Get new episodes sent directly to your inbox 👇
Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Steph Smith is a productivity superhero.
She leads the Trends newsletter for The Hustle, and is also an Author and writes about content creation, time management, learning to code, remote work and much more. She also has a podcast called The Shit You Don't Learn In School. In this interview we dive deep into her framework for getting more out of your time, and also how to create excellent content.
If you enjoy the podcast, please leave a short review on Apple Podcasts! It takes less than 60 seconds, and it makes a huge difference for the show! Leave a review here.
This episode was edited and produced by Josh Perez. If you're looking for help with your podcast, Josh is your guy. Connect with him at www.justjoshperez.com.
(Note: This transcript is automated by software and will not reflect 100% accuracy. If it reads weird, it’s probably not actually said. For full context, refer to the audio episode above.)
Alex: This is Make Something Cool. I'm Alex Sugg. And today I am really excited to be sitting down with Steph Smith and Steph is a content wizard in multiple domains. To start, she leads the trends newsletter for The Hustle, which is a massive publication. She's also an author herself, and she writes about content creation, time management, learning to code, remote work, and a ton more.
Alex: And she also has a podcast called The Sh*t You Don't Learn in School, which is a super fun listen, and she's basically a productivity superhero. So I'm really excited to have you on, Steph. Thanks for being here.
Steph: That's such a great label, "Productivity Superhero." I don't know if I'd give myself that label, but thank you for the really nice introduction.
Alex: I'm excited to talk to you because I think one thing that I get hung up on a lot of the time is managing. Cause I have a lot of stuff going on. I have a lot of projects, have a lot of things I want to do. I have so much, aspiration, but I feel like I don't have enough time. And I also know that's not true.
I know that there's always enough time. It's just up to us to make the time work for us and to make things happen with our time. And so I started following your work a while ago and I've been really inspired to see, you talk about these topics. And so the way I want to talk in our interview today, just to give listeners some insight is the first half I really want to focus on.
Time management and how to get the most from, your time, which you're an expert in. And then the second half, I want to go into doing content right, and how to focus on content creation as a whole. So starting with time, management, how did you land on writing about and working on this idea?
Steph: Yeah. So any product that I work on generally comes from a place where I've been asked about this a lot, meaning before I even created doing time right. That was a very common question for people's ask me partially, because it's, as you said, it's such a universal conundrum. How do I make more of the limited time that I have, and everyone is always trying to stretch more of the time that they have.
And so I had created quite a few products. While working a full-time job while traveling as a nomad. And so that was a common question of people being essentially asking, how can I do the same thing? And I had heard that enough where the same thing happened with doing content right, where I was like, the easiest thing for me to do is actually package this package, everything I know about this subject, so that instead of constantly telling people in one-to-one conversations, I could just say, you know what, this is everything I know.
And it also forced me to really sit down and solidify what I knew. Because often when people just ask you as a one-off, you're kind of just...you're riffing and you're pulling out little hat tricks, and it's really not the concrete information that you've digested and processed and really made effective for other people. And so that's what doing time right was. And again, as you mentioned it's, really the most universal thing in the world. You cannot really find a single person who doesn't have the ambition to do more, but also the issue of figuring out how to actually make that a reality.
And so what doing time right? Was, I guess, an answer to that. And the way it's broken down, I don't know if we want to get into the nitty gritty of it or not is, just a framework for approaching whether it's like your side projects, whether it's your full-time job, whether it's just packaging more times so that you can go enjoy time with your family.
Like it's not for any particular purpose, but it uses this framework that we call the idea framework, which is kind of silly because it's not the exact order of the framework, but it starts with what can you eliminate? What can you automate? What can you then delegate? And then what can you iterate at the end of that journey so that you can actually get more out of your time? And that order of operations is really important because a lot of people, when they think of productivity, which is a loaded term in itself, they think, how can I just go faster? And they don't think about those precursor steps of how do I actually make sure that my journey is not just fast, but enjoyable and done in an effective way.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And I do, I think I want to spend a good amount of time on that framework because I know you put a lot of thought and effort into that, and I think it'd be really useful. I know for me, but I'm sure for listeners too, but I'm curious. I think you said something that before we get to the framework, I would love to hear about how that solidifying process worked for you.
Because I do think what you said is so spot on I find that if someone my background is in podcasting, for example, and if someone like is off the cuff, just like, how do you make a good podcast? Or how do you do podcasting or whatever. It's I can give You I can do my best to just explain it in these one-off conversations, but I do feel like the idea of solidifying it down into written words and then having to test that and put it out into the world, it really proves it to yourself.
And it's almost like that famous saying the best way to learn is to teach or whatever. So how was that process for you? Did you feel like you learned through that process of productizing this and putting it into its own written words and things like that would make it all click for you?
Steph: Absolutely. And I think productizing something is just really an extension of documenting something, which is the same thing for, as you mentioned, a podcast, for writing an article, all of those force you, they're forcing functions in similar ways to get you to take these really vague concepts in your mind.
And as soon as you're documenting them--and in effect, trying to translate them from your brain to another brain--that's really, really hard to do. Because once you get into it again, these vague concepts that make sense in your brain, you realize are actually not that really well thought out in some cases. Or maybe they are well thought out, but it's really hard to condense them into something that can be really easily translated.
And so, yes, they're forcing functions for you to sit down and think about what is really essential here. And do I even know, do I even have a clear sense of what I'm trying to say? And I found for a product especially, that's like an extreme forcing function, because if you're putting a price point on it, you better hope that you're actually bringing value to someone's life, and so, yes, it was really important to do that. Another way that this is really solidified in my brain--this concept of documenting something and the importance of it--is there's a book called Algorithms To Live By. Which I in general, recommend to too many people. And it covers a vast array of topics around this idea of computer science and how you can use learnings from it to influence more of our human lives.
We're not robots, but you can still use some of those concepts. And one of them is this idea of caching theory and the way that computers cash information. Now, humans cash information as well--that's the same reason why you can't remember the level of detail from a year ago and especially 10 years ago, and the way that you can remember the level of detail of something that happened 30 seconds ago.
So your information--or your brain, sorry--caches information based on its relevancy to you to. Now, when you're asked something off the cuff, you only have that surface layer of caching available to you, where you're justpicking at something that's recent or that really, really has stuck with you for some reason. But you're not really getting to the depths of your knowledge--which is why I think it's really important when you're building products or you're writing articles, you give them time, so that you can...As things, as you encounter them or as you re-encounter things from the past, they can surface through those caching layers. And so in general, I think it's important that as we talked about, when you ask people for advice or you give advice, you at least recognize that it is through a filter of relevancy and again, that initial caching layer. And if you go through the effort of really documenting something you're, in effect, penetrating more layers by giving it more time and also doing it in a way where you need to process that information.
Alex: I love...I have never heard anybody put it that way, but I love that idea. Documentation...productizing is just documenting and then selling it to somebody else. I think that is such a new, fresh way, at least for me, to think about it. Because a lot of times I feel like when you think about productizing something, or... The guest I had on before you Jack Butcher; he famously productized Visualize Value. His whole thing is productizing yourself. And what I think is so interesting about that is that can sound dirty or grimy to be like, "I'm a product now." It just sounds gross, I guess, on the surface. But what's really cool about what you're suggesting is, no it's, not dirty because all you're doing is documenting your experience.
What you've learned your knowledge--because I guarantee, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who are going through the same problems that you already went through, that you can help them solve and it's worth money for them to buy those solutions.
Steph: Yeah. I mean, words are really powerful because every word has a connotation, for every single person using it or listening to it. And if you don't like the term productizing yourself, you can also say you're scaling yourself. So you're basically taking everything that you can do one-to-one--meaning you're the one doing it. And I actually, I feel like this concept of scaling yourself, I also got from Jack Butcher, which he was like, I could serve an agency and get all these clients and be the one working with these clients, or I could take everything that I know and basically scale myself or replicate myself in a way so that I can do more. But also I can allow other people to do more with my knowledge. And so the same thing is true with marketing. I think marketing sometimes has a very kind of sleazy connotation to it. As a marketer, I can accept that. But you can also spin marketing. And if you're like, I don't really like marketing stuff, you can just spin that and say marketing is effectively just getting people to care about something. So can I get someone to care about what I'm creating? And so I just think it's important to recognize exactly what you said.
Sometimes things do have sleazy or negative connotations, but if you really just get to the depths of what it really is, marketing is just getting someone to care about something. I think you can look past that.
Alex: Yeah, I love that. I think that's such a helpful way to think about it. So I guess let's, jump into the framework a little bit. So I looked at it and there's a five-step framework for time and so doing time, and the first one that I read was called upgrading your bicycle. Can you explain what that means as the first step?
Steph: Let me...I'll walk through the entire thing to super high level, which is this idea where we use a bicycle journey as analogous to the major things in your life that you want to accomplish.
We all have these to-do lists filled with tiny things that we need to check off and myself included. And those really, really, in effect, run our lives. Because we're constantly like, "Oh, I gotta do this, this, this, this, this." But at the end of your life, you're not thinking about all those to-do lists that you checked off.
You're thinking about the few really momentous things that you accomplish. Whether it's building a business, raising a wonderful child--whatever it might be, these momentous things that are difficult, that take a lot of time to create, and a lot of the time, cause people to quit. So as you're encountering those things in your life, one, can you identify what those are?
Are you working to something really significant? And again, we use this analogy of a cross-country bike journey. So if you are embarking on a cross-country bike journey, or something equivalent to that, there's a lot of things that can get in your way. And a lot of those things are analogous to the, again, the little to do's or the things that distract us on the way to our journey, to again, building a company, raising a kid, whatever it might be.
And so what we said is what a lot of people do when they embark on this cross-country bike journey, is that they wake up one day, they decide I'm going to go cross-country, and they just hop on their bike and they start going. Whatever's on their back alreadym they're bringing it with them. They aren't thinking about what bike they're actually using for their journey.
They're not thinking about how do I make this journey most successful? How do I make it easy? How do I make it enjoyable? And a lot of people do this with their tasks in their everyday lives as well.
They're constantly going. And the question that they're asking is how do I move quicker? So it's the equivalent of hopping on that bike right away and just asking, how do I peddle faster? Sure you can pedal faster, but is that really going to be the thing that moves the needle, that gets you there the quickest? And also, I know this is kind of trite advice, but people always say you have to enjoy the journey, not just the destination, but that's actually really important. Because if you use this example, you were spending 99 plus percent of your time on that journey, and then your destination is just something very quick that you can celebrate.
And so the idea of the framework is first identify where you're trying to go. That's what a lot of people do. They do set goals. And then the end of that framework is this idea of iteration. How can I peddle faster? How can I get somewhere faster? But in the middle of that, we have three steps that a lot of people don't do. And they're really simple steps; this is not revolutionary, it's not rocket science. But the first step is just asking, what does it need to come with me? What can I eliminate and what is truly not essential? And when you go through that step, it's really important to not just ask what has any value, because you can say that something has some value in almost every circumstance of your life.
Any newsletter out there, you could be like, yeah, like this brings value to my life, so I need to keep it. But it's really, no, time is zero sum, and therefore what truly is required for your journey? So once you strip that away--so what have you eliminated, anything that remains with you--then the question is what can be automated?
So what do I personally not need to do? What can I outsource to a computer effectively? And you go through, you document your processes as we talked about before--that's a really essential step to say what even can be automated. And so you automate what you can. What can't be automated, but still has a repetitive nature to it can likely be delegated. So outsource to a computer, to a person.
And then only then what should be left on your plate are things that you are uniquely capable of doing. So everything else should have been either eliminated, automated, or delegated. And then from there, you're only really doing things that are essential, that you are uniquely capable of doing. And hopefully that's freed you up to--we have these kind of images in the course of this person on their way, and at the end, they're on the equivalent of an electric bike. You asked about upgrading your bicycle. That's the automation/delegation stage where you're getting an electric bike, not just the sh*tty bike from your garage. And the person, it's kind of silly, but they're smiling, they're smelling a flower, it's sunny outside. They're enjoying the journey because they're not so bogged down by all this stuff along the way. So I know I kind of just jumped around there, but that's the essence of the framework. And those three steps in the middle--again, not rocket science--but are the ones that people often just skip over. They go immediately to, how can I just ride my bike more quickly?
Alex: Yeah. I think the...I feel like I want to get into each of these a little bit deeper, but I think to start, even what you set your sights on long-term is a really interesting idea. And I do think... I think a lot of people listening to this--I know me, I fall into this all the time--where it can become pretty like... long-term goals can almost feel primal in a sense, where it's like, I'm not doing this intentionally, I'm doing this because it feels like "the right thing to do," or I should be doing A, B and C, and that can be put on us by society.
Maybe society says we should all be super wealthy and super fit and super whatever name, your goal or whatever. And there's so much of that that's informed by it. But I think the starting point is actually, it's not as obvious as it sounds. I think you do have to be really intentional about where you want to go long-term.
And I love your example of...if if you're going cross country, we're not riding down the neighborhood, you're going across the country. And so it's a long journey you're embarking on, so you need to make sure you're going the right direction. I mean for you, how did you decide what direction you wanted to go? How did that initial stage go for you?
Steph: It's a great question, and it is a really important step to define your goals and where you want to go. Because as we're using this bicycle example, you can end up anywhere along the coast of the other side of the country. Or you can also just ask the question as you're probably alluding to like, why do I even want to go across country?
Like, why don't I want to go somewhere else? Or why don't I want to just stay where I am. Those are all really, really good questions. I think for me having some high level north star that I'm working towards is important, but I really only think maybe six to max 12 months ahead in terms of what I want my life to look like, because I think much past that you can't really forecast like so much changes that you can't predict.
To that extent you don't really feel like you have control over what you're working towards. And then the other thing that I think about when I'm kind of thinking through what I want to focus on now is the order of operations. So the same way that there's an order of operations to like eliminating automating, delegating.
I think of the order of operations as to what can I put into place in my life that can, once it's in place compound and make everything else easier. So for example, I think about financial stability in that way, I have been working towards passive income and passive income is topic doesn't really exist, but it exists to an extent where you can basically set yourself up where you're not constantly grinding into time for money. and so that's something where that's been a huge focus for me where over the last couple of years, if I can get that in place, then the rest of my life, or at least some significant amount of time can just be so much easier. So there's certain steps that I guess I, I work towards.
And one of the exercises that I do every year, is just break down. There's probably like six or seven things. I can't remember all of them, but there's like relationships, health, money, career, et cetera. and I break those down and I kind of write myself on them and I say am I like a one meeting?
Like I've completely collected this. And I'm like completely dropped off the map and shouldn't do that. Or 10 is I'm thriving. This is the best thing in my life currently. And I reflect on each one of those. And I typically choose one to focus on I typically say, okay, this is something I've completely dropped off. Or in some cases, it's like, I just, as I mentioned, I know how important this is, if I get it right, and that can compound it the rest of my life. So I know that's kind of a vague answer, but I think it's going to be unique to everyone. But one way to address it is to just highlight all the things that you could care about. And think through, if I unlock this, does it therefore unlock other things?
And then also make sure that one of the things we talk about in doing time is just, we all know this in theory, but we don't stick to it is that you can't focus on really more than one significant thing at a time. And so just choosing one and just saying, this is the only thing I'm going to work on, and this is the state that I want to get it to, to then unlock everything else is kind of how I think about it.
But I will say that, anyone who tells you. They have some really clear framework for prioritization is probably lying. It's all a little bit fluffy, which is why this answer is also a little bit fluffy.
Alex: I don't think it's fluffy. I think it makes a lot of sense and it also leaves space. I also really liked the idea of not planning further than six to 12 months out, because as we've learned in the past two years, a lot can change really quick. And it's really hard to predict beyond that. yeah, I love that.
So maybe let's move into elimination. So once you have that north star, it can be hard to know what to get rid of. So how do you approach elimination when it comes to managing your time?
Steph: So I think I alluded to this a little bit before, but this idea that time is zero-sum. And if you imagine when you're born, you have these time dollars to spend, and there's a very concrete amount. These do not inflate over time; they actually deflate over time. We spend them. So if you have a concrete amount that you can spend, and you realize that it's zero sum--meaning even simply, if I'm reading one newsletter, I'm not reading another newsletter, or I'm not running at that time--all of these, this attention dollars that we're spending, are being spent on one thing at a time.
So if you acknowledge that, then I think...I I think many things are positive sum in life, but if you acknowledge that this in particular, the way that you spend your time and attention is zero sum, then I think you can get to this idea of, holy sh*t, if I spend all my time on these newsletters that have a little bit of value, I'm really actually stopping myself from hitting these really significant goals in my life.
And so one of the things that we encourage people to do is it time audit--very, very simple, but literally just audit: write down how you spend your week and then ask yourself, if I did this every single week, or every single week for the next year, where would I be?
In the course we talk about three different types of tasks: there's productive actions, there's unproductive actions, and then there's destructive actions. Now we are all very familiar with the productive and the destructive--meaning, productive actually gets you closer to your goals. If you imagine things again, like a bike journey, these are things that if I did them every day, I would actually end up closer to my goal. I would actually be closer to making it cross-country. Destructive actions take you away from your goals.
But there's these unproductive actions, which are things that cloak themselves with value, but really have very little value in your life. So if you are going to go build a business, for example, reading newsletters--especially if you're reading more than a couple a week-- are unproductive actions. They are not actually tangibly moving you towards your goals. And I think asking that question again, if I did this every week for the next year, this particular task, would I be any closer to my goals or not? It's just a very simple way to uncloak these unproductive actions that we think are important.
And again, it's about asking the question--not, does this have any value because I can justify any newsletter to have some value, but does this have really tangible value from bringing me towards my end destination? To use the bike journey example one more time, it's basically like if you're trying to do a cross country bike journey and you constantly see all of these detours along the way, you could be like, oh yeah, I love a petting zoo. I should totally go to petting zoo. But if you go to every petting zoo, well, that's actually going to make sure that you never reach your destination. Same thing is true with any other detour. And so it's important for people to actually just ask that question: is this bringing me any closer towards my goals? And it's in that case, actually not such a fuzzy question. It's pretty much a yes or no.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, and I feel like it takes...you you have to... it's a very, I don't want to say adult, but it's a very mature question to ask yourself. It takes an extreme amount of honesty to say all these newsletters I'm reading, or I think the, probably the most pervasive is just social media.
I think a lot of people justify heavy social media use because I need it for my work or I need it for my whatever. and I just think that that mentality is very passive in your thinking. And so if you actually get a a little bit more objective toward yourself and your time spent, do you really need it for your business? Or is it actually hindering or in, in this, what you're describing? Is it an unproductive task? Almost like right now, we're watching Ted Lasso, and it's the first that we--we don't really watch a ton of shows, but I've gotten a million people telling me to watch Ted Lasso. And I had this thought while doing--and I'm such a productivity guy that I have a hard time watching a full show, 'cause I have this dragging desire to go do other stuff. I should be working. I should be doing stuff. But it's really healthy too--if you're built like me, if you're broken like me, where you're constantly geared toward work and overdoing it-- unproductive actions can be really healthy in moderation, I find.
But I also think that acceptance is super important to be like, this is an unproductive action. Watching Ted Lasso is not productive, but it is restorative. And I think that distinction is healthy, but you have to be honest to say, am I just watching way too much Ted Lasso? And I might not actually doing anything now. I think that's a really interesting way to look at it.
Steph: And to your point, the idea of these different types of actions is not to say that you must always be productive. You don't want to spend your life and your time dollars or attention dollars on constantly productive things. I think the issue becomes when people think that things are productive when they're not.
And in fact, what we encourage people to do is to uncloak these unproductive actions that they don't even enjoy. And that's...really, the key is that we actually think that "unproductive actions" like watching TV can actually be productive actions if, as you're saying, they're restorative or they're enjoyable.
I don't think that spending time with family is unproductive. I think that's very productive because some of my goals are to develop really deep relationships with family. And so, when it comes to unproductive actions, the key ones that we encourage people to uncloak and get rid of are things where they feel like it's really advancing them in some way, but they're not enjoying it.
They're not enjoying necessarily reading 20 newsletters every single week. Maybe they are. And if they are, and that's fun time for them, great. But in some cases they're like, oh no, I need this to advance my business, or I need to stay plugged in. And it's do you really need to stay plugged in?
In fact, you could use those two hours a week to go relax, go get a massage, go sleep more, go eat a meal that you love. There's I think just a misunderstanding of the certain unproductive actions, because again, people feel like they're productive. And then what I see a lot of people do is they'll just have this endless to do list of things that don't really move them towards their goals.
But then at the end of the week, they're exhausted and they don't really feel like they've moved anywhere. And that...I don't...I try to stay away from talking about the topic of burnout, because I know it's very serious thing and there are many aspects of it that I don't understand. But from my own experience, the times that I felt the most burnt out are not from the sheer amount that I'm working, but the Delta between my inputs and the outputs or the impact that I'm driving.
And so that's what I think is so dangerous about these unproductive actions. I watch TV, I spend my time frivolously and I don't feel bad about it, but when I do feel bad about it, it's when I'm really banging my head against the wall, thinking that I'm doing things that are productive, that I'm not enjoying, but at the same time, not actually moving myself any closer to my goals.
There are examples of people reading unproductive actions for them, and that's really important that certain unproductive actions for one person may be productive for another and vice versa. And a couple of examples that we give in the course...so Peter Levels is a friend of mine and he has just decided, I do no client work. I do no press. I do no support for my sites. And for some people that would be a bad decision for their businesses, but given his unique goals and what he wants to do--what he wants to spend his time on--doing press is an unproductive action. It drains him and spends his time, and it also doesn't really get him any closer to where he wants to be.
So for him, he's regretted that. And for other people, again, that may not make sense. Another example is Dharmesh, who's one of the co-founders of HubSpot. He has not managed a single person. He hasn't had a direct person to manage during his whole time at HubSpot. And that was actually an agreement that him and Brian Halligan had from the beginning.
And I think that was such a wonderful rule. One of these ways that you can eliminate something from your life that-- again, in this case, it works for him. It may not work for someone else, but he basically said, look, I don't want to spend a bunch of time managing people that doesn't leave me any closer towards my goals. Even though society has this impression that if you run a company, you should be managing people. I'm actually going to determine what I need for my life and my advancement.
And for him, there's a quote here that we talk about where he says, If I spent a bunch of time, I could probably, with some coaching, get passively okay at management. I think I could get there, but I don't want to spend 10, 20, 30 years of my life getting passively good at something. And so instead, what he wants to do is just focus on the things that really, really he can get incredible at instead of almost diluting himself across a bunch of different things that other people tell him he should care about.
Alex: Yeah, totally. I think that's great. And so your point about burnout earlier, I find like with myself and I think it, lends itself to what we're talking about now is that the times I felt most burnt out in my life are when it's not, when I'm working a ton on stuff that I'm excited or passionate about at all, that energizes me like beyond belief.
What burns me out is working on stuff I don't actually enjoy, but feel like I need to be doing. And so going through this process of understanding that and what really... And to your point about the HubSpot guy, I think that's really wise and that's a really kind of crazy, inverted idea based on what society says, because you're right. If you're running a giant company, the idea is you have a bunch of people work for you, blah, blah, blah. But I love that he's, actually, that doesn't sound fun to me, so let me optimize my life to not look like that.
I want to move on to automation. Because I do feel like this is the one that trips up...it trips me up a lot, because it does feel a little... it feels like a little bit "tech plus," like you have to be a little bit techie to understand automation and to get the most out of it. So maybe for your average, Joe, who isn't a Zapier expert--and that's a software a lot of people use for automation--but how would you recommend people starting in the automation space, even for simple things and a normal creative worker could do to start?
Steph: Yeah. So I completely agree with you that sometimes people are very...they don't want to get involved in automation because it scares them or they feel like it's super, super technical. There is a huge spectrum of ways that you can automate things. Zapier is one of those tools that I think someone who's not super technical could use now, of course, there's dimensions to Zapier as well, but you certainly do not need to know how to code today to automate significant parts of your life.
And I will just quickly mention that from the framework earlier, you want to make sure that you've already eliminated what you can, by this point, you shouldn't be going to automate things that you just don't need to take on your journey at all. And automation for the bike framework is basically like upgrading your bike.
Imagine having just a really sh*tty bike that like the gears aren't working properly and it's not oiled up. And you're like, man, this is just so grueling. If you've successfully automated things in your life, it really does feel like an upgrade to an electric bike where you're still peddling. You have this machine on your side, you have something working for you and driving that momentum alongside the work that you're doing.
The first thing that I encourage people to do when they consider automation is not start automating immediately. The first thing is actually what we talked about before, which is documenting processes. You can't automate something that is not clearly lined out because the computer you can't at least today go say, Hey, computer, just wash me for 30 minutes and then go automate that, right?
That doesn't work. You can do that with a human, but with computers, you really do need to say, Hey computer, in this instance, if you see this, then do this. Or if this happens, then I actually want you to do this. And so for that reason, if you really do want to automate anything or even surface what you can automate, you need to document your processes.
And so what I encourage people to do similar to how I mentioned a time audit, you can also do an automation audit, which basically means for the next week, anything that is repetitive, right? So anything that you're not just doing as a one-off go and document what that looks like and be very, very clear about it.
And the example that I give is Calendly. Calendly is a tool that a lot of people use now to schedule. We probably use Calendly. If we didn't, then I would recommend it. I'm not affiliated with them, but it's a simple tool that automated scheduling for people. And if you were to go back to prior to Calendly, a lot of people would have probably said, this can't be automated.
There's too much nuance to this. They would have said no. When you're scheduling something, you got to go back and forth. You got to talk about time zones. You got to see a couple of different options and then you choose the one that works best for you. And then maybe if there's rescheduling it's just way too complicated.
Way too personable. You can't automate this. And there are many equivalent things in your life that probably you would say the same thing about, but really the key is that you probably haven't actually sat down to write exactly how this works under what conditions, and then translate that to come to a computer.
So using Calendly as an example, if you actually just wrote down. All the steps that it takes in scheduling, you would see, oh, actually now that I've written this down, it really is just a decision tree, right? Under these circumstances, we send them this and then if we can get the time zone information in there, it's really, really simple.
And so that's what I encourage people to do any repetitive process for the next week. Sit down, write out what that process looks like and the benefit to doing this is that even if you don't automate your process, maybe you can delegate it. And you've already written down, basically the SOP for it, you've written down what is required. And the other part is once you've actually written something down, especially for something that is a multi-step process, what you'll often find is if you can't automate the whole thing, you can automate parts of it, right? So you giving podcasting as an example, If you think of podcasting as there's, let's say some cold outreach there's guest tracking or scheduling, there's the recording element to it.
There's editing, publishing the growth of it. Well, not all of that can be automated, but I can guarantee you that performance can be automated and you can create a dashboard of that. Guest tracking can be automated with something like Zapier scheduling can be automated with something like Calendly. And so even though you can't automate all of it, you can likely automate parts of it.
And by documenting each part of that process, you can kind of say, ah, at least I can get, let's say, 30% of this off my hands. And so maybe you're upgrading your motor to just a basic motor using the bike example, but that's really what I encourage people to do is not get so wrapped up to your point about the tools at first, just focus on what can be automated.
And then once you've identified that, you also have way more motivation to then go learn the tools. Because you see the opportunity. You see this time that you can automate away from your life.
Alex: Yeah. Admittedly, I've always wanted to become an automation wizard, but I've always approached...I've opened Zapier a hundred times thinking I need to automate stuff. And then I get there and I'm like, I don't know what to do because I haven't done this process yet of, oh, let me think through what is repeatable, what do I actually need to automate? So I think taking that time to understand and do that audit of yourself is so important.
I'm curious for you besides Calendly, what's the automation...your favorite automation that you've done, that's made your life better?
Steph: This is such a good question. There are so many small automations that I've done. And I will also say that in addition to an entire process being automated, there are partial automations. And what I mean by this is within even just one task...I also have a podcast, I use Descript. Descript is a form of partial automation. It doesn't get me the whole way, but it gets me pretty far so that the final step of a human overseeing things and making small adjustments, that's the only thing that I need to do in that process.
I'm actually going to pull up my Zapier and I'm going to just quickly look through it, to see what are all the things that have actually improved my life. I will say that also sometimes automation isn't clear in terms of it being a zap that you're implementing. I would say some forms of automation are things like adding rules to your inbox, right? That's a form of automation where you're automating away certain things or you're automatically deleting. Things are automatically forwarding. Things are automatically doing things that you'd already do, but avoiding having to be part of that process. So I'm just logging into my Zapier.
Alex: But yeah, I think Descript is...while you're looking at your Zapier, I think Descript is a really cool one because...that's what we use too. And it's really cool that it's like seven tools in one and it makes everything so seamless. So if you can get out of making your videos in Premier and then making your audio in Audition, and your transcript with Rev, it's like, cool, we're just going to do everything in Descript all at once. I think that's a great example.
Steph: Just to share a couple...I think none of these are going to sound revolutionary, but the additive nature of these, imagine how many times I would have to context switch during my week to do some of these and the fact that I don't have to address any of them, makes my life so much better.
So for example, one of them is a lot of people already do this, but if you have any sort of repetitive calendar event where you have a memo or you have a presentation that multiple people need to fill out, we used to at the hustle, literally have someone do this. We used to have someone. Duplicate the document, send it out, send a reminder for people to fill it out.
And it would be so messy in the sense that they would be doing this in their own drive. And it wouldn't be in a shared folder that people could access. And so what we did is it took literally five minutes to set this up is just to create a zap that automatically duplicates a template. A document sends that out every Friday at a specific time, since a reminder that Monday for people to fill it out before a meeting and within the reminder links, you also have a link directly to the main folder where anyone can make changes to the template and no one has to do anything.
So that was a simple thing that, again, not rocket science, but actually just eliminated something that someone would have to even think about. We also have done things like we have a community events calendar. And that community events, calendar. Could have had basically someone working full-time running it, meaning they would basically get people from the community to create events.
And then they'd have to schedule those events on a Google calendar. They'd have to create a Luma for it. They'd have to make sure the times those are all correct. This is very similar to the Calendly example. What we did is we set that whole process up with Zapier. So from a type form that automatically links to a Google calendar that automatically sends reminders that people have access to that also can send up emails based on when an event was created.
All of that is done through Zapier. And I think the key here is that none of this, as I mentioned, is going to sound revolutionary, but those are all things that people had to spend, not just time with, but mental energy towards. And so whatever is existing in your business where you're like, oh man, I got to do this every week.
Or we have this process and we have an intern who has to spend 20 hours a week on this. Those are the things that are the highest leverage that. Like easily automate away with something like Zapier. And so I would start there. And as you said, not just jump into Zapier and be like, what can I automate?
Cause you're going to feel stuck. The same thing is true. If you learn to code and you don't actually have something to apply that to, you're going to be like, what did I learn this? But if you start with something that you're excited to learn or set it to automate away, that's when I think you're going to be really surprised at this.
Again, this feeling of having an electric bike where you're like, I don't have to do these like five really monotonous things every week. If they're just off my plate and they're just done by this app, it's...I think actually really empowering once people start integrating these.
Alex: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, it seems really magical, and I need to do it, and you're inspiring me to go take some time to actually investigate this and do it.
Let's move into your delegation now. And I think for me personally, I can speak to this. I recently, hired an assistant to help with this show , and the reason being is...I spoke about it a little bit on the last interview with Jack, but I spent the first half of this year working on a podcast that just was like not very focused. It was hard. It was very difficult to make and I realized it was so not fun for me because there were so many tasks that I had to do and I probably could have automated or whatever. But there's so much of it that was like a week to week experience, whether it's writing show notes or making the article page or reaching out to guests and booking times, there were so many of these little tasks that were just like killing the fun and what made the show fun for me?
And then I realized I could hire somebody to do this for me. And since... it's just made a world of difference, how much more enjoyable it is for me. Because I get to focus on the stuff I enjoy now, and it makes a better...and she's having a good time. She wants to get into the podcasting space. It's like a win-win for everybody. And it's been really cool!
So I'm curious, how have you...how do...how should somebody approach delegation? I think I may have gone the backwards route. I think I started with delegation, and I'm really happy with how it's gone, but I'm curious...any tips for that side of it?
Steph: Yeah. So I group automation, delegation very similarly. And so if you did delegation first and you have the funds do that, great. Some people may not have the funds to go hire a VA, although they are incredibly cheap, especially given the global workforce that we have access to. But I will say that they're very similar.
It's this idea of what are the things that for some reason I need to continue doing them or the businesses. That to continue to happen, but do I need to be the person doing this again? That question, am I uniquely capable of this? Or in many cases, I'm actually probably the worst person to be doing this.
Like I'm not, I can speak for myself. I'm not super organized. I can't remember things super well. And so what are the things where, you know, having these reminders being sent automatically, or having a community process run without my human inconsistency, where would that actually thrive more effectively?
And so once you figure those out, the reason that I encourage people to start with automation is because one, I think it's cheaper, and two it's like, you can do it yourself. You can just get it up and running almost immediately. Hiring a VA is incredible. And that's something that I've benefited from as well.
But it's also something that can take time. Humans are also, as I mentioned, inconsistent. So if you do really want a really robust system that just works, in some cases I would say automation tends to work better, but on that side, anything that has a more human nature to it that isn't just strictly followed these precise steps sometimes can't be automated. Or at least today it can't be automated. And therefore yes, hiring someone who can bring in that nuance, but still take over a significant part of the things that you just truly don't need to be doing is just, as you mentioned, such a game changer, not just from the perspective of unlocking time, but unlocking mental energy.
So you can do things for fun and you can enjoy the business that you're building or just, as I mentioned, just free up times that you can go watch Ted lasso or whatever the hell you want. And I think I can speak for myself again in this case where coming from a place where I didn't always have a thriving business, or I didn't always have the funds to go hire someone I've been coming from a place of scarcity in the sense that I'm always like, oh no, no, no. I can just do everything myself. And I don't have the money to go hire a VA. And even at the point where I did have the money to go hire a VA, I still operated from this perspective of, I can just do everything myself.
And I think that's actually one of the key unlocks of successful business people. I always, for so long, thought, you know what, the most successful people just work the hardest. The most successful business people are the most--I should actually expand that, not just a business--but the most successful people have learned to identify what they're great at and then what they can get help on outside of those things that they're great at.
And so, yes, hiring a VA has, is just such a game changer. And I don't know if we want to go into specifics of delegation and how to do that, but I would just say in terms of the mindset of realizing. Your business is going to scale way faster and it's going to be more enjoyable if you can bring on help more quickly. And one of the first and easiest ways to do that is just hiring a VA to get help with anything repetitive.
Alex: Definitely, yeah. For me, I think what's cool about, at least my experience with it, is there are things that aren't repetitive that I still don't like doing (laughter) And so I love the idea of...I've heard you talk about it with Sam and Sean, I think on my first million about a Chief Automation Officer. I love this idea for businesses to adopt this idea of somebody who just makes things more efficient by automating things.
So in my mind, it's the perfect balance is to have somebody who's good at automating things, but then also has that human touch for things that I still don't want to deal with. And that's kind of my vision for the way I want to approach it. But I love that. And just that distinction of what requires a human touch in delegating things out, versus "send this email when this thing is clicked" type thing. There are these two distinct worlds where it's like, needs human touch, doesn't need human touch. And I think thinking through that is really smart too.
Steph: Yeah. And having a human too, as you were talking about this chief automation officer idea, having someone who can come in and look at your processes. And improve them and elevate them in a way that you, as the person who originally designed them cannot do because there's two second, the weeds you were trying to move too quickly.
I think this idea of coming in from the outside when most businesses are just, they're just constantly running on this hamster wheel, how do we move faster? How do we get things done? And it's important to have someone come in and actually say, Hey, look, we're getting things done, but are we getting things done most effectively? Can we redesign this process? So things are a little easier or more efficient is important. And really when you think about it, that doesn't exist in most companies, even companies of scale, you have a bunch of CXOs who determine where you want to go. And then you have a bunch of other people who actually try to push that machine to where it wants to go.
But there are very few people who are solely responsible for asking the question, is this machine running effectively? It may be moving towards its goals, but it may be really, really, really ineffective. And so if you can bring someone in from the outside, even if you're a small organization, even if it's just you and someone else for that person to effectively say, and are we doing this more effectively, or can we do it more effectively?
Alex: Right, for sure. That's really cool.
I guess the last step is the iteration piece. And I think this feels pretty obvious, but basically you're doing all these steps and then you need to see what's working. What's not...is that basically it in a nutshell?
Steph: Yeah. I mean, we kept the iteration step there because if you think of productivity, people are always looking for productivity hacks, whether it's a shortcut tool or just something that allows them to move more quickly with whatever process they're doing. And so we share a couple different tools or hacks that we have, but hacks is actually I think a good label for a lot of these things--where they're not going to completely change your life. The idea of trying to move faster on a bike is I think a really good parallel because, yeah, maybe you can increase or rather decrease your time to destination by maybe 20%. You're not going to cut in half by moving quicker.
You're not going to completely change the trajectory of your journey by trying to move faster. And so this iteration step we do have at the end, because people tend to like these things tend to like learning how to move faster. But I will say, you could even cut that out of the course, potentially. And I think people could really fundamentally change how they use their time without this idea of moving faster at the end or iterating.
Alex: For sure. I'm sure you've heard that analogy, and I think it was a true story about...I think it was a guy, and he was riding his bike to work every day, and he would ride really hard because he was trying to see how fast he could get to work everyday.
And it took him like 46 minutes to get there. And then one day he's like, I wonder how long it would take me if I didn't ride as hard and get to work all sweaty and really exhausted. It was like two minutes longer. It only took him two minutes longer to have a really pleasant, fun ride, versus sweating his ass off and riding really hard and getting to work. And I thought that was such a cool image of, oh, you can make it almost like probably in the same timeframe, but also have way more fun in the process.
Steph: This is a little bit trite, but there was a tweet recently, which basically was like, my favorite way to get through a to-do list is just by not doing it. But this really is like...if you want something to really fundamentally change your journey, it's not going to be through peddling faster.
It's going to be from removing the distractions and that can come from just purely removing them through elimination or automating them or delegating them in some way. But it's just not going to come from moving faster. Like that bike example of the guy trying to get to work is perfectly representative of that--where not only do you only save two minutes, but your journey is so much more stressful. And I think that's why we encourage people to go through this order of operations and not focus so much on this iterative "how do I move faster" step.
Alex: Well, you've inspired me deeply on refining my, my time and how we're spending it, because I do think there's a, there are so many ways to, you know, tighten up and, and, and even just, I think, you know, and I want to move into content creation next, because I think we really did a good job of covering it, but I do think, the idea of being intentional and actually think about your time more objectively in a step, a little bit outside of yourself and your experience, because I think it's so easy to just like go through the motions.
We're all, you know, quote unquote busy or whatever. a lot of times I feel like we're not that busy. We're just telling ourselves a story that we're busy, but that's a whole other podcast probably. Um, I think, I do think that there's like this level of, stepping outside of yourself and examining your time in a really objective way.
And I think this framework is really helpful. So, I mean, before I move on to content creation, do you have any closing thoughts on.
Steph: No, I think what you said there is just so spot on. We all feel like we're busy because we're constantly peddling. So to wrap things up with this bike framework, everyone's constantly trying to go cross country with this bike.
That's sh*tty and they have all this stuff, weighing them down. And the reason they feel busy is because they're just constantly peddling. And what would probably be most beneficial for them is to just get off their bike for a second analyze. If the way that they're approaching this journey is most effective.
And in 90% of cases, probably 99% of cases, the answer is no. And so it's, as we've talked about throughout this, it's not about trying to move faster. Everyone feels busy because you're just constantly peddling. So take a second, jump off your bike, analyze if you're even going in the right direction. And if all the stuff that you have accepted as essential is really essential. and then I think you're going to have a lot more time than you think, right? A lot of the most successful people in their life. In fact, people like Einstein, they, they used to take like long walks on the beach or the seem to lab says he actually measures himself or his success in the amount of free time yet.
So I hope, I guess to wrap things off in one very particular way is to say that you might hear us talk a lot about productivity and the idea of productivity is not to maximize your bucket. It's not to fill your bucket and make sure that you're only spending time productively it's to actually find ways to make your process more efficient so that you do have so much more time to just enjoy things and to watch that lasso or to spend time with your family or whatever it might be.
Alex: Right. Oh, that's great. Yep. Okay. So let's, let's move into content creation. So you wrote a book called doing content, right. and it's actually interesting because. Part book, but part like there are a million elements to it that I thought it was a really interesting take on like a product offering.
Cause there's like video, portions to it. There's all kinds of, uh, stuff with it. So first off I think that's really cool and very unique, but, I'm curious, like the high level, what is doing content right ultimately about that might be different from other, other things that could sound similar to it.
Steph: So I don't know if it's different in terms of the framing, meaning that it's a book about how people can create content effectively online. What I tried to do differently is that it came from a place of experience and also was really, really actionable. Meaning the reason I actually created this book in the first place was I had seen so much junk out there on this topic of content, which I always say...at best I...of course it's not all of it, but a lot of the stuff I was encountering was at best well-meaning, but inaccurate or at worst, it was just like completely false. And if people followed that advice, they would just fail in their content journey. And so my goal there was, I had spent a lot of time in content, myself, whether it was through businesses and growing content publications there, whether it was my own work.
And I wanted to create a resource for other people that would help them accelerate their journey. Right. So that was really the purpose. And as you mentioned, it came through in a book and then it ended up having some video elements or exercise templates and things like that. But really that was just the goal is how can I accelerate people's journey to be successful content?
Alex: For sure. That's cool.
I definitely want to get into like some of the high level things that you think could help content creators and some of the things you've learned, but I'm also curious, maybe what are some, what are some pieces of advice that you find extra annoying or extra unhelpful, maybe some of the things that you were hoping to, you know, that be in some, like what you just mentioned, that inspired you to say there's really bad information out there and there needs to be a better solution. What are some things that you think are worth debunking for somebody wanting to create more content online?
Steph: Sure. So I can call out a couple. The first one is this idea that consistency is king. I think there is always room for consistency in the world. And of course being consistent is better than not being consistent in most realms.
But this idea that if you're consistent, your content will do well is completely misinformed. And in fact, I think it can be really, really detrimental. Because I see so many other content creators out there who go and they create content for a very, very, very long time without the right checks and balances. And they're like, why is my content not doing well? I've been doing this for two years! And I'm like, I'm so sorry that you've been doing this for two years. Who told you to keep going with this kind of content that had no validation and, so far, no one's interest? So that's one thing. Consistency I think is...again, can be beneficial, but it's much more important to find validation and to make sure that what you're putting out there, even if it's inconsistent, is really excellent.
Another misconception that I see with content these days is there is a lot of hype around gating content. And I run a product--Trends, for example--that is a gated content product. However, I would say...
Alex: Really quick, explain that for someone who might not know.
Steph: Yeah, so The Hustle is a daily newsletter which started several years ago that was about business and tech. And then Trends is an offshoot of that. It's the second product that The Hustle company built, which is around trends before they're happening or before they become big, so that people can use them to create businesses, to invest in businesses, to just feel ahead of the curve, whatever it might be.
But that product, unlike the daily email, is gated and it does cost $299 a year. So in addition to Trends, you see Substacks, you see tons of different platforms today, which people are very excited about. And there's reason to be excited about them, around gated content. But I would say the kind of pieces of advice that I see that are inaccurate, especially for early creators, is that most early creators--not all, but most--should not be gating their content.
The content is the engine for them to actually reach people, to grow their brand, to actually generate awareness. It is a tool, and they're hiding that tool behind a paywall. The reason that Trends and other products have worked... Trends had a one and a half million email list, being the daily email, which could drive awareness. And so if you don't have an awareness engine that's another way where I just see people who just get very excited about what's new, what's cool. And in this case, I think it's really, really misleading.
Another thing that I see a lot of creators these days do wrong is they think that a lot of the newer ways to reach people are the best way. So for example, they're so focused on trending on hacker news. They're so focused on these really transient terminals, like Reddit or Twitter, and getting something to go viral there. Now there's...again, there's nothing wrong with these ideas and there's nothing wrong with them as long as they're balanced with other more sustainable channels.
One of the least cool channels that a lot more people should be investing in is SEO. And a lot of people think SEO is saturated; it's not saturated. It's of course more competitive than it was five, 10 years ago, but it is one of the only channels where you can really truly build up a significant amount of traffic over a significant period of time.
And so those are just a couple of examples where again, the advice isn't necessarily always bad in the sense that it's going to ruin your life or something like that. But I do think it can lead you astray and it can lead creators in directions where they're like, oh, why is what I'm doing, not working.
And what I tried to do is lay out the full landscape of content and what you can do today, and hopefully how, from my experience, I would encourage people to think about it and avoid some of these little traps.
It's important to remember that we're always being marketed to. And so you see a lot of this excitement around getting content, and there's reason for it outside of just marketing.
It is exciting that we have this creative economy and we can make micropayments and people can develop a really sustainable living through their content. That's very exciting. But also remember that there are companies that are growing their platforms that are also paying creators, for example, to be on those platforms.
There's also just...if you go to Substack and you go to, I don't know if this page still exists, but there used to be a page that highlighted the top 10 to 30 Substackers. And if you go line by line across those Substackers, they all had massive platforms elsewhere. And again, some of them are actually paid being paid to be on Substack.
And so this narrative around, anyone can make money online by gating their content is a narrative Now, some people can do it. I just...I think it's really, really important if you're a new creator to understand that narrative, and understand the gaps in it, and if that applies to you. And in many cases, I think if you're really early on to your point, let your content work for you.
It's so much... you can get access to a much more exponential curve if you allow that to happen. And this is not just true with content. Why do you think that venture capital companies allow companies like Uber to lose money for so so so long? It's to build up that momentum to which at some point, at least in theory, they would become profitable and they would start making money off of that network that they've built.
The same thing is true with content. If you allow it to work for you, then at some point you can turn that around, and at some point you can gate things. You can make money through other approaches to monetization. It's really up to the individual person. I guess my point is just at least know the game that you're playing or the goals that you're trying to work towards and how gaining your content can potentially prohibit that.
Alex: For sure, that's great.
Let's go into some things you learned about content creation, maybe some tips...I'm thinking about the average person who is wanting to start creating content online. Maybe it's a blog, maybe it's a podcast, maybe it's a YouTube channel. What are some things you would recommend based on what you learned?
Steph: Yeah, so I think the number one thing that I try to convey in the book is in the first chapter, which also seems to be the thing that has resonated most with a lot of people, which is this idea of finding your differentiator. This sounds really obvious, because we all think that whatever we've created is special and has some sort of differentiator, but I see this most often with content. And the thing that I'm going to go over is not true for only content, but it's where I see people miss the mark the most. Meaning, if you think about different products that exist--like a FinTech app or your new iPhone, whatever it might be--there's a reason that you bought it. And it's not because it's a phone, it's not because it's a FinTech app, it's not because it's a fridge. It's because, oh, I really love Apple because their UI is so easy, so easy to use. Or I feel like this brand is high quality, whatever it might be. There's a reason that we buy from certain brands versus others. And it's not always because of the utility; it's because of the brand. It's because of the differentiator and the way that we view it, that particular product.
Now the same thing is true with content, meaning that where a lot of people go wrong is they think through what they're writing about way more than how it's different. Again, this sounds obvious, but I can guarantee I can pick out most content properties out there today and they haven't gone through this exercise. A lot of the time people will come to me and they'll say, Hey Steph, I'm thinking of starting a newsletter. Can you let me know what your thoughts are? And I go, okay, sure.
And they say, I'm writing a newsletter about travel. What do you think? And I'm like, I literally have zero clue whether this is going to be successful because it could range from being completely unsuccessful, zero subscribers, to being the most successful newsletter in the travel space. Because I have no idea how you're going to actually differentiate within this space.
Now this relates to another point, which is that a lot of the time--this is the same thing for most startups out there--people look for areas where no one is. And that's also not a good idea, because that typically signals that there is no demand for that thing. And so it's not a bad thing to enter a competitive space like travel or like startup news or whatever it might be, but very very clearly be able to articulate how you're going to do it differently. And these differentiators can be very, very simple. So for example, Charter is a newsletter that started in the business and tech new space years after many of the other ones existed, like The Hustle or Morning Brew. And their differentiator was very simply that it was more visual, or you could actually use that as a proxy for being more concise.
So instead of having to read a really long-form email about business and tech news, they have around three or so infographics. And there is some text, but it's really, really short, really sweet, really shareable as well. Which meant that they grew like crazy! I don't know exactly how big they are, but I'm positive that they have hundreds of thousands of subscribers today.
And I believe they started in either 2018, or I think it actually might've been 2019. So they grew like a weed now. Different in many different ways. You can be funnier. You can be more contrarian, you can be more concise, more thoughtful. There's so many different adjectives. And that's the key. It's an adjective that you associate with a particular brand.
And this is true again for writing. And it's also important because it's not just about being differentiated. The way that you're differentiated is also your growth factor. Meaning that when someone tells someone else about your newsletter, they're never going, hey, I love this newsletter and they go, why? And the person doesn't say, oh, it's because it writes about technology. Have you ever heard that in your life before? No, because so many things write about technology, so many things write about sports, so many things write about travel. What you do hear them say is, you have to listen to this podcast, it's so funny. Or, you've got to read this article on Crypto, I've never seen it go this deep and be this...this analysis is so much different, has so much more depth than anything else I've read about this particular topic.
And so don't focus on the topic. Pick a topic that you know well, that can allow you to have this differentiator. The same way that if you learn languages--I can only speak English, unfortunately--but I've heard that once you start learning languages, to an extent that you truly know it, then you can start incorporating humor into it because you have the flexibility, you have the foundation. And so the same thing is true about finding topics. It is important to talk about things you know a lot about because that allows you to differentiate, allows you to bring in humor or whatever your differentiator might be.
And I'll just close this out by saying that, again, this is true not just for content product, for all products, all companies out there. But it's what people forget the most with content. And to give an example of one company that's done this really well--which is again, not a content company but we can learn from it--is Costco. So Costco went into something that was very, very saturated, general retail, after a lot of other brands already existed in that space. And most people would tell them, you're not going to succeed, but what they did is they said, what are all the things that people might care about with a general retail store? Whether it might be cost or package sizes or location service, et cetera.
And they said, we're going to be the best at one thing. And we forget it because it's even in their name and its cost, but Costco said, we're going to be the absolute best at this one thing, which is cost, and we're going to trade off the rest. So they have huge package sizes. That's a no-no in theory, right? They don't have much brand diversity because of those huge packet sizes.
Alex: Ugly ass warehouse stores (laughter)
Steph: Ugly ass warehouse stores! No service workers helping you out, hard to get to locations--'cause they're big sizable factory style locations. And they did all of this actually 'cause it all filters back into cost. So now everyone knows them as, this is the most cost-centric place that I can shop.
And people talk about that. People love Costco. They say, oh, this dollar 50 hot dog, I love it! And so the point is that it's really, really easy for people to associate an adjective with Costco: it's cheap. And they don't try to be everything on top of that; they just try to be cheap. And it's important for writers to do the same thing: what is the one thing where if someone were to go to their friend and talk about your work, how would they describe it? And what is that one adjective that they would describe it with? And if you can't articulate it, I can bet you no one else can articulate it. And so just go...if you're a writer, if you're creating content, this is the one thing that people skip over that really does make the difference. So spend time on this, sit down and just think through what is my differentiator, what is my one adjective? And if you don't know it, then spend time adjusting your content. So that is clear.
Alex: Yeah. That's so good. I feel like...I mean for you, what did you find? What was your differentiator when writing this book? 'Cause I'm curious about that in practice.
It reminds me a little bit of...I don't know if you've heard the podcast, "You Are a Storyteller," it's really good. But Brian McDonald-- he's actually going to be a guest on the show in the next couple of months--but he's this amazing storyteller. He's worked with Disney and Pixar and all this stuff, and he's this guru when it comes to writing amazing stories. But he has this idea about armature, which is kind of like...you could exchange that word for theme. And basically you have to decide what the theme of your story is. And then that informs everything else that you do. So his example was Jaws, the movie. It wasn't about a big shark. It was about a man overcoming his fear of the water. That's ultimately what Jaws is really about, and everything was pointing back to that one idea and that one armature, that one seam. And so I think for me, that was a really helpful framework of, so what's my theme?
Steph: I like that, I'd never heard that before.
Alex: And it's really nice because it kind of...he then suggests that you stop then trying to make up things that fit within your theme. It's just you're discovering what you need in order to tell the fuller story of your theme. So every decision from then on moving forward...to your point about Costco, they had their theme of, we want to be the most value-driven cheap brand ever. And so every decision they made--making really ugly, hard-to-get-to giant warehouses where you buy pallets of oatmeal or whatever--lthat totally was informed by this bigger story that they were trying to tell. And it worked really well.
So I'm curious, do you have any thoughts or examples around that? For someone maybe just starting, how did you find your theme or what did that look like for you?
Steph: Yeah. And to your point, it's this idea of one decision makes a thousand decisions. So once you've really identified what your north star, you've actually eliminated so many decisions from your life. Because you're not then pondering, oh, how do we interpret this situation? It's just very, very clear. I will say, taking a step back from even the book. I would say my theme in my work overall, whether it's my podcast or the books or different, articles that I've written in the past is this idea that, I basically am constantly trying to reinvent myself and that's not on a public scale as an I'm constantly trying to learn new things in my own life and master them, whether it's learning to code, whether it's creating content properties, and what I've chosen to do is share as much of that as possible.
And I want that to continue to be true. And so I think the way that ends up coming out in my work is that I've heard people say that. For example, a lot of the articles I write are really approachable. And the reason that they're approachable is because I've done everything I read about. So I don't go and research topics that someone else has done and then report on them. I do that a little bit through the work that I've done at the hustle, but in terms of my own work and my own brand, I only ever write about things or talk about things that I've done from a first primary user perspective. And so that...I guess maybe isn't the perfect answer to, what is your theme, but I guess my theme is to go and constantly evolve through my life, learn new things, and then be willing to share those things pretty openly and transparently so that other people can learn those same things. And I've done that from the beginning.
When I started, I guess, building a brand, the intention wasn't building a brand. It was...I wanted to talk about remote work in ways that I hadn't seen people do before. I've been working remotely for three to four years. By that point, I think that's right, at least a couple of years. And I just, there were certain things that I wanted to say that I wasn't seeing being said. And so that was my nudge to go and create a blog and start talking about things. And then a lot of the early articles I wrote then were about how I found a remote job, which again was from primary perspective and how I see that space evolving.
And so that, I would say, is always where I start, at least for my personal brand. What have I learned? What am I excited about that I can then go and share from this primary perspective? Which doesn't need to be the case for other people, but to your question, once I've developed this, it's very, very clear to me what types of things I'm going to write about. And then it also does actually kind of solve a bunch of different other questions, because all these other topics that maybe are interesting, but I don't have a primary perspective on I just eliminate, I, I just don't even think through whether I'm going to write about them because I've already made that decision.
Alex: I think that's really cool that the...especially the reinvention piece, I think that's really neat.
I think for me, since you shared yours, I'll share what I've thought about from mine. I've struggled my whole life with insecurity, just feeling very like an insecure person. And especially with creative work, it's a very vulnerable space to put yourself out there. And I know a lot of my friends and peers and I think insecurity is just a very human experience. Pretty much anybody can feel that at any point. But I think for me, what I came to--and this really came to a head when I decided to let go of the last podcast I was doing and come back to Make Something Cool--was that ultimately, I think my personal theme for myself is to defeat insecurity and make something cool. And then that just rung true. I want to help other people defeat their insecurity so they can make something cool.
Steph: I love that!
Alex: And just that one very simple idea and theme is like, cool, everything else is kind of clarified now. Like, all right, if it's going to help me defeat insecurity and make something cool, do it. And if it's going to help somebody else, do it. And I learned that from listening to Brian and thinking, what's the armature of what I'm doing and that theme. And I think that kind of is the decision that makes a thousand decisions now, which is really helpful.
Steph: Yeah. And it relates to this idea of, how is your content different? So once you've isolated that, I feel like probably if you go ask your listeners, your readers, they'd be like, oh, Alex's stuff is so vulnerable or it feels so transparent. There's probably something that they can associate with that, because you have this very cool vision or approach to your work where you're really trying to help other people get past that level of insecurity. And so if you're doing that effectively, then you will hear a resonance in people's feedback around what you're doing.
And that's what I also would encourage people to listen for-- not just to sit in your room and determine your adjective, but see if that adjective maps out to what people say. And you should see that, you should see patterns where...actually I wrote this book about finding a differentiator, or at least that being a chapter in it, and naturally that was a question that people started asking: well, what's your differentiator when you're working? It was a little hard for me at first, because again, my work is a little scattered in terms of the projects that I've done. And what I did to really isolate that, as I thought back to the feedback that I've gotten in the past--the unsolicited feedback, when people DM me or they add a podcast review without me prompting them--what are the things that they're saying? And is there a resonance; is there a theme to what people get from my work versus what they might get from other people's work? And so I would encourage people, and yourself as well, to just look for that and then double down on whatever that is coming across.
Alex: Yeah, that's so cool. I had a friend write me, and he reached out to a bunch of his closest friends and was like, if you could describe me in one word or something, and we all wrote back and I think it really...he was doing it as a thought experiment for himself and his brand that he is trying to work on, but I thought that was actually really cool. Because it wasn't just, to your point, him sitting in a room imagining what he wishes. He was actually gathering feedback about those closest to him. What do you actually like, and what are you like, and what do you enjoy doing, and what energy do you put into the world? I think that's a really smart thing to think about instead of just...'cause I've done that a million times, to where I just sit and I imagine, well, what do I want to be like?
James Clear is a great example. There's only one James Clear, and he's clarified exactly what he's doing, but how many people are just thinking, well, that's the right direction to go. I should be like that. It's like, no, you have your own unique voice to share with the world. And that is worth finding out exactly what that is.
Steph: Yeah. This actually relates to...I listened to a Tim Ferriss episode yesterday, and he talks about this idea that really resonated with me, which he basically said, you have a personal brand. Every single person on this earth has a personal brand, even if they don't have what we often think of as a personal brand. And that personal brand is the way that people closest to you think of you.
So as your friend did, what are the adjectives that their friends would describe them as? And most of the time, whatever that true personal brand is, really, really does end up reflecting into your larger personal brand. And if it doesn't, it's going to feel really unnatural.As you go build this personal brand and you try to portray yourself in a certain way, it's just going to feel really unnatural to you and to your listeners, your readers or whatever. And it's going to be really hard, because it's really hard to live--even though it's not maybe a lie--but live this narrative of how you want other people to portray you.
And so one of the best ways that people are thinking through, like, how could I build a wider personal brand? How could I grow? My personal brand is starting exactly as your friend did by asking, what is my existing personal brand? Because I have one; people interpret me in a specific way, and there are certain things that jump out to people about me. And how can I utilize those things that already exist and just elevate them a little further in my work, instead of trying to invent what I think other people might care about? Because that, again, it's just going to be really a natural and anything unnatural is just additional friction in your work that doesn't need to be.
Alex: Yeah, that's so good. I know I know we're, running a little bit short on time and I want to respect your time, but do you have any closing ideas around content creation for people who are maybe just getting started or thinking about getting started that you want to wrap up with?
Steph: So I think the book covers several different chapters and similar to what we talked about in doing time, right? The order of operations matters. And so the first chapter is finding your differentiator. You should not even be thinking about growth or SEO or monetization. If you don't have your differentiator, once you have your differentiator, of course you need to build your home. I think that's what the chapter is called. The key takeaway. There is just don't overthink the tooling, the same thing that we talked about, an automation, just figure out what you need to achieve. In most cases for finding a CMS or finding an ESP, like most things work. So don't overanalyze that, then we move on to growth, which includes overall distribution and SEO. And the key there. I mean, if there's one takeaway is what I mentioned before is to find sustainable channels. Don't go for these quick offshoots that make you really happy, give you a hit of dopamine and then die back down right away. Think about how to build things sustainably. And then the final chapter is around monetization where bringing us back to this order of operations, you should really not be thinking about monetization until you've got the other stuff really, really crystal clear, really, really solid. And so I can go into the depths of any of that, but I think that's the key takeaway order of operations matters in most things that you do, but most people tackle a lot of things at once. And so I would encourage people to, if they are anywhere in their content journey to just start and ask themselves have I really found my differentiator? And if the answer is no focus on just that before you go and worry about monetization or growth, or even finding the perfect tools to build your digital home, just focus on what is my differentiator, and really be honest with yourself. Do you even have one? Yes.
Alex: That is so good. What a good way to end. and I'll say to you for anyone, I think everyone should go follow stuff on Twitter and definitely check out her products and the resources we dug into. I know we only scratched the surface today, but I thought it was a really, really good discussion. So is there anything specifically you want to plug or any website or landing page that you want to send people to?
Steph: Sure. Yeah. So the one thing I am trying to grow as of late is my podcast, which is called "The Sh*t You Don't Learn in School" podcast. You can find it at listenandlearn.co--that's, the URL that we've been directing people to. And it's all about stuff that you probably didn't learn in school, but would benefit you as an adult. So we talk about all types of stuff like shit, billionaires, exist, pricing strategies, how to get more out of your time. So, anyway, that's, I guess the one thing, and then if people want to reach me, they can reach me at Twitter. My handle is Steph Smith IO because my website is stuff, Smith dot.
Alex: Amazing stuff. Thank you so much for being on. I think this is a really, I know I'm super inspired to go take some action on my stuff and I'm sure my listeners will be too. So thank you so much again for being on.
Steph: Thanks so much, Alex.
Alex: Yeah. And to everyone listening, thank you so much for being here. If you enjoyed this episode and want to get more, please go to alexsugg.com and sign up for my newsletter. That way we can send these episodes directly in your inbox. And as always, if you can go to Apple Podcasts and leave a five star rating and review, that would help us a ton.
And last but not least, this episode was edited and produced by Josh Perez. And if you're looking for help with your podcast, Josh is your guy. He's a great producer and then even better do to, so please get in touch with him at justjoshperez.com. I'll be back soon with another new episode, so until then let's go make something cool.