Member Exclusive   //   June 25, 2024

DTC Briefing: Looking for a creative outlet, more founders are turning to Substack

This is the latest installment of the DTC Briefing, a weekly Modern Retail+ column about the biggest challenges and trends facing the volatile direct-to-consumer startup world. More from the series →

More startup founders are becoming Substack-curious. 

While only a handful of DTC founders have launched newsletters, some are beginning to gain real traction. Some of the most popular ones include What I Put on Today, a newsletter by Meg Strachan, the founder of the jewelry startup Dorsey, and Night Shade by Mélanie Masarin, the founder of the non-alcoholic aperitif brand Ghia. Strachan and Masarin now have more than 15,000 and 5,000 subscribers respectively.

And thanks to popular newsletters like Feed Me and The Sociology of Business, more business discourse is taking place on Substack. Now, entrepreneurs are trying to get in on the fun.

The driving factors behind why more founders are starting Substacks — or, are considering it — get at the heart of some of the most pressing topics founders grapple with today. They feel like they need to grow their personal brands or have a creative outlet, and Substack provides one medium through which to do that. Many of them also like that Substack allows them to talk to more people and gather anecdotes on what people are buying amid a confusing consumer landscape

“I see people posting every day about how Substack feels to them not like social media, or it reminds them of the early Tumblr days, and that the quality of connection and the level of connection is so much deeper,” Azora Zoe Paknad, who writes the Substack First Rodeo, said.

Many of the founders who recently started Substacks already have large followings on other apps like Instagram and TikTok. But they said the impetus for launching a Subtack in particular was to answer more questions from some of their followers (and customers). 

“I couldn’t keep up with sending individual links to people who followed me,” said Dorsey’s Strachan who frequently gets questions about her daily outfits from her more than 33,000 Instagram followers.

“I get asked a lot of questions about Ghia on Instagram, and the answers don’t always fit on a small slide,” Ghia’s Masarin said. 

Masarin, who has more than 27,000 followers on Instagram, uses her social accounts — and her Substack — to talk about her various non-Ghia interests, which range from travel to cooking to hunting for vintage clothing. But by the nature of what she does, she says that she gets a lot of questions about being a founder. So, she sometimes dedicates certain Substack posts to Ghia-related topics, ranging from how she plans out her week to a discussion about how Ghia developed its latest flavor, berry.

For Masarin, the impetus to launch side projects like a Substack is mostly personal. But she believes it also makes her a better founder. “I am specifically a very creative person, and I need these projects to fuel me,” she said.

Paknad, whose Substack First Rodeo delves into lessons she’s learned from her first startup, said the challenge for founders is that “as your startup gets increasingly complicated and stressful, sometimes you have wrapped up your entire life into it.” At that point, she said, “There is something very attractive about, ‘OK, but what about the self outside of the business?’”

Other founders have a more overt belief that growing their personal followings also helps them grow their businesses, as people grow accustomed to following influencers.

“I just inherently knew as a marketer that people don’t want to follow brands for the most part,” Dianna Cohen, founder of hair-care brand Crown Affair said. Cohen is quick to say that she is not an influencer. Still, a big focus for her has been growing her personal following on channels like Instagram and TikTok (where she has more than 30,000 followers on each), and more recently on Substack, where she writes the newsletter Take Your Time.

On social media, Cohen likes to discuss hair care tips — which ties back to Crown Affair — as well as topics like fashion and mood boarding. She then uses her Substack for bigger deeper dives into these topics. Her most recent Substack post was a guide on how to grow a TikTok following, a topic she said that fellow founders ask her about frequently. 

Perhaps the biggest barrier to more founders starting Substacks is finding the time to do so. Dorsey’s Strachan started her Substack at the beginning of 2023 and estimates that she spends four to six hours a week on it. She said she believes in a “real separation of church and state,” so she only writes it on the weekends so as not to take away from her business.

Strachan said she didn’t have any goals for her Substack starting out, other than to have a place to share links and meet new people. But, it’s clearly hit a nerve with readers, as it’s accumulated thousands of subscribers.

“As a founder, you spend a lot of time looking at Excel spreadsheets or working on financials – you can get far away from the consumer,” she said. 

Thus, she likes that Substack has allowed her to talk to more people. Strachan’s newsletter is described as “an anecdotal Substack about how fashion fits into our daily lives.” In the comments, like on a post about “Old Ralph Lauren,” people will talk about where to find quality vintage clothing or what pieces of clothing they consider to be timeless. 

Anecdotes like these help inform her business, she said, because it gives her valuable insight into what people are buying and why. “There is obviously a massive narrative right now around how expensive things are,” she said.

Similarly, Crown Affair’s Cohen said that one trend she has observed from her social media right now is that “people want high-low.” As an example, on Instagram, she posted a photo of herself visiting one of Crown Affair’s towers in Sephora. In the photo, she was wearing a simple white T-shirt. “Eight people separately DM’d me asking, where is this T-shirt from?” Cohen recalled. “It was like a $20 Uniqlo shirt — that’s stuff that moves.” 

Anecdotes like these, Strachan said, are important. They also can’t be gleaned easily from surveys. 

As a founder, Strachan said, “You don’t want to be disconnected from the real world.” She went on, “What has been really helpful for me in general on Instagram — and on Substack — is to talk to our customers and to feel connected to people that I have never met.” 

What I’m reading 

  • Beauty Independent has a case study on how the deodorant brand Monks got into Erewhon after initially being rejected by the retailer. 
  • The Business of Fashion looks at how acquirers of DTC brands like Baboon to the Moon and Outdoor Voices seek to improve operations while also maintaining the brand’s unique identity. 
  • The Information examines what the acquisition landscape looks like for beauty startups this year. While beauty remains a hot area for investment, investment bankers are skeptical that many deals will get done this year as potential strategic acquirers remain cautious. 

What we’ve covered 

  • Sexual health brand Stix is undergoing a rebrand and says it is profitable after it cut all paid marketing spend starting in October.
  • Womenswear startup M.M. LaFleur and furniture startup Perigold are teaming up to sell each other’s products. The partnership was born after M.M. LaFleur used Perigold’s products to doctorate its stores.
  • Investors and founders sound off on how they are adjusting to the new VC landscape.