Designerpreneur #2: First-year review
Lessons from the newsletter in 2022 and a roadmap for what's to come in 2023.
Today I'm back with the second edition of "designerpreneur": my quarterly-ish "business review" with my imaginary board of directors (aka you!).
The last time we checked in was at the beginning of September immediately following the biggest month for the newsletter in 2022.
In August alone:
I shipped 9 pieces (I published twice per week that month)
The newsletter grew by >300%
My Twitter grew by >125%
I made my first dollars online
It was a big month. And while we've continued on a great trajectory in the following months I think it's fair to write off August as an outlier at this point. A formative and important outlier, but an outlier nonetheless.
I mentioned previously that newsletter growth is a "hits business" and I still feel that to be true today. I had my biggest hits of the year in August but continued to find more routine growth in the fall. So if the theme of the first "designerpreneur" review was "going pro" after having my first run of success with Better by Design, the theme of today's review is "seeking ways to grow sustainably".
I hope that letting you behind the curtain with these reviews is useful in the pursuit of your own side projects and that it reinforces for you that, as my audience, you’re a partner in setting the direction of Better by Design. I have my own vision for where to take it, of course, but I value your perspective as I set about creating a space for design lovers that's fruitful for you and me. Let’s make this a win-win, shall we?
Now for today's review, which includes summaries of:
2022 Substack Review
2022 Substack Review
I started writing a little each day in January 2022 to get my fingers working and the ideas flowing. Then, once I rebuilt my personal website with Notion and Super, I began adding my writing there. As a trial run, I published five short pieces that way from January through March before ultimately deciding to start on Substack in May.
I sent my first official newsletter ("The Design Execution Gap") to 5 people on May 13. Despite being sent to basically no one, the post now has over 1,200 views and has generated 18 subscriptions on its own; a good reminder of the power of creating evergreen content on the internet.
Now let's see some numbers!
After an insane 329% growth in August, I think I'm starting to see a more realistic picture come into focus from September to December. Basically 10-20% growth month over month. At the current rate, Better by Design will hit 1,000 subscribers by mid-April-ish 2023 (about 11 months from the first post).
It's important to note that a whopping 89% of my subscriptions have been in some way facilitated by Substack (either people having existing accounts or coming directly from product features like recommendations). Had I chosen to not use Substack, I think it's very likely I would have given up before I saw meaningful traction. So I can't overstate the value the platform has added for me.
Average new subs per day: ~3 subscribers
Average growth month over month (outlier removed): 32%
Average growth last 4 months: 22%
Percent of subscribers facilitated by Substack: 89%
Overall, the traffic pattern is very consistent with a peak on days an article is sent followed by a large drop-off and a downward slope. Publishing twice per week mitigates some of that drop-off, as you'd expect, but introduces more complexity to the weekly workflow.
Posts per week since May 13: ~1 post (34 posts in 32 weeks)
Highest traffic days
August 9 - 759 visits - Driven by a thread on Figma presentations
August 16 - 758 visits - Driven by a thread on Figma shortcuts
December 5 - 694 visits - Driven by the article "The 3 simple perspectives that lead to design innovation"
Article with the most views:
How I use Figma to craft better presentations → 2091 total views
Article that drove the most subs:
How I prototype to communicate, not complicate, in Figma → 39 subscriptions
Article with the most interactions (likes, comments, shares):
The 3 ways I've tried to land a design system into existing software → 14 interactions
I dialed back my Twitter use a lot this quarter because it hasn't been a fun place to hang out. I also have yet to find a format on Twitter that results in consistent engagement without feeling annoying and making me feel bad in the process. So while I'll keep sharing my work there and will check in routinely, I’m just not interested in dedicating too much time or headspace to it.
I didn't seriously pursue posting on Linkedin in 2022.
I shared a few posts there as a way to bolster my traditional resume, but that’s the extent of it. That might change in 2023 as I redirect the efforts I put into Twitter.
I repost all blog-style content to Medium, making sure to set the canonical link for search engines back to Substack. I don't know how much it's helped, but it's a low-effort way for me to get my content in more places. Shout out to my coworker Sam Hall who showed me the trick!
For a how-to on setting the canonical link in Medium, check out this thread:
The most consistent boost to Better by Design in 2022 came from getting shared in other publications, including HeyDesigner, Figmalion, and Workspaces.xyz. I'm going to continue to look for opportunities to get Better by Design in front of people this way as it has been by far the best consistent driver of new eyes on the newsletter.
Operations & Revenue
My toolkit (daily drivers)
I design in Figma ($15)
I write in Obsidian (free)
I use Grammarly to help proofread (free)
I manage my workflow in Notion ($4)
I use Readwise and Reader to centralize highlights and notes ($9)
I use Typefully for Twitter drafting and scheduling ($10)
I publish my personal website with Super ($12)
~$67 per month. Overall very cheap and could easily be cheaper if I wanted it to be.
After fees and taxes, I made a little over $100 this year from the products in my store. Considering I didn't expect to do anything on this front in 2022, I'm just pleased to have a small foundation to build from next year.
Cost: Continued focus on free
I've thought a lot about whether or not to add a paid tier to Better by Design. For now, I've decided against it. I want to stay focused on adding as much value as possible for free and I don't want to be on the hook of a subscription business if I can help it (particularly while I'm working full-time at a startup). Since Substack promotes paid publications more heavily (as they should since that's how they make money), I may eventually change my tune. But for now, my focus is on free.
Cadence: 1-2 pieces every week of 2023
I experimented with a couple of different publishing cadences in 2022. Frankly, a lot of it was just trying to find a routine that was sustainable around my normal work-life schedule. That said, I think 1-2 pieces per week is my sweet spot. I averaged slightly over 1 post per week since starting on Substack and will be pushing myself to drive that up closer to 2 per week over 2023.
Content: Design Practice, Design Gratitude, and introducing... the 1% Better Digest
I started Better by Design with standard blog-style articles. I now call these articles "Design Practice" on the site. They're the longer format pieces that have driven most of the growth and they'll continue to be central to the newsletter. They take a decent amount of time and energy, so the simpler formats I use around them help me balance my time and make sure these articles are solid before publishing.
As a supplement to those blog-style articles, I added "Design Gratitude" as a lightweight way for me to share designs I love alongside other things that are catching my eye from week to week. Going forward, Design Gratitude will focus even more on highlighting great designs and designers who are doing great work. The other "interesting link" style content will shift into a new format. If you think of particular designs or designers that deserve a highlight, let me know!
1% Better Digest
Starting next week, I'm introducing a third format that I'm calling the 1% Better Digest. The idea comes from Atomic Habits author James Clear who said:
If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.
There are solid intensive courses available when you know what you want to dive into deeply. But personally, I learn best by practicing a little bit every day and then following my curiosity and diving deep as topics pique my interest.
The 1% Better Digest is meant to give you a jumping-off point for learning to design a little better every day. It will come out weekly on Monday mornings ET and highlight a specific concept for you to explore each day of the week. Think of it as a combination of a design curriculum guided by your curiosity and a daily devotional for your design skills. Each day will have a different focus:
Monday → Social & Behavioral Science
Tuesday → Design principles
Wednesday → Strategy
Thursday → Execution
Friday → Technology
Saturday → Career
Sunday → Craft
I'm going to run the digest as an experiment for the first quarter of 2023, then take stock and go from there based on feedback. Since it’s an experiment, please let me know what you think so I can refine as we go! I'm excited about how it will help me grow, and I think it should add value for any subscriber regardless of how seasoned you are in your design practice. Keep an eye out on Monday!
I don't have the bandwidth to do a full-on podcast or YouTube at the moment, but I'm going to explore lightweight ways to bring in some other forms of media to add value to the newsletter.
With the focus of the newsletter being on adding value for free, I'm going to continue to look for ways to build paid products that expand from that foundation. It feels like a good use of my skillset and also offers a fair way to deliver something of value to as many people as possible given the time I have.
So my question for you, dear reader: what resource can I create that would help you? Reply to this email, leave a comment or message me on Twitter!
The Year of Re-connection
I'll be honest, I've struggled to rekindle my creative connections since the pandemic rolled in and blew up my life in LA in 2020. I moved to Durham, North Carolina a little over a year ago because the company I work for is nearby, but I've found the area isn't a great fit for me right now.
With that in mind, I've decided to move back to NYC in the spring. The last time I lived in NYC was in my early 20s, just getting started working in tech and design. It was a lot of fun, but also a time when I didn't really know what I was doing with my life. Now, in my early 30s, I'm going back with more clarity and intention. I know what I’m good at and what I have to offer. It also doesn’t hurt that I can actually afford a decent apartment this time.
My primary intention is to focus on the creative community. I want to connect with as many talented creative people as possible, and since I'm an east-coast kid, NYC is still the mecca. I hope to connect with more designers in person as they pass through the city and continue expanding my efforts to highlight great design and the creative people who make it happen!
Thanks for reading and I'll see you in 2023!