The Substack Podcast

The Substack Podcast ∙ Thursday July 02, 2020 ∙ duration: 57:47

Substack Podcast #017: Psychedelics with Zach Haigney

We spoke with Zach Haigney of The Trip Report, a newsletter covering the business, policy, and impact of psychedelics.

With a background in clinical research and acupuncture, Zach has closely followed the psychedelics industry for years. As the topic started to gain momentum, he was inspired to write about it. Zach covers not just the business and policy landscape, but also the science behind psychedelics and their long-term cultural impact. These diverse focus areas have allowed him to gain a variety of readers, from psychedelic enthusiasts to investors, researchers, and clinicians who are building the emerging psychedelics ecosystem.

We talked to Zach about why he’s excited about the psychedelics industry, his early days of writing his newsletter and building his audience, and why he believes independent publishing is so important.

Links

The Trip Report, Zach’s newsletter

Zach on Twitter

Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization that has been studying psychedelics since 1986

How to Change Your Mind, a book by Michael Pollan about the science of psychedelics

60 Minutes, an episode on how researchers experiment with psychedelics to treat addiction, depression and anxiety

Psychedelics Today, a podcast on how psychedelics relate to human potential and healing

Highlights

(10:47) Why psychedelics are a hot topic right now 

(21:55) Why Zach believes independent publishing is important 

(27:40) The Trip Report’s community of readers and subscribers

(36:42) How Zach grew his newsletter list, despite not having a preexisting audience or social media following

(41:59) How Zach powered through writing in the early days and learned from other newsletter writers 

(47:12) Why Zach decided to start a paid newsletter

On social media:

Social media is a weird place. I don't know how to navigate it. I feel much more comfortable in the confines of a newsletter. The medium of the newsletter, where you're going to somebody's email is really ... it makes sense to me. I get it and I love it.

On imposter syndrome:

If you can use imposter syndrome when you're writing your newsletter, it's a great tool because it forces you to think about what you don't know, and use that to flesh out the questions of what you don't yet understand. That's great fodder for, at least, what I'm trying to do.

Transcript

Nadia (00:42):

First question, which I'm sure a lot of people ask you, is how did you start writing about psychedelics?

Zach (00:50):

I've been watching the development of a few of the organizations that have been funding the science. There's been some research over the last 20 odd years or so of really small studies of looking at psychedelics for things like depression and cancer-related anxiety and some other indications. They're really impressive results for really challenging conditions. I've been watching this and watching it grow and I felt I missed the boat of a career of being involved in this space. I knew I wasn't going to go back to school to be a scientist or I didn't quite know how to get in. I started writing about it. Here we are.

Nadia (01:36):

Love it. I mean, it seems like you have been involved or in and around both Eastern and Western medicine and that you have an ongoing interest in the human body. I guess psychedelics helps bridge that gap.

Zach (01:50):

I spent my first stint in a career in clinical research right out of college. I did HIV and Hep C clinical trials. I managed what's called an expanded access program in phase two pharmacokinetic studies. That was really cool. I was planning to go to medical school and be a doctor. Just through whatever circumstances, I decided, at some point, to pursue acupuncture and Chinese medicine. I went to acupuncture school. After that, I did have a brief stint in Silicon Valley. That was a huge embarrassing failure.

Nadia (02:30):

Yeah. Been there.

Zach (02:32):

But yeah. I've been working with patients primarily for conditions like chronic musculoskeletal pain for the last five or six years. My research into the workings of the nervous system and pain brought me back into understanding psychedelics from a scientific perspective. It's really interesting. I thought I had this audacious idea that I might be able to offer some insight in that. Because I think that there's a lot of overlap and a lot of similarities, psychedelic as tools for spiritual development and as medicines goes back thousands of years across cultures. There's some parallels between that and Chinese medicine that I'm really interested in and I've just started to explore in the Trip Report.

Nadia (03:33):

Where do you see psychedelics fitting in? Since you've been around both clinical research and Chinese medicine, is there an ideal, I guess, in terms of whether you would like it to be taken into one of those specific disciplines or how you would like the world to see and treat psychedelics?

Zach (03:52):

Well, that's the $64 million question. What I've been thinking about is I'm covering the news that's coming through, especially in the business and the policy side of psychedelics. But I'm also trying to generate, just collect themes or concepts or ideas. One of the main concepts that we're grappling with or thinking about or communicating about is the different ways that this grows. We have what's happened recently in Oakland and Denver where there's been a decriminalization or really a deprioritization of psilocybin in Denver, and then entheogenic plants or things like Ayahuasca, POD ... or maybe not POD ... psilocybin in Oakland. That's one of these vehicles, so to speak of broadening access.

Zach (04:54):

On the other end of the spectrum is the FDA route. There's a few companies and nonprofits that are developing pharmaceutical grade psychedelics for prescription use. That's this really interesting area where there's going to be tradeoffs and pros and cons to all of these different means of changing policy and stuff like that. The way I'm thinking about it is there's two ... My perspective is I like decriminalization. Portugal has been this model for drug reform, where they've decriminalized all drug use. You're not going to go to jail for possession or intoxication, perhaps, maybe but drug possession has been completely decriminalized. You have this opportunity to rehab people rather than put them in prison.

Zach (06:04):

Anyway, the opportunity, I think, to conduct psychedelic assisted therapy, or guide, or journeys in a nonmedical context I would really love to see. That's where it might resemble more like a Chinese medicine and acupuncture approach. On the other end of the spectrum is the opportunity for the FDA to say, "The science looks great. Let's approve this as pharmaceutical grade drugs." That would then be delivered in a more conventional medical setting. I think it's going to take some time for these different options to grow and to blossom. But I'm hoping that there's a diversification and some diversity within the ways that people are able to access and use them.

Nadia (07:02):

It's simple. But there's this toeing of the line of wanting to frame it in medical terms to establish legitimacy, while also not doing a disservice to the nature of psychedelics, which inherently does have this spiritual aspect to it that a lot of people find very fulfilling. Are there learnings from what's happened with cannabis research, which is ... I’m just like a casual connoisseur of information in both these realms, but it seems it's a little bit further ahead. Is there anything that parallels what's happening in cannabis with psychedelic?

Zach (07:40):

From the science perspective, the body of literature in psychedelics is much larger and more expansive than we have for cannabis. That has to do with issues around funding and regulation and access to that scientist can get access to cannabis. It's a really weird, bizarre thing where they can only get it from a university that's growing in Alabama or Arkansas or something. Whereas psychedelics, it hasn't had, for whatever reasons, the capacity to manufacture it and create pharmaceutical grade psilocybin or LSD or DMT. In a bizarre...it hasn't been as difficult. There's been more research.

Zach (08:27):

On the other hand, I would say the patterns of use in cannabis are way different than they are in psychedelics. Microdosing of LSD and psilocybin is a little bit more how cannabis is used. But I would say that there's some overlap. These are Schedule 1 illegal substances that are moving through policy and science and reform. In that sense, psychedelics are somewhere between 5 and 10 years behind cannabis and marijuana.

Zach (09:02):

The predominant business model in cannabis has been as a consumer packaged good. You go to a store, cannabis store and you take some home and whatever. It's more like coffee than it is a pharmaceutical drug. Whereas psychedelics, what's being proposed by the FDA would be ... a same-day hospital visit where you go in for an extended period of time and then leave at the end of the day to a specialized clinic. They're categorically different in that sense.

Zach (09:36):

What's interesting is that Oregon has a state measure that is going to be on the ballot, presumably in November, called the Psilocybin Services Initiative, where they're creating a medical psilocybin system where there's going to be infrastructure and regulation around the manufacture and the sale, but that will go to a clinic. The access to natural mushrooms or whatever the patient decides would be through a clinic setting. That's really interesting. It parallels early days of medical marijuana in California, with the exception of the delivery model. There's a ton of overlap. There's a ton of differences. A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to figure out and tease apart the similarities and differences.

Nadia (10:28):

You’ve been alluding to this as you've been talking, but can you tell us a little bit just about why psychedelics are so interesting right now and what's changed recently in terms of policy and research? Maybe a useful exercise would be: what would it have been like writing a newsletter about psychedelics, say, 10 years ago versus now? Why is now an interesting time?

Zach (10:47):

Yeah, that's a good question. I would say the ... There's an organization called MAPS, which stands for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. Studies or science? I think it's studies. They've been around since 1986. They have been doing the slow plodding policy work and scientific work to bring us to where we are, so to speak, them and others. There's a couple other groups, the Heffter Research group.

Zach (11:24):

But the prohibition of psychedelics, I think it was in '71 the schedule ... the Nixon administration just caught wind of Timothy Leary, and the hippies, and got really afraid. That was in the early '70s. There was a ton of research that had been done up until that point, mainly in psychiatry around addiction, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, those kinds of things. It was really promising.

Zach (12:00):

The scientists in the 2000s, early 2000s had to start from scratch. Scientists changed dramatically. The tools available changed dramatically. There's been a recapitulation back to two or three generations ago of building the scientific body of work. One of those projects has been spearheaded by MAPS, which is MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Zach (12:36):

They're in what's called the phase three of the FDA approval process where they're doing large scale studies on patients with PTSD to show efficacy and that it works. It's the final stage. There's a few other companies and nonprofits that are shortly behind them. It's like in the FDA approval process, it's a long grind. We're in the last year and a half to maybe two years with the first wave of psychedelics that will be approved. That definitely has something to do with it.

Zach (13:25):

Michael Pollan's book, How to Change Your Mind, was definitely a watershed moment because he represented "respectable culture" commenting on the benefits and his experience with psychedelics. That was definitely a ... They coincided, those two streams. I think the aftermath of that, which I think was published in maybe 2018. There's just been a huge surge. And then cannabis, the cannabis is the next wave of cannabis, so to speak, which some of us have some issues with that phrasing. But that's what it is essentially. I'd say those three things have combined into this perfect storm of, okay, we're in this period of time now where there's a lot of hype, there's a lot of cultural and media exposure to this new way of looking at psychedelics. It's just gaining momentum, and fomenting excitement.

Nadia (14:32):

It's interesting you bring up the Michael Pollan book that you feel that was, in my mind, just as an outsider watching it, it felt like the moment where this thing crossed over from being ... I guess, I would have expected the types of people I would want to follow along on psychedelics news, are people that are using it themselves, or have some deep personal interest in it, and it's this hush, hush. It felt Michael Pollan using his social capital to shed light on this topic made it suddenly then okay to talk to people about it and not have this fear around, “Do I look like I'm a weirdo or something if I talk about this thing?”

Zach (15:13):

Totally. I think there was also the ... I lived in San Francisco from 2005 until 2012. Whenever I go back to visit, it feels like a very different place. But one of the things I would say is, more kids or people that would have gone into other industries ended up in the Bay Area because of the rise of the technology industry. A lot of them then ended up going to Burning Man. That phenomena, I think, exposed a lot of people to just the expansion of the tech sector, exposed people to Burning Man, and Burning Man exposes people to psychedelics. It's something like that.

Nadia (16:02):

Almost helps normalize it a little bit of ...

Zach (16:03):

Yeah.

Nadia (16:04):

Yeah. A shared experience, shared cultural reference point that people can talk about in the Bay Area.

Zach (16:10):

Totally. Tim Ferriss is a major person that people know and he has talked about it in a few different instances on his podcast. There's a physician by the name of Peter Attia, who's got a great podcast. It's very informative, super high level. But his first episode was with Tim Ferriss, and they were talking about, essentially, the utility of psychedelics for a lot of these conditions. It hit an inflection point through various things. Here we are.

Nadia (16:53):

Yeah. I mean, it feels there's been this increase in the number of people who are writing about psychedelics. I can think of a couple different newsletters starting to cover this topic and you're starting to mention some names here. Can you paint a picture for us of just who or what else is out there in terms of trusted information sources around these emerging topics and where the Trip Report fits in?

Zach (17:12):

The key insight that I had or the thought that I had that gave me the thought that to start doing this was like, I thought the science is well covered by places like MAPS, the Heffter Institute, the cultural and the indigenous use, the spiritual uses is covered well by places like the ... one of the main organizations is a group called Chacruna Institute. They're a non-profit. They have a newsletter. They have a conference. They're well respected and a guiding voice into space.

Zach (17:57):

I thought there was this burgeoning industry forming here. It's going to be a really interesting nexus of consciousness, whatever that means to people, spirituality, neuroscience, healthcare, clinical research, capitalism, business startups, pharmaceutical industry. It was just this ... I mean, endlessly fascinating topics in their own right are all converging in this area.

Zach (18:39):

I thought there wasn't much in the way of coverage of what are the businesses forming in this space? What are the strategies? What are the plans? Are they going to be tackling decriminalization? Are they hoping for decriminalization that they can sell it, mushrooms in a market, in the way that we do with cannabis? Is it going to be strictly an FDA-approved route?

Zach (19:08):

There's all these questions and businesses forming about it. I thought it would just be an interesting way to 1) have an audience that would read. Because I started with the idea of like, I want to be like the Stratechery of psychedelics. That was the key insight. I thought that there was an opportunity to do that. I just wanted to explore and learn and use it as a self-edification tool to figure out what companies were trying to do.

Zach (19:42):

There's a handful of other peoples that are looking at, that are gearing their publications towards, what I would call day traders or people who are solely interested in the investment potential, because there's a handful of companies that are traded publicly up in Canada. I try to position the Trip Report. I guess it's constantly changing, which is a challenging thing. But as this people who are trying to build the long-term ecosystem. So it touches on news announcements and stuff like that from different companies. But I'm really interested in what are the long-term forces shaping the space, and what are the questions that we need to answer, and that kind of thing.

Zach (20:36):

From the more conventional vices consistently writing about it, more and more pieces are showing up in places like Fortune and Forbes. It's slowly growing into this space of more and more coverage. I mean, 60 Minutes had a special on psychedelics that aired last summer, again in October where they talked to researchers and participants in the cancer for anxiety trial. Yeah. Those are the other areas where news is getting covered, I'd say. My goal is to, I don't know, carve out this weird business policy, opinion analysis type of space. Because I'm just figuring it out as I go.

Nadia (21:36):

I kind of think about this interplay between independent newsletters, news sources, publications, and then the more traditional media that you're referencing. What do you think that independent publications can do for this space and psychedelics that traditional media can or couldn't?

Zach (21:55):

I think that one of the founding theses of Substack is a reader supported publication. Journalism, media has jumped the shark chasing clicks and selling ads and stuff like that. I just was really attracted to that. I also sent emails to publications, if they would take any of my writing and I never heard back from everybody. I was like, "Okay, I'll start my own."

Zach (22:26):

I don't know how to answer that question. I think what I'm trying to do is cater to people who are invested in this either because they work for companies that are forming. They are activists and advocates in some capacity. They have a personal investment in psychedelics. It's almost like a B2B with a ... what I'm calling B to fanatical C. People are really invested in this space. Even if they're not professionally invested in it, if that makes sense. That was an insight that I had that I thought this could work. This model could work.

Zach (23:20):

I don't know. There's a handful of podcasts. Psychedelics Today does a good podcast. Those guys have been at it for a while, four or five years. They have a different approach where they’re, I believe, I’m not sure what lineage they're a part of. But there's a transhumanist or, yeah, I guess, interpersonal psychology or transhuman psychology schools and fields that they have worked on. They're coming from that perspective, and they offer classes and stuff like that as a monetization tool.

Zach (23:54):

I don't see anybody else doing the "Substack model." But in terms of ... if you're writing for the reader, it changes the calculus instead of ... if you have to write to satisfy an advertiser or something like that.

Nadia (24:20):

I was asking just because I think the opportunity I'm seeing is for ... Substack definitely attracts a lot of folks that are focused on some particular niche or community. It feels almost like if I were trying to get my news on a topic that is maybe not super well understood yet, I would want to hear from people that are really deeply immersed in it. Yes, it might be nice every once in a while to get the 60 Minutes special and I can share that with my friends, or whatever. But I don't know that...they're not going to really have that same love, I guess, that this research and reporting.

Nadia (25:03):

There's some mental Venn diagram ahead, I guess, of topics that are rapidly developing and then topics that are not well understood. There's this really great opportunity to be a curator and a go-to person in that space where, yeah, if you're writing about a topic and tons of people are getting interested and not many people know about it, being the dedicated go-to person in that space is really valuable.

Zach (25:28):

Totally.

Nadia (25:29):

Something from your about page, it always sticks in my head. You said something about like, "Don't destroy your dopamine system looking for the light. Let me destroy mine on your behalf.” and I just feel that really speaks of the value of curators for these topics.

Zach (25:45):

Yeah. That's a good way of framing it. One of the things that is a constant, I don't want to say struggle, but an interesting thing to think about is what level of knowledge am I assuming of the readers and how much explaining needs to go into something? Which is just inherently I don't think there's ever going to be a definite answer to that question, but it's something to use for what I'm calling the Trip Report Pro, which is the paid subscribers, which goes out on Monday and Friday. It's a little bit more ... or maybe they're all conversational, but it assumes a little bit more knowledge, I think, I try, than the Wednesday post, which goes out to everybody.

Zach (26:35):

But yeah. Also that idea between curation and analysis and capture of different ... whether it's an article that was written or news event or topic, I mean, that's something that I'm constantly retooling and rethinking, and it's virtually different for every time I sit down to write. But yeah, I agree. I don't think I would be able to jump around from different industries or different topics and do it as frequently, for sure. Like diving into something that I've never learned about for two days to publish on deadline would be a real challenge for me. Yeah. I completely agree. That's a good way of thinking about it.

Nadia (27:30):

What is your community of readers? Can you tell us a little bit more about the types of people that subscribe to The Trip Report? You were talking a little about that difference between people that pay for it versus people that might be wandering in.

Zach (27:40):

I remember I was listening to, I think, an interview of Robert Cottrell, who writes another Substack called The Browser. He had a great insight where he was like, he asked you guys to not show him what people are clicking on. I have that same perspective of people. I get emails from readers. I connect with people in that way. I've had a number of conversations and Zoom calls and it's been really fun to get to know people that way. But it's a really small percentage of the overall readership. The dedicated readers, the people who are paying for the pro subscription, they're working in this space. They're attorneys, they're scientists, they're clinicians, they're people who have money on the line, who are investors. They're executives at the companies that are forming, on the one hand.

Zach (28:46):

Then there's, like I said, this fanatic ... fanatical maybe as a pejorative. But they're really into it, and they're super fired up about these questions, and what's going to happen, and how it's going to go and what does the future hold? There's a neuroethicist from Oxford, who's getting his PhD at Oxford, who's one of the early readers. There's a handful of pharmacy students and pharmacists who are interested in this because that's going to be a really interesting area of how this interacts with the pharmacy portion of the value chain in pharmaceuticals.

Zach (29:36):

It's pretty wide, I would say, of the ... and then, I really ... unless people have reached out or I've taken the time to Google them, I know there's a lot of people who I just don't know. But that's also cool, because I presume it's a pretty wide swath of people.

Nadia (30:02):

Do you talk to other folks that are ... I assume you do ... who are also involved in the psychedelic community? Where do you feel you get your trusted sources of information? How are you sharing this information? Do you have systems around reading the news or certain places, certain people you're talking to?

Zach (30:24):

I'm working on this. This is an evergreen topic of the process of collecting information, reading through it, distilling it, trying to figure out what interests me, what's looking to be turned into an article or a post or what headline deserves to be mentioned? I don't have a great system. I'm definitely not doing reporting. I'm not a journalist by training. I don't claim to be. Although I was just asked to write a piece for another ... for an outlet called Lucid News, which is another publication dedicated to psychedelics started by people who have been in this space for a long time and that was a really nice vote of confidence. I'm going to be doing some reporting where I actually reach out for quotes and check sources and stuff like that.

Zach (31:26):

But really, I'm flying by the seat of my pants to be honest with you. I collected. I got my Google Alerts. I scroll through social media. There's a handful of people who I have regular email back and forth with or phone calls just to check in and see what's going on and touch base. I would love to be more organized, because I'm up until 3:00 in the morning, too many nights a week trying to get this out and proofread. My sleep is definitely taking a toll.

Zach (32:10):

But I think that there's some value in working with the garage door up, I think is the phrase, that you’re kind of learning on the fly, showing your work. Actually in the last post, I said, "I appreciate your patience with the nature of this." I'm trying to figure it out. Not that anybody has complained or anything, but it's something I'm conscious of.

Nadia (32:36):

I think bringing out that side and showing that transparency and honesty is really appreciated by people because they know that you're doing all this work to bring them only the best stuff. I mean, you share. You mentioned Robert from The Browser, and I think it might have actually been another Substack writer. Gosh. I want to say it was Dan Shipper. I'm not sure. Someone who had interviewed him about his process. I think the title of the article was something like “The Man Who Reads 1,000 Articles a Day” or something ... some really crazy number. I'm sure I'm misquoting it now. But it just has stood out to me as this image of someone who is reading like a thousand or thousands of articles every day to only surface a few of the best things to someone else.

Nadia (33:28):

When you see that that process is happening regardless of how it's organized or what exactly they're doing, as the reader you’re just like, "Wow. I'm glad you are destroying your dopamine system on my behalf. Thank you. Please take my money."

Zach (33:44):

Yeah. I guess, there's a saying, "Only the paranoid survived" and I'm operating with that principle of ... I don't know what's too much. I don't know. I have this. I want to keep some space between the input and the feedback in the sense that I want to continually push the boundaries of my capacity to do it. Not to blow my own whistle. But it's like, when people reach out and they're like, "Dude, this is awesome." It's the greatest feeling in the world. But it can also eat away at the quality, if that makes sense. You can't get lazy with it.

Zach (34:33):

I feel I'm fighting that in some ways because it's just a ton of work and it's chaotic, and it's emotionally taxing. It takes a lot. I want to make people laugh and have an insight and have fun with it and there's a lot of work. When you're feeling lousy or bombed in, it's even tougher.

Nadia (35:01):

I think maybe one of the secrets to writing consistently is just it's a lot of emotional management. I've felt that with my own writing. I hear it from a lot of other writers ... and everyone comes up with these adaptive strategies. A lot of people, myself included, do just put up that mental wall where it's great to know that people love things. It does feel so good when someone says something nice about your work, but you don't want to let it get to your head or anything like that. You kind of just put it off in a corner somewhere and put up this mental wall and just kind of go heads down and do your thing and try not to be super affected by how it's being received. Because when it’s good, it’s good. Then when it's not so good, you also don't want to feel at the whim of, well, someone said something bad today. Now I feel terrible.

Zach (35:49):

Totally.

Nadia (35:50):

For me, it's hedging against ... it's nice when for the most part, you only hear positive things. But I don't ever want to feel that one comment can destroy my day tomorrow.

Zach (36:01):

I mean, that was ... I guess I didn't appreciate looking in on people whose podcasts and writing and stuff that I respect and admire. The effort that goes into it, I would say as a passive reader, which is how I consider myself up until I started writing newsletters and making an attempt at this kind of thing, and people actually reading it and paying attention to it. It can be challenging, for sure. I didn't anticipate that.

Nadia (36:42):

Can we talk about how you grew your list, because one of the reasons that I want to have you on this podcast was it, at least from my perspective looking in ... I mean, really you started, as far as I can tell, last fall, and you really just started from scratch. I just sort of have this mental image in my head of you being like, "Screw it. I'm going to start my own thing, and just start typing for no one for a while."

Nadia (37:05):

You've had this amazing success story of just growing your list and growing an audience with what feels just one thing at a time. As far as I could tell, you don't really have a social following or a preexisting audience that you were drawing from, and you're just like a mysterious figure online. How did you grow this list from nothing?

Zach (37:30):

Thank you. That's really nice of you to say. I'd say I started writing and I wanted to commit to being... authentic, is not the right word, but I wanted to have fun with it. You want to have fun with it. You want to ... like the term bleed on the page. I think it's Nietzsche who that quote is attributed to. But you want to leave it all out there.

Zach (38:00):

I grew up playing soccer and the term "leave it on the field" is a phrase of just give it your all kind of thing. What I mean by that is as a self-learning tool, which is research for your own interests, it has a different, I don't know, feel or whatever than if you're reading something from just another, I don't know, run of the mill article or something like that. I started with that in my mind. I didn't want to sway from my weird sense of humor, and memes, and inside jokes, and stuff like that, and cursing. I will curse and I haven't gotten any complaints on it when there's an F bomb in there. Really people who are professionals in the world are okay with it. That's a nice thing to realize if anybody's thinking about that.

Zach (39:03):

I started writing and I started sharing it on LinkedIn, and in Facebook groups, and then really rudimentary psilocybin, #psilocybin or #psychedelics in Facebook groups that are related to it. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell my partner. I didn't tell friends because I didn't want to ruin it, which I think can happen. It’s like, “Oh, what happened to your newsletter?” “Oh, I gave it up. Sorry.” I didn't want to put that pressure on me. I didn't tell my fiancé until I had 200 readers, until it was real and people were sharing it.

Zach (39:54):

Anyway, to get back to the story. I was just sharing in appropriate groups in Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn. That's just how I got the first maybe 200 to 400 or maybe 300 people. Then I stopped sharing it all together. Social media is a weird place. I don't know how to navigate it. I feel much more comfortable in the confines of a newsletter. The medium of the newsletter, where you're going to somebody's email is really ... it makes sense to me. I get it and I love it. I just can't stand—my palms sweat when I'm trying to think of a tweet that goes out to whoever. It's just been word of mouth. I mean, people share it. You can see how many times somebody has opened a Substack email. It’s just been that people share it. It's been word of mouth, which feels really gratifying. That was intentional. I wanted to stop promoting it just to see what would happen.

Zach (40:59):

Then occasionally, there's been a bunch of webinars and Zoom conferences and stuff like that. It's getting really nauseating. But occasionally somebody who's presenting will mention it. If I'm there, or if somebody's there, and they throw the URL into the chat, on the Zoom chat or something like that, there have been some good upticks... 50 readers all at once that was pretty cool. A CEO of one of the emerging companies told everybody to go read The Trip Report. I happened to be watching. I just put the URL into the chat and then just watched all these subscribers come online. It's pretty cool.

Nadia (41:44):

What was writing in the early days like, when you're writing for 10 people or whatever and trying to put together these high-quality posts, but then also feeling people aren't reading it. How did you mentally power through that time?

Zach (41:59):

My inclination is to say I listened to every episode of the Season One Substack podcast, because there’s so much wisdom in there from people who have done this. I was committed to ... I remember Bill Bishop talking about it, and Nick Quah and Luke Timmerman in particular. They just described the life, the type of career and work that I wanted, which is poring over a topic that you're super interested in, and passionate about, and capturing some of that value. I felt I had been doing that just in terms of reading stuff and thinking about stuff, whether it's acupuncture, whether it's pain science, whether it's psychedelics, whether it's Premier League Soccer. I was like, "Gosh, these guys are just doing it and it's awesome."

Zach (42:51):

Then Jessica Lessin had a good point where she was just like, "We picked up the phone and we started reporting. I knew that I had this goal in mind of doing this work." It was actually really liberating when no one is reading it because you can be more of yourself. There's less consequences of misspeaking. It wasn't until I had, what I thought was a huge following, because I never did this before that I got really tense. I got really nervous about it.

Zach (43:27):

The early days, it was so much fun. I mean, it still is so much fun. But it didn't have some of the pressure that comes along with it as it grows. It's amazing.

Nadia (43:40):

It's so funny. That's so true now that I'm really thinking about it. I feel now I really romanticize the earliest days of blogging for me where I go back on some of those posts. I'm like, "I would have been so embarrassed to publish something like that now." Careful.

Zach (43:56):

Yeah. For sure.

Nadia (43:58):

But it's so liberating then because no one's really paying attention. You're really just saying whatever you're thinking. You have to be like ... or you don't have to be. You should probably continue to think that way. But it gets a lot harder when more people are-

Zach (44:10):

It gets harder, for sure. But imposter syndrome is a great tool. I mean, most people are ... or I myself have held back from doing anything in any of the areas of interest that I've had throughout my life or career, whatever, just because, "Oh, well, I need to go to school to do this." But if you can use imposter syndrome when you're writing your newsletter, it's a great tool because it forces you to think about what you don't know, and use that to flesh out the questions of what you don't yet understand. That's great fodder for, at least, what I'm trying to do.

Nadia (44:50):

It speaks to ... you mentioned this a little bit throughout our conversation, specifically, this idea of just learning. It's something that you're doing because you're deeply interested in this topic and you're trying to learn it for yourself and you're trying to make sense of it. Then you put that on paper, and then maybe other people benefit from it. But there's so much intrinsic motivation there as well.

Zach (45:08):

I mean, it's a labor of love, for sure. But yeah, it's been so rewarding. It's been so much fun. I never thought I would be able to do this. I have, by any stretch of the imagination, it hasn't reached where I needed it to be to make this a full-time thing. But yeah, it's been awesome.

Nadia (45:28):

Is there anything you would have done differently from the early days of trying to build up your lists just knowing what you know now?

Zach (45:36):

I had the initial idea in May of last year, just about a year ago, and I started it. We moved from Brooklyn to Maine. I had to start my whole ... get my business up and going here. I took time off there. I wish I kept going. I wish I just kept going through. Because I took maybe a four or five months hiatus from ... and I mean, granted, I only had 10 readers at that point. When I picked it back up it was essentially starting over. But consistency is just the thing and I knew that going in ... I don't know. I'm not comfortable yet with promoting it and marketing it and speaking up for myself, if that makes sense in any way. I'm pretty passive with the calls to action. I'd like to get stronger with that.

Nadia (46:35):

That’s one, I think totally just also a mental challenge for a lot of folks, of just like, “I'm going to write this and I'm going to talk about it. It's going to be awesome.” That was a little challenging. I will say ... I mean, so we can talk a little bit more about your paid subscriptions as well because you offer ... started offering Trip Report Pro in February. That is just really, in itself, a very bold thing to do is to start asking people for money. I’d just love to hear a little more about why did you decide to go pay to that moment? How did you message that to your readership?

Zach (47:12):

I started, it was October 22nd or 23rd that I picked it back up with 10 or 15 readers. There's a great little group called Indie Mailer, which is a paid newsletter discourse group that I stumbled upon. Somebody was, "Why wait until you have X number of readers? Why not just start now? People who are going to value it are going to value it." I was like, "That's a good way of thinking about it." Because in my mind, I had this number of how many free readers I needed to get before I turned on to subscriptions.

Zach (47:59):

But a few things happened. My business, my acupuncture practice was just not going as well as I was hoping. It was pretty slow. We found out that we were pregnant with our second child. I needed to make money. I needed to at least contribute more to the family, because I was spending a lot of time doing this. Those are two things that are unrelated to it. But after enough people signed up, I didn't know what a good open rate was. But when you and I talked a few months ago, and you told me what a good open rate was, I was like, "I kind of have that." It was a gut impulse. I think I announced it on February 2nd.

Zach (49:00):

I just decided, “Okay, I'm onto something. People seem to like it. People are sharing it. People are showing up.” I think that was one of the reasons why I stopped posting it on social media, was to see what organic growth it could have in the absence of my own sharing it. That continued to grow. I thought I was onto something. I thought I had enough conversations with people who I thought were in a position to be willing to pay for it. They could expense it in the company that they're building that's in this exact niche.

Zach (49:38):

I just said, "We're going pro." As the great Hunter S. Thompson quotes "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," and things were pretty weird. It was like there were rumblings of things out of China about COVID-19. It hadn’t yet hit here. It was very fortuitous timing, because I asked people to come on board a few weeks before that, before that happened. I created a call-to-action. This is what I'm trying to do. Don't burn your dopamine system by crawling the web looking for updates in the psychedelic space. I got you covered. I did that for a few weeks.

Zach (50:34):

I think I have a call-to-action right at the beginning and then right at the end. Then I started putting it at the end. Because I figured if people had read all the way to the bottom, they might be interested in that. I'm retooling how I'm going to continue to do that. I haven't been as aggressive in promoting the subscriber content. But I've also talked to a handful of people who are like, "Oh, yeah, dude, I keep meaning to do that. I just haven't done it yet."

Zach (51:04):

Yeah. It was a gut feel and life circumstances, like “I want to commit to this. If I give myself another two deadlines a week, then that's enough motivation to write, and the sooner I start, the quicker I get to this being 100% what I'm doing as a career.” I had the motivation out of that just to get going.

Nadia (51:29):

Awesome. So bold. I really love it.

Zach (51:31):

I'm also painfully naive to digital marketing and the media landscape. There's definitely some dumb luck. I didn't know what I was doing. I still don't know what I'm doing. I'm just figuring it out as I go and operating by feel.

Nadia (51:46):

I mean, it seems to be working well. Your intuition is good. You have one free post a week and then you have two paid ones. Has that changed at all just how you thought about writing for your broader readership and community and now writing for this smaller subscriber base?

Zach (52:03):

Yes. Yes. I think about this all the time. I think about the business model and how to make it better, and how to create a better product. I feel if we were to translate this into startup sort of speak, I'm still working on the product. It's how I think about it, and I’m not as focused on marketing. I'm doing more referencing and linking back to what I've already written and using that a little bit more. If anybody reads Ben Thompson's Stratechery, he has this uncanny ability to know what he said in 2016 October. You know what I mean? He's able to link that.

Zach (52:49):

I'm trying to create a system where I can better understand what this bit of news relates to what I've already said about it and written about it. And then what are the larger... themes or concepts or evergreen topics that will be with the space. For example, this concept of open science is an important issue and an important thing for people to understand in psychedelics. It comes from a different domain where social sciences are having a lot of trouble replicating foundational research. This open science initiative was a way to promote more of the methodology and the process of the science, and that's being advocated for in psychedelics. There's an ethos in the space of this open collaboration compared to conventional pharmaceutical stuff where it's very hyper competitive, and you use patents to block competitors and stuff like that.

Zach (54:00):

Anyway, that's a topic that I want to figure out how to link to with everything that comes through the news. Managing those three buckets of information, I think, I use the paid subscribe subscription posts, Monday and Friday, to write more longform thinking out loud. This is how this connects to this. What just happened to this? Which connects to this topic and this theme is what I'm trying to do. Whereas the Wednesday, for everybody, is I'm just letting it rip with a little bit of that process and more curating news. I guess the short version of that long rambling answer is the Wednesday, the free post is more curation. Then the pay subscriber posts are more in depth analysis, if you will.

Nadia (55:02):

The more you write over time and the more you develop this personal repository of knowledge and thinking over time, you see common themes and topics develop. It's almost like it becomes more and more valuable over time as that knowledge base grows. Just to wrap up a little bit, given that you're in this very rapidly developing and interesting and exciting world of psychedelics, when you look back at this time, and 10, or 20, or 50 years from now, what role do you hope that publications like yours will have led?

Zach (55:34):

I'm thinking of it as iterative sense making. We're continually in ... it's circular learning. We're coming back to themes and topics and ideas and processing new information and new announcements and the growth of the space in a way that it's almost an ongoing time capsule, I guess. That's how I think about that. I don't know if that would be a viable way of thinking about it. If somebody is writing a column for The New York Times or The Atlantic or something like that, but I'm hoping that it's one ... if I can turn this into some punctuated summaries of the last six months or a year or something like that, or use it as a reference for writing a book or something down the road. That's how I envision it. I definitely ... You just said 50 years, if I could be doing this in 50 years that would be so radical. That'd be awesome.

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