The Quest To Become Internet Famous (October 2020 Update)

“I remember very well not being famous. It wasn’t that great.”

– Jerry Seinfeld

Earlier this year, I decided to start building an audience online. I was inspired after learning two things about Tim Ferriss:

  1. His podcast generates enough revenue that it could trade on the NASDAQ as a standalone company.
  2. His personal email list is larger than the record-shattering crowd that turned out to Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

That got me so fired up that I wrote an in-depth piece on everything I learned about him and a laundry list of other people who have figured out how to win on the internet.

Up until the beginning of this year, I had been sending this newsletter out pretty much exclusively to friends and family and I barely ever posted on Twitter. This was my online footprint in January 2020:

  • 226 Stew’s Letter subscribers
  • 550 Twitter followers
  • 53k impressions on Twitter

So I started to promote this newsletter a bit, tweet more often, and generally figure out how the internet works.

These are my stats today (October 2020):

  • 1,464 Stew’s Letter subscribers
  • 4,648 Twitter followers
  • 3.21 million impressions on Twitter

I haven’t invested nearly as much time in this as I’d like, but it’s a start.

Most of the growth has been relatively steady and a function of doing the work consistently, but I’ve had a few tweets go viral like this one that flew past a million impressions and brought in ~1k new followers.

Twitter impressions are a good way to track if you're internet famous yet

I also helped launch the Compound newsletter and Twitter account this year. In a few weeks, they’ve both gone from zero to:

  • 1,072 Compound Digest subscribers
  • 1,305 Twitter followers

And while both of these audiences are tiny, relatively speaking, they’ve already been an invaluable resource for building the business behind Compound.

Twitter (and Stew’s Letter early on) has been our most effective channel for discovering amazing writers who join Compound as paid members.

We’ve gone from $0 to tens of thousands of dollars in ARR in a few months, and we reject the vast majority of people who apply to join — if we said yes to all of the demand from our audience we’d likely be at 5-10x our current revenue (but our member experience would implode so we won’t do it).

I have no idea if this is interesting to people, but I’ll keep posting updates like this every once in a while.

Any questions?

Hit reply and let’s chat!


The fourth Rice Mountain trade

I’m trying to use the internet to trade a grain of rice all the way up to a mountain. Get caught up here.

Hoo boy, do I have a trade to share today.

But first, a quick recap on the trades to date.

Trades so far

So far, I’ve made three trades:

This week’s trade

Ryan Thomas, a Stew’s Letter reader and master woodworker, made an irresistible offer for the dinosaur bone from the last trade.

He has offered design and build a custom coffee table for a Stew’s Letter reader.

He can build you something like this (sold for $1,500):

Or this (sold for $1,750):

If you don’t need a coffee table, he can build a custom side table instead. His side tables typically sell for anywhere from $300 to $600 (examples: here and here).

At the high end, this trade represents a 7.0x return on the last item and a 60.43 million times return on the grain of rice.

Let’s make a trade

So… who’s next?

Email me at if you want to swap something for a hand-built, custom coffee or side table.

You’ll get to work directly with a master woodworker to build the table of your dreams (assuming you dream about tables).

As a reminder, anybody who offers to help make a trade in any way will be invited to a huge opening party on Rice Mountain.

See ya there.


Jim Sinegal: Absolute Legend of Business

Jim Sinegal, Costco's co-founder and former CEO

Jim Sinegal, the co-founder and former CEO of Costco, once threatened to kill his predecessor if he raised the price of the hot dog combo.

Most modern leadership advice encourages leaders to listen when their employees bring up problems and to definitely not threaten to kill them.

But to become a legend, sometimes you have to ignore conventional wisdom.

Case in point: when Costco’s new CEO suggested raising the price of their famous $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, all it took was a demand and a casual death threat from Costco’s co-founder and former CEO to kickstart innovation.

Here’s the hilarious, true story as told by Costco’s CEO Craig Jelinek:

“I came to (Jim Sinegal) once and I said, ‘Jim, we can’t sell this hot dog for a buck fifty. We are losing our rear ends.’ 

And he said, ‘If you raise the [price of the] effing hot dog, I will kill you. Figure it out.’

That may disturb some people, but Sinegal’s demand coupled with a he’s-probably-just-joking-right threat motivated Costco’s leadership to figure it out.

“What we figured out we could do is build our own hot dog-manufacturing plant (in Los Angeles) and make our own Kirkland Signature hot dogs. Now we are doing so much hot dog business that we’ve opened up another plant in Chicago.

“By having the discipline to say, ‘You are not going to be able to raise your price. You have to figure it out,’ we took it over and started manufacturing our hot dogs. We keep it at $1.50 and make enough money to get a fair return.”

So, listen. I’m not saying you should routinely hurl out close-minded demands coupled with death threats, but I am saying you shouldn’t be so enlightened as to rule it out on face value.


The third Rice Mountain Trade

I’m trying to trade a grain of rice all the way up to a mountain. Get caught up here.

Trades so far

So far, I’ve made two trades:

I’m excited to announce trade three below.

This week’s trade

I have traded the books with Paul Sommer for an incredible grab bag of collectible items.

Here’s the full list:

  • Mint condition 40th-anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, autographed by Richard Dawkins
  • Fully intact half-billion-year-old Ediacaran fossil
  • 150-million-year-old dinosaur toe bone
  • A 5,000-year-old planting spade of a North American native
  • Hardcover, mint-condition book: Darwin, Portrait of a Genius

Check it out:

But wait, there’s more…. There are two other surprises that will be included in the package, but I’ll wait until next week to share those (assuming a trade hasn’t been locked in yet).

All-in, this stuff is probably worth $300-$400. We’ll split the difference and call it $350.

This trade represents a 6.3x return on the last item and a 12.1 million times return on the grain of rice.

Let’s make a trade

So… who’s next?

Hit “reply” and let me know if you’d want to swap something for this museum-worthy lineup.

Maybe you have an old Mac, or a smartphone, or a P.O.S car you want to get rid of. I don’t know, just hit me up and let’s make something happen.

As a reminder, anybody who offers to help (even if your trade isn’t accepted) will be invited to a huge opening party on the mountain.

See you on Rice Mountain.


The second Rice Mountain trade

A couple of weeks ago, I announced a plan to trade a grain of rice all the way up to a mountain.

The idea is not completely new. In 2004, a blogger traded a red paperclip all the way up to a house and he did it in less than a year, making just 14 trades in total.

I’m convinced that because the internet has matured so much since then, the scale and scope of trades you can make today have gotten much bigger. It should be easier than ever to find people willing to exchange value.

Trades so far

So far, I’ve made one trade: the grain of rice for a paid Trends.VC report (retail: $20).

That represented a 689,655x return on the grain of rice.

This week’s trade

I’m thrilled to announce that this week I finalized a trade with Josh Thompson for a grab bag of classic books.

Feast your eyes:

A collection of classic books

Here’s the full list:

  • Liar’s Poker
  • Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb
  • Getting to Yes
  • M.D.: One Doctor’s Adventures Among the Famous and Infamous from the Jungles of Panama to a Park Avenue Practice
  • The Child In The Family
  • Kon-Tiki 

If you went on Amazon and ordered the cheapest used copies of each of these, it’d cost $56 all-in.

This trade represents a 2.8x return on the last item and a 1.93 million times return on the grain of rice.

Let’s make a trade

So… who wants to trade next?

If you’re not familiar with any of the books above, Josh put together a brilliant summary on how he chose each.

Email me at if you want to swap something for the books.

As a reminder, anybody who offers to help will be invited to a huge opening party on Rice Mountain.


The first Rice Mountain trade

I am using the internet to trade a grain of rice all the way up to a mountain.

I’m doing this because I think we vastly underestimate the power of the internet.

If opportunities flow from the networks that we are a part of, then using the internet in clever ways gives you access to a network of over 4 billion other human beings who you can exchange value with.

Last Sunday, I offered to trade this grain of rice, valued at about $.000029, with the tiny corner of the internet that reads this newsletter.

You all did not disappoint.

Within 24 hours, I locked in a trade for something worth $20.

That’s a 689,655x return.

And while those types of returns make the average hedge fund manager look a chimp hurling feces by comparison, the best part was that the trade was a win-win for both parties.

I traded the rice for an information product, which didn’t cost the creator anything to replicate.

He gets a piece of history (or a delicious, tiny meal) and I get a badass product that I know other people will want.

Drum roll, please…

I have traded the grain of rice with Dru Riley for a paid Trends.VC report.

I’ll share a bit more detail at the bottom of this email.

Every single one of you who replied has been added to a “Rice Mountain” spreadsheet and will be invited to the opening party.

Let’s get this mountain.


I want to trade this grain of rice for a mountain

I’ve been writing a lot about how the internet creates spectacular leverage for people willing to share their ideas publicly.

I’ve also written a ton about how storytelling is a valuable skill.

But nice-sounding ideas are cheap. I want to start running some experiments to see how they hold up in the real world.

How much value can be created out of thin air using purely storytelling and the internet?

Here’s the plan…

I have a grain of rice.

I got it from the big-ass bag of rice in my pantry.

It’s a fantastic grain of rice

I want to trade this grain of rice with you for something slightly more valuable.

Then, I want to trade that thing for something more valuable.

And I want to keep doing this until somebody trades me a mountain. Like, a literal mountain.

Maybe it will be a cheap mountain like this one in Kentucky or a big one like this in North Carolina.

Regardless, getting a mountain is the end goal.

I will attempt to use the internet, a narrative about why it would be dope for this to work out, and the goodwill of humankind to make this happen.

If you offer to help in any way, I will write down your name and you will be invited to a huge opening party when we get the mountain.

So… take 10 seconds to look around you right now. 

Do you have anything you’d be willing to trade me for this grain of rice?

Email me at and let’s work something out (I’ll cover shipping/logistics).

And I’ll start sharing a progress update in Stew’s Letter each week.

To Rice Mountain,

I’ll be sharing an update each week in Stew’s Letter below:


How To Quantify Your Storytelling Skills

(or how to sell $129 worth of crap on eBay for $3,613)

I’m convinced that storytelling is one of the most overlooked skills on the planet.

So, naturally, I was amped up when I stumbled across the work of Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker last weekend.

In 2009, they designed a brilliant experiment to measure the value of great storytelling in a more objective way.

They bought a bunch of cheap, random crap from thrift stores and hired some professional writers to write a story about each object with the goal of “[attributing] significance” to it.

Then, they posted each item on eBay (using the story as the item’s description) and started the auction at whatever price they had paid for the thing.

The result?

From Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work!:

By the end of the experiment, they had sold $128.74 worth of trinkets for $3,612.51.


I hope to see the day where storytelling moves from being a “soft,” nice-to-have skill to something with more quantifiable value.


Robert Smalls: A Badass American

Portrait of Robert Smalls
By the time he died, Robert Smalls owned the home where he had been born a slave. At one point, his former master’s wife had even become one of his tenants.

Over a campfire this weekend, my fiance told me the story of Robert Smalls. If you’ve never heard his story, prepare to have your mind blown…

Robert Smalls was born a slave in South Carolina in 1839. When he died 75 years later, he owned the home where he was born. At one point, he even allowed his former master’s wife to move back in as his tenant.

Here’s an insanely short summary of the life of a larger-than-life American.

Robert Smalls outsmarts the Confederate Navy

A young Robert Smalls
A young Robert Smalls

When Robert Smalls was in his early 20’s, the Civil War had just broken out. He was assigned to work on a confederate ship, the USS Planter.

The Planter was stationed in Charleston, just a few miles south from a blockade of Union ships.

To slaves like Robert Smalls, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote, the Union blockade wasn’t a threat but rather “a tantalizing promise of freedom.”

If Smalls could get to the Union ships, he knew he stood a chance at gaining his freedom.

One day in May 1862, Smalls decided that he would steal the Planter from the Confederate navy and head north to freedom or die trying.

An insanely dangerous gamble

Late one night, he shared his plan with some of the other slaves on board while the white crew slept ashore. Within just a few hours, they decided to make their escape.

Smalls put on the white captain’s straw hat, ordered the crew to hoist Confederate and South Carolina flags, and left port — a black captain with an all-black crew, steering a Confederate naval ship towards freedom.

Smalls played the part of a white naval captain brilliantly and tricked a series of Confederate checkpoints on their way North.

From Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Smalls blows the ship’s whistle while passing Confederate Forts Johnson and, at 4:15 a.m., Fort Sumter, “as cooly as if General Ripley was on board.” Smalls not only knows all the right Navy signals to flash; he even folds his arms like Capt. Rylea, so that in the shadows of dawn, he passes convincingly for white.

USS Planter

The Union navy nearly kills Small and his crew

By sunrise, Smalls and his crew had nearly reached the Union blockade. Freedom was mere yards away when it struck him:

Oh, s***. I just sailed a Confederate ship directly into enemy territory. These Union ships are going to blow us to bits.

His wife, who he had snuck on board, came up with a brilliant plan…

She frantically scrubbed some sheets with soap until they took on a white-ish color and then hoisted the improvised surrender flags within seconds of the Union opening fire and possibly killing everybody on board.

From an eyewitness account that day:

Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, someone cried out, ‘I see something that looks like a white flag’…

When [the crew of the Planter] discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping… [one of the] men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’

From slave to naval officer to U.S. congressman

Not long after the surrender of the ship, the Union Navy paid Smalls and his crew half of its appraised value — around $40,000 in today’s dollars.

The naval officers who got to know Smalls described him as “superior to any who have come into our lines — intelligent as many of them have been.” 

The Navy appointed him captain of the Planter, where he fought the Confederacy for years. Smalls even helped convince Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to let black Americans fight for the Union.

Following the war, Smalls bought his old master’s home in South Carolina. He launched a series of business ventures, including a small railroad company and a local newspaper.

He then turned his energy towards politics, eventually becoming a state senator and a U.S. Congressman.

This quote from an 1895 speech Smalls gave summarizes the central theme in his life’s work:

My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.

In Conclusion

I’m embarrassed I didn’t know about Robert Smalls until today.

He is as pure an American hero as any other towering figure from U.S. history.

I can’t help but wonder, earnestly, where is his statue?


You can pretty much always destroy value

Towards the end of the cruise I took through the Galápagos Islands in 2017, Richard Dawkins sat down next to me on the back deck.

“Stewart, I’ve been meaning to ask you about this cryptocurrency stuff. What’s the deal?”

For the entire trip, I hadn’t shut up about what was going on in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space (it was late 2017 during peak madness). Finally, I had caught Dawkins’ attention.

With an enthusiasm only possible during a huge bubble, I gave him a layman’s explanation of blockchain and why it mattered.

I told him that Ethereum, not Bitcoin, was where the real opportunity was (highly debatable!).

Buy some Ethereum now, I said, and it will be like buying Google early.

He asked how somebody would go about following my advice, so I gave him this note:

I felt a deep sense of satisfaction after handing it to him.

Ah, what a treat. For all the value Dawkins has brought to my life, I finally get to repay the favor.

At the time, Ethereum was trading around $750.

Today, it traded at $226.


You can always add value, but I guess you can pretty much always destroy it too.