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Substack Founder & CEO: Why I Created The Platform

“Probably the most prominent of which is we started with this really strong commitment to free speech.”

How It Started

As a guest on Joe Rogan’s Podcast, Substack Founder and CEO Chris Best shared why and how he created the currently most popular writing platform. Immediately, Best contributes his foundational yearning to create the platform from beliefs instilled early in his life:

“And I've always thought that what you read matters like it shapes who you are, it shapes how you think it creates, like who you are as a person. And so great. Writing matters a lot. Right? I mean, in my other life, I do software, software is this magical thing where you can run write a piece of code, and it does something for a million people, if you write a great essay, a great book, a great thought, you can change who a million people are. And so great writing is this valuable thing.”

He then continues to describe events that made it possible to start the development of the platform:

“… I took a sabbatical from a company that I'd done, I was like, I should be a writer, that would be good, like, how hard could it be? These guys are doing good things; I started writing what I thought was going to be like an essay, or a blog post or a screed or something, outlining my frustration with the state of the media industry, the state of incentives on the internet, basically complaining, where social media is breaking our brains, you know, this kind of shit. And I sent it to my friend Hamish, who's really a writer. And he told me, like, anybody can complain about this stuff. You're not as original as you think. All of my friends who are writers know all of this stuff. The more interesting question is if all of this is true, what could you do about it, and that be that turned into substack. And what year was 2017.”

Massive Growth During COVID Censorship

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for truth seekers who were starting to fight through heavy censorship from BigTech and Mainstream Media during the COVID’ Pandemic.’ As a result, many turned to Substack for non-corporate biased information regarding current events.

The following graph depicts Substack’s rapid growth as censorship spreads throughout BigTech and Mainstream Media. It shows the number of paid subscribers on Substack from July 2018 to November 2021—This number has only increased dramatically since November 2021.

Hardest Part About Starting Substack

Among the many challenges, Best shares his thoughts on the early challenges he faced while developing Substack:

“The hardest part of starting Substack was convincing ourselves that it could work because it started as I was literally writing this essay. And Hamish and I were talking, and we just came across this idea of like, what if we let writers go independent themselves? What if we let you start your own thing, you get the email addresses; you own everything people can pay you directly? Now you’re getting hired and fired by your readers. It’s the super; it sounded too simple to possibly work. We’re like, if this thing could work, somebody would have done this already. It seems stupid. But we kind of talked each other into it. And you know, I’m a tech nerd. I’m a product guy. Hamish is not that he’s a writer; he knows that world. And we kind of both thought that it could work. And so we just sort of like slowly talk to each other into it.”

Joe Rogan then poses a question about Substack’s early opposition, people saying it was a terrible idea and would not amount to much. Here’s how Best responded:

“The argument was like, no one’s gonna pay for anything, you idiots. Right? It’s like, you know, writers on the internet, social media is bad. Yeah, all sounds good, theoretically, but I’m never gonna pay for anything. I’m never going to work. Good-luck. And I had this parlor trick where I’d run on people. I just said, ‘Well, who’s your favorite writer?’ After they just told me they would never pay for a writer. And then I’m like, ‘who’s your favorite writer?’ They’d say, ‘Oh, it’s so and so’ I’d be like, ‘Would you pay five bucks a month to, like, get their stuff directly?’ And they’d be like, ‘Yeah, I probably would. But that’s different. It’s that person. It’s this thing’”

Commitment to Free Speech

One of the early commitments to Substack writers and readers was to provide a free speech platform:

“Probably the most prominent of which is we started with this really strong commitment to free speech. If we think that we're making a platform for writers that, as you know, can be a positive force in our intellectual climate. We just think that's table stakes. That's something that's an important principle. And we came up in a time that night. Not everyone believes in that at all.”

However, Best does reiterate that they do not tolerate specific topics on the platform, such as porn-related content, violence, and others:

“We so we have a terms of service that we set out that has a couple of like, really strict really tightly construed things. Most of its like, you can't spam. You can't do these things. We do. I mean, we do have a couple of things. Like there's no porn, you're not allowed to like advocate for literal violence. There's a few things that are sort of just like, bright lines that are intended to be kind of like a really high bar and allow for a space where there's a lot of shit on substack that we ourselves disagree with and find awful.”