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Three Years of Investment Talk
Ten learnings and my advice to fellow writers
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A huge milestone of 20,000 readers was recently reached for this newsletter, coinciding with the anniversary of my third year writing it. I thought I would reflect on the journey so far, and share some learnings/advice for fellow or aspiring writers.
I started writing Investment Talk three years ago; preceded by my decision to create a Twitter account in February 2020 to find more people who were interested in talking about the stock market. Understanding that Twitter is not the best place to express long-form thoughts, I found Substack. The spring of 2020 gave witness to two mutually reinforcing factors as the world shuttered indoors and the S&P declined 32% in the space of one month; before retracing those losses by the end of summer.
Social media usage was increasing and;
The general public’s interest in the stock market was surging
These two variables did a lot of the heavy lifting early on. As I focused on growing my Twitter account, followers would eventually flow down the funnel and into the newsletter. Today, it is read by people in 50 US States and 169 countries with most of the readers coming from the US (35%), India (11%), the UK (10%), Canada (5%), and Spain (3%). During its lifespan, the newsletter has recorded ~2 million visits, most of which originated through email distribution. As time has passed, and the Substack recommendation engine was born in the summer of 2022, the platform now accounts for the majority of new readership, and a growing share of those who support the newsletter.
Learnings so far
With brevity in mind, I will focus on ten learnings and fructify my advice from those. Bear in mind that my “advice” is not suited to everyone and present within are my own personal biases. I will borrow a few of these from Ben Carlson1 because his conclusions resonated with my own.
1. Writing is learning
Making consistent writing a subconscious habit is something I am grateful to have found. For the most part, you need to understand what you are talking about if you intend on sharing it with thousands of people, so it forces you to take accountability. It also allows you to create something tangible from the research you conduct and encourages you to keep learning. Doing so publicly will accelerate this all tenfold.
Write candidly, don’t pretend to know it all, and be open to feedback. You will learn a lot faster this way.
2. Don’t underestimate network effects
In the last year or so 11,000 people have found Investment Talk through the recommendations of more than 120 other writers2 on Substack. Of those 120, just 8% accounted for more than 58% of total referrals (~6,400). Similar to how some believe the bull market between 2008 through 2020 was fueled almost exclusively by QE, I have wondered at times if the newsletter's growth is simply the byproduct of a feature update. I.e, how do I know if it's my writing that is bringing people to me and not just the recommendations feature?
I prefer to tell myself that the newsletter is recommended because of the writing quality. While top of funnel (Twitter, Linkedin, etc) continues to be important in growing a newsletter, it wouldn’t hurt to focus on how you can best maximise the Substack network effect. You may liken it to YouTube’s featured page. To grow a YouTube account, top of funnel is important, but creators are often better served to focus on the network within YouTube. Substack, in my opinion, now has a powerful inner network of a similar vein. I have seen other authors reach out and request a mutual exchange of recommendations. I prefer to limit this only to people’s work I actually enjoy, at the expense of being more commercially minded. I am of the mind that these things are earned.
More generally, to grow you just have to show up every day and not be an asshole (although it works for some people), and it’s not much more complicated than that.
3. Be Genuine, and give more than you want back
It may sound disingenuine to say something like “giving without expecting anything in return will inevitably give you more than you could hope for in return”. But it’s not an ulterior motive, it’s just a byproduct of being a nice person and creating goodwill. To my surprise, the number of encounters I have had with people who reach out, only to demonstrate that they want a transactional relationship is vastly outweighed by the people who just want to connect.
With no exaggeration, I have had hundreds of Zoom calls with people from Twitter. Sometimes it’s me wanting to pick their brains; other times it’s the reverse. I can state, once again with no exaggeration, that being open to this and sharing publicly has changed my life path. I am typically hesitant to meet new people but always swallow those anxieties because meeting new people opens your life up to new friends, opportunities, and experiences. The butterfly wing that flaps in the South ripples through to the East. While it happened under sadder pretences (the pandemic) if I never started writing I would probably still be slaving away in the boring data jockey job that I had only a few years ago.
4. Finding your own voice is hard, but worth It
Alex Morris, Morgan Housel, Jack Raines. These are a few of the writers that I enjoy reading. Morgan because he distils complex topics and translates them into simple narratives. Alex because he taught me that you don’t need to write Moby Dick every time you want to talk about a quarter’s performance. Instead, you can stick to one or two central points, and fill in the gaps with snippets of information. Jack, and his woefully bad drawings, made me realise that writing should be fun. He injects personality, humour, and brevity into all of his writing. He takes his work seriously, but not himself.
Like many, I try to emulate the writers that I most enjoy. But you have to do so in a way that allows you to carry your own voice. Unless you want to be stuck being known as a service and not a writer then it will be the uniqueness of your voice that brings people back and possibly encourages them to support you. I don’t read any of the above writers explicitly because of what they write about, I read them because I am interested in hearing what they have to say. But remember that the number of people who think this way about you will be the minority.
5. Realise that nobody cares about you
Okay, not nobody, but most people. In life, the vast majority of people are concerned only about themselves and their inner circle. When you walk into a room other people are seldom sizing you up and are instead thinking about how they might be perceived. So when you are sitting there, furiously typing away and trying to push something out before an artificial deadline that you created, remember that 99% of your readers won’t even notice if something is late.
Do you think your readers are sitting by their computers, counting down the minutes before your email arrives? You’re not that special. I say this because artificial pressure is so easy to create in the writing game and can take its burden on your mentality; which then spills over into your life more generally. If you write good shit, people will wait, and be happy when it arrives.
A few bullets on ways to ensure that you avoid burnout:
Keep expectations low and surprise people
Take work seriously, but not yourself
Don’t talk for the sake of talking
Write about what you are interested in, not what you think other people want to read
6. Don’t sweat the bad days
There are days when I love what I do. There are also days when I hate everything I write or doubt myself. In ‘The Bit In The Middle’ I wrote that:
“You have to purposefully stop and look back so that you can understand the gravity of what it is that you have done. But chasing purpose or ambition is not something I am picking fault with. In outlier cases, the persistent desire to achieve something greater has resulted in the most extraordinary innovators of our time. These people often sacrifice what most people would consider a “normal” life in pursuit of something far larger”.
Writing a newsletter is not innovation. But we often feel moments of self-doubt as we internally push ourselves to do better. While it can suck, I’d rather this than be complacent with myself 100% of the time. A useful solution I have found is compartmentalizing these anxieties. No, I don’t mean the “shove it in a box deep in the recesses of your mind and ignore it” kinda way. Whenever I feel anxieties festering, I let them have their three minutes of fame. Literally, I sit in peace, let these thoughts flood my brain, walk through each of them, and then after three minutes I get on with my day. Let your fears be heard; don’t ignore them. But also realise that they are just thoughts. Someone once constructed an analogy of your anxieties constituting a glass of water. You hold it above your head, arm straight, and after a minute or two your arm starts to hurt. Stop holding onto them so goddamn long; you don’t need to carry them with you.
7. Tell people when their work is awesome
Writing can feel like you are shouting into the void. Every so often, someone will reach out to me and remind me that I am not. This has little to do with writing exclusively, but tell people when their work is awesome. Tell people when they look great, or that their outfit is splendid. Let someone know when you value them. Take someone aside and tell them that the hard work they are putting in is appreciated. In short, when you feel like complimenting someone but are not sure if you should, do it. These are small things that can make someone’s day. It can also be amusing when you compliment a stranger because it comes as such a shock in a world where people dwell in their own bubbles so often. It could be the starting point of a new connection.
8. Readers are awesome
This leads me to my next point. Readers are awesome. They make me a better writer and investor with their feedback and challenges. There have been many times when readers have taught me things, connected me with others, sent me materials, etc. After writing about Kura Sushi so often last year, I even had ~10 readers share their experience of the concept with me in email and Twitter exchanges. I am continuously grateful (and a bit stunned) at how many highly intelligent people/investors read this newsletter. People leaps and bounds ahead of me. I’d consider most of the Investment Talk reader base to be passive; they read the newsletter and don’t comment or reach out, which is fine. But if you have ever felt like reaching out, I am encouraging you to do so.
9. Change it up
When you realise that you are writing for the audience you want, not the one you have, you will feel more comfortable with changing things up. Nothing is worse than feeling you “have” to write, or that you are on a treadmill that you wanted to step off 6 months ago. Long-time readers will know that I have changed the style of the newsletter many times. Be unapologetic when doing so.
At one stage, this newsletter produced a modest amount of annual revenue; enough to cover all my basic living expenses (rent, food, utilities, and some leftovers). But it did so through the form of what felt like a service. I hated it, stepped off the treadmill, my ARR went to zero, and I took a year to fall back in love with writing. I even went so far as to uplift the original component of the newsletter3 and move it somewhere else. If the readers leave, they are not the audience you want.
10. Saying less can sometimes say more
In his Lettres Provinciales, French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”. Some people pride themselves on verbosity; I used to. There are times when having more context than less makes perfect sense, but if you are writing a newsletter, I think it seldom does. The reader has maybe 5-20 minutes while they are commuting, waiting in line, or chilling on the couch, to flick through their newsletters and consume something. Even if we are talking about the act of sharing research, it helps to get to the point much faster4.
I think verbosity emanates from a few sources:
You don’t know the topic well enough to condense it
You might just be overtly verbose in nature
But the one I think trips most people up:
You desire to show that you are informed about a topic, so you try to cover every ground in order that people don’t penalise you for missing something.
In other words, you don’t want other people to think you are stupid. I feel comfortable sharing these thoughts because my own verbosity stems from a mixture of all three. Most writers think like writers; and not readers. They feel compelled to provide all the context on the planet, forgetting that in its absence, the reader is none the wiser. If you can’t explain something to a five-year-old, you are not explaining it very well. It is worth noting that five-year-olds have short attention spans.
11. Enjoy yourself
A bonus learning. The best times I have, and the best work I produce often comes randomly. I might just have an idea one morning and run with it. Conversely, the worst times I have is when writing feels like work. These days I try to optimise for fun. I have, at times, spent days on something and scrapped it because it was boring me to death writing it. If it bores you, it will bore the reader.
Thanks for reading,
This accounts for those who explicitly place Investment Talk on their recommendations board.
This newsletter began as a personal investment journal, where I would write about the companies I own. This has since been migrated to its own separate newsletter.
There are expectations. If you look at someone like Abdullah, the author of Mostly Borrowed Ideas, his writing tends to exceed 25 to 30 pages in length. But he writes these pieces once a month. People are prepared for them and make the time to read them. He is brief when the time calls for it and gets into the weeds when needed. A key differentiator, however, is that despite their length, there is an absence of fluff.