The Newest Generation of Entrepreneurs? Podcasters.
Like any startup founder, podcasters have to identify a need, a minimally viable product and -- the hardest part -- a source of money.
When we think about entrepreneurs, we often think about people who have risked everything -- an established career, financial security and personal relationships -- to build and monetize a hip new startup. But startup founders are not the only entrepreneurs risking stability in favor of the unknown.
Related: Start a Podcast Now. Here's How.
In the moment that they make the leap to full-time podcasting, podcast hosts find themselves taking similar risks. That's why some people believe that podcasters are the new generation of entrepreneurs.
With 67 million Americans listening to podcasts every month, there's no doubt that the medium is growing in popularity. Genres range from comedy to news, sports to storytelling and every topic in between. It's safe to say that there is a podcast for everyone.
Having taken the leap, myself, from career social worker to podcast host, here's my advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to leave the 9-to-5 rut behind while building and monetizing the equivalent of a next-generation startup - a successful podcast. Trust me, it's not easy; but, it is rewarding.
The steps to creating a successful podcast
First, create a minimally viable product. Just like bootstrapping a startup, creating a podcast is expensive -- especially if you haven't done anything like it before. From purchasing recording equipment to investing the time to learn the craft, podcasting takes a toll on would-be hosts. So, make sure that you have the initial capital necessary to create a minimally viable product -- and don't quit your full-time job unless you're sure you have found your audience.
Next, make sure you're filling a gap in the market. Personally, my interest in social justice ignited after I saw Making a Murderer, the 2015 documentary about an imprisoned Wisconsin man exonerated by DNA evidence. Brendan Dassey's story sparked something inside of me, perhaps because I was working with children who couldn't always express themselves. At work, as I engaged with traumatized, I kept Dassey's case in the back of my mind and thought carefully about how I could become a bigger advocate for misunderstood people hurt by the criminal justice system.
Looking to take some kind of action, I decided, in partnership with a coworker, to start a low-budget podcast that explored wrongful convictions. This project eventually blossomed into Actual Innocence, a podcast that tells the story of exonerated people who have been imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit. As of this writing, Actual Innocence has been downloaded more than 5 million times.
My story isn't out of the ordinary. Bob Ruff, host of the popular podcast Truth and Justice, came to the podcasting realm from similar origins. Ruff had been a fire chief for 16 years; on the side, he became involved with, and eventually obsessed with, the social injustice he observed in Serial, an investigation of another questionable conviction. One day, he was home because his 4 year-old was sick. That day, Ruff decided to start a podcast called Serial Dynasty to examine aspects of the show he felt weren't being covered. The podcast blew up.
Just as many startup founders build their businesses after personally experiencing a problem in the market, podcasters often generate show ideas based on what they understand to be true about the world around them.
Draw on existing experience. We've all heard Steve Jobs's founding story: Interested in electronics from an early age, Jobs used his knowledge and experience to build the first Apple computer with Steve Wozniak in Jobs's parents' garage. The Apple founder took something that he was interested in and made it into a multi-million-dollar company.
Today, podcast entrepreneurs are following suit. Ruff, for example, became so invested in the Serial case that he launched his own investigations around it; he gained experience pulling records, getting trial transcripts and more, putting his background as an arson investigator to good use. Serial Dynasty grew and evolved so quickly that people from all walks of life starting writing in to him, asking him to investigate cases that their family and friends were involved in.
Like Jobs, Bob realized that this was his life's calling, and made the decision to pursue podcasting about wrongful convictions full-time, eventually rebranding Serial Dynasty to Truth and Justice, which is the only true crime podcast where listeners actively participate in the investigation.
Show me the money.
Find ways to monetize, quickly. So, let's say, you've got the perfect subject and the skills to develop it. What about the money? Like any startup founder, one of your biggest concerns as a podcast entrepreneur is going to be monetization: How do you make a living off of podcasting?
The answer is -- unequivocally -- advertising. On Actual Innocence, I conduct live-read advertisements for brands ranging from Blue Apron to Harry's to ZipRecruiter. On my new show, Convicted, which investigates whether a man named Richard Nicolas got a fair trial for the murder of his 2-year-old daughter, I work with brands like Stamps.com, HuntAKiller, LeTote and more.
Research shows that 65 percent of U.S. podcast listeners are likely or very likely to further investigate a company they hear about on a podcast, and 64 percent have bought a product or service they heard about through an audio show. That's an incredible success rate, and shows how responsive people are to endorsements from someone (i.e., the podcast host) they see as being just like them.
Actual Innocence is hosted on a platform called audioBoom, which distributes the show's content to a large-scale network, not merely the hundreds of listeners it initially attracted. This built-in scale has been helpful in growing listeners and attracting advertisers -- but the trick is for podcast entrepreneurs to find their own stride and monetization strategy, just as any startup founder would.
Like many podcasters before me, I was not successful right off the bat. In the same way that Steve Jobs started Apple in his parents' garage, I record my podcast from a walk-in closet (yes, really!). Entrepreneurs often learn and iterate in less-than-optimal conditions, but these provide a better-than-average opportunity to overcome obstacles and succeed where others have failed. The key is to get better.
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to leave the 9-to-5 rut to pursue something that feels meaningful -- even if it isn't immediately financially-sound? Take a leap and try it, but be smart about how you build your empire. Podcasting is the next generation of entrepreneurship, and as such it requires a solid business plan.