The Hustle

The newsletter startup Substack was inspired by China’s superapp WeChat

WeChat logo


October 21, 2020

If you’ve turned on the internet at any point in 2020, you’ve probably encountered Substack, the publishing platform that lets anyone quickly spin up a newsletter and sell subscriptions.

Names with big followings and expert coverage (Andrew Sullivan, Casey Newton) have left traditional publishers to go solo on the platform.

Many have likened Substack to Medium 2.0, but a more apt comparison for the startup may be the Chinese superapp WeChat.

Expert voices straight to reader inboxes is not new in China

This model has been around on WeChat since 2013, according to the SCMP.

WeChat is like Facebook, WhatsApp, Tinder, Apple Pay, and email all rolled into one. WeChat’s messaging DNA comes from the fact it was created by a team of email specialists from parent firm Tencent.

The specific inspiration for Substack is the WeChat Public Accounts, which are media accounts (publications, solo influencers) that send blogs and articles directly into a user’s message feed.

WeChat has over a billion monthly active users

And more than half of them check WeChat Public Accounts on a daily basis. Users have 8m+ public accounts to choose from and the biggest accounts — like Shidian Read — have tens of millions of followers.

No Substacker is in that league but a handful are earning 7 figures in annual subscriptions (e.g., Sinocism, which — funny enough — offers in-depth China coverage).

Based on Medium’s completely inexplicable logo redesign, Substack should probably keep drawing publishing inspiration from WeChat.

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