Building an Audience That Creates a Personal Monopoly with David Perrell - S1E02

Oct 6, 2020
Aidan Hornsby

Your audience doesn't need to be huge to be life-changing. Hear how North Star podcast host David Perell captured a niche to generate $1 million a year.

David Perell is a prolific writer, investor, and founder of Write of Passage, an intensive online writing course to accelerate your career. As host of the North Star Podcast, he interviews successful people such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jason Fried, and Ryan Holiday on what drives them.

Key Takeaways

  • 📣  David got to >90k twitter followers by studying Twitter and being persistent. He believes his audience is more valuable than his college diploma.
  • Your download numbers aren't everything. David’s audience is fairly small but with close to a million dollars in revenue this year, it’s big enough to be life-changing.
  • 🤔  Your personal monopoly is a chosen niche where no one can compete with your expertise, interest, and personality.
  • 🤼  David recommends combining an open platform (podcasting, YouTube) for reach with an owned platform (mailing list, Supercast) to deepen your relationships and monetize.
  • 🔄  (Premium) How David created a flywheel business model, with the different parts of his content business helping to reinforce each other

Get the Bonus Content with David

Subscribe to Supercasters Premium to get bonus content with every episode. It’s free, takes two minutes, and there are no special apps to download.

For this episode, our bonus section includes David talking through his flywheel business model, which neatly illustrates how his writing, tweeting, podcasting, teaching, and investing all come together and build on each other for compounding effect.

Aidan Hornsby: Hey everyone. Welcome to Supercasters, the show where we interview world-class podcasters, deconstruct their growth strategies and find out how they build sustainable independent businesses that thrive on a strong relationship with their listeners.

I'm Aidan Hornsby, Founder of Double Up and Co-Founder of Supercast. And today I'm speaking to David Perell. David's a writer, teacher, investor, and host of the North Star podcast, where he interviews successful people about their habits, ideas, strategies, and the methods that drive them. Past guests have included Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jason Fried, Jennifer Morrison, Ryan Holiday, and Shane Parrish.

David's also passionate about education and has taught thousands of students how to become better writers and how to build their audiences online through his course, Write of Passage. ... So David, thanks for joining us today.

David Perell: I'm thrilled to be here and such a big fan of what you guys are doing. I find it to be a undertapped under-explored opportunity in the world, and it's good that you guys are taking it on. 

Aidan Hornsby: I think there's 101 things we could talk about right now, but probably a good place to start would be a quick introduction to you for people who don't know you. We're going to talk about audience building today. I think that's what I'd really love to dig into with you. You've built a huge and very engaged and loyal audience, but maybe just for those who are new to you, if you could tell us just a little bit high level about your journey into writing and sharing ideas online and how that took you to start a podcast.

How did David Perell get started?

David Perell: Yeah. So I always thought I was going to be a television anchor and that I was going to work in the news. And now I am... I watch no television. And I think that the news is ludicrous and just way too big of a part of society. I had a big pivot where in college, I was working as an anchor for my college television station and really focused on sports.

And then what happened, I started reading people like Ben Thompson and Stratechery. So sophomore junior in college, and I began to realize that people were underestimating the scale of the internet and now what has become cliche, but I find it to be this interesting aspect of what a cliche is that, many of the best cliches are actually incredibly loaded with wisdom, but because they are cliches that we don't hear those truths anymore. And the one that I heard back then, which still continues to be true and underestimated is that people underestimate the extent to which there can be niches on the internet.

And I also believe that ambitious people are underserved. So I'll take each of those in turn. So I started writing and that was because I had seen people like Tim Urban and like I mentioned, Ben Thompson and a handful of people who were writing then, use their writing to make opportunities happen. And so I got into writing and some amazing serendipity began to happen in my life.

I had really interesting people reach out to me. I ended up making a ton of friends who I thought were really intelligent and curious and interesting. And I saw that the traditional model of networking was go out to the world, try to find people and just go from conference to party to late night bar hour.

And what I found was that it was better to actually just skip all the conferences altogether, write online, share ideas, and all of a sudden you become a lighthouse for likeminded people where other people would come to you. And then through writing, I realized that... I hosted a meetup in Chicago in February of 2019, and there, I had hosted a couple of meetups before, and I noticed that the people at different meetups were less interesting than the ones in my previous ones.

And I began to question, Am I trying to write for too broad of an audience? And I settled on yes, that was the answer. And so I stopped focusing on page views and then started just saying, what is it? Is it that I just have five people who I published for? And Ijust say, what do these 5 people want? They're all hyper intelligent. They're individuals cause it's easier to write for a single person. And then they're all just really ambitious, no BS people. And now what I try to do is write for the very smartest people I possibly can and just try to raise my own standards. And by virtue of that process, try to attract people and going back to that, people underestimate the niches on the internet.

I found that just the things that I'm interested in, it turns out there's a very big market for them, even if in my neighborhood or within a mile, as the crow flies of me, there might be just a handful of people who are interested in the same things as I am. When I go online, it feels like there's just a torrential tsunami wave of people who want to explore the same ideas as me.

Aidan Hornsby: Yeah, totally. And I think that idea really resonates because I think it was Tim Owen was talking about this and he's shared kind of something similar and how he approaches creating content. I think he was saying, kind of realized that by the numbers, there's a football stadium worth of people just like him in the world. So he just tries to write for them. And that's a niche, but on the internet, that's a big audience. 

David Perell: But then even with Tim Urban, there's something really interesting that let's say that Tim Urban, he writes a blog called Wait, But Why. Let's say that Tim Urban is somebody who really likes interesting ideas, likes to explore them playfully, but then also is able to explore them playfully, not through the written word only, but also through drawing and by creating characters.

So you get this really interesting duality where there is a football field of people who have the same intellectual interest as Tim Urban, but only one person who can communicate those intellectual interests in the way that Tim Urban does. And when you have that, you have a sweet spot. 

Aidan Hornsby: Going from writing to podcasting, was that a natural leap for you? Once you'd kind of built an audience?

How did David Perell go from writing to podcasting?

David Perell: Yeah. So I started the podcast in November 2016. I remember the date because I did it on a Friday before homecoming. So I skipped work and I went back to my first college homecoming and I interviewed a guy named David Levine. And I started it back when I was still working a full-time job right around the time that I started writing.

But I started the podcast and I don't know how to communicate this with the gravity that it deserves. I started the podcast because I realized that I knew nothing. Like I had had two internships in New York, and I remember looking myself in the mirror and saying, I don't know anything about the world.

I am so wildly incompetent and unprepared to take this world on that if I don't start accelerating my rate of learning, I'm going to be screwed. I didn't start the podcast out of this big audacious vision to start some big radio show or anything like that. I started the podcast as a safety mechanism to not end up in a bad place in my life, because I just didn't know things because I had messed around for four years of college and I was like, Oh, I need to change that. 

And I started a podcast and this was in the early, early, early days of podcasting. It's actually still pretty early. But back when many people who would do a podcast interview hadn't been interviewed on podcasts yet. Now that's not really the case. And so I would interview people and it was an amazing way for me to learn not only the conversations, but to just spend one-on-one time with somebody and to see what are these people in terms of what are their quirks? What are their differences? What makes them stand out?

And a large percentage of people I ended up going out to dinner with, becoming friends with, and they became people who continue to serve as mentors and as friends. Now, many years after I've interviewed them. 

Aidan Hornsby: Hmm. I love that. And something you've said to me, when we spoke before about it was the podcast is a great excuse to have a vessel for interesting conversations for you. That's such a great way to look at it. And I think in terms of how text is different to audio, it's something I want to come back to. But I think one thing I wanted to kinda talk to you about and something that I know a lot of people this has resonated with, you've said you already answered with more than your college degree or even just your Twitter following. That's a statement that a lot of people I think want to learn more about and unpack. So maybe if you could just explain, why is that and how do you value those two things?

Why is your audience more valuable than a college degree?

David Perell: Yes, let's look at it quantitatively and then let's look at qualitatively. So I have built my business. We'll probably do roughly, maybe a little bit less than a million dollars in revenue this year, and I've never spent this, sent to paid marketing, not one cent. And so you could say that spending a cent on paid marketing is producing a podcast.

You could say that it's paying the hundred dollars a year that I paid to host my site, but that's not really paid marketing. Paid marketing is Google and Facebook ads and stuff like that. I don't do any advertising. And so what I've been able to do is get more in profit this year than the cost of a college degree.

And there, you could just say, Hey. It is more valuable. So I think quantitatively that's undisputable, but my audience is the single most valuable thing in my life. Even if I bought a house, I'd rather have the audience than that house. And what people don't realize about say a group of podcasts listeners. They don't realize, Oh, okay. You get 10,000 downloads, 15,000 downloads. No, you have trust, built-in trust with 15,000 people. We always talk about Dunbar's number 150 people that you can keep trust with. The internet obliterated Dunbar's number. On the internet you can have trust with thousands or millions of people at a time.

Now, the problem is when you focus too much for, depending on what you're trying to do, when you focus too much on trying to get more and more people like there are what I've always wanted is trust with thousands of people who shared the exact same ideas that I do. So that. In my area of interest, I can reach sort of whoever I want, but still be somebody who's not famous by any conventional means.

That would be awful. And I would just remind people that your download numbers are not at all the quality and the size of your audience. I mean, I have actually by all means a fairly small audience and yet it's been absolutely life changing and I can basically access anyone that I would want to access with a single email or a single introduction.

Aidan Hornsby: Yeah. And I think I something, a lot of creators I found, I feel like people undervalue or don't quite appreciate the value of the audience they have and the relationship with that. And that relationship across different channels is a different topic, but I think, and I'm kind of curious about the growth of that audience. Did you see a linear growth from kind of zero to where you're at today?

How did David Perell grow his audience?

David Perell: You have the relationship with their audience, it's like friendships and you need to treat them well and you need to respect their attention. And this gets actually a good segueway into Twitter. You need to treat your audience's attention as if every second matters. And I know that sounds absolutely crazy, but I really believe that if you take the axiom that there is now a near unlimited amount of competition for somebody's attention online, then that means that the seconds matter. Like if you waste three minutes of somebody's attention then they might go off somewhere else.

Now that isn't to say that you dumb things down. I worry that that's actually where a lot of television has gone. A lot of television has gone in saying anyone can click off at any time. And when people click on, we need to build a product that we never go so deep that when somebody clicks onto our show, they can't just catch up and get context right away.

Fundamentally, I believe almost the inverse of that: Go as deep as possible. Let's go deep to the specifics and let's prioritize people's attention by now to get onto Twitter. Like I very much say, how can I make sure that every single tweet is in the top 95th percentile of what is on that person's feed.

And I want people to get to a place where they see my name in the Twitter feed and they actually almost get to a point where they like the tweet before they read it. Like that then gets people to a place where okay, this person is consistently good. Now beyond that, what would I focus on if I were starting a Twitter account?

If I was coaching somebody, I would say, follow these axioms, make sure that every single tweet is of excellent and superior quality that helps the other person. So that's the first thing. Then I would remember that building an audience and publishing ideas as is much more like a dance and less like a speech.

What you're doing in a dance, say a tango, there's one person leading the tango, but if the other person is moving a little slow, maybe a little bit faster, your feet are kind of getting mixed up. It is your job as the leader to move at a speed and a cadence and a rhythm that helps the other person move with you.

And so you should be listening to your audience. What are people responding to? What aren't they responding to? And you are still the leader. So you aren't just submitting to the wills of the masses. That's not the point at all, but what you want to do is pay attention to who do you want to reach and what are they resonating with?

And then, this is actually slightly unfortunate, but it is the way that the internet is structured and designed: the internet rewards people who are prolific. And why is that? That's because every single feed from HackerNews to Reddit to Facebook to Twitter to Instagram is sorted chronologically, which means that if you do not publish you mean that basically being invisible. And it's something that I'd like to change about the internet, but it also is something that's just true. The internet doesn't reward the most meaningful ideas. It rewards the most recent ones. And so provided that that is true, what you want to be doing is publishing all the time.

So what I would do if I was just starting out on Twitter is I would publish eight to 10 tweets a day. I would go, go, go make sure every single one of them is really good. Ship them off and do that until you get discovered. 

Aidan Hornsby: Right. And I think that that balance between, as you said, being prolific, being consistent, but being high quality is something that I've thought about a lot and I was to dig in with you because I think some people we'll have a struggle there. How can I be putting eight things out every day, but only putting my best stuff out and particularly, if you're thinking about different channels, if someone's doing a podcast, a newsletter, Twitter, how do you think about editing yourself or kind of distilling ideas down for an audience in that way?

How does David Perell maintain high quality content?

David Perell: Well, of course that's hard. So let's talk about Twitter and then let's talk about podcasting. So with Twitter, one of the things I do is I write a lot of tweets that I don't send, so that ends up at a place where there's this own internal filtering mechanism. Second of all, this is one of the things I focus a lot on in Write of Passage is Write of Passage has a thesis that basically goes something like this.

Everybody who would take Write of Passage, everyone who's listened to this has interesting ideas. Now the issue is you don't know which ones of your ideas are interesting. It is only through conversation and dialogue that you can actually make sense of which ones of your ideas are interesting. So one of the things I'll do a lot is I will have a conversation and I will pay attention to what people are resonating with.

And then I will say something. If they resonated with it, I will distill it and turn it into a tweet. And what's also great about conversation is you realize things. Conversations are like an algorithm for a conscious randomness in that the brain, when you're alone, you're sort of always in these repetitive loops of ideas, but conversations sort of like unlock and tear down the mazes of our own internal psychology.

And you end up saying things that surprise you. So I was talking to our friend Jeremy a couple of weeks ago and I said, yeah, you know, the thing about clocks and mirrors is that they're like these old technologies, but they're so old that nobody really questions them, but they still impact us every single day.

And clocks created a culture of anxiety while mirrors created a culture of narcissism. And he was like, I love that. That's really interesting. And just from that, I said, okay, I'm going to tweet that. And so what I'm doing is I think of a lot of the mind, like a river where a river that is murky doesn't have flow.

This is why people put fountains in rivers, not only so that they're beautiful. Like they're a very beautiful solution to a very annoying problem of the water is still and murky. And we can't see to the bottom and it's ugly. So what we do is we put in fountains so that the river flows, and once the river begins to flow, sort of like a creek, you can actually see to the bottom.

So the more that you have ideas coming in and going out the easier you can see your ideas. And I'm always trying to get this flow, new ideas in, new ideas out. And through that process, a certain number of ideas end up being somewhat interesting. And then the final thing I would say on this is I do not try to only publish things that I know were going to be exceptional.

I actually have no sense of what's going to hit and what isn't going to hit and provided that you don't get into anything that's like supercharged of an idea. What's great is that the internet forgets your flops and remembers the things that go really well. And so I've published a lot of stuff that's been trash and what's great is nobody knows about it.

Aidan Hornsby: And that's something that a lot of people don't really appreciate or haven't learned. I think there tends to be a nature of I have to put out something. But do you think of those as kind of one continuum of ideas, I guess, or do you approach what you're doing with the podcast very differently from ideas you might be testing on Twitter, which make it into essays and yeah, I'm  interested in that.

Does David Perell handle his podcast differently from Twitter?

David Perell: So I would say that podcasts are like the head of the snake in terms of creating randomness and sort of slithering and slathering through my life. It is sort of ending up in this chaotic place that I can never really anticipate where a conversation is going to go.

And I often find that podcasts open my mind to new ideas, but then they also serve as a way for like, I think conversation is really good in the learning process at the beginning and at the end. I think that conversation is really good to expose you to ideas that you would have never found otherwise.

And it's good at the end to stress test ideas that you think that you know pretty well. So then you can ask questions and bounce ideas off of people and fill in the holes. And so I focus on the podcast on either side of those things, like very tactically I'll do podcasts on, Hey, what is this person into?

And if we're in the same area my podcasts will be centered around, these are the questions that I have. Whereas there's other podcasts, like I just interviewed a Hollywood actress named Jennifer Morrison and I'm like, I know nothing about Hollywood. Let's have this conversation. Let me ask you all the questions.

I've always wanted to ask an actress and then like we ended up hanging out in LA and doing a great walk where I got to ask her even more questions about that. So then she becomes a friend. So there's sort of two different ways of thinking about the podcast, but then all of us, as people are very multidimensional and what's frustrating is that each medium has, well there's good and bad. I mean, each medium really has a bias. Like Twitter's a place where we're going to come out with things that are very sharp and very brash.

If you know me only from Twitter, like God, he's got such strong opinions about everything, but then if you know me only from the podcast, it's actually much more intellectually curious and humble and more long-form trying, explore the nuance of ideas, essays, then sort of take that to another level, but essays don't have a lot of the same sort of pop and pizzazz and rhythm and flavor and sort of the movement and the vibe that I like to have, and then that comes off really well on video. So I feel like every medium has sort of a different hue and a different shade of David. And that's why I like being very multimodal in my output.

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You've touched on a number of things. I think for a lot of creators, whatever medium they're working in, wherever they're at, there's good takeaways. One thing you had published, which I've come back to a few times , it was a post about product launches online. I think it's a must-read for anyone who's creating, producing anything, but basically, you had nine or 10 principles and one of the first ones is maybe counterintuitive to some people, but it's give tons of free stuff away. What do you mean by that? 

Why does David Perell believe in giving stuff away?

David Perell: I would say that one of the things that you want to do is get to a place where you have a lot of embedded trust with people and you can sell products based off not the first order questions, but the second order questions.

So what you want to do is you want to publish, publish, publish, and begin to understand why. It's sort of like you're, it's like a double entendre of teaching people where you're teaching people in, they're teaching you back. So what you're doing is you're explaining, Hey, this is what I'm going toward.

You're like a reporter from the field, but people always think, Oh, in order to start publishing something, I need to be an expert. I need to have my master's degree. I need to have my PhD. I might need to have a medical license. I might've needed to gone to graduate school. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

All these things, 20 years of experience, it turns out that what's great about writing online is you can just learn in public and you don't need to be someone who has all these crazy credentials to provide people with a ton of value. And in fact, it is often the people who are a couple of steps ahead of you that you can learn the most from. Like in my online education business, Jeff Bezos, I mean, I revere the guy, he's built an unbelievable company, but I don't think that I can learn much from Jeff Bezos about how to build an online education business, at least compared to the CEO of AltMBA, who is actually on the frontier with me right now and where I want to be in a couple of years.

And so what I find when it comes to giving free stuff away is what you're doing is you are reporting what you're learning and you are teaching other people who are right behind you, sort of coming up then as you continue to make sure that everything that you publish is relevant and helpful.

You are beginning to build trust and credibility with people, but then this is what people don't see. See, this is like the thing that when people are like, Oh, online writing, it's just a, it's just a fad or, eh, it's not that great. The thing that people don't see is all the DMs, all the emails, all the feedback that you get from people and you actually begin to understand how people actually see a problem, how it turns in their head, how your ideas begin to impact other people. And then once you begin to see the second and the third order questions, then you really begin to understand what are people thinking about? So you give away products for free to build trust with people, to build an audience of people who when you do launch something, you can go to them right away. 

But then also, so that you yourself can learn about the field that you're studying. And so that you can get real time feedback from people as you begin to think about, Hey, what is this product going to look like? 

Aidan Hornsby: Yeah. And I think like we were just talking about right. That kind of feedback loop with the audience that's a great way to kickstart that. And I think you're right. People are quite forgiving of learning in public, with the audience is something that creates a connection as well. In some ways, large audiences are sexy, niche audiences are profitable. And I think that's something again, maybe underappreciated by a lot of creators. So if you could speak to that? 

Why are some audiences more valuable than others?

David Perell: So a lot of what I think about is what I call a personal monopoly and I think of real estate where basically. There is a near infinite number of different intersections of ideas that you can focus on in your writing, but some are more profitable than others.

So let's go back to 1920. If you bought real estate on seventy-fourth and Lexington on the East side, that real estate would have gone up in value, much more than a place or all the way out in Eastern Russia or in the middle of Montana, because certain aspects of intellectual real estate are worth more than others.

So when you write online, you want to follow and remember this quote from Jerry Garcia, where he says you want to be the only person who does what you do. And with that, you want to be known on the internet for something that is uniquely yours. A unique intersection of interests, skills, areas of expertise, things that you know about.

And when you then begin to build that niche audience, you of course get to decide what that niche is. Hopefully it's something that you are very interested in, but the challenge in building a niche. And this is something I've spent hours thinking about and something that I'm still trying to really figure out is like, how do you build a niche that feels limitless to you, but look specific to others.

The problem with niches and when people freak out about this idea is when. It is something that just feels limiting to them, right? Like if you were a expert on, on deli sandwiches in Victoria, Canada, it probably would feel very limiting to you. And that just has to do with the way that the niche is structured.

But niches are profitable because you inherently have differentiation and pricing power. And that then is what is turns into being good for a business that there's not a lot of other people who can compete with somebody who is an expert on something that they're extremely interested in, in a way that nobody else will be in something that feels like play to them, but looks like work to others.

And with that, if you layer in some personality with that, you don't have a lot of competition. And which is what makes the creator business model pretty good for the individual. 

Aidan Hornsby: Yeah. And I think just from our experience working with podcasters, it's kind of a medium that if you stick at it long enough and you find a niche, it almost self-selects those people who are so passionate about that topic that you can't help but listen to them. A couple of other ones from this list. One, I think, again, it kind of comes back to this idea that when and how should you start creating I think you said just start creating now. And I think that's a really powerful one. I think a lot of people sit in the sidelines for a long time thinking, well, I want to get this right before I bake it. But you'd said, yes, start before you're ready. And I think this is maybe some interesting points around that and your experience with that as well. 

Why should you start producing content before you're ready?

David Perell: Yeah. So. Let's just keep, let's plant a flag as the end goal here of building a profitable business. Because I think that then that can frame this, this answer.

The thing that you're doing, and what I love about creating is that you can actually test and develop a business model without having to spend the resources of building a product and trying to go to market. You can do it simply through writing. And what I like about writing is that. It is actually impossible to write consistently about something that you, you aren't incredibly passionate about and something that doesn't make you come alive. 

Like if you are bored writing something, the audience will be bored with it too. And if you are bored writing about something that isn't something that later you should devote years to, with building a company around it. So what I would say is provided that you want to start a company, I would say hold off on actually starting the company and just start writing and creating around it now. And people wait their whole lives start waiting for the sound of a starting gun that never goes off. They're listening, listening, listening, and they end up at the end of their lives saying, wait, I was waiting for my turn, but no one ever told me that my turn was there. 

And it's as if the door has always been open for us, but we've looked at the doorman outside and we've been asking the doorman's permission for us to actually go in when the doorman was just standing there. He wouldn't have blocked you from actually entering the door the entire time.

Like just walk through the door. But with that, um, there's a very interesting paradox that people feel when they do start publishing. And it's a uniquely human paradox and it doesn't make logical sense, but everybody feels that. So it makes some kind of post logical emotional sense that people feel time and again, both upset and annoyed that nobody is listening to what they're saying when they publish things, but at the same time, they're worried that now that they've published something, everyone is looking at them and now the center, they're the center of attention. Both of those things can't be true, but people feel both of those things.

It is that emotional challenge that I think makes writing online and creating anything so hard. You know, the barriers people always say that the barriers to starting something have gone down so much. Let me just throw out some cliches here. Oh, you have Shopify. You can build your own business there.

You have Supercast. You can launch your own podcast. There you have Facebook, you can run your own ads there. What are you waiting for? It's never been easier to start building a company. We hear this all the time. And those words, as true as they are, have now become hollow. But what people don't actually understand about this is that now the emotional pressure, because we're all under the gaze of social media, 24 seven, the social pressure and the social anxiety of starting something has in some way, never been greater.

It's terrifying to go out. People are going to see you. They can Google you. Everyone's going to be looking, Oh, what's going to happen. How are my friends gonna think about me? Like we are now almost. Falling under this weight of all the people that we've ever met, all the people that we've ever known, who were like.

Perpetually changed to on social media. And that makes it hard for people to start writing. So with that, when it comes to writing itself and podcasting, one of the things you can just do is start writing anonymously or pseudonymously. I have a friend named Nick Medula. He runs a blog called Of Dollars and Data.

And on new year's day 2017, he made a pact to himself. He said, I am going to write every single week. Every Tuesday, I'm going to publish a post, no matter what, as I speak, he's at about 185 weeks in a row. And at the time he was working for a litigation consulting firm in Boston. And he was frustrated with it, frustrated with his job and he wanted to move from litigation consulting sort of around law, into finance.

So he said, you know what? I know a lot about R which is a statistical program, programming language, and I'm going to combine my knowledge of R, with my interest in finance and for his first 16 weeks, nobody really read his stuff. And then he wrote a post his 16th post called Just Keep Buying and. At the time he was anonymous, just writing at Of Dollars and Data.

And that post went viral. And then he ended up going to a conference in New York city and people knew Of Dollars and Data, didn't really know who he was but because people said, because people he admired like Michael Batnick his all time favorite writer said, Hey, I really like your stuff. He then got the confidence to start writing under his real name.

And I think that this gets to a fundamental idea that. You don't need to start just exposing yourself right at the beginning, you can write anonymously or pseudonymously, and begin to write with training wheels and fall over and sort of catch yourself back up, but do it consistently. And then you'll have a choice.

Do I want to write under my real name later or do I not? And as long as you got started provided that you write pseudonymously, you don't have to deal with a lot of the social pressure that I think is very legitimate, that a lot of people face. 

Aidan Hornsby: And actually you just touched on kind of the last point here that the idea that audience building is a game of compounding. What's your experience with that as well? Because I think that comes back to kind of your own experience of growing an audience, it's very high quality in a relatively short period of time. 

Why is audience building a game of compounding?

David Perell: Yeah. So. There's a couple things that I found and a couple months ago, you and I actually did a study of my Twitter account and how that was growing and what we found was, and this gets back to one of the questions that you asked earlier about Twitter growth and what that's looked like that I didn't quite answer up to standards.

So let me just take a step back here and talk about my personal experience here. Twitter has changed a lot. So Twitter the like button on Twitter that is now a heart used to be called the favorite and it was a star and Twitter used to be an all chronological feed and then it used to be 140 characters. So you have three ways oh, and the UX wasn't pretty at all. So you have four ways. You have the favorite, you have the chronological feed, then you have the, the star, and then you have the, the 140 characters. All those things have changed. Now, Twitter turned the favorite from favorite to a like and the like is a,  like a favorite is very high bar, uh, like as a much lower bar for engagement, then Twitter became 280, which meant that you could pack a lot more information in a tweet, but then the most important one is that Twitter became algorithmic. 

So what used to happen is, you would only see a tweet if you followed somebody or somebody you followed retweeted that tweet, and so your best tweets would get, let's just say ballpark it, four to six times more reach as your average tweets. Then once Twitter went to an algorithmic feed, then it became, Twitter could just insert your tweet in anybody's feed and the inherent limits on how far your tweet could spread sort of disappeared.

So now your best tweets might get a hundred or 500 more impressions than your average one. So Twitter went from being more of a bell curve to a power law. So with that, that, when that came. Audience growth on Twitter became much easier, but also the platform became a little bit hackable and you saw that with the whole platitude culture on Twitter.

But for me in particular, I probably took two years to get to a thousand followers, probably took another year to get to two or three took another year. And this was probably early 2019 at around 10,000, then. By December, 2019, I had around 35 and we're recording now mid 2020, and I have 90,000. So that really exploded.

Now I wouldn't say that there's any kind of guarantee that you get that growth for a couple of reasons. First as I have spent a lot of time studying Twitter. I have a course on how to use Twitter. And so I actually got better at using the platform over time. That's the first thing. And the second thing is that the nature of Twitter's changes have advantaged my style and I there's an element of luck there, but I think you do see, like I could have never, ever gotten that 60,000 that I've basically gotten in the last six months by just in the early days of Twitter. And so yes, there is a level of compounding and I think that that's, what's so frustrating about using Twitter in the early days, you just have this like voice and you have these ideas and you want to be heard and you feel like you're at Coachella, but you can't actually talk or dance. It's as if you're just like looking at everyone, having fun and you can hear the music, but you can't actually get involved with it yourself. And that's really frustrating for people. 

Aidan Hornsby: Yeah. That's super interesting. Just in terms of how the platform has evolved there had never really... those things kind of happened slowly, right? Unless you were kind of really paying attention. In terms of podcasting audiences, do you find that you've mainly driven people, did they go straight from your newsletter to the podcast, from Twitter to the podcast or do they discover the podcast in other ways?

How do people discover David Perell's podcast?

David Perell: Yeah, so. I don't mean to deflect your question, but it's the honest truth. Podcasting is such a black box. I just don't know. And you know, it's really interesting. So I got sort of burnt out on the podcast in part, because I couldn't really see how it was actually engaging with people and I've struggled to grow a podcast.

That's, that's been tricky for me. And so what I've done is I've really focused on the email and now the podcast is beginning to grow again, but I'm now growing my email list at around a thousand to 1500 people a week. And so I'm trying to drive as many of those people over to the podcast as I can.

I think that it's going OK. But I think that they're actually, we're very nascent in terms of understanding how podcasts spread and understanding how they actually convert, how many people listened to them and podcasts. At the same time though, at least in my business, I think of them as well, further down the funnel.

I think podcasts are an incredible opportunity for trust. And I think that every company should at least have some kind of podcast that people can listen to. That's 15 to 20 short episodes that take an hour and a half because podcasts are very good, good at scaling education. A certain number of people like to read, but a certain number of people just like to listen.

And if you could say. What if there was like a podcast, like the Shopify podcast that was 15 to 20 very short episodes about Shopify, why it exists, how it helps merchants, why they're more supply side focused than demand side focus. And that would be really interesting. And I find that podcasts have a lot of different reasons for being. Now, there's a different kind of podcast that isn't about sort of scaling education. That's more about, Hey, we're going to have a relationship. We're going to come together every single week. And what I found there is it's about consistency. That seems to be the thing that works and talking to some friends who have way bigger lists than I do, who have started a podcast, they too have been surprised by how hard it is to convert email subscribers into podcast listeners. And maybe it's because it's a different medium, like maybe it's easier to convert it for your email subscribers into writing, just cause it's from words to words, instead of words to audio.

But this is a big opportunity for intellectual expansion for adding models and strategies here that I actually think Supercast could be a big help with. 

Aidan Hornsby: Actually kind of leads me to the last question I had on audiences. And it's maybe more of a thought than a question, but I think it's kind of a funnel of attention, right?

And if you have social media at the top, someone's reading a tweet somewhere in the middle, someone spending some time on your website, maybe they're watching some videos. Some way down the bottom, they're spending hours listening to you, talk to people and that developing a very personal relationship with you.

And I think that's something that people who I've worked with have been podcasting a long time. Definitely kind of inherently understand that the relationship you build up with a podcast audience over time is quite unique, you know, you're very active across a number of channels and you're creating content and sharing. Do you notice any difference with the podcast audience compared to others? 

What is unique about podcast audiences?

David Perell: One of the things I will tell you is there's something about podcasts that they almost feel the weirdest that people listen to because they feel the most sort of coincided with my ordinary life. Like when I record a podcast, it's just like, Oh, I'm just having a conversation and I just sort of forget about it. Whereas like with an article, I'll pour over articles. I mean, they like take over my life, like towards the end of a long form essay. I routinely get sick and I can't sleep at night because I'm just thinking so hard about how to coin a phrase. Whereas an episode like this what's really interesting about podcast is there's basically like a one to one match of how long it takes versus to produce versus how long it takes to consume.

So an hour and a half podcast takes roughly an hour and a half to produce an essay that takes an hour and a half to consume takes 200 hours, 300 hours to produce. And as a result, I almost forget about the podcast sometimes, but the, for certain audiences, the podcasts are the things with reach. Like I know Patrick O'Shaughnessy who runs a podcast called Invest like the Best and runs an asset management firm called O'Shaughnessy Asset Management, they do these outstanding white papers and one mediocre podcast episode will far exceed the reach of that single white paper. And so podcasts have a lot of the attention and a lot of the trust and I think that what you're saying with Rogan and a lot of these other podcasters, it's unbelievable.

Just how much influence they have. No, not really just like the reach, but just the depth of the people that they do reach it's like these serious relationships, like you're inviting podcasters into your mind, into your it's like the voice of God inside of your head. 

Aidan Hornsby: Yeah. It's like what, it's the most personal connection you're building and it's the hardest to measure. So I think that's one of the interesting paradox is about it. 

David Perell: And I actually think it's more personal than video because you just forget about it. Yeah. Something like that. 

Aidan Hornsby: Yeah. And I mean, it fills dead time. Right? So many people just kind of plug in the headphones and then you've been listening to Joe on your commute for five years, like that's informed your thinking.

That's awesome, David, thank you. I think just before we wrap, I wanted to ask you what are you working on right now? What is keeping you awake at the moment? What are you excited about? And what's coming up for you? 

What is David Perell's 'Write of Passage'?

David Perell: Yeah, so really just focused on Write of Passage, which I want to be the business school of the future.

So when you know, it's funny, I was reading about Y Combinator this week. And when they first started, they didn't take it very seriously. It was just a summer program that they did for people who didn't want to do an internship who were fairly ambitious. And after a couple cohorts, they were like, Whoa, this is really a thing.

We actually have to start taking this seriously. This thing actually works. And when you first start something, you actually can't take it too seriously, because if you took everything that you started really seriously, then you would just be driven crazy. And with Write of Passage, when I started it, it was just a writing course and it was $600 and, you know, fairly middle brow in terms of pricing. And it was something like, you know, people would come out and, you know, we'd do it. I was kind of embarrassed by it and it was sort of an experiment like, Hey, we'll see if this works. And now Write of Passage is something that we are taking very seriously.

I mean, we have that the price has gone up to two and $3,000 and that's like a real product. And then also online courses, it's not really about building an online course anymore. It's really about building the business school of the future. And fundamentally, I want to build hundreds or thousands of sustainable profitable software businesses.

And what I have is this idea of audience-first products were similar to what we've been saying today. You build an audience, then you build your relationship with your audience, build trust with them, and you build a reach and then after a certain threshold, say 5,000 email subscribers, you have a podcast that gets 10,000 downloads per episode.

Who knows you then launch a software product. And I believe that to return to the beginning of this conversation, there are basically a near infinite number of niches on the internet. People are systematically underestimating that. And so I'm in that Y Combinator transition right now of going from okay, this was a course to now this is going to become the business school of the future. In that we are going to take people who are, have a vision for building a software product, and there'll be a four to six year program. That allow them to do that. And fundamentally, I want to get people up to $200,000 a year in profitability and get hundreds or thousands of people to that number.

Because at that number, you have financial freedom where you don't have to deal with a lot of the corporate BS in the world. You can live wherever you want. You can raise a family that has the means to live a happy life. And also with those kinds of small software businesses, you know, they're generally small.

You don't have to compromise your ethics at all to build a big business. And that is something that really inspires me. It's something that I think the world needs. It's something that I really want to build. And so I'm now in my growing up phase of going from building a course to building a full on school.

And what does it mean to train the knowledge workers of the future. And I've always thought business school was kind of ridiculous that you don't actually build it business. And that's what it should be. 

Aidan Hornsby: That's awesome. And I'm aware if anyone wants to check out Write of Passage, we'll take the coursework and they go online.

David Perell: Yeah. So it's And then my website is, P E R E L And you'll see, in the header there, you can click on course, learn about it there. And then I have an essay called my 10 year vision, where you can look into all of the specifics of what I'm going to do, how I'm gonna build this and the step by step process. I'm going to take to build hundreds or thousands of small software businesses. 

Aidan Hornsby: That's awesome. If people want to follow you on Twitter, which hopefully off this conversation they will, where can they get you? 

David Perell: David underscore Perell on Twitter and thank you very much, Aidan. 

Aidan Hornsby: Thanks, David. I hope you enjoyed the episode and if you sign up at you'll automatically get all of our future bonus episodes too. Feel free to get in touch. We're @supercast on Twitter. Otherwise goodbye for now.