Designerpreneur #4: 1 year, 70 articles, 28,000% growth
Lessons from writing 100,000+ words in my first year on Substack and what’s to come in year 2
Today I'm back with the fourth edition of "designerpreneur": my quarterly "business review" with my imaginary board of directors (aka you!).
We did a special check-in when Better by Design crossed 1,000 subscribers in February, and previously did a year-end check-in at the end of 2022.
Today’s post will focus less on the numbers as the performance has been steady and consistent with what I reported in February. Instead, we’ll do a quick numbers overview and then move into a qualitative review of lessons I’ve learned from this project in year 1 and how I’m thinking about my business going into year 2.
Quick numbers overview
Pieces published: 70
Average open rate since Jan 1: 49%
First piece sent to: 5 subscribers on May 13, 2022
Today’s piece sent to: 1450 subscribers on May 8, 2023
Trailing growth: 6 months → 20% MoM, 3 months → 16% MoM
18/24 month projection: On course, between lower (15%) and middle bound (20%)
Number of Substack recommendations: 17 (a big shout out to you fine folks for your support! These make a big difference! 🙏)
Number of subscribers via recommendations: 532
My focus is slightly different than I expected
My original idea for Better by Design was to create “the perfect design complement for& ” (a quote for my own notebook).
While I still think that’s pretty close, publishing 100,000+ words has given me more clarity. Unlike those two newsletters, mine is decidedly not an industry newsletter. If this were a traditional newspaper, I’m not covering the design beat for designers; I’m writing the practical opinion column that applies my love of and expertise in design to help other creatives grow their craft. This is a broader approach, but feels more honest to who I am, as I’ve never felt beholden to a single discipline anyway.
Better by Design was born out of my desire to help creative professionals elevate their work and lives through design thinking and intentional growth. From the outset, much of the existing design media landscape didn’t resonate with me for two big reasons: 1) it felt too exclusive for a creative misfit like me and 2) the prevailing negativity left me cold. I wanted a space that felt warm and welcoming with pragmatic advice for anyone interested in bringing more good design into the world. My intention is to create that space.
I feel like I’m still figuring out how to position this as it’s more abstract than just “subscribe to my newsletter for cool Figma tips”, but it’s a mission I believe in and something I feel like I could be happy working on for the next decade.
What got me to 1,000 subscribers won’t be what gets me to 10,000
A year ago, I just needed to start creating and putting myself out there. By focusing on building a writing habit and establishing a release cadence a lot of the rest took care of itself. The problem I was solving was inertia: I needed to build up a substantial amount of force to get the ball in motion.
Now that it is in motion, I need slightly different inputs.
On one hand, I need to be a bit more strategic about where and how I’m applying force to steer things in the direction that I want to go. These quarterly check-ins help on that front, as they give me a fixed time to reflect and make more intentional decisions about this indefinite project.
On the other hand, I need the help of others to amplify the energy I’m putting into this project into something larger. My own force of will was required to start Better by Design, but the community will be what makes it special.
Meet new people and do cool things
My approach to this next phase of my work and life is nicely summed up by the wise words of Matthew McConaughey’s son: “I just want to meet new people and do cool things!”
If the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that what I need to be happy is very simple.
Each day, I must:
spend time with people who I care about / who inspire me
do something fun, cool, or different
Everything else just supports those four things. I’ve done a lot of numbers 1 & 2 since 2020, but not nearly enough of numbers 3 & 4. So I’ll be putting much more energy into those areas going forward.
The Creative MBA is a bigger idea than I gave it credit for
I met my original commitment to run that series for the first quarter of 2023 and then reassess. Ultimately, I realized that what I was doing was building a curriculum. And I came to the conclusion that it’s different enough and significant enough to deserve its own bigger, and better treatment.
So, that said, I’m putting a pause on publishing the weekly editions of The Creative MBA to refocus those efforts on turning it into something I think will be even better.
Time is my scarcest resource
While this is true for many, it’s become painfully obvious for me. I’m lucky to be in a position now, more than a decade into my working life, where I have plenty of ideas, the tools to be able to execute them, and the savings to be able to buy back some of my own time. I’ll be actively looking at ways to reclaim my time and energy to focus on what I care about the most. The stuff that, as Steve Jobs put it, might “make a dent in the universe”, in my own small way.
I see my business as breaking down into three pillars: services, media, and products.
At the moment, I sell 100% of my design services to one company (aka I’m a full-time employee). However, going forward I plan to reduce and diversify this area, meaning that I’ll sell a fraction of my time to multiple companies rather than all of it to one.
I suppose this means that I’m starting a consultancy, but my intention is not to scale into a full-blown agency; it’s to put my expertise to work to help more people level up more designs and to keep my practical skills sharp as I build the next two pillars of my business.
I’m not pushing too hard on this right now, but I will be setting up the foundations in the back half of this year. So if you, or someone you know, might be interested in purchasing my services in design and strategy, feel free to reach out and we can connect for the future.
To date, the media pillar means this publication. It’s come a long way in a year. Despite not hitting on anything viral, the growth has been steady and kept a good pace.
From creation focus to refinement focus
If my focus last year was purely on creation (create as much as possible to build a body of work), this year will be more focused on refinement (How might I craft what I’ve made into higher-value things? How might I shape my new creations for more impact? etc…).
To support that focus on refinement, I’m returning to publishing once per week.
Instead of a second written piece, I’ll be dedicating that time to:
Expanding the scope of what I can cover in the weekly piece
Creating complementary media that supports the weekly written piece (graphics & video)
Building The Creative MBA into a complementary product/suite of products
Main feed (ongoing)
I’ve been continuing to mix it up in the main feed. I haven’t had a big hit in a while, but I’ve been happy with the progression of my writing. I’ve tried to incorporate aspects of what worked in my secondary formats into bigger, better versions deserving of the main feed.
The Creative MBA (paused)
As mentioned above, The Creative MBA has been a success, but not in the way I anticipated. It’s bigger than an add-on to my newsletter and deserves its own treatment. I’ll be using what I built and learned in Q1 as the jumping-off point for a standalone product/service.
Design Gratitude (retired)
Design Gratitude was my first attempt at a lighter-weight mid-week digest. It was successful in its own right but ultimately didn’t move the needle enough from a growth perspective to continue to merit investment each week. Instead, I’ve incorporated the product reviews based on principles and highlights of interesting creative people as separate pieces in the main feed.
I still like the idea of sending a short thought in between larger pieces and enjoy the micro-essays that folks like Seth Godin and Derek Sivers write, so I might experiment with doing something similar later this year.
Social media, my perpetual nemesis
While Substack’s network is providing consistent growth, I’d like to find a way to amplify the distribution of my message that feels natural. Despite having a few things pop on Twitter last year, it doesn’t feel like a great fit for me.
With that in mind, I’m going to start experimenting with YouTube and Instagram. I’m excited about adding video and visuals into the mix as they feel more additive to the writing I do here on Substack, rather than simply being another text-based remix. But we’ll see. This is definitely not my area of expertise. If one of you has ideas, I’m all ears!
I dipped my toe in the product waters last year by releasing a few things I had crafted to facilitate my own work. I only made ~$100, but making money wasn’t the point; the point was to experiment, learn, and prepare for when I wanted to focus on this area.
Going forward, products are going to be important to me because I prefer enabling one-off payments rather than being forced to charge through a subscription. That doesn’t mean I won’t explore subscription options at some point, but for the time being one-off purchases better align with my preferences and what I want to accomplish.
Largely, my near-term product efforts will go into building The Creative MBA into a product suite that I feel proud of. I want to shape the curriculum into a new kind of learning tool that you can use to guide your growth as a creative business person on your own time but with my support.
If I were to judge where I’m at according to this tweet from Chris Do, I’d say that I’m bridging the gap between stages 1 and 2.
Year one was significant, but only the challenging beginning.
I built the habits, found the core of my voice, stayed focused on creating, and watched the results speak for themselves. Now I get to build on top of that foundation, notice patterns, form hypotheses, make bets, and learn even more.
I may not be one of the crazy growth stories you see shared online, but that’s okay. I’m cool with being a tortoise in this race full of people wanting to be hares.
There’s plenty of hard work on the horizon, but the kind that I look forward to.
The best is yet to come.
See ya next week,
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