From the Editor
What I’ve learned in the second year of running a subscription newsletter business
We’re still here. And we’re having a baby!
Hello again! The New Consumer is now two years old. As I enter the third year of running a one-person, membership-funded publishing startup, I wanted to share some plans and thoughts about where this is going.
But first, some personal news: My wife and I are expecting our first child in a couple of months (!). So one of my first projects for this year has been to think about things like: What does parental leave look like for an indie self-publisher? And, how will my new role as a dad shape some of The New Consumer’s structure and coverage?
More on that in a moment. But the best thing you can do to help if you find my work useful and believe in what I’m doing — if you’ll allow me to slip into spring-pledge-drive mode — is to keep subscribing and to spread the word. Thank you!
The big picture
In launching The New Consumer, I had two goals:
- To create a publication and community that only I could make, by focusing my curiosity and creativity on a specific topic — how and why people spend their time and money — and the business around it.
- To create a job that couldn’t exist anywhere else — where I had total control of my time, agency over my attention, and ownership of my work — by producing a product that’s worth paying for.
I’m once again happy to report that The New Consumer is still a successful, sustainable small media business — thank you for your support and interest. It still feels like I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s possible here, and I plan to be working on this for many years to come.
When I look at the work I’ve been able to do over the past year — thanks entirely to your support through memberships — I’m proudest of a few things: My early Covid-19 analyses, such as the online grocery discovery problem; the longform interviews I published, including those with Dishoom co-founder Shamil Thakrar, cookbook author Alison Roman, Omsom founders Vanessa and Kim Pham, and Brud co-founder Trevor McFedries; and my deep dives into trends like the “natural” deodorant boom, how fast-casual chains pivoted during the pandemic, and the new business models for restaurants.
I’m also thrilled that I was able to publish my first comically long slide deck, the Consumer Trends presentation, in collaboration with Coefficient Capital. This was one of my stretch goals for 2020, and I’m very happy with how it turned out and was received. I’ve realized that talking through a slideshow presentation is one of my favorite activities. Your support will go toward funding more of that type of work this year, too.
Self-publishing in a pandemic
My work this past year — and probably yours — was overwhelmed by one topic: The Covid-19 pandemic, which changed everything, especially at the intersection of consumer and tech, where I focus.
This made it relatively simple to steer my research and writing, because the pandemic was often the only story that mattered, introduced unexpected new rules to our world, and caused dramatic results — exactly where an analyst is needed.
But it also made it hard to focus… because it was a scary, confusing, depressing, lonely time. I don’t mean to complain — I certainly had it easier than most. But there were days, weeks, months, where it felt like I wasn’t making meaningful progress for humanity, and didn’t have teammates to rally along with.
Fortunately, I’m feeling a lot better about life right now. So let’s hope for a happier 2021!
The year ahead
My publishing goals for 2021: Writing more frequently; publishing on a more standardized, predictable schedule; analyzing more businesses and business models; better balancing zooming out and zooming in; more visuals; and more content formats. Some of those are copy-and-paste goals from last year, but, hey, get 1% better every day, right?
I might also experiment with bringing new voices to The New Consumer, especially during planned breaks. And there’s a bunch of tweaks I’ll be making to the website and email newsletter design to make it even easier to use and read.
Speaking of breaks: I expect to take two weeks off for parental leave sometime in late May to early June, which will replace this year’s allotted professional development time. Stay tuned for details there. And, as a bit of a pre-baby break, I’m also going to take the rest of this week off as vacation. (As usual, I’ll add an extra week to all new memberships.)
Last year, I had planned to launch live events as a way to bring the community together for networking, discussion, and collaboration IRL. That obviously didn’t happen! Perhaps this year — if you’re interested in partnering on something, let’s talk. I’ll also continue to experiment with virtual events, such as the one I hosted with Endeavor in October.
The newsletter business
Some inside baseball, if you’re curious: One thing I was nervous about last year was people’s willingness to pay for premium subscription publications during a pandemic and recession.
Heading into lockdown, I only offered annual memberships, which cost $200. So on March 16, as an experiment, I launched monthly memberships, which lowered the cost of entry to $20. As you might expect, monthly memberships quickly dominated my new user sign-ups. This kept member growth steady during the scariest quarantine months, but reduced cash flow.
The good news is that the subscription newsletter business not only survived the pandemic, but appears to be a hit, at least for now.
At the end of 2019, I had lamented how most talented journalists and writers were still hopping from one big media company to another.
“If anything,” I wrote, “it feels like The New York Times and Bloomberg further consolidated talent this year. Ambitious, in-demand writers and editors still mostly seem to want to play it safe, with lucrative opportunities and ample prestige available at big, legacy publications and comfortably LaCroixed digital shops like Medium.”
That changed in 2020, when writers like The Verge’s Casey Newton, BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen, Vox’s Matt Yglesias, and Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer started new publications, mostly published by Substack. The New York Times continues to be a talent magnet, but going indie is no longer an eyebrow-raising activity, especially as Substack offers (controversial) revenue guarantees to some writers.
(Meanwhile, the “comfortably LaCroixed” Medium is once again down-shifting its in-house editorial brands, and is now offering buyouts to the journalists it has hired over the past few years.)
Obviously, I love this newfound interest in entrepreneurial journalism! But we’ll see how long it lasts and what the long-term intentions are. I still think it’s mostly for the adventurous outliers. And Substack may change course someday as well, even competing with its individual writers for bundle subscribers.
But perhaps new and better creative tools, easier access to benefits like health insurance, and generally more awareness and interest in directly supporting publishers via subscription will make it a more popular career path. I’d love to see more competition for Substack and Memberful from companies like WordPress, Mailchimp, and Stripe.
I still believe in this model, and still think it will be an important part of the future of publishing — and how many of the next generation of influential media brands will get their start.
In September, I decided to pull the plug on new monthly memberships. They were working well enough, and the vast majority of people maintained their subscriptions after each renewal. (Many are still here today, a year later!) But seeing any subscribers disappear after just a few weeks just doesn’t feel great, and didn’t feel like the right exchange of commitment. I want to build long-term relationships with people who want to be here, even if it means leaving some money on the table.
I now offer quarterly and annual memberships, but I strongly favor annual, to the point of offering a substantial (almost 20%) discount. I see that commitment as a sign that you’re investing in my future, and the future of The New Consumer, and it makes me want to work harder for all of you.
How to help
As I said up top, heading into year three, things here are going pretty well. But to put it all out there, my goal is to reach about one third more members this year. I’m on track to make that happen, but accelerating growth is always helpful.
So if you’ve been eyeing a membership, or enjoyed a newsletter that was forwarded to you, or have a little extra budget for subscription media or professional memberships this year, I’d really appreciate your support. It’s easy to join as an annual or quarterly member with a few taps, and it even works with Apple Pay in Safari.
If you regularly share articles with colleagues, I’d love to upgrade your company to a team membership — email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll happily tailor something to your needs. If my work provides outsized value and you’re in the position to be generous, I offer lifetime memberships. And if you want to pay it forward, a gift membership — annual or quarterly — is always a good move.
(If you’re a monthly or quarterly member, it’s fast and easy to upgrade to an annual membership in your Member Settings. You’ll also save the equivalent of two months of membership over the course of a year.)
Lastly, if you love The New Consumer, please spread the word by telling friends or colleagues. One of my strongest recent growth drivers was a single podcast mention, so anything counts.
My mission here is to research, understand, and explain the fast-changing consumer and the most interesting and innovative consumer businesses. This is valuable, get-out-of-your-bubble information for entrepreneurs, executives in marketing and product, investors, and — I’ve discovered — a delightful group of great people. Join us!
I look forward to writing this update again next year, and I hope for many years to come. Thank you again for your attention and support!
Hi, I’m Dan Frommer and this is The New Consumer, a publication about how and why people spend their time and money.
I’m a longtime tech and business journalist, and I’m excited to focus my attention on how technology continues to profoundly change how things are created, experienced, bought, and sold. The New Consumer is supported entirely by your membership — join now to receive my reporting, analysis, and commentary directly in your inbox, via my twice-weekly, member-exclusive Executive Briefing. Thanks in advance.