How to make a million dollars with fewer than 1000 downloads per episode

A personal story that will help you get to know the Timber founders a little better

The clickbait title is real, and I’ll get to it. I’ll tell you how that happened, but it won’t be the essence of this story. This story I’m really going to tell is a personal story that shows how important podcasts as a signal of expertise can be for people in expert services fields.

If you’ve read this newsletter, then you know I try very hard to talk about how at Timber we believe in hard work, earned experience, and craft. But why should you believe me? Any startup company’s brand is just a reflection of its founders, so you can only trust me insofar as you know me. The same is true for our currently less publicly engaged cofounder Chris Hickman.

I think the best evidence is to look backward in time at what we’ve done. Today I’ll tell you about the podcast Chris and I made called Mobycast. By the time we made it, Chris and I were already “greybeards” in the software world. We were old in years, had written thousands of lines of code, seen every error that ever happens, and kept our skills sharp as times and technologies changed.

In 2018 our 10 year old software consulting business Kelsus was plateauing because we had run to the ends of our personal networks looking for new clients. We wanted to figure out how to let the wider world know that we were really good at what we did. It was a sucky feeling to have to do this because we aren’t naturally self promotors and we had learned that people didn’t magically become aware of all our successful projects. Given the 2018 timing, the obvious solution was to start a podcast. And as is our goal with Timber, even back then we wanted to zero in on earned experience.

Our very first episode set the tone that we wanted to get deeper—more specific, more nuanced, and geeky—than typical software media. See there’s a tendency in the software world to sweep complexity under the rug. Memes, blog posts, famous twitter accounts etc all tend to celebrate a kind of laziness that many software developers cultivate.

We wanted to cut against that laziness. So in our first episode we talked about the difference between two important software concepts (containers and virtual machines) that most of the professionals in the field would be hard pressed to explain accurately.

Over the course of over 100 episodes, we continued to beat the no-shortcuts-to-experience drum. In hindsight it’s not surprising that the show didn’t blow up to top 10 iTunes status. Hard work is less popular than easy wins.

That’s not to say we had no fans and no popularity. Some of our transcripts were nominated for Noonies on Hackernoon. And a two part episode on How to Be a Great Software Developer ran into the mid five figures of downloads and transcript reads. It was over two hours of specific advice that boiled down to “take no shortcuts.”

So we settled into a rhythm with our podcast. It was so technical its audience had a natural upper limit to it, but we kept at it. Week after week of diving down into the details of how things work. Our goal was to teach. The more we learned about podcasting and the more traction we got with an audience, the more seriously we took the show.

In late 2019, Chris and I were so focused on the show that we paid to get professional training. We hired an amazing improv coach named Zoey Galvez to do two 12 hour days of immersive improv and vocal training. Our belief was that we couldn’t be on air talking about how important learning and improvement is for software developers without doing the same for ourselves as podcasters. What we learned is that as we were taking our show more and more seriously, we had developed a stiffness in our delivery that was rooted in our fear of saying things that were technically inaccurate. Chris’s preparation time as “the expert” in the show had ballooned from a few hours a week to a nearly full time job for this very reason. We even remade our first episode as a four part series because we were so focused on being accurate.

Since the show was demanding so much of our attention we realized we couldn’t keep going forever for free. We had this idea that we were going to turn the show into a product—that it was going to be the basis of a money making operation to educate software developers. Initially we monetized the old fashioned way, with ads. Even with fewer than 1000 downloads an episode on average we were able to snag a host-read ad contract from Circle CI (thanks Circle CI!). This win was so small, though, that we immediately knew we weren’t going to get very far on ads. We already knew that we had a limited audience because of the nature of our content, and we’d been trying to 10x our audience—REAAAALLLY TRYING—and it just wasn’t happening. A few hundred bucks for an ad spot wasn’t going to justify leaving behind the much better paying software consulting work that had brought us to podcasting in the first place.

So? Dreams of becoming a educational media company started to dry up. But wait, what about the headline? How did we make a million bucks? I think we made it because the podcast put us into the minds of people that were in a position to hire Kelsus. I can think of at least three new projects that we would not have won if it weren’t for Mobycast. For example, when the LinkedIn post below was written, Dave didn’t yet know that Pax8 would be come a client of Kelsus.

The value across these Mobycast-earned projects to Kelsus is well over a million dollars (in revenue—not in profit 😊). The awareness we generated by making the show wasn’t the only thing that was helpful to winning these deals. The podcast acted as sort of a trust-generator for people not even in the room during sales calls. To those that didn’t listen, the show was effective window dressing, and to those that did, we proved our expertise on tape.

There was one final, tangible, but unquantifiable benefit that might also be worth millions. For both Chris and I, the hours and hours spent trying to seem smart in front of microphones (and microphones instantly raise the stakes), made us into better talkers. The confidence that we carry into conversations has significantly changed. “Oh you want to talk software architecture? Get cozy. This is my jam.”

Beyond this specific personal example, I think we’re at a point where most expert services business would see the same value if they put similar effort and perseverance into developing a podcast. The keyword is expert. If we were on our show talking in generalities about how great we are at software it wouldn’t have worked. We were talking in specifics. We talked for over an hour about “Using Feature Flags to Increase Velocity and Decrease Risk in a Modern CI/CD Delivery Pipeline.” Likewise if you’re in another industry, say building for example, people would expect episodes like “Below-Slab Vapor Barriers—What does a Perm Rating Mean.” Experts making business decisions look for content like this over clickbait like 😬 the title of this post.

There we go. I wrote a metric ton. To start to wrap it up, I think we’ll continue to see lots of podcasts getting made as signals of expertise, and I think they’re a great way to do it, even if audiences are relatively small. Some podcasts are already wielding this weapon so well that it’s worth not just a million bucks but billions. I’m thinking of The a16a Podcast from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and it’s media empire ambitions. They’re using their media not for the money it generates directly but to shape an entire industry to their profit.

Many people reading this may be in the podcast industry helping people make shows. Maybe you’re doing editing or sound design or consulting. I definitely suggest finding people out in the world that are like the 2018 version of Chris and me, and telling them stories like this. Chris and I will happily help if we can. If you can bring out their expertise, you will have a happy client.

Thanks for reading! Questions and comments are welcome below and in Discord!

—Jon Christensen