Every weekend I send a newsletter, The Prepared, to a few thousand people. It focuses on engineering & manufacturing, where I’ve worked for about a decade, and over the past three and a half years it has become a core part of my career.
I never intended for this to happen; I didn’t start The Prepared with any plan for how it would help me win friends or influence people. The work it takes to manage and write gets slipped into odd corners of my week – on the subway, during lunch, after my family goes to bed. I write it in addition to my job and my personal blog and my side projects. It takes up more of my time than any of these, or the half dozen or so conference talks I give every year. And it pays off more consistently – and in more nuanced ways – than any of those things ever could.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Persistence Over All Else
I like to think that I’ve got a distinctive voice, and that my curation is on point, and I’m pretty sure that the subject matter The Prepared covers has just the right balance of breadth and focus. But by far the most important factor to its growth has been its consistency.
In the beginning I sent The Prepared out to nobody – literally. I considered blasting everyone I had ever emailed, inviting them to subscribe to this thing that didn’t really exist yet, but decided instead to just start sending it and let it grow naturally. Doing so wasn’t particularly rewarding – in fact, it was lonely – but it helped me work out a few kinks in my format and cadence. And when I did get my first subscribers, it felt like something I had earned. I haven’t missed a single week since then.
There are certainly other ways to approach a newsletter, but I strongly recommend that whatever path you take, you be consistent about it. Value having shipped the thing over having perfected the thing; it’ll pay off well.
People Like Email
I started The Prepared right around when Slack was blowing up, and at the time there was a lot of talk about the impending demise of email. Since then I’ve sent something like a quarter million emails – mostly to people I’ve never met. And as far as I can tell (and contrary to what I would have expected), they like it.
The bottom line is that email is an effective solution to problems that people have, and I have no reason to think that that’ll change. Email has a huge userbase, making it easy to reach across cultural and geographic boundaries to spread a message. But email is personal, too: It accepts a colloquial presentation easily, and is delivered alongside notes from the closest people in your life.
In short: If you write enough emails, people get to really know you. This is an asset; don’t waste it.
Look, Ben Thompson runs an excellent newsletter. But you’re not Ben Thompson.
Running a good newsletter is about having a unique and valuable perspective on the world. Nobody needs a list of articles emailed to them every week, and you’ll only build an audience if you add some significant value on top of that. So as each week ticks by, your primary job is to figure out what exactly is interesting about you.
The same thing can be said about format, though in my experience this is more malleable. Most people (including myself) opt for a list of links with varying degrees of commentary interspersed. But there’s also the essay-in-an-email, the email-as-artform, the five-recent-things-I-read. Experimentation is great here, but don’t preoptimize: Your biggest payoff will be to focus on consistency, subject matter, and voice.
Building an Audience
Of all the things I’ve tried in my three and a half years of building The Prepared, nothing has done more to increase my audience than high quality content.
The obvious subitem here is to write about companies whose attention you want. This is not a guaranteed strategy, and you’re bound to be disappointed if you think an issue on Apple is going to result in a bunch of apple.com email signups. But if you target companies who aren’t normally written about, and if you have legitimately interesting things to say about them, the returns compound. Ideally, your readers are experts themselves; having subscribers who are working in the industry that you cover is incredibly valuable.
To take it one step further: Be available. Remember, you’re writing something that goes in people’s inboxes, and you’re writing about things that they presumably care about. Learn from your audience, and make yourself available to them whenever possible. My own policy (coffee on me to anyone who asks) is generous, and these days I need to actively set aside time to accommodate it. I’ve never regretted it.
I’ve toyed with the idea of promoting The Prepared, and have run a few small ad campaigns to try to broaden my base. The results are dwarfed by my broader efforts to become known in my industry: Speaking at conferences, maintaining relationships with colleagues, sending the odd cold email to someone whose work I admire. In other words, earn your audience – and don’t expect all of your acquisition to happen online.
Your Life as a Thought Leader
Let’s get this out of the way first: The whole idea of being a thought leader is sleazy. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want to be a thought leader.
As in the rest of the world, being the only person on the internet writing about something is roughly equivalent to being the only person doing it at all. Being seen as an expert is contingent upon seeming authoritative, and seeming authoritative is contingent upon being little else but being outspoken. And if you’re intelligent, straightforward, and put a bit of time into forming a perspective, the distinction between “isn’t that cute, you write a newsletter” and wielding influence on an industry is a lot mushier than you might think.
I say this, of course, with a touch of irony: I don’t want to be a thought leader any more than I want to be a spray tanned real estate agent in a 7 series BMW. The Prepared grew out of my own research on industries and companies that I wanted to make a dent in, and I continue to value knowing what’s going on far more than being seen as someone who can identify trends.
That said, The Prepared’s payoff per unit effort is greater than any other thing I’ve done in the past five years. And it’s not about self-promotion; Sitting between industry and media has forced me to understand market forces in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and has put me in touch with customers, competitors, and collaborators alike. And by being outspoken – by putting my thoughts down every Sunday for three and a half years – I’ve seen noticeable changes in attitudes towards what I work on the rest of the time.
Running a newsletter isn’t innovative. At the end of a rare weekend off, it can be hard to muster the consistency and thoughtfulness that you know your subscribers expect. But if you’ve got things to say and want to influence your industry, it offers a ton of leverage – and will ultimately create an invaluable network as you work to make your mark.