Build a business, not an audience

If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you’ve seen the following pattern over and over again:

  • Creative nonfiction pioneer John McPhee distilled decades of experience and first-hand learnings in a series of essays. (The best of them are now available in a book called “Draft No. 4”.)
  • A savvy entrepreneur repackages the advice in a $1000+ cohort-based course.
  • Someone takes the course and summarizes what he learned.
  • People on Twitter start creating threads summarizing the student’s summaries.
  • At some point, the guy who summarized the student’s summaries will get invited to a podcast to summarize his summary of the student’s summary.

I wish I was kidding.

This is a picture-perfect example of what Sean Blanda calls the Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex. But my goal here is not to dunk on anyone. Instead I want to focus on something far more important.

The Bullshit Complex is just a symptom. What’s the underlying cause?

First, let me clarify one thing. While I’m convinced that remixed content is largely a waste of time for writers and readers, it’s a free world out there. Do whatever makes you happy. If you focus on remixed or “curated” content I’ll probably not follow you on Twitter or read your blog, but there’s no reason why you should care about that. Ultimately, it’s your own responsibility to decide how you spend your time and what kind of content you consume.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about entrepreneurship.

In recent years one of the most common pieces of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs has become that you should focus on building an audience. Everyone is screaming it from the rooftops.

So when I started to get into entrepreneurship a few months ago, that’s exactly what I did. I spent a lot of time researching what kind of tweets get attention and set the goal for myself to post at least two tweets per week and two blog posts per month. After all, churning out content regularly is key if you want to build an audience, right?

If you need any evidence how serious I was about the whole building an audience thing, here it is: I created a What to Tweet tool because I was struggling to stick to my Twitter schedule.

Looking back at it now I think I largely wasted my time. And more importantly I see so many people falling into the exact same trap.

Their goal is to become entrepreneurs. But instead of building products, they create content. Or even worse, they do research and take courses on how to create content.

But this doesn’t bring them one inch closer to their goal. It’s just a form of procrastination.

While charging money for something you created is scary, there is almost zero risk in putting out free content. And if you’re just remixing other people’s content, the intellectual risk is effectively zero. After all, you can always reply “hey, don’t shoot the messenger”.

This trap is particularly dangerous because it feels like you’re making progress while really you don’t.

Aspiring entrepreneurs are not just wasting a lot of time but also lots of money this way. They spend thousands of dollars on courses that teach them how to remix other people’s content more effectively. They buy the latest hyped-up courses that teach them how to craft more effective tweets, blog posts and Youtube videos.

But don’t get me wrong. Having an audience is awesome and I love great content.

What I’m saying is that too many beginners have their priorities backwards and fall into the “build an audience!” trap.

An exemplary plan looks as follows: “I don’t know what product I should create. So I’m planning to create articles or carousels on Linkedin to find my voice and build an audience.” That’s almost verbatim a paragraph from an email I received two days ago.

You can certainly get a lot of followers by churning out remixed content and feel-good platitudes. But everyone seems to forget that not all audiences are alike.

Let’s say you have 2000 followers that you got by posting feel-good platitudes, whereas I only have two followers called Elon Musk and Paul Graham. Would you swap accounts?

With feel-good platitudes and remixed content you’ll only attract fellow beginners. Everyone else recognizes the content immediately for what it is. Hence, the primary value of your much larger audience is that you’re able to sell them a “How to grow your Twitter following” Gumroad course for $47.

A high-quality audience is an endless source of opportunities. A low quality one is at most a Ponzi scheme.

Many people learn this the hard way. They get lured by the promise that they’ll be able to create content effortlessly and build an audience this way. This is exactly what beginners want to hear and hence what gurus are preaching. “Everything is a remix”. So just progressively summarize a bunch of books and then start sharing pieces you remixed from your summaries.

Students of these courses spent months recording videos and writing thousands of words only to discover that they never said anything meaningful.

Valuable content that truly advances the conversation and gets the attention of people you really want to connect with is never effortless. It’s painful. And I’m not talking about some kind of sophisticated editing process, but the writing itself.

In fact, this is how you know that you’re creating valuable content. You should at least be a little scared before you hit the publish button.

Publishing content online is the best way to become visible so that opportunities can find you. But please don’t try to improve your ability to come up with interesting things by reading and connecting ideas just so that you have something to write about.

If you ever notice that you’re trying to “say something interesting”, stop. You’re just going to feed the Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex.

Your main priority always should be to do meaningful things, to solve real-world problems, to be the man in the arena. And if you share what you learn along the way, people will start to listen. Write when you have something meaningful to say, and not to stick to some self-imposed writing schedule.

A hidden benefit of this strategy is that your writing skills become largely irrelevant. It’s certainly true that great writers like John McPhee can make a topic as boring as Oranges exciting. But if you have a great story to tell or learned something important, people will pay attention no matter how bad your writing is. Not convinced? Just look at the essay you’re reading right now.

Save yourself thousands of dollars. Here’s all the writing advice you need:

  • Share meaningful first-hand experiences.
  • Write as if you were emailing a friend, not to impress an imaginary teacher.

Now I’m definitely scared to publish this essay. This is exactly why I’ll do it.

Written on February 28, 2021
P.S. I'm now on Twitter too if you'd like to follow my adventures. Alternatively you can enter your email address below and I will send you occasionally a short email whenever I publish something new.