Substack, the five-year-old newsletter platform that has aggressively positioned itself as a disruptive force in media, has abandoned efforts to raise a Series C round, The New York Times is reporting today. According to its sources, Substack held discussions with potential investors in recent months about raising $75 million to $100 million at a valuation of between $750 million and $1 billion.
Substack, based in San Francisco, was most recently valued at $650 million after closing a $65 million Series B round in March of last year led by earlier investor Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). It had earlier raised a $15.3 million Series A round led by a16z in 2019.
Substack originally launched as a way to turn newsletters into a paid subscription business, inviting anyone with an interest to hop on the platform and start writing for however much they want to charge their readers. Writers were — and still are — encouraged to write for free; those who charge a subscription pay 10% of what they collect to Substack, with Stripe, its payment processor, collecting another 3%.
The company later added support for podcasts and, just this month, it rolled out its own podcast player, along with new moderation tools, leaderboard categories and more. As CEO Chris Best told TechCrunch several years ago, Substack’s goal has always been to allow its users to create their own “personal media empire.”
While that ambition has made Substack a point of fascination for traditional media companies — in addition to the Times, Substack has attracted extensive coverage in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and many others over the years — investors may be wondering whether the business is capable of generating meaningful revenue.
Substack told Axios late last year that the top 10 writers on the platform collectively generate $20 million in annual revenue. According to the Times, Substack separately told investors that it saw revenue of just $9 million last year. (It told the Times directly in a story last month that it has hundreds of thousands of paid newsletters now on the platform.)
That’s not a lot of revenue for a company boasting a $650 million valuation. Substack also faces churn, with some writers leaving the platform owing to Substack’s hands-off content moderation policy or for competing platforms that take a smaller cut. Other writers discover the economics aren’t compelling or simply burn out.
The Times notes that Substack is one of many outfits right now facing new headwinds as investors snap their checkbooks shut amid rising interest rates that have severely dented tech stocks and slowed growth in the U.S. and global economies.
Still, if Substack’s broader fortunes should change, it would be the second high-flying consumer company in a16z’s recent portfolio to have truly captured the public’s imagination, then lost momentum.
Like Substack, the audio-based social network Clubhouse has gathered the bulk of its funding across numerous rounds led by a16z. Like Substack, Clubhouse also dominated the headlines during the pandemic, thanks in part to appearances on the platform by Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and a16z’s high-powered partners themselves. Still, with the worst of COVID seemingly past and those who were once drawn to the service back to socializing in person, Clubhouse has reportedly seen sign-ups plummet.
Andrew Chen, a general partner focused on consumer tech for a16z, led both deals.
He shared his vision for both companies with TechCrunch late last year, saying that each will “light up, vertical by vertical” different categories, from cooking to graphic novels, making them “more powerful and more compelling to a wider number of people.”
Time will tell.
Substack has raised $86 million over three rounds of funding, according to PitchBook. In addition to a16z, it is backed by Fifty Years, Y Combinator and entrepreneur Audrey Gelman, who co-founded the co-working startup The Wing.
Substack declined to comment when reached earlier this afternoon. In the meantime, a spokesperson for the company told The New York Times that the change in the company’s fundraising strategy does not impact its hiring plans.”My comment is www.substack.com/jobs,” she told the outlet.