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by Jacob O'Bryant

(Re)introducing Yakread: a smart newsletter reading app

Recently in I'm going to delete most of Yakread's features, I talked about how I was planning to overhaul Yakread to make it more focused on newsletters. Those changes are now complete. Though I ended up not deleting any features; I just moved them out of the way, under the settings page. So you can still import your bookmarks, Mastodon posts, tweets (for now, anyway...), ebooks, and so forth; but those things are not emphasized on the landing page or within the app. I did also decide to continue to emphasize RSS, though I haven't made it quite as prominent as email/newsletters.

Take a gander at the landing page copy, pictured in the screenshot. I feel great about the wording. I think I've finally hit on a clear, succinct explanation that nails Yakread's core value prop. Narrowing the focus to just newsletters helped a lot.

Besides reorganizing the UI, I have also made a big change to the way Yakread's feed works. I've split it into three separate feeds, shown in the screenshot: "Curated," an assortment of posts from your subscriptions selected by Yakread's algorithm; "Recent," a plain chronological feed of your posts; and "Discover," an algorithmic selection of posts that were liked by other Yakread users.

I was attracted to the idea of having a single feed with everything in it, in order to make the reading experience as simple as possible: scroll the feed, click on the first thing that looks interesting, repeat. However that may have been a little too minimalistic. The real goal is to find the right level of control for users to have. I find I have different "reading modes" at various times, corresponding to the three separate feeds. Trying to mix the three modes together was a bit like throwing your salad and mashed potatoes in the blender.

I've also updated the daily emails to match. There's now a "Curated" section with 5 links; a "Recent" section with up to 50 links for posts from the previous day (or since the last time we sent you an email, if you aren't getting it daily); a "Discover" section with 5 links; and a sponsored "Newsletter suggestions" section with 3 links. Here's a super tall example screenshot (I removed a bunch of links from the Recent section, otherwise it would've been even taller):

Screenshot of the daily Yakread email

This enables the perfect workflow:

  • As part of my morning routine, I look over the links in the recent section of my daily email in case there's anything particularly eye-catching.
  • Whenever I have some reading time (usually while supervising the offspring), I open Yakread on my phone (I've saved it to my phone's homescreen, so it's kind of like a normal mobile app) and read from the curated feed.
  • Occasionally I'll take a look at the discover feed.

The discover section/feed is particularly important for new users. If you haven't added any subscriptions yet, you'll still get a daily email, but it'll only include the discover and newsletter suggestions sections. It'll also have a little reminder that you can add your own newsletter/RSS subscriptions. At this point IMO the discover stuff is mostly there to help people get started with Yakread. The advertisements also help with that, since they're all ads for newsletters.

There are still various improvements I want to make, but I think all the essentials are in place. I've started booking more newsletter ads since I think that'll be the best growth channel for Yakread. If I can optimize things enough to make the numbers work out, then I intend to grow Yakread quickly.

But if not, I'll be happy to continue iterating for as long as it takes. I've been thinking a bit about something Justin Duke, the Buttondown founder, wrote:

Q: How did you market this and get traction?

A: This may be an unsatisfying answer: slowly. [...]

I'm tentatively going to timebox my Yakread work to Mondays—I'll spend half the day on Yakread and the other half writing this newsletter. Booking ads mainly requires money, not time, and a few hours per week spent on incremental improvements should be all the code time that Yakread requires.

I'll put the rest of my time into my open-source work and consulting business (they're related), which will ensure that I have both infinite runway and plenty of cash with which to run paid acquisition experiments.

Chat with me on Discord.

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So yeah, about The Sample

I also discussed previously that as part of my minimalism-ification of Yakread, I might outsource discovery to The Sample and continue to work on both Yakread and The Sample in tandem indefinitely. Since I've swung back towards leaving Yakread as a more full-featured reading app, that's no longer the plan. Instead I'm resuming my previous plan to eventually have Yakread subsume The Sample.

The biggest fundamental difference between The Sample and discovery in Yakread is probably that The Sample sends you full newsletter issues, whereas the discover section in Yakread's emails just has a list of links. But... I think a list of links is probably better anyway. That gives the machine learning a break, since instead of trying to pick the one thing you'll like the most, it just has to narrow it down to five choices.

I guess another big difference is that after you hit the "1-click subscribe" button, The Sample steps out of the way. Your email address is added to the newsletter author's list, and the relationship from then on is between you and them. There's no opportunity for The Sample to get in the way.

But there is with Yakread! If Yakread recommends your newsletter to someone and they subscribe with their address, Yakread is still an intermediary. A mustache-twirling version of myself could, theoretically, update the curated feed so that it de-emphasizes newsletters that talk about cheese, or whatever. I'm not planning to do that (I have nothing against cheese), but the risk is there, know what I mean?

(I very well may de-emphasize, without loss of generality, cheese-related newsletters in the discover feed—but your curated feed is different because it contains things you've explicitly opted in to receive.)

However, my experience has been that a standalone discovery service just doesn't work, business-wise. After you've subscribed to a bunch of newsletters, discovering more is less valuable. I think for discovery to work as a standalone product, it has to replace subscribing. You go to an aggregator like Hacker News or subscribe to a curated newsletter, and then you don't need to subscribe to the sources they pull from. You just go to the aggregator. If you want to build some kind of discovery solution that drives subscriptions for authors instead of just aggregating individual posts, I think it needs to be a feature, not a product. And that's how it is in Yakread.

So I think it's best if I press forward with a reader app that has integrated discovery and look for other ways to help preserve writers' independence. Besides, as long as the number of address on your list is smaller than the number of addresses, it's not like your eggs are all in one basket. Until that point, getting more Yakread subscribers will diversify your list.

And if I ever get to the point where Yakread has more market share for newsletter subscriptions than Gmail... mission accomplished? I'll deal with that problem once I get to it!

Reading recommendations

  • The power of the RSS reader (Marco Arment). This addresses the core problem that Yakread solves: that the traditional chronological inbox is prone to getting overrun with too many subscriptions. Marco's solution is that you shouldn't try to use your RSS reader for everything; just use it as a complement to social media. I've taken the opposite approach.
  • This is what you’re nostalgic for (The History of the Web). "And now, almost 20 years later, it is hard to recapture that feeling again. That feeling of the first website. And whenever I try to satiate that feeling I end up not reaching back for the web of 2004, but five, ten, fifteen years before that. I yearn to join a web that I had never known."
  • Is internet addiction eradicating the habit of reading? (Ben Wajdi). Posts about internet addiction are interesting to me because I feel like I'm personally... not addicted? I use it constantly, of course, but I have a pretty solid habit of focusing on work when I'm at my desk. So I wonder to what extent the following scenarios are true: (1) I don't notice how much I'm addicted because I've given in; (2) I'm truly not addicted, but lots of other people are; (3) most people are not addicted and the problem is exagerated.
  • Google and Mozilla are working on iOS browsers that break current App Store rules (Andrew Cunningham | Ars Technica). As much as I don't like how Substack is building yet another monolithic platform, Apple is the OG evil empire in that regard. One thing I love about building for email is that it lets you create a consumer product without having to go through an app store.
  • A Limited Interest Article on Employer Value Prop and Hiring (Resident Contrarian). I learned at my first-and-only post-graduation job that I'm one of the doesn't-care-about-the-company-mission types discussed in this article. I care a lot about my own mission for Yakread/Tools for Online Speech, but I don't think mission-excitement/"passion" (gross) is a prerequisite to being a high-value employee.

Also check out my recommended newsletters.

Published 14 Feb 2023

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