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by Jacob O'Bryant

Why I'm excited about newsletters

It's been about four months since I launched The Sample. As with most business ideas, it has multiple forms:

  • Immediate: what is the product right now? How would you describe it to a potential user?

  • Medium-term: what could this product become over the next few years? Why might this be a promising business?

  • Long-term: what could this product lead to over the next 10 years (or longer)? What is the most ambitious potential outcome?

The Sample's immediate form is fairly straightforward. You can see half of it by looking at the landing page. I describe it in classified ads like this:

The Sample is a newsletter curated by AI. Each morning it selects a different newsletter issue to forward you, based on your interests.

(This description has performed pretty well, but let me know if you can think of a better one!)

That's what the product does from the readers' perspective. When talking to newsletter authors, I describe it more like this:

The Sample helps you get more subscribers. Submit your newsletter and it'll get forwarded to people who are interested in similar topics. If you share a referral link for The Sample, your newsletter will get forwarded more often.

That last sentence hints at The Sample's medium-term form: a network for newsletters. The whole reason that Twitter's acquisition of Revue is so interesting is because Twitter already has a big network which they can use to drive subscriber growth. Substack likewise will probably need to build more of its own network if they want to keep charging 10% of premium subscriptions.

The Sample's key difference is that it isn't bundled with a specific publishing platform: it's an a la carte network. In the same way that Google makes many independent websites discoverable, The Sample is meant to make many independent newsletters discoverable. After all, that's one of the reasons newsletters are so popular in the first place: you can publish content and build an audience without being dependent on a platform.

This brings us to The Sample's final form. Hint: it's not about newsletters. It's not even about email.

It's about information that comes to you.

Google is the ultimate aggregator of pull-based information, where there's something specific you're looking (or rather, searching) for. But most valuable discoveries are things that you don't know exist until you bump into them. Right now we have a smorgasbord of platforms and tools that help you bump into things (and people) online: social media, Reddit, news websites, RSS readers, newsletters, even Slack... but it's all disconnected. We're missing something that tries to understand you as a whole person and then makes connections for you that normally would have remained buried.

(The closest existing thing to what I'm envisioning might be Facebook's ad system. It creates a profile of all your preferences—or at least as many as it's able to find out—and then it tries to show you stuff you'll like. However, its purpose is to monetize the time you spend on Facebook; it isn't designed as a product in its own right. No one goes to Facebook to look at ads.)

So that's where I'm trying to go with The Sample: a general-purpose recommender system. Think of it like Google but without the text box. You click a button and then it introduces you to stuff you'll appreciate. And instead of making you click a button, we just send you an email.

Published 22 Jun 2021

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