Jason Mikula Discusses Fintech, Crypto, and Growing his Newsletter Fintech Business Weekly

The single biggest challenge is prioritization and context switching.

- Jason Mikula, Fintech Business Weekly

Jason Mikula originally got his start by writing posts on LinkedIn. He started to get a lot of positive feedback about his POV and analysis. He decided that if he was going to spend time doing it, he would be better served on a platform where I had more control.

And that is when Fintech Business Weekly was born.

Here are Jason’s thoughts on leaving the comfort of a full-time job to pursue working independently:

Question/Answers

From start to finish, what does your process for creating an edition of Fintech Business Weekly look like?

The process of drafting an issue of Fintech Business Weekly can vary quite dramatically, to be honest.

I would break it down into two categories: (a) news analysis vs. (b) original reporting

(a) News analysis is pretty straight forward. Over the course of the week, I consume a truly ungodly amount of banking, regulatory, crypto, fintech, and finance news. Mostly in written format via email alerts/subscriptions, but also from Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, podcasts etc.

I track the stories I find most interesting / relevant to my audience in a Google doc, and (hopefully) Friday pick my top several where I think I can add additional context, insight, and analysis.

(b) The "original reporting" stories are quite a bit more intensive. Those could stem from a personal experience (like when I applied for a mortgage in the Netherlands), or a specific topic/trend/question I'm interested in. For those, I often conduct original research and reach out to industry contacts or companies to interview, ask questions, refine my thinking etc.

Either way, the last steps are actually putting the stories into the email client (Substack for me), checking layout/readability, proofreading a zillion times, and hitting send (hopefully on time)

If you're open to sharing, how large is your audience currently? What strategies have/haven't worked for you to grow it?

It's not huge (eg, not 10s of thousands of subscribers), but what I have found is that it is comprised of high value senior leaders & decision makers - both at startups/fintechs, established banks, venture capital/private equity, and other media outlets.

I've also noticed that in addition to the subscriber base, depending on the topic, certain issues will get a LOT more views from web vs. email - from being shared on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. For instance, the issues on Buy Now, Pay Later have performed very well across social media, driving lots of people to the web version, and in turn driving new subscribers.

Some strategies that have worked well to generate new subscribers:

-Collaborations with others. I've done a number of interviews with banking/fintech leaders; they (and their companies) tend to share and promote those, which helps to reach new audiences. Collaborations with other writers - either contributing to their newsletters or in shared projects, like Fintech Nerd Collective, have also helped drive new subs.

-Serving as a source for others. Because of my work on Fintech Biz Weekly, I've had outreach from publications like Quartz, Vox, Propublica, Forbes etc. While these don't always drive huge numbers of new subs (at least that I can track), they help reinforce my reputation as a knowledgeable thought leader.

-Clubhouse, podcasts, conferences: these have been less successful at building subscribers (again, based on direct tracking) - though I enjoy doing them 

-Posting on places like Hacker News etc. - unless you invest the time to build a network & social capital, just posting isn't too helpful. I've invested time building on Twitter and LinkedIn, and, especially at the beginning, that helped drive a lot of early subscribers.

Writing about/domain expertise in foreign markets is a HUGE differentiator; however, there are challenges being the “outsider” in your local market + figuring out how to communicate local info/insight to your audience who lives outside of that region. How do you reconcile those two aspects and what are some of your tactics for communicating to a global audience?

There is a huge advantage in being able to EXPERIENCE a market first hand, rather than just research, read about it etc.

This is true even in your 'home' market actually - eg, I've never gone through the mortgage+home buying process in the US, and it is one thing to read or even interview people about it vs. understand, first-hand what that process looks & feels like.

Having lived in the UK and now in the Netherlands certainly has provided a number of local experiences and cultural attitudes that contrast with the US. I think in trying to relay these, it is important to remember your audience probably lacks the context YOU have, and to build that context into the story you're writing. It's also important to be culturally sensitive to your adopted market.

Even living in the Netherlands, since most of my non-newsletter work is in the US, I realize in writing this response that more often than not, my frame of reference is still the United States - the topics I select and how I write about them assume a certain level of knowledge of that market & how it works.

What originally compelled you to start your newsletter?

Originally, I started writing posts on LinkedIn, just as status updates. I started to get a lot of positive feedback (messages on LI and email), about my POV and analysis. I decided that, if I was going to spend time doing it, I would be better served on a platform where I had more control, and migrated to Substack.

Originally it was mostly a "hobby," though I was able to maintain a very consistent posting schedule of once a week. As the audience and visibility grew, I was able to take on some advertisers and it started driving more advising & consulting opportunities, so there has been a bit of a "fly wheel" effect for my overall 'business' / career.

When I worked at a single company on an FTE basis, particularly in financial services, it was difficult or impossible to have my own public facing 'voice.' Working independently (freelance / advising / consulting) has given me a lot more freedom to express my POV without fear of it blowing back on my from my employer.

How did you make the decision to leave your work on a single company to pursue working independently full-time?

To some extent, the decision was made for me.

My partner relocated to the Netherlands for work, and after about a year, I followed. The prospects for me locally weren't incredibly appealing vs. working remotely for US or UK companies.

What differences do you see in attitudes towards crypto between the US and the Netherlands (and Europe in general)? Interested in regulatory differences and retail investor attitudes.

I'm actually not super qualified to answer this one! Living here has given me a good point of view on a consumer's experience of the banking sector - current account, lending/credit, mortgage/home buying, but I actually don't have any first-hand experience nor have I done much research on crypto here.

The biggest cultural difference I notice here is a general aversion to debt -- generally, using debt to finance consumption (credit cards, personal loans, BNPL) is far less common here than in US/UK.

I suspect that attitudes and regulations toward crypto vary significantly across the EU27 -- it's not as unified of a market as folks sometimes think it is.

What's the rabbit hole that you had the most fun falling down while doing research for your newsletter?

Hmm, I think my favorite involved a good amount of amateur detective work and legal research, two of my favorite things.

Prior to that, I think I had the most fun falling down the crypto rabbithole. It is/was a sector of fintech that I honestly hadn't paid a lot of attention to during my 10+ years working in "traditional finance," always kind of assuming it was a fad/scam/impractical/regular people didn't/wouldn't care about it.

But particularly with the surge of interest during COVID and lockdowns, I started reading more and more about it (and listening to some great podcasts from Bloomberg Oddlots), which ultimately culminated in trying & failing to make my own cryptocurrency and settling for minting my own crypto-token.

Along the way I had a chance to talk to a lot of folks involved in the space with varying POVs and learn from them, which is my favorite part of these kinds of projects.

What have been the most challenging parts of working on your newsletter (or just independently in general) so far?

The single biggest challenge is prioritization and context switching.

The newsletter is maybe 15-20% of my time, depending on the week; then I also have 3 active and ongoing client projects, and also active in angel investing and helping connect startups with early stage equity & debt capital.

While these activities are mutually reinforcing -- the newsletter especially helps drive consulting opportunities and deal flow for investing -- prioritization can definitely become a challenge.

It can be especially hard to decide how to prioritize activities that have a low likelihood of a large payoff, or when the benefit is far in the future vs. immediate pressing needs, emails, finding advertisers, chasing invoices etc.

Are there any newsletters or other writers you point to as having a big influence on your work?

Definitely.

I am a big fan of Substack as a medium for practitioner-writers to share their craft.

The fintech/banking community has a number of really talented people who inform my thinking and inspire me, including:

Marc Rubinstein of Net Interest newsletter Lex Sokolin of Fintech Blueprint newsletter & Consensys Ron Shevlin of Cornerstone & writes at Forbes Alex Johnson of Cornerstone & Fintech Takes newsletter Packy McCormick of Not Boring newsletter (who launched his own micro VC fund tied to his newsletter!) The Generalist Aika Ussenova's newsletter Frank Rotman of QED's twitter threads Podcasts including Wharton Fintech, Oddlots, Breaking Banks, etc. Crypto sites/newsletters The Block, Protocol

and many I'm surely forgetting!

Would you consider building a community (online or off) to connect your readers?

I have thought about this, but probably not at the moment.

For me, the thought process is about what role the newsletter plays in my wider business/career.

Initially, when I started the newsletter, my though was that it WAS the business.

Grow it to scale, add a paid subscriber option, a build a value add ecosystem around that.

However, as time went on, and more/different opportunities came up, I realized that may not be the best use of my time.

Also, there are LOTS of great communities that exist across a number of platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, AngelList. I didn't have a clear idea what my differentiator would be.

So, for the moment, no specific plan to build my own community around the newsletter, though I actively participate in many other communities.

Which are some of your favorites to participate in?

Fellow fintech people, Nik Milanovic and Simon Taylor, helped organize a group called Fintech Nerd Collective, where each month a diverse set of fintech/banking people all offer a perspective on the same question. 

There are also a number of slack communities I participate in: Finnovation, focused on fintech/banking/startups, and Socially Financed, which is an angel investing syndicate.

How do you actively try to grow your newsletter subscriber base? What has/hasn't worked so far?

At the beginning, I was more concerned with growing the subscriber count. I had a sense of, if I'm spending the time writing it, I want to make sure I'm hitting a certain critical mass.

As I hit a critical mass, in some ways doing the newsletter got easier - I get all sorts of PR pitches, including offering access to CEOs, founders, VCs, etc; I get unsolicited requests for sponsorship/advertising etc.

Now, I will still try to be smart about opportunities to grow subscribers, but I'm not overly obsessed with that as a KPI.

Do you do anything to track reader "happiness?" other than open/click rates? (ex. directly asking them for feedback on pieces?)

I've debated including a per issue feedback mechanism, but have declined to do so, so far. Maybe it's a bit selfish, but I think part of the reason the newsletter has been successful is because I'm passionate about what I'm writing about, and perhaps I'm a bit afraid to bend what or how I write based on reader feedback?

I do monitor open rates (avg 40-50%) and CTR on links within the content (avg 10-15%) to understand if certain issues/topics dramatically over or underperform.

If I were optimizing to the stats, I guess I would write about buy now, pay later every week 

I actually actively try to AVOID writing to the hottest trend, as a tactic to stand out.

If there are 10 newsletters this week writing about Square/Afterpay's acquisition, and I skip that to write about something else, I'm more likely to add value to my reader.

That's a lot of newsletters! When do you make time to read all of them? Do you have a process for queueing up/reading them?

So, I slowly signed up for these overtime, all with my "real" primary email.

Eventually this became totally unmanageable, because other important work or personal stuff was mixed in with a zillion newsletter emails .

I set up a separate "pubs & subs" email address and transferred everything over to that, which helped restore my sanity.

I don't read all of them - especially some of the sites that send daily. I didn't even include major news pubs I get (WSJ, Bloomberg, NYT, etc).

I try to scan major business news daily; and the Substack writers I mentioned, most are weekly, which is a manageable cadence for me to keep up with.

What does your morning routine look like?

Haha, do I have to answer this honestly?

I usually get up around 7:00am and have a cup of coffee (or two) before I take my dog for a walk 

(usually he's in my avatar, I should fix that....)

Then, scan my email to plan my day & prioritize any client-oriented work.

I publish my newsletter on Sunday, which gives me flexibility to focus on client & deal flow during the week and write the newsletter on Saturday and Sunday (if need be).

Also, I'm 6 hours ahead of US east coast, so I'm usually able to do very focused research, analysis, writing etc. (client or newsletter) in the AM, and any meetings or calls starting at 3:00p.

How do you balance experimentation in your newsletter vs. sticking with what's already working?

I'll admit, I found a pretty reliable format / formula that was also fairly low stress for me in doing news+analysis. I had a clear process and value add, and readers seemed to like it and, by being consistent, would know what to expect.

That said, there are plenty of areas I want to explore outside of "the headlines." This is always a risk, because sometimes these "originally reporting" projects have become VERY time consuming -- taking easily 4-5x or more of a typical newsletter - and it's hard to predict if they'll be any "better" (wider readership/stronger engagement) than a "standard" issue.

That said, I firmly believe if I'm focusing on topics I'm interested in, passionate about, doing diligent research, and delivering it in a way that is understandable (and hopefully enjoyable) it will resonate.

Also, deviating from "standard format" should help to expand reach by covering topics/ideas that appeal to a new or different audience.

Are there any topics that you find particularly interesting that there aren't getting enough attention?

The first thought that comes to mind is on-the-ground insight and analysis in developing countries.

I would love to read the kinds of newsletters I mentioned above, but analyzing what's going on in Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Indonesia etc.

From a fintech/banking perspective & a VC/investing perspective.

There are obvious language barriers (and I should admit, I have done a deep dive to see what might be out there), but my impression is that much of the internet/substack media is mostly focused on US, Canada, UK, & western Europe.