What If My (Content) Baby Is Ugly?

This is the second entry in a behind the scenes series covering my journey to build a content brand. This brand will be focused on serving content creators in marketing who are obsessed with their craft but often get pushed aside by the industry. You can read the first entry here: How to Work in Marketing When You’re Bothered by Suck.

On a recent episode of his podcast, Bill Simmons and guest Katie Nolan shared some sage advice for content creators that probably went unnoticed, it was so short.

Nolan is hosting her first national sports show (Garbage Time, on Fox Sports 1), so for the majority of the interview, they talked very little about sports and almost exclusively about the process behind creating the show. I’m OBSESSED with things like that, whether it’s a comedian talking about his process, a writer sharing how she organizes her day, or a sports talk show host revealing what it takes to bring something even halfway decent into the world.

Then one exchange hit me like a ton of bricks. To paraphrase their discussion:

Nolan: “We’re not doing the show we WANT to make so much as the show we CAN make right now.”

Simmons: “Yeah, that makes sense. You gotta throw a bunch of stuff on the wall and see what sticks.”

Now, if you let that marinate a bit, it can be hard to hear for a number of reasons. It certainly was for me, since I’m trying to build something with my name attached to it. And my name will be much more closely linked to this compared to other projects, where even the most overt byline on my content was still trumped by the brand behind it, whether Google, Breaktime Media, HubSpot, or NextView. This current project feels closer to what Nolan or Simmons is trying to build with their shows than what I’ve built in the past. The difference might be subtle, but it’s plenty scary. After all, it’s all me.Whether in my talks, my articles, podcasts, books, or products, everything will come back to whether people think my thoughts and my creative work are worth a damn. This project will be my baby.

But, um…

What if my baby is ugly?

Now, given my work at a venture firm by day, I totally get that the idea behind most startups is to launch something lean and iterate from there. They don’t build a near-final product before launching. As LinkedIn founder and current VC Reid Hoffman likes to say:

“If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

But as I’m learning, it’s one thing to accept the philosophy; it’s entirely another matter to DO the damn thing.

The second reason Nolan’s take was hard to hear was thanks to something she didn’t say out loud but rather implied: when you first launch, no matter how ambitious or well-intentioned your creative desires are, you’re constrained.

You’re constrained by resources (hence Nolan’s statement that she’s doing the show she CAN do right now). When you’re just getting off the ground, your revenue is light or nonexistent and others’ willingness to invest time or money in you is weaker than you believe it should be.

You’re constrained by the way you operate. Your process isn’t as efficient and repeatable as it could be. You haven’t established a routine. There are still some parts that are unknown or don’t feel comfortable as you produce them.

You’re constrained by what you actually know about your audiencebecause what you know isn’t sufficient, even if you believe it is. It’s like the opening to that awful MTV show from the early 2000s, Diary: You THINK you know … but you have no idea.

Because in reality, you don’t know crap. Now, you definitely THINK you know some crap. I think I know some crap too. In fact, I think I know many, many craps. But I’m wrong. And I have to remember that I’m wrong — that I don’t know anything, or at least don’t know enough yet — especially during those times when I think I know.

Unfortunately, while that’s important to acknowledge and accept, it can also lead to more than a few of what you could call (if we’re being scientific here) “Oh sh*t!” moments.

Will my project’s angle and voice resonate? Am I addressing the right audience? The right topics for that audience? What’s the right publishing schedule? The right mission? How do you codify that mission?

I mean, think about it — when you launch anything, the earliest consumers of your content are probably going to encounter the worst you’ll ever be. You don’t know enough and haven’t done enough to be awesome yet.

Reassuring thought, no?

Actually, despite my sarcasm, I’m slowly realizing that it is kind of reassuring. If a project will be its very worst when you launch, no matter what you do before that, then your best bet is to just freaking launch. Maybe not in full, and maybe not to everyone…but creating SOMETHING and showing that to SOMEONE gets it out of your head, into the world, and begins the long, agonizing process of making something others actually love.

So, back to that question: What if my baby is ugly? I think that’s actually the wrong question for me to ask pre-launch with this thing. The real question I should be asking is, How do I get this (idea)baby out into the world ASAP so I can start to grow it into a fully-formed (brand)person?

So, along those lines, some progress…

Project Updates:

  • We’ve landed on a podcast as the first step to building a content brand. I say “we” because while this is my (ugly) baby, I am getting creative and logistical help and feedback from a few people I trust who have ageed to work with me and who believe in me. Now I just have to prove them right. I’m looking at you, baby.
  • The reason we’ve landed on a podcast is twofold: white space and mileage. There’s more white space available in podcasting to create something nobody has ever seen before, as compared to the more saturated blogging or more difficult video landscapes. Additionally, you can get tremendous mileage out of one podcast episode once it’s live, doing everything from transcriptions as blog posts to related lead-up or follow-up posts to tweeting quotes to bundling lessons and insights into bigger guides and more.
  • Also, if I’m being honest, I just think podcasting will be way more fun! This is my personal project, and I want it to be a blast, damn it!
  • My goal now is to get a pilot out the door ASAP. Again, the idea is to pull something together that can help me understand how to nurture and grow it. I need real-world feedback, not more brainstorming. I can’t agonize over whether it’ll be an ugly baby. It WILL be — it’ll be the ugliest it’ll ever be right now. (And episode 1 will be uglier than episode 2. You get it.)
  • To achieve this, I need a name, logline, some legs, an episode script, and a pilot recording. Think of a logline as a sexier backstory that gets someone hooked — why are you creating this? What problem do you solve, and why should anyone listen? The legs are a list of potential topics and episodes to prove to yourself that this can last.
  • I’m now in the scripting process. I’ll then share the text with a small group for feedback, record the pilot (treating it like I would an actual episode, which helps me start figuring out not just the content but the process), share that with others for feedback again, and then revamp and ship. Again, the goal is to pressure test the idea and the creative execution by getting it out of my head — birthing that idea-baby into the world and figuring out how to un-ugly this gross little creature.
  • As an aside: Big picture, this idea of building a content brand will become much more than a podcast, but it’s a good starting point.
  • Also, we’ve picked a name … but I’m not ready to share it yet 🙂 That said, keep reading for something relating to the name.

Extra Goodies:

Traffic Breakdown: Last week’s entry was published to my personal blog, sent to subscribers, and syndicated to both Medium and LinkedIn as full posts. Here’s the traffic breakdown based on percentage of the total.

It’s just one article, but I have a couple takeaways:

  • My email list is smaller than my following and/or connections on LinkedIn and Medium yet still out-paced those two for largest share of traffic generated. Score another one for email.
  • LinkedIn generated the most comments by far (these will be my lifeblood as I build!), followed by Medium. I just installed Disqus onto my personal blog, so we’ll see if anything changes. I’m always more confident commenting via Disqus since it alerts me when there’s a reply and I already have an account — perhaps others feel the same.

Content Chart

Awesome, Lean Content: If you’re interested in podcasting or creative in general, I found something great to share. It’s a really innovative process used by a successful podcast network in Australia to treat the launch of their show like a startup and launch/learn/iterate in a lean fashion. I’m sharing a full writeup of that process to my subscribers next week, so be sure to join the list. (It’s saying thousands already have, and my mom assures me she’s never used MailKimp…)

About the Name: I’m ALSO going to share a quick process I’d recommend in coming up with a name for a content brand — something I’ve had plenty of time to think about as my dog yanks me around the cold streets of Boston at odd hours 🙂

Subscribe here to follow my progress.