Previously, Chris was co-founder and CEO of Grove (acquired by Wealthfront), co-founder of Milk (acquired by Google), and a partner at Google Ventures, where he focused on seed and early stage investments.
Chris reached out with many questions about podcasting. He had already read much of what I had written and listened to several interviews, and this is intended to be an updated guide to all things podcasting.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. We’ve had three technical failures, but we’ve made it happen, and this is an improv episode. I’m very excited about it because my friend, Chris, reached out with many questions about podcasting, good questions. He had already read much of what I had written. He’d listened to several interviews, and this is intended to be an updated guide to all things podcasting.
The last time I wrote anything at length about this, I think The Tim Ferriss Show had about 60 or 65 million total downloads, now it’s past 700 million. The show has grown, a lot has happened, technologies have, I want to say, developed, not always evolved as we may end up covering. Chris, why don’t you take a moment to tell people who you are? We’ve known each other now for at least six years, maybe closer to 10. I can’t really even recall how we first met, but we have a mutual friend in Kevin Rose and many other people. Who are you, Chris?
Chris Hutchins: Hi, everybody. I’m Chris, Chris Hutchins. I’m a bit of one of those crazy life hacker optimizers, take it to the extreme sometimes. I host a podcast, hopefully a soon to be award-winning podcast, called All the Hacks, where I document my journey to upgrade my life, money, travel, all while spending less and saving more. Outside of that, I’m building new products at Wealthfront. Before all of this, I’ve started a few companies, sold a few companies, worked in venture capital, investment banking, management consulting, and kind of traveled around the world for eight months. A bit of a seasoned set of random things, jack of all trades, maybe master of none, and I’m excited to be here.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I am excited to jam, because I actually haven’t spoken at length in detail about the latest and greatest, or in some cases, the old and the tried and the true that I don’t think needs to change. I want to underscore that you really do know what you’re doing when it comes to certain obsessive deep dives that you’ve done, particularly, I shouldn’t say particularly, but including travel and points, and not just saving or cutting costs, but improving the immersive experiences that you have in life. You’ve traveled to roughly 70 countries, mostly for free on points, and there’s much more to it. How many episodes have you recorded and published so far of your podcast? Just so people have some context.
Chris Hutchins: This is relatively new. I think I just released episode 19 when we’re recording this. I started in May, it’s September, so only four or five months.
Tim Ferriss: All right. We’ll come at this from many different angles, but where do you think it makes sense to start in preparation for this, hoping this would be sort of the one-stop shopping or at least the jumping off point for anyone who really wants to study, maybe not best practices, but good practices within podcasting? Where do you think it makes sense to start?
Chris Hutchins: There were two things that you’ve done that I think really gave me a lot of background, and one was the post you mentioned that you wrote in 2016. Then, you did a, maybe two-hour or something interview with Rolf Potts on his Deviate podcast and talked a lot about this. I thought maybe to kick it off, I’ll just highlight some of my takeaways from doing my homework and feel free to say, “Well, that’s wrong. That’s changed.” We can kind of run through what I learned, and then we can kind of run through that same series of kind of getting started, picking gear, finding guests, again, and kind of dive deeper on what’s changed, and how it’s evolved, and questions that maybe were left unanswered in the original stuff.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s do it.
Chris Hutchins: Perfect. When it comes to getting started, this is something that I like you, took a while to decide to start a podcast. One of the pieces of advice that you gave that was really valuable to me was: “You don’t have to commit forever.” I think it always feels like a thing that you have to do forever. Once you start, it happens every week forever. You can kind of set a date and say, “Let’s do five. Let’s do 10 episodes and that’s it, and we’ll reevaluate.” I think that’s a really important takeaway, is that knowing you don’t have to commit forever. The other big one is, it’s a lot more work than it seems and so you said, “Only do this if you’d do it for free,” which really means it’s got to be you. It’s got to be what format excites you, the tone of voice, the kinds of guests, the questions that are exciting to you. Otherwise, you’ll get bored.
The final kind of getting started advice I took away was, “Look, if you don’t have an audience, don’t be afraid,” right? Everyone started with some lack of audience at some point, and plenty of people with massive audiences had totally failed in podcasting. The quick way is just get a couple episodes out there, keep it simple, do something you love, don’t worry about the business side and experiment. I think that kind of sums up what everyone needs to know, in a very concise way before getting started.
Tim Ferriss: Let me add to that.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I agree with all of that, and I want to add a couple of nuances or just additional comments. It’s helpful to bracket the minimum, and then a check-in point for your commitment to podcasting. In other words, you could say, “I’m only committing to do it to X or for Y number of episodes.” I decided to do six episodes, to commit to six episodes in the beginning, because I wanted to ensure that I could win even if I failed. What that meant was, what skills can I develop, learn, or improve? What relationships can I forge or deepen, that will be a value to me even if I stop podcasting? The minimum effective dose for that is, probably not one episode, it’s probably not two episodes, it’s probably not three episodes. For me, I thought, “Ah, it’s probably somewhere between five and 10. Let’s just commit to doing six.” I don’t know exactly why I chose six.
The way I could win even if I failed in that case was by improving my ability to ask questions and plan interviews, because I was already doing that in the course of writing books. When I did research, when I found experts, these were all transferable skills. I would also have an excuse to deepen relationships with some of my close friends, because it’s pretty creepy to do hours and hours of internet sleuthing on your friends otherwise, but if you have the pretext of an interview, you can actually learn a lot about people like Kevin Rose, our mutual friend, who was my first guest ever, who chafed my nuts really hard, and it’s pretty funny to listen to now. It was less amusing at the time, so that’s I think an aspect of the picking of the minimum dose that’s important.
Doing something you love is ideal. If you can do something you love, fantastic. If you don’t know what it is that you love or would love, because if it’s a new medium you may have no idea, at least do something that is sustainable. Don’t do something for say, six episodes, that you can’t do for 500 episodes. That’s my advice. If you try to out-This American Life This American Life, you’re going to get your face ripped off. There’s a reason when they read the credits at the end, that they have a staff of 20 or 30 people. It is an incredible amount of work, and they work very hard for it to seem seamless and maybe even improvised, “Wow, it’s so conversational.” They do this with the team at Gimlet as well. You listen to it, you’re like, “Oh, they’re just having a conversation.” No, believe me, they’re not just having a conversation.
Sustainability is super important. Like you said, Chris, there’s more involved than you expect. You should ask yourself, “This podcasting, it applies to many other things, if this costs twice as much, took twice as much time, would I still do it?” If the answer is no, either don’t do it, or change the format, change the approach so that the answer is yes.
Podcasting is not the native element for all people, right? If you think about how people with large audiences have built large audiences, in some cases, they build them on YouTube and then that audience follows them to new formats. In some cases, mine would be such a case, they build it through books, but books don’t give you direct access to readers in the same way that podcasts do not give you direct access to your listeners, so I ported the popularity of the books into building a popular blog. The blog is what gave me an audience that then traveled, in part at least, to podcasting. A lot of building a large audience, if that is one of your goals, and by the way, I don’t think that is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. I would ask “Why, why, why, why?” at least a few times or “So what?” at the very least.
You need to choose a game you can win. That requires some self-assessment. For instance, if you decide you should do podcasting because everyone else is doing podcasting, you are going to be outlasted, outsmarted, outmaneuvered by people who are really, really enthusiastic about the medium, about the format. They’re just going to be better and they’re going to last longer. There’s this gigantic kind of elephant graveyard of three-episode podcasts. If you’re likely to be a casualty, do something else, pick a different medium.
Because I mentioned it, I think at the very head of the show, if I didn’t, I should have, we had a number of technical difficulties in getting this show started. We had a number of false starts. Sorry to throw you guys under the bus, but you kind of failed us today. Zencastr had a number of issues, then the plan was to jump to SquadCast, but you have used Riverside.fm. All of these platforms I have seen fail. None of them are perfect. Therefore, on the technical side, whether you are in-person or remote, the expression that I first learned from friends in the military, “Two is one, and one is none.” If you have a single point of failure, you are going to be fucked at some point. You will have a disaster and it will be a mess. Always have backup options. In the calendar invite, or in the email that was sent to Chris and also in my calendar, there are at least two backup options, and both of us are currently recording local backup audio using QuickTime audio. Those are a few things that I wanted to add. Please continue, Chris.
Chris Hutchins: Yes. I do want to talk about gear, but I’ll ask one question before, which is in 2017, you said, “Yeah, it’s definitely not too late start a podcast,” but that was a long time ago. 24 percent of people had listened to a podcast, now it’s closer to 60. There were a few hundred thousand podcasts. Now, there’s over two million. You still think we’re early in the days of podcasting and there’s lots of opportunity, or is it too crowded and people should consider new mediums for content?
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s still super early. I think it’s still super, super early. There are some indicators or maybe proxies that you can use for that. The percentage of say, terrestrial radio or satellite radio advertising dollars that have migrated to podcasting, is still extremely low. I don’t know what the percentage is, but it’s very low, I would anticipate, just based on the types of brands that you see represented. You can look at other types of media. Based on that alone, I think we are very much in the early days. Super, super early days. That said, we’ve seen a lot of changes over the last handful of years. If you look at the charts, say on Apple or elsewhere. If you look at Apple, the sort of one person shops or small team shops like mine, are fewer and fewer and far between.
Let’s just say, when I got started in whenever it was, 2014 I think, maybe a little bit earlier, you had Joe Rogan way up at the top of course. You had Nerdist, you had Marc Maron, you had a handful of others who were constantly in the top 10, top 20 on what was then iTunes. What you see now is professional outfits. You see companies, you see organizations, WNYC. You see Pushkin, which I think does a really nice job. You see actual companies. You see also incumbents, previous sort of terrestrial incumbents, who are now investing dollars into podcasting.
There has never been more competition, but the analogy I might use is, let’s use startup investing, something that you and I are quite familiar with. I had the very good luck of starting to do angel investing in 2008. Now, this was perfect timing because there was a financial crisis, which meant all the fair-weather entrepreneurs, founders, and investors kind of ran for the hills. That left the diehards and the true believers, which meant that the playing field was very uncrowded. You could actually find really, really good startups, I believed, all over the place. In 2008, 2009, it was a great time to invest.
In 2015 or so, I decided to exit stage left, not because there weren’t great companies, there were great companies, but it was a lot harder. The deal terms were harder. There was a huge influx of capital from all over the place, including China. Things were getting really weird for me. I realized, “Okay, this just went from single deck blackjack, where you could have a system as a solo player, as a team, to multiple deck blackjack.” I don’t have confidence using my own bank roll, that I can win in this environment. I took a long break.
Similarly, you just have to be better now. When I started in 2014, if you had an existing audience that traveled with you, you could be in the top 20, 30, 40, 50 on, then iTunes, now Apple, with relative ease. You can still do that if you have a massive influx of subscribers over a short period of time. It could be a few days, it could be a week, but you’ll fall off. It’s simply harder now.
There’s all the more reason why you should have confidence that you’re going to do this with some degree of dedication to the craft, like you Chris, you’re taking the study of the craft and the practice and the deliberate training, so to speak, very seriously. You have to have, I think, good reasons for doing it. A good reason could be, “I enjoy doing it,” great. That’s a good enough reason. You do not need to be on the charts to have a, quote unquote, successful podcast, but you have to ask yourself, “Why am I starting a podcast? Why do I want to start a podcast?” Let me ask you that Chris, why did you want to start podcasts? Why did you decide to start a podcast?
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, I think two things happened at the same time. One was, I found myself constantly, whether I was with a group of people I knew or didn’t know, kind of telling a story about a level of optimization that, in the financial travel world that most people hadn’t thought about. I thought, “Man, I love telling that story to people. Could I tell that story at more scale, because it seems like it’s happening a person at a time.” That was a piece of it.
The bigger piece was, I loved that game. I knew that the only way I would get better at that game and go deeper at that game, was to learn. There are people out there that know much more about different types of ways to upgrade life, ways to optimize, ways to make more money or save more money or invest better. I was going to find those people and have those conversations anyway, because I was, but I knew that people loved hearing those stories in small groups. I thought if I had a platform where I could have those conversations and share them, people just like I would see at a dinner table, would enjoy listening to them on a run, at home, driving in the car. I thought, “I’m going to do this anyways. I love doing it. Why not see if other people really do want to listen at scale,” and they did.
Tim Ferriss: Do you still feel like that is enough, the psychic gratification of sharing what you would have done otherwise? The reality is, it is kind of what you would have done otherwise, but the setup and the tech and the microphones and the post-production and everything else involved, adds a layer of labor and complexity, right? What, on top of that, if anything, there doesn’t need to be anything extra, but how has your thinking changed on what makes it worthwhile to continue or not?
Chris Hutchins: Well what’s interesting is, let’s take an episode I did with a writer, Morgan Housel, and it was all about The Psychology of Money. I’d read the book. I’d been fascinated by it. I had questions I wanted to ask Morgan. I could probably just reach out and say, “Hey, I’m just a person and I want to learn more about what you wrote. Can we talk?” I’m guessing I would have had better success, which I did, saying, “Hey, I have this podcast. I want to talk. I want to ask you the questions and share that with my audience.” Having the podcast lets you level up, I believe, the people you can have those conversations with because there’s a reason. It gives a reason to do that. Then as the audience grows, it gives a second reason. One is, you could just reach out and say, “Can we do a phone call?” but there’s at least a reason. Then as the audience grows, there’s more. That, I think, is worth the trade off of the amount of work you have to put into it.
You mentioned gear. There’s a world where, and I believe you can buy a microphone for under a hundred dollars and use a pair of headphones you already own and keep it pretty simple. I think to your original post and what we talked about earlier, the more simple you make it, the easier it will be to keep going, and the more authentic it will be. You may think you want to say something because it’s what the audience wants to hear. There’s this weird thing where it’s actually, just ask what you want and most people are more engaged by your engagement with the conversation, than if you ask a question they want to hear, but you’re bored having that conversation.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, absolutely. Just to give people a sense. Right now, I’m using what I use, more or less all of the time for remote recording and I remotely record, even pre-COVID, probably 80, 90 percent of my interviews. It allows you to get better guests by the way, generally speaking, unless you are the undisputed king of podcasts like Joe Rogan, then you can insist on in-person visits. Very few podcasters have that leverage and you will sacrifice some guests by having those conditions. I do everything remotely. It makes my life easier as well. I’m in a farmhouse right now. I’ve recorded dozens of podcasts here. I have a Logitech BRIO camera, which I do not use all of the time. I very frequently do audio only. We could talk about why I don’t do more video.
I have an Audio-Technica ATR2100x, one of the more recent, it might be a 2500, and you have that exact microphone in front of you. This is probably, what would you say, an $80 to $100 microphone, that connects to my MacBook Pro and then I’m using AirPods for in-ear listening. That’s it. That is the sum total of hardware that I am using. We’re currently recording on Riverside.fm, which you use. I typically use Zencastr and SquadCast, but all of these things break, so have backup. If this didn’t work, I also have a conference line with no pin that can be set to record. If my computer broke, I could call Chris on my cell phone and we could record the conversation. I have backups upon backups upon backups. Trust me, at some point, you’re going to need it.
Chris Hutchins: Is there a point at which you would just reschedule? How do you think about that, the quality of a conference bridge being maybe not worth doing now, and postponing to when your computer worked again?
Tim Ferriss: I will reschedule if the connection is really bad, or if the audio on the opposite end is very poor. To try to minimize the likelihood of the audio being poor on the other end, we ship every guest a microphone, unless they already have a really polished setup. We will use Amazon Prime to buy an Audio-Technica 2100 mic, and ship it to them. It’s very easy to do. It’s $80 to $100. That may not make any sense in the beginning or be feasible in the beginning, but right now for the type of operation that I run and very quickly, the cost of rescheduling is more to me than $80 to $100.
However, you can have a great mic and a really terrible room. If someone’s in a room with lots of metal, lots of glass, you could have a very bouncy room, even with a decent mic. There are other technical tricks that are not really tricks, but you could have a mediocre mic in a room with lots of carpet and drapes, and you’re going to have probably a better sound than a really nice mic in some highly modern, metallic, glass, bouncy room. If you end up in that type of environment, there are tricks you can use like putting pillows in the corners of the room. That’s what I learned from Edward Norton actually. He was in a really bouncy room and he said, “Hold on. I know how to fix this,” and he fixed it. I was like, “Wow, that’s genius.” You do get better at these things over time, but I very rarely reschedule unless one of us is sick or the sound quality is absolutely abysmal.
A bridge line recording is not going to give you Carnegie Hall, sort of symphony quality fidelity, but nobody really cares is what I’ve realized. I don’t use equalizers. I don’t use any of these external devices that one might think are necessary. Yes, they can improve quality sometimes. As Morgan Spurlock said to me on this podcast, “Once you get fancy, fancy gets broken,” and I prefer to have the fewest number of moving pieces possible. When I record in-person just to cover that, I use the Zoom H6 recording device, with XLR cables and generally SM58 stage microphones, which are Shure microphones. They’re the oldest microphones you can imagine. Yes. You have the H6. You could take the SM58 mic and probably throw it against a brick wall and it would be fine, that’s my guess. I can throw all of that gear into a backpack. I can travel with my entire podcast studio, so to speak. It’s been good enough for between 600 and 700 episodes and I don’t have any plans to change. That is the gear.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah. I use a similar setup and I would say, I don’t know if you know a specific one, you could go listen to the episodes I’ve done and one of them, someone had no headphones, no microphone. We were just using a MacBook and I’d be shocked if someone could actually, that isn’t an audio engineer, could go back and pick out which one it is.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Pro tip that we ended up using earlier in this conversation, which I picked up from Kevin Rose actually, who has a lot of experience with this kind of thing, is if you’re doing a remote recording and you ask someone to check their source, to make sure the inputs and outputs are set properly, they say “My mic is selected,” if it sounds funny to you, ask them to tap the mic. If they tap the mic and you don’t hear that kind of punchy tapping sound, then it means it is not selected. It’s probably their headset or the built-in microphone on the laptop. That’s an easy way to test to see if the proper external mic is selected. All right, gear, Chris.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What else should we cover?
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, so I think we covered gear a lot. One thing you mentioned was video. Early on your advice to people was, “Don’t use video. It makes it easier for guests. You can look at your notes.” You said that’s evolved a little bit. We’re recording video today. How do you think about that differently now? Do you think about it differently in a way that wouldn’t apply to someone else?
Tim Ferriss: I record video now, if someone wants to record and if I think it will improve the rapport in some fashion. I still frequently record without video because I like to have lots of notes. I do quite a bit of homework. My team does quite a bit of homework for each guest, and I like to have my notes in front of me. It sometimes can be very distracting if you’re having a conversation with someone on video and you’re looking off screen like Rain Man. I also like the ability to set, and I always set both the laptop and my iPhone to do not disturb. You might just receive a FaceTime audio call, and that can mess up your interview. It does happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. It’s not fun. Do not disturb. Do not disturb.
With do not disturb on my iPhone, if I’m not using video, you could also take yourself off video temporarily to do this or you could tell the guest in advance that if you check your iPhone, you’re not checking email, you’re Googling something. What will sometimes happen is a guest will say, “Oh, well, there’s a book by so-and-so, it’s called this. I can’t remember the author name.” You can look that up. Or they will say, “There are three people who are really good at X, Y, and Z,” they’ll name two, and then they’ll say, “The second person, I think their first name is Laura or Brian.” You can look it up so you don’t have to deal with it in post production or put it in the show notes. You can look it up on an iPhone and no one who is listening will hear you tap the iPhone, but they will very often hear you tap a laptop. I use my phone in that way.
Now you could have a production assistant or a producer or an engineer or someone like that, who would do this for you, which is what Joe Rogan does. I don’t do that. I have a smaller team. By the way, it works spectacularly well. Now speaking of Joe, Joe Rogan is fluent in video. He is absolutely at depth, an expert and comfortable being in front of the cameras and making really good use of cameras. I think one of the reasons, not the only reason, but one of the major reasons that Joe has become as big as he has, is his use of YouTube. I don’t know if it’s still the second largest search engine in the world, but it is an enormous traffic driver, particularly if you take not just your long form videos and put them online, but create clips as he has through JRE Clips and so on.
If you are bringing on guests who are going to be capitalizing on news or who are part of the news themselves, then people will be searching for these sort of temporarily relevant topics. Whether it’s someone who got fired, someone who got in trouble, someone who made a big decision, a CEO who just found themselves in the news, if you do that, you can drive a lot of traffic. I want to produce, for the most part, evergreen episodes that will have very fat tales. They get listened to for years and years and years, and don’t lose their relevance. That’s important to me. I don’t want to immerse myself in the news any more than absolutely necessary. I don’t do that.
I also don’t think that I am as good on video as Joe, right? He has a studio. He has a visually interesting environment. He is funny. He’s a comedian. He’s an entertainer, very smart entertainer, but he’s a very, very, very skilled entertainer and it makes sense, and they have just more production capacity. They’ve invested more in making that a core component of what they do. I just am not interested enough. Could I make my show bigger? Would it be bigger if I tried to do all of that? I think it would be. This is an example of knowing where you are strong, knowing where you are perhaps not as strong, and also asking yourself, “Why am I doing this? Does my show, does The Tim Ferriss Show need to be two times bigger, three times bigger, 10 times bigger? I can’t come up with a really compelling reason for why that’s the case. Would I like it to grow? Yes. Do I need it to grow even if it involves doing things I dislike? No, that would be so stupid, it would be so stupid and I’ve made that mistake. So I —
Chris Hutchins: You’re at a scale now that you can, your show can afford the person to help you prep for guests and that kind of stuff. What do you think about people earlier? I’m at a place right now where I’ve recorded the video of a lot of my interviews, but I haven’t done anything with it yet. And I know it could help grow the show and the show couldn’t monetize to support it, so growth is a factor, it plays into the longevity of the show because it takes time. And yes, I would do it for free, but I also, you’ve got bills, people have things they have to do, so if they want to do it more, it does need to grow.
Do you think it would be different if your show was smaller and it couldn’t afford all those things?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, let me dig into a bunch of pieces, what you just said and ask some follow-up questions. So would it, would my operation, how different would my operation look if I were just getting started? Well, let’s rewind the clock. I can tell you exactly what I did when I got started. I wanted to know how to do everything and that’s part of my nature, but it’s also because I wanted to try to create as elegant an operation as possible for myself, elegant is not the same, does not have the same definition, doesn’t have the same puzzle pieces for everyone. So I not only recorded everything myself, I edited everything myself, I published everything myself, I uploaded the file to hosting services and so on and so forth. So in the very early days, I didn’t have someone to help me with research.
I still appreciate and value having someone to help me with research, but if, for whatever reason that weren’t possible, I have full confidence that I could do that myself. But let’s take a look at something you said, and it comes back to this question I had earlier of is the podcast still worth it? To get to episode 50, episode a hundred for you, what does the podcast need to be for it to be worth doing, well worth doing, easily worth doing? And so you said, “We’ve got bills, shit, got bills to pay, you’ve got to keep this ship afloat.” Now, I don’t have a perfect window into all of your personal finances, but I have on some reasonable authority, sufficient belief that you could probably cover your podcasting bills. And I know the costs involved with a lot of podcasting without having to monetize the show.
So it would be nice to monetize the show, but you could make that money in some other way. So let me jump to a point about monetizing that I mentioned, I believe in that 2016 article and probably again with rough parts on Deviate, and that is in the beginning I did not focus on monetization. Now, it’s very easy for someone to say, “Well, you already had money therefore, your advice doesn’t apply to me; your experience doesn’t apply to me.” I would discourage you from looking at it with that lens you, meaning listener, because you can learn something from everyone. And even if their decisions are not the decisions you would make, it’s helpful to learn how more experienced people have thought about it, so the way they go about making decisions. I felt, especially since I was doing the editing and so on myself, that any focus on monetization, even if you think it’s only going to be five percent of your time, and we can come back to preoccupation versus active time on something.
I didn’t want anything to distract from my focus on improving my ability to prepare an interview and edit, I wanted to focus on the craft, the product, and that was it, that was to be my real sole focus, which the editing helps with, by the way, the editing forces you to listen to everything really carefully. Not saying everyone should edit their own stuff, I no longer edit my own episodes, but we do get everything transcribed and we go through and we look at ways to clean up and tighten and possibly cut or rearrange. We do that with a lot of episodes, not all of them. So I didn’t focus on or pay attention to monetizing for the first, I don’t know, I’d have to go back and somebody could probably confirm this, but who knows 60, 70, a hundred episodes, I’m not even sure. By that point, the downloads were such that I had a broader spectrum of possible sponsors to choose from and that felt better to me than taking whatever came over the transom early.
However, I believe, Chris, one of your questions that you had for me was along the lines of, should I say no to things that come over the transom? So let me take a step back and I will answer that, but how are you thinking about monetizing? Because it is very easy and I’m not saying this to you, Chris, specifically, but for people to get pulled away from the creative, by the siren song, the mesmerizing nature of monetizing. Because every time you go on Twitter, there’s something trending that’s like, “Here’s how much top influencers get paid on Instagram.” And you’re like, “What? A hundred thousand dollars a post? That’s fucking crazy, I want to make a hundred thousand dollars a post!” and then, oh, boy, then you’re lost. So how are you thinking about monetizing right now? And I should say, Chris is smart, you’re smart with your money, you are very deliberate and you’ve done a lot of homework. You are a student of personal finance and money, but how are you thinking about monetizing and what to do or not do with it?
Chris Hutchins: I think I took a similar approach to you, and it was maybe for a slightly, if your reason was to hone the craft, mine was to prove out the longevity. So going to spend any time monetizing your podcast before you realize this is something that I could do for a long time, which you will never know until you do it for at least you did six, for me, it probably took five or 10, maybe 10 episodes. Until that point it was a complete, it would have been a complete waste of time to think about monetizing, because I didn’t know if I was going to do this and the amount of money you’re going to make on a 10 episode podcast is almost nothing. So I said, “Let’s make sure this is something I could do forever before I think about it,” then I thought, okay, let’s also make sure that the amount of money it would generate is even worth the effort.
Sponsors have reached out and said, “Oh, we want to advertise on two episodes.” It’s like, okay. But if I’m going to sell two sponsors on a show, two episodes at a time, we’re talking 50 calls a year to sponsors and that’s just the ones that say yes, so maybe you’re doing 200 calls to try to line sponsors up. That just seemed like a distraction for how much it would make. So I had a similar thought, which is get to a point in time where the amount of money you’d make for the amount of work it would take to bring that money in is worth it. And the only deviation from that was when people called outreach and said, “Hey, can we just do this?” And it’s like, well, now it’s no longer work. But even then I’ve since decided to say no, not because I think it would ruin the show, but just because I have a list of things that I prioritize. And for me, it’s researching, making the content great and finding the people to bring on.
And those, if I spend time on anything else, it takes away from that and that is not yet on autopilot and I think ultimately that’s all that really matters. Your show’s not going to be good if it’s not something people enjoy listening to, which is usually a factor of who’s talking and how much those people have thought about what they’re going to say, or at least prepared to have a good conversation.
Tim Ferriss: I think that makes a whole lot of sense. A couple of thoughts also on monetizing, figure out what would be amazing from a monetizing perspective. And I’m very deliberately not saying sponsorship or advertising perspective, because there are many different ways to convert a podcast into, I shouldn’t say convert, as a side effect of doing an awesome podcast to produce income. You could be, let’s just say you are a high priced consultant and you don’t have any advertising, but you generate clients from the podcast, that would be a somewhat straightforward example. You could have as many people do, especially in the early days, affiliate relationships, very often the most lucrative of which are going to be with certain types of products, domain services, hosting, et cetera. They have a very high stickiness with their customers, high level of stickiness, low churn rate, which means high lifetime value, they’re willing to pay you quite a bit upfront. But is that what you want? Are those the products, services, et cetera, that you want to be endorsing? Maybe, maybe not.
There are many different ways to approach this, many different ways to generate income. Perhaps you have a newsletter that is a paid newsletter and people sign up for that. Perhaps you have a different version of the podcast, or you have a membership of some sort outside of newsletters. Maybe people pay for the show notes, I mean, these are all real examples that I’ve seen. For myself, I decided that sponsorship was the easiest. I’ve done some experiments with membership and they all just entailed more headache for me and I felt ultimately less value all around than sponsorships, assuming in my case, that I am using or testing everything personally, that is where the sponsorships are somewhat time consuming for me. But I don’t mind it because I actually use, like if you walked around my house, you would recognize all sorts of stuff from my sponsors. And I don’t just have them because they’re sponsors, I have them because they are good products or services.
And let me give a couple of examples of questioning best practices or standard operating procedure with sponsors. And this may help people to simplify their approach. So I did not ask myself, how can I make as much money with sponsors through the podcast? Because there are no constraints on that. You’re not applying constraints in such a way to ensure that your life does not become a miserable existence of just being a piñata for every ask and request of dozens of sponsors, as it might be in the example that you gave, that could be a huge pain in the ass. Now, what constraints could you apply to ensure that it does not become a monster you have to feed or a huge distraction? A very simple constraint that I applied was A, we’re going to have our own insertion order document that is going to be non-negotiable and everyone is going to prepay for their spots. We will not have any terms, we’re not going to have accounts receivable, we’re not going to chase people for payment, everybody is going to pay up front. And what do you think the response was from sponsors initially?
Their response was, “What the fuck are you talking about? We get terms from everyone. That’s how this is done.” And I said, “That’s fine. We don’t have to work together. This is just what allows me and my tiny team to remain sane, so if it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it. I totally understand. Let me get back to work and make the podcast so good that there will be at least a few sponsors who are going to say, ‘You know what? Fuck it, we will pay you up front.'” And that is something we have stuck to and I cannot tell you how much that has simplified our lives and our operations. It also acts as a litmus test for commitment from sponsors, because as you noted, to fill, let’s just say in your case, 50 different sponsors at two spots apiece, if you have a high churn rate, meaning a lot of those people take two episodes and then split and never come back, you’re just going to have to do that again next year. That’s exhausting.
So I want to make sure there’s a high level of commitment, but there’s also a high level of vetting on my side, therefore, a high probability that the product and the company will do really well in the podcast. Because I don’t want them to do two or three spots, and we do insist on a test of multiple spots, not sure if it’s two, right now, it might be three. And my podcast is expensive, very expensive, I mean, it’s a premium podcast. I want them to spend millions of dollars on the podcast over a long period of time. So everything is geared towards that because it just simplifies everything for everyone. But the point I wanted to make is question best practices and if you are not in a position to question best practices, your product isn’t good enough, or you just don’t have enough, you don’t have enough leverage for some reason, and you should take a very close look at those reasons, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
For instance, what does every, almost 99 percent of authors out there do? They publish a book in hardcover. Six to nine months later, the book comes out in paperback and they hit the press junket once again and they go on tour to announce the launch of paperback. None of my books have ever gone to paperback. “Why is that, Tim Ferriss?” I’ll tell you, it’s because, and the numbers vary, but not by that much. Let’s say that you’re getting a 12 percent royalty on your hardcover book, paperback royalty is probably going to be six percent, six and a half percent, so broadly speaking, paperback royalties are, you’ll get paid 50 percent of what you’re currently earning per book by going to paperback. What does that mean? That means you have to sell twice as many books to make the same amount of money. I’m skipping over some specifics here, but more or less, you have to sell twice as many books to make what you’re making right now.
What is the benefit to the reader of this? Well, we live in a world with audio, with Kindle and the benefit to the customer, we also have libraries where you can get e-format for free oftentimes. And actually I learned of a very cool, I think it was a Chrome extension on your podcast in fact about this. The benefit to the consumer used to be, they could save whatever it might be, $5 on cover price, with Amazon, which is generally selling it almost, I mean, often close to wholesale prices; that benefit just no longer exists. So for a marginal to non-existent benefit to the end reader, you are going to voluntarily cut your royalties in half, which means you have to sell twice as many books to earn the same amount per year. That made no sense to me, so I’ve never done it. And to their credit, my publishers early on were open to this logic for staying in hardcover and it worked out really well.
I did not have a lot of leverage in the beginning; I did not have Tim Ferriss in marquee lights as people or some people perceive it today; I simply laid out the logic. So really question what you have to do, because sometimes those best practices make no sense whatsoever.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah. I think when you’re, yeah, go ahead.
Tim Ferriss: No, go for it. Lead us, dear shepherd. Where should we go next?
Chris Hutchins: Yeah. I mean, we’ve talked about getting ready and all of that, but I’m curious, I think the bulk of what goes into podcasting is finding guests, prepping for the conversation, and having the conversation. And I’ll tell everyone, even if you don’t have a podcast, thinking about how to find interesting people and to have a better, more informative, exciting conversation is probably valuable just in life. And I mean, you said the reason you got started, and if you never continued, you will have at least learned the skill that was really valuable. So I’ll start with finding people. When you first wrote your original post, there wasn’t that much about finding people. “Look for people you’re interested in,” the one thing that you said, maybe not in that post, that I thought was really interesting was, “Don’t put as much value as you think on how big of a name they are,” that maybe half of your top episodes are people that your listeners had never heard of before.
And so it just keeps coming back to content is really important and people like good content more than they like bad content with a fancy name. And I can attest to some of the episodes where I thought people had the smallest names that no one had ever heard of have far outperformed conversations I’ve had with like Ramit Sethi, who we had a great conversation, and lots of people know his name. And that is something that I don’t think I thought going in, would ever be true.
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Let’s jump in. So this comes back to the initial question of why do you want to do a podcast? And maybe it should be framed differently, what is so compelling about this, that you’re going to want to do a hundred episodes of this podcast? Maybe that’s the question, what is so compelling about this, that you will be so thrilled about doing a hundred episodes of this podcast that you would pay, not get paid, but you would pay to do this podcast? Chances are the answer is not banging your head against a wall, trying to get through a phalanx of publicists and lawyers and managers and getting the run-around from Hollywood entourage for a year to get a guest. Chances are you wouldn’t pay to do that. If you chase famous people, you are going to do that, just to be clear.
So maybe you should focus on doing something that really satisfies you and maybe in some niche, God knows where, some way, somehow it’s so fucking good that a hundred people who might know famous people are like, wow, this is really smart, that’s not guaranteed, but it’s a possibility. So for me, the answer is, follow your interests and make it easy in the beginning. So in the first, I want to say five to 10, maybe 20 or 30 episodes, I only interviewed people I knew quite well because I didn’t need the nerves of interviewing a stranger to add to what was already somewhat challenging. Does that make sense? And I remember, I think it was Ed Catmull, the former president of Pixar, who was the first person I’d ever interviewed, who I hadn’t had a conversation with prior to the actual interview. And it was nerve wracking, ended up being a really fun interview, but it was very stressful for me. Why? I couldn’t really pinpoint because I talk to strangers all the time, and that’s certainly true with the books, but it felt different.
So make it as easy as possible in the beginning, stack the deck so that you can win in the beginning and for me, that meant doing it with friends. In terms of finding guests, there are as many ways as you could imagine, and probably more than you could imagine, but the focus of the show will direct how you search. So in my case, The Tim Ferriss Show has always been about world-class performers in different disciplines and trying to tease out the habits, routines, favorite books, et cetera, that make them tick, or that they think might contribute to making them good at what they do. Frameworks, decisions, thought process, all of that, turns out that’s very broad. So I have some people on the docket, like there’s a, I think it’s a violin assessor, like a valuator, someone who assesses and rehabilitates, multimillion dollar violins. I can tell you with great confidence that that does not have a large built-in audience, but it’s interesting to me.
And I also think about which guests will care enough to bring their A game. It doesn’t matter how famous your guest is, it doesn’t matter how good your guest is if they don’t bring their A game. So, Chris, one of the things you asked me if I’d be willing to do is listen to a few episodes of your podcast and provide feedback. And the first episode I listened to was actually the first episode you published, which I learned later was the fifth that you’d recorded, which is smart, on pro travel hacks with, is it Leigh Rowan? Is that how you say the last name?
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, Rowan.
Tim Ferriss: And Leigh is amazing. Leigh is like Sam Harris, if he didn’t have a teleprompter or something, that man speaks in finished prose, it’s fucking ridiculous. So Leigh is one of those guests who clearly brought his A game. And I thought you did a very good job in the interview and it’s an area where you have a lot of domain expertise, but honestly you could have been making zoo animal noises and he could have just run and it would have been an incredible interview/monologue. Do you know what I mean? If you were just like, “I’m going to give you words that I pull out of this hat and I want you to riff for five minutes,” and you’re like, “Arthropod, tax optimization, grizzly bears,” I’m sure it would have been a really fascinating conversation because Leigh is just that good. Do you know what I mean? There are those guests. Esther Perel is one who comes to mind immediately, Hugh Jackman was like that for me, there are many guests, including those you wouldn’t recognize, who are going to be really good.
And so a big part of guest selection is also improving as an “interviewer” ultimately, it is very hard to fix a bad guest; it does not matter how good you are as an interviewer. The only fix that I have found is if I generally budget 90 to 120 minutes for an interview, I’ll usually say 90. If I get 30 minutes in and I’m like, oh, my God, this is a stillborn, this is a mess, we’re not getting anywhere, which by the way, it can happen with people who are very good conversationalists but as soon as you hit record, once it’s an interview and not a conversation over wine at dinner, they get really stilted and weird and can’t be themselves, that happens quite often. Then I will talk more. This doesn’t work for everyone, it won’t work for everyone, but generally I’m going to come into the interview, having done a lot of homework, I’ll have some domain familiarity, if not expertise. And I will then ask a question where I can reciprocate and give examples, or buy time by talking about something else.
And in doing so, I will extend the time, we might record for two to two and a half hours and then we can cut that down to say 30 to 60 minutes. It will probably include a lot of me and the downside to that is people will be like, “Wow, this guy really likes to hear himself talk.” And it’s like, “No, I just saved this interview.” And at the end of the day, there will be some actionable takeaways within that interview, so that’s one way to save it. I will only try to save an interview like that if someone is at least trying and they have done the prep work. So when I talk to people, or I should say prior to ever interviewing, people will have a list of commonly asked rapid fire questions, which I have right here. People will recognize a lot of them from Tribe of Mentors and other places, but there are certain questions I ask a lot, like the metaphorical billboard question, favorite failures, et cetera.
There are certain questions I ask frequently; I send this to people in advance. I generally don’t send other questions in advance. And I always talk to people beforehand for five to 10 minutes before recording to loosen them up, this is assuming they’re not somebody who’s got a publicist cracking the whip on my face. Assuming they have a little bit of slack in the system, we’ll talk in the beginning, I will ask that, I will first say, “You, like all of my guests, have final cut. You can see a transcript beforehand, you can listen to the audio, any edits you want to make, we can make. This is not a show about gotchas.” So number one, there’s that. And I will say, “I’ve been screwed by journalists before, I’ve had my trust betrayed, I’ve had things cherry-picked, I’ve been misquoted, it sucks. I’m not going to do that and you have final cut.” Which by the way, is what Inside the Actors Studio always did.
And what you might’ve seen on TV for those episodes, 45 minutes, an hour was actually several hours of recording, so they would cut down substantially. So I’ll do that first and in the, say, warmup calisthenics, I will always ask someone “What would make this interview a home run? When you look back three, six months from now, what would make this an absolute home run? Where when people ask you, what are your favorite two or three interviews? This is one of those two or three.” And people are always, almost always surprised when I ask that, because it’s never asked. And I’ll tell them, “Because that can inform how I try to steer the conversation, it will also inform how we promote the episode, so let me know if you have an answer and if not, if you have an answer later, we can try to customize things.” I will also ask them, “Is there anything you absolutely don’t want to talk about or something that you’re really sick of talking about that you just don’t want to rehash?” I will ask that.
And by the time you ask these questions or these types of questions, A, someone is warmed up a little bit B, they will think to themselves, okay, wow, this guy has really put some thought into this, is aware that I’m coming into this with certain goals and hopes or fears, and this is not his first rodeo. And what I’ll also then tell people is, “We can always cut things later, but we can’t put interesting things in. So feel free to curse, be yourself, let it all hang out; we can always cut things later, but we can’t put it in. We can’t put the fun in, so go crazy and we can always cut.” I would say out of whatever it is now, six to 700 episodes, less than three percent of the guests ever ask to see the audio or transcript. It’s very uncommon, but I will take notes as we talk and if someone, say, mentions something like a lawsuit, which might be legally complicated for them, we’re broadcast to millions of people, or just made public to, honestly, an audience of a hundred people.
Or if they mention, say, details about their family or where they live, or they say, “Let me give out my email address,” I will flag all of those things and I will talk to them afterwards and say, “Do you want to keep this in? Are you sure you want to keep this in? I would suggest you cut this/that,” to look out for them also. And then my team will also listen to things and review transcripts to try to identify other things that should be cut. Twitter is an excellent way to source guests, to come back to that question you asked so long ago, Twitter’s an excellent way to find guests, although part of my feedback to you on your podcast is you mentioned Twitter a lot. And Twitter is a very, even though it’s expanded a lot and I’m sure it wrangles Twitter to death, that Donald Trump kind of saved Twitter. How funny is that? It’s still a very tech-centric environment. And so I would suggest to you that you drive people to the website and preferably some type of newsletter so that you have the ability to communicate directly with your listeners. Podcasting is still largely a black box. It’s very difficult to get good analytics. This is also why it’s very difficult for me to give growth advice, because it’s very difficult to confirm attribution for different types of organic or paid acquisition, or PR. It’s incredibly difficult. We can talk about growth. I’m happy to talk about it. But the reason Twitter works specifically for guest recruitment is probably similar to how you could use other platforms.
But my other platforms are completely deluged. For instance, maybe you could use Instagram DMs for this, but because I’m flooded by DMs and anyone apparently can send me a DM on Instagram. I can’t use it. There’s too much noise, not enough signal. So it’s an unusable tool for me. But on Twitter, if you follow someone and then you like something of theirs and then you retweet, and it’s a lot easier if you have a verified account, of course, to get someone’s attention. But if you follow them, like something, retweet something, maybe reply to something of theirs and kind of do it all at once so that you occupy more of their timeline, if they’re looking at @ replies and things like this, if they follow you, you can DM them. And if you DM them and connect with them, you can do so without having any of their contact information.
You don’t have their email address. You don’t have their phone number. If they dislike you, they can block you. In other words, they don’t have the same fear factor associated with you having a direct line to them in any fashion. So for Tribe of Mentors, as an example, the book, there were 100, maybe 120 people who answered many of the common questions for the podcast and the way I connected with Ben Stiller and dozens of the larger celebrities, better known figures, was through Twitter. That is how I made contact with them. It is also a very good way to make contact with well-known people, or even if they’re not well-known, difficult to reach people and to circumvent around their multiple layers of entourage.
Because if you email an agent or a manager, just get ready for the merry-go-round of bullshit to start. And there are some great agents and managers out there — I don’t want to imply that there aren’t — but if you’re dealing with anything related to Hollywood, nine times out of 10, you are just going to get this incredible run-around dance that can last forever. There are some incredibly talented and hardworking and great agents and managers, so again, not to malign all of those people in those categories, but you run the risk of an incredible amount of hurry up and wait that can last years, even at this point for me, by the way, that is true.
Chris Hutchins: Do you think if you had their email, you would use it over Twitter, or is it you think Twitter is a better medium?
Tim Ferriss: It might be better. It may be less crowded. It depends entirely on how many people they follow. So it depends a lot.
I will say that as someone who gets an incredible amount of bullshit sent to me, through one means or another, that if I have channels that are intended for people to get in touch with me, and they disregard those channels and think they’re clever by barraging me somehow, they’re immediately blacklisted. And most people, if they do get a random email from you, what I would suggest if you’re going to take that approach, that you indicate in the email how you got their email address.
No one on my team will ever reply to someone who cold emails or if they try to get a hold on phones or anything like that, immediate blacklist. But maybe via email, if they reach out, if they don’t indicate how they found the email, no response. They need to clarify that first. But if they have channels for getting in touch with them, I would suggest that first, Twitter —
Chris Hutchins: Unless they’re their agency.
Tim Ferriss: Well, there are cases where agencies — it’s not that you shouldn’t reach out — here’s what I would say. It’s not that you can’t and should never reach out to an agent or a PR agency or a manager to try to reach, say a celebrity or someone who’s well-known. It’s that you should expect that to take a lot of time. And an alternative or a compliment to that would be Twitter.
With all of the time, and this is true, actually, for a lot of optimizing in general, for me, even though there’s — I do, I am fascinated by sort of — and we can talk about kind of what optimize means, right? Optimize for what, is a good question when thinking about a lot of these things. But if I think about the number of podcasters or would be podcasters who ask me about guest recruitment and they don’t need my help to get 90 percent of the people out there. So really the question is, how do I get guests who are hard to reach? That’s the question. If they completely avoided guests who are hard to reach and just focused on fucking recording another 10 episodes, in the same amount of time, the same number of hours that they’re going to blow, trying to get Oprah on their podcast. God bless Oprah. I wish I could have her on my podcast. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think they would be much further ahead, at the end of the day.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, I’ll say two things about that first episode I did with Leigh. One, Leigh had never been on another podcast. So Leigh is not a celebrity name that I think anyone knows and that podcast, that first episode, has had two and a half times more downloads than every other episode. So it’s content way over the name. And the other thing just because I thought it was a funny example of technology failing. So in that episode, we actually recorded in person. We used a Zoom and we had a bad SD card, no backup.
And so that episode was actually three days later, rerecording the episode. So it was a little different than the original, but I will say going into that, I had this huge fear that you’ll never be able to recreate a good episode if you have to. And I’m not saying I would ever encourage it, but that fear was kind of busted. So I would rather have had the backup of the original because it’s hard to try to keep it going, but if you have to, it’s not always a bad outcome.
Tim Ferriss: Not always a bad outcome. So I should actually modify my gear recommendation and say that I also have redundancy in person. So I have the H6, I’ve got that, usually I’ll have another H6 sitting out and recording, but without the XLR. So it’ll be sort of a field recording set up. I may also have an iPhone with a Lightning port connected, Shure Microphone. They make some really, really cool, smaller microphones. I can’t remember the exact model number, but I will have redundancy, in-person as well as backup options remotely. Now I want to come back to one thing, for those people who want to find this episode, we’ll link to it in the show notes, obviously, for the pro travel hacks, episode number one, of All the Hacks. I have another piece of feedback there for you. Leigh Rowan, is L-E-I-G-H, last name R-O-W-A-N.
So two things I want to say. The first piece of feedback is that I would definitely transcribe all of your episodes and read them yourself in the beginning, especially, and look for terms that you repeat a lot and try to trim those down. So for instance, as essential as the term is to the namesake of the podcast, All the Hacks, I would suggest perhaps dialing down on the volume of using the word hack or hacks and thinking about it like a magazine article. If that word came up over and over again, the editor would be like, “Here is the source.com. Please come up with some other words.” So on the audio side, I think it’s very similar and we all have these tics. We all have tics. And I remember actually after the Edwin Catmull episode, oh, it was terrible.
I looked on social to see what type of feedback there might be. And I saw many tweets with “Mmm, mmm. Mmm… mmm… mmm… you’re driving me fucking crazy.” And it turned out I was so nervous that every time he said something interesting about, I went, “Mmm, mmm, mmm,” like some cave creature. And it was just cringe-worthy to listen to. I had no awareness that I was doing it. And there are other words, pet phrases, et cetera, that in any given interview, I might repeat way too many times. So keep an eye out for that. The other way that I used transcripts early on, and one of your questions for me has been, “How have you honed your interviewing skills? Do you ask friends, mentors to listen to episodes and give feedback? Do you relisten to your own episodes?”
Okay, let me answer those specifically, and then I’ll come back to how I use the transcript. Do I relisten to my own episodes? No, I don’t. I read the transcripts because it is more painfully obvious what you need to change. You can get away with things in conversation that work and can work really well. There is no one good style of interviewing or one great style of conversation. There are many, many ways to do this and many ways to play this game. So I don’t think it makes any sense for everyone to emulate one particular interviewer or style of interviewing. However, reading the transcript will make you acutely aware of any repetition, verbal tics, things like that. So I do not listen to them unless I’m checking audio quality, which I used to do, of course, but these days I have a team to help with that.
And by team, I mean a contracted, post-production sound engineer. I have two full-time employees for everything that I do in my life, just to give people an idea of how small my team is. Do I ask friends or mentors to listen? Sometimes I do. But in the beginning, if I did that, and this is true with asking friends for feedback on writing as well, I don’t think it’s very high yield or very helpful, and certainly, I think it’s quite frustrating for the friends you’re asking for advice, if you just say, “Give me feedback.” I don’t think that’s specific enough. So in the case of writing what I would do and still do, if I’m writing a book, I split up chapters, which are intended to mostly be self-sufficient, they’re kind of modular in that way, they’re like feature magazine articles, the chapters.
And I will send, say, a single chapter to three or four friends. Ideally they are writers or lawyers or they’ve gone to law school. This is for writing, although it can apply to audio as well. The reason for that is that both writers and people who have reviewed documents or learned to use a legal eye for reviewing text, have a keen eye for ambiguity, they have a keen eye for anything superfluous that you just do not need that should be cut or can be cut. They’re a very, very sharp observation with respect to that. So they make good proofreaders in my experience. And I will say, among other things, “Please read this. And if anything is confusing, please note that. You can love it. You can hate it. I’m fine with either of those, but if it’s confusing, it’s no good for anyone. So if anything’s confusing, please note. If your mind starts to wander, please note where that is.”
If your mind starts to wander, it means it’s dragging, right? So I listened to a few of your episodes. There were a few points where I was going on a hike. There were points when I was totally immersed in the audio. And then there were points where I’m like, “A squirrel, trees, a bird, a butterfly,” which is fine because I’m on a hike. But your intention, I assume, is to captivate me with the audio. And there are points where my mind started to wander. So you can ask someone to indicate, “If your mind starts to wander, indicate the time code.” Make sure you use the same application for the time code, because it can vary from application to application. So if you’re using Overcast, use Overcast. If it’s Pocket Casts, use Pocket Casts. If it’s Spotify, use Spotify. But have everyone use the same app, okay? In addition to that, I will say, “If you could only keep 20 percent. If I were going to cut 80 percent of this interview, which 20 percent should I keep?” Alternatively —
Chris Hutchins: And would you cut it?
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Hold on one second. I’ll get to that. And then conversely, and you don’t have to use both of these, but I would say, “If I had to cut 20 percent, which 20 percent would I cut?” I actually like that question more. But I do ask both for different reasons, because if I give it to four people, if one person loves the section and three other people say, “Cut it,” I will keep it. If anyone loves something, I keep it. That’s my rule. But very often, I will — I wouldn’t ask for feedback if I weren’t planning on somehow using the feedback, if I found it valuable. So the answer is, yes, I very often make these cuts.
But, asking your friends to listen to audio and do this is really time-consuming. And it’s actually very hard for them to specify things. So, what did I do with my transcripts? One thing I did is I ended up reaching out and finding someone who did research and guest prep and everything, for Inside the Actor’s Studio. And I asked them if they would be willing to read transcripts of some of my early episodes and to indicate where they thought I could improve, what they think I should cut, where they think the sequence might be off in terms of questions. And that’s what we did. I would send them Word docs and they would add comments and red line and so on. You could certainly use Google Docs or something else. I now use Google Docs for this type of thing.
But that is how I improved my interviewing and interviewing just as an aside, but it’s not really an aside, this is sort of a core piece of the discussion, is like anything else. It’s like basketball. What makes a good basketball player? Well, which position are they playing? What is the other team? If they’re boxers, styles make fights, right? Okay, just because A beats B and B beats C doesn’t mean A is going to beat C. It really depends on styles. And if you look at salespeople, what makes a good salesperson? Well, what are they selling? Some people are so charismatic and have this reality distortion field that people want to be friends with them, and they’ll buy from them as a result of that.
Some people are super, super technical and kind of dispassionate in a way. And others are really good at deal structure and figuring out conditional purchase orders and kind of navigating the wants and needs of the other person and being very, very creative and how to structure a purchase, maybe finance a purchase. These are all different characteristics and different skill sets, yet, all of them could be exceptionally good salespeople. The same thing is true in podcasting. If you want to grow your podcasts, turn yourself into a super hot woman and talk about blow jobs.
I’ve seen a few podcasts that have done really well by doing that in addition to many other things that you have to get right, that is sort of, it’s not necessary, but not sufficient. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary, but you can’t do that, Chris. You could, I don’t know. Maybe you’d find a market for it, but that’s not going to work for you. If I tried to be Joe Rogan with his knack and talent and developed skill for comedy, it would fall flat. I’m not going to try to be Joe Rogan. James Lipton, when he ran Inside the Actor’s Studio, never deviated from his questions. He had his list of questions. They were stacked in order on these blue cards. And he would never deviate, even if there was a side door to a topic that could be more interesting.
He would not take that side door. Now, some people might judge that harshly and say, “Well, that’s stupid. He should’ve taken the side door.” Well, does anyone know your podcast? A lot of people know Inside the Actor’s Studio, seems to have worked pretty well. Maybe that format was exactly what he needed. Then you have folks who come in with meticulous notes and I come in with lots and lots and lots and lots of notes, that works for me. Larry King came in blind, and Larry King, who also one could say, was early to the radio game in the same way that some people were early to the podcast game. So you have to take that into consideration and maybe discount things a little bit, but he would come in with beginner’s eyes to ask the naive questions that a listener might want to ask. He didn’t want to know more than the listener or the viewer.
So this is all to say, becoming a better interviewer is really becoming your best self as an interviewer. But no matter what, reviewing transcripts for me is a core piece of that and collecting questions. I remember I would effectively have not a three ring binder, but a collection of questions. I would take photographs on my phone pre-COVID, certainly if you’re taking flights, it would be the only time that I read magazines. And you look at these in-flight magazines, there are always interviews. And if I found a good question, then I would take a photograph and I would test it. If I listened to a podcast and I heard a good question, I would note it. I’ve been interviewing people for hiring for a new position recently. And someone, I was interviewing, I solicited questions. And they said, “How do you give feedback? Could you give me a few examples of when people have disappointed you and how you’ve handled that?” And I thought to myself, “Holy shit, that’s a good question. I might steal that one.” So be a collector and a tester of questions also.
Chris Hutchins: So I have a bunch and I’m like going back, but man, I have a bunch of follow-ups here.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, let’s do it.
Chris Hutchins: I guess backing up to the prep. How long are you spending, let’s go back to, if you were doing this all on your own preparing for, for an interview?
Tim Ferriss: It depends on the interview, but I would say generally minimum a few hours. So let’s just call it minimum two to four hours. And I have some approaches for that, that I can share, and maximum. For instance, if there is a possible big break interview, and one of those for me was Arnold Schwarzenegger, when that finally came together, I spent probably four or five days digesting everything about Arnold Schwarzenegger, watching interviews, watching movies, reading books, going through every past interview I could find. I wanted to be the best prepared interviewer he had ever met, basically. And therefore I took it very, very seriously.
But if we’re talking about on the average side, let’s just assume that’s three to four hours. Now I spend less time because I have help. And I have essentially cultivated a system and also improved the system with the input of team members, how to prepare research documents. I would say two to four hours. I will also ask guests to send their favorite two to three long form interviews. I will ask them, and not all guests are keen to do this, but some are very keen, for exploratory topics or questions that they think could be fun for us and the audience, and anything else that they would like to send. So I opened that door and all of those things are received typically weeks or months in advance, because the editorial calendar is built out quite far in advance, at least these days, it is.
If you’re doing prep from scratch, if the person has a Wikipedia page, I look for the strangest or most esoteric/tiny unusual mention in Wikipedia, and I do a deep dive on that point. And I go into the citations. I will certainly look at social. This is important because for instance, in between the time that you book a guest and you record, they could have a family member die, they could have any number of things happen. They could have some type of disaster in the press. You want to be aware of what is going on. So I don’t spend a lot of time on social, but I will check in and go back at least a month or two to ensure that I have a basic understanding of what is on their minds and hearts. That doesn’t take very long. I would say that’s less than 30 minutes.
So you have Wikipedia and then long form interviews. So I will look at print. I will start print, meaning text, long form text interviews. I will look at the interviews that they’ve sent, and that helps me in a number of different ways. It shows me where they’re good. It shows me where they stall out or don’t have answers. It also helps me to gather what I consider greatest hits stories.
And here’s what I mean by that. We all have stories that we have told more than once, just like comedians who have worked on their material and refined over and over again, that 60 minute special. We all have stories, that over time, we have determined, get a great response. And I want to know what those are. And sometimes I’ll ask them point blank, either in prep or while we’re doing the warmup in the beginning, I’ll say, “Hey, is there a story that I can cue? I don’t want to hear the story now, but a story that’s really funny, or that always gets a response from audiences. Maybe you’ve done a lot of speaking engagements. It’s something that people always come up to you and mention. Is there any story or anecdote or metaphor, it could be anything, parable that comes to mind?” And oftentimes they’ll say, “Let me think about that. Yeah, there is. Okay. Ask me about the time that X? Ask me about when I was in college and Y happened.”
Great. I will plant one of those greatest hits stories within the first 10 minutes, if I have one of those, to pull people in, and hopefully pass the driveway test, as I heard someone from NPR put it, and this happens with podcasts too, when you’re listening to it in the car and you’ve got 10 or 20 minutes left and you get home and you just have to finish it. So you stay in the car in the driveway and you listen to the end. I think it’s helpful to plan that through.
So those are a few of the ways that I do research. If we have any common friends or acquaintances, I will also ask them for topics and questions they think might be fun, or that might take us on the road less traveled. And I used to do this more than I do now, but I will sometimes post it to social and ask what types of questions people would love me to ask. Given the size of my audience on social now, that makes less and less sense because it’s very hard to filter, very hard to gather them. I will sometimes do that, but not terribly often.
Chris Hutchins: Have you ever done so much research that you kind of knew the entire conversation you would have in advance because you’d learned, you’d read someone’s book, you learned all of this information. It’s like coming in Arnold Schwarzenegger so prepared. There were probably things that you wanted to talk about, that you knew the answers to, but how did that go, because now it’s not as engaging because you know the answers.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I will always leave lots of virgin territory. So I will have some familiarity, not with all guests, but some, with greatest hits stories. So I’ll plant a few of those, but generally speaking, my interviews are going to be at least 90 minutes. That will be maximum five to 20 minutes of the conversation. There may also be things that they’ve talked about, but there’s some aspect that was left out and I’ll ask about that. So my rule or one of the fundamental precepts of how I approach podcasting is if it’s interesting to you, it will be interesting to other people. You can’t fucking fake it. People can smell it out. It’s like dogs can smell fear, audiences know when you are stoked and audiences know when you’re faking it. So you got to make the interviews interesting for yourself, even if it gets into some really strange topics that are going to appeal to a very small percentage of your audience, it doesn’t matter, you got to include it. And you can always cut it out later, but you got to make it interesting for yourself. So in the case of Schwarzenegger, yes, I had consumed vast quantities of interviews and footage and commentary, and so on, unrelated to Arnold, but he has decades of time on this planet and there is a lot that is not covered.
So it was easy for me to weave in questions that would take us to unexplored areas. That was very easy. I’ll also say, do not get too attached to your research. In the sense that 90 minutes goes very, very quickly. We’ve been recording for more than 90 minutes now. 90 minutes goes very quickly. So if you have tons of research in front of you, pick the five to seven questions you most want to get answered. That is for 90 minutes, keep in mind, because I want the freedom and the slack to explore side doors and we may end up scrapping all the research that I’ve done and save it for a round two, which is something I do quite a lot. And then I’ll circle the things that we didn’t get to with a highlighter and put R@ on them, take photographs, put into Evernote, and I share that with my team. And I’m like, “This is what we’ll use for around two.”
Don’t be attached to finishing all of your questions. And very often what I will do to try to limit the impulse to do that is I will block an interview into sections, I don’t do this always, but sometimes, to let a guest know what is coming. I will say, ‘For the first 30 minutes, we’re going to bounce all over the place. It’s going to be background, personal story, et cetera.” And I always ask them for specifics and examples. That high concept, abstract stuff bores the shit out of audiences. It bores the shit out of me. There can be some high concept stuff, but we need real examples, real details, and so on. If someone’s not willing to do that, by the way, I will sometimes not publish the audio.
So if they don’t bring their A game, if they’re not playing to win and really doing the prep, I don’t feel obligated to publish. That happens very rarely, but I’d say around a dozen interviews I haven’t published. If they’re not actually trying, if they’re not attempting to do what will appeal to the audience, I’m not going to publish.
Chris Hutchins: Are you direct with them in your telling them why you didn’t publish or is it more —
Tim Ferriss: Sometimes.
Chris Hutchins: Sometimes you just lose the audio.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly. I wish I could tell you that I’m always 100 percent honest about that, but sometimes, especially in the early days, I was not confident or comfortable enough to do that. So there was a lot of audio that just vanished into the cloud. Hard to explain, but it happens. And sometimes there would be a make good on that. So let’s say they have an excellent book but the interview was just terrible, then I might offer to take an excerpt from the book from a particularly good chapter, put it on the blog, and then use that as a way to assist in some fashion.
One of the questions that you had, and don’t lose track of your followup questions, but one of the questions you had is: Do I read the books? These days, no. There’s a point where I was getting sent 50 plus books a week from publishers. By the way, never signed up for these lists. Never asked for them. So if any publishers are listening, please take me off your list. I’m going to start putting specific names on the public hall of shame for spamming me with physical books. You’re killing trees. You’re causing the decline of our earth unnecessarily with books that I’m just going to give away. Stop it.
Stop doing it. Take me off your lists. But the point is I was getting 50 plus books a week, and that’s just untenable. I can’t. Even the books from friends or acquaintances, if you consider the hundreds of people I’ve had on the podcast and the many people that I know and have met over the years, it’s physically impossible for me to read these books and I don’t want to have to pick and choose. So I actually put up — people can see it at tim.blog/newbooks. It is the one decision that removes a thousand decisions. There’s a blog post about that. And one of the policies is I will not read the books beforehand. I’m only reading old books, meaning books that have not been published in this year.
So I don’t do that. However, you can ask the publicist or the author to send you some high level concepts or a one or two pager, if they’re using that for interviews and so on, you can have them do that. But I do not read books in advance. There have been cases where I’ve read the book in preparation, like in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s case, or if the authors are authors I followed for a long time like Walter Isaacson, for instance, who’s written incredible biographies of Benjamin Franklin and DaVinci and so on. Then I will read the books, but it’s quite rare. Especially in the last two years, but in the beginning, yes, look, you’ve got to earn, you’ve got to really earn the quality of the output in your interviews. And if reading is going to help then do it, because in the beginning you’re not going to be getting sent 50 books a week. You may have slack in the system to do that. What other questions or topics?
Chris Hutchins: As I’ve even found myself, as your interview skills get better and better, it’s easier and easier, but in the beginning did you ever just take a pause in an interview and say, “Let me just take a minute to really regroup and replan where this is going to go.” Maybe you don’t tell them exactly why, but what kind of things might we have found on the chopping floor?
Tim Ferriss: I will always tell people in advance that they should feel free to take a water break or a bathroom break, and that they can also restate anything. So if they get two sentences into a story and they’re like, “Ah, this isn’t that good. I want to start over,” they can just say that. “You know what? Let me just start that over.” Take two seconds of silence, start over. Then we can clean it up. And I’ll say this, I may need a water break or a bathroom break. That gives me the ability if I need a breather, water, bathroom or just to clear my head and figure out where is this going, where do I want to take this, then I’ll do that. But my episodes are, generally speaking, minimally edited, very minimally edited. Although the number of tics will determine how much editing. It is incredible how many smart people have atrocious verbal tics. They will say, “Like, like, like, like, like,” literally a hundred plus times in a 90 minute interview, I do not exaggerate. Or someone will say, “You know, you know what I’m saying?”
Which is actually a very — I’ve noticed some gender patterns. I know it’s very fashionable to talk about such things, but men, the “you know” tends to be more of a male thing across the board. And like, a lot of men say “like,” but it’s especially noticeable for a lot of women, a lot of female guests, which is interesting. The tics seem to skew in different genders and different directions, so, so, dots, so dot, um, those are all very common. There was one guest, I’m not going to name him by name, although I think he’d find it funny, he had a really good one, he said, “And whatnot.” And he’d be like, “Dah, dah, dah, and whatnot, and whatnot.” And he said it so often, and at the time, I just didn’t want to deal with having to edit it so I left it in and he went into the office the day after the podcast had come out and all of his coworkers started calling him Mr. Whatnot.
And you will absolutely notice that. So I want my guests to sound as good as possible. If they’re nervous, I will tell them that. My job is to make you sound as good as possible. If you’re nervous, put that on me. It is my responsibility as the interviewer to direct and shape and prompt in the best way possible. Just be yourself, take any nerves and just put it on me. It’s all on me. So I will also say that if people are nervous, so that’d be a good example. If you do it once or twice, it’s fine, and you can leave it in. But if you hear that at the beginning of every answer, then it’s a problem. Another tic would be “That’s a good question, oh, that’s a good question. That’s a great question. Oh, that’s a good question.” You might hear that literally 20 times in one interview, you’ve got to clip that, they just won’t sound as good as they should otherwise. And that’s part of your responsibility.
Chris Hutchins: And if you’re just getting started, there’s a product that I’ve used called Descript.
Tim Ferriss: Descript is great.
Chris Hutchins: And it makes it really easy to find these filler words. I still find it needs some tweaking around the edges because they’re not perfect, but it’s a great tool for running through a transcript that’s auto-generated, but certainly cheaper than if you were paying someone to word-for-word transcribe everything.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. And looking at another question that you sent me, because to lay out how this podcast came to be, and you sent me a bunch of very good questions via email, which I requested after we had an initial conversation and one of them, which I then asked to answer in this format so I could point people to it, is: “You seem to understand your audience well. How did you build that understanding? Did you survey them, ask for email feedback, or something else?” Okay. I’ll give you the tactical answer and then I’m going to give you the principle behind most of my thinking. I have surveyed my audience, but I haven’t done that at length in many, many years. The reason I surveyed my audience also was to gather demographic data, average household income, and many other things so that I could present that to sponsors, because at the time I had dozens of sponsors coming in and I could not answer those questions.
Now with Facebook Analytics, assuming you are present on multiple platforms or your podcast is present on multiple platforms, you have many different ways that you can gather this data now. So Facebook would be one, there are many other options I did survey, but I would say the way I’ve gotten to know my audience is, this is going to be a very unsatisfying answer, fortunately, I think there’s a satisfying principle that comes after it, is over more than a decade, The 4-Hour Workweek came out in 2007, I started the blog, I want to say, in 2005 or 2006, I have been growing and learning alongside my audience for 13 plus years now. And you really get to know your audience and your audience will change over time. So since launching the podcast, I would say my audience, my readership was 80, 20, 80 percent male, 20 percent female. Let’s just keep it simple. I know gender is a sensitive topic and there are more options, but let’s just keep it basic for now. I would say as of a few years ago, it’s more 60, 40, female, male.
And I have changed over time, somewhat, but blog, social, blog meaning blog comments, social media feedback, these are all things that I pay some attention to, but that can quickly get overwhelming. So I would suggest that people listen to — I’ll give you the upshot in a moment, but listen to my interview with Tim Urban, who has an incredible blog called Wait But Why. And if he had followed any of the advice for how to create a popular blog, by the way, he would not have done what he did. I mean, some of his pieces I want to say are 30,000, 50,000 words. I mean, they’re books. Some of his multi-part blog posts are effectively books.
They’re long. Not all of them are long. One of my favorites is The Tail End. It’s not germane to what we’re talking about, but The Tail End, just search The Tail End by Tim Urban, everyone should read it. It will improve your life. It will improve how you relate to your family. It’s a must read. It’ll take you 10 minutes, but he has talked, and I think he also talked about this in Tribe of Mentors, about writing for his audience. And he said it’s really easy. And I’m paraphrasing here. But basically he imagines a huge stadium and each seat is filled by another Tim Urban. So the entire stadium filled of himself.
He is just writing what he would want to read. And it sounds so simplistic. It sounds almost ridiculous. And as simplistic as it might be, if it is incredibly simplistic, it is incredibly effective as well. So if you know yourself and you pay attention to what excites you, you pay attention to your fears, you pay attention to the goals that you have, you pay attention to things that you struggle with even though you’ve tried to fix them before, you pay attention to the things that bother you, you at least have a guaranteed market of one. A lot of people fuck that up. They start speculating. And they’re like a 22-year-old guy and they’re like, “You know what? I went to Wharton and I figured out doing all of these financial models and management consulting, there’s this huge opportunity for new moms who need blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, for their kids,” and regenerative blahbity blah. They don’t know anything about any of these things, but they’ve identified a huge market opportunity.
And that is where they’re going to focus their energies for building a company. That can work. I’m not saying it can’t work in terms of good financial outcomes. Are they going to have a lot of fun doing it? Probably not. In the world of podcasting, in the world of writing, don’t assume you are someone of super human empathy and that you can guess what other people need. Just focus on yourself. And the personal will end up being the most universal, if that makes sense. I’ll give you an example, this might screw up the audio for a second, but I’m holding up an AirPods case. All right, now, who else has an AirPods case?
My girlfriend. And we mix up cases all the time. And it’s a huge pain in the ass because sometimes I’ll pick up what I think are mine, they’re hers and the earbuds aren’t even in the case. They’re upstairs somewhere. And then I get to a coffee shop where I’m supposed to work or do something, and I can’t take a phone call and this problem has repeated itself over and over and over again. I tried to say, “Use a Sharpie to write a name on the outside.” Anyone who has tried that knows that it immediately gets rubbed off, it doesn’t work. So the solution that I figured out is you open the case and you just put your initials inside the divots at the very top. So you can see T there at the top, never gets worn off, works every time and we have not mixed up our AirPods since. This is the first time I’m talking about that. But I suspect I’m not the only person who has had this problem.
Chris Hutchins: There is a piece of blue masking tape on my wife’s AirPods case, which does not fall off like marker.
Tim Ferriss: So you could do that as well. You can do that as well. And you could use masking tape. There are multiple solutions here. This is the one that worked for us. Great. Where to next?
Chris Hutchins: So the audience thing is interesting. I know you’re someone who likes stats and analyzing the data. There is some interesting data that I’m not sure if it even makes sense to do anything with. So you’ve got your downloads per episode. You’ve got these charts that Apple and Spotify give you of where do people drop off in an episode, do you look at that data? Do you do anything with it? Do you completely ignore it?
Tim Ferriss: I do pay attention to downloads, not a lot of attention. I haven’t looked at my stats in weeks, but if an episode does unusually well, if it’s several standard deviations say away from other episodes and there isn’t an easy explanation for it — so if I have LeBron James on the podcast, as an example, which I did, then if that episode is a runaway hit, I’m not going to be that surprised because some of what was featured in the episode is picked up by ESPN and different comments are quoted all over the place. So there’s a lot of carry, but if there’s an outlier that isn’t easily explained, then I want to take a close look at that. If there’s an under-performer that isn’t easily explained, I also want to take a close look at that. Determining any causality whatsoever is really difficult, unless there’s a technical problem.
So very often, if there is an under-performer, the first thing that we look for are technical problems. Was there an issue with any of the major platforms, and that is important to keep an eye on, but I have not found the vast majority of data that is easy to collect or find to be that actionable. But I’d be curious to hear your perspective because things have changed and the tools have become better, but still I think it is tempting to conclude causality with say an N of one with one episode that does something strange. And it’s very, very hard with any conviction for me to say that that’s going to be an accurate read.
Chris Hutchins: I have not found anything super effective to use with the standard platform analytics. Every now and then I’m like, “Wow, that episode did a little better.” I haven’t seen any major order of magnitude changes. There’s been this one’s 10 percent up, 10 percent down. I attribute that to all kinds of randomness. The one thing that I will say, maybe this falls under analytics, and it’s another tip from Kevin Rose, was Chartable is a platform that you can use for lots of analytics things, but the one thing they do that’s really cool is if you put their prefix in front of your feed, which means every episode just gets hosted on a platform, you can tell your hosting platform, “Hey, make sure the URL include this other thing also so that someone else sees whenever that’s requested.”
And so you can create a link. So if this were on my show, it’d be link.charitable.com/athtim, and then Chartable will say what IP address went to the link and then look for whether that IP address actually requested an episode. And so you can go and say, “Here’s a link to promote an episode.” You could put it on different social channels. You could give it to a guest if they want to promote it. And you could see which channels are actually converting to downloads, which I think is something that it’s always easy to see who clicked what, but did they actually listen to the episode? Now you can’t find out how many minutes they listened to or anything like that, but it’s at least one piece of evidence to support what to do. And I used it to make a decision, which was interesting. When you are promoting an episode, you basically have two choices.
You can send a link to every platform out there, which some people do. They go on Twitter and they’re like, “Check out my new episode. Here it is on iTunes and here it is on Google and here it is on Spotify. And here it is here, here, here.” Or you can link to your own website, where it’s “Click here” and now there’s seven player buttons where the individual listener could jump off to. Or Chartable will let you say if someone opens on an iPhone, just directly take them to the podcast app, which is great if they use that. It’s probably a terrible experience if they’re a Spotify or an Overcast listener. So I actually test it out. One episode, I did one way, one I did the other way, one I did the next way and I just looked at which one of those links converted better. And the best conversion was sending them to my website with the player links on it than trying to guess or listing multiple things.
Tim Ferriss: And what success is depends on how you define success and what metrics constitute success for you. So one could be increase in downloads. Another could be increase in plays, which is a lot trickier, although different platforms count downloads and plays differently. So you might have automatic downloads in the background on Apple. Things may have changed, but at least a few years ago, that was the case and that would count as a download, even if it were never touched, never seen by the person who owns that iPhone versus say on Spotify if someone clicks play that counts and then people might look at their analytics and conclude, oh, Spotify is only five percent of my downloads, in quotation marks, therefore I really don’t need to pay attention to it. Whereas in reality, maybe it’s 20 or 30 percent or more of your actual plays. So it’s important to understand the limitations and the mechanics of some of these platforms.
I would also say an additional benefit of sending people to your website is that you can offer or incentivize them to sign up for something like a newsletter, because as it stands, if you are publishing through an RSS feed in the way that most people do, you do not have a direct relationship, or I should say you don’t have the ability to communicate effectively directly with the people who listen to your podcast and I view that as a problem. In the same way that I view any business based on a single platform as highly vulnerable. I remember talking to somebody who had — it was a something like, I don’t know, $10 million a year business built on a Facebook page of some type, Facebook pages. And I asked them how that was going for them and they said, “Well, it’s going great, but it feels like I have the most profitable McDonald’s in the world built on top of an active volcano.”
At any moment, the algorithm could be changed suddenly. Oh, you’re a business page? Okay, now we’re going to throttle your organic reach to 10 percent of your audience and you’re going to have to pay to reach the people you thought were guaranteed to see your message. I don’t like that. I don’t like that risk. And therefore, for me at least, one of the core drivers for using the newsletter as I have, 5-Bullet Fridays is the most popular aspect of the newsletter, which is free, so listeners, you can find that at tim.blog/friday, I’ve been doing that for a long time now, is to establish a direct line of communication with my listeners and readers. And quite frankly, also, because text is my native language. Everything started with books. And so in the same way that Rogan is really good on video, it’s also quite clever via text. I think there are many good reasons why he is incredibly popular on Instagram. Some of his captions and so on are exceptional and they’re long, some of them.
For me that translates to feeling very comfortable, very competent, very good about the newsletter. Writing 5-Bullet Friday is therapeutic for me. And so it is in a way a diary and self therapy and quote unquote marketing all in one, which is great. So those are a few thoughts, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to data but I will look at trend lines over time. And if there’s some type of catalyzing event or concern, especially due to technical problems or new policies on platforms, then I’ll take a quick look at that but the fact of the matter is I wouldn’t pay too much attention to data or specific data sets until you’ve asked yourself what action will I take or not take, or what behavioral will change based on looking at this dataset. And if the answer is none and none, do something else. Unless it nurtures your soul and tickles your nuts to chew on data, if that’s just your fun, that’s your recreation, great, have fun. But otherwise I wouldn’t pay too much attention to it.
Chris Hutchins: So one of the most common things I think people look at data for, and it’s not clear, like you said, that they would do anything about it, is to try to see if their audience is growing. So I know you said don’t think about growth, but we can come back to growth. I think one of the interesting things is a lot of people have podcasts, good content and I’ve been asked to go on some podcasts where they get 100, 200 downloads an episode, and they’re just not breaking out, but it’s not because they don’t have good content. You obviously came into this. I remember you said that when you launched your podcast, it was the number one podcast in iTunes.
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
Chris Hutchins: I know you get a boost when you launch, but not everyone has that. Do you think, other than good content, is growth something you think people should spend any time on because people have to find that good content?
Tim Ferriss: Sure. I think growth, I think awareness is perfectly valid to focus on and I do pay attention to growth. I do track. I’m very well aware of the average number of downloads at week two, at week six per episode, and total number of downloads. And I do pay attention to a handful of key metrics. I don’t pay attention to them to the extent that they become a distraction from things that I think are more important, but in the beginning, for sure, I launched, like I said, 2014 and the ecosystem has exploded since. Competition is probably a million X what it was, I mean, at least a few thousand X what it was, although I would say just because there are a lot of podcasts doesn’t mean automatically that you have competition. Competition for what? What is the scarce resource that you are competing for?
If not, why is it a competition? Is it an ego thing? What is the competition? I think these are questions worth asking, but to come back to growth. So when I launched in 2014, I should also say there were people who said to me, “That ship has sailed. It’s too late. There’s no point doing a podcast,” in 2014. So I think they were wrong then and the people who say that now, I also think are wrong. It’s still very early. Think about it. Amazon has only come into this space in a big way very recently and they’re very quietly, I suspect, doing lots of interesting things, but they have not thrown all their weight behind this. And they have a lot of weight to throw. That is just one example. We are so early still, I think, but with respect to what has helped increase downloads, I would say being on other podcasts first and foremost, helped drive subscribers. You need to be explicit about asking people to go to the podcast and being explicit with the host that that is why you are coming on the podcast. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s automatically a high conversion rate.
People who listen to podcasts probably listen to more than one podcast. So I do think that there is a fair amount of transference when you’re on other podcasts, and it makes you a better podcaster to be on other well run podcasts. So you can take notes on process, how they prep you, what technology they use, what do they do or not do that you could adapt or not adapt?
What are you doing that you might want to discard? So there is an educational part also to being on other podcast that you might not get from pursuing growth through other channels. I think that newsletters are also very powerful, email and newsletters. They’re powerful for everything because they are one link click away from whatever the desired action is.
So those would be two that come to mind, and there are other ways to increase downloads and subscribers. Certainly big names don’t hurt, but it’s one thing to get somebody to your podcast. It’s another to have them stick around and be an active listener. So if you get a celebrity on and they are mediocre at best, is someone going to listen to a second episode?
I would guess not. They might have an automatic download, but what is it that you actually care about? The download number or the number of active listeners? I care about the number of active listeners for a lot of reasons. Hard to confirm what the act of listenership is, but big names definitely help, right? The Arnold Schwarzenegger episode and the amount of promotion that I then did behind it, right?
So I do use paid acquisition, advertising, things of this type. Having a name to really put a lot of the machine behind and muscle behind, which could be as simple as a basic campaign on your platform of choice that doesn’t necessitate having a blog and so on like I do. I think that is certainly helpful. But it’s a temptation that needs to be tempered because you could spend all your time chasing big names.
And I think it’s a fool’s errand, as I mentioned earlier. Certainly video, I think YouTube, TikTok to some extent certainly. Although I think Andrew Chen has written some very interesting pieces about TikTok and its effects on virality and some perhaps unintended or unknown consequences of sudden influx. So people can Google that and find it.
YouTube can be extremely helpful. And I’ve seen that with many podcasts now. It’s not just limited to Joe Rogan. You have many examples. I mean, Jordan Peterson would be another example. There are probably thousands of examples, but I could certainly think of a dozen offhand who use video very, very well. Those are a few, and PR. If you want to practice your chops with getting out in other types of media outside of podcasting, then knock yourself out. You could do that as well.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah. When you said video, I noticed you have two kinds of podcast videos on your YouTube channel. You’ve got the static image of the cover art and the guest and just playing the audio, and then the actual interview. Are both of those effective or do you really think the real boost comes when you have video content?
Tim Ferriss: The real boost comes from video content, for sure. Yeah, the static images are placeholders from audio only interviews. So to put them on YouTube, we choose a cover page of some type, and that is what people see, but for sure, actual video, moving images makes the biggest difference. And I will say that I suspect a lot of people are going to be very disappointed with my answers on growth here.
And I will say, and this is such an old man thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway, there is no magic bullet for growth, and the tools change. So I would suggest getting a book like The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, reading a short chapter called The Law of Category. I believe I put an updated/edited version of that in either Tools of Titans or Tribe of Mentors, because I think it’s that valuable.
Read The Law of Category, read 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, which you can find on kk.org. These will give you principles, adaptable principles that will allow you to build a unique position in the minds of people who will become diehard evangelists. If you do that, which takes consistency over time, and it takes focus more than anything else, a lot of the other dominoes will tip over without any additional effort.
But if instead of learning how to draw as an analogy, you’re focused on whether you should use a ballpoint pen or a fountain pen or pastels or crayons or watercolors, meaning the different technologies and tools. Clubhouse versus TikTok versus Instagram versus oh, Vine. Remember that? Oops. Oh-oh, if your promotional engine was based on that, oh-oh.
Facebook business pages, oh, yeah, you’re going to need to boost to reach your audience now. Sorry about that. There’s too much fragility in a tactics or tool spaced approach. So I think the principles are most important. But I recognize also that perhaps I am just too far from the nascent years in which I built my blog following to provide a good answer.
I will say though, that I built a very, very, very, very popular blog when practically no one knew who the hell I was. And I did that by writing posts that I hoped 10 percent of my then very small audience would love. I did not write posts that I wanted 100 percent of my audience to like, and I do the same thing with podcasting. I think it works really well.
So I do not expect my entire audience to love any episode. And if I tried to do that, I think I would shoot myself in the foot. I expect that my active audience will be in a rotation in every fourth or fifth or maybe 10th episode, they will love so much that they will send it to 10 of their friends. That is how I think about it. And I believe at least so far, it has been extremely, extremely effective.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah. One of the pieces of feedback someone gave me on my show was that not every episode is relevant to them, right? I did an episode where I interviewed a professional car buyer and they were like, “I don’t have a car, so this episode’s pointless.” They were like, “Maybe you should change this show so that everything’s always relevant to everyone.”
And my answer was, “I don’t know. I’m going to buy a car. I wanted to talk to someone that professionally does this, and that’s super interesting to me. So just skip it and go to the next one.” Do you feel similarly? You said “One in five to 10 people love that episode”; do you care, or do you think they’re listening to the other five to nine episodes?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t care. I literally spend zero time thinking about it because — and this might sound strange, but for me to have fun, for this to be a joyful experience that I look forward to, the podcast needs to have a certain essence, a certain pull for me, and it has to have a certain dosage. So I have a very infrequent podcast.
I do it on average four times per month, or I publish four long form episodes per month. We didn’t really talk about recording cadence, which we could talk about. But on average, I publish four long form interviews per month. At one point it was six episodes. And then I noticed a few months into doing that, I was starting to drag my feet a little bit, and it began to feel like a job, like an obligation.
And I noted that quickly, thankfully, and I said, “This is no good. If I keep this up, I’m going to stop doing the podcast, or I’m just going to be unhappy doing it. In which case, what the fuck am I doing?” Because I don’t need to do it. And I then ratcheted back the frequency of the podcast to the point where it felt good. So there’s a dosage question, i.e., frequency. There’s also an essence poll question.
So for me, I have to follow my own interests and to be of a good steward of my own self-care, but to also be of greatest service to the people who are listening, I need to keep doing this, or at least I hope to keep doing it. Maybe I don’t need to, but I would like to keep doing this and to be able to grow over time and share those lessons.
The only way I’m going to do that is if I am drawn to continue doing this because I enjoy it. So if I decide to do an episode with a violin appraiser and it gets 10 listeners, I don’t fucking care at all. As long as I enjoy the episode, I do not care.
And I will say that over time, that not caring is the ultimate form of caring because you can cultivate an audience who is interested in stepping into weird, strange corners of the world into interests and professions and lives that they perhaps otherwise would have ignored or avoided. So your audience will also change in how they relate to you over time.
And at least in my experience, they, I hope, have realized that sometimes it is the episode they least would have expected to want to listen to that they end up liking the most of perhaps the last 20 episodes I’ve done. So I think my listeners are more and more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and try something strange.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah. I got some feedback from Joe Saul-Sehy who runs a podcast called The Stacking Benjamins, which is a funny, kind of different style podcast. But he said, “The interesting thing you have to realize with guests is someone might listen to the episode for the guest, but at the end of the day, they’re subscribing and coming back for you.”
And so the nature of interviews though often is we’re trying to highlight the guest in and hear their stories, which inherently if done well, is them talking more than you. You mentioned earlier, if it’s a bad guest, it might be you talking much more than them. How do you make sure you interject enough of Tim into the podcast that new listeners and recurring listeners get that when the focus of each episode is always on someone else?
Tim Ferriss: That is a really good question, and the answer is I don’t think about it at all, but there are some times when I will interject and it has a strategic purpose or a practical purpose. There are interviews where I basically don’t talk at all. And if someone is just a woman or a man possessed and they are in flow, I will let them riff. It’ll just be an audio book of that person for an hour or two hours.
You can listen to Tim Ferriss and Balaji as an example of that. The 4-Hour, Every Topic under the Sun Covered Podcast which was quite an experience to be on the receiving end of also. Great episode, very unusual and one of the best performing podcasts probably of the last year for me, which is saying a lot. So if people look up my name or just go to tim.blog and search Balaji, B-A-L-A-J-I.
Yeah, put in a mouth guard and drink a few cups of coffee and prepare yourself for the onslaught. It’s quite something.
But I will interject in a few instances. One is where I know I’m asking a question or I suspect I’m asking a question the guest is going to have trouble answering unless they have some time to think about it.
So for instance, if I ask them, “What is one of the best investments you’ve ever made?” which, by the way, is better than, “What’s the best investment you’ve ever made?” in the same way that, “What is one of the books you have gifted the most for other people?” is better than “What’s the best book you’ve ever read?” The search function is a lot harder; it’s going to take them much longer to try to come up with a single answer.
And they’ll generally default to recency. They’ll come up with something that happened recently. So you don’t get the best answers. If I ask someone, for instance, “What is one of the best investments you’ve ever made?” and then I might buy them time by giving some examples. I’ll say, “Let me give you a few examples and give you a second to think about it. It could be an investment of money. Like so-and-so, say, Warren Buffett, who invested in Dale Carnegie speaking classes for public speaking. And he always cites that as his best ever investment, because it has multiplied and magnified his ability to do everything else. It has been a super charger for all of his other skills and talents. It could be buying an entrance ticket to a competition that allowed you to prove yourself that then led to X. It could be an investment of energy. It could be anything.”
Okay, I just gave everyone listening and you 45 to 60 seconds to think about an answer, as opposed to off-the-cuff coming up with something as quickly as possible. Fortunately, you can take that approach or, if you’re not recording live, you can just say, “Take your time. We’re not recording this live. You can take 30 seconds in silence to think about it, and then we can talk.”
But that feels strange to a lot of people. Even though you can do that from a production standpoint, sitting in a conversation in silence, waiting for a minute for someone to answer feels unnatural and weird.
So I will interject in a case like that. Very frequently when I speak up, it is to buy time for the interviewee and to give them a few examples to act as, like, auxiliary search functions in their own brains so that they can come up with the best possible answer.
Chris Hutchins: I was thinking the whole time about my best investment.
Tim Ferriss: Well, what is one of your best investments?
Chris Hutchins: Well, it’s funny, when I moved out to the Bay Area, I didn’t know anyone. And I had recently been laid off and so I didn’t have any money, but I invested in a membership at the climbing gym down the street. And at the time I thought climbing gyms are not cheap gyms, there’s cheaper gyms.
But through the climbing gym, I met a guy named Daniel Burka, who was at Digg. Through Daniel, I met Kevin. Through Kevin, I — it’s literally probably the investment that ended up building out my entire network including being here. But at the time it seemed, it was like 100 and 120 bucks a month, it seemed crazy, but —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s amazing. Was that Mission Cliffs or where were you?
Chris Hutchins: It was Mission Cliffs.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a great gym. I remember Mission Cliffs back in the day. So, that’s a fun question to ask. If I ask someone about favorite failures, just the phrasing of the question is very confusing for a lot of people. So then I’ll give them an example, right? And the other time that I’ll chime in is if the interview is drowning in boredom as a rescue attempt. What else do you have?
Chris Hutchins: So that’s a lot about Tim. So I want to talk a little bit about the transition. Early Tim was really just “The 4-Hour Guy,” right? You had three books in a row where that was the theme. Someone told me once, they said, “Hey, your cover art for an episode of the podcast, everything, nothing has anything about you on it.”
So I took a similar early on approach where the story of the show is all about what the show’s about, All the Hacks. It’s not about me at all. And people are like, “Well, who are you?” And you made a transition. Now your podcast is The Tim Ferriss Show, it’s got nothing to do with 4-Hour.
I get the sense that you’re trying to run away from being The 4-Hour Guy. But how have you thought about that transition and making it, and making a brand that is really about you instead of something else?
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to tackle this from oblique angle and I’ll couch it under the umbrella of identity diversification, and also optionality. So flashing back to The 4-Hour Workweek. 4-Hour Workweek was this huge unexpected hit in a state on the New York Times list for four to five years straight every week. And it created an abundance of inbound opportunity.
Almost all the requests were expectedly related to The 4-Hour Workweek. So I was The 4-Hour Workweek guy. “We want you to give a talk on the principles of The 4-Hour Workweek. We want you to do consulting to help us improve efficiency and per hour yield within this organization. We want you to do this workshop. We want you to license the name so we can develop A, B, C, D, and E. We want to option it for a movie,” which is almost always a dead end, by the way, if people are wondering. “We want to talk to you about a musical. We want to do this, we want to do that.” Most of those things all came to zero, but all of the external pressures were to milk that for everything that it was worth. In other words, I would write The 4-Hour Workweek Volume Two, or I would write The 3-Hour Workweek.
I would continue to beat that drum until I had shaggy gray eyebrows and could bang the drum no more, right? That was going to be me. And I saw many authors around me who I met on the speaking circuit early on when I did that. I no longer and for many years have done no paid speaking, which was a categorical decision and policy.
That was one of those decisions that removes 1,000 decisions for many reasons we could talk about. The short answer is I was repeating myself. And when you repeat yourself, this is relevant to my point, when you repeat the same messages, as my friend, Josh Waitzkin pointed out to me, you begin to calcify your thinking.
And you’re also repeating it because you are being paid for this perishable product, which is speaking to audiences over and over again about the same thing. And I recognized I did not want to be many of the people I met who had been milking the same thing for a very long time. They didn’t seem particularly happy about it. They didn’t seem energized by it.
They seemed drained and they seemed to feel trapped to me. Which is why, given the success of the book, I decided to maintain, preserve the brand recognition of 4-Hour, but move it into physical performance with The 4-Hour Body. Because I recognized I might never have this chance again to step out, to have license to go to a completely different section of the bookstore, completely different subject matter, but I could always go back to The 4-Hour Workweek.
So I could always return to that comfortable, familiar, well worn path of these principles outlined in The 4-Hour Workweek. So this is I think an important part of the backstory. So I decided to go to 4-Hour Body. 4-Hour Body does extremely well. 4-Hour Body hits number one New York Times, still sells extremely well.
And that then bought me the license to write The 4-Hour Chef where I’m taking these principles, which also come up in your podcast a fair amount with Andy Rachleff recently of Wealthfront, the 80/20 principle, so Pareto’s law, and many different principles that you could apply to deconstruct it entrepreneurship and testing assumptions apply equally to physical performance.
They apply equally to accelerated learning, language acquisition, cooking, it doesn’t matter. So now I had proven to the people who pay me, at least upfront, the publishers, and also proven to my audience that what was interesting was the adventures and the principles, not any specific subject matter. It’s hard for me to overstate how important that is.
I was no longer trapped in one section of the bookstore. I could write about anything I wanted. Right now I had license to do that. Okay, The 4-Hour Chef almost killed me. It was an incredibly complex, extremely difficult project. It was the first major acquisition by Amazon Publishing when they were really stepping into in a big way.
The entire publishing world freaked out. Barnes & Noble wouldn’t carry the book. I mean, it was exciting and also a huge mess on many levels. And each book launch, I would talk to bestselling authors who had launched in the preceding, say, 12 months. And I would ask them which channels, tools, and outlets did less than they expected, or were waning in importance and impact, and which did more than they expected and seemed to be in ascent.
So for The 4-Hour Workweek, blogs were neglected largely. I mean, blogs were incredibly powerful and neglected. That’s where I focused. With The 4-Hour Body, I asked the same questions and I explored a bunch of different channels. For The 4-Hour Chef, the medium and the tool, the channel that was most undervalued but most impactful was podcasting.
So I focused on podcasting for the launch of The 4-Hour Chef. And these podcasts had incredible impact, much more impact than huge television shows. And in the process of doing that, I really realized how much I enjoyed the long form conversations where you could be yourself, you could drop an F bomb if need be, if that was your penchant for just speaking casually and comfortably.
Versus, say, being on morning television, which can have some impact, but seem to have less and less of an impact where one is staring over your shoulder at a teleprompter, and you literally have 30 seconds to talk after spending like an hour waiting in the green room after having your face spray painted with makeup. And you woke up at 5:00 a.m. to get there. It’s not that enjoyable an experience.
So I saw the impact. I enjoyed the podcasting and decided then at that point I’m going to take a big break from books. Not sure I’m ever going to write another book, but in the meantime, I’d like to experiment with this podcasting format and see what it’s like to be in the director’s seat, so to speak.
And the only reason the podcast ended up with The Tim Ferriss Show as the name is I couldn’t come up with a name and Kevin called it Tim Tim Talk Talk in the first episode, which long term listeners still joke about. And Kevin and I still joke about, but came up with all of these different names for it.
And the fact of the matter was at that time, there were only two things that had a lot of brand recognition, the 4-Hour shtick, which I didn’t want to extend. I wanted to retire that jersey or my name. And that is the reason that I decided to use the name. But if you’re just starting a podcast and you don’t have any name recognition, I don’t think that the logic automatically follows that you should use your name.
Now, it’s been a wonderful trip. I will say that there are drawbacks to launching a podcast with your name in the same way that there are drawbacks to founding a company that can only be run by you. As we’ve seen in the news, there are a lot of big deals by podcast standards happening at the moment. There is a land grab for talent and big shows and audience.
So you have Joe Rogan, purportedly $100 million deal. I actually think if I had to guess, I don’t know this, but I would suspect it is substantially larger than that over time with earnouts and so on. And performance bonuses, I would guess it’s much larger than that. I think there was somewhere between 60 and $100 million deal for Dax Shepard, something like a $60 million deal for Call Her Daddy.
I think that’s a three-year deal. You will notice that the deal terms appear to be getting more and more onerous. Now, those are not all comparable deals. Those are different people, different properties and so on. But I believe as part of the deal with Call Her Daddy that Spotify has a first look or right of first refusal, or automatic ownership of future properties and creations, not just current.
Joe Rogan has a licensing deal, which is very different from an IP purchase agreement. But this is all to say that if I had, let’s just say, who knows? The 4-Hour Podcast. If I’d called it The 4-Hour Podcast, and I owned that trademark and slowly brought in other hosts or co-hosts to help, one could foresee an option of building that up into a property with many different personalities and selling that property after which I, as the initial builder of that brand, could be free and clear to go on and do other things.
It is not possible to do that simply with a podcast called The Tim Ferriss Show. So there are drawbacks. But net net, that’s the story of how I got there. And I don’t think about building a personal brand, to be clear. You have a personal brand. Already, everyone has a personal brand. Guess what your personal brand is? Your personal brand is what your closest friends and family and coworkers think of you, that’s it.
What do they associate you with, right? If they had to pull four or five adjectives out of the air, how would they describe you? Whatever comes to mind most naturally when people think about you, that is your personal brand. So we all already have a personal brand. If you want to create a personal facade or a stage persona, I’m not saying you, Chris, but just in general, you can do that, but you should be very careful of that.
And I remember I was told, I’m paraphrasing here, by Andrew Zimmern, who is an amazing television host, who is very smart and very, very thoughtful. He’s been on the podcast. His story’s incredible. I mean, he was, I think, sleeping on a mattress under an overpass at one point as an addict, and now is who he is.
It’s a really remarkable story, but when he was just getting started in television, and he and I spoke when I was doing some television not too long ago, he had some choices to make in that first episode about who he wanted to be. How did he want to deliver his lines? Were they going to incorporate any particular types of shticks? Were they going to be funny?
Were they going to make fun of certain things? Were they going to use the cheesy jokes? And he made a lot of decisions early on that ended up being critical to the future of his career because he said, in effect, be very careful of who you are in episode one, because that’s who you have to be for the rest of the time you’re on television.
And I think that’s true in podcasting. So be really careful about what you pretend to be, because you’ll have to maintain that and you may actually become whatever you pretend to be. So I don’t think a whole lot about personal brand, although I do think about what I want to stand for. And if I were really true to myself, what would I do? Who would I interview? If I were just doing this for me, what would I do? I always get the best results when I do that. When I try to predict the movement of the masses of some potential audience like this, the flock of birds, where I’m trying to guess which direction they’re going to fly, it never turns out well for me, especially. It’s not fun and it’s not particularly effective.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, okay. One of the things you mentioned in that story was about these podcasts, getting these licensing deals or different things. A common thing that I know happens with podcasts, especially as they start to gain traction and has happened to me in the last couple of weeks, is some podcast network will reach out and say, “Hey, do you want to join our network? Do you want to be an iHeartRadio podcast?” You usually get to keep all your IP, but they basically say, “Hey, we’ll sell ads. We’ll keep 50 percent. We’ll help you grow your show. We’ll do all this stuff, you don’t have to think about it. We’ll just give you the money we make.” It seems, to your point about monetization, like don’t spend any time on it, spend time honing your craft, spend time making a good show, is that a good way to take all of that off your plate from thinking about it? Would you encourage people to take those calls because they don’t result in having to spend time selling ads, though you lose upside for whatever term that deal is?
Tim Ferriss: This is a worthwhile topic to explore. Clearly, or maybe it’s not clear, but I do not work with a network or a partner of that type. A lot of people do, a lot of people do. I think it depends a lot on what you are trying to accomplish, right? A question everyone should ask is, three years from now, your podcast is successful, what does that mean to you? What does it look like exactly? What does a month in your life look like with respect to the podcast? It’s successful, what does that mean? What does it look like? It depends on that. It also depends on your competencies, your willingness to hire or work with contractors or commissioned salespeople to sell ads or sponsorships or find sponsors, if that is something that you want to do.
Is it worthwhile to take the calls? It’s always worthwhile to take the calls, just don’t promise anything. Yeah, definitely take the calls. The question that I would ask myself in preparation for those calls is: how can I learn as much as possible from this call so that even if I never end up talking to this person again, I get a lot out of this, right? Can you ask about best practices of other podcasts? Can you ask about common mistakes that highly competent, but novice or new-to-the-game podcasters make in their experience? Can you ask them, or indicate, as a policy when you have these types of conversations, you always ask, “If I couldn’t work with you, who would you recommend I work with?” Can you start to get a better understanding of the ecosystem? Can you ask them about other players in the system?
In other words, further your education and give yourself more and more of an informational advantage. Even if you never do a deal with these people. If you’re willing to prepare in that way, come up with good questions, absolutely take the call. If you’re just going to fly off the cuff and see what happens, maybe it’s still worth taking the call although you won’t get as much out of it, but yes, it’s absolutely worth taking the call and listening to their value proposition.
There are a number of different ways that you can sell ads. You can publish on a platform that inserts ads automatically. There are platforms, I believe Spotify has this ability, there are platforms that can do this. There are also hosting companies, I believe, that will use dynamic ad insertion to fill ad inventory for you. Your revenue from that, your income from that, your CPM or the cost-per-thousand downloads that you get paid, will be quite low for that, generally speaking.
You can work with a network, and that network may have people in-house, but the network could be a network just like you and I back in the day could print a business card, which is like Chris and Associates, and in fact, all they’re doing is partnering with yet another company and then they’re splitting the commission or the VIG between them. That’s another thing that you would want to ask, although I would ask it at the end of the conversation in case it pisses them off, are these full-time employees of yours or do you partner with other companies, do you subcontract out pieces of this, to get an idea of how things are architected.
You could partner with a network, and if they say, “We will help grow your show,” I would find out exactly how they do that. Gimlet, of course, does a good job of this, as do many of the NPR shows because they cross-promote new shows on existing properties. If they’re going to do that, find out what the reach is, find out if that’s going to be for all geographies or is it going to be a geo-limited, is it time limited, blah, blah, blah, blah, all the specifics, right? That’s probably for a second conversation, it’s not that important compared to other questions you could ask.
All right, so that’s a network. You could work with companies who sell ads, that’s it, that’s all they do. They’re not in network, but they will put sponsors in front of you and put your show in front of sponsors. There are many, many different agencies that do this, just like ad agencies for other types of media. The economics will look slightly different depending on who you talk to and they’ll be different probably from the networks.
Then there are very, very small shops, with maybe a handful of people, and they handle ads for larger shows. I will not mention them by name, just because I don’t want them to get deluged, but if you’re diligent, you can figure it out. Joe Rogan, Dax, This American Life, all work with the same small outfit who only work with a handful of premium properties and they sell ads for those outlets.
Then you can have a contractor or hire someone full time, as I did, to handle all of your ad inventory. I am comfortable, as an operator, I’m very, very, very, very comfortable with sales and I’m very, very comfortable with waiting until, in this case, my podcast had enough of an audience, and not just a large audience in terms of size, but a powerful audience in terms of influence, such that I would be able to say no very easily and still have takers. Does that make sense? Then to set terms, like no payment terms, you need to pay up front, so that we can keep our process extremely, extremely simple.
In that case, I looked at it and I was like, “Okay, let’s just take…” I mean, you can do some back of the napkin stuff, but it’s like, all right, I won’t use Joe as an example, I’ll let people try to figure that out on their own, but for him to do a deal of several years at a hundred million dollars, that would have to be a multiple of what he was making. He was making, I am sure, a lot, right? But let’s say that you get to the point where you are making a small fraction of that and you make a million dollars in total ad revenue, which, assuming you don’t have much staff, is almost pure profit. If you outsource your ad sales, I would say you should expect generally that at least 30 percent of that is going to go away.
Okay, so I’m no mathematician, but that is more than $300,000. Then the question is, for less than $300,000, could you hire someone who is absolutely excellent to do it for you and, this is just as critical, are you willing to have staff manage, do the calls, do the data analytics and so on, everything necessary to ensure that those operations are extremely smooth? The answer for a lot of people is no. Even if you have the money, they would rather spend the $300,000 plus, in this case. Now, keep in mind, if you’re making 10 million a year, then now we’re talking three million plus, right? It can be very, very expensive, but it’s worth it for a lot of people.
For me, I decided I had enough entrepreneurial experience, I am comfortable enough with operations and process and management that I am totally happy to hire someone full time to handle that for me. So that is what I decided.
Chris Hutchins: That makes sense.
Okay, so we’ve hit a lot of things.
Tim Ferriss: We have.
Chris Hutchins: Here’s a great question about a question, which is if you’re interviewing someone about a topic and you realize well past the point that you’ve talked about something that there’s a great followup, but you’re now three turns down on a different highway, do you ask it still, and if you do, do you try to edit it back so it fits or do you just save it for next time?
Tim Ferriss: I’ve done all of the above. If we’re down this road and there’s something I really want to ask, you have many, many options. For me, one option would be you write down on a piece of paper, this is why I like to have notes. I take a lot of notes as I’m writing, on things that I want to come back to also or things that I want to ensure I don’t forget. I’ll take that, I’ll circle it on a piece of paper, and I’ll say, “If you don’t mind, I want to interrupt for just a second. This is going to be a complete left turn. For all my listeners, sorry, that’s just how my mind works. I really want to just put a bookmark in this, so please remember where you are. I’m going to write it down. I want to ask you about X and then we’re going to come back to Y and Z.” You can do that.
You could take a note of it and then use a teaser at the end of the episode and say, “We could easily keep talking for many hours. We might have to do round two, if you’d be open to it,” and simply circle that in highlighter, R2, like I do, I mean, there are different ways to approach this, and save it for next time. You could try to edit and splice somewhere else and kind of Franken-clip your way into some type of narrative. That tends to be, or can be, very clumsy and labor intensive, so I tend not to do that.
Chris Hutchins: Well, then I’ll just throw it out here because it’s about a guest. One of the things I found, I heard you say that you got a lot of guests by asking people, “Hey, you were a guest, are there other interesting people I should have on this show?” In recruiting, I’ve learned that when you go to people and say, “Hey, are there interesting engineers I should hire?” everyone has nothing, they have to use that search function, but if you go look at their LinkedIn and say, “Hey, here are four people that you know that I think could be good for this job. If you think any of them are, would you introduce me to them,” that works well. Is there a tactic you’ve used to find guests from your network, of either friends or guests that helps them jog the memory to find the people that might be interesting.
Tim Ferriss: No is the short answer. I don’t have any particular tricks here. I will mention to people, I’ll say, “I really enjoyed speaking with you. You’re excellent at what you do and this was outstanding. If you ever think of anybody who you think would really enjoy being on the show, who I would also really enjoy speaking to, please let me know,” and I just leave it at that. I would say at this point, probably 80 percent plus of my guests come as referrals from past guests. It will become easier and easier over time, right? When you have 15 episodes, it’s harder, it’s just a smaller sample size. When you have 30, 50, there’s a non-linear kind of growth in the connectivity of the map that you’re creating, this constellation of guests and the types of people they can reach. It gets, I would say, exponentially easier over time to get referrals.
I will also say, just as a side note, a question that you can ask to also improve your interviewing and podcasting is one that Adam Grant asked me when he was a guest on the podcast after we stopped recording. You need to be insistent, but he said, or he asked rather, “What can I do to improve?” I gave him some throwaway answer because it’s an uncomfortable question, so I said something like, “It was great, it was really fantastic,” and it was, he was really, really, really good. I’m pretty sure he responded with, “I appreciate that, I appreciate the kind of feedback, and I’m not going to let you go until you give me one thing, just one thing, anything, could be small, that I could do to improve as a guest.”
I think he had a habit of, I don’t want to say nervous, but laughing a lot after certain questions or answers. I said, “That might be something that you could take a look at. If there was one thing and I had to pick one thing, you’re outstanding, it was absolutely wonderful as is, but if I had to pick one thing, that would probably be it. He was like, “Awesome, great. Thank you so much,” and he was stoked.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: If you want to get that type of feedback, you have to be insistent, I think, because it’s uncomfortable. You’re putting someone in an uncomfortable position right after you’ve done this thing, you’re feeling good probably, to deliver news that you might not like. You have to just say, “Look, I love this stuff. I’m not going to let you go. Just give you one thing, could be anything, tiny thing, something that I could do to improve.” That gets results.
That is my dog barking because I have a delivery coming to the door, so I think we should probably wrap up in a few minutes since we’re almost at three hours, but I know you have prepared more and so who knows, maybe there is a round two in our future. But what other boxes do you think we should check?
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, I think I have a good kind of wrap up question at least, is you launched your show and you said you’d commit to six episodes. I’ve seen you say you’d reassess then, and then after deciding to continue, I saw you say you’d reassess again at a hundred. What kind of a process do you go through when you reassess? Is it just a gut, do I want to keep going, or was there more going on each time you hit that milestone?
Tim Ferriss: It’s a pretty simple check-in right. It’s like, how do you feel? I think most things can be boiled down to how do you feel when you first wake up and how easily do you go to sleep? How do different decisions affect that? Certainly true in investing, big time, right? You could have on paper the best investment of all time, but if you’re waking up anxious and having trouble going to sleep, it’s probably not a good investment for you. This is true for podcasting too. How do you feel when you look at your calendar and you see that you have a podcast at 10:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. or whenever it is? What happens internally? Is it a whole-body yes? I mean, how do you feel mentally? How do you feel in your chest? How do you feel in your gut, and really paying attention to that. It’s a full body check-in for me.
Imagine, okay, it’s Tuesday. You’re tired and all you want to do is call it quits, but you realize you’ve got 90 to 120 minutes ahead of you for a podcast. How do you feel? What do you do? What is your self-talk? What does it look like? What has it been? Those are the types of questions that I ask myself. I want podcasting to be something that nourishes me and refills me, not something that depletes me. I think many, if not most, of my decisions these days, with respect to just about anything, are framed in that way. It’s simple, but the implications are pretty far reaching. It has nothing to do with revenue, it has nothing to do with how big the names are. It’s really, how do I feel when I see it on the calendar, how do I feel when I’m recording, how do I feel when it comes out? Is it net positive energy or net negative energy? If it’s net positive, yeah, keep feeding the dragon. That’s how I feel.
Also, you can build in the ability to take breaks. For instance, to touch on one thing that I dropped a long time ago, which was recording cadence — and by the way, your brain is really incredibly trainable. You get better at doing this as you record more and more podcasts, just mentally bookmarking things to come back to. Recording cadence, so I will very often, once per quarter, do a content creation week, which includes all of any social needs and all of my podcast needs for the next three months. I will record all of them in perhaps one week, Monday to Friday, or I may tag on an extra Monday, Tuesday in the following week. I will record all, which for me means 12, say, episodes for the next three months.
Then if I want to do more episodes, if I feel compelled, if there are things that pop up, like this episode for instance, I don’t need to record this episode. We’re recording this early September, I have all of my episodes until probably December covered already, they’re done. I don’t have to do a damn thing, I can just sit back and chill, but I wanted to record this episode because I get so many questions about podcasts. I also wanted to answer your questions. You can batch recording in that way.
I batch any sponsor recording in a similar way so that I’m not doing, by the way, refreshes. People who want a live read every time, not going to do it. I’m like, “If you have an ad that is working, do you keep using it until it stops working in terms of your return on invested capital, your multiple, whatever it might be?” Their answer is, “Oh, we keep using it.” I’m like, “That’s exactly what we do.” Once we have a good read, we keep using it. For that reason, I’ll batch recording for sponsors in a similar way.
Any review of guests, with one person on my team, we will no more than once a week, for a very short period of time, maybe five or 10 minutes, review potential guests who have come in, typically from past guests, and decide how I feel about them. It doesn’t matter how interesting they are, how good they are, what they do, at the end of the day, zero to 10, no seven allowed, what’s my stoke level? If it’s not an eight, nine or a 10, we do not press go.
That is also some of how I systematize the production and the editing and so on, such that the tasks and the responsibilities of the podcast are not scattered willy nilly all over my calendar, which would be, I think, stressful and ultimately a net negative energetically. Batching also helps to make things much more fun, much easier, much more streamlined and much less expensive, and ultimately, coming back to the very beginning, much more sustainable.
For all of those reasons and more, I don’t have a set time to check in with myself about the podcast. I batch, and I expect if you check in with me five years from now, unless something really strange has happened, I’ll probably still be doing the podcast.
Chris Hutchins: But was the batching always there, or you only committed to six episodes at the gate, that means in episode seven you needed to find in those first six episodes of production, how long did it take to get to that batching versus just in time, I need to go set up an interview so that I can release an episode next week?
Tim Ferriss: Well, the batching is as needed. Batching has some practical utility, in the sense that you finish everything in one week as necessary for the next two to three months, but I also get energized by the podcast. I will sometimes decide, you know what, I’m not going to batch all of my recording, but I’m going to do one recording per week or every other week because I find that it refills my tank. It’s not a burden to be lightened, it is also something that gives me more fuel for everything else that I’m doing, therefore, I’m not going to record everything in the batching session, but I will record enough so that I don’t feel like I have a gun against my head and, “Oh, shit, it’s Tuesday and I need to put out an episode on Thursday. Fuck, now I need to rejig my whole schedule.” That’s not an experience I want to have and it’s one that I can very easily avoid.
The batching and the systematizing comes, in my experience, later. You’ve got to throw a lot against the wall and figure out what works and what works for you, and then you can establish policies and rules so that you’re making very few decisions instead of a death by a million paper cuts. I do think that striving for what excites you and striving for what nourishes you goes a really long way.
To come back to a couple of recommendations, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, The Law of Category, read that chapter. Even if the examples are outdated, read it. Get the older copy, not the for the internet, because I think the for the internet was written in like ’98 or ’99 and the examples are really funny, but get the older version. Positioning, by the same authors, Ries, R-I-E-S, not Eric, but the older Ries, and Trout, I believe are the names, as well as 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly at kk.org. Kevin Kelly, honestly, may be the real life most interesting man in the world. If you want proof of that, you can listen to my first podcast episode with him. Stewart Brand might be also a close contender. I think Kevin would probably say Stewart Brand is the one who wins that title. But it’s a fun game, I encourage everyone to try it. You’ll learn a lot about yourself at the very least.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, I definitely have.
Tim Ferriss: With that, my friend, I think we can bring this to a close. We will link to everything in the show notes, all of these various things we’ve talked about, including the article, the very, very extensive article I wrote in 2016, and the link to the podcast with Rolf Potts. We’ll link to all of those things and more in the show notes.
But I don’t want to omit one very important thing, and that is to mention Chris’ podcast. We didn’t get to go into lessons from different guests, which I asked you to prepare, so maybe another time we’ll do that, but I’ve listened to a couple of episodes. I listened to your first and your last, at least on Overcast. I listened to the first episode, which was with Leigh Rowan, which was outstanding, really enjoyed it. Even though I’m not hugely obsessed with points and optimizing on that side, there were a lot of really good points, so I’m going to go refer to the show notes on that. I listened to Andy Rachleff, who’s incredible, one of the co-founders of Benchmark Capital also, which is one of the most successful venture capital firms of all time. I think their initial fund, and I learned this from the podcast, had what, 92X returns, it’s just bananas. That’s an episode on investing, as you might imagine. I’m listening currently to episode six on the psychology of money with Morgan Housel, and enjoying that quite a lot.
The podcast is good. It’s super solid and I think you’re off to the races, man. I don’t have tons of critical feedback for you. I think you’re doing a good job and it’s really about keeping it interesting for you and staying the course. But what else would you like to say about your podcast and where people can find it?
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, I would just say give it a listen wherever you listen to podcasts, which you’re obviously doing right now, just search for All the Hacks, and reach out if you have feedback and there’s topics you want me to explore
Tim Ferriss: Allthehacks.com, is that right?
Chris Hutchins: Yep, allthehacks.com.
Tim Ferriss: Allthehacks.com, and this man knows of what he speaks. Chris is optimizer supreme, and I don’t say that lightly. It’s kind of mind boggling to me how methodical you are with optimizing so many areas of your life. This is a person who walks the walk and I’ve seen it firsthand in many, many areas, so I encourage people to check it out, allthehacks.com, we’ll link to it in the show notes. It is good to spend time with you, Christopher.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for co-hosting/hosting this episode.
Chris Hutchins: Yeah, now I guess I can put on my resume, host of The Tim Ferriss Show. You said it had to be you, but here we go.
Tim Ferriss: Tim, Tim, Chris, Chris, volume two. Thanks for tuning in everybody.
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