The idea behind Hamish McKenzie’s startup, Substack Inc., seems pretty modest. The company makes tools to help writers publish email newsletters, earning money by taking a 10% cut from those who charge their subscribers.
The company has been around since 2017, but it’s gained momentum in the past year. The number of paid subscriptions is more than 500,000, and the top writers make well over $1 million annually. As big-name journalists including Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias and tech writer Casey Newton have abandoned their jobs to start Substack newsletters, the tiny company has turned into a real-world illustration of a venture capitalist’s fantasy about the future of media. In that dream, creators become little industries to themselves, using new tech platforms to outmaneuver the sluggish companies they once had to rely on for paychecks. “Absolutely amazing that 15 people with a vision and a clean, thoughtful product fundamentally altered the way we think about media,” Mike Solana, a vice president at the investment company Founders Fund, tweeted in September.