The first 100,000 Words: Finding Success on Substack without a Following
AKA The State of the Stack
This week marks a significant milestone for me. It will mark my first year on Substack. I wrote my first article on December 16th, 2022. When I started my writing a year ago, it was not born out of some professional ambition but from a personal quest to express, and share ideas that I felt were underrepresented in the programming, and technology space. Writing has been a passion of mine since childhood, but maintaining consistent motivation has often been a challenge. But this 2023 was different. It was a culmination of a multi year arc that started with College, Grad School, and ended with me marrying the love of my life. The stability I’ve gained from this has given me a lot of free time to think, and I’ve channeled a lot of that energy into this blog.
Substack's platform has been a boon, streamlining the blogging process. I’ve had a blog before, one about video games while I was in College. I bought a domain, set up a WordPress, mail chimp, the whole shebang. It was a pain in the butt, so I’m glad that Substack has built in a lot of features that previously I had to cobble together myself. They’ve also continued to improve the platform and are adding new features for writers all the time.
I had been hesitant to start this project at first and there were a few reasons. The usual suspects like the fear of failure, imposter syndrome, and the fact that people on the internet can be mean. I’ve definitely generated a few haters in response to some of my posts, but I choose not to pay them any mind. In reality I was just overthinking the process. I actually had a sizeable list of topics for my first few articles. I had been building them up over time. Mostly it was born out of the frustration from searching for articles about specific topics, but finding nothing satisfactory. Eventually I had enough things to say that after a while it just felt like that Thanos meme…
I am an ordinary person. I don’t have any fancy credentials, I’ve never worked at a FAANG company, I didn’t go to an Ivy league school, and I had zero social media presence. But that was okay. I was basically just doing Stephen King’s Richard Bachman experiment in reverse, you know, without already being famous or anything. I was skeptical at first, as a lot of people on here already had successful careers, so I wondered how well I could do just based on my own merit. With all of this in mind, including the fact that I would have to market myself without the help of an algorithm, I set some modest goals for myself.
1. 100 followers by the end of the year
2. 52 articles in 52 weeks
3. 10,000 views across all of my articles
I'm proud to report that I've surpassed these goals, achieving the first in just four months, the second by November, and amassing over 130,000 views in total, along with three (count it three!) paid subscribers, which wasn’t even an original goal of mine
Despite the success, it hasn't been an easy journey. It turns out pumping out an article a week is a lot of work, and life doesn’t always make that level of consistency possible. I’ve had to reorganize parts of my life to make it happen, and there have been weeks were I didn’t think I’d make it.
This in conjunction with the fact that growth has slowed down a lot, and my monthly views are down, means that external motivation is low. But I know how fickle motivation is, and I don’t need it to get me to write. I also feel very satisfied with what I’ve achieved so far. The key has been that I have not moved the goal posts even though I’ve achieved my goals early. This has helped me stayed satisfied with my progress.
I hit the wall about 6 months in. By then, the novelty of posting had waned, and I was completely out of my initial topics. I began to wonder whether or not I would find enough things to talk about. But the gears of the internet are constantly turning, and things are happening all the time. As someone who skims Hacker News and Lobste.rs on the regular, and has Google alerts set for certain key words, I have always been able to find something to write about.
As of now, I've written 55 articles (excluding the automatic introductory post by Substack). Looking at my drafts right now I have
47 49 ideas for posts. I’d say 10% of those will end up as articles. My approach involves quickly jotting down any new idea, so some of those posts are just a title or a few sentences in a draft. But I know that these seeds can grow into substantial pieces over time. It’s worked well for me, and as I continue to grow as a writer and programmer, new opportunities and things to write about will surely arise.
If you are considering starting a Substack I would encourage you to do so. Writing is a rewarding experience, and as a programmer, it has helped reinforce certain programming concepts in my head. I’m sure it will help you too, no matter your domain.
Looking ahead, I'm excited to continue writing in the new year, with longer projects in the works and some vacation time to build my backlog. I also plan to revisit short story writing, particularly a nerdy sci-fi fantasy universe I’ve been world building. Let me know if you would be interested in reading something like that!
And that’s it. That’s been my first year on Substack. But before I go… A heartfelt thank you my dear reader, and to all of my subscribers. I’ve appreciated engaging with you both here and on Twitter, and I hope to continue to do so in the new year. Have a happy holidays with you and your family, and don’t forget to come back next week for more regularly scheduled posts!
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Hi 👋 my name is Diego Crespo and I like to talk about technology, niche programming languages, and AI. I have a Twitter and a Mastodon, if you’d like to follow me on other social media platforms. If you liked the article, consider liking and subscribing. And if you haven’t why not check out another article of mine listed below! Thank you for reading and giving me a little of your valuable time. A.M.D.G