In 2017 I published an article about my quest to be a “full-stack freelancer.”
Instead of having only one highly specialized skill to offer – such as copywriting, coding, graphic design, or photography – I wanted to build a portfolio of income streams. In order to do that, I knew that I needed to invest my time in creating products that could stand on their own and serve people without me needing to be there all the time.
By the time I was able to make a living as a full-stack freelancer in 2018, I was already starting to experience the downside: feeling isolated and alone working on my own so much of the time. I also saw that while I could make a fine living for myself, the scale and impact of each individual thing I was doing was limited as long as my time and attention were split in so many directions.
In 2019 I made my first move to expand from a solo freelancer career to a full-fledged education business. I partnered with David Perell to create Write of Passage, an online course on how to get started writing online. It was meant to be a one-time collaboration, but since then it’s grown into a long-term partnership. We each hired a full-time assistant to free up our time for creative work. We jointly hired our first Course Manager, who would focus exclusively on delivering our two courses. And recently we hired a Director of Course Operations to help us continue streamlining and scaling them.
I now think of what we are building as a “Full-Stack Education Company.” Instead of delivering education through a single channel, such as in-person classes or books, we provide a full spectrum of educational content and experiences that mirror and reinforce each other. We educate our customers at every stage of our “funnel,” not just the few who make it to the bottom.
As an education business, we can’t and don’t want to do marketing like other kinds of businesses. We want to do what we do best – provide value, educate, and facilitate mindset shifts for people even before they step foot in our courses. Our marketing has itself become a form of education, providing people value at every step of their journey with us.
Our goal isn’t to maximize revenue for any single channel, or even revenue in general. Our goal is to give people as many options as possible, meet them where they are, and guide them to the fastest, most efficient solution to their problem. They are free to choose the à la carte menu and select just the exact content they want, or they can opt for the all-you-can-eat buffet and work with us directly via one of our live cohorts.
In this article I want to lay out the typical customer journey for followers and customers of Forte Labs – a map of how people progress from first encountering my ideas to adopting them in their own lives. I’ll share how I think about each step of this journey from the perspective of a modern education business.
Step One: Social media, podcasts, YouTube
Most people find me through short-form content, primarily social media, podcasts, and YouTube.
I maintain official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, where I cross-post any new content I’ve made, new product launches and announcements, and other interesting observations or resources. I’m by far most active on Twitter, where I mix personal observations with business announcements in equal measure. Twitter allows me to reach a large number of people with bite-sized ideas in a way that requires little effort on my part. Over the last month, for example, my 355 tweets received 2.87 million impressions, which generated 68,700 profile visits and 816 new followers.
The main content I post on social networks has always been links to my blog posts. Once people land on those blog posts, they find email subscription forms to start receiving my weekly email newsletter. These are the people who are determined to take action on their problems, whether through their own effort or hiring me to help them.
Podcasts serve a similar function: they are excellent at helping new people find me, but I always try to direct people back to my website if they want to hear more from me. This is true of both other people’s podcasts (I’ve been on over 30 of them), and my own (which has received almost 100,000 downloads in its first year). The power of podcasts is that they give me exposure to a completely new audience with relatively little effort. It really only takes an hour of my time and the host takes care of everything else.
I’ve used YouTube in a similar way as social media, but I think over the long term that will change. YouTube is an absolute juggernaut of a platform, at least an order of magnitude bigger and wider than any other. The audiences that YouTubers are building are just astounding because the algorithm makes discovery seamless and scalable. In 2020, my YouTube channel drew 403,568 new views, for 50,311 hours of total watch time in 2020. This is already 60% more consumption time than my blog, which drew about 31,000 hours of reading time.
Videos are complex and expensive to produce, requiring a lot of planning, design, and post-production. So far I’ve posted mostly a small number of walkthrough videos and Zoom interviews that I was already recording anyway. But at some point I’m going to invest in a workflow and team that allows me to regularly produce high-quality videos designed specifically for YouTube. That will be an important part of expanding the Building a Second Brain audience into the mainstream.
My attitude toward social media is that it is an excellent source of new followers, but not a good place to build an audience. Because at any moment my access to those followers can be revoked, for any reason or no reason. At every opportunity, I refer my social media followers to my website and newsletter, which I know I will always control.
Step Two: Blog and Books
After first encountering me through short-form content on social media, many people eventually end up on my blog. My social feeds are where a visitor catches a glimpse of my personality and random thoughts. The blog is where they get to see the inner workings of my mind.
Writing is the most natural form of creative expression for me, which is why I’ve done it since I was a teenager. My current blog started in 2014 as I began to build an audience, and remains my primary way of drawing in subscribers, developing and testing ideas, building trust, and refining the thinking that goes into my courses.
The type of content that readers encounter on my blog is mostly “evergreen long-form insight.” I prefer to spend as much time as possible developing content that is “evergreen,” meaning it will be as valuable and interesting in 5-10 years as it is right now. And much of my writing is “long-form,” meaning it is in-depth and substantial. It demands significant investment from my readers, but also rewards them with deeper understanding.
My blog received about 528,000 unique visitors over the last 12 months, growing slowly but steadily. They come not only from my own social media accounts, but content of mine shared by others through social media or newsletters, mentions in online publications or traditional media, search engine results, and word of mouth. I don’t do SEO (search engine optimization) of any kind, but at some point I plan on investing in it to broaden and expand the audience for my writing.
About every year or so I publish an ebook compilation of my best blog posts of the year on Amazon Kindle, now going on 4 volumes since 2017. Going through the process of compiling, editing, and updating a full year of my writing forces me to reflect on my intellectual journey, and helps me package and compress my ideas for the benefit of readers that may never have heard of me previously. Having my writing on the largest publishing platform in the world also opens up new ways for people to discover me: by seeing my books recommended to readers of similar books, or receiving a gifted ebook from a friend.
These ebooks are purchased by people who want to dive straight into the deep end of my ideas and take it all in at once. You wouldn’t think anyone would want to buy the same content already available on a blog as an ebook, but it turns out the format of reading is almost as important as the content: it’s much easier to read in a dedicated reading environment than on an infinitely scrolling webpage. You can buy essentially my entire body of written work for about $40, which is the cost of my 4-part Praxis series. Such distribution has never before been possible for writers.
Over the last 4 years, I’ve sold 1,622 ebooks, for a sales total of $17,245. Combined with 6,937 free downloads (I usually offer each new book for free for a week when it’s first published), this comes out to more than 8,000 people who have downloaded my books. Not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but considering that these readers often become my most committed, loyal customers, I consider ebooks an important part of the customer journey.
It’s also gratifying to see that many book purchasers are located in India (my largest market, with even more sales than the U.S.), Brazil, and Mexico, and likely wouldn’t be able to afford my premium course.
Step Three: Newsletter
If someone reads my writing and likes it enough, they’ll subscribe to the Forte Labs Newsletter. This is an invitation for me to send more valuable content directly to them every week.
If my blog is the beating heart of my business, then the newsletter is the circulatory system. Very few of the people who stumble upon my blog would come back again if I didn’t proactively notify them about new things I’ve published.
The key breakthrough that I’ve had around email newsletters in the past couple years is understanding the power of consistency. I continue to be astonished just how effective it is to show up, at the same time and place, every week, month in and month out. I guess it’s true what they say, that 90% of success is just showing up.
I’ve been collecting email addresses since 2015, but up until 2018 had only grown to about 5,000 subscribers. I would only send things to that list very infrequently, usually when I had something to announce. Which meant the list was “cold” – most subscribers didn’t remember who I was or why they had signed up. And when they did hear from me, it was when I had something to sell! Not a good look.
The turning point came in August 2018, when I really committed to making the newsletter a regular thing under the influence of my now business partner David Perell, who was passionately committed to his own. David and I both switched to ConvertKit (affiliate link), which is far easier to use than what we were using before (Mailchimp and Substack), while also being more intuitive and flexible, and specially designed to serve online creators.
I started sending an update 1-2 times a month with my thoughts on whatever I was thinking about, working on, learning, or interested in. Sometimes that included new content I was sharing, but often I’d have to write something the day of to be able to stick to my schedule. Now it’s extremely precise: it goes out every Tuesday at 6am PT, come hell or high water. I have a pipeline of around 5-8 pieces of content in development at any given time, so I never wake up on Tuesday morning with nothing to share. There’s nothing more important in my business than reliably delivering exceptional value through my newsletter.
Although the delivery schedule is precise, the contents of those newsletter issues are very fluid. I share my personal thoughts, updates on my projects, questions and topics I’m wondering about, and any mistakes or milestones I’ve experienced. The people who take the time to read my newsletter are very committed, and I try to share as much of my journey as possible.
From a subscriber base of 5,000 when I switched to ConvertKit in August 2018, I now count over 41,000 subscribers, growing at a rate of about 2,500 per month. These numbers are still kind of astonishing to me. The average newspaper in the U.S. has 26,000 subscribers, which means I have the attention of almost two newspapers’ worth of people every week. I don’t know of any other way a single creator can meaningfully communicate with so many people with so little effort.
Considering that my “average revenue per subscriber” is about $25 through online courses alone, this also represents a fantastic business. 2,500 new subscribers per month equals about $62,000 worth of potential revenue being created each month just through my newsletter alone. And that potential revenue is cumulative, since many people stick around and become repeat customers.
Step Four: Community
At this stage, people have had substantial experience with my ideas, and often want to start getting to know other people on the same wavelength. There’s a few different ways for them to do that.
The first is the Building a Second Brain Facebook group, which currently has about 6,000 members. The group is fairly active, and I’m very gratified to see that almost every post has numerous helpful replies. Facebook actively refers people to join the group, and I think many of them are people who wouldn’t otherwise come across my work.
The second community forum is our Slack, with about 4,000 members. If the Facebook group is the public square, then Slack is a series of semi-private discussion groups. Dozens of user-created channels focus on Notion, or my PARA method, or on personal growth, or other specific niches. It is very useful to have a community platform where anyone can join and create an ongoing discussion on any topic they choose without requiring any involvement on our end.
Step Five: Online Courses
I’m most known for my online course Building a Second Brain (BASB), in which I teach people how to create a system of knowledge management to save their best ideas and insights in a trusted system outside their head.
I’ve been teaching it since early 2017, when I launched my first “cohort” of 30 students. Instead of pre-recording all the videos and leaving students to consume them on their own, I decided from the very beginning to take a completely different approach: to deliver it live, in real time, via Zoom. That way I could interact with my students, give them feedback on their work, and hold them accountable to showing up and following through.
Little did I know that this new learning format was the start of a whole new wave in online education, which is now known as “Cohort-Based Courses.” It turns out, a lot of people have become disillusioned with “self-paced” courses, which have dismal completion rates. They don’t provide any of the accountability or interaction that is so important for learning. Cohort-based courses fill in the pieces that the previous generation of courses was missing.
The most recent eleventh cohort of BASB took place in September 2020 and had over 1,000 participants from over 70 countries. We have a team of almost 50 people total involved in launching and delivering the program, including Forte Labs employees and outside contractors, returning students who we hire and train as “Alumni Mentors,” and promotional partners who help us get the word out. It’s been an extraordinary run that’s already gone far beyond anything I ever imagined, and I think we are just at the beginning.
The Building a Second Brain course is our flagship offering and the deepest level of engagement. It is for those willing and able to work directly with me not just on learning some interesting new things, but developing a powerful tool and a practice of personal knowledge management. It’s a serious investment of money and time, but that high barrier to entry ensures we have only the most serious, motivated students in each group. That in turn accelerates how fast we can move, raises the bar of excellence for both us and them, and amplifies the peer learning that is just as powerful as anything I can provide.
The course might be the ultimate step, but it’s not the last one. Many graduates come out of it with life-changing results and a completely new relationship to the information in their lives. Many of them spread the word to their friends and colleagues, share about their experience online, and even come back as Alumni Mentors to support others through the course. They attract the next wave of new followers, who begin their own journey through the world we’ve created.
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