The Year In Review
Some lessons, goodies and a thank you note
It is the holidays. You could be spending time with your family and resting. I wanted to send you a note on how the year has been for us along with a PDF with most of our paid content as a thank-you for being a part of our readership this year. Download it from the button below.
The note below summarises what we have learned from a year of writing for you and describes how the year has gone for Decentralised.co. In addition, we have included some behind-the-scenes commentary on the most-read pieces in the newsletter.
Feel free to take our articles remix it, make TikTok videos out of it, or spam your colleagues on Slack. Thank you for being a part of the journey in 2023.
A year ago, when I wrote Has Crypto Failed, I was making notes for myself. It was written after a year of fraud had created market turbulence. FTX had filed for bankruptcy a few months after acquiring a former employer. I didn’t know what to do with my life and career. So, I wrote to find answers while taking long walks back home. Little did I know that this would set the stage for a year of writing stories and building alongside founders.
Over the year, we scaled from 3,000 to 15,000 subscribers. We are now read in 143 countries. This year, 250,000 individuals have read Decentralised.co’ content. We rank #25 on Substack’s crypto publications list. These figures are mind-boggling because we are three (and a half) people writing for a small niche.
I want to share some of our learnings from the year, which may provide useful perspectives on writing, life and running a business.
The Creative Process is Humbling.
When you trade (on an exchange), the outcome is clear: You either succeed or fail at making profit. When you build a business, you can say within 12–18 months whether it is a success or not. In writing you have to trust the process for a longer period. While you can concoct the best story in your mind, it may fail to resonate with the audience when it is finally penned down.
There is a fine act of having ‘faith’ in your abilities while being aware of deadlines and the commercial aspects of developing a story.
I have been reading about the writing process of great authors, and a simple thing stands out: The only way to make great art is to make a lot of it. You cannot manufacture a good story on demand, and even if the elements that go into it can be curated, it is unlikely that you can keep doing it consistently without flaws.
You will inevitably burn out if your ego sets ridiculously high standards your work ethic can’t meet. Over the years, I have learned that much of my work is about managing the ‘vibes’.
Once you take off the pressures of wanting virality or validation for everything you write, you can get to the real work – that of finding answers and presenting them in the best way possible as you convert thoughts into words.
You Scale When You Collaborate
I wrote alone on the publication for a few years before going full-time. But the most fun I had was when Sid, Saurabh, and Fongki joined the journey. Saurabh’s market commentaries added objectivity to what had been mostly abstract arguments until then. Fongki changed the look of the website in its entirety.
Having other smart minds to riff off with unlocks layers of complexity to stories that may not occur to you on your own. Collaboration converts the act of creation from a single-player game to a multiplayer game. And the rewards of this game are far more tangible than what you’d get from playing Call of Duty.
Words are like a ray of light that hits the prism of the human mind. When arranged in a certain way, they can inspire action or perhaps fuel a revolution. When you collaborate, you are scaling the permutations and combinations in which words can surface, thereby improving the odds that a particular series of words (a story) will fuel action in an audience.
I think of collaborations as self-serving acts of service. They are acts of service in that countless hours of work must go before a conversation or a bullet point from a third party can become a story. They are self-serving because they are the best way to learn from people smarter than you.
As I write these words, a founder we had previously invested in, written about, and exited is working with us on a long-form around wallets. We have seen him through the full cycle of his previous venture. Investing in and curating a safe space for discussing nascent concepts keeps things intellectually engaging whilst improving the quality of stories we can write.
Aggregating a community of niche users produces exponential returns as it creates permutations and combinations of user interactions that may not be common elsewhere on the web. Over the year, we have seen countless early-stage startups go from 0 to 1 in the community, often without our involvement.
Collaboration, taken to the absolute extreme as a creator, is when your audience members can use your platform to grow themselves.
Authenticity Is a Moat
Every once in a while, certain aspects of writing seem like evident failure: a typo in one of the titles, a wrongly placed image, or a data point that is now outdated. These are often unintended but painful mistakes all creators make. In the early months of our writing, I used to have about 15 minutes of anxiety each time I pressed the Send button. It was such a dreadful process, and I rarely let anyone else on the team do it because I don’t want them to experience it.
It took me about six months to realise that an audience base could be forgiving if you put in your best effort. This is not a new phenomenon. In Extremely Online, author Taylor Lorenz explains that, in the early days of the Web, a huge part of what drove people towards blogs (from conventional media) comprised the broken aspects of individual writing.
Users are forgiving of grammatical mistakes if they are reading content that’s unfiltered, authentic, and relatable.
That does not mean we don’t do editorial processes. We have about five pairs of eyeballs reading through our articles before they go to your inbox. But we understand that errors are a part of the process. What would you rather have as an author – the grammatically perfect draft or the published story with errors? The story that takes longer to think through but inspires, or the one that sticks to a schedule but comes off as spammy?
The ideal state is likely somewhere in between – in letting go of the desire for perfection in pursuit of progress. That brings along with it a sense of vulnerability. When you know you aren't perfect, you judge less and see startups with kinder eyes.
Instead of clarifying that a venture has no product-market fit (a truth most founders often are well aware of), you ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ Instead of wondering who the anonymous lurker in your community is, you try to see how an emergent network from your audience can help fuel their growth as an individual.
Being authentic is a hard choice in an age of the internet that rewards perfection and escapism through filters and endless loops of entertainment. It requires embracing the not-so-perfect aspects of a story, venture, and individual. But doing so unlocks levels of the game that much of the market cannot play.
Jay Z once famously said, ‘I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.’ As a creator, I often think of that statement because it highlights the friction between creating and running a business. You could write from a place of authenticity for niche audiences with the best intentions.
But without revenue, you’d be running a lifestyle and not building something sustainable. Capital brings longevity to creative research efforts – something we are painfully reminded of by the countless crypto-media shops that were acquired or shut down this year.
Having a paid side to the newsletter was a tough call to make. Fewer people read our content, which hurts us. However, it also insulates us from relying on advertisement dollars from businesses with questionable business models whilst keeping us grounded on how much effort goes into creating revenue on the internet. The chart below should summarise how that experiment has been going for us.
We acquired minority stakes through advisory and direct investments in 12 firms in 2023. Some of them are slowly emerging as category leaders. As the portfolio grows, we see it being foundational for our efforts to surfacing the best stories to our readers. The kind of reader we attract has also evolved. Employees of close to 300 firms read our content; around a hundred of these firms are crypto-native venture funds.
Siddharth has been spearheading our efforts in curating the best venture funds in a closed community so we can better help founders in the future whilst unlocking the network effects that come with venture funds and sharing notes on the state of the market. (Use this form to apply to be a part of it)
Naturally, this comes with its share of friction between two sides of the business that feed off each other. There is a fine balance between the investor’s and the writer’s needs – that of our commercials and the narrative we are exploring. Balancing the two sides is an art form we are slowly getting better at.
Our growth this past year would not have been possible without the love and support of many of our peers, be it Gabby from YGG comparing us to Stratechery, Spencer Noon recommending us as a must-read, Haseeb from Dragonfly highlighting our work, or Arthur from Defiance highlighting an article as a mandatory read. We have grown through the love and critique of those we work with.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a story we wrote on Variant’s list of articles they loved from 2023. These gentle nudges of appreciation go a long way in helping us understand where we stand with the quality of our work and the impact it has had.
I want to highlight the names of some of our contributors who have fueled our growth whilst remaining behind the scenes:
Akshay BD from SuperTeam
Krishna from Quantstamp
The crew at Anagram
Colleen Sullivan from Brewan Howard
Jommi, A Table, Gaurang Desai, Aquanow, and Swastik Garg – our most engaged community members
LobsterDAO community members
The countless founders (~450+) who have interacted with us over the year
There is much to look forward to in 2024, and we hope to continue writing, educating, and learning alongside the people who have built us.
Some BTS Notes
To balance our update, I figured it would be good to share notes on what was running in our minds as we wrote some of our most read pieces for the year.
1. On Airdrops
This was a particularly hard story to write because I wanted to capture the story of the individual (Auri) with the backdrop of airdrops. The easy thing to do here would have been to go with on-chain data around how many tokens were dumped. Nevertheless, I wanted to understand the motives and stories of the people involved. In hindsight, it is one of our most-read pieces (possibly) because people relate to people more than they relate to technological trends.
2. The Narrative Wedge
If you write for long enough, at a reasonable frequency, and with the best intentions, the gods may be kind to you. This piece was one where I felt the gods were kind to us. I recall thinking about how I would either write the story that day or see it die because I may not have felt like it is an idea worth pursuing the next day. I wrote it in a single sitting, from 2:00 PM to 4:00 AM.
I was writing from a place of frustration about how essential narratives are for founders. It resonated a lot with investors who were seeing a similar trend and received high praise from several peers I look up to.
3. The New Internet
This piece was the diametric opposite of the narrative edge. Siddharth had spent three months talking to founders and investors about trends in social networks, and I had spent another five weeks perfecting the story. When it went live, however, Siddharth was on a trek without access to the internet. I distinctly recall waiting about four hours after we pressed Send, wondering if someone would call BS on the whole thing.
That’s the thing about writing for an audience: You can put in the time and trust your team, but once you press Publish, you can feel insecure about the gaps in your arguments. It became the foundational piece for a series that we eventually did on data, identity & building context on users.
4. The balance sheet by Saurabh
This was a tough one to ship. When you write about a hot topic, it can always end up on the wrong side because there are always more eyeballs looking to say how wrong you are. With this topic, I knew people would always be pointing fingers and saying that the calculations were wrong, but I wanted to tackle it anyway.
The reasons to write were simple, though. I wanted to bring things related to what was happening with the bankruptcy estate in one place. Then it would make it easier to go and search for individual line items to see the updates. Also, I always learn more when I write. It’s because if I’m not clear, I cannot write a coherent piece. I’ve often found that the best thing I can do is write if I want to learn about something.
5. Mapping the data landscape by Saurabh
As a writer who cannot code, I’ve always found that looking for data in crypto is sometimes expensive, too technical, and almost always time-consuming. If something is more fragmented than liquidity among roll-ups, it is perhaps data in the crypto ecosystem. Studying how data evolved traditionally and seeing similar patterns in crypto data was fascinating.
Understanding how crypto data companies build moats using open-source data that is available to everybody made me realise how important talent, infrastructure, and network effects are for these businesses.
It has been a fun year of learning and writing. On a parting note, I would like to say the one key thing I learned - don’t take yourself too seriously if you write on the internet. You will learn more, have fun and hopefully create something of tremendous value if you don’t get your ego tied up in pointless games. The learnings are the reward. Easier said than done.
Writing for and learning from many of you over the past year has been a privilege. Thank you for being here.
I’ll see you in 2024,