We used to host all the drinks events in New York and around the world, but now there are people hosting them without us,” remarks Katie . They’re meeting up to celebrate wins, swap stories, and support one another on their journey. Many are informal gatherings at local cafes, bars, and parks, but some are virtual too .
Substack supports meetup organizers by giving them access to the Substack Writer Meetup publication to connect with other hosts as well as the Writer Success team to share resources and tips on gathering fellow writers. They also promote the meetups to writers on their social channels and events page. Would-be hosts need to fill out an application, detailing their Substack publication, and prior experience in gathering people, and they ask for a brief plan including a date for the first meetup .
One of the big reasons Substack has invested in community is to grow its platform, with paid subscriptions being particularly important as that’s how they drive revenue.
Over the last six years, paid subscriptions have grown from 25,000 in 2018, to over 1M by November 2021 , passing 2M in March 2023 . Meanwhile, earnings for top writers on the platform continue to grow as network effects develop. In September 2020 its top 10 publishers brought in $7 million collectively in annualized revenue , which passed $15M in February 2021  and was up to $25M by March 2023 .
A big reason for the sudden increase is its recommendation feature, which is most beneficial to already popular writers on the platform. Writers can choose to recommend other publications on the platform, and when someone subscribes to their publication, it suggests you subscribe to the recommended publications, too. Substack says that over 40% of all subscriptions and 15% of paid subscriptions on the platform come directly from the Substack network . However, for top publications, this can be even higher. Lenny Rachitsky, for example, who publishes the most popular business newsletter on Substack says “70% of my growth is coming from this one feature. There's something like 500 other newsletters recommending me” .
The effectiveness of this feature, though, is also in part testament to Substack’s community building efforts. Rather than rely on an algorithm to suggest other publications, Substack wanted to put the choice in the hands of its writers. However, they worried the feature wouldn’t be well used as it involves several steps to activate. As Sachin Monga, VP Product at Substack (who also joined via an acquisition ), notes though, when they turned it on it was an immediate hit - “It created this sort of goodwill viral loop, which was really interesting to see play out” .
Another benefit of their writer community is the opportunity to get product feedback. As Chris says, “Getting feedback from people who actually spend a portion of their lives in our product is extremely meaningful and valuable” . To that end, in September 2022 they set up an invite-only group called Product Lab, which some of its writer community was included in. Sachin says the group is “100 or so writers that we know are interested in being on the bleeding edge of what Substack is becoming and specifically offer” .
Product Lab is implemented as a private publication on Substack, where they post about the latest experiments they’re running, which are all opt-in, and provide monthly updates on the outcomes of those experiments . Including members in beta tests is quite common, but going the extra mile and sharing the outcomes really makes this a great example of building with a community. It gives members a unique insight into what they’re developing and why. Sachin says :
“We can take a feature like recommendations to writers and get quick feedback… It's just been super helpful to have a bit of this infrastructure in place.”
Another way of building with a community is getting them to invest in the business itself. In April 2023, Substack launched a community round on Wefunder . “We raised $7,809,219 and welcomed 6,688 writers and readers to become part of the company,” says Bailey. “It was the most incredible ‘build with’ project I have been a part of in my career” .
Investors were split 50/50 between writers and readers and people invested an average of $250 . Substack saw it as an opportunity to give community members the chance to participate. “These are the people who are generating all the value in the network,” says Chris. “This was our chance to bring them into Substack more formally.” Adding that “I've actually always been excited about the idea of doing a community round” . However, some question whether this was the real reason for going the community route. They had reportedly tried to gain additional funding from VCs and failed, and were criticized for omitting basic financials from its Wefunder listing, like net income, burn rate, and runway . But Chris says “We’re doing this because the dynamics of a platform like Substack change if the people who are building their businesses on it are owners of it too.” Explaining that “Our community round is like an extra layer on top that forms an even stronger bond and an even tighter alignment” .
One final aspect of community that’s worth digging into on Substack is how it has helped enable the creation of thousands of micro-communities. As Chris explains :
“There’s no singular ‘Substack community’—there are thousands of communities across a massive array of people, opinions, vibes, subject areas, geographies, languages, and cultures. Writers create their own communities, and readers choose which communities to be a part of.”
This is a really interesting part of Substack, as much as it’s where writers publish newsletters and podcasts, it’s also home to writer’s communities. Hamish says “To a large extent, we see that people who pay for Substacks are paying to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to be closer to the writers they most trust, and to be in communication with others who feel the same.” You see this play out among some of the most successful Substack writers, folks like Patti Smith, Michael Moore, and Dan Rather. They all have thriving subscriber bases, yet they barely paywall any of their content.
As Fiona explains, “It's like you're writing for your true fans. When you're putting work behind a paywall, it's the insider's club. It's a place where you can be more personal or go behind the scenes a bit more” .
Through the Substack community team’s insistence on using its own platform, they’ve proven that although the features are basic, it’s possible to build and scale a community using them. Hamish notes that to build deeper relationships you don’t need a bunch of functionality, it “can be something as simple as discussion threads or access to the comments, or it could be deeper dives, or it could be personal letters” .
For example, the podcaster Daryl Cooper brings his community together for giant question-and-answer sessions and seeks advice from his subscriber base . While Letters from an American author Heather Cox Richardson has built a passionate community of readers on the platform despite the ability to comment on posts being the only feature that is exclusive to paid subscribers . But it works - Substack has found that subscribers who participate in comments are more likely to keep reading, convert to paid, and share a publication with their friends .
Substack didn’t invent the newsletter or the concept of subscriptions. And yet, it has carved out a unique place for itself in the media landscape. Its community-led approach has been a key driver of differentiation. When How They Grow author Jaryd Hermann tried out competitor Beehiiv, he ended up sticking with Substack, explaining that Substack “readers appreciate analysis and depth, and most writers deliver there what feels more like journalism” . While Substack as a business has a lot to contend with, from financial uncertainty  to hate speech , its big bet on community will drive lasting competitive advantage. The community has already helped drive millions of readers and thousands of writers to the platform who have come together to form their own micro communities. Writer Anne Helen Petersen had this to say about her Substack micro community, for example :
“You made the subscriber threads the highlight of my week. You shared your stories of grief and place and weird neighbors. You asked and sought advice, and reliably suggest at least 500 new books every month. You sent me tips, and interviewed your kids about their video games, and suggested and then set the agenda for the money advice column… You made the comments section a place where you might actually want to hang out again.”
It’s hard to bet against the power of a community like that.
That’s it! That’s how Substack drives growth with its community of creatives. For more details, check out the sources below. If you found this useful, please share it with friends and colleagues, and don't forget to subscribe. ✌