Building the World of Alex Danco's Newsletter

Season 3, Episode 13

Maybe it was a subconscious thing or something, but when I wrote the essay on World Building a couple weeks ago, I had clearly already started thinking about the future of this newsletter - even if I hadn’t realized it yet. 

The essay certainly begged a follow-up question, which many of you actually asked me directly (thank you for that) - how do I think about world-building and my own newsletter, and my own presence online? Clearly, I do this because I enjoy it. But I’m not doing this purely for fun; I’m obviously getting something out of it too. This newsletter is how I meet new people, and stay in touch with them, at a way bigger scale and in a much more fun way than conventional networking or social media or anything like that. 

Prior to working at Shopify, this newsletter was obviously part of a fishing expedition to find what I wanted to do next; I think you all appreciated that. But now that I’ve been at Shopify a year, and love it there and plan to stay a very long time, I have to confront the fact that the newsletter should probably evolve. This is based on a few observations:

  1. I am still having a lot of fun doing this. So the option of not doing it any more, wrapping up the weekly newsletter and falling back to occasional random essays isn’t attractive to me. I feel like I’ve built something special, it’s fun for me, and I want to keep it going. 

  2. However, the weekly writing pace isn’t really sustainable anymore; not in its current form anyway. I’ve been allowing myself to skip weeks now and again, but if my brand promise is “you get an essay every week”, then I’m increasingly breaking that promise. 

  3. I feel like my “Hit rate” has stayed pretty good. The essays that hit it, really still hit it. This third year of the newsletter has already had a few certified bangers (the Michael Scott Theory of Social Class; the essay where I made myself the heel of Canadian Tech; even this world building stuff), and I feel like I can still throw heat and have fun doing it. 

  4. However, the numbers don’t lie either. My subscriber list has more or less flatlined in the low 20,000s and my average open rates (the most important metric a newsletter writer cares about) are slowly sinking, from well over 50% in its first two years (that’s good) to like 35% now, which isn’t awful, but the trend is clear. Maybe part of it is that there are so many great newsletters now, compared to when I started out, and many of them you’re paying for, so I get that you’d prioritize them. (I’m not offended in the slightest if you open Matt Levine or Byrne Hobart instead of me; that’s a good call.) It’s time to become something new

Two things are obvious to me as a result. The first one is, the core of the newsletter obviously needs to stick around. So that’s all the themes we talk about on a regular basis, like tech, bubbles, mimesis, scenes, and all of these interesting topics we’ve been exploring. The second thing that’s now obvious, though, is that this newsletter isn’t on its own island. It’s part of a world and it has neighbours. Shopify is obviously one neighbour; it features pretty prominently in the newsletter now and it’s clearly a part of its world. 

So, I think the obvious next step to do with this newsletter is to ask, okay, I’ve now spend 2-3 years building things and adding them to this world. What’s the best way for my little part of the world to start interacting and trading with neighbours? 

Maybe we should start by drawing a map. Here’s what I came up with for a first pass:

The first patch of land I got around to homesteading with this newsletter, and probably the main reason why anyone who signed up in the first year did so, was the Startup Forest. We talked about tech business models and how to think about scarcity, and on the flip side, how to think about abundance. We’ve explored some of the finer points of modern VC, and how startup financing is more of an economic innovation and coordination feat than people today realize. 

The biggest theme we keep coming back to, and which I’m sure will be a mainstay topic of this newsletter for a good long time (and is starting to cross over into Shopify territory) is the whole Debt Is Coming story. As the internet matures, there’s no doubt in my mind that the way we finance innovation is going to evolve as well - and it’s been amazing to get to meet people like Harry who are making it real. This’ll matter a lot for VC-backed startups, but I also think it’ll matter even more for platforms in the long run, including Shopify. 

For most of Season 1, the newsletter mostly stuck to exploring Startup Forest. But then in its second year, I had a lot of fun finding and exploring a new place on the map, which was the Swamp of Scenes. I first got into this topic when I wrote about the social subsidy of angel investing, and how much of the economics of early-stage startup funding depend on social forces and not economic ones. I kicked off Season 2 with Social Capital in Silicon Valley, and since then the power of scenes and social structures has been a recurring theme, from science to software. More on this later. 

The third major territory that I’ve spent time exploring here is the most difficult terrain: the Humanities Mountain Range. This is where I’ve been able to challenge myself the most, with posts that require by far the most work, but also offer the most reward. The very first issue of the newsletter actually started out here, with the Introduction to Girard piece. (And the follow-up two years later.) I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the meaningful relationships I’ve built directly from this newsletter have their origin there. Other notable posts from the Humanities Mountain Range include a few of my absolute favourites: The Audio Revolution, Progress, Postmodernism and the Tech Backlash, and The Freud Moment

Finally, there’s one more big theme that cuts right through all of the other three: Bubbles and Manias River. This river has its origin in the Humanities Mountain Range: what makes people want things? What makes different people suddenly become alike, and what makes them compete with each other? Then it cuts through the swamp of scenes: how do people spontaneously and stably organize themselves around beliefs and goals, however arbitrary and insular they might be? Further downstream, it flows through and irrigates the Startup Forest: how is Silicon Valley like a controlled bubble? 

All of this territory has been really fun to explore, and I’m looking forward to continue homesteading it in this newsletter for a long time. But I’m also looking out farther, towards some neighbouring areas where I bet I’ll be spending more time soon. 

First of all, of course, is Shopify. This is obviously where the vast majority of my creative output goes every week, and there’s so much incredible work to do there that I wouldn’t want it any other way. I am fairly sure that over the next year, I’m going to do more writing about Shopify in public - as a company we’re in the middle of a pretty big storytelling and execution pivot, and I can’t wait to help. So expect a lot of that here going forward; probably more than I would’ve thought tasteful before, when this was strictly speaking my “independent newsletter”. Shopify is where my head is at, most of the time these days; plus, if we’re being totally honest, it’s the most interesting subject matter I could ever get to explore anyway. So there’s that.

Beyond Shopify, in the spare hours I can find to work on other creative things, one place you can expect to find me more is on podcasts.

I’m grateful to have participated in a few different podcasts in the O’Shaughnessy Asset Management Extended Podcast Universe (catch this one on Shopify if you haven’t yet), and I’m excited to settle into something like a recurring rhythm on Jim O’Shaughnessy’s very excellent Infinite Loops. I’ve been on twice so far (the first one we talked about Shopify, SPACs and Status; the second we got into some really fun territory, all about how scenes work.) I expect that Infinite Loops will be a recurring forum - hopefully with some guests, I might add - where we can really dive into some of the fascinating human and social mechanics behind any number of fun topics. 

And finally, another neighbouring territory I bet you’ll be able to find me in more often in the future, is the Interintellect

I’ve only gotten to know the Interintellect recently (and its founder, Anna Gát, who I think some of you know already), but it feels like something I’ve been looking for a long time. If you’re unfamiliar, the Interintellect is an online (and also offline, but strictly online during Covid times) community of people who come together to learn and teach one another really fun and challenging topics - philosophy, science, art, history, finance - through their Salons, which are live, evening-length conversations that anyone can join, although it’s best to come prepared.

I’ve hosted one Salon so far - an introduction to René Girard, which was well-attended and lots of fun. This one is on systems thinking, and the riddle of ordered structure: what makes ordered structures persist, whether it’s biological RNA or city neighbourhoods, in a word defined by ever-increasing entropy? In answering this riddle (they’re not actually in conflict at all, and the answer is profound) over the course of this salon, we’ll learn the basic principles of how to be a good systems thinker, and how to ditch cause-and-effect thinking that holds us back from appreciating complex systems.

It’s going to be on Wednesday, May 26th at 2 pm ET. If you’d like to join, you can register here:

Evolution and Entropy: and introduction to Systems Thinking with Alex Danco | Interintellect

So, for both Infinite Loops and the Interintellect (and, of course, Shopify) think of them as neighbouring territories that I’ll be spending more time writing about and sending word back from, in the next iteration of this franchise. I have no idea what it’ll look like, although I can certainly tell you what my goal is: you already know. It’s just to keep world-building, and create something that’s so interesting and compelling that all of you feel like spending time in it - whether I’m there, or not. 

As far the name of this newsletter? We had two good seasons out of Two Truths and a Take (which I still love, it was just too hard for people to say, and everyone just said ‘Danco’s Newsletter’ anyway, so that’s what it became). But now, given that we’re actually giving the whole brand and promise of this thing a reboot, we probably need a new name too. 

There are two basic principles of branding that I believe. The first one is an old familiar piece of advice that’s very true: a brand is a promise, and a good brand is a promise kept. So think about what promise you can keep; that’s your brand. And the second principle is even simpler: name things what they are.  This isn’t quite a newsletter anymore. It will have newsletter components for sure, but I’d like for it to be a little bit more like a place we can explore, rather than a masthead for content.

In that spirit, I think it’s pretty clear what the name of thing has to be. 

Welcome to Dancoland! 

Believe it or not, Dancoland is a real place! It’s on the Antarctic coast, south of Patagonia. It's named after my long-ago relative Émile Danco, who died on board a Belgian expedition just before the turn of the 20th century. It’s pretty cool, but otherwise would probably go unnoticed by most of you (unless you happened to be headed down to Antarctica for some reason). So I can’t think of a better name to bring forward this spirit of exploration, for this new chapter of the newsletter / extended universe we’re going to get to go explore together. 

I can’t wait to see what’s next. Thanks for making the prequel so much fun. 

Alex

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