Going Paid: How Camila Russo launched and grew The Defiant

We invited Camila Russo, author of The Defiant, to share her insights on launching a paid newsletter. The Defiant covers decentralized finance and the intersection of tech and money.

Camila explains why she started a newsletter, tips for balancing free and paid content, and how she creates value for her audience.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can watch Camila’s interview in the video below.

Takeaways

  • Clearly communicate your paid launch date. Promoting your launch effectively can create excitement and urgency. Start communicating your plans to launch early, and consider offering readers a chance to subscribe early at a discounted price. Give them every opportunity to subscribe along the way, so they're not surprised when the transition happens.

  • Set a publishing plan. Having a plan helps you remove uncertainty. Make a schedule and agenda for sharing your posts, and find a frequency that you can stick to.

  • Find a space that you can own and where you can be the expert. With newsletters, you don’t have to share breaking news, but rather your best work. Aim to provide the most complete and nuanced take on a topic, whether that means interviewing people, gathering research, or doing more analysis. 

  • Experiment with different media. Try using podcasts and videos to reach new audiences.


Why I started a financial newsletter

A quick background about myself: I'm a financial journalist, and I was at Bloomberg for eight years before leaving to finish my book, The Infinite Machine. It's a book about the history of Ethereum, one of the biggest cryptocurrencies. At Bloomberg, I was a market reporter focusing on emerging markets and cryptocurrencies. 

When I left Bloomberg, my goal was to finish my book and become an independent journalist. My initial idea was to do freelance writing on tech and finance. But then, as I was researching my book and going to Ethereum hackathons, I saw this incredibly fascinating and revolutionary world that was being built on top of Ethereum and other blockchains.

There was this entirely new financial ecosystem that was being built, and nobody was really covering it very well. There were no DeFi-focused newsletters at the time, and even crypto media wasn't paying much attention, so I thought there was an opportunity to cover the space. I know how to cover finance – I've been writing about that for years – and I also know Ethereum. 

It just so happened that The Pomp had me on his podcast. I was talking about my book, and then after the podcast we got to chatting, and I told him my plan of potentially doing a newsletter. I asked him for advice, since he has a hugely successful newsletter himself, and he recommended doing the newsletter on Substack. That's how I got here.

If you have a loyal following and if you can find a specific niche that you cover well can deliver more value to than other outlets are doing, I think people are willing to pay for that.

The newsletter grew quickly this year, and recently there was a big boom in DeFi. It's been really empowering to see that people are willing to actually pay for my content.

If you have a loyal following and if you can find a specific niche that you cover well can deliver more value to than other outlets are doing, I think people are willing to pay for that. I encourage writers to try it. It’s awesome to be able to have your own media business and not rely on others.

Lessons from the early days

I filed the first draft of my book, and then a week later I sent the first email to my mailing list, which I think was five people. I didn't have a preexisting list or anything – it was 100% grown organically from just sharing every day. 

The first thing that was important to my growth was having a consistent frequency. I was publishing every single day. I tried to publish at 8:00 am every day, which I wish I could still do! In the beginning that's what I was doing, and it was very helpful to just keep making it snowball by adding more content and talking about more people. The people who I mentioned started sharing The Defiant, and it just started growing from there.

The first thing that was important to my growth was having a consistent frequency. I was publishing every single day. I tried to publish at 8:00 am every day, which I wish I could still do!

Find a frequency that works and that you can stick to, and hopefully make it as frequent as possible. It depends on the topics that you're covering, but I think daily or weekly is probably the best. I think monthly makes it a little bit harder to build an audience. 

The second learning experience is leveraging Twitter. I already had a pretty decent Twitter following at that point. Tweeting out whenever I had a new issue of my newsletter and tagging the different people on the projects that I was mentioning incentivized them to share as well. 

Balancing free and paid content

Since I started my newsletter, the idea of having it become paid at one point was always there. I was intrigued by the idea of being able to sustain myself with my own writing and stay independent and not have to go back to a corporate media job.

That idea was always there, but I wanted to see whether it was actually feasible to do it. The goal I set was to get 2000 subscribers, and once I got that milestone, then I started going paid. I started in June, and by October that's when I reached [my goal]. 

I think there's still room to improve on the mix of what's free and what's paid, but in general what I've done is tried to really provide a lot of value to both types of users.

I distribute most of the daily DeFi news for free. Then, there's one day where part of the content is free and most of it is for paid subscribers – one out of five newsletters I send is more for paid subscribers. I also started doing weekly interviews that then turned into my podcast, so the way that I added value to paid subscribers was to also publish a transcript of those interviews just for them. Free subscribers get a tiny bit of the transcript, and paid subscribers get the full thing. 

Reflections on my paid launch

I wish I had given people more time to realize that I was going paid. I think I did mention it with a little disclaimer or warning at the bottom of the newsletter for a while. But maybe I should have communicated more clearly that on this date I'd be going paid. Promotion before the actual launch can create excitement around the launch and an urgency to subscribe.

Start communicating that to your readers and offer them the chance to subscribe early at a discounted price. Be very clear about the date that you're launching paid subscriptions and remind readers along the way to give them every opportunity to subscribe, so they're not surprised when it happens.

Be very clear about the date that you're launching paid subscriptions and remind readers along the way to give them every opportunity to subscribe, so they're not surprised when it happens.

I want to do more discounts and promotions and referral programs. I haven't done anything specifically other than focusing on delivering really high quality content for paid subscriptions. The conversion rate has been constant so far, but I want to make sure that it doesn't start to slide as numbers grow. 

How I create value for my readers

Other ways that I’ve added value is having guest contributors to The Defiant, like columnists who write interesting thought pieces. The paid subscribers get those first, like a couple of hours before the free signups. Every step of the way, in every new product that I add to the newsletter, I try to find a way to reward the most loyal readers, my paid subscribers. 

Every step of the way, in every new product that I add to the newsletter, I try to find a way to reward the most loyal readers, my paid subscribers.

There's an audience out there for different types of content. There's people that would rather read and love having interview transcripts, and there's other people who would rather listen. That's what the podcast is there for. I also did a YouTube channel and found that some people subscribe and have no idea I have a newsletter. So it's been interesting trying to reach my audience wherever they are. 

In terms of written content, it's not breaking news like at Bloomberg, where something comes out and you have to have the headline out. That's a different format from newsletters.

I think what works really well is being not the first work, but the best work: making sure that you provide the most complete and nuanced take, and taking the time to interview the people involved and do some research or crunch some numbers. 

Add more value by providing additional context that's worth reading in the second-day story. My most-read pieces analyze and piece all of the information together in one place. I think that people really value that.

Building a daily writing habit

To me, it was really helpful to write daily. The way I did that was to just get down on paper whatever was happening that day. I started out with short news stories on the most important thing happening in DeFi that day and just kept it very lightweight. It was a way of curating the most important news, explaining it, and providing some analysis where possible.

That way, you start by not putting that much pressure on yourself on needing to have a masterpiece in every issue. You're like, “I'm just going to tell my readers what the most important thing is and just do it in the best way possible.” Sticking to that in the beginning will also help you become an expert in whatever field you're writing about. If you're just starting out that way, it forces you to learn about the space and just keep track of everything yourself.

Set a schedule and have a content agenda. Having a plan always removes uncertainty. It helps you feel less nervous because you know that on some days you’ll be publishing one type of content for free signups, and [other] days you’ll do something else for paid subscribers. It’s the same thing with your strategy, like starting with subscriptions on a discount and then launching on a specific date.

It's amazing to have people pay for your content and to be able to run your own business. I totally recommend the experience.

Find a space that you can own and where you can be the expert. If you own that space and are consistent in delivering high-quality content, people value that enough to pay for it. I encourage you to go for it, because it's amazing to have people pay for your content and to be able to run your own business. I totally recommend the experience.


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