How Justin Gage Grew Technically to 50k Subscribers Without a Large Audience

This isn’t a typical growth story we’ve seen in past deep dives.

This deep dive is really fun in my opinion, because the founder, Justin Gage, doesn’t have a massive social media audience.

He doesn’t run paid ads (from what I can tell), and he’s not using many of the tactics we see other large newsletters do.

Yet, without all of those, he’s been able to build the Technically newsletter to an audience of over 50,000 subscribers in just 3 years.

How Technically Makes Money

Justin works at a venture capital firm called Amplify Partners, so it doesn’t seem like the main focus for him is revenue from the newsletter at this point.

But he does have a few revenue streams at this point:

Paid Newsletter

From the beginning of the Technically newsletter, Justin has had paid subscribers.

You can either pay $8/mo or $80 for the year.

In an interview with Substack, Justin said he had around 30,000 subscribers and 2,000 paid subscribers.

At $80 a year, that would be around $160k per year.

That was in September of 2022, and he has since grown the newsletter to over 50k subscribers. I’d imagine he’s closer to $200k per year with the increase in overall numbers.

Side note: I’m really surprised Justin doesn’t have a “Founders” option like Lenny’s Newsletter or others do that lets you pay more. He has a lot of high-profile people reading his newsletter, so I’m sure they’d be thrilled to pay more and support his work.

Sponsors

The Technically newsletter has sponsors within some of the posts.

He has two kinds of sponsors:

  1. Smaller banner ad
  2. Longer section about the sponsor

I don’t have any data on the cost of a sponsorship.

But Justin says these are mostly inbound leads, and not every week is booked up. So while it’s an income source, it doesn’t seem like he’s pushing to fill every slot.

Job Board

Technically has a job board as well, as we’ve seen with some other more tech-focused newsletters. But this one seems to be a smaller operation, as there is only one job currently live.

It’s also a weird time, so there likely won’t be much in terms of available jobs.

The Growth Timeline

Justin started the newsletter in January of 2020 after tweeting out and asking his followers if they would pay for a newsletter like this.

After getting some good feedback, he went ahead and started the newsletter, with a paid option available on day 1.

Here is the growth timeline of the newsletter, compared to his Twitter account.

In most of the deep dives I do, creators have been rapidly growing their social accounts alongside the newsletter.

But Justin’s story is different, so I’ve included it for comparison.

The Growth Levers

He doesn’t have a huge social following, so how has he been growing the newsletter? Here are some of the growth levers he’s used.

Build a useful database of terms.

1. Creating unique tools. Want to learn how to make things your audience wants to share? How Justin has done this is really a simple, but highly effective method.

2. OPA: Other People’s Audiences. Instead of just sending a newsletter to his audience, he’s getting in front of other people’s audiences as well.

3. “Explain it to me like I’m 5” content. Not only is Justin’s content super unique, he’s also very intentional about adding elements to it that help his audience unlike anything else out there.

4. An incredible onboarding experience. A lot of newsletter creators customize the “template” welcome email and call it a day. But Justin’s onboarding process puts them all to shame – including me.

1. Creating Unique Tools for Your Audience

One of the smartest things I think Justin has done from a growth perspective was creating really unique pieces of content and tool for his audience.

It started with a database/glossary of terms related to his content.

The whole premise of the newsletter is to help people who don’t fully understand software engineering, so this is a really natural fit.

He launched this database and tweeted about it on August 22, 2022.

While I don’t have insider knowledge to say this is factual, his newsletter seemed to really start taking off after he created this.

But why was it so impactful?

It’s a Super Shareable Resource

Not only is this resource helpful, but it is also an Airtable database that is freely available. You don’t have to enter your email to get access to it.

This makes it easy to share and/or bookmark it for later.

Each piece of the database has helpful ideas about each concept, along with a visual element to better explain each concept.

Anytime someone shares this database, that person will end up on one of his articles.

Justin will likely gain a new reader, or at least some percent of those will become readers.

Then they might be compelled to share an article or the same database.

And so on, and so on.

This tool acts like a lead generator for his newsletter. And his newsletter is ultimately the product he’s selling.

The Database Database

Justin did this again when he launched the database of databases in March of 2023. Yes, it sounds “meta”, but choosing the right database for some of these companies is a big decision.

So he combined them all into one place and made the database filterable based on their needs.

Building something custom comes pretty easily to a software engineer, but the value he is adding to his audience is huge.

Every so often, he creates a new deep dive into a database company, and that gets linked to this sheet as well.

He’s not creating these (from what I can tell) as a method to get more subscribers, but it’s just a natural byproduct of serving his audience better than anyone else.

Bringing It All Full Circle

Both of these examples end up creating a loop of traffic for Justin.

Someone might share the database list or the glossary.

Some of those people who are on the receiving end will sign up for the newsletter.

They might end up sharing one of these resources as well, and the cycle continues.

One of the reasons people share content is because it makes them look smart and “on top of it” when it comes to that concept.

These two tools are 100% doing that for his readers.

2. OPA: Other People’s Audiences

I mentioned earlier that Justin doesn’t have a massive social following as we’ve seen with a lot of other writers. Yet he has still been able to grow a large email list.

Since he wasn’t coming into the creator space with a huge audience on Twitter or other social platforms, he did something really smart and leveraged other people’s audiences.

Joining a Community

Before I jump into this OPA thing too far, it has to be addressed that Justin was part of The Type House, a group of 40 newsletter creators, that includes a lot of big names:

Surrounding yourself with people growing a similar business to yours has clearly paid off for this group. And he’s been able to leverage some of those relationships as well.

Here are a few of the ways he’s done that.

Guest Posts

Justin has been writing on the internet for years, mostly for other publications and without much more than a byline.

But once he started Technically, he was able to get some larger writing gigs that definitely helped get some eyes on his own project.

Justin wrote a guest post for Lenny’s newsletter in December 2021.

I tried going back through Twitter to see how they met, but then I found out they were both in the Type House group (mentioned above), so it makes sense now.

Relationships lead to opportunities. And opportunities can lead to even more opportunities.

That guest post on Lenny’s newsletter happened just 1-2 months before he ended up writing for a16z’s Future.com publication.

This time, he got a proper attribution and author page on the website:

Not only was this a big deal, but the article ended up hitting the first page of Hacker News.

This meant more people were seeing the article, and a percentage might have been clicking through and visiting his newsletter.

The beauty of writing for other publications is that they already have a built-in audience that you’re able to get in front of. Polina Pompliano is another creator who’s done this really well.

Not to mention that backlinks from a larger publication alone can help your website show up higher in Google search.

So he’s creating super shareable content, and putting himself in front of larger audiences. One of the side benefits of this is that some of the bigger names in your industry probably read those as well.

Ben Thompson – Stratechery

Again, not sure how these people came across his work, but it doesn’t hurt when Mr. Newsletter himself, Ben Thompson, includes a link to your article in his newsletter.

Other shoutouts include Sahil Bloom, Austin Rief (of Morning Brew), Peter Yang, and so many more. You can see a full list using advanced Twitter search here.

His content is so good, and so valuable for top-level employees, that even the sales director for IBM recommended Technically at a conference put on for the entire sales team at IBM – that led to 4,000 subscribers.

3. Unique Content

Stick with me here. This isn’t just about mashing two seemingly different topics together and hoping for the best.

Justin is super intentional with his content from all angles.

Content/Market Fit

He started the newsletter because he could only find either super basic articles on software engineering, or super technical ones that even a software engineer had a tough time understanding.

There are a lot of C-level execs, mid-level managers, entrepreneurs, and more who need to understand the foundations of these topics, but not go so deep it takes years to learn.

That’s where Technically fits in. He created the resource that lives in the middle.

And I think he unknowingly stumbled into a super sustainable gold mine.

He is able to explain these concepts to people like he’s just sitting at a bar with them. I think people really resonate with that.

The Video Game Method

One of the really interesting things about Justin’s writing is his emphasis on using stories, not only to hook people in, but also to help them understand the concepts better.

He explains that our brains need what’s called “linear progression” of both facts and the building of knowledge.

For example, to explain a data warehouse to you, he’ll say something like:

“Let’s say I sell sneakers on an e-commerce site, where users can create and log in to accounts. I have a production, transactional database with information about my users, as well as some Stripe data about payments and orders.

I want to build a dashboard that shows how much money I make monthly from users in South America. How do I do that?”

He’s getting you in the frame of mind to understand a real-world use case before he just starts explaining these in-depth concepts.

Just like in Super Mario Brothers, you have to understand why you’re rescuing Peach from the castle before you actually get there.

Analogies and Metaphors

To add to this linear progression, Justin includes really relatable metaphors within his writing to help people better understand the complex topics.

This is where the “explain it to me like I’m 5” method comes into play.

For example, he recently started baking a lot more. In his piece on Databases, he brings the two together.

He introduces the topic and lets us know why it’s important.

But before his non-technical audience gets lost in the lingo, he explains what scenario we are playing out today to make this much more relevant.

As I mentioned above with the Video Game method he talks about, this is the beginning of him taking us on a journey.

He then weaves in a completely unrelated topic of baking (or so it seems), but one that is much more understandable for his audience to grasp.

Specific types of flour are better for specific types of baking. Just like specific databases are better for specific outcomes.

He then uses a visual of the different flour types and their uses, before he brings us all back to the database story.

Justin’s writing is something I aspire to. It’s buttery and just flows super nicely.

The way he writes is brilliant, especially for beginner/intermediate types who aren’t well-versed in the world of databases.

Including Images & Graphics

When you’re trying to explain really technical concepts, or I’d argue when you’re trying to explain anything, a visual is almost always going to make it easier to understand.

It’s probably why guys like Jack Butcher and Dan Koe are killing it on social media with their easy-to-understand visuals.

Here’s one of the ones Justin uses to explain what open source vs closed source means.

He uses two pretty relatable topics, Microsoft Excel and a homebrew beer recipe, to explain the idea behind open-source code.

Visuals are much more useful when trying to explain large concepts like this.

4. An Incredible Onboarding Experience

Most newsletter creators put together a “custom” welcome email and call it a day.

Justin puts them all to shame (myself included).

His welcome email gives readers an easy way to dive deep into the back catalog of content.

A Custom Archive

He has custom-built a back-catalog of all the content, that is filterable and searchable based on post type and category of tech.

Remember, this is a Substack publication, but he went above and beyond to make sure it was easy for people to find what they are looking for.

Paid Tier Pitch

Justin then goes on to give new readers a glimpse into what they can get with a paid subscription.

He gives you an exact breakdown of what kinds of posts you get access to, as well as some examples. And he’s not pushy, he’s just giving you a heads up that this exists.

I love this style of “selling.”

Referrals, Cadence, and Housekeeping

After that piece, he talks about the referral program, where you can win a free year of the newsletter, and of course, stickers.

Since this newsletter isn’t your typical weekly newsletter, he calls that out upfront. He’s not shying away from the fact that you won’t get this every week.

Learning Tracks

Justin also includes a link to “Learning tracks” in that welcome email, and these are really cool.

When you click that link, you’re kind of self-selecting to get more customized information for that specific need.

I can’t screenshot all of this, so I’d highly recommend checking them out here.

He’s giving you almost a step-by-step course on how to get up to speed with the specific types of people you’re working with.

He could probably charge for these by themselves, but instead, he’s making the user experience for his readers top-notch.

How You Can Replicate This Success

Justin’s growth might not look parabolic like some of the other creators we’ve featured, but he’s really well set up for whenever his “viral” moments come along.

And he’s treating his users right, meaning his churn is probably pretty low.

Build Helpful Resources

Justin’s database of databases and the interactive glossary are two tools that get shared a lot.

With all of the no-code tools available today, this is something we all have the capacity to do.

Is there a resource you can create, or maybe that you’ve already created, that you can leverage in a different medium?

These don’t have to be super complex either – even a Google sheet or Airtable database, as we’ve seen, is more than robust enough.

Customize The Reader’s Experience

Justin set up learning tracks to help people navigate through his vast archive of posts and information.

If you have an evergreen type of topic or specific categories, you can replicate this kind of experience for your readers.

I’m absolutely adding this to my list of things to do in the future because I think it would be really helpful for people.

Is it going to immediately drive more subscribers? No.

But most people don’t do this, so by creating a unique experience for your readers, they’re going to remember that and be more likely to share your content.

Leverage Other Audiences

While Justin was able to get a guest post on Lenny’s newsletter, which has a huge reach, that doesn’t mean you have to go big or do nothing.

You can collaborate with people who have adjacent audiences to yours and swap guest posts, or even offer to write something for their audience that they haven’t created yet.

You can start small, and as you get more name recognition, that’s when you can reach out to larger outlets. Even writing on Medium.com can get you shared in other places. After all, Justin wrote a few pieces on Medium in 2016 too.

Just because you aren’t writing on a big publication in the beginning, doesn’t mean that the smaller audience you’re writing for won’t eventually be something much larger.

Put in the reps with the “smaller” places, and you’ll eventually work your way up to some larger outlets.

chenell basilio

Chenell Basilio

Chenell is the head writer and reverse engineer at Growth In Reverse. She spends her days researching newsletters, audience growth, and generally figuring out how to help others create better content.

She has an almost useless Bachelor's Degree in Geography, enjoys running, listening to podcasts, and eating guacamole. 🥑

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