🔴 6 months, 23 interviews, 3 core learnings

Reflecting on what successful creators have in common

Your guide to the newsletter world — new stories every Friday. Brought to you by beehiiv.

We’re halfway through the year and it’s a holiday weekend here in the States; time to reflect. This week: three learnings that have come up repeatedly in the 23 interviews I’ve published since January. Three core ideas that have stuck with me:

  • 👑 Purpose (why people read your newsletter)

  • 📏 Rules and limits make everything easier (specifically…)

  • ➡️ Just do it (this is The Only Way)

— Francis Zierer, Editor

P.S. We have a podcast! No new episode today, but find recent episodes on Spotify, Apple, or YouTube.

And we’ll be back with a regular Spotlight profile piece next week.

Let me just say, all three of the below points may be obvious to you. They’re likely things you’ve thought through thoroughly before. But entropy is unavoidable; systems erode and fail. A gear comes loose.

Particularly for solo creators, it’s easy to look up and find yourself veering off a route you set for yourself months ago.

Assess your structural supports often.

Understanding why you write your newsletter matters, but why your readers read it matters more

EXAMPLE: Why people read The Writer’s Job Newsletter (TWJN)

We recently interviewed Akhil Chauhan, who acquired TWJN two years ago, partially as a creative outlet, but with the ultimate goal of generating revenue.

He’s able to generate revenue because he holds fast to the reason people read it: people read TWJN because they’re freelance writers looking for gigs.

Akhil knows the mission is “to help freelance writers find better paying jobs.” That is why he writes the newsletter. The revenue and the opportunity to practice his own writing and research skills is only a byproduct.

There are two basic reasons to write a newsletter. Usually they overlap, but most creators fall more in one camp than the other:

  • To have a creative outlet

    • i.e., to become a better short-form writer

    • i.e., to get better at interviewing people

  • To generate revenue

    • i.e., to build an advertising business

    • i.e., to sell an online course

These are reasons to write a newsletter — they are not reasons to read a newsletter, and the point of newsletters is for people to read them. Otherwise, you’d just journal.

I’ve spoken to many Spotlight subscribers who know why they want to write a newsletter but haven’t got as far as figuring out why someone would read it — the value proposition.

This is just a reminder that a newsletter is nothing without its subscribers, and the best newsletter operators are successful because they’ve aligned the reason they do it with the reason their subscribers read it.

TL;DR: People, creators obviously included, need purpose in their lives to achieve things. Something to work towards; a reason to make specific decisions. Newsletters, in this case, are no different than people.

Rules make the world go ‘round; make your own

Limitations drive creativity.

Newsletters are all about rules and limits — for example, Creator Spotlight goes out every Friday, is under 2,000 words, and features an interview-based profile of one creator. These are the walls I operate within.

There are exceptions (this issue is not a profile of one creator). Rules change (for a while, issues were getting too long, topping out around 2,800 words).

The point is to set specific rules so making decisions becomes less complicated — what to cover, which paragraph to delete in the edit.

Three months ago we interviewed Andrew Huang, a musician and YouTuber who’s been finding ways to make a living doing what he loves (i.e., making and teaching music) online for two decades. He’d just published a book called Make Your Own Rules: Stories and Hard-Earned Advice from a Creator in a Digital Age.

I read it; I recommend it if you’re a creative-driven person trying to figure out how to generate revenue from the work you love. He’s a good storyteller and teacher.

In July 2016, Andrew had 300,000 YouTube subscribers. He decided to focus on growth — for the following 20 months, he organized his entire life around getting as many YouTube subscribers as possible, eventually adding 1,000,000. To do this, he would need a constant stream of great YouTube videos; to make great YouTube videos, he needed good ideas, which was no issue. Prioritizing which ideas to work on was an issue, however.

The below image is his tweak on the concept of ikigai — he made a list of hundreds of ideas in that time, and this is what he used to decide which one to work on next. He would not work on any idea that did not land in at least four of the five circles.

TL;DR: I talk to many creators who are too ambitious too early. They want to do everything now. Set limits, make rules, and stick to them.

And I talk to many Spotlight subscribers who simply don’t know where to start. My advice is to limit yourself as much as possible. Set rules — then break them once you outgrow them.

For example, tell yourself, “I will write a 500-word essay about a difference piece of furniture and send it out every Wednesday for 1 year straight.” That’s an executable idea. Maybe your dream is to build a seven-figure interior design business, but that’s a much more abstract, long-term thing. Set limits, start small, create forward motion.

Literally just do it

It’s a law of physics; to do something, you have to do it. Still, it bears repeating. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” as the proverb goes — I regret to inform you it’s absolutely true.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat down to write this newsletter, agonized for 5 minutes to 1 hour about where to start, and then finally just … started typing and found a groove.

That’s just on the cellular level; just-doing-it-ness scales up. Asking your best friend to subscribe is how you get your first subscriber. Asking everyone else you know gets you your first couple dozen subscribers. And then you’re forced to come up with more ideas, but you can’t get to 1,000 without that first one.

We’ve published 23 interview-based issues of the Spotlight this year. I looked back at how long each creator had been working on the project I interviewed them about:

But! These numbers do not represent how many years each person spent on other projects and pursuits that gave them the skills and experience to tackle the project I interviewed them about.

Look, it’s a cliché that clichés are cliché because they’re true, but it’s true: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now,” or “It takes a decade to become an overnight success.”

TL;DR: if there’s something you want to build, to create, even if you don’t know where to start, you have to start. Pick a direction and start walking. Even if it’s the wrong one, you’ll find the way eventually.

Thank you for reading, hope you enjoyed us shaking things up a bit. Either way, please do share your feedback through the poll below.

Next week’s guest is Kate Lindsay, an internet culture writer who writes her own newsletter to 34k+ subscribers and edits another. She was generous with behind-the-scenes details (like exact revenue numbers) and I love how she thinks about the format.

And if you missed last week’s story about building a diversified business as a content creator, read it here.

Have a great long weekend,
Francis Zierer, Editor
Twitter / LinkedIn

What did you think of this week's issue?

Be real. We love hearing from you!

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.


or to participate.