I have a bunch of pieces in various states of draft – about how I've been working on my technical skills lately, about handling tech debt, about how to decide between Honeycomb and Datadog – and today instead of finishing any of those I am starting an entirely new one because I find myself giving this bit of advice constantly lately and I need something to attach pointers to.
You should have an e-mail list. Yes, you. Anyone who is reading this right now. I mean it. Stop what you're doing, open a new tab, and go get yourself a website that has an e-mail sign up form.
Do you run a business? Do you want to run business? Do you think you might, someday, maybe, want a business? E-mail list, e-mail list, e-mail list.
And, hey, are you any kind of software professional? I have news: You run a business. The business you sells the professional services of one person and has a very slow sales cycle but I guarantee you that there are people who will want very much to know about it the next time your services are available on the market. They will follow you on Twitter, they will connect with you on LinkedIn, but what they really want is to sign up for your e-mail list, but in order to do that you have to have one.
You don't need to have a newsletter. You don't need to send anything to that list regularly.
Do you build software for fun? Put an e-mail sign up form on your projects. When you publish something new, send an e-mail.
Do you write on the internet? Put an e-mail sign up form on your website. When you publish something new, send an e-mail.
Do you go to conferences? Get a website, put a photograph of yourself on it, write a couple of sentences, put a sign up form. When you meet someone, send them your website. When you're going to be at a conference, send an e-mail.
Yes, you could keep in touch with people through social media, but, look. We've all seen what's happening on Twitter. Mastodon is fine, LinkedIn is fine, but what people who really want to hear from you want is e-mail. They will not lose track of you in a platform shuffle if you have their e-mail address.
And you want to send them e-mails. People read e-mails. They click on links in e-mails. They respond to e-mails. They buy things from e-mails.
How to set up an e-mail list
Now that I've convinced you, we can move on to the technical jibber jabber.
Where should you collect e-mails? What platform should you use? Etc. etc. etc.? Doesn't actually matter. The beauty of e-mail is that you can move later. Export your list to CSV, import it something else. Just pick something.
Don't know what to pick? I think the right choice to start with for most people is Buttondown. It's simple, it's free for small lists and inexpensive for larger lists, it does e-mail and hosting, the editing interface is an absolute delight, and it's run by a real guy named Jason who responds personally to support requests.
The other one I recommend a lot is ConvertKit, especially if what you primarily want is an "internet business card," and you plan on sending occasional e-mails and announcements rather than a newsletter. It makes pretty landing pages, can host and sell digital products, and has a lot of marketing automation tools. It's also bootstrapped – no VC money here! – and is laser focused on small internet entrepreneurs.
I personally use Ghost for most of my e-mails. I've also used Buttondown and ConvertKit but I've been moving more of my work into Ghost over time. The main reason I don't recommend it more highly is that it's not free – you either host it yourself (which takes ongoing work to keep it up-to-date) or pay at least $9 a month. I use it because the $25 a month I pay is "barely noticeable business expense" territory, in addition to e-mail I need a website with like, pages and HTML and header scripts and stuff, and it's got the right blend of automation and flexibility for my needs.
I also use a little bit of Substack, and I don't recommend it for general "I just need an e-mail list" because it's VC-funded so it probably won't be around as long as the others. It also pushes you towards setting up a membership subscription, which I don't think is the right move for most people who are just trying to build a list.
However, Substack is really powerful if you're in a specific category: You're writing a regular (weekly+) newsletter about a clear topic, and you're actively trying to grow your list as fast as possible. In that case you are going to be a great fit for Substack's recommendations feature, and being on Substack will help you pick up subscribers. I'm writing a newsletter there right now called Mastering Neovim, and people started signing up for it before there was even any content up, because they could find it through Substack's search.
Finally, an anti-recommendation. Do not use a static site builder. Do not use Hugo. Do not use Jekyll. Do not write your own system. Static site builders is where online writing goes to die. If you have a newsletter hosted on a static site that you update more than once a year write to me and I will include a link to it here but almost everyone I know who has a static-site-generated website avoids writing because it's such a pain to update to thing.
If you must use a static site generator get started with Buttondown first and plan to migrate later. Then at least you can get some writing done while you're avoiding setting up your website.
Send me your e-mails
Now that you have an e-mail list, I want to be on it. Send me an e-mail at nat @ this website and let me know about it.
And if you'd like to get on my e-mail list, and get more of my particular brand of shout-advice-content, you can sign up for this website here. It's free!