@andrewchen

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10 years of professional blogging – what I’ve learned

Building your personal bat signal
I want to cross-pollinate a tweetstorm on lessons I’ve learned from a decade of professional writing. In a way, it’s a followup to some more general life lessons from 10 years of living in the Bay Area. Writing has been enormously impactful from a professional standpoint, and I continue to recommend to everyone – especially folks who are new to the Bay Area – to do it as a way to send out the “bat signal” on their aspirations, ideas, and interests.

It’s awesome, but insanely hard to get started. Of course, everyone knows the mechanics of setting up a blog – but the hard part is finding your voice, figuring out topics that are interesting for other folks to read, and building a long-term habit.

The lessons
Without further ado, here are a few opinions I’ve developed up along the way:

  • Titles are 80% of the work, but you write it as the very last thing. It has to be a compelling opinion or important learning
  • There’s always room for high-quality thoughts/opinions. Venn diagram of people w/ knowledge and those we can communicate is tiny
  • Writing is the most scalable professional networking activity – stay home, don’t go to events/conferences, and just put ideas down
  • Think of your writing on the same timescale as your career. Write on a multi-decade timeframe. This means, don’t just pub on Quora/Medium
  • Focus on writing freq over anything else. Schedule it. Don’t worry about building an immediate audience. Focus on the intrinsic.
  • To develop the habit, put a calendar reminder each Sunday for 2 hours. Forced myself to stare at a blank text box and put something down
  • Most of my writing comes from talking/reading deciding I strongly agree or disagree. These opinions become titles. Titles become essays.
  • People are often obsessed with needing to write original ideas. Forget it. You’re a journalist with a day job in the tech industry
  • An email subscriber is worth 100x twitter or LinkedIn followers or whatever other stuff is out there. An email = a real channel
  • I started writing while working at a VC. They asked, “Why give away ideas? That’s your edge.” Ironic that VCs blog/tweet all day now ;)
  • Publishing ideas, learnings, opinions, for years & years is a great way to give. And you’ll figure out how to capture value later

But let’s talk about each one of these in more detail.

The lessons, but with more detail!

Titles are 80% of the work, but you write it as the very last thing. It has to be an compelling opinion or important learning

Titles are often written as a vague pre-thought, but in fact, it’s the most important creative decision you’ll make. Titles are the text that’ll be featured prominently in every tweet, Facebook share, and link – and people will refer to it by name. Titles are best when they can pass the “naked share” test – imagine some text that’s so compelling that even if it’s not linked to anything, people will want to share it.

The best example of this in my work is “Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing” which started out as a tweet with 20+ shares, and then was developed into an essay afterward. To pass the naked share test, this means a title should be an opinion on its own. Or be a factoid (like push notifs being 40%+ CTR) that’s fascinating and shareable. Or if that’s just too hard, the common “curiosity gap” pattern of a listicle can work too. Just avoid vague titles like “Here are my thoughts on XYZ.” No one cares. As a result, in the course of my work, I often write a placeholder title, write the essay, and then at the very end, spend a good chunk of time iterating on titles until there’s a good one.

There’s always room for high-quality thoughts/opinions. Venn diagram of people w/ knowledge and those we can communicate is tiny

You might think that there are too many blogs on tech, startups, whatever. There’s always room though, when you think of the whitespace as Knowledge x Communication x Medium. People with real knowledge are busy, especially when that knowledge is under a huge amount of demand. And even when an expert can poke their heads up and do something besides executing their craft, they often can’t communicate! It’s hard to make professional content – often dry, boring, technical – into something that’s compelling and accessible to a wide audience. And furthermore, I’d add the medium into the mix as a third dimension, which is the idea that the knowledge can be shared via video, long-form essays, podcasts, presentation decks, etc. Even when there are experts writing long-form content about cryptocurrencies, let’s say, there’s still room in the market for a highly visual version. Just figure out the whitespace and dive in!

Writing is the most scalable professional networking activity – stay home, don’t go to events/conferences, and just put ideas down

When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was spending at least one afternoon/evening a week at a launch party, a conference. Plus hours and hours of 1:1s as I was meeting a ton of people. After an entire year of hard work, I had met something like 1000 new people for one-off conversations. But it took hundreds of hours. At the same time, I was dedicating about the same amount of time to writing, but quickly unlocked 5,000+ people, and started reaching into their inboxes on a weekly basis.

Speaking at conferences is the worst time suck. You spend hours prepping a deck, speak to a group of perhaps a few hundred people, and retain very few them in any meaningful relationship. It can feel good to be recognized, but at the same time, it just can’t compare to writing a piece of content that lives forever. I’m still getting traffic – and email feedback – on essays I wrote ten years ago, which is insane! But that’s the power of scale – nothing can beat content as a bat signal.

Think of your writing on the same timescale as your career. Write on a multi-decade timeframe. This means, don’t just pub on Quora/Medium

Building your network, your audience, and your ideas will be something you’ll want to do over your entire career. Likely a multi-decade thing that will last longer than any individual publishing startup. That’s why I refuse to write on Medium or Quora. Instead, I prefer to run open source software that I can move around, prioritize building my email list (more on that later) and try to keep regular backups. I used to write on Blogger and watched them slowly stop maintaining the platform after the Google acquisition. Then I switched to Typepad, only to watch the same thing happen. I learned my lesson.

Focus on writing freq over anything else. Schedule it. Don’t worry about building an immediate audience. Focus on the intrinsic.

I get it- the activation energy to start publishing your professional ideas and thoughts are high. Nevertheless, because initially no one will read your work, the key is just to get started. Your initial topics and format should be whatever you can do easily and maintain some sort of frequency. Maybe that’s 500 words a month on a new product you’ve tried, and whether you hate or it not. Just get started, find out what you like, and you’ll have a lot of time to figure out the intersection of what you want to write, and what others want to read.

To develop the habit, put a calendar reminder each Sunday for 2 hours. Forced myself to stare at a blank text box and put something down

Several years in, writing remains hard. It’s something that still – to this day – requires time to be set aside. I turn off the music, stop checking email, and write over a few hours to crank something out. Some parts get easier, but the core activity stays difficult. Since starting a normal job (haha) it’s gotten harder to write on Sunday evenings, since that’s when the work email starts. But a good chunk of the writing on this blog happened over Sunday evenings, a few times a month, blocked out with no distractions.

Most of my writing comes from talking/reading deciding I strongly agree or disagree. These opinions become titles. Titles become essays.

After a lively lunch/dinner discussion where a provocative opinion is blurted out – say, that cryptocurrencies are going to be widely adopted and ultimately cause a global recession – I usually write it down. If it’s fun and memorable, it’s an easy thing to write 3-4 supporting points as paragraphs, and turn into an essay later.

People are often obsessed with needing to write original ideas. Forget it. You’re a journalist with a day job in the tech industry

Thinking of yourself as a journalist that’s covering interesting ideas, trends, products, and everything that’s happening around you leads to much better/stronger content. It means you can write often and build on others’ ideas, without feeling like everything has to be completely new. Just as startup ideas are rarely new, but rather twists on older ideas, the same goes for your observations and ideas on tech.

An email subscriber is worth 100x twitter or LinkedIn followers or whatever other stuff is out there. An email = a real channel

For a professional audience, at least, email is the only KPI I care about. Nothing has more engagement. And importantly, to a previous point, it’s independent/decentralized and will clearly be around in a decade – it’s hard to say that about any of these other subscriber metrics. Given that, I focus on my blog’s UI on collecting emails – both on the homepage, at the bottom of essays, plus those annoying popups that are (unfortunately) super effective.

I started writing while working at a VC. They asked, “Why give away ideas? That’s your edge.” Ironic that VCs blog/tweet all day now ;)

It took a long time for VCs to figure out how to market themselves and their ideas :)

Publishing ideas, learnings, opinions, for years & years is a great way to give. And you’ll figure out how to capture value later

The first year of writing, I had an audience of hundreds, including friends/colleagues from Seattle, my sister, etc. It wouldn’t be until a year later that I figured out it was a helpful asset when you’re going out and trying to raise money for a startup! And years after that, to help get your company acquired. And a great launching pad for market research and side projects too!

Creating is the thing – writing is a subset
For me, writing on this blog has been a real gamechanger in terms of building relationships, a professional reputation, etc. But it’s just one potential method of creating and putting content out there. Maybe your version of this is through videos, photography, or podcasts. Or maybe you’re a developer and want to keep shipping open source projects. All of it can work. The important part is just to start giving out your knowledge and ideas – and over time, to build that into a platform for other activities.

Just get started and I doubt you’ll regret it. And to those who’ve been reading my work for the last decade, thank you! I appreciate it.

PS. Bonus lessons
To close, I’ll point you to some bonus ideas from an old essay, How to start a professional blog: 10 tips for new bloggers, written when I was just starting:

  • Carpet bomb a key area and stake out mindshare
  • Take time to find your voice
  • Stay consistent on your blog format and topic
  • Just show up
  • Go deep on your topic of expertise
  • Meatspace and the blogosphere are tightly connected
  • Embrace the universal reader acquisition strategies for blogs
  • Come up with new topics with brainstorms, news headlines, and notes-to-self
  • Look at your analytics every day
  • Don’t overdo it

More details here.

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