One of the best ways to advance your career, start an extra income stream, or become an entrepreneur is by creating content.
By “content” I mean tangible information that delivers value to others, delivered over the internet. It could take the form of a blog post or a long-form essay, an instructional guide or a how-to video, an ebook or online course. Content is anything you make out of knowledge and ideas, either your own or those of others, that exists on its own as a stand-alone thing. Content typically has the goal of entertaining people, helping them learn something new, or giving them solutions to their problems without you having to be there.
Why is creating content such an effective way to advance almost anyone’s career or business? Because it gets you started making things, without many of the risks that are normally part of creating new things.
You gain experience in all stages of the creation process, from first thinking of the idea, to outlining the main points, to trying out different approaches, to refining and editing your “product,” to final delivery. But you get to do all this learning without paying for expensive overhead, like a staff, office rent, or equipment. You don’t need to quit your job or spend years earning a new degree. Creating most kinds of content requires nothing more than a computer or a smartphone to get started.
Information products have many similarities to physical products. They both require a process of development and marketing, both need to be produced and delivered, and both can be sold to make money.
But information products have a few key differences that make them perfectly suited to getting a business off the ground. First, they can be created out of nothing but thinking and effort. The cost of raw materials is zero. Second, once you’ve produced the first one, they cost nothing to duplicate. The cost of additional manufacturing is zero. Third, they can be stored for free on your computer, and delivered for free over the internet. Inventory and distribution cost zero. And fourth, you can easily edit a text, modify an image, or change a webpage after the fact, often even after they’ve been delivered. The costs of modification are zero.
That last one is actually the most important. Because early on, your biggest challenge is knowing what to create. You may have lots of ideas of what you think people would want, but until you actually have the money in hand, you can’t be completely sure.
The biggest risk with physical products is that you have to spend a lot of money upfront – raw materials, design, manufacturing, storage, distribution, marketing – before you have the first opportunity to discover whether people truly want it. But content creation almost eliminates this risk, because all these costs are virtually zero. You can create a piece of content in a few hours or days, post it online, and get immediate feedback on whether it meets people’s needs. If it does, you simply keep duplicating and selling it. If it doesn’t, you can make changes in a matter of minutes and republish it as a “new and improved” version!
And this is only the beginning of the advantages of selling content in the form of information products. The marketing and sales of information products is also much easier. Because the costs of production and distribution are zero, you can run sales with heavy discounts, bundle with other products, provide free trials, partner with other content creators, and give free copies to influencers for exposure. There are limits to these tactics for physical products, because you have to recoup your costs. But with information products, any money you make on an additional copy is pure profit. Therefore, any price above zero is profitable. Even with free giveaways, at least you’re not losing money.
Information products can easily be purchased online without any involvement on your part. The income is largely passive, meaning you can turn your attention to the next thing without immediately losing your source of income. You can also market new products to the audience you’ve already built, because online purchases allow you to collect customer email addresses, and it again costs nothing to contact them with new offerings.
But let’s take a step back: how do you start creating content if that’s not something you’ve done before?
One of the best ways to start creating content is to curate content. Curation is the process of sorting through the vast amount of content that already exists, and picking and choosing the best or most interesting items for others. Think of the curator in a museum, who sorts through thousands of paintings or artifacts to pick the select few that will make it into the exhibition. Or the editor-in-chief of a newspaper, who chooses from among hundreds of things that happened in the last week, to pick only a few that will be published.
But choosing the items is just the beginning of a curator’s job. They also organize and present the items they are curating in a way that makes sense. The museum curator might present the works of an artist chronologically, or according to certain themes, or based on their historical importance. A newspaper editor might put urgent news on the front page, investigative reporting further back, and special interest stories next to related ones.
In many cases, the curator’s job goes even beyond that, including annotating, explaining, or putting the items into a narrative. Museums often present a brief introduction to the exhibition, printed on the wall by the entrance. Individual pieces often have little wall plaques explaining what the piece is about, the context in which it was created, and its historical significance. In addition to shaping the stories according to what they think is important, newspaper editors often write “editorials,” offering their opinions or interpretations on recent events.
Can you see how the job of choosing and organizing items to present can very easily turn into creating content of your own? There is not as much of a difference between curating the work of others and creating your own as you might think. The act of presenting the works of others is not a passive one. It requires a strong background in the field, sensitivity and creativity, and the best curation is one with a strong point of view on what is most relevant. As a curator, your reputation and your skills are on the line, and this is what makes it a form of creation in itself.
Would you like to write poetry and self-publish a series of poetry books? Before you have the courage to publish your own, curate the best poems you read into a monthly newsletter that you send out to subscribers.
Are you interested in covering a niche topic like home breweries as a freelance journalist? Start by filming short videos of yourself with your smartphone, in which you talk about the most interesting events you attended recently, and post them to YouTube.
Would you love to be a fashion influencer, and get paid to try out all the latest brands and styles? Start with a Tumblr where you post links from all the best fashion gurus you follow, with your opinion on whether you agree or disagree with their recommendations.
Here’s some other examples of things you can create as a curator:
- Curated news feed: find the best sources of news on a particular topic, and filter only the best ones for others
- Diagrams, infographics, other visuals: make a map or diagram showing the best tools, websites, events, or products for a particular hobby or activity, and how they relate to each other
- Comparison tables: if you’ve done the research comparing the options in an industry or niche hobby, create a table showing how they compare
- Crowdsourced toolkits: talk to the leading experts in a niche and ask them for their favorite tools, and summarize the results
- Guides: if you understand an industry or a field, create a “guide” that shows people who the major players are, or what the best sources of insights are
- Curated video channels: collect the best videos on a topic and share them on your YouTube channel, with some commentary on why you think they’re so good
- Expert directories: create a list of the top experts in a field for people to follow
- Web page showcase: publish a collection of the best websites, or individual web pages for a particular topic
- Slideshows: create a slide presentation of the best examples or models, and upload it to a site like Slideshare
- Learning curriculum: make a “curriculum” of the best sources of learning for your field, along with some commentary on how people should use them and in what order
- Review videos: make short videos reviewing or critiquing works or products in your field, adding your perspective and personality to the mix
- Event guides: make a calendar or directory of the best events (concerts, festivals, conferences, meetups, trade shows) you’ve found
- Open questions list: share a list of the most interesting or important open questions in your field, to help newcomers orient to the current landscape
- Galleries: publish a collection of the best images you’ve encountered, along with links to their creators’ pages
All these formats ultimately boil down to different combinations of text, images, and video, which can be delivered and monetized in different ways:
- Create a PDF and sell it directly on your website using Gumroad
- Start a blog on WordPress and charge for some of the articles using Memberful or Patreon
- Publish your work for free and take donations using Paypal
- Publish a course on Teachable or Thinkific and charge for access
- Create a profile on Clarity and charge by the minute for phone calls, using your content to market your expertise
- Create a paid email newsletter using Revue and distribute it via Mailchimp
- Set up an online forum using Discourse and charge for access
You may not be familiar with the platforms described above, but this doesn’t have to be a massive new endeavor. In fact, I would bet that you’re already doing most of the work required.
The average Facebook user publishes 90 “status updates” per month. With a little extra work, many of these could be considered small bits of content. As a novice, you’re probably already consuming a lot of content from others and learning a lot for yourself. That’s the perfect opportunity to turn around and share with others what you’ve just learned, perhaps with some tips on how to avoid the mistakes that you’ve made. Give them a shortcut to the small outcomes you’ve already achieved, and you’ll be amazed how grateful they will be.
Most people think that you have to be an established expert to sell your ideas and advice to others. But this is the furthest thing from the truth. People prefer to learn from those who are within reach, who only recently walked the path that they are trying to walk. There will always be mega-celebrities who people aspire to, but when it comes to actually getting their hands dirty, they usually go to smaller, more approachable practitioners who they can relate to.
By starting with curating the content of others, you accomplish a few things with minimal risk. You develop your taste, as you learn to distinguish what is great from what is merely good. You start to connect with existing audiences, as established creators have their own pages and communities you can interact with. And you even begin to see what is missing or not working about existing content, as you listen to the comments and complaints online. And you do all this with minimal risk, because you’re still only showing the work of others!
Sometimes, you can even offer your first information products as repackaged or reinterpreted versions of existing, successful products. This allows you to skip the whole development and testing process, and sell directly to an existing audience that’s already receptive to your message.
My first online course, Get Stuff Done Like a Boss, is a video-based version of the best-selling GTD productivity method by David Allen. I knew millions of people had read and loved the book, but many like me had trouble implementing its methods without a step-by-step, visual guide. My initial goal was to make $1,000 dollars and have 100 people take my course. More than 4 years later, more than 20,000 people have taken the course and it continues to be the perfect introduction to my work for new customers, despite the fact that it’s not even my own ideas!
Our products not only don’t compete, they are actually complementary: my best customers are those who have already read the GTD book but need to see real examples, and those who start with my course often go on to buy the book. You have to be careful to respect copyrights and give credit, but surprisingly often, established experts are happy for the extra exposure and will even share your stuff. Several years after launch, David Allen had me on his podcast as a guest because he liked how I taught his methods!
The truth is, the very idea of an “established expert” is under attack. Every field and industry and community, online and offline, is undergoing dramatic changes. Whether it’s technological disruption, globalization and automation, demographic or inter-generational shifts, or something else. Every time a new trend arises or a new skill becomes valuable, there is an enormous opportunity to take the role of an authority and leader. The greatest Bitcoin expert doesn’t have more than 10 years of experience. The most experienced virtual reality experts have only been working on it for a few years. The changing world is leveling the playing field and turning us all into amateurs at an unbelievable pace.
This is why the role of the curator is getting more and more important at this point in history. The other impact of content creation becoming so easy is that people are faced with a deluge of new information every time they turn on their devices. More than ever, they are looking for interpreters and narrators to tell them what it means and how to make use of it. Framing people’s options in a way that restricts their choices can help them see those choices more clearly instead of overwhelming them.
Even in small niches, like indoor gardening, making your own jewelry, or ultimate frisbee, there is far too much material for a novice to make sense of. Your curated recommendations and reviews can serve as a valuable access point for those who don’t want to spend as much time on it as you have, which is nearly everyone. But you have to go beyond just collecting a bunch of links – social media has solved the problem of discovery for good. You need to add an extra layer of value, giving people the context and perspective that only comes with true understanding.
This article has focused mostly on those who want to create a new product or business. But I believe that curation will increasingly be an important part of everyone’s job, not just solopreneurs and makers.
Even if you never plan on sharing content with anyone, you still need to know how to curate content for yourself. The only way to escape the tsunami of information overload is by making intentional decisions about what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. Curation has evolved from a specialized profession, to a simple matter of staying informed about your field, and ultimately being more effective at your job.
A quickly changing world requires that we take control of our own education, that we weave together our own curriculum from the countless sources we find online. The basic skill required to do this effectively is judgment. And judgment is exactly what curation helps you develop: every time you make a decision, choosing one article or phrase or image or news story over another – you are refining your judgment about what matters and what doesn’t. Start by curating content, and before you know it, you are curating a life.
Sources: this series borrows a lot of ideas and phrases from Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work (affiliate link), Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human (affiliate link), and Brendon Burchard’s The Millionaire Messenger (affiliate link). In other words, this article curates and summarizes their work!
Follow us for the latest updates and insights around productivity and Building a Second Brain on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And if you're ready to start building your Second Brain, get the book and learn the proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.