Apparently, Substack wants to destroy newspapers. And maybe that would be good — maybe it would be good for journalism to be democratized, for bloggers to inherit the earth. Of course we’re bloggers and not newspapers, so maybe we’re biased.
Obviously it would be great if someone came up with a set of blogging and newsletter tools that were just amazing, that were the clear front-runner, that outperformed every other platform. We’d love it if the technical problems were all solved and we just had a perfect set of blogging tools.
But if everyone ends up on the same platform, well, that’s kind of dangerous. If one company controls the whole news & blogging industry, they can blacklist whoever they want, and can squeeze users as much as they want.
Even if you think Substack has a good track record, there’s no way they can guarantee that they won’t squeeze their writers once they control the market. Even if you trust the current management, at some point they will all retire, or all die, or the company will be bought by wesqueezeusers.biz, and then you’re shit outta luck.
Substack just can’t make a credible commitment that makes it impossible for them to abuse their power if they get a monopoly. You have to take them at their word. But since management can change, you can’t even really do that. They just can’t bind their hands convincingly.
But there may be some very unusual business models that would fix this problem.
On the Origin of Substacks
Imagine there’s a “Substack” company that commits itself to breaking in half every time it gets 100,000 users (or something), creating two child companies. Each company ends up with 50,000 users. All the blogs with even-numbered IDs go to Substack A, and all the blogs with odd-numbered IDs go to Substack B. The staff gets split among these two companies, and half of them move to a new office. Both companies retain the same policy of breaking in half once they hit that milestone again — an inherited, auto-trust-busting mechanism.
(Splitting into exactly two companies wouldn’t have to be a part of the commitment. They could equally choose to break up into Substack Red, Substack Blue, and Substack Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition.)
In addition, a core part of the product would be high-quality, deeply integrated tools to switch from one of these branches to another. Probably this would involve an easy way to export all your posts and a list of your subscribers to some neutral file format (maybe a folder full of markdown, css, and csv files), and to import them from the same format into a new blog. If you end up in Substack B and you want to be in Substack A instead (your favorite developer works there or something), the product would make it very easy to switch, maybe to the point of being able to switch at the push of a button.
To help with this, the third and final commitment of the company, and all child companies, would be to keep the software open-source. Unlike biological evolution, software evolution isn’t siloed. If Substack Air implements a great feature, and the team over at Substack Earth likes it too, they can just go to the open-source code of their sister company, snip that AAAGTCTGAC, and copy it over to their branch.
Each of these child companies would go on to develop their tool from the same starting point, but of course the companies would speciate over time. More competitive branches would get to 100,000 users first and would split again, so there would be more descendants of successful branches. Bad branches would die off or just never grow enough to speciate.
Because it’s easy to switch, branches that make a bad decision will also face an exodus of users to different branches that don’t suck. Of course, one species of Substack might choose to remove the feature that allows you to switch easily, but this seems like evolutionary suicide. Faced with the prospect of being locked in, most users will switch away if there’s any hint of removing this feature. It’s ok if people decide to stay, of course, things might just get weird.
Many branches would die — nature is red in tooth and claw, after all — but many companies die off in the normal course of the economy anyways. And it’s reassuring that there would be an ecosystem of similar, related companies that would be ready to hire on any deserving refugees.
Ghosts Undergoing Mitosis
This would keep one company from taking over the blogging ecosystem and imposing terrible conditions. Or rather, if one lineage did dominate the blogging ecosystem, that could be a good thing, not a danger to free thought and free expression. That lineage would be split up across multiple companies with different leadership styles and different values, and would lack the kind of monopoly that tempts men to evil.
If Substack were our company, we would not only implement this idea, we would emphasize it a lot in our marketing and recruitment — not least because your target demo, bloggers, are smart and paranoid. They want this kind of freedom, ownership, and control, and they’re worried about the fact that current platforms sometimes seem a little power-hungry.
It would take Substack a minute to make this pivot, but other companies could do it right now. In fact, the web publishing platform Ghost is already planning to do something along these lines.
Ghost is already open-source, which is the big requirement to get started immediately. If they developed some quality Ghost-to-Ghost migration tools (uhhh… G2G tools?) and started branching, they could do this tomorrow. But probably they don’t want to follow our plan, for in an amusing display of convergent evolution, they have come up with a very similar plan of their own: they plan to stop growing at 50 employees and let other companies take on the growth from there.
(For more about Ghost’s fascinating business model, see here.)
Interviewer: I think with you, we were just talking about this, I think, a few months ago, you have this other arbitrary constraint, I’m not sure why you have it, it might be like a side effect of the fact that you’re a nonprofit, but you can’t hire more than fifty people, was it? At which point you’re constrained and you have to figure out how to grow and become bigger and better without hiring a single more person than fifty. So where’s that constraint come from?
John: I love that you brought this up, because it’s something I think more and more about nowadays. We’re coming up on, I think 27 people, so more than halfway there, and the rate at which we’re hiring is increasing, so the kind of fifty-sixty number is very much on the horizon, it’s within sight. And the constraint comes from, I have never worked at a company bigger than that which didn’t have office politics, or disconnection from the mission, or where things kind of stopped being fun. And from all the people we’ve hired over the years, there’s a remarkable amount of refugees, who were ar startups, they passed the kind of sixty, seventy person mark, things stopped being fun, middle management came in, the founders sort of left the early team behind, and started pursuing growth goals at the cost of people, and everything just sort of like *sigh* lost what made the journey special, around about that point.
And there are just so many people who have the exact same story, at a certain point we just said, ok, well, what if we just don’t grow bigger than that, we’ll just stick like not bigger than fifty-ish. Fifty, sixty, somewhere around there. Not going to like, say, be really belligerent about a fixed number, but around that point, what if we just put a line, say, “ok no more”. And… what will that do?
So, first of all, the same as what I was talking about earlier, it keeps Ghost as a company I’m happy to be stuck with. I want to have a group of fifty or sixty people where I know every single person well — not a large group of strangers who are all just working to a common economic incentive, but a team, a group of people who really know each other deeply and meaningfully, which I think you can still achieve around that size.
But then, the logical question that follows is, ok, what are the goals of the company once you have fifty or sixty people and you still have ambition? How do you fulfill whatever goals you have that kind of don’t fit into the model of that size of company? And the answer is, you have to change your ambition, or you have to change the model with which you approach your goals.
So, a lot of how I think about Ghost now is less about growing one company — one centralized company — and more about growing a large, decentralized ecosystem. So whereas many-slash-most companies will try to grow bigger, and absorb smaller companies, and kind of be this big blob, consuming more and more of the market to become the holy grail of what everyone wants to become, which is a monopoly that dominates a market, kind of think about the opposite, how can we make Ghost, the products, a really strong and stable core, and then spin off all the other things for which there is demand from the market, but that we don’t have a big enough team to build.
So maybe that’s community features, or maybe it’s video and media that integrates with Ghost really well, or maybe there’s an enterprise hosting option of people who DO love to get those emails from large companies with a big procurement process and close those deals. If we can have our smaller team make a tight core that enables lots of businesses to exist around Ghost, and around that open-source core, then an ecosystem will evolve around it of multiple economic dependents, and it will probably function similarly to a large company, except that I won’t control all of it, and that’s actually very appealing to me, I don’t want to control all of it, I don’t want to have the final say in how everything should evolve.
This sounds a lot like the speciation idea we describe above. He even uses the term “ecosystem”!
There are a few core differences. Limiting the company by the number of employees rather than the number of users might be the better way to go. So in a different version of our proposal, the company could be organized into several teams and the teams could become separate companies once the company has hit 60 employees or something.
O’Nolan envisions an ecosystem more like Darwin’s finches — related companies that spread out to fill different niches, one for blogging, one for comments, one for video, one for different hosting models, etc. This seems like it would be relatively easy to do, and you can see how a successful company would draw related companies into existence, like a coral reef.
In contrast, we imagine an ecosystem of different companies competing (hopefully friendly competition, but still competition) for the same major niche, like birds and mice all competing for the same nuts and seeds. This seems good because competition will lead to better products, especially given built-in features that let bloggers vote with their feet. It also seems uniquely good in that, if Ghost or Substack or anyone does come to dominate the blogging world, this system will keep them from monopolizing it.
So we think Ghost should consider not stopping at 50 employees, but undergoing mitosis instead, and splitting into Ghost Day and Ghost Night; or Ghost Sweet and Ghost Sour; or Ghost To and Ghost Fro; or Ghost Claw and Ghost Fang; or Ghost Sound and Ghost Fury; or Ghost Charm and Ghost Strange; or Ghost Video and Ghost Radio; or Ghost Milk and Ghost Honey; or Ghost Rosencrantz and Ghost Guildenstern; or Ghost Migi and Ghost Hidari; or Ghost Ale and Ghost Lager (and Ghost Lambic); or X-Mas Ghosts Past, Present, and Future; or
*cane reaches out from the wings and pulls us off stage*
Special thanks to our friend Uri Bram for enlightening discussions about the world of online publishing.