Seven lessons from publishing 100 issues of a weekly UX newsletter

This excerpt originally appeared as part of Issue 100 of the UX Writing Events newsletter on September 12, 2022.

Would you lookie there?! Issue 100! Gotta say, it felt a little ambitious to go with a 3-digit number when I started indexing these issues, but we made it! Just 899 to go until the curse is finally broken.

Anyway, big round numbers and other similar anniversaries are for reflection, yes? So let’s reflect. Here are seven top-of-mind takeaways for me from 2+ years and 100 issues of running this project…

1) You don’t need permission to start something.

There’s a lot of talk about gatekeepers in UX. I’m sure there are some. But I always wonder … what gates, really, around what fields?

I asked permission of none to write my first article about content strategy, to start a meetup in my hometown about content strategy, to host my own office hours, to start my own newsletter. Some of these things cost a little money, yes, and take a little time, yes, so I suppose there’s a little privilege at play compared to someone with literally no time and literally no money. But that’s not most people in our space, not most people who have time to pay attention to and learn UX in the first place. 

Perhaps it seems now, to newcomers, that I’m “allowed” to do things like this newsletter because at some point someone opened some gates for me and I have special access that other people don’t. But come on. Come on! I signed up for a free email account, that came with a free domain name — after being laid off, mind you, and having no stable income — and started a list that curates events that other people are organizing. Where was the gate? Anyone could have done this. This is not rocket science. It was just having an idea and doing the thing and staying committed to the thing. You can have an idea and do a thing, too.

Will your thing succeed? Maybe, maybe not. Not all of my things do.

2) Set your own standards.

Is this newsletter a success? By my standards, yes. But if I believed everything I read online, “only” ~2,500 subscribers after 2 years and 100 issues isn’t much to write home about. And yet, this newsletter has been wildly successful for me, based on my goals in producing it.

Some of those goals were:

  • Stay top of mind in the UX content space despite not working at Brain Traffic anymore and not having access to their lists and audiences. 
  • Help content community organizers keep the fire burning through a very dark time, and get more people to their events. 
  • Have a “thing” I was doing that was mine, that had nothing to do with the pandemic or being laid off, that I could talk about when people asked what I’d been up to lately, in job interviews and beyond. (Not unlike when I took up running while going through a divorce. 😂)
  • Build an audience while buying time to figure out what I really wanted to be doing next. 

I succeeded in all of these goals and more, a couple hours at a time, Sunday or Monday mornings, for 2+ years and 100 issues. 

3) You can figure out what something is while you’re doing it.

I had goals, yes, but not a comprehensive vision when I started this. UX Writing Events started as just an events list (there is still an events list down there, you know that, right?), and I tried to keep it very simple and focused in that regard. There was going to be a website, but then there wasn’t. Then I had a few things to say, and I started saying them, and people seemed to like that part of the newsletter even more. And now that we’ve gone on for 100 issues, I’ve found that the newsletters and the essays still aren’t really the part of this that’s interesting to me, it’s the events and the community around them, and so now it’s going to be something else, even. 

You can figure out what something is while you’re doing it, and change your mind, and keep learning and growing and experimenting. If you don’t change the thing and try new things it’s going to get stale, and stale things become brittle, and then they crumble and die. 

I’ve worked in places that were afraid to try new things, that wanted to make sure every little idea was absolutely foolproof perfect in concept and had a 3-point plan that explained precisely how it was going to generate leads and revenue, and like, my dudes… just try some shit. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. If I’ve been able to build anything it’s because I’m generally not particularly concerned about what it is that I’m building; it will let me know what it is, in time.

4) If you ask people for help or money they might just give it to you.

At some point early on this project started to cost actual money to run, in addition to my time (ballpark: $2,500 monthly labor spent on this 100% free to everyone newsletter). I didn’t want to spend out of pocket to keep it running so I put out a tip jar and asked people to fill it. They did! Not selling a product, not doing rewards and stickers and giveaways, just “Hey I need some money, money please?” So, yeah, thanks friends. Very cool of you. (128 individual supporters and $1,959.00 revenue, all-time, if you’re curious; I’ve almost made back my labor cast on the first month!)

And then other times I’ve needed help to boost an idea, or reply with feedback, or send me thoughts on a sticky problem, and people do that, too. It’s very wonderful.

4) Even people who like and support you will regularly forget that you exist.

One of the least-used touchpoints in my ecosystem is the form to submit new events. Everyone says they will send me stuff, that they mean to, and want to, and then they’ll do it once and forget. Or they’ll do it Monday afternoon right after getting the latest issue. This doesn’t bother me, I just think it’s kind of funny, and an important lesson in self-promotion. You have to promote yourself and your opportunities over and over again, even to people who already know about them.

5) “Spill your guts and hit send” works just fine. 

The writing that has received the best responses has been written off the cuff, often under a bit of pressure. These “Monday” newsletters, as I think of them (written the day I’m meant to send the newsletter) are often urgent rewrites or second takes on some thing I’d tried writing more carefully and earnestly on Sunday morning. But it wasn’t working, so I stop, come back, trash it, dash something off, hit send. And that’s the stuff that people seem to love! So don’t be afraid to just write some shit and send it out.

6) Don’t look at numbers you don’t actually care about.

I turned off tracking a long time ago. I don’t know how many people open this newsletter. I don’t know what links they click on, or how many people click on the links. Mailchimp, like many platforms, has a bunch of numbers and stats and “tips” built in to try to get you to do what everyone else is doing that they think makes them successful. But the kinds of things I would have to do to boost my open rate from 37% to 38% or whatever just weren’t interesting to me. I decided I was comfortable with this newsletter just finding its level. I add more subscribers than I lose, most weeks, and when I write something decent, a few people write back or throw a few bucks in the tip jar. For me, that means this is working, and is all the data I need.

7) You’ll never find your voice if you want everyone to like you.

I get a lot of nice notes from people who feel seen by my writing, who feel a little less lonely and crazy that someone else sees the world the way that they do and is willing to say so. I also get nastygrams from time to time. People trying to police my tone, or police my language, or telling me to think of the children, or to think more carefully about how I’m a role model in this space, or getting offended when I tell them that abortions are great and racists and anti-vaxxers can get fucked.

I am far too anxious and neurotic to claim that I don’t give a fuck. I actually give a lot of fucks. I never like the nastygrams; it’s often a bad day for me. But it comes with the territory, I suppose. Even though it makes me feel bad to get these notes, I know that if I listened to every UX Karen that tried to make me into something I’m not, none of this would work at all. Some people don’t like me when I’m being myself, but no one likes me when I’m trying to be someone I’m not — most importantly, not even me. I’ve said it before and will say it again: All of the worst advice you’ll get in life is people telling you to be less like yourself.

I’m sure I’ve learned other things from doing this project, but, ahem, this is a Monday newsletter, so I’d best hit send before I overthink it 🙂 

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