I have recently decided to reboot the blog. I am sure a lot of us working from home right now are thinking about using those two extra hours of commute time to do something productive. Get that blog setup, start writing, learn something and maybe, just maybe, make a few extra dollars.

In many ways creating a newsletter and building an audience is turning out to be the gateway drug to entrepreneurship for a lot of people. The formula most are using seems to be simple get an audience together, ask them what they want, go build that for them or use the audience to get your business going.

The setup I had while blogging was painfully bad. With that in mind, it led me down a quest to evaluate of the options going forward. I could use Medium, substack, roll my own (this is especially true for those of us that are engineers or technical) but there are options for even those that aren’t so technical as well such as WordPress or the Ghost blogging platform.


I’ve written some posts on Medium in the past and substack is gaining a ton of popularity as a way to own your own audience and monetize an email newsletter. However, with both of those platforms, the engineer in me is incredibly bothered by not having control. Not controlling the domain name, customizing everything about the way the content is read, and being able to dig into the code if I want to.


A lot of people are getting into writing their own newsletters recently too. It is a great way to monetize your writing. Surprisingly people on the internet want to support independent writers and thinkers too. However, the problem we all have is we are all employees of the platforms we use. If they don’t like what we write their algorithms can deprioritize our content and not put it in front of anyone, they can outright take down our content, this is why in 2020 more than ever I feel it’s important to have control. With that in mind I would like to discuss the different options I evaluated and why I landed where I did.


substack

While I admire what Substack has done, glued stripe to a great writing platform, which may sound like a subtle thing it should not be underestimated as an amazing innovation that is unleashing a wealth creative independent ideas and a renaissance in newsletter email and blogging. Subtle tweaks are sometimes the most innovative of them all, it can be the difference between an ordinary phone line and a phone line that connects you to a vast network of machines, subtle but massive. The first is a regular phone, the second is the internet.

Writing on substack is perfectly fine but the issue is the control and customization. For more on this please read Kevin Indig's post on why he migrated off substack right after he joined it. It was a huge influence on my decision not to use substack.

In the post he explains that

2 years ago, I started a newsletter on Mailchimp called Tech Bound and built it out to +3,000 subscribers. 3 months ago, I decided to migrate to Substack. One week ago, I went from Substack to publishing on my own site. In this post, I explain why, what my current stack looks like, and a larger trend that has been in full swing for 2 years.

Substack has a lot of welcome features over something like Medium, for one you can keep your audience, which is a huge deal in this day and age. They let you collect emails in your newsletter and keep all of those. They let you export that later if you want to move off too. They also let you charge for content and keep 10% plus the stripe fees for themselves, which is much better than the Medium models that kicks back a few pennies per read


Medium

The best way to describe medium is as the YouTube red version of writing online. They own everything, except your content, you are an employee to their platform and get paid a cut based on reads if you choose to participate in their partner program. They own the audience, the readers pay them a membership fee. You are given a small cut of that based on reading time and you cant customize anything meaningful.

I have published on large Medium publications such as Hackernoon and that publication relationship has gone south fast with Hackernoon moving off the platform to get more control. You can read more about that relationship between Hackernoon and Medium here, hint it didn't end well. This is all because everything that is true about substack not letting you do, medium is 10x worse.

While true that you have absolutely no control on Medium, what they do give you is some eyeballs and a little reach if they choose to feature your story.

Medium might make sense as a passive way for certain types of articles. Also as a way to write certain viral type of content and drive the audience to your personal blog that you own. I certainly cannot recommend it as the main platform as a writer if you are serious about building an audience.

Update:

Here is a another great post on why you should not use Medium by Rahul Chowdhury titled "Why Medium is Not the Home for Your Ideas".

The post goes into more depth about how to take advantage of some the eyeballs medium provides while still owning the content yourself, basically by cross posting to Medium after you've posted on your own blog.


Ghost (and WordPress)

If you have not heard about Ghost, go look it up, it is an open source platform that competes with all of the top blogging platforms. A lot of what is true about Ghost is also true about WordPress but WordPress has evolved to do much more than writing and that has sort of become its Achilles heel.

Ghost offer a fully managed service you can pay a small fee for that gives you full control and where you own everything, more customization than medium, substack, and everyone else out there. For those of us that are a little more technical it allows us to run a blogging platform ourselves. That is because they open source the code base for modification and there are some great docker images from Bitnami to run it yourself, this is similar to WordPress but again unlike WordPress the whole thing is on Node and JavaScript and much lighter weight and made to do one thing great, write.

Here is a breakdown of the features Ghost has over the other serious contender out there:


This is a tough decision because anyone whose thinking about writing at the end of the day wants to spend most of the time writing not choosing platforms. Nobody wants to spend time switching back and fourth, God forbid. We want to pick a great one and ride the wave.

Some of the most important considerations for me when picking a platform to reboot the blog were:

  1. Ease of use
  2. A relationship, and ownership, of my readers and audience
  3. Control and customizations
  4. Readers that the platform will bring in
  5. Monetization

With those factors in mind here is how I ranked my options:

Platform Ease of Use Audience Ownership Customization Platform Readers Monetization
substack 5 5 1 1 4
Medium 5 0 0 3 1
Ghost 5 5 5 0 5

On a scale of 0-5, where 5 is best, when we rate these platforms on the above criteria, again this is my opinion, we can see that when we total this all up Ghost scores the highest by far.

While all of the platforms are easy to use, a big reason they are on my list, they start to differ greatly when it comes to who owns the audience and how much customization and control you have. They all differ significantly when it comes to monetization as well with Medium taking the biggest cut.

In terms of bringing eye balls to your blog this for me is a non quantifiable, not easily measurable thing that is technically the strength of the platforms. For most of us the likelihood that they will promote our posts and put in front of people is very low. Almost all my readership on medium has come via SEO and other channels. You've got to be in the very top of writers on both Medium and substack for them to feature you and if you are at the very top then why not just do it yourself and have full control?

In the end I had to go with Ghost and I have to say that I love ghost for blogging and highly recommend it, even if your an engineer and could build your own, and even if your not and could roll WordPress or something like that, I still highly recommend Ghost. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it feels like a platform that was made with love and more specifically the love of one thing and that’s writing. This is a big reason I chose to reboot my blog onto the latest version of Ghost rather than some of the other options out there.