What We Sell

Kole here.

I was originally going to write up my "Ten Most Wanted Rock Band Songs" list this week, but Gary's entry last week was so rousing that I'm inspired to do better than a listicle. The Rock Band article will show up eventually, but not today.

Gary and I have different skill sets and affinities. We joke about it a lot, but you can see it play out in the content on this very blog. I like processes and numbers, to a degree that can look ridiculous to someone like Gary who is more fond of the softer sciences. That's cool: the network is comprised of people whose strengths line up with other people's weaknesses.

I've been very active this month crunching the numbers to analyze how we did in 2014. I handle all of the network's financials, which is becoming a much larger task as we start bringing in and spending more money. Tax season is upon us, and making sure we don't rot in prison for doing a thing we love is very important to me. Every day, Duckfeed.tv starts to look and feel more like a "real" business.

The other set of numbers I crunch relates to our listener base. I have a very comprehensive way of gauging how the network is growing on daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and even yearly bases. Over time I've stumbled on a way to accurately determine what our "audience" size is for every episode we release. I can see what different factors affect our downloads, at least in a very rough way.

I can say with confidence that there are at least a handful of thousands of you. That's small potatoes compared to larger shows and larger networks, but that figure is staggering when you stop and think "There are thousands of people who listen to me when I talk." In human terms, I look at those numbers and see a snapshot of how many people whose lives we touch in some small way with the work we do here.

I try very hard to keep things framed like that. As we grow, I want to remain grateful and humble, but most of all mindful of the fact that any amount of attention you pay us is special and fragile. Our dangerous task, as we look to grow, is to avoid letting those numbers just be numbers.

The danger is in being "Business Guys" about it.

My day job, for anyone who doesn't know, involves me working with companies large and small to create animated videos to market their products and services. Although I didn't start this job with any particular feelings about business and marketing, I've learned a great deal about how complicated the relationship between business and humanity is.

My general feeling is that, unless otherwise noted, businesses do a terrible job at being mindful of the value they provide in exchange for what their customers pay. This gets doubly gross in marketing, where time and attention are commodified and turned into currency. Time and attention are two of the most sacred things we have, and I believe it's incumbent on any business to think carefully about how they manage the time and attention of their customers.

The collision between all of these things: financials, listener numbers, time and attention is the question of how do we grow this business ethically. More pointedly, if this is a business: What do we sell?

Podcast valuation isn't dissimilar from website or blog valuation. You track your numbers, and base the value of a "spot" on how many people are likely to hear it. In this arrangement, what you "sell" is your audience. You're talking to advertisers and selling your listener's time and attention in big batches of 1,000.

Before we started the Patreon, I was considering hooking up with an advertising network. The Audible ads weren't doing great, and the ad network thing seemed to work for other shows. But then again, Audible ads seemed to work well for other shows too. Ultimately, it was a good thing Patreon started getting big when it did, because it stopped me from taking the network down a road where you guys were our product. (In fairness, the path toward advertising was only embarked upon halfheartedly. It was likely that, in talking with the people we were talking to, we would have dropped out before a single ad aired).

Patreon changed our game, but it makes it really hard to figure out what we sell. Is it the audio? Well, no, we give that out for free. And audio isn't a great product. It's everywhere.

Do we sell our time? Nope. Time isn't valuable to a buyer. It would be better spent splitting big rocks into smaller rocks, and then splitting those rocks into even smaller rocks. We can't say "Hey, look at how much time this took to make" and ask for money solely based on that.

Ultimately, we sell ourselves. As unlikely as it seems, we've fallen ass-backwards into a situation where there is a non-trivial number of people willing to give us a non-trivial amount of money just based on the things we say and the way we say them.

This is a precarious position to be in, because the money doesn't directly scale with the audience size. There's some correlation, but the number of patrons is far smaller than the number of people who hear a given episode. If a listener decides that we've stopped being relatable or fun to listen to, they pull support.

That is a comfortable business model for me, ethically, because it puts the onus on us to consistently put out high quality product, and continue to "be ourselves" so that the people who have been kind enough to offer their support so far stick around. It places the highest value on your time and attention.

Here's where my article intersects with Gary's. Do we put people off when we talk about potentially controversial things that matter to us? Most definitely. I've read the emails. It's lost us money. But my hope is that we steadily grow a core of people who relate to the things we say and are enthusiastic about participating in the business. I want to be in a position where we've attracted a kind of listener who will reward us for being genuine. The alternative is likely far more lucrative, but ethically onerous to me. I'm preaching to the choir, though, because if you're reading this then you are one of those people who has decided it's worth investing in us with both your time and money.

We'll experiment with other ways to monetize the work we do here. I don't want to write marketing videos forever, just like I don't want this to be a hobby forever. My dream job would be to run this business full time. We run the Amazon Affiliate program because it's a non-intrusive way for you to support us. We run ads from the community (like the ones we did for Latchkey Kingdom and C'est La Morte) because we would rather offer our ads as a service to our listeners than to large companies. Just today we sent out a survey asking you about what kind of merchandise you'd like us to sell.

We'll fuck those experiments up because we are human. I have limited time, and I'm bad at running a business. I drop the ball constantly. But I hold out hope that any missteps will take us in the right direction as long as I remember that the shows come first, that we're selling ourselves, and that our audience is great enough to support us for being us.

And I cannot thank you enough for that support.