The cofounder and COO of Y Combinator-backed newsletter platform Substack shares the best way to get hired there

Business Insider

  • Hamish McKenzie is the cofounder and COO of growing newsletter platform Substack.
  • McKenzie said the best way to get a job there is to show you’ve thought a lot about writers’ futures.
  • Be prepared to answer questions about your favorite writers and your social media experiences.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Substack is hiring.

The newsletter platform, backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator, has more than 500,000 paying subscribers.

Early in the pandemic, Substack snagged a series of high-profile journalists, who left traditional newsrooms to start their own email newsletters. Accordingly, usage of Substack doubled and revenue increased 60%, Insider previously reported.

To date, the company has about 20 employees. But it needs a lot more manpower to build the future it envisions, in which writers can make a living (and sometimes make bank) by producing valuable, compelling work. 

Substack cofounder and COO Hamish McKenzie, a former journalist, told Insider the company is hiring in every area, including engineering, data, design, product, and marketing. (There are currently eight job openings posted on Substack’s website, including data analyst, special publications lead, and product designer.)

The most important thing any job candidate can display, McKenzie said, is that they “care deeply about the culture of reading and writing.” More specifically, “they’re invested in the idea that there should be a better future for writing,” McKenzie said. “They may be discontent with the status quo when it comes to how writers are supported and how content is produced and shared.”

In other words, technical skills will only get you so far. If you’re applying for a job at Substack, you need to show that you’re committed to the broader mission.

Here’s the best way to do that.

How Substack and its writers make money

Substack is one of several newsletter platforms, including TinyLetter and Patreon, that have boomed in the last year or so.

Substack makes money by taking a 10% cut of the revenue writers generate from their newsletters. Most writers on Substack charge readers to subscribe, though not everyone does.

The company’s goal of building a world where writers are appropriately valued and compensated is noble, and perhaps lofty, at a time when the media industry is faltering. Publishers including Conde Nast, Vice, and Buzzfeed conducted layoffs between 2019 and 2020. The top 10 publishers on Substack generate a total of more than $15 million annually, though these are largely writers who had already built up followings at traditional news organizations.

McKenzie is optimistic. “This is an incredible moment in history,” he said. “We’re seeing that writers’ lives can change.”

How the job application process works

One of the jobs Substack is hiring for is “head of people.” That person will help manage Substack’s hiring and recruiting process.

Right now, the application process generally includes a phone screen, an interview with prospective coworkers, and a final-round interview with the founders. McKenzie said he still has some involvement in the interview process for every new hire.

The job interview is where hiring managers can start to suss out whether the person is passionate about reading and writing — or whether they’re interested in it on a “casual” basis, McKenzie said.

The interview might start with a few seemingly straightforward questions. For example: What are you reading right now? Which writers do you love? Do you subscribe to any Substacks? (There are no right or wrong answers, though presumably it won’t impress anyone if you don’t use the product.)

Other, more abstract prompts include: How do you feel about social media today? What do you wish was better about your online reading experiences?

“They might be interested in the information ecosystem generally,” McKenzie said — how that ecosystem rewards certain types of writers and writing and how “these systems affect how we feed our minds.”

Again, there are no good or bad answers. It’s more about showing that you’ve thought deeply about these issues, and that you want to help talented writers flourish.

Writers aren’t ‘interchangeable units’

Like many other employers, Substack looks for people who will be empathetic to their customers and who want to make life better for them.

One thing Substack doesn’t want to hear job candidates talk about: the “content space.” (Though McKenzie said you won’t be automatically disqualified for using that term.)

That’s because McKenzie steers clear of people who “view writers purely through the prism of being business units.” He added, “We’re not really here to just build a business off the backs of writers and see writers as these interchangeable units in a system.”

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