Ali Abouelatta Discusses Motivation, His Research Process, and Growing his Newsletter First 1000

“Editing your own work is so freaking hard.”

- Ali Abouelatta, First 1000

Ali Abouelatta started the First 1000 newsletter as a way to meet people in the “startup world”. With plans to move to the US from Egypt as part of his Masters program, he figured a startup-focused newsletter was his best bet to get his foot in the door. 

Here are Ali’s thoughts on creating a passion project as a way into the startup ecosystem:

Question/Answers

What were you originally hoping to accomplish when you created First 1000?

Before first 1000, I had a running excel file where I put in YouTube links from interesting founder interviews…ones I should come back to. The thing about this excel sheet was that A LOT of the links there were founder interviews before their companies really took off. Patrick Collison when he was 14, Travis when Uber was in 3 cities…etc..etc

There was something different about those interviews…they were raw, and full of insights (right before the PR people came in). In parallel…I also had a Substack registered for a year and the idea was to interview people who made the switch from big companies to startups and just highlight how that process was like….but I just never really published anything.

I thought it was a cool idea in theory but wasn’t really attracted to it. So one time I was in a startup Slack community answering some questions in the growth channel….and then sort of every third question was about acquiring early customers. I had the excel file of interviews from the early days so I was just using that to answer people’s links about how other companies got customers early on. Then I was like this is what I should write about on my Substack...and haven’t looked back since.

What does your research process look like for each of the deep dives you write?

As for my research process… it usually starts with what I call “absorb phase” that’s from Mon to Thurs.

I am just listening to and reading everything about the company I plan to cover in my downtime while working. I take light notes in Roam. 

On Thurs night I start constructing a timeline of events and see where the big holes are and start doing more targeted research.

Friday I start on the outline and first draft. Then after the first draft I do a little bit of reading of other stuff that has been written about the company on Medium/Substack/..etc I try to leave this till at least I have a full draft ready so it doesn't pollute my thinking and writing process.

Saturdays morning is draft 2. Then as the evening kicks in I start doing the last final edits while watching a movie or something. I try my best not to make it feel like work. Then at around 1-2 am it’s all good to go. I schedule it for 9:19 am on Sunday and go to bed and I sleep like a baby for 9-10 hours.

How do you decide which companies to cover in your newsletter?

Every time someone signs up…I send them an email asking what companies they want me to cover…I have a backlog right now of around 517 different companies….I don’t necessarily pick the most popular one….but I use it as an assist.

What I try to do is cover different strategies each week. One week it’s partnerships. One week it’s referrals. One week it’s PR. Etc. 

So when I find myself doing the same thing for a few weeks…I try to go back to that requests table and pick a company who I know did this one strategy i didn't touch upon at all…and is different than my most recent issues

Which issue has been your favorite to write so far?

My favorite issues to write so far have been:

Roam Research

Growing First 1000

Stripe

Onlyfans

Nike

What was your original goal when starting First 1000? How has this changed/evolved over time?

The “goal” of starting a newsletter was to meet people in the startup world here in the US. I was living in Egypt up until 4 months ago (but I knew I was coming like a year before that because I was doing my Masters here).

Over time that changed to build a distribution channel for startups serving startups. Basically if you think about who reads my newsletter…it’s early stage founders and people working in big tech companies who are going to start a company in a year or two. My goal is to be the best ROI distribution channel for any company/creators who are explicitly serving those early stage founders. 

This is nowhere close to what First 1000 is today…but that’s the goal.

How do you stay motivated when a piece doesn’t seem to connect with your readers as much as previous ones?

I have a notion document literally called “A reminder why you do this”. I have dozens of screenshots there of memorable moments…from writing the newsletter….every now and then I go back to it…and be like …this is it. 

Also seeing your numbers go up really helps with motivation.

Have you ever decided to stop working on a piece after investing hours of time into it? If so, what was the reasoning?

As for if I ever stopped writing a piece…YES…SO MANY TIMES actually…I think I have 8-9 unpublished pieces that I invested 10-15 hours in each. You just know it’s not good enough or there is nothing unique there.

Which newsletters are your favorite to read? (besides from first1000 of course!)

I love Workspaces - it’s actually really light and fun to read and different than a lot of other stuff out there.

I also am a big fan of Packy McCormick’s Not Boring & Lenny Rachitsky’s Lennys Newsletter! These guys are killing it and are always raising the Bar.

Some other really unique newsletters out there that I love:

Growth.Design

Bad Unicorn

chartr

Does your newsletter feel sustainable to you, and is that something you thought about at launch?

It would take me 9.6 years to cover all the company requests I have to date….so I think so yes…There is no shortages of interesting companies.

The thing about GTM or early stage growth is that it is continuously changes. What worked 3 years ago wont work today and what works today wont work tomorrow. A big part of why something works is novelty and as it becomes an industry standard founders start getting more creative with their launches and acquiring those very first users.

What about on a personal/energy level?

Ohhh I am big on Travel…before Covid hit I would travel every 3-4 months to random places. I

take extended breaks from the newsletter where I have 2-3 guest posts in a row every 6 months or so.

It’s really important to be able to switch it off for a little bit every now and then and having a nice little audience makes it easy to find amazing smart people who are willing to takeover for a week.

Which strategies are you thinking about experimenting with next to grow your newsletter?

So right now, I get around 80-100 new signups per day just organically. I think there is a really big opportunity in organic search especially for what I write about that I just never took the time to optimize for and fuel…so that’s next on my plate.

Besides that, I think another big opportunity is Twitter. I haven’t really been that active on Twitter but I plan to spend a lot more time there.

I think thats plenty to try to do right over the next 3-4 months.

Have you done anything to foster community amongst your newsletter readers?

I have not. I think community is really easy to do…and very hard to do right. 

From personal experience, I am part of 7 very niche online communities and I am only kind-of active in one (which has only 60 members). The value of a community diminishes as it grows and most creators end up either ignoring them and let the value evaporate or invest more time/money/energy into running continuously as it grows. That’s not a fight I am willing to endure.

What is biggest challenge first 1000 currently faces?

I think right now it’s mainly time. It was really easy to spend 40-50 hours a week writing one piece during the pandemic but now since I have also been traveling a little bit over the past month has been really challenging. 

Also the bots started creeping in and now I have to spend so much more time doing (boring) fraud detection stuff.

What's been a good source of advice: Content? Your readers? Other writers?

Finding that one person whose entire life revolve around the thing I need help and getting on a 15 min call.

If the internet didn't exist, what would you be doing?

That’s rough! I think would probably be designing those incredibly efficient furniture. Like the tables that turn into chairs and beds that roll up on your wall…etc

THOSE ARE FUN!

How do you balance writing your newsletter with your day job? Do you have any desire to make your newsletter your full-time focus?

So I call First 1000 my weekend job. Most of the work I do there starts on Friday morning and ends late at night on Saturday. 

The research part I do while working or doing other stuff (its mostly just listening to youtube videos).

Going full-time is unfortunately is not a possibility for me due to “visa-related-stuff.” 

If you could hire someone to help you with your newsletter, what would you have them do?

AN EDITOR. I soooo desperately need an editor.

Editing your own work is so freaking hard.