Jacob O'Bryant
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The Future of Discovery
12 July 2021

The Sample was featured in Recomendo yesterday, and it's taken us from 1,100 to 3,000 subscribers. This would be Big News for any newsletter, but for The Sample, it might be transformative. Let me give some background first, and then I'll explain why.


Today's social media platforms are running into hard problems with content moderation, but beyond that, they've never been a perfect discovery tool. Everyone knows that "if you build it, they will come" isn't true, but why not? If you're a writer, or a game developer, or a musician, or a startup, or anyone else in the business of creating something, why is it that the hardest part is simply getting your audience to know you exist?

I believe that with the right combination of human curation and software, creators and inventors wouldn't need to spend much time on marketing. Instead they could focus on creating, and this human-software system would efficiently connect their work with everyone who would want to see it. Once a creator's work is good enough, their true fans would find them.

The Sample is our first step in that direction. It is a discovery network for newsletters. Authors can submit their newsletters, and we forward them to people who are interested in relevant topics. We try to get authors as many new subscribers as we can.

So, what's so special about 3k subscribers?

The Sample is subject to network effects: the more subscribers and preference data we have, the more effective the product is. The corollary is that getting started is really hard (the "chicken-and-egg" problem). 3k subscribers could very well be enough to make The Sample a great product. There's even more to it, though.

The Sample was designed to be extremely effective at cross-promotion, a common growth strategy for newsletters. Whenever someone submits a newsletter, we send them a special referral link for The Sample. When people subscribe via an author's referral link, we forward their newsletter more often in return.

For example, if an author refers 10 people to The Sample and they each stay for even just 30 days before unsubscribing, then we've made 300 additional newsletter introductions thanks to that author. So we can afford to forward their newsletter to at least 300 other people.

Once we get enough subscribers, The Sample should be able to grow exponentially: authors share referral links, we get more subscribers, some of those people submit newsletters, we send them referral links, and so on. If we can get this chain reaction started, then we should be able to grow fast enough to make a meaningful impact on the future of discovery.

I don't know exactly where the threshold for critical mass is, but we were having some success from the referral program already with fewer than 1,000 subscribers. So getting bumped up to 3,000 almost overnight is exhilarating—and since we have healthy engagement metrics (44% open rate and 16% click-through rate), I'm confident that a lot of these people will like The Sample enough to stay. This whole startup thing might actually work out.

Next week I'll write up our current roadmap (subscribe here to get notified). We're just barely finishing some technical maintenance, and then we're stepping on the gas.

I don't write this newsletter anymore but am too lazy to disable this signup form. Subscribe over at tfos.co instead.