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#23: How Ali grew a newsletter from 0 to 50K subscribers

Story of Ali Abouelatta’s First 1000

The best way to learn and improve your skills is by doing. Our hustler today started his project as a way for him to improve his writing skills. Fast forward two years, the writing side hustle has led to

🤯 55000+ subscribers

🤩 Twitter following of 13K+

😍 Writing guest posts for other popular creators like Lenny Rachitsky

Story of Ali Abouelatta’s First 1000

Ali Abouelatta is an Associate Product Manager at Duolingo and writes a popular newsletter called First 1000 on the side. His newsletter is read and loved by over 50000 people worldwide. His journey of starting it and growing it is fascinating.

Initial failed attempts of starting a side hustle

Ali graduated in 2018 and started his career in a micro-VC firm in Dubai. His work involved:

  • Meeting early-stage founders.

  • Filtering applications.

  • Reviewing pitch decks and understanding how the portfolio companies work.

He got some great learnings into the world of startups and then joined a startup called Breadfast to lead their growth. While working with these companies, Ali tried to build two side projects.

One was a newsletter that would give the users a topic choice and send personalized content. He launched it and got some subscribers, but he soon realized he could not curate and write about many topics. Another project was an app to rent baby clothes. While he worked on it for some time with a friend, eventually, they did not launch it as they did not relate to the problem.

Quest to develop his writing skills

After working for two years, Ali decided to go to the US for a master's degree. He started the applications and gave the GRE examination. His writing score on the exam could have been better. He wanted to improve his writing skills. And the best way was to write and improve every time. He had intrinsic motivation but needed some accountability also.

During the same time, Substack (a newsletter publishing platform) raised a round of funding, and many people started to write on it. Ali was intrigued by it and wanted to give it a try. So he decided to start a newsletter on Substack.

But what will he write about?

He was starting the newsletter for himself. He wanted it to be fun, so he would not stop writing it. So the topic had to be something he loves to talk about and always intrigues him. And that was about how did the famous companies start. He always liked to know the origin story, not just the romanticized part but the actual details. He also sought out what people in startup communities asked the most about these companies and what they wanted to learn about. One thing that repeated the most was how these companies got their first thousand users.

And there, Ali got the name of his newsletter, First 1000. He would share the founding stories of famous companies and what strategies got them their first thousand users. He already had the first six companies he would write about and created the newsletter on Substack in 2020.

His first few subscribers were his close friends. And to get into double digits, he emailed some of the early startup founders he had interacted in the past few years. With about 10+ subscribers, he released the second issue on Slice, a startup that helps independent pizzerias build online businesses. He posted the story on Hackernews and went off to sleep.

When he woke up, his Slice issue was tweeted by Guy Kawasaki, a famous American author and VC. Kawasaki sharing Ali’s writing was a great confidence booster.

It was one of the best moments of my life. This was when I decided that maybe this newsletter thing is something I should take more seriously.

Growing the First 1000

Ali decided that instead of setting huge milestones, he would focus on achieving small achievable goals. Getting six subscribers in a day felt possible, and he started trying different things. He did a Product Hunt launch, posted to Hackernews, did social media posts, wrote cold emails, posted in communities and much more. In 79 days, he got 1000 subscribers, and what worked the best was Tweets by some famous accounts. The founder and corporate account Tweeted his issue on DoNotPay 

By now, Ali had started to understand a lot about growth and realized that most of his subscriber growth came from things out of his control. But now, he wanted to drive growth and decided to try the strategies he would write about.

He started working on these strategies, one of which was creating distribution products. Products that would bring some benefits to the user and make them aware of the newsletter. These mini-products and a sound referral system fueled his growth further.

Continuing to build it as a side hustle

Ali was pursuing his Masters while working on the newsletter. And time management was complex, but for Ali, the newsletter took precedence as he saw this experience opening doors to many opportunities for him. He was known by people he looked up to. He built a network of excellent founders and makers on Twitter and developed his writing and company-building skills.

While working full-time at Duolingo, he continues to grow his newsletter. He had the vision to get to 100K subscribers in five years. He is at 55000 at the start of the third year and will reach his goal soon.

I do not treat the newsletter as a business. For me, it is a fun thing that I get a lot of joy from, and I love learning about the things I write. And that is the beauty of side hustles. You can do them just for yourself without worrying about the user or audience. Take a break if your side hustle starts to feel like a burden. Come back when you feel rejuvenated. Side hustles should fill you with energy and not burn you down.

Ali's advice to anyone starting a side hustle

Hustlers Insights of the Week

Start a side hustle for yourself: Side hustles bring freedom to explore your interests. They allow you an outlet where you can do anything you want without having to achieve goals. You can have fun and rejuvenate yourself with your side hustle. Ali truly enjoys researching and writing about how companies got their first 1000 users. 

Set lofty vision and small goals: Often, we overestimate and set goals that are hard to achieve. Instead, establish a vision and set small goals you can achieve daily. Ali's five-year vision and mindset to have small goals helped him grow his newsletters.

A sandbox to upskill: Side hustles can serve as a sandbox to help you learn new skills or level up in skills. Ali wanted to improve his writing skills, and writing the First 1000 newsletter for three years helped him achieve his upskilling goals.

Resources of the week

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