Gumroad and the evolution of online creators
Sahil Lavingia is the founder and CEO of Gumroad. Gumroad is an online platform that facilitates the sale of products by creators directly to consumers.
Sahil left his job at Pinterest to start the company in 2011. Today, Gumroad serves nearly 75,000 creators earning more than $12M every month.
In this episode, we talk about the beginning of Gumroad, how the creator landscape has changed in the last decade, trends in audience building, and how Honesty is key for creators.
Transcript and show notes can be found here
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Sahil Lavingia 0:00
It is kind of a paradox, right? Because it's like telling someone like the best way to make money is to stop thinking about making money. Like that's a very frustrating to hear if you're trying to make money, but it's true.
Jay Clouse 0:12
Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show.
Jay Clouse 0:38
Hello, my friend. Welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. As I hear myself saying that I'm wondering if I'm in danger of being too repetitive when I open these episodes. Real quick story when I was in college, my accounting lectures were all online. And professor opened every single one of his videos with a line. Hi, everyone welcome back. If you went to Ohio State, you know exactly what I'm talking about. But he opened up every single one of his videos that way. And a couple years ago, someone actually uploaded a two minute supercut of that line from all of his videos, and I would love to include it here. But unfortunately, it looks like it's been taken down. Anyway, welcome back to another hour here together with me. In speaking of online courses, today, I'm speaking with a man who has helped 10s of thousands of creators sell things online courses, mp3 videos, all kinds of digital products. His name is Sahil Lavingia, and he's the founder of Gumroad. Gumroad is a super simple online platform that facilitates the sale of products by creators directly to consumers. It's literally as easy as embedding a button on your site or directing them to a specific gumroad page. It may seem simple to sell products online today. But that's largely due to the work that Sahil has pioneered. He was actually one of the very first employees at Pinterest back in the day, but he left in 2011 to build Gumroad
Sahil Lavingia 1:59
I wanted to sell a product myself. That's sort of why I wanted Gumroad to exist.
Jay Clouse 2:05
Sahil wanted to sell an icon that he created, and he couldn't find a simple way to do it. Little did he know that in the process of building a way to sell that icon, he would stumble upon a whole new growing trend of people trying to sell digital products online.
Sahil Lavingia 2:19
And, you know, this is before, like the word creator was even a thing. You know, we're some of the first people to use that word, certainly in this context, like I remember, like trying to figure out like, what, what do we call these people? You know,
Jay Clouse 2:32
As you'll hear in the interview, Sahil eventually landed on the term creator. And over the next few years, Sahil would have to come up with some more terminology to describe this new form of commerce. Like what would you call the things that these creators sold? And how would you refer to the people that you were selling these products to?
Sahil Lavingia 2:49
An audience is kind of another word that we struggled again to define this. Who do we call the people who you know, are they your customer base or your we came up with audience because it was the one that overlap with music and film specifically, and to have more of like a real kind of like physical feel to it like an audience of people.
Jay Clouse 3:07
Today, Gumroad serves nearly 75,000 creators in September of 2020, creators on Gumroad earned a total of nearly $13 million for the month, in 10 of them made more than $100,000 each for the month. In this episode, we talk about the beginning of Gumroad, how the creator landscape has changed in the last decade trends and audience building and how honesty has been key and saw his work in the work of so many creators that he supports. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram @JayClouse, or in our Creative Elements, listeners group on Facebook, if you're not in there already, click the link in the show notes and join us. But now, let's hear from Sahil.
Sahil Lavingia 3:54
Gumroad was I think the first sort of, you know, super easy set up, we kind of called it the lemonade stand of the internet, it was the first time it was possible to sort of sell something that easily for digital content for visible content too. But you know, presumably, when you're selling physical product, you you need more anyways. Right? So it's not as sort of as big a deal. But, you know, if you're selling an mp3 file, it's weird that you need to kind of set up all this stuff to just, you know, make $1 on the internet. The sort of default option was PayPal, putting a PayPal button on a website page. Right, everyone kind of knows what that gold little button looks like. They're basically everything was a wrapper around PayPal, like PayPal, you know, stripe had not launched at this point. So it was really like roll it yourself. You know, build a whole storefront at least have a website use PayPal. So yeah, that's really the crater sort of landscape was built yourself. Put put yourself in a marketplace, right? So like iTunes, for example, or iStock photo, you know, these kind of big marketplaces because the sort of activation was so high, you know, You'd basically the activation energy was so high, you kind of, you know, split the cost with everybody else, right? But then the marketplace would take sometimes more than 50%. You know for that, because there's no other alternative. Yeah, it was it was it was different than what it looks like today. And that was only, you know, nine years ago.
Jay Clouse 5:16
I'm trying to think back to where I was nine years ago and the things around me because in the the world we live in now, it seems like teaching online and things like YouTube, like all this is such a common way of life now that I can't even remember to when it didn't exist. What were the types of things that people were actually trying to sell online at that point? You mentioned mp3s, what else?
Sahil Lavingia 5:39
Yeah, and you know, mp3s, PDFs and MOVs. And before it's like, it was so early that people were just doing what they were doing before, but just instead of selling literally like mailing DVDs and stuff, like they were now just, it was downloadables, right? This is like, you know, now you buy a gaming console, and you just download everything, but now you've no one knows what a CD, I mean, no one knows. Or no one has CDs, right? Like, unless you're really into something. It's unlikely, maybe blu ray sort of thing and stuff. But, you know, not for anyone under the age of like, 30, probably. And so yeah, just like, yeah, back back then it was just sort of the offline to online transition. So you know, instead of selling a DVD, you'd sell it, you know, a MOV and instead of selling a CD, you'd sell you know, mp3 files, is that file with a bunch of mp3s s in it. And yeah, it was pre pre, I think teachable launch, maybe like 2014 I think so three years later, you know, Patreon launched in 2012 I think so yeah, really, we were I don't know, for the first first like, I'm sure someone would argue with that. But we were pretty pretty early to the mostly because I mean, you know, credit to stripe too, right? Like we only existed because stripe made it possible for me to build this thing by myself. And we launched before stripe launch. So effectively, like we kind of were ahead of everybody effectively, because you know, we rode that wave early. You know, we're one of the first few users of stripe.
Jay Clouse 6:58
Can you talk to me about the the breakdown? It sounds like early on you add videographers, musicians? When did you start to see other disciplines of creating and selling digital products online start to come into place?
Sahil Lavingia 7:14
Yeah, I mean, you know, Nathan Berry, who sort of had a lot of success on Gumroad, and now runs ConvertKit. He was one of the first sort of like early success stories on Gumroad and was very open about it, which helped us and helped him a lot. It was very sort of beneficial, mutually beneficial relationship there. And I remember like, there do two websites that use the word creator, Kickstarter, and YouTube were the two platforms that use creator. So we didn't come up with it, but I think we pocket popularized it quite a bit, especially within the sort of demographic and they're not, we tried artists, we tried creatives, and everything was like had a little bit was too loaded with with another idea already. And we sort of figured out, you know, the I think the key insight was, you know, like, people were kind of vertical specific, right? There are four verticals primarily on Gumroad. In the early days, because it was the way to look at this stuff was music, film, publishing and software, you're doing one of these things. And you can even almost like map geography, right? You could say San Francisco for startups, or for software and startups, you could see New York for publishing, say music in La film in LA, right? mapped very cleanly, to these boomtowns effectively. And then we started seeing the transition with Nathan and other folks like him who were not just authors, they were kind of selling more than that. And we kind of needed a new word for that. And so I went to Kickstarter, which was my sort of number one, sort of, like, thing that I would think of if you're like, you know, trying to figure out like, what is this new thing? And they started using creators, creators of projects. And even like the word products, like we struggled a lot with, like, what do you call the thing that you're putting up here? Like, what are you adding? I don't know what the default is a we started calling calling them products. And that seems to have stuck I think, I'm not sure but but really, people refer to the, to the people because it is like this sort of amalgamation of all of these things that you end up end up doing. So that was like the first transition, we're starting to see more of that. Like, I think creator sort of info product kind of people are now you know, like, there's a lot more educators and teachers on the platform who just consider themselves teachers and educators, they don't consider themselves creators or authors or anything like that. And I think that will continue right. Like who do you what do you call someone who's on Tick Tock selling like food recipes on Tick Tock or something like that, like, there's not really a word for you just call them a tick tock person, you know, like, you kinda have to describe the thing because you don't have the reference pointer that captures like all of the things that they do. So it's kind of a constantly kind of evolving thing, which is why I think it's so fun to work on because it just gives us access each gives us this like beautiful vantage point into innovation on the content creativity side.
Jay Clouse 9:43
Yeah, it almost feels like as the means of creation and the different things you could create have grown identity has become even more difficult to to not have, you know, these loaded ideas around. You know, I try to help freelancers, but people don't self identify as freelancers they self identify as a graphic designer who is freelancing, or a copywriter who is freelancing, these questions of identity are so interesting. I also love the word creator, because there's a there's a flexibility to it, you know, you hear all these stories of people who they self identify as the founder of this thing or as an entrepreneur. And then when that gets sold, or it fails, and it's no longer around, they have like this identity crisis. Whereas if you gotta go a level of like, I think that being an entrepreneur, being a founder is a subset of being a creator. But being a creator, and identifying that way, it gives you so much more optionality for how you can spend your time and still feel like you're aligned with who you are, you know, maybe you take a part time job somewhere, so that you can actually focus more time on your creative work. And that's not threatening identity, because you're still a creator. So to kind of tie back today to when people were starting, and it was film, music, PDFs, what are the most popular types of products on Gumroad today?
Sahil Lavingia 10:57
I mean, this is the problem is like, I can't tell you because it is so variable, you know, like, I can say, look, educational content is the most popular category. But like, what is that mean? Right? Like, everything is educational. To a degree, you're sort of presumably always learning something from everything that you consume, including music, and film, and entertainment, and all these things. So it's just really, really tricky. I mean, I think this is one of the hard parts about content marketing for these kind of folks, right? Because everyone's like, hey, how do I make money on the internet? And I'm like, well, it's sort of case by case. Like, it depends on what you like, and what your audience is into and your voice and like, you can't just say food, because there's like, a million different ways. I was thinking about this actually the other day, because maybe like, 10, 15 years ago, when I was in high school, you had a career fair. And you have like, jobs, right? Like you have like firemen and like police woman and business entrepreneur, I guess was one of them right then and but they were like pretty clear, cleanly defined. And but then when you become an adult, you realize there's like, literally millions of different jobs, right? Like there's like roller coaster designer, and there's like this very specific, I don't know, a person who designs plates, and there's just, there's, and I think the future there will be as many jobs as there are humans basically, like everybody will be sort of like a fully unique user of something or another, right? Like someone had to design like this coffee cup, right? And someone had to design this, and this is separate, and like, there's just so many things. So I'm gonna have to like mine this out of the dirt. Like there's just like, all of these things that are happening in the physical world. And I think you'll see the same thing online where you're just gonna have just an ordinate amount of identity, I guess, right? We're at some point, like it just meaningless. It's just like, we just, you know, Shopify, you know, it's just like, what, what do people use Shopify for, like, virtually everything. It's, it obviously has a band, like DTC or whatever, but it gets pretty, pretty, pretty useless. Like, pretty quickly when you when you real, and I think this is happening, you see this in politics and stuff to where I just think like, actually, the beauty of the internet is like, people are sort of able to break, you know, out of these things. Because of the physical world, you kind of like need to go to college. And you know, like, there's more identity serves a purpose there. But in this new kind of COVID era world where you're just like online, you don't need the board, you're not in a room and not in the room, there's like no sort of delineation there. So I think I kind of think that we'll just see this, like, lack of identity, you know, sort of thing,
Jay Clouse 13:19
like I don't even know what to call myself anymore. Even the word job that you just brought up with, like the context of a career fair, in high school, or even college, like that has a connotation of you're employed by someone else, you really got told the story of the person who was employing, or made the thing in the first place. And now in this world of creators, your income isn't from a job, it could be from an amalgamation of 13 different sources, you know, including the dollar I get every month on medium from that one thing I wrote two years ago. It's a totally different world.
Sahil Lavingia 13:53
Yeah, we started recently having these quarter time positions at Gumroad. You know, we're basically work 10 hours a week for gumroad. And then you can do whatever you want, with the rest of your time. It's almost like the opposite of the Google 20% or something like that. I think Daniel Solow was the first person to suggest it, we've been doing a bunch of part time and contract work. And it's been phenomenal for us, because it's honest, it's just look like look, you want to be a creator, don't you? Then like, why would you work at Gumroad? Is it weird? Isn't it weird that like, we're we're a company that says we're for creative people, but we mandate that everybody worked 40 hours a week or more? Yeah, for us. And basically, frankly, gumroad is not an easy, like, it's a lot of work. And so you know, you work 40 hours on gumroad, you don't have the energy, typically after work to work on. I don't personally, you know, so I think it just sort of feels more true to sort of sort of like face up face that and say, Look, what if we are actually a company really of creators and guess what creators don't want to work on a company? It's sort of this weird thing so like, what if we just hired the best creators in the in the industry that obviously want to do this? Many don't many or want to do it full time and see what they want. Like, right like you just You know, I had a tweet the other day that was like, you know, people always say, like, solve your own problem, right? But eventually you stop, you stop solving your own problem. Because it's a business and like the job of a business is to solve other people's problems, right? At some point, I solve my problem. And I don't have that problem anymore. And the problems of a CEO of a technology company are very different than the problem creator, typically. And I was like, one way to scale this, like, one way to go back to the solve your own problem is to hire people who have that problem, like go hire gumroad creators, and then just say, look, what do you know? What would you want? You can literally, you now have control? Like, what would you build for yourself? Before I could ask them, you know, and then I would have to go build it. Now I can ask them, and then they can go, they can go build it, they can get paid for it. And it's a super new experiment. It's like maybe a month or two old, maybe not even actually probably like three weeks old or something. But I'm very optimistic about it. I think it's actually going to be incredibly popular. And I think it's sort of the successor to remote work, actually, because I think when you're in an office, all these there are other all these things that are bundled with working as we were talking about previously, right? But if you break that, if you get rid of the office, like there are all these other things that that we don't do, because we don't have an office, we don't you know, internet, everyone's has internet. I don't know how they figured it out. I figured it out. Everyone has a laptop, and a phone, somehow they figured it out. We don't have to give them these things anymore. Some companies do, right? Because they're still sort of like in that old world. And they kind of expect to go back to the old world. But like, I'm more like, well, this is a whole new world. And again, like that parallel, how can we be first How can we be we early like what what sort of boundaries? Can we push around this stuff? And, and it just feels feels honest, feels right. And it you know, and the nice thing is, as a creator, I can go talk about and it's a really good test for me to be like is this what we should be doing? If I feel comfortable, if I feel proud to talk about this, this might be right. And if I don't feel proud, and I might be wrong, right.
Jay Clouse 16:53
After the break, Sahil and I talked about the biggest changes he's noticed in the creator landscape since the beginning of Gumroad. right after this. Welcome back to creative elements. We heard so he'll talk about all the actual terminology that he and his team had to create and use in the early days of Gumroad. Now, nearly a decade later, I asked him what stands out in his mind as the biggest changes in the creator landscape since those early days.
Sahil Lavingia 17:18
I mean, honestly, in so many ways, it's like identical, you know, like, people are still building audiences via blogs, and email newsletters and social media, because social media is kind of like relatively new, and monetizing it by selling content and products to them. And I think I think there's definitely been like more of a trend around like community, you know, as you reach sort of, quote, unquote, scale, and you've been around long enough, you know, like, you just need more, you know, you're you have enough people in your audience that kind of want to talk to each other. And you almost have like hierarchy within your audience of people who've known you for, you know, it's kind of like what happens to rock stars, right? Where they're like, Oh, you have your like, Ruby, like, I've known you back, you know, it your your whole, like, audience just becomes like a community itself, which, you know, in the beginning, you just don't have that. And we've seen that with Gumroad in the last couple years, where people feel like some more attachment to the brand. I think if we sold a T shirt online, we'd see a lot of traction for that where it's like, maybe 2, 3, 4 years ago, I don't think that would have been the case, we will love a free shirt. Probably wouldn't pay for it. So yeah, I mean, honestly, I think a lot of it is the same. I think I think scale changes things. It's like when when Apple first announced the iPad, people joke that it was just like a bigger iPhone. Right. And there was a great line I saw that was like, you know, it's like comparing, like a bathtub tool or something? Because like, yeah, technically, it's the same technically a bus isa car, you know, technically a human as an ape, like how it's just a level of abstraction. And I think scale is is similar, right, we're like, there are new things you can do at scale that you weren't able to do before. And I see this sort of, I'm sort of within this sort of tech industry. I've seen this even just last two years. I mean, if you think about the tech industry, we've been using Twitter since like, 2007, 2000, maybe even before that I started using in like 2008 or something, you know, so 12, 12 years, but only the last couple have, I really felt like wow, you can actually you can have hundreds of thousands of followers on this thing, right. And you see that there's like countless examples of those. And it almost feels like it was always like this, but like three or four years ago, no one had that many, like really, you know, if you have that many followers, you'd be considered like a celebrity. And so it's just I think scale does enable like a whole new ship. Because what scale does is it creates an economy and it creates like a market for people who build tools. And so when you have scale you have you get better tools made right like Figma and Canva. And all of these tools that didn't exist five years ago even and that creates makes it easier for more people to get in which allows even better tooling to exist. And and and sort of the cycle continues and continues. So when you have the means of creation creates more creators creates an economy that creates more means of creation. And so I really think like Matt really has a phenomenal book about this called how innovation works and a book before that called the rational optimist where he talks basically about like, if you want to create innovation, just have more kids, basically like the more people the more innovation Americans like the most innovative, you know, place sort of in the last, whatever, 200 years, and that sort of probably correlate with how many people had buying power. And sort of before that Europe and you know, like, really, if you just look at a lot of these things, like, if you look at the iPhone, like how many people really contributed to the development of the iPhone, literally millions of people, right, like no one could have made this themselves and deal. So like, what what imagined a device that billions of people contributed to that device will exist, and it will be unfathomable to the way it's either that a week's float, so I sort of believe in very two divergent outcomes. You either Yeah, either blood or souls on fire, or we like conquer the whole universe. It's really sort of as simple as that, to me, I like to sort of like to believe it's the, it's one or the other.
Jay Clouse 20:47
It's so interesting to me how frequently I have the thought of how pure music is as a form of entrepreneurship. And then, you know, moving forward, you, you mentioned that, again, music was one of the first things that was being sold on Gumroad, you just brought up community, I had this conversation two days ago, because community is like, really topical right now. And I was thinking about, you know, who's been doing this really well, for a long time. And again, musicians were at the leading edge of that, because they pull people into this space, and not only were you going to the live shows for the music you're going because of the people that you could expect to see at that live show. I wonder what the next, you know, intersection I'll find of musicians were like, We could have predicted this. And we just looked at what musicians have been doing for 100 years.
Sahil Lavingia 21:33
I can give a great example, which is venture capital, right. So you have labels, which basically effectively, you know, provide advances to artists and take a percentage of their earnings in perpetuity effectively. And this is sort of become a recent topic, again, with Taylor Swift, and Kanye, and all these things. But like, you know, the record label is just a venture capital firm, which provides certain things to the people, the talent who actually build all this stuff and make all the content. And you see it all all over the place. Music is, is early. And I think that's just because the cost of production is cheap. So you'll see it first in music, and you'll see it last in video games, probably because that's sort of the most expensive, you know, if you look at CDs, and the transition to digital, my guess is like you saw with music first and then with films and then with video games. And so yeah, music is a phenomenal place to look look for, like what the future might look like band camp, my guess would be Band, band, you might have even Yeah, it was a marketplace. It probably existed before government, but I get my guess is band camp was before, you know, a lot of the other things iTunes launched before, you know, the other verticals that they now have. And also, I think file size comes into it like that sort of, it's not only cheap to produce, but it's basically free to transmit, right? Like, basically, if Gumroad was only music, it would be free to run effectively. Basically, the only cost that we have in terms of files is video, everything else is like basically rounds down to zero, but our video streaming and everything like that costs 10s of thousands of dollars a month. Right? I mean, you know, it's like three seconds of videos, one song kind of thing. It's a crazy multiple.
Jay Clouse 23:07
It also strikes me that, you know, when people are coming to Gumroad, to sell their music, they realized, I already have a fan base, I have an audience. And so I need the means to service that audience through technology. And now today as this is becoming more and more understood and invoke people are like, well, I want to sell things online, but they haven't necessarily put in the years of doing work to create the audience. And now they realize, Oh, I can't just create the products, I actually need to have a group of people that the product is for. So can you can you talk a little bit about the change in how people have thought about what an audience is the role of an audience building an audience, what does that look like over the last eight years,
Sahil Lavingia 23:49
it's definitely become more considered in the way that people start thinking about how they want to make a living as a creator, before it was like I need to get really, really, really good. And now it's like, I need to figure out how to build an audience, which often is different than the way you get become really, really good. So people say oh, you learn how to write you write a lot of blog posts and start a newsletter, and then you do this other stuff. Personally, I think we've almost weighed maybe too much on that side of things where there's such an obsession. I see this like on Twitter, where I'll tweet something, and I'll get like 100 people replying to it with like, some aphorism or something. And it's like, pretty obvious to me that these people are just trying to build their audiences. And which is fine. By the way, there's nothing wrong with doing that. But I'm just like, I hope that they're also working on the stuff that people will end up paying them for. So the internet is great, because it gives you all of these examples of creators who are making a living doing what they love. And that's great, because, you know, it's inspiring and more people should do it and having examples of how you can actually do it is really great. I think one downside to that is people sometimes it's sort of like seeing people on the other side of a fence not really realizing that the path is like all the way around, and they spent all their time trying to climb up it or whatever kind of extended metaphor. And so I, you know, I do always kind of remind people like, Look, ultimately people pay for you and your journey and your story and your competency. And so you should always be working on those things like tweeting and sharing. And all this stuff is sort of, you know, like, I kind of think of it as kind of like the sort of like residue of like, your journey and like, you're sort of like investigative journalism almost right? Like, Hey, I just found this thing out, or isn't this cool? Or like, check this thing out? Or, I learned this today, etc. I think there's some times people who just focus on that part. They're like, what can I learn today, so I can share it. And I think that's sort of negative, because I think you're too short term focused, you're not looking for, like the stuff that people really, really want. And the other thing is, and this is the case with basically all technology, I think, and all democratization is you have this, this crazy power law, right of the people who are really successful. And second, number two is down here, number three is on here. And it kind of goes like this. So you know, you want to be first and you want to be early, and you want to be really good really fast. Which doesn't mean like copying typically, right? It typically means like, Well, what do you really care about? Like, we really care about like, indie video games, like what component of video individually, like spray design, right? Like, there's probably a way to make $100,000 a year around stress spray design? Certainly there is no one is doing that today. But a lot, what I see is people say oh, look, there's like people who are making a living, like teaching people how to write on Twitter, or whatever, you can certainly do that. Not, you know, but like, it's going to be incredibly competitive and difficult to stand out. And it also just like, maybe I just have so many, so much data to look at that I can tell really quickly. But I can tell if someone's really interested in something or if they're not, right. I don't know, I always really I see this as an investor, too. I've just started doing that more recently. Like, it really matters to me, like why you're doing something. And I think it matters to your audience, too. Because people don't want to pay someone money, if they believe they're doing it to make money, right, they want to support you, because they really want to give you money so that you can go buy the weird thing. So you can like investigate it, and then show them what you've learned from it, they want to support you and your hobbies more than the living is almost like a tangential thing, right? Whereas like, if you're a business, like they're not, you know, then it becomes like kind of a financial relationship more than a kind of a social relationship. And I mean, you've seen this, you know, this is a transition that always happens, right? Like Kickstarter, I think it's gone through this recently, where I think it's become much more of a kind of a retail experience. Now people have kind of figured out how Kickstarter works, and the best ways to use it, it sort of becomes like a business product almost, which is kind of inevitable. But I do sort of always mind people, when they're so focused on building an audience, it's really cool that people are thinking about that. But you know, you still have to do the other stuff, right? And the brilliance of things like social media is that you can really build an audience, you don't have to spend hours a day you can like I spend maybe, I don't know, four minutes a day, actually creating content on social media, right? I just go on Twitter, and I say like, something right, and then I and then I go back to to my my life, doing whatever I'm doing. And so I just, I do always remind people just, you know, make sure that you're, you're you're making stuff, right? This is why I love the word creator. And why we settled on it is because it really puts first and foremost, like the point of this, which is creation, and making stuff and creation very specifically means from nothing. The aspect of creation that is unique from production, for example, is that it's new, it's different. It wasn't there before now it is it's zero to one, etc. And that doesn't happen very easily. And it doesn't happen in a predictable fashion. And so yeah, I don't know, I always I always mind people like yeah, be careful, be careful about putting all your eggs in the audience pocket, you know, and, and ultimately, like, after a certain scale, your audience is going to bring you more audience members. And so your job is actually becomes easier, or harder depending on how you look at it. But it's more pure, because then you actually just focus on content creation. And then your audience says, Hey, I love this person. Do you know who they are? And your audience starts to grow more organically over time.
Jay Clouse 29:03
I think that's really smart. You know, when you're talking about people who are building their audience by just kind of sharing, like, what am I doing? here's, here's what I'm learning. Here's how things are going. I love the idea of learning in public. But there's there seems to be such a limit to that, like, sure, you could be the front of the power law for people that are you. But that's a you know, a very small thing. If you're trying to do that over the period of five or 10 years and build an audience around that you kind of are expecting your audience to grow exactly the way that you are for them to remain interested in the thing that you're talking about. But it's it's hard to think about, well, what is the what is the thing that I can talk about consistently for a long time that will continue to be relevant to some large group of people? It almost feels almost uncreative sometimes.
Sahil Lavingia 29:47
Yeah, it feels too strategic, right. It's like if I sat down and said, How do I maximize my audience? I'm not going to be successful at maximizing my audience.
Jay Clouse 29:58
When we come back Sahil and I Talk about the methods that he sees up and coming creators using to build their audiences, and why, above all else, he considers himself to be a writer. So stick around, and we'll be right back. Welcome back to Creative Elements in my conversation with Sahil living here. on this show, we've heard a lot about the strategy of search engine optimization and building an email list. And since Sahil has the benefit of learning from 10s, of thousands of creators, and I asked him what he seeing as the up and coming strategies for building an audience in 2020.
Sahil Lavingia 30:31
Social media seems to have become like incredibly dominant, especially in the last year or so. People have realized, especially with COVID, it's sort of the new mainstream where people are just living online, they're sort of scrolling their feeds, consistently, constantly, probably too much. Tik Tok is sort of this new sort of phenomenon. But again, yeah, it's kind of the same. I would say people spend too much time probably focusing on SEO and other things. Like the truth is like Google gets smarter everyday. And SEO to me, almost says, You're better. You're smarter than Google. It's a hard bet to make, right? Obviously, right? I'm simplifying a little bit. But it's true to the degree that like, the best thing I ever wrote in terms of building my audience was was called reflecting on my failure to build a billion dollar company, which was about Gumroad, just my story building Gumroad, and how it wasn't sort of the venture backed unicorn that we wanted in the in the beginning when I started it. And that was insanely successful. Now 800,000, 900,000 people have read it at this point for myself, but it is kind of a paradox, right? Because it's like telling someone like the best way to make money is to stop thinking about making money. Like that's a very frustrating to hear, if you're trying to make money. But it's true, like you kind of just have to pursue your own interests get really, really good at whatever those things lead you to. And when you get there, you're going to be the only one or one of very few. Because if you take a path that's well, you know, well trodden, sort of, by definition, by the time you get to where you need to go, like, everybody else is there, right? Like, if you buy a book that teaches you how to do something, the writer wins, right? Because they were they were the first maybe to get there and teach everybody else. But the goal is to really incorporate those insights into another path that you're on, it should not be, I think, to tread the same, you know, there are a lot of sort of insights that you can take and apply, I think the gumroad posts, like, you could read that and be like, Oh, yeah, this is, you know, it's interesting to think about creating value versus capturing value, right? The second line, I hear a lot of how important the market is to determining your growth, versus just like the quality of your team, or the quality of the product quality, the features, how fast you ship, etc. And that applies to virtually everything. But it's sort of like, it's like, be specific, right? Like, figure out what you really care about as specific as you. And that's what will drive the sort of generalized insights for people. But if I just wrote a post that said, just those highlights, right, if I just said, Gumroad, run from here to here, I learned one market matters. Two no, no one would, it would not have resonated there is there's a lot of those articles, by the way out there. But the way I wrote it, I told the story. And I think that's what really compelled people and people recite those insights almost like word for word for me. I mean, I can even do it, because I, they like stick into the soul, you know, in a way that just sort of like arbitrary kind of like one liners don't. And I think there's advice that you should listen to, but the advice you should listen to is always going to be incredibly generalized. But then it's really just like taking that and like going your own path, right through the jungle of sort of like the future, and finding something that no one's found before going down the rabbit hole per se, and coming back and saying, Hey, guys, like, look what I found. But by the time you found it, it's not interesting. Like it, you have certain time period to capture and capitalize on it, and then it's on to the next thing. And that's great if you're excited about creating stuff, but it's not so great if you want to do sustainable business necessarily. Right. And so that's kind of like the other. The other thing about creativity is it's inherently unstable. Like, it's inherently like, not something that you make once and can retire on almost, it's sort of like an ongoing basis, even your fans, right? You people say 100 true fans, or 1000 true fans or what have you. But ultimately, like, very few people are fans enough of you that they will pay you 10 bucks a month forever. Like there is still a business relationship there. Right. And so I think that's great, because it motivates you to create and learn more. And for me, like, large part of life, it's about learning more and figuring myself out. But, you know, certainly if you're if you're trying to get into a stable income, like there are there probably other ways to do it that might be a little bit more stable, and less stressful.
Jay Clouse 34:37
I saw you tweet something a couple days ago, talking about how powerful writing is as a skill.
Sahil Lavingia 34:42
Jay Clouse 34:43
How important is writing to some of the creators you see who aren't specifically selling something that's written?
Sahil Lavingia 34:50
Yeah, it's super important is super, super important. I mean, if you think about virtually everything is written, I mean, if you look, if you see a video on YouTube, there's often script associated with it. If you watch a movie, there's a script, if you listen to a song, there are lyrics. Writing is the best tool that we have to express ideas. And in a way that's sort of forwardable to somebody else, right? Even when we speak, you know, all of that stuff we speak is is effectively can be written down. And, and because writing is sort of like so similar to code, I think like technology, it's just a lot easier to kind of talk like, it's a lot easier for computers to understand writing than it is for computers to understand sound and video. So if you think about search, Google search, there's still no such thing as video search, like, I can't do a dance and shows me people doing the same dance. You know, you can build that by proxy, but there's no technology that's figuring that out. Right. And so I think text is just so essential. And until you know, I'm sure we will get to that point with other other mediums, you're starting to see a lot of interesting innovation in audio right now. For example, in video, obviously, with Zoom, and everything like that, but text is still king, in my opinion. It has a huge lead time on every other technology. Hundreds of years. I think I guess before I don't know, what was the first way you could transmit sounds like maybe telegraph. Could you I don't even know, like, I have no radio. I think radio that's that's not that long ago. Radio is what like that. That's that was in the 1900s? Or the 80s. Like late 80s. Late 1800s. Yeah. And then TV was like, 1920s? I don't know. But you know, like, not long. I mean, like, not long ago, compared to I mean, books, thousands of you. I mean, like, it's so I think, I think it's funny, because I think when I say writing is a skill that gets more valuable every day, I really believe that. But it's also like, it's almost like a non statement, right? Because like, everybody can do this, everyone does do this. So like, obviously, it becomes more valuable every day, you're only more able to connect with people through your writing. Every day more people are jumping onto the internet, more people are becoming literate, that's still happening. So it's like the easiest trend to bet on. And I really tell people like I'm a writer, like that is my day job. I might be a CEO or an investor or some of these other things. But like what like, if you think about what do I do, I write code, I write words, I write memos, I write company updates, I write, I write I mean, like I the way I communicate 99% of the time with people is writing, email, Slack, get a notion, I'm writing all the time, I'm constantly trying to figure out like what's in my head and then communicating that to somebody else. And I assume that's actually quite similar for many people. What people don't think about like that, I think it's, you know, I everything I write is, is a product that I'm making for somebody else. I'm not just sending someone an email, like every single thing I write, I look over at least once. The only exception would be like a one on one text with somebody or something like that. But if I'm writing an email, I'll write the email, then I'll reread the email, and then I'll hit send, Twitter, same thing, anything longer than sweet. Anything that you read, for me, that's longer than a tweet, I've probably rewritten four or five, six times.
Jay Clouse 37:59
I think often people underestimate the difference between like effective writing and just okay, writing because it's one of those skills that we've been doing since we were kids, and it feels accessible. So it just feels like, Oh, I can do this. But you don't realize how big of a difference clear, concise effective writing can actually make in your day to day because it is such a consistent part of your day.
Sahil Lavingia 38:23
Totally. I mean, the way I the easiest way, if someone is looking for a mental model is how can you say the same thing with less words? Right. So my first draft basically says everything I want to say most of the time, like I wrote this draft, reflecting up for reflecting on my credibility, billion dollar company. And it was like 6000 words, and the final one was, like, 2700 words, and I think I said the same thing. It was just like, how can I get rid of everything that isn't necessary to to the point of this thing? What's duplicated? What do I say over and over again? And I, if I read it today, I'm sure I could cut it down further. But it's it's actually just like what information theory is in computer science. And this is what lossless compression is, right? Which is like if you have 10, black pixels, you don't have to say, you don't have to say one black pixel, one black pixel, you just say 10 black pixels, right? And so this is what's happening in your computer. And this is like how data transfer and bandwidth all these concepts work. Zip files, like compressing CSS, like that's all that's happening. Your brain does this, if you do acid, you'll notice your brain doing this in front of you, where it'll it'll take two things that look similar and make them the same, like what's happening is your brain is basically, you know, making making the world in front of you more efficient, effectively. It's like turning everything into a fractal. And so it's just fun to I think, you know, writing is just super fun. And I think that's why I love Twitter. It's just like, it's 50% what people think Twitter is, and it's 50% having fun with words, like, half the stuff I tweet is not about what I'm saying. It's about how I'm seeing it that I think is really compelling. And it's fun. It just feels good when you figure something out. Like I had a tweet the other day that was like stop selling start storytelling. And that is a everyone has said that a million times over. But what I think is really interesting about that is it's the same. It's just selling and storytelling. Start with us, end with Elon. Yes, I'm just adding story, I guess.
Jay Clouse 40:09
Sahil Lavingia 40:09
Right. It's when I have that story yes, or whatever. And so that's what's fun to me about it right. And, by the way, start and stop both start with S. and S T, actually. So it's four words all start with S. So it just feels good. It feels good to say and that's why I tweeted it. I didn't tweet about it. Because I was trying to make a point about to me, those are my favorite, my favorite tweets, because they have they operate on these kind of like multiple levels. And when you're scrolling, this is the other interesting thing about writing is reading is a very different experience, right? You're skimming you're going through a feed, you might not be analyzing the crap out of it and be like, Oh, isn't it cool that he figured out that it's like sts sts T. But that's fine. Because your brain does like your brain. Notice that, you know, it's like when you listen to a really good song. It sounds better when you watch like a Christopher Nolan movie, like that was exceptional. You don't have to you don't you don't, you can't explain why it's so good, right you eat, it's like going to an amazing restaurant being like, that was the best meal I've ever eaten. And you can't comprehend a better meal. And then you get a better meal. And you're like, I don't understand, you just can't do it. But your brain, some your brain or your tongue or whatever is understands that that's what's happening. So that's why I think I am a writer first, like, everything I do is, is an excuse to write. And writing is kind of an excuse to understand. And understanding is all there is. So it's sort of very, it's very fundamental. It's very, very, very fundamental to everything. And maybe maybe that's temporary, like maybe we'll figure out like a way like neural link or what just like transmit thoughts directly and will no longer thinking words, right? Like, one of the flaws with writing is is that it's a it's kind of a serial track, you can't read two things at once. You can listen to two things at once. You can watch two things at once, kind of you can't read two things at once, which is why people do audiobooks are so popular now and podcasts and all these sorts of things. But why not? What if neuro link made it possible to read two things at once? Or 10 things at once? Or have multiple. Can I have multiple conversations with people at the same time?
Jay Clouse 42:00
It kind of scares me because the the thing that I feel like you lose with that, because when I write because I'm taking my subconscious understanding of the world and forcing it into a conscious articulation of the English language, it makes me understand even what I'm thinking, in a world where I'm just like, lossless transferring of neurons, like what am I? What if I lose my ability to understand my own thoughts?
Sahil Lavingia 42:23
Yeah, totally. It would be chaotic. I think it would be interesting. I mean, this already happens, right? Because you you think about something like a steak. And you you think you have a clear idea of what a steak is. But if I asked you like write down, just write about steaks like you wouldn't you it would be chaotic, like the stuff that would come out would be like cows and then like salt and and then you realize that like that's, that's how it is in your brain. It's just like these mapping of stuff. And then writing kind of create, it forces you to kind of figure out what is the line here? Like, how can I create a single line. And when you do that you feel you kind of you know, that part of your brain is actually now also kind of alive. It's almost like cleaning a room or something like that in your brain. But yeah, I imagine that if there is something like you were like, comes around, and we kind of say okay, like, show me what this person thinks about this topic. It's gonna be like, insanity.
Jay Clouse 43:13
It's 2020, the the world for creators has changed a lot. If I'm listening to this episode, and I'm saying, I know I want to, like lean into my creativity and make a living online. What are like some of the basic steps you would say, here is how I would go about it just starting today in 2020.
Sahil Lavingia 43:30
Yeah, I mean, I think one of the big ones is just starting, like, I think a lot of people this is another thing with the internet is you can spend all your time doing your research, research and procrastination are like two sides of the same coin, basically. And I do get emails from people that they will email me be like, hey, like should I use Ruby or Python? Unless, Like what? Like, who cares? It doesn't matter? Yes. Yes, the answer is yes, exactly. And, you know, similar with a lot of these other other things. And it's fine to ask those questions, I think of you as a beginner you have no, it's so like everything is so like, it all looks the same to you, right? And so as you get closer, you realize, Oh, these are two different mountains or what have you. So that's fine. But I do think I always just tell people just start like, you're gonna have different questions a day in and you'll realize how much better those questions are to have answers to from people, and then sort of those other questions that you have. And it's so much more fun and interesting when you get to that level. And you realize, when you get to that level, how few people there actually are, like, you look at how many people are writing and you're like, Oh, that must be an insane amount of people. But if you really think about it, you really do the research. I did this with venture. And I was like, there's no way I can get into this. It's so busy. There's so many people doing it. I made a list. I wrote a list down I was like who are the best people in early stage venture and it's like, less than 40 people. And I was like, oh, wow, you can put all these people in a room. Yet people say it's so big. And I think it's because people look at it from afar and they're like I see these people, so there must be like millions more. But no, there's actually just not that many people. And so I think a lot of it is just get started. Don't get sort of wary about the numbers because the numbers have been very quickly, and then focus on the on the craft, right? Like don't focus on, like no one says, I'm like no one, no one says I'm just a good musician, right? Like everyone has their voice, their fingerprint. And you can hear it very quickly, right? Like, you don't have to know it's a Kanye song. And it was a Kanye song. And that's inevitable for every creator. Like I've never met a creator who actually struggles. Beginners always think it's, it's like, I started painting a couple years ago. And I was like, what's my style? Is it going to be this or that? Guess what, you just paint the tree in front of you. And you will very quickly find out the way that you see that tree is very different from the way other painters see that tree. People have a lot of self doubt and think they need to stand out from the crowd. And and it's like, No, you don't just like, start get really good. Follow your interests. And if you get really good, like there, you will be compelling, you will be compelling to a lot of other people.
Jay Clouse 45:48
Well, there you have it. We hear this time and time again, from creators on this show. But now you hear it from someone who supports 10s of thousands of creators, follow your interests, build a deep knowledge over a subject, share that knowledge and interest with other people around you, and you will be compelling. One thing that really resonated with me from this conversation was the emphasis Sahil put on the separation over the focus of building an audience from the focus on building a competency that people will actually pay you for. We haven't heard this call out specifically on this show. But it's a really, really great point. Sometimes we get so obsessed with building an audience that we skip over the step of figuring out what our unique perspective is, or our unique value that we can bring to that audience. Why would someone choose to follow you or support your work? There needs to be some substance there. And that substance, that competency is what actually builds the audience. You can sell your own products on Gumroad at gumroad.com. And you can follow Sahil on twitter @shl. Links to those are in the show notes. Thanks to Sahil for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and to Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you like this episode, you can tweet at me @JayClouse and let me know and if you really want to say thank you, please leave a review on Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening, and I'll talk to you next week.