How do you turn content into a career? On today's episode, we learn how the passion economy empowers creators to become entrepreneurs. From YouTube videos, to online courses, to subscription-based journalism, we dig deep on how a year stuck at home has widened this rich, digital world.
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Hey everyone, Mesh here. On today’s episode, we’re turning our attention to an industry that has flourished throughout the pandemic. Turns out, a captive audience stuck at home is good for some.
MUSIC_RENEGADE TIKTOK (continue and give us a snappy end after Mesh’s “let’s get started”)
CLIP_Youtube Charli Intro
Hello you guys, it is Charli and welcome back to my Youtube channel.
CLIP_Youtube Nikki Intro
Hello guys, it’s me Nikki, hello, welcome back!
CLIP_Youtube James Intro
Hi sisters, James Charles here and welcome back to my Youtube channel!
Content creators exist in many forms -- Youtubers, Tiktokers, Twitch streamers, online educators. Not to mention all the ways these same people diversify their reach, whether that’s through brand partnerships, licensing, or original podcasts.
Last March, the world changed in infinite ways. A lot of us were suddenly stuck working from home. Some of us lost jobs and income, and had to repurpose our skills and find new ways to make money. Though it’s intensified, these challenges are nothing new for content creators. In a world where there are more bored eyes than ever, how do you get an audience’s attention?
Let’s get started.
[00:16:35] I think there's this waiting game that a lot of us play, because we think we're not ready. We think, “I need 10,000 followers before I can launch this thing, before I can make money from it.”
This is Danielle Leslie. For the past five years, Danielle’s been helping regular people become online educators, a la Masterclass. She founded an accelerator program called Course From Scratch, and over 4,000 people have created their own online courses with her help. But before she could teach other people how to sell themselves, Danielle had to learn how to sell everything else.
[00:08:30] My very first job out of college was at a ad network. And it was my job to help them acquire customers on Facebook. And this is, you know, before this was a thing. So, I remember figuring out, “Okay. What are the best images to use to catch people's attention, to get the highest clickthrough rates? What's the copy I can write to get their attention?” [00:09:35] I learned so much there about online marketing.
After a few years, Danielle took the plunge and founded her own startup, focusing on helping millennials grow their personal brands and businesses online. As confident as she felt about advertising and social media marketing, it just wasn’t making the connections she needed.
[00:10:10] Doing all of that led me back to, actually, my mom's house, where I was broke. And after doing that startup and raising money and going through an accelerator program we ended up with no customers, no real revenue. And so, it wasn't until I was at my mom's house, uh, back at zero, when I discovered the world of online courses.
Danielle’s next stop in Silicon Valley was at Udemy, where she learned the art of developing online courses with experts in a variety of fields. She then moved onto Mayvenn, a hair startup that makes weaves, wigs, and extensions, and connects consumers with licensed stylists.
[00:00:43] And it, at the time, had about 45,000 hairstylists, mostly Black, mostly in the US. And it was my role to create educational materials, to help them become more effective at growing their brands and their businesses online, so that they could sell the Mayvenn hair to their clients.
As Danielle nurtured women at Mayvenn to market their own businesses, she started thinking about building her own. She kept returning to the idea of online courses -- could she teach people how to teach? It was a meta idea, but she felt strongly about the possibilities.
[00:14:50] The first big lesson I got was that everyone really has something that they can create an online course around. I just got to see so many different people. From working with a singer and seeing her turn her passion for singing on Broadway into a program that could do multiple six figures a year when so many people think, “oh, you know, you can go to YouTube and get this for free.” To a yoga teacher who taught teachers how to teach their students yoga. It was a beautiful time because of the vastness of the internet, the infinite, you know, nature of it, that there was really a market for everything. There were private groups and niche circles and forums for every minute interest you could think of.
Danielle saw an untapped market. So with her marketing savvy in her back pocket, she started working with people in niche fields, in the hopes their lessons would resonate with big audiences online.
[00:16:52] I was able to take the online marketing experience I had from my first job out of college coupled with just my belief in humans. And, you know, what you have is valuable. Whatever makes you different is what makes you valuable.
Around the same time, down in Los Angeles, Ned Fulmer was working his way into one of the internet’s biggest content machines: Buzzfeed.
[00:01:23] When I was applying, I was thinking that it was not quite as cool as CollegeHumor, but I guess it would be fine.
If you’re someone who is Very Online, you’ve probably seen Ned’s videos before. He’s a founding member of the Try Guys, a quartet of Buzzfeed producers whose comedy videos were some of the company’s most successful and viral.
CLIP_Try Guys Drinking
[music] We’re gonna be taking monitored drinks after a series of tests… (fade under)
But before the internet fame and celebrity cameos, Ned had an entirely different career planned.
[00:00:10] I was working in an R&D chemistry lab by day, doing research into renewable energy and renewable fuels. And at night, I'd perform at Second City and started making YouTube videos, really, as a way to just get my work out there and have a way to get it seen. And the opportunity at BuzzFeed really just came, because it was a three-month way to learn about production skills and I figured it could be the film school that I never had. [00:00:06] I started as an intern, actually. A lot of the Try Guys did.
Ned quickly realized one big difference between Buzzfeed and film school: the all-consuming goal to go viral. Algorithms were still something of a mystery, and Buzzfeed loaded their offices with young video makers whose sole job was to make highly shareable content.
[00:00:58] I quickly realized it was a special place full of people who are all very passionate about cracking one thing, which was how new videos spread on the internet.[00:02:57] You were a one-man band, producing, writing, and editing. But BuzzFeed producers were tasked with making six videos a month, which is a lot. That means you're making one and a half videos a week. You are constantly coming up with concepts, testing, learning.
While putting in long hours and developing an endless stream of concepts, Ned started bonding with his fellow producers. He paired up with three in particular, to experiment with making videos as a group: Eugene Lee Yang, Keith Habersberger, and Zach Kornfeld.
[00:03:30] It came about while we were just friends in the office. And Zach and Keith were part of a group that was trying to specifically crack Facebook Video. Because Facebook Video had just launched so, there was sort of a task force dedicated to exploring that in particular but it was really just something that we thought would resonate with the audience. And then when it did, we decided to do more of it.
The videos had a simple concept: four likeable young men trying something new for the first time, together.
CLIP_Try Guys Heels
[music] Today we’re trying heels, we’re gonna be going through the gauntlet. The high heels gauntlet. Going to dinner, going to bars, and going dancing…and we’re gonna wear heels the whole time! (fade under next graph into music)
MUSIC_VIENNA BEAT or MUSIC_HELIOTROPE
[00:04:05] Sometimes, our supervisors did not want to have four people working on one video, ‘cause there was, like, kind of a quantity over quality approach. But our videos got longer and longer and // more complicated and thought-out. We did multi-part series at a time when nobody else at BuzzFeed was doing that. And I think as a result, the audience started to really have a following for us, specifically.
By 2018, the Try Guys’ videos were getting nearly 10 million views on YouTube. Buzzfeed provided them with a steady income. Benefits. Resources for their productions. But they also owned all the content they were producing -- and that was something that Ned and the guys wanted to change.
Ned wasn’t the only content creator growing up in the Buzzfeed ecosystem. On the other side of the country, a young journalist named Alex Kantrowitz was trying to jumpstart his career. As a kid, he knew he wanted to be a reporter. He’d started a hyperlocal newspaper for the block where he lived with his parents.
[00:02:05] I mean, looking back, it's kind of hilarious. It was definitely an “if it bleeds, it leads” type of newspaper. Like, there was a carbon monoxide incident, and I, like, went over and I got the story and then wrote it up. And that's sort of how I got my start in reporting.
Alex turned to less sensationalist journalism as he got older. After college, he spent a few years working in marketing and started contributing to Forbes as a tech writer. He made his way to Ad Age, where he reported on the nuts and bolts of the ad tech industry. But as he watched the tech world change through his own interviews and articles, he made a decision.
[00:05:13] When there's a big industry shift that's going to happen, you typically see the money move first and then the press catch on. And I saw all the money start to move from these companies out West. The money ended up going to Facebook and Google and Snapchat, LinkedIn and Twitter. And I told myself, “Wait a second. This is not going to be a good career decision for me to stay here and cover the demise of these ad tech platforms. I better get out West and start to cover where the action is going to be.”
From the outside, Buzzfeed was still a meme aggregator, specializing more in lighthearted listicles than hard-hitting journalism. But then they brought in Ben Smith, whose previous work at Politico was an inspiration to Alex. Ben has since moved to the New York Times, but in 2012, he became the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed’s brand new news department.
(come in around “but then they brought in Ben Smith”)
[00:06:45] And the moment they announced that hire, I knew I wanted to go over there. Buzzfeed really was the viral listicle type of website, where it was like, you know, “17 Cats That Don't Want to Be Your Friend” or “55 Kangaroos That Are Judging You.” And that was the bread and butter at the time. And they hired Ben Smith, and that signaled to me that they were interested in real journalism.
By 2015, Ben had moved to San Francisco and joined Buzzfeed News as a tech reporter. His job was to cover the big social media platforms.
[00:09:10] So, that's basically, like, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and then all the messaging platforms. I mean, covering Facebook is like covering a country, because you need to understand policy and business, advertising, entertainment, artificial intelligence. You know, even how it interacts with foreign officials. And Twitter, of course, is a continual shit show that produces you know, catnip for journalists on an hourly basis. Those two companies really became the focus.
Alex, Ned, and Danielle were all toiling away at their respective companies, developing their skills and nurturing their aspirations. They all added real, quantifiable value for their employers, and got stable careers and health insurance in return. But at a certain point, they each felt that their personal brands could eclipse the companies that helped get them there.
It was time to decide: were they more valuable as individuals than as part of a machine?
[00:13:55] I think we're just really at the nascent stages of the passion economy.
This is Li Jin.
[00:02:15] I am an angel investor, a writer, and I am aiming to back founders in the passion economy who are enabling people to make a living by pursuing their passions.
For years, Li worked at a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, looking for ways to enable what she calls “the passion economy.” The way we work has changed, sometimes generationally, and she’s not the only person to recognize that -- journalist Adam Davidson wrote a whole book on the passion economy in 2020. The idea behind this new way of working lies with individuality. The more different you are, the more value you have to offer a paying public.
Li sees this as a direct response to the gig economy we’ve become so familiar with in the past decade.
[00:04:42] Examples of companies in the gig economy would be names like Uber, Lyft, Instacart Door Dash, et cetera. These marketplaces all tried to really drive towards convenience, simplicity, liquidity in the marketplace.
In order to do that, they make their workers as interchangeable as possible. They’re not employees, but rather contractors, without benefits or job security. The goal of the gig economy is to provide fast, easy services with a faceless workforce.
[00:05:06] So for instance, when you're requesting a ride on Uber, you don't even know the driver that you're going to be matched with. All of the drivers get bucketed into these standard service levels, and you just request one, and someone shows up. And that experience is great at providing a very simple experience for the consumer. But on the flip side, the worker often feels commoditized. And they also didn't have any autonomy in deciding the type of work that they were doing.
The gig economy hasn’t gone away. But as the internet makes it easier and easier to share things widely, another framework has emerged for earning a living.
[00:05:50] Which is new platforms that actually accentuate the individuality of the worker. So, rather than treating every worker as completely interchangeable with each other these are platforms that actually acknowledge that the consumer wants to know who they're connecting with. And in many cases, they're purchasing something expressly because of the individual who is creating it.
This isn’t a new concept; artists and creators have existed since the dawn of time. They’re just online now, because that’s how they can market themselves -- and their work -- to the masses.
The passion economy might be a modern approach to the old ways of supporting artists, in a society that historically tends to undervalue them. In the Renaissance, artists like Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci were creatively independent, but made their livings through commissions and patronage from wealthy families.
I was 20 when I opened my own studio. Eventually I did get a commission, an altarpiece, an Adoration of the Magi… (fade under)
Artists during the Renaissance were able to make a living -- and a name for themselves -- by working for powerful and respected political figures. Take the Medici family -- a clan of patrons who played a huge role in Florence’s identity as the artistic capital of Europe. But for all the inspiration that flowed freely through the Italian streets, the actual art wasn’t open to the public. Private collections were viewable if you were a friend of the elite, but art museums weren’t accessible for regular people until the 1700s.
Compared to the patron economy of yesteryear, the passion economy is democratic and universal. It’s evolved from patron to Patreon. There’s an endless stream of online content, already too much to watch in one lifetime. We’re living through the internet’s idea of a Renaissance. Now, we can all be Medicis.
Back in 2018, Buzzfeed was thriving. It earned over $100 million dollars in revenue that year alone. Ned Fulmer and the rest of the Try Guys started to consider what that meant for their own worth.
[00:05:30] Any sort of company profits were somewhat disassociated from views in my mind. And as I worked there for longer and did more of the branded content, I kind of grew to realize just how profitable of an enterprise it was. And that kind of led to our decision calculus as to whether we should stay or try and strike out on our own.
It’s a big decision to quit a job. It’s an even bigger decision to bank on the strength of your own brand, not knowing whether you’ll succeed wildly -- or fail miserably.
[00:14:12] There were a couple of different factors. And it certainly wasn't an easy decision since my wife was about to have our first child. So, we, in 2016, signed two-year contracts that were very exclusive and we were very committed to BuzzFeed during that time. So, the first factor was, all of our contracts are going to be up at the same time. What are we going to do next? The second factor was we were seeing // the significant dollar amounts that our videos were being valued at and realized that our value was far more than our salaries were at that point. And then the third factor was we noticed that // our videos were, in some ways, propping up the larger company and channel rather than the other way around where we would see, “oh, our video got 3 million views,” and then the one that comes out right after it, oh my god, 150,000 or something like that. Hmmm. Maybe there's something to the idea that we can draw our audience in regardless of having the support of a larger company.
One of the most important things for Ned and the guys was to keep their intellectual property, or IP for short. The double-edged sword of creating content for a company is that, while you get a bigger platform for your work, you also don’t own any of it.
[00:10:05] There's something to be said where the individual creator has the ability to go off and do something on their own that's not branded. And it will probably be successful. But, you know, it’d be better if it were still called the thing that everyone knows them.
After five years at Buzzfeed, the Try Guys brand had a loyal following. They were able to negotiate buying back their IP on their way out, and in doing so, they kept their fan base -- and the brand they’d built -- intact.
[00:09:55] So, I think it was really, in this case, a win-win.
Danielle’s path to an independent career didn’t require finagling IP or escaping a contract with a branded team. As she worked within the Udemy structure, building online courses the Udemy way, she was tuning in to life coaches and lectures from people like Brendon Burchard, an influencer and coach to the rich and famous.
MUSIC_PINKY or MUSIC_UPUPUP AND OVER
Your life is a series of actions that you initiate or don’t initiate. And that your thoughts are gonna control that road map.
Whether or not you buy into that particular brand of new age self-improvement, there’s an undeniable amount of money to be made in coaching and brand consultation.
[00:04:20] And I'm like, “That's the ticket.” [00:03:46] And so, I think that's when I made the connection of, “oh, wait. I can actually take my passion and turn this into something online.”
When it came to going fully independent, Danielle knew what she wanted. Udemy prepared her to launch online courses, and Mayvenn brought her closer to a specific group of clients.
[00:19:20] There was always a moment where I knew I wanted to do it for myself. I don't think that ever went away. And the question was “what would it look like?” The question was also, “Are you sure? Because you tried that before and you ended up back at your mom's house broke.” Like, “Are you sure that you are equipped to do your own thing?”
Danielle ended up not having a chance to think it through. Fate made the decision for her.
[00:20:40] I was laid off. And so, I honestly had that moment where I was like, “Well, what am I going to do next?”
Her unemployment didn’t last long. At a group dinner right after the layoffs, a friend of Danielle’s invited her to help out with building her new business.
[00:20:58] And then I had another friend that said, “Can you help me create my online course? And then another friend referred me to someone to help them write their eBook. Honestly, I wasn't ready. // So, if it was up to me, I probably would have taken way longer to start my business.
The gigs were rolling in, and Danielle’s next step -- and arguably her most important -- was deciding what she wanted to focus on. She knew she was great at a few things and ended up with three ideas.
[00:26:15] The first was, well, I can teach people how to land their dream job. The second idea I had was, well, I can show people how to start freelancing I can teach people how to at least get started and how to make that transition. And then the third idea was “I could teach people how to create and launch online courses.”
An online course on how to launch an online course. Believe it or not, it’s a huge market, and with the right person and the right idea, it can be incredibly lucrative. Danielle dove headfirst into her new business.
[00:07:05] My belief, my thesis, is that, in the future, there's going to be many more digital platforms that emerge that allow people to monetize these kinds of non-commoditized skills.
One of the digital platforms Li Jin has her eye on is Substack, an email newsletter service optimized for paid subscriptions. Even in its nascent stages, it’s getting a lot of attention for its potential -- and what it might mean for independent journalism.
Future implications aside, Alex wanted to explore Substack’s potential when it comes to disseminating information about big tech.
[00:10:05] So, the bottom line is that technology is shaping our society right now. And they're the dominant five firms. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft not only in the US economy, but in the global economy. And when these companies press a few buttons, it can change the way people think about things, it can change the way people do things. [00:12:15] At a certain point, I decided that it was important for the public to know not only what these companies do but how they operate inside.
While Alex loved the work he was doing at Buzzfeed News, he still had to fall in line with the company’s priorities. His first taste of autonomy came while he was writing his first book, called Always Day One.
[00:29:30] And, you know, when I was working on the book, I loved being independent and following my curiosity and seeing where it led. And I said, “Well, what if I could do that every day?” [00:29:13] I decided I want to do something entrepreneurial, be independent and, essentially, start assigning myself my own stories and be responsible for the revenue on my own.
Five years after Alex started at Buzzfeed News, he gave his notice.
[00:31:50] I already had an email newsletter and thought I could take some of my subscribers over with me, which Buzzfeed allowed, which I'm going to be forever grateful for. And I said, “Okay. Well, maybe I'll be able to support myself a little bit with Substack and you know, try to ask readers to help support the publication. [00:30:17] And the next year or so will be a test to see if it actually can happen or not.
Success as an independent creator is fuzzy. There are no performance reviews or promotions, and you’re entirely responsible for your own profit and engagement. Social media has completely changed the way you can reach your potential audience -- and the way you promote your content is just as important as the content itself.
MUSIC_SILVER LANYARD - come in right after Ned says “understanding audience behavior”
[0:08:42] One of the key things that you have to understand when it comes to how things are shared on the internet is understanding audience behavior. You have to view everything through the lens of “how will the audience perceive this?”, “what can they then use this content to say about themselves?” rather than “how do I feel about this content?” or “why do I think this is funny?” It's a real perception shift from the artistic genius who makes anything they want to almost more of a, you're a hybrid creative and also data analyst.
In short: it’s not about you. Influencers and internet personalities are supposed to be unique, interesting, and personable. But it all serves a larger purpose: to make the audience feel like they’re your friends. Friends who are willing to buy what you sell and pay for access to you.
[00:12:32] I think people are more familiar than ever before with direct payment models. Companies like Netflix and Spotify and even things like Peloton have gotten consumers really used to the idea that if they're getting value consistently out of something, then they should pay a subscription amount for it. They no longer expect the most valuable high quality services to be provided to them for free. I think that's beneficial for so many content creators and basically unlocks the ability for them to earn an income in a way that the ad model never really enabled them to.
Which isn’t to say that ads aren’t still a part of the equation. After Ned and the Try Guys launched their independent YouTube page, the fans followed them in droves -- today, they have nearly 7.5 million subscribers. They sell merch, they have a Patreon, they enable ads on their videos. They also lean into the marketing method du jour: influencing.
[00:27:40] We've done big budget projects for Google. I’ve been a Target sponsor on a more personal level. [0:28:10] You might call it, like, a brand ambassador or kind of an influencer partner. It's an ability to work with a brand over a period of time to have a dialogue about what are some of my goals for content, as well as what are some of the brand's goals for influencer marketing.
The Try Guys are desirable to brands -- because they are a brand themselves. Without the name and the consistent audience, it would have been a lot harder to leverage their popularity into partnerships. Some creators aren’t lucky enough to own what they make -- but that doesn’t necessarily keep them from making money.
[00:40:00] A lot of creators have been successful while not owning their own IP and also not even owning their end audience. I think anyone who has built up an audience on Instagram, YouTube, any of the big social platforms, at the end of the day, they don't really own their audience. They're just renting it. Many of them have managed to build really large businesses from it by leveraging that into some other business venture whether that's selling merchandise or parlaying that into brand sponsorships.
It’s risky to build a career on a platform you don’t control. If Instagram somehow ended tomorrow, a hell of a lot of people would be out of work. But risk is a big part of creating content online.
CLIP_Danielle FB Course Pitch
Hey hey hey, welcome to the Course to Launch group // Uh, I am Danielle Leslie and I will be your host in this group...
Danielle set out to start her online course business, stumbling through the initial logistics. Her first program was for six weeks...
[00:13:14] And I priced it at a thousand dollars, which was a total accident. Like, at that point, I had done webinars, I had built my email list, I had gotten affiliates, and I had zero sales. And so, getting on the phone with this woman who found me in a Facebook group she said, “how much is it?” And I was like, “a thousand dollars?” And I just made it up. And I was like, “It's, uh, six weeks. But through that program, I got to work with a singer. I got to work with someone who is in nonprofits, and she wanted to create her own nonprofit initiative. I got to work with a healer. So, through that program, I was able to just help people translate their passions into a structure where they could get paid for it and also bring it to the world.
MUSIC_FALAAL - come in around “I got to work with a singer”
With some practice under her belt, Danielle officially launched her Course from Scratch program in 2016. It began as a 60-day online accelerator -- and she quickly saw the potential of what she had created.
[00:22:00] It was affirming, because I remember that month I made, like, $10,087 or something. And I was like, “How did this happen in month one? What could be possible then? If – if I was able to do this in month one, what's possible?”
Sales were through the roof, and Danielle wanted to see how far she could take it.
[00:30:45] And that's when I committed to doing a weekly webinar. So, like, in my house Caleb, my husband, calls it “Big Money Wednesdays.” Like, every Wednesday he'd be like, “It's a Big Money Wednesday.” And I would do these live webinars every single Wednesday. And I did them a hundred times in a row. So, for two years, almost straight.
Danielle sees her work as more than just business. Her success can pave a path for the success of others. She frequently touts the achievements of her clients.
Teri Ijeoma [00:42:30] at Trade and Travel blasted on the scene. This woman, my goodness, I think she made like $1.7 million in her first year and a half. She used to be a assistant principal at a school. And she used to trade stocks on the side. And she got to a point where she was making a thousand dollars a day, trading stocks. But she now teaches other people how to trade and create independence for themselves. And most of her audience are you know, from the Black community, cause she's Black. Just like I am. You know, all these women, they're just taking this thing that they have done in their spare time. But to see the level of empowerment is insane on all sides.
Danielle’s business is based on her own ability to connect and communicate. In the digital age, content creators have two things to deliver: their content, and their appeal as creators. More important than being talented is being liked.
[00:38:10] I think personality is the key driver of success for a lot of people in the passion economy. I think if you look on Twitch or if you look on TikTok there's a lot of like really skilled, talented people who are really good at video games or really good at dancing or whatever skill they're showcasing. And they‘ve built an audience by being really good at their craft. And then there's lots of folks who maybe are slightly more mediocre, but they just have a really engaging personality. And I think that recipe works well.
Whether it’s talent, or charisma, or boundless energy to promote yourself, some combination of the three is essential for digital attention. If you have that spark to light the fire, the next steps are purely practical: where do you want to live on the internet?
[00:31:14] I think the two models that I really see in the passion economy are either participating in a marketplace with consumers who the marketplace has already aggregated or leveraging different SAS platforms to, basically, create your own business and to set up, for instance, your own Substack newsletter or your own Shopify website and store. In that model you are doing everything. You're creating the product or the service. You're selling it. You’re determining the pricing. You're also building up your own book of customers and going out there and trying to market yourself because the marketplace isn't handing it to you.
For most creators, social media is essential to building a bigger audience. You need distribution, or at least a solid number of followers, for your work not to fall on deaf ears. But for Alex, social media -- Twitter in particular -- is a way of life.
[00:19:00] Like, it's really exciting to be able to throw ideas out and just have real time feedback from people who are reading along and following along the same stories. And you can always take conversations from the feed into direct messages. And you might hear some more honest opinions from people. You might get stories from it.
Journalism is already held to a high ethical standard. Those standards are extremely important, and much more enforceable when working within a newsroom. Substack creates some tricky grey areas -- namely that, when working outside of an organization with strict adherence to the truth, how can journalists be held accountable?
Alex recognizes that the same freedom he craves comes with certain responsibilities. He’s watched for years as Twitter has changed the nature of reporting, for better or for worse.
[00:22:40] There's an emerging and growing problem where journalists are starting to write their stories for Twitter and not the general public. And Twitter incentivizes for engagement, not the truth. I think that only when we start to tackle it are we going to get back to a more healthy news ecosystem than the one we have today.
Alex plans to contribute to the news ecosystem with his independent newsletter, called Big Technology. He wants to evolve his years of tech reporting into stories that develop naturally, at his own pace.
[00:36:53] So, we're going to cover some really weird stuff, as well as, some stuff that you would never see in a mainstream publication. And they're going to get me, right? This isn't going to be, you know, a reporter filtered through some publication style. Like, they're going to get me, and they're going to decide whether they like hearing from me or they don't, and then ultimately decide whether or not to pay for the experience. I think the freedom is amazing. I don't have to check with anyone. Like, last night, I wanted to add a little bit more to my newsletter about some late breaking news, and I didn't have to go to an editor and be like, “Hey. Is it okay if I add this?” I just added it.
Independence comes with uncertainty. But, as Ned knows, if you have a strong enough brand, there are often pockets of support you don’t want to overlook.
[00:26:05] Those early days were super, super tough and part of our support was our Patreon community. The first actual money that we ever received was from Patreon. When we were struggling to pay our bills, Patreon was there for us. And now it's been a very robust community ever since // for testing content and connecting with our deepest, most passionate fans.
The other downside of creating alone is that, well...you’re alone.
[00:32:28] I mean, it's super lonely. Like, you kind of sit there by yourself and you have to decide, “Is this the story I'm going to pursue? Is this the right angle? Did I write this right?” You have to be comfortable in making those decisions on your own.
Creating content for a living, like any other form of self-employment, means you also have to handle all the administrative parts of having a job, and planning for the future.
[00:16:00] So, in the traditional employment world, your employer had basically bundled together the work that you were doing with, you know, professional skills, development, mentorship, coaching. They also provided insurance, healthcare, retirement benefits.
It’s not sexy or exciting, but it’s worth knowing -- all of your favorite internet personalities are pricing their own insurance plans and setting up self-employment IRAs. They’re also probably more business-savvy than their fun personas let on.
[00:40:10] If you want to do something like this, you really // have to want to run a business, right? You're going to want to have to figure out how to get lawyers to look at your stuff when they need a review. You're going to want to figure out how to make it work from the dollars and cents side. You’ll want to figure out distribution if that's something that's important to you.
[00:50:30] I mean, I – I do all the numbers, baby. I think my background in the sciences mixed with creativity type of mindset made me gravitate towards all the traditional business role which I love doing. And it's been very exciting to think about not only how do we make great stuff, but how do we grow our business. And then how does growing our business enable us to make even more great and exciting stuff.
Ned and the Try Guys have been able to maximize their opportunities, all thanks to the brand they’ve built over the past eight years. Now, their work is so much more than just videos on YouTube.
[00:21:15] So // in the first year, we started working on a book, which launched as a number one New York Times bestseller. We went on a worldwide live tour, making a comedy-music, extravaganza // We launched a store with // merch products // you know, I think one of the reasons that you need to diversify as a content creator is platform revenue can be very inconsistent. // It can fluctuate based on views or based on CPMs. // It's a really tenuous position to be in if you're solely dedicated to one platform or another as your // main way of supporting your business operations. // I don't think anyone out there would say that they really love YouTube pre-roll or mid-roll ads.
Even with all their sources of revenue, the Try Guys still hit a wall when the pandemic began. While most people were working from home for the first time, Ned -- and Danielle, and Alex too -- were all used to making their own schedules and presenting themselves online. But for Ned, his production team had expanded so greatly that their new limitations took some getting used to.
[00:39:00] We're four guys, but then we're also a team of 12 plus people who are all collaborators and all like to bounce things off of each other. So, I think it has been fairly isolating for all of us. And we've attempted to do Zoom brainstorms and happy hours to continue to foster a sense of community but it's been tough in that sense. We like doing bigger things. We like doing big productions with multiple cameras, extended pre-production. And in quarantine, we are filming things on our cell phones in our kitchen just by ourselves, which is different.
Different -- but not necessarily worse.
[0:41:17] From a video performance standard, some of our cell phone videos are doing just as well as our other ones. So, maybe that's on us to reassess what we invest our time into. // There's certainly more uncertainty when it comes to our our revenue picture.
While creators try to manage that uncertainty and get creative with their output, they have to rely on the audiences they’ve managed to build so far. As Li Jin points out, the gig economy, for all its flaws, at least offered a built-in consumer base.
[00:29:18] I think the major downside of trying to make a living in the passion economy is that not everyone is going to be successful and success is, by no means, insured. Like, it's sort of load balance. Where if a driver didn't have a passenger, the platform would match them with the next available passenger and so on and so forth. And so, it sort of created this, like, level playing field where any driver could // make money as long as they kept driving. That isn't as clear and I don't think there is a standard recipe for success in the passion economy.
Despite it all, Ned, Danielle, and Alex are all thriving -- as much as thriving is possible in our current climate. Content creators do what they love. But when your work and your passion are the same thing, you’re never truly off the clock.
[00:41:18] So, I'm doing the paid newsletter. I'm doing the podcast. I'm doing the syndication. Ultimately, what I'm doing is throwing a lot of stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. And I'd love to be able to have, like, diversified, repeatable revenue. So, I'm just trying everything. And if something catches on, that's going to be amazing.
Ned and the Try Guys have definitely found their niche. It took time, but now that their audience is fully invested, they’re looking for ways to add more perspectives to the wide world of internet content.
[00:44:32] I think a great opportunity for expansion is amplifying the other types of voices that can be part of [the] Try Guys family. There's only so much that four guys can do to reach the world. But I think if we can create a platform for others to help amplify their voices and their creativity that could be a really cool thing.
Danielle’s courses have only picked up speed in the past year -- she recently had her biggest month yet, bringing in $1.3 million dollars. She’s come a long way from her broke years living at her mom’s house.
[00:51:13] Yeah. I mean well first my mom is // creating her own course, that’s definitely what she’s been working on the past couple of months which is really awesome. // But // she's – she's really proud of me. // And yeah I think, right now, // she's really proud // and really excited // about what's to come next.
The chaos of the pandemic might be leading us into a golden age of internet content, whether it’s educational, entertaining, or entrepreneurial. Side hustles might become full-time projects. Normal life is no longer possible, so wild dreams might finally seem within reach.
[00:41:37] My core belief is that humans have always had an innate desire to make a living doing what we're passionate about and to leverage our creativity and imagination in our work. So, I expect millions more people to be participating in the passion economy in the future. And I think COVID actually accelerates that, because so many people are reevaluating how they earn an income and what they do for work. We're going to see many more people shift to trying to create their own independent businesses and do what it is that they're passionate about and turn it into their career.
There’s certainly no shortage of content online. The old IFC show Portlandia joked about our national obsession with videos and podcasts five years ago, and it’s just as relevant today.
He’s really good / and I’m such a sucker for content.
But having a glut of options isn’t always a bad thing -- there’s something for everyone, no matter how niche. If you want to see hundreds of opera duets on Tiktok, they’re only a quick search away. And if you somehow can’t find what you’re looking for, you can absolutely create it yourself. Why not? We’re all just suckers for content.
Thank you to Danielle Leslie, Ned Fulmer, Alex Kantrowitz, and Li Jin for sharing your stories with us.
Now, you can become a Talk Money member! Sign up at thetalkmoney.com/membership to get access to our exclusive guides, including our new creator guide -- and hear full interviews from all our episodes this season. That link again is thetalkmoney.com/membership.
This episode was written and produced by Olivia Briley. Our mix engineer is Valentino Rivera, with additional help from Eduardo Perez. This episode featured music by Blue Dot Sessions and Ensemble Leones, performing a composition by Josquin des Prez. We appreciate you sharing this with your friends, and of course subscribing to us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you choose to listen. Until next time.