Given the exceptional rate at which podcasts fail, it dawned on me that exceptional, compelling, and successful shows are the result of a vision, great founders, and a team. And in that, just as in a startup, execution of the right steps is a critical path to success; that, while no one can guarantee a successful podcast, just as no one can pick a startup certain to win, we *can* (just as we do in our incubators for startups) drastically reduce the rate of failure and create for you a much greater likelihood of success.
With podcasts’ immersive storytelling potential – you’re in people’s ears, literally – and on-demand nature, it’s a niche hobby that’s becoming mainstream. I’ve been working through a series of articles for LinkedIn about how a startup pitch deck must tell a story and that’s when it struck me that we might learn from the storytelling of successful podcasting and the story necessary in a great startup pitch, to help you launch a podcast like we teach founders how to launch a venture.
To craft that guide as best as possible, I asked Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Fellow, a remarkable podcast producer from Kingston, Jamaica, Paul Stennett, to put this article together with me.
Much like a startup, reaching unicorn status is incredibly rare, but those who make it to the top use a strategic approach we’re walking you through here.
Let’s build your podcast like a startup.
The Approach to Building a Podcast Like a Startup
Starting a podcast and launching a startup share several similarities: Each goes through 3 very distinct phases. Each phase has indicators that let you know if you’re on the right or wrong path and that tell you when it’s time to move on to the next phase. This is how the curriculum of our startup incubator is designed.
Here, let me break it down for you:
- Marketing Your Podcast Like a Startup
- Validating Your Podcast Idea
- Understand and Develop Your Market
- Assemble Your Podcast Team
- Build Your Podcast Go To Market Strategy
- Developing Your Podcast Like a Startup
- Business Model: What’s Your Podcast’s Path to ROI?
- Raising Capital For Your Podcast
- Outline Your Roadmap and Growth Milestones
- Putting Your Podcast in Production Like a Startup
- Build Your Minimum Viable Podcast (MVP)
- Growth and Scale
Marketing Your Podcast Like a Startup
Marketing isn’t just about promotion or answering the question of “How will people find you?”
It’s everything related to your startup – who are your customers, what do they want from you, how you solve their problem, who will build it, and then how will people find it.
This phase is crucial for a podcast as well. Most people ignore it, dive in, record and put out something they like. They do so at their peril. 90% of podcasts fail in their first year – sounds eerily similar to the startup failure statistic, doesn’t it?
Validating Your Podcast Idea
Just like a startup identifies a problem to solve, your podcast should have a unique angle or subject matter that fills a gap in the current market.
To not be two business owners ranting into mics only to each other, there have to be people on the other end, or the realistic idea of who those people will be when you launch.
How do we know that our idea is something people will be there for? There are 4 characteristics your show idea needs to have to be fairly positive an audience will be there for it. The work of marketing before starting (a podcast or a startup) is validating that you have the means, the opportunity, and the experience within such characteristics, so you’re eliminating what will cause you to fail before you even bother starting. Have only 1 out of 4 and you’re on shaky ground and you may need to revisit your idea. Have 4/4 and your execution will put you in the big leagues.
The 4 characteristics noted in podcasts are taken from years of study of the top podcasts and what got them there. Eric Nuzum, author of Make Noise; the Creator’s Guide to Podcasting, summed them up well, but we’ll distill it down for you right now. Those 4 characteristics are:
- The unique angle the show will be focusing on
- The unique insider perspective that you as the host has
- The specific niche or subset audience that your show is for
- The differentiated format you have for your show
Analogous to a startup:
- What is the unique problem on which you are focused?
- What is your experience as a founder or team that gives you an advantage?
- Who is your Addressable Market? Not the total market but the audience you can serve right now
- How are you distinct from competitors?
Let’s make it all clear with an example. The All-In Podcast with the besties, Chamath Palihapitiya, Jason Calacanis, David Sacks & David Friedberg launches with #2 talking about tech and business from a macro and micro-economic level (#1). They’re talking to a specific type of audience that’s politically balanced, or at least open-minded, has high-net-worth mindsets, who love to go deep and thorough on complex economic issues (#3). The format, arguably, isn’t very differentiated, but you don’t often see Elon Musk popping in for a laid-back chat on any other podcast, so we’ll give it to them (#4).
For the idea you have in mind, how many characteristics can you stack?
Market Research for Your Podcast
Find people and test your assumptions. Developing a podcast is the ideal way to help would-be founders understand the advice first given to them; that we’re NOT advising you go talk to “customers” to test your assumptions – talk to people, everyone. A podcast needs an audience, not customers (foremost) and a startup is easily misled by potential customers so instead you talk to everyone about what you have in mind. Understanding your target audience and what they want to hear is crucial (I’m talking to you startup founders! And you podcast hosts). This includes identifying listener demographics, preferences, and behaviors. You have a vague idea now, It’s time to find people, understand them, and get them interested – kill 2 birds with 1 stone.
Not only do you build a profile on who your target listener is in this step, you also get to understand the world they’re immersed in.
- What are the other podcasts and businesses currently serving them?
- Who are the partners you can collaborate with or have as guests on your show to borrow their audience?
- What’s the small pocket you can start in and quickly gain influence and notoriety?
Hopefully you can see the correlation in that for startups.
If your podcast is about tech, maybe there’s a small pocket of consumer tech, VR is bubbling as there’s a subreddit of people developing different apps and applications that you can plant your flag and have those passionate few gather around. You could start there, be their voice, get that market share, and begin to expand.
Assemble Your Podcast Team
Much like a startup, your first core members can make or break your podcast. Just like the PayPal Mafia or AirBnb’s 3 musketeers, you need people with a unique set of skills which complement one another and fill the gaps and weaknesses in an organization that would exist if those people were not involved. Solo founders almost always fail and I’d challenge you to find for me a podcast that’s wildly successful with only a host.
Producing a podcast can involve multiple roles:
- One or more hosts,
- A Producer,
- Content editors for audio and/or video, and
- A marketing specialist.
You could start out wearing multiple hats, you could find a “cofounder” (if you will), or you could do what more successful startups do and start out through a venture studio or incubator, working with others – a partner – a podcast consultant, boutique, or agency, who has the expertise in making great podcasts because they’re saturated in the industry and have experience across a ton of different shows.
Build Your Podcast Go To Market Strategy
Plans are the first thing to go out the door when it comes to launching a startup (not sure what I mean by that? Take a look at how frequently investors and startup advisors encourage a Business Plan). Timelines get thrown off – things don’t happen as quickly as we thought they would – costs skyrocket. The same happens with a podcast. But it is always good to have that plan in place (the startup advice, just to jump to that punchline for you, is write the plan, for the sake of the exercise, and then put it on a shelf and get to work, the plan is wrong the moment you write it).
Now that you have your validated idea and you understand the market, still more important that producing anything is knowing how you’re going to reach people and develop that audience:
- What are the episodes you’re going to make?
- Which episodes will be released first?
- What’s the cadence of the show?
- How will you record content in a way that doesn’t have you or your audience burn out?
- Where will you promote your show once it’s live?
- Who will be the first set of partners you’ll collaborate with, and how will you collab with them?
- What will you do if/when things don’t go as planned?
- How will you highlight your unique competitive advantage right from the start, and then consistently as you publish content?
- How will you make the show available in the tremendous variety of channels through which people prefer to tune in to such content?
You don’t need to have it all perfectly figured out, actually, keep it loose. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail; but know HOW to Go To Market so you can pivot through what works and what doesn’t.
Developing Your Podcast Like a Startup
Assuming your podcast is something from which you want to make money (whether through sponsors, paid subscribers, or indirect product sales or consulting services) next focus on the costs and potential revenues involved.
Hold on to your seats.
Business Model: What’s Your Podcast’s Path to ROI?
ROI by the way refers to “Return on Investment” and that word investment does not refer to “investors” – it’s not implying you will get funding nor have investors, it’s referring to the fact that YOU will have costs involved in whatever you’re doing, and you need to be clear on that investment of your time, effort, and capital, so that you can how your work will make you money.
Your business model might plan for sponsorships, ads, listener donations, subscription services, or, our personal favorite – directly selling your own goods and services.
Selling your own goods or services is the only path to monetization that doesn’t require you to have a massive audience. You can start from day 1, and as you grow, your podcast just gets more valuable, bringing in more and more warm leads.
Note if we still need to point this out, everything we just wrote refers to you as a startup founder just as much as it does a podcast host.
Some specific advice here: what is the exact offer you want your listeners to take advantage of? Build on the work you’ve done this far with the idea and the market, and find that really irresistible offer that will match them; test it out.
Create a few offers or magnets to get people on your email list and into your funnels, and rotate them a few times a year. And really listen to the data and see what’s working the most.
Being able to have influence and a captive audience is something brands and companies value highly in today’s fragmented, omnimedia world. They’re trying to reach their audience everywhere, and they’re paying well for the opportunity to do it on your podcast IF (because) you are able to aggregate their audience for them.
A Business Model though is not just how you make money.
- What is your time worth?
- What is the cost of platforms needed to produce?
- Will you have to spend money on promotion?
- Do you need to hire engineers?
Model your costs in order to ensure that you might be able to overcome those costs when confident that your revenue from the work will exceed your investments. This is the ROI. You MIGHT make money in the ways you hope but you WILL have costs and must make investments to even try – is it worth it? Are you confident? Are you capable? Can you afford it? CAN YOU AFFORD IT because no one else will invest in you trying (startups don’t get funding to start).
Raising Capital for your podcast
Bet you didn’t think you’d see a section on raising capital in this post.
Podcasts are free right? Yeah, they are – if you have an iPhone and an internet connection, you can have a podcast with free publishers like Anchor.
But great podcasts require investment, so this is something you need to go into with your eyes wide open.
Let’s elaborate on those costs previously mentioned:
- Post-production (People)
- hire an editor or a team because the time and energy it takes to make you sound great is not something you should bear on your own.
- There are different costs for audio editors and video editors.
- You might want people on the promotion side who are familiar with social media and making content work on different platforms. They can take your podcast content and repurpose it for you. Every platform has different kinks. What gets Instagram going doesn’t work on YouTube, TikTok, or Twitter and LinkedIn. So if you want repurposing to work, don’t just ask your video editor to chop up smaller clips, you need domain expertise in the mix too.
- Equipment and Software (Tools)
- Depending on your idea, it might require a different format. And each different format has it’s own equipment and software needs. For example, if it’s one host, you only need a USB-enabled microphone and a laptop to capture studio-like audio. But if it’s two or more, yeah you’ll need more mics, but you’ll also need an interface, like a Zoom H4n or Rodecaster Pro, to capture all the separate audio tracks.
- Same for video, multiple cameras with lenses and a camera interface could easily put your costs above the $10k mark.
- Or maybe you rent a studio nearby for a few hours a month. That brings the costs down because you’re not purchasing the equipment upfront, but how does that affect your costs in the long run?
- Then there’s the software. If you’re by yourself, simple enough to use Quicktime on a mac or any video capture software like OBS on a PC. But if you’re recording guests remotely, you could use Riverside.fm or a similar tool for a minimal monthly cost.
- To handle the post-production, there are costs associated there as well. Audio processing software can run expensive, but there are cheaper AI tools on the market that can give you studio-quality sound in exchange for control and customizability. I am looking at Descript or Adobe Podcasts.
- Podcasting Hosting (Servers)
- Your podcast has to be hosted somewhere for the world to have access to it. When you peel back the surface layer of podcasting, all it is is files on servers being downloaded and played on peoples’ devices.
- There are several great hosting services on the market now for a minimal monthly fee – Libsyn and Buzzsprout come to mind – but Spotify is also there, and it’s free, AND it allows you to upload video. This means the largest podcast distributor on the planet can now also show video and audio to your potential listeners for free.
- This is great for getting started, and you can always move hosts once your needs change. For example, for inserting dynamic ads into your podcast, you’ll need a different host (like Libsyn or Buzzsprout).
- Promotion (Advertising)
- Ads won’t make your show, but they won’t break it either. Having a strong ads strategy, whether that means regular Meta or Google Ads, running ads on other podcasts dynamically, or reaching out to partners who podcast and do ad swaps, they’ll give you some good momentum, but it’s up to your content to secure the real amazing gains.
We recommend YOU (you alone) have enough runway to sustain the podcast (startup) for 18 months without revenue. If at that point what you’re doing is substantial and creating value, you might attract more meaningful financial support.
Outline Your Roadmap and Growth Milestones
Now that you know how you’ll make money and what your runway will look like, it’s time to build on your previous plan and map out your podcast’s stages. How will you know when your podcast is gone to the next stage, and what are the milestones you’ll use to measure?
Notice what we haven’t even started yet? A recording. This is how startups that work are successful and it’s the unique design of our incubator curriculum that teaches and guides you first to eliminate as many of the risks as possible before even bothering to build something.
What does success look like in the next 12, 24, 48 months of being consistent with your show and iterating and improving constantly? Where do you expect to be with your audience size? How much revenue will you be making? Conversion rates, number of customers, map out as much as you can.
Keep it loose, plans change all the time, but it’s more important to have a plan than to fly blind. People without ambition fly blind, and I know you have ambitions to be a great podcaster.
Putting Your Podcast in Production Like a Startup
Build Your Minimum Viable Podcast (MVP)
There are a plethora of tools available for podcasters, from recording and editing software to hosting platforms. As you consider factors like cost, ease of use, and integrations when choosing how you’ll get started and most appreciate what you *should* do yourself vs. the value, merit, and risks, of outsourcing work to others.
One of our favorite visuals in startup incubators is the popular Skateboard -> Car graphic is a wonderful way for founders to appreciate the concept of a Minimum Viable Product. The “MVP,” is such a frequently cited concept in entrepreneurship that you can’t escape hearing the term.
For startup founders, the premise behind an MVP is to stress to founders that you never start out by building all that you want to have in a solution you’d like to bring to market. Overwhelmingly most startups and development efforts fail (as do roughly 90% of podcasts) and building THE definitive product you want to bring to market is wasteful not just because that entire investment of your time and money is likely to fail, but because even if you find success, you can’t possibly know now, at the start, what that complete product should be.
A version, with just enough features to be usable by early customers who can then provide feedback for future product development.
Now, consider this, what is the MINIMUM but viable version of a podcast? We’ll give you a hint… it isn’t a recorded show and it isn’t a video, it’s a website, a social media group, or a newsletter, in which you can develop and nurture an audience for what you intend to talk about, without the added cost of producing that form of content.
Start something that isn’t what you intend to actually provide. Because from that you have an audience to reach, you have people who engage, and you have engagement which informs you if what you’re doing is working or not; besides, keep in mind what those sponsors/advertisers are seeking more than your show – that audience. You can launch your show and have to build an audience from scratch OR you can launch a show with an audience anticipating it – which is really easier and a better use of your investment?
Growth and Scale
Several podcasts have followed a startup model to achieve success. For instance, ‘Serial’ disrupted the podcasting landscape by employing high-quality investigative journalism. Similarly, ‘The Daily’ by The New York Times leveraged the newspaper’s reporting resources to create a popular news podcast.
Appreciate how our first example launched a very compelling niche of content while the second example is built on audience and expertise. Recall the 4 characteristics from the start of our article.
- The unique angle the show will be focusing on
- The unique insider perspective that you as the host has
- The specific niche or subset audience that your show is for
- The differentiated format you have for your show
Those characteristics in your ability, your brand, and your vision, help define how you might grow and more importantly, establish how you move beyond growing to scaling (scaling is a logarithmic curve that improves over time). You want to scale.
- If you have a unique angle, where is that voice and perspective more compelling? Perhaps a LinkedIn Group, TikTok videos, or a discussion forum
- If your insider perspective is compelling, maybe Twitter fuels an audience that wants to hear and connect with you or blog posts transcribing your show and offering more of your perspective makes a difference.
- As a specific niche or subset audience, would they love a newsletter? Is there a premium subscription that makes sense?
- A differentiated format might mean you host in VR with an immersive experience in which the audience can feel like they’re there with you. Or simply appreciate the differences between a newscast style, a talk show, a panel discussion, or documentary style journalism – audiences consume these varied formats in different places where you need to know to be (and how to be there effectively).
Like any startup, starting a podcast involves challenges. You might face issues like content burnout, technical difficulties, interviews you thought went well but, after checking the recording, were complete trash, or slow audience growth.
Dust yourself off, be persistent, learn from your mistakes, and continuously iterate on your podcasting plan just as a startup founder must abandon the believe that their solution is right and instead stay fixated on the problem they’re working to overcome – however that works out.
Remember that every successful venture, whether a podcast or a startup, starts with a single step that you alone have to take. Let’s work together on taking the right steps first; if you need any further guidance on starting your podcast venture, feel free to reach out and start by connecting with Paul Stennett for more advice.