Reflections of a high-impact but slow-growth newsletter: Spoiler alert, it’s mine
And why small numbers won’t reduce your impact
👋 Good morning from Los Angeles! I'm Nate Kadlac, and this is #138 of Plan Your Next. A Sunday newsletter that connects design, creativity, and how you prepare for your next thing.
💡 What’s new?
✍️and I launched our drawing course last week! We have almost 50 people running through it already, and one person snuck out of a silent retreat just to sign up (true story!). To date, it’s been the most successful launch in my short lifetime of building courses. If you’re a writer who wants to learn to draw using Procreate, here’s 25% off for the next 10 people.
⛱️ Thanks for the break! I took the past two weeks off unannounced, and it’s just part of my belief that you can and should take time off without permission or remorse.
Reflections of a high-impact but a slow-growth newsletter
Open your eyes for a split second on Twitter.
You’ll see people sharing screenshots of newsletter growth into the tens of thousands, giving thank-you speeches to Substack’s internal recommendation engine like they just cured polio.…
But languishing at the bottom with a smirk are people like me who pound out a letter every week, happy to reap the rewards of career optionality and personal growth that can occur without a large audience.
When starting out, it’s tempting to chase audience growth like a slippery net worth number, always a few feet ahead of your stretched fingers.
So I’d like to take you behind the scenes of my newsletter and give you a reason to write without Ultimate Audience Growth Domination being your driving goal.
🔥 An ambitious starting point
In July 2018, I had a 30-minute creative call with, who was already writing his newsletter on Substack. Naval Ravikant had just written his now famous tweet thread, How to Get Rich (without getting lucky), and I was looking to get creatively unstuck.
It wasn’t anything specific that David said, but I could just tell writing was a fundamental belief he held. From that call, I knew I wanted to start a newsletter because it felt like such an easy way to push into a new area.
I wasn’t sure what to call this thing, but I was a fan of Tim Urban’s “Wait, But Why?”
In terms of stickiness, branding a product or service around a turn-of-phrase or a question intrigued me. People can quickly relate, and so I wanted something similar.
I thought about a question I asked myself all the time: why am I always thinking about what’s next? Questions like my next business idea, or what I will do next year? Plan Your Next came to mind almost immediately, even though I initially thought it might be about traveling.
Failing after 17
I started off hot. I wrote 17 issues regularly without knowing how or what to write about. I was working a full-time job, and barely eeking out an issue every Sunday.
But as with most things in my life, I started to burn out, putting too much pressure on myself to write lengthy posts (like this one). Struggling to publish weekly, and not knowing many other newsletter writers, I sent my last issue on Nov 25 of 2018.
That issue came as we were moving into a new place, and if you’re like me, changing your routine can throw a wrench into any habit you have slowly built up.
And it did. I stopped writing for 18 months and couldn’t find the motivation to keep going.
The reboot in 2020
What happened next is a tale as old as the Pandemic. Early in 2020, I was regularly reading the writing of, enamored with how he grew a newsletter while chasing his diversified interests.
While everyone was seemingly trying to niche down, Nat was writing across a broad set of interests (and succeeding!). He introduced me to, and later, .
Nat and I have never met, but following his work permitted me to start taking my writing more seriously with a playful attitude.
What changed my trajectory was taking David Perell’s Write of Passage course.
During his intensive course, I met a group of writers who took their craft seriously, but with a much less intimidating framework for writing.
Now, armed with confidence, accountability, and a system for writing, I felt prepared to kickstart my newsletter again. Starting with the same 56 people.
🎯 The immediate benefits
In sales and marketing, it’s widely known that it’s more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to sell to existing customers.
When creating a newsletter, many of the benefits you’ll immediately see are from your existing relationships, from either your friends or family.
Creating something new is like revealing a new part of your personality your friends haven’t experienced. You’re letting them in on new stories, and secrets, allowing them to open up to you in ways unavailable to them before.
In my case, within sending the first 2-3 emails, I had deeper conversations with some of my long-term friends about similar experiences I never knew we shared.
Serendipity and security
The other immediate benefit of maintaining a newsletter (even if it’s turtle-like) is the ability to point people to a place where they can hear from you if they want. The distribution mechanics of email are already set up, so it’s much easier to land in front of them, unlike a blog they need to visit regularly.
This is all basic knowledge, but it’s surprising how many still prefer to post Facebook/Instagram updates vs. having a more portable and compounding growth opportunity like a newsletter. (Which is platform agnostic.)
The flip side to finding yourself in the inboxes of people who have opted into your writing are the serendipity effects of writing consistently. It’s just too easy to build equity in a positive reputation as someone who shares their insight with consistency.
Doing this with < 1000 readers on a weekly or monthly basis is still much more powerful than it is with a social platform that is only showing your followers what they think they should see. At least with email, it’s chronological, so you have a better chance of reaching your fans.
Through the practice of writing, I’ve been able to spot some opportunities that resonate with my readers. I’ve leaned into what I’m good at, developed new skills that pair nicely with existing ones, and increased my confidence in asking for help.
Creating something on the side doesn’t only have monetary potential, but it’s also a way to demonstrate what you’re capable of to potential employers, clients, and friends. These tend to carry much more signal of the type of person you are, and who you want to be.
You’ll quickly realize how valuable this characteristic is to other people, giving you another way to wedge yourself into new communities, and opening many more doors down the road.
While I love design—and practice it every day—I tend to gravitate toward people outside my field. That can be difficult when you don’t have a way to reach those people regularly.
Through the newsletter, I’ve been able to build alongside and develop a network of interesting people working in fields I would never normally be able to find. It’s also allowed me to show up every week, and make sure that I’m making time to create, while hoping to give away more than I could ever ask for.
That’s the type of relationship I aim to have with most people, and this is an almost automatic way to increase the give:ask ratio.
📊 By the numbers
To get it out of the way, my current subscriber count is 1,388. Not much by many Substack standards, although I don’t hold this number with a ton of weight.
Between June of 2018 and Aug of 2020, my subscriber count never exceeded 56 people. Why? Because I never shared my posts publicly.
I was scared not only to publish but to share my ideas. While I don’t think numbers should drive your intention, not sharing your writing is the more harmful aspect of writing. You won’t get all the benefits of creating new relationships, you won’t get feedback from others on if it’s resonating, and you won’t get the longtail benefits of realized serendipity.
After I dedicated myself to writing weekly, growth to the newsletter started to come naturally, even if slowly.
By Aug 27, 2020, I had my first 100 subscribers. More importantly, I had strangers signing up to my newsletter from the edges of the internet. I was finally reaching people I’d never met, which was a wild feeling.
By mid-Jan 2021, I had 200 subscribers. Since then, I’ve averaged about 49 subscribers per month, although it was much slower in those first six months of 2021.
Substack’s referral engine
I’m thankful for the other writers who recommend Plan Your Next. The internal recommendation features of Substack bring in 15% of my overall growth. While I am skeptical of the long-term viability of this feature, it’s brought some of you in, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Here are the top 5 friends who recommend Play Your Next. Go and read their incredible newsletters!
Instead of thinking about where my numbers from a short-term growth. One key idea I keep in the back of my mind is not the speed of growth, but what growth could look like over the next 5-10 years. With the number of opportunities I’ve been given in the past two years, what might a sustainable business look like in five?
If you can sit on this idea for a moment, this is where long-term thinking and the compounding consistency of a habit can become a reality.
Since my early call with David, I have wanted to find a way to connect with others early on in their journey. If your network is small, I’ve found that finding support at this stage is hard to come by.
So, I set up a calendar invite to allow people to book a free 20-minute call on my calendar, to talk about crazy ideas or where they might be creatively stuck. To me, I get a ton of value from these calls as well, just by giving space for serendipity and creativity to flourish.
The data: To date, I’ve held 81 of these calls, speaking with people randomly from all over the world. There’s nothing more energizing than connecting with someone over FaceTime from the energetic streets of Tel Aviv at nine in the morning.
❓ What would I do differently?
Share publicly immediately
While this newsletter is growing slowly, I didn’t help myself early on by never publishing. I sat at the same 56 people because I was too frightened to share anything online.
More importantly than the numbers, you’ll never start to build the confidence you need to create. This held me back, and it’s the blocker that many people I chat with struggle.
I know I would have surprised myself with some of those early articles if I had gotten more feedback from them.
In 2005, I was leaving my job and I had a random idea to create an email on Campaign Monitor, letting everyone I know what I was planning to do.
I received many replies, and started my freelancing career from that email. But I never sent another one again. I just didn’t realize the power that I held in that moment, had I just kept up with it.
Many of the most successful writers—defined not by numbers but by opportunities—started around 2015-2018. That’s not that long ago, and while I may have missed that window, I can’t wait to see where I’ll be at in five years from now.
Being a designer who writes is a lonely place to be. There weren’t many early in my career, and I always struggled with not knowing how to become a better writer.
Now, it’s much easier to find and join a small community of writers to bounce ideas off of. I have that now, but it’s something I should have searched for earlier.
🤨 To Substack or not to Substack? Why audience numbers shouldn’t drive behavior
Don’t get caught up in the hype
To me, Substack works well not because of its growth efforts, but because it’s easy to start a newsletter and publish your first post within minutes.
SEO doesn’t seem to be an issue, and importing media like images, YouTube videos, GIFs, and URLs just work.
Don’t be inspired by writers with thousands of followers, but be inspired by how easy it is to start your own and do it for a few years. It can truly change your life.
I don’t believe you need to start on Substack, as long as you start somewhere. If you do want to use Substack, you can quickly get started here.
Substack’s growth is finite
Substack to date has raised $82 million. They’re incentivized to grow at all costs. Their recommendation engine most likely can’t sustain itself forever, especially if it starts to disrupt the user experience and obnoxious popups we’re starting to see.
That’s all to say, don’t focus on the numbers. Focus instead on building a habit based on incentives that aren’t directly tied to an audience number. Substack is one of the easier ways to do that.
My 2023 newsletter and accepted strategy
Where does that leave me right now? My main strategy has completely shifted to a writing and community-first approach. Anything I build in the future will have these mechanisms built in from day one.
I also acknowledge I will never be the type of person who can just focus solely on one thing. This is my unique differentiation, but it also caps my short-term growth upside. I realize this goes against most strategies, but I’m sold.
My game will last for the next 20 years, so I’m not worried about how fast I will grow in years 1-3. I’ve had a solid career, but I’m working to undo bad habits and create new channels for growth. It doesn’t happen overnight, or by reading a weekly email from James Clear.
Most of my income is still derived from freelancing and client work. The personal goal I have for 2023 is to slowly chip away at that ratio based on my portfolio of small bets, Approachable Design, and my writing.
What’s next for you?
What’s the life you want to live? You have the choice to build what’s next for you, using your own strategies and not one from a Twitter thread.
👋 See you next Sunday
My calendar is always open to chat about your next adventure, crazy idea, or if you’re feeling creatively stuck.
My goal is to help more people give a damn about what they’re creating next, through my writing, teaching, and design. If you want to support my journey, the best ways are to learn to draw, make better design decisions, communicate stories with better slide decks, or discover your visual style in my live workshops.
Or, if you want to sponsor this newsletter, sign up here.
Have a great week,
p.s. Words are just words, but if these words made you feel something, would you let me know by tapping on the heart below?