Subscribe to 💌 Tiny Improvements, my weekly newsletter for product builders. It's a single, tiny idea to help you build better products.

Beyond the walled garden: what Spotify and Substack get wrong

My front door is a 10 minute walk from a small, serene park in a city-edge neighborhood.

In the first hour of sunlight every day, the park feels like a sanctuary: birds sing, neighbors take their dogs out for a morning walk, the meandering creek bubbling with life.

It's a slice of heaven less than a mile from the busiest parts of Charlotte, a small-but-growing city that's now nearly a million people strong.

A photo of a sunrise over a grassy hill in a park

On the other side of the park, what was once a quaint bungalow neighborhood on the city's outskirts has had one house after another bulldozed. It's now lined with freshly built mcmansions, built on speculation for suburbanites with deep pockets.

In the past couple months, one build in particular has caught my attention - a huge, swollen brick home built right to the edges of its boundaries. It's located on edge of the park, with its back yard oriented so that the sun rises perfectly through the trees, highlighting the simple wooden footbridge that crosses the creek, built years ago to give homeowners access to the park.

The new home has risen from its foundation quickly, and while I don't typically love the design choices made by home builders in my area, this one really sticks in my craw. Someone made the decision to build an 8 foot fence around the perimeter of the yard - completely obscuring access to the park.

I know someone else's home shouldn't make me this mad - this home will probably sell for close to $2M (if not more). But, to me, the builder has completely lost the plot.

Why would someone buy such a beautiful plot of land and spend their money hiding from it?

Spotify and Substack walled themselves in

This, I feel, is a great metaphor for strategic missteps by companies like Spotify and Substack. Two different products in different spaces, built to take advantage of a huge opportunity – have built very strange walled gardens around their products that sounded like a good idea at first.

Spotify established a huge user base as the de facto music subscription for many people. In the never ending search of growth, they wanted to make their platform the place where everyone goes to listen to podcasts as well.

Rather than build the best podcast player in the world, they bought up podcasts left and right, making them exclusive to Spotify.

For many people, this meant their only choice to listen to their favorite shows was to switch to Spotify.

Does that sound like a great way to build a sticky product? I'll let you decide, but it's safe to say that their $1B Bet on podcasts isn't going well.

In the creator world, newsletter authoring platform Substack was heralded as the author's best friend - they made it easy to write a newsletter and build an audience. It was among the first newsletter tools to promise network-effect growth by letting authors recommend one another's newsletters as a first-party platform feature. They added features for podcasters, as well as some twitter-like features as a response to Twitter's leadership collapse.

Then... they made some gutless decisions around content moderation.

Substack continues to refuse to shut down alt-right, and hyper-conservative newsletters with seriously weak reasoning for their anti-censorship stance:

"...we don't think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away — in fact, it makes it worse."

Ah, cool.

I'm sure you can understand why authors are leaving the platform in droves - after all, one of Substack's value propositions is that they'll recommend other authors' work to help newsletters grow.


Meanwhile, competing product teams see opportunity knocking: Ghost announced that they're adding fediverse features later this year.

Sneak in while the walls are being built

There's a lot to be learned from the decisions companies make about their products once they get really large - these sorts of missteps can opens the door for thoughtfully built and well-timed products. As a builder, do your best to keep an ear to the ground for fissures opening up in the giants' walled gardens.

If you can find a way to build a product that solves a problem for users and takes advantage of a misstep by a competitor, you're in a great spot to grow quickly.

I'm not saying you should wait for a competitor to make a mistake - but if you're paying attention, of course - build your thing with conviction because it's a good idea, but also be ready to move quickly when opportunities arise.

You can be the one to build the footbridge over the creek, and let the sun shine through.

Champagne for my real friends

I thought I'd share some work from people in my network this week. You're going to love these:

Try these out though

Here's a few tools that I think are worth checking out:

A podcast player for note takers

Snipd is a podcast app that automatically transcribes podcasts and lets you take notes from them as "snips". It's a great idea - you may recall a few months back I built a podcast summarizer with AI. I think the gang at Snipd are on to something really special here.

Make storyboards that don't suck

Storytribe an app for creating storyboards using vector images. They have created an immense library of customizable vectors that you can assemble to make some really compelling storyboards for your next product, feature, or presentation.

Ghost is the CMS for creators

I mentioned Ghost above (that's my referral link, btw) - it's a CMS that makes it easy for creators to build a website, write a blog, and publish a newsletter. They're adding some really interesting features this year, and I think they're a great alternative to Substack for authors who want to own their content and their audience. I actually help run 2 different sites with Ghost: APIs You Won't Hate and Primary Focus both use it.

Beyond the walled garden: what Spotify and Substack get wrong

It's natural for big companies to make mistakes - but when they do, it's a great opportunity for smaller companies to build something better.



💌 Tiny Improvements: my weekly newsletter sharing one small yet impactful idea for product builders, startup founders, and indiehackers.

It's your cheat code for building products your customers will love. Learn from the CTO of a Y Combinator-backed startup, with past experience at Google, Stripe, and Microsoft.

    Join the other product builders, and start shipping today!