A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet’s Opportunity Machine
The internet is a money printer for smart people willing to share their ideas online.
Like any printer, it can take lots of trial and error to get it working. Sometimes it runs out of ink. It can jam. But when it works, it’s pure magic.
If you have an internet connection and a basic impulse to share your ideas, then you picked a great time to be alive. You can take advantage of two unprecedented opportunities:
- Building a profitable one-person media company around you and your ideas
- Pouring gasoline on your career by sharing your ideas online
Neither opportunity is “easy,” but the upside for each is huge.
Also, these opportunities didn’t exist for the entirety of human history — until now. Lucky us.
1. One-person media companies
A one-person media company is a profitable media company built around the ideas of a single person with at most one or two full-time employees — and often none at all.
This only became possible relatively recently.
Why Today Is Special
- It’s now pretty much free to distribute media thanks to the internet
- Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers (i.e. always-on and always-online media devices) are affordable and most people have one on them at all times
- Because the internet and internet-connected devices have been widely adopted, it’s now possible to reach nearly any niche on Earth (lots of new audiences!)
- Production software and hardware have become wildly affordable and accessible
The internet has created an opportunity to build a media company powered by the ideas of a single person, a payroll smaller than a convenience store, and revenues large enough that the company could trade on the NASDAQ.
It’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of competition. It can take a long time. But this is a post about possibilities, not probabilities.
Let’s have some fun and look at the upside potential of one-person media companies.
The podcast that could trade on the NASDAQ
In 2007, a relatively unknown Tim Ferriss published The 4-Hour Workweek.
The book sold well and, year after year, Ferriss continued to blog and publish books and amassed “a monthly audience in the millions or tens of millions.” (source)
In 2014, he was burned out from writing books and decided to launch a podcast as an experiment.
He used less than $1,000 worth of equipment and distributed the podcast for free across major podcasting platforms.
He was able to acquire an early enthusiastic following thanks to the audience he had spent years building, but it didn’t take long before the podcast reached far beyond his existing blog and book fans.
Today, The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes.
What you might not know is that The Tim Ferriss Show generates enough revenue from advertising that, were it to make a few structural and governance changes, it would be eligible to trade on the NASDAQ as a stand-alone company.
In the last three years alone, his podcast has generated nearly $17 million in revenue.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of The Tim Ferriss Show’s estimated revenue over the past few years:
Absolutely buck wild.
And it still costs next to nothing to produce the show…
He still uses just $1,000 worth of production equipment and famously leverages internet-first tools and services and a personal assistant to manage the minutiae of his media empire while he’s largely free to focus on content production.
If he took the podcast public, its biggest expense would be the legal and regulatory overhead — not the operational costs of the underlying business.
While the top-line revenue of his podcast wouldn’t blow many NASDAQ companies out of the water, its margins would.
How do one-person media companies make money?
Not everybody can or wants to launch a wildly-successful podcast, and that’s fine.
There are plenty of ways to use the internet to build a profitable media company around your ideas. I’ll break down three popular strategies below.
The first two mostly require building a big audience like Ferriss, but the last one doesn’t and can get to profitability quickly.
1. Advertising and affiliate marketing
Tim Ferriss makes a mountain of money from advertising.
Companies want to pay to get in front of the big audience he’s built and they’re willing to shell out $54,000 for a single ad slot in a single episode of his podcast.
He’s also made a killing with affiliate marketing…
He’ll partner up with a company and get paid whenever his readers or listeners purchase one of their products. You’ve probably noticed these links embedded throughout his blog and email newsletter.
If you can build a huge audience using the internet, you can have an extraordinary, low-overhead advertising business.
It’s not rocket science.
And, thankfully, it’s far from the only way to get paid to share your ideas online.
(p.s. if you don’t want to build a one-person media empire, you can skip ahead to how sharing your ideas online can help accelerate your career)
2. Book sales and paid speaking gigs
Many writers or semi-public figures make an envy-inducing living combining book sales with paid speaking gigs.
This used to only be a possibility for people who were already well-known or influential, or an incredibly lucky handful of promising writers who managed to land a book deal.
But now people are using the internet to build their own influence and let the publishers flock to them.
James Clear is one example.
A few years ago, he was a nobody.
Here’s one of his first tweets:
Just a handful of likes. Sad!
But he used an aggressive SEO and email list-building strategy to go from unknown to internet-famous in just a few years.
Over 715,000 people now subscribe to his weekly newsletter alone.
But despite having a big audience, he’s shunned advertising and has largely optimized his business around book sales and speaking engagements.
He leveraged his email list to get a book deal with a major publisher and launch the NY Times bestseller Atomic Habits (over 1M copies sold).
And his speaking fees are now approaching that of some former U.S. presidents.
It costs tens of thousands of dollars to get him to show up to your next event — a fee that he’s been able to increase in lockstep with his audience growth.
If there’s a formula here, it goes something like:
- Use the internet to build an audience and momentum around your ideas
- Roll that momentum into a book deal
- Use your book to make money and build your credibility
- Use your credibility to increase your speaking fees and help grow your audience even more
The one big drawback of the book/speaking and advertising models are that they typically need a big audience before they start working well.
There’s a third business model, though, that doesn’t require an army of enthusiastic fans and is filled with success stories…
3. Paid content and online courses
The internet is filled with people you’ve never heard of who are making a living, and in many cases a killing, sharing their expertise on a narrow, deep topic.
They’ll likely never make as much as a Tim Ferriss, but I mean who cares? There are some stunning success stories of no-name people striking gold within a niche.
Adam Wathan is one. He’s built a one-person media company around his programming tutorials, online classes, and e-books.
Check out his sales over the past 4 years (the 2nd tweet below):
He did not hire legions of full-time employees to help him hit $4 million in sales. He just kept pushing out educational videos and PDFs that he produced and distributed himself.
And, by the way, he’s no Steven Spielberg. Many of his videos are him just recording a screencast for 30 minutes as he debugs some obscure programming issue.
The headcount for his multi-million-dollar-per-year business?
Himself and a personal assistant.
Here’s the rough playbook:
The internet gives you an unprecedented opportunity to turn your knowledge into information products that you can sell to nearly any company or person on Earth who needs it.
4. The swiss army knife approach
In reality, many one-person media companies use a combination of business models.
Despite shunning advertising, James Clear embeds affiliate links for any books he recommends. He also sells an online course about habits.
But therein lies the beauty of the one-person media company…
There are tons of creative ways to turn your ideas into money. You can use whichever ones make the most sense for your particular goal or situation.
2. Pour gasoline on your career
Maybe you don’t want to quit your job to start podcasting, blogging, or recording videos for 40 hours each week.
Thankfully, there’s a much more practical reason why some of us might want to start sharing our ideas online (and you can do it in your spare time):
Sharing your ideas online is one of the fastest ways to gain visibility as an expert or leader in your industry.
I’m not talking about crappy “thought leadership” content…
I’m talking about sharing good ideas that will earn you the respect of your peers and will make other people want to work with you.
Your public writing (or podcast or YouTube videos) are like a calling card for like-minded people to find you.
There are mountains of success stories here…
Holly Whitaker leveraged her blog to close a $10M round of funding for her sobriety school, Tempest.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used Twitter to help go from bartender to the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Fred Wilson routinely points to his blog as paving the way for his success as New York City’s leading venture capitalist.
Nick Caldwell, an executive at Looker (recently bought for $2.6 billion), recently tweeted that not writing publicly sooner in his career was a mistake:
And while it typically takes a while to start gaining visibility online, I’ve seen plenty of exceptions… including a few up close.
When my friend Dan Li started writing a newsletter about venture capital in the pacific northwest last year, it only took a few months before other VCs and entrepreneurs began obsessively reading his work.
From the CEOs of local companies:
To other local entrepreneurs and investors:
He now has over 1,000 high-profile people in his industry waiting to hear from him each week.
You’ve already done the hard work to learn some important stuff. Why not invest some extra time to share it?
Your knowledge becomes exponentially more valuable when other people know you have it. Take it from this 19-year-old who just landed a dream internship after the CEO of Zoom saw one of his tweets:
Oh, and there’s one other thing: by forcing yourself to commit your ideas to paper, you’ll inevitably learn much quicker than your peers who don’t.
It’s a beautiful one-two punch: you become more knowledgeable and you become known as somebody with that knowledge to the people you want to connect with most.
Forget a big audience. You can pour gasoline on your career by building a small, targeted following made up of people who can help catapult you ahead.
Less lucrative (but still valid) reasons to share your ideas online
There are two less lucrative, but still-very-valid reasons to share your ideas online.
Both are worth a quick honorable mention.
3. Sharing your ideas online makes you accountable to create
I launched Stew’s Letter primarily as a way to keep myself accountable to write more in general.
I needed a creative outlet and this blog has been a wonderful way of keeping myself accountable to produce something every week.
There is something about having an audience at the other end of this that keeps me more productive than other creative outlets where I’m only accountable to myself.
Publicly commit to share your ideas, start building a small audience, and you’ll produce more than you could have ever imagined.
4. Sharing your ideas online helps you stay in touch with interesting people
Another big benefit of sharing your ideas online is that you get to keep in touch with interesting people at scale.
Every weekend, I sit down, huff and puff and write blog posts about god knows what, and then send my thoughts directly to people that I like and want to stay in touch with.
Some of them inevitably hit reply.
These aren’t people I plan to work with immediately, they’re just interesting people who I would normally run the risk of falling out of touch with.
Maybe there are more efficient ways of keeping in touch with people, but I haven’t found one better than sending out an email to all of them at once every single week.
So… now what?
If you like sharing your ideas, you picked an unbelievable time to be alive.
If you’re willing to put them online, you’ll have access to enormous opportunities.
From building a profitable, low-overhead media company to getting ahead in your career by attracting the people who can help you most… the upside is just silly.
The costs are mostly just your time.
So… open up Twitter, Medium, WordPress, iMovie, TikTok, or whatever, and get to work.
Thank you to the Foster members who provided feedback on early drafts of this: Bhaumik Patel, Chris Sheffield, Dan Hunt, Dan Li, Diana Hawk, Gary Basin, Jesse Evers, Joel Christiansen, Julia LaSalvia, Nick Drage, and Richie Bonilla.