Ever dreamt of finding success in your side-business? Journalist, Qin Xie told us how she turned her furlough passion project into a springboard for her career…
Freshly brewed coffee in hand, I slouch into the sofa facing the window, taking a moment to let the steam jostle awake my senses. Outside, wisps of clouds drift across cornflower blue skies - a rare sight for a winter's day, and on a weekend no less.
Fistfuls of these dreamy Saturday mornings have come and gone in recent months while I’ve been cooped up inside, missed not because of Covid restrictions but rather, because of my side hustle: a reader-funded newsletter.
Money Talk is a smart personal finance newsletter that’s designed to help the reader save money and grow wealth. It’s a project I started eight months ago while in the uniquely vulnerable position of being a newly-appointed travel editor covering a maternity leave who’s just been asked to go on furlough because, well, no one can go on holiday when borders are closed everywhere.
At the time, I was faced with the prospect of sitting at home for who knows how long, without the certainty of a job to go back to. I was actively looking for other opportunities, but journalism jobs were dropping like flies and freelance budgets were slashed to the bone. Needless to say, it was terrifying.
"Was it too good to be true? Maybe. When you work out the amount of time I spend on it, I’m making far, far below minimum wage."
Then I discovered Substack, a newsletter subscription platform that allows its authors to easily monetise their work. The maths was really attractive: find 200 people willing to pay you £5 or more a month and you’ll easily make £1,000 a month. Find 200 more and you can double your income for doing the same amount of work. In fact, its top creators were making more than $1 million a year and the platform’s paying subscribers had ballooned from a reported 25,000 in 2018 to over 100,000 in 2020. The biggest boon for me was that there was no need to go chasing after advertisers, which suited my creator mentality perfectly. So a few consent buttons later, I had my own newsletter.
If I’m honest, there was zero planning. The idea was conceived late at night when I felt too anxious to sleep, and by the morning, still buzzing with ideas, I started writing my first post, setting out my proposition. Within hours of sending it out to 200 people I knew, I had my first paying subscribers - supportive friends who signed up for a full year without having seen any of the actual content. Suddenly, my tentative idea got the confirmation it needed.
Was it too good to be true? Maybe. When you work out the amount of time I spend on it, I’m making far, far below minimum wage.
Each Saturday, I wade through dozens of emails equating to hundreds of stories so I can digest these and distill them into roughly 1,500 words on the most relevant money news of the week, how it might affect readers financially and steps they could take. I also publish a monthly feature delving deeper into specific subjects, such as whether it’s worth merging pension pots or what to look for when you’re picking a mortgage. For all that, readers pay me just £3.65 a month - the price of a fancy cup of coffee.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that if I wanted this to work financially, and attract readers beyond my circle of friends, I needed a solid business strategy and editorial plan beyond the week-to-week grind. I needed a vision of how I could grow it in the short and long term, and a reason for people to keep paying me. In short, I needed to think like an entrepreneur and not just a journalist.
It would have been too easy to give it all up when I was recalled from furlough, especially when I was working 40-hour weeks, and summer as well as the freedom to travel again beckoned. Some weeks I worked on it every evening throughout the week to give myself the weekend off. Other weeks I procrastinated on the view from the window for hours before finally settling down to write late into the night. But I persisted, because I didn’t want to let down those who had effectively cured my sleepless nights with their unrelenting support. And it was another platform to showcase my expanding skill set, ready for when my contract finishes.
There were other benefits too, including smartening up the state of my own finances. While scouring government policy announcements for example, I spotted a financial incentive that I used to negotiate a work contract. I’ve tapped into an incredibly supportive network for money bloggers and creators, which has helped me land a regular gig on the business segment of Times Radio’s Early Breakfast show with Calum MacDonald. And of course, it’s helped me develop my entrepreneurial spirit.
I know creators who are making a credible living from their newsletters; I am not one of them, yet. But I see it as a strategic investment, the benefits of which will help me grow in the years to come.