Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Nicolas Cole, Co-Founder of Ship 30 for 30 and Category Pirates. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
Nicolas Cole shares the lessons he’s learned as one of the internet’s most-read writers, including why he’s fascinated with reverse engineering written work—from James Patterson novels to Twitter threads—into templates writers can use, why all great writing changes the reader, why his superpower is his ability to endure boring things for longer than others, and so much more.
“Writers without niches are starving artists. Because again, they’re just competing in these massive competitions. Writers with niches are category kings.” — Nicolas Cole
Transcript – #140 Snow Leopard: How Legendary Writers Create a Category Of One | Nicolas Cole, Author and Co-Founder of Category Pirates
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:00):
Hello, and welcome to another episode of Outlier Academy, where we decode what the top 1% of people, we're talking iconic founders, renowned investors, bestselling authors, and outlier thinkers have mastered and what they've learned along the way. In each episode, we dive deep to uncover the ideas, frameworks, and strategies that have helped build the world's best businesses, investments, and books. I'm Daniel Scrivner, and on the show today I'm joined by Nicolas Cole for our latest book club episode. Nicolas is one of the most read writers on the internet. Over the past decade, he's written over 5,000 articles online and ghost written for over 300 founders, C-level executives, New York Times Bestselling Authors, Grammy winning musicians and more. He's also the Co-founder of Ship 30 for 30, which is one of the largest cohort based writing courses, as well as the author of numerous books, including his latest, Snow Leopard: How Legendary Writers Create a Category of One.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:53):
In today's episode, we're going to decode category creation, including why it matters, how to do it well, and how it's done poorly, and where to start your search for your own category of one. You can find a searchable transcript of this episode as well as our episode guide with ways to dive deeper into the ideas and topics we cover, at outlieracademy.com/140. That's outlieracademy.com/140. Please enjoy my conversation with the Author of Snow Leopard: How Legendary Writers Create a Category of One, Nicolas Cole. Nicolas Cole, thank you so much for joining me on Outlier Academy, this time to talk about your new book, Snow Leopard.
Nicolas Cole (00:01:31):
Pumped to be here. Very excited to chat about the book too.
Daniel Scrivner (00:01:34):
And this is the second time that you're going to be on, I don't, off top my head remember the episode number of the last time you were on the podcast, but that conversation was a ton of fun. We will link to it in the show notes. And that was for a very different book that you wrote. One of the things I'm going to start off with is, I'm sure a lot of people listening are familiar with your story and a bit of your background. I think it'd be great just to give everyone a bit of a refresher. Can you start off by just sharing a quick sketch of your background?
Nicolas Cole (00:02:00):
Oh, man, I'll try. I'll do the 30 second, teenage World of Warcraft Player turned bodybuilder, turned Entrepreneur/Viral Writer, is how we got here. The business that I built, which is probably what we talked about in the first one, was a ghost writing business called Digital Press, wrote for hundreds of CEOs, executives, things like that. After about two and a half years, pivoted away from that business and now I have three different companies. One is Ship 30 for 30, which is the largest cohort based writing challenge on the internet, teaches people how to start writing online. Two is Category Pirates, which is me and two other guys, Christopher Lochhead and Eddie Yoon, and we write a paid newsletter on category design and published books like Snow Leopard. And third is a software business called Typeshare, which is a SAS tool for digital writers, giving them templates and making it easy to write on the internet. Never have to stare at a blank page again.
Daniel Scrivner (00:03:05):
We're going to spend most of this episode talking about Snow Leopard. One of the things, where we talked about preparing for this that I want to make sure we cover because I think it would be super interesting for people listening, is your experience moving away from that service style business, just as a quick overview in ghost writing, you're effectively doing this on a one off basis, one project at a time, it's service based. And all the businesses that you have now, are more recurring revenue software style businesses. And I know that, that's been a huge unlock. Just talk about that experience and how much better of businesses you're operating now are versus the services business you had before and what you learned by taking this leap of faith to transition from one to the other?
Nicolas Cole (00:03:46):
Oh, man, I don't know if we have enough time. There's so much I want-
Daniel Scrivner (00:03:49):
You've got time.
Nicolas Cole (00:03:51):
The reason I started a ghost writing agency was because in 2017, 2016, wow, I quit my job, decided to go all in on being a freelance writer and fell into this world of ghost writing. And all of a sudden, I went from being this commodity freelance writer to these CEOs going, "Hey, if you're my ghost writer," and they were the ones who gave me the language, I didn't even know what a ghost writer was, they said to me, "Oh, you're my ghost writer." And I was like, "Oh, cool. Now I'm a ghost writer." And I started just by demand, I would just increase my rates, a hundred bucks for an article, 200 bucks for an article, 300 bucks for an article. And I remember I got up to 800 bucks an article. And I could write these articles in 30 minutes. I was very used to writing in this fashion because it was all after my, [inaudible 00:04:39], journey and everything.
Nicolas Cole (00:04:39):
And I went and met up with my friend in Atlanta, very close friend of mine, and I told him what I was doing and he was the one who was like, "Well, why don't we just split this out? We'll hire writers, We'll hire editors. The editors will do the calls, the writers will write. You'll teach them how you do what you do, and we'll scale this. We'll build a business." And we ended up scaling that to probably at our, [inaudible 00:05:02], it was probably about 2 million in revenue, 20 full-time employees, so 10 writers, 10 editors, and it was a little, probably, no, more, 24 and a couple sales people, all of them full-time, all of them salary. And this all happened in 18 months and I was 26, 27. And it was super intense and we had 80 clients. And so we did it, we scaled it, but the problem was, because you're providing a service, first of all, ghost writing is about as subjective as it gets.
Nicolas Cole (00:05:35):
You're basically giving something to someone going, "Hey, does this accurately reflect you and your voice and your beliefs?" You're not selling plastic widgets, you know what I mean? That is a hard thing to do. And then second is, your costs all scale linearly. Every time we bring on a new client, I have to go, "Well, who's the writer and who's the editor?" Every time I bring on six new clients, I need another writer and another editor. And so, it doesn't take very long for your overhead to get really, really high. You're supporting all these salaries, say high, relatively, all the people with 30 million businesses are like, "What are you talking about?" But relatively at that time, it felt like a lot. And so, eventually I got to this point, I went on this trip, it was the classic entrepreneurial story.
Nicolas Cole (00:06:24):
I went on this trip and found myself lying in the Lagoon in Mexico, and I was like, "What am I doing? Why did I build this business?" And it made me realize that, no matter how hard I worked, I was running a business that could only scale linearly. The more services I sold, the more people I needed to hire. And that was it. And so, I left that business. I took a year, year and a half off, pandemic hit, and I just asked myself some really hard questions, like, "If I'm going to spend all this time building a business, what sort of business do I want to build?"
Nicolas Cole (00:06:56):
And the only thing I kept telling myself was, I want to build something that has, quote unquote, "Infinite scale." It needs to be able to scale without me. The whole ghost writing business was dependent on me. And so, where I landed was education products, software tools, paid newsletter, books, all of these things, it doesn't matter if one person buys them or a million people buy them, it's the same thing. And drastically different businesses in so many different ways. But I think a lot of people have to do what I did. You have to go through that journey and learn that on your own.
Daniel Scrivner (00:07:37):
Clearly a big point that you're making there is around linearly scaling costs. This point that obviously a service business relies on you, and so you clearly want to move to something and it makes enormous sense for anyone that's ever seen one of these businesses in the deltas. It's just insane. It's like moving from an asset heavy business model to an asset light business model. You're generating revenue off of one time sales that are hard to replicate versus having a product that can just sell itself and then you're refining the funnel. Very, very different. But one of the questions I want to ask is, there it sounds like it's all positive. What has been the challenge or what have been some of the challenges about building the businesses that you have now? Just talk about that side of the coin.
Nicolas Cole (00:08:19):
One of my mentors used to say, "You're always picking a bag of problems. It's just depends on which bag of problems you want to deal with." And so, the benefit of building things that have infinite scale and infinite has quotes around it because you have to grow it.
Daniel Scrivner (00:08:36):
It's not infinite human beings.
Nicolas Cole (00:08:37):
It's not infinite human beings and it doesn't just immediately go to level of thousand. You still have to build it and grow it, but it's the simple fact that you're dealing with more people, which means everything gets heightened. Positive messages happen 10 times, more negative messages happen 10 times more, customer requests happen 10 times more. Everything happens 10 times more. And so, the good is more, and sometimes the things that you don't enjoy as much are more as well. And so, you have to be obsessive about creating processes that ensure that you try and protect your time and your attention as much as you can.
Nicolas Cole (00:09:20):
Because, otherwise it's very easy to fall into the same trap. I catch myself doing it all the time, where you have something that's scalable, you have a digital product or you have a community or something and then people start asking you questions. And it's very easy to fall right back into the, "Oh, well I'm going to give you personalized something." And then you're right back to, it's dependent on you, you're selling your time. And so, breaking that belief in your head is, that's been very challenging for me especially because all I knew were services. I didn't even really know about digital product businesses until a couple years ago, to be honest. I only knew service because I worked at an ad agency. That was the model I had.
Daniel Scrivner (00:10:02):
I think most writers are clearly coming from a service based type of employment too. It's just the way your brain is wired and it's very hard to wire your brain differently. I want to ask a couple of questions about Ship 30 for 30, because I think it's super interesting. It's obviously different than... Well, it's one of the businesses you're running now. I think it'd be interesting to spend a little bit more time on it. You talked about that it's the largest cohort based writing, I think program in the world. Talk about, just maybe flesh that out a little bit more so people understand. And then I just want to ask a couple of questions about what the program is like. Maybe if you could just start with an overview.
Nicolas Cole (00:10:40):
I'll answer both at the same time. It's basically a writing challenge where everyone is challenged to write what we call an Atomic Essay, so 250 words or less every single day for 30 days. And the reason is because the primary problem that we want to solve is people not writing consistently. There's a lot of talented writers in the world, the problem is you don't do it enough. It's not about talent, it's about consistency. That's the primary point of view of the whole business. And then, wrapped around it is a whole education curriculum, we do live sessions, we educate on the fundamentals of digital writing, how to write headlines, how to format your pieces, how to write Twitter threads, LinkedIn posts. We go through and give you all of that. But the primary mechanism is, do it and then learn as you go versus just take a course where you passively learn, but what are you applying?
Nicolas Cole (00:11:34):
And so the business itself, you talk about scale, so I went to college and my degree is in fiction writing and in my fiction writing classes, it was 12 students, different experience. Because, you get a different level of involvement when it's a smaller type of thing. But there were probably, I'm going to guess, 200 people in my creative writing department, 300 maybe. We run one of these cohorts every eight to 12 weeks. And every cohort after 18 months is between 800 and 1500 people. We're running cohorts of a thousand writers at a time and we've only been doing it for a year and a half. And so, that's the power of when you really understand, most people, or me four years ago would've thought, "I want to build a writing education business. I got to teach all these people manually." No you don't. You can use these other mechanisms to scale your teachings in different ways. You just have to be really conscious and deliberate about how you're choosing to do that. It's been a really fun business to build.
Daniel Scrivner (00:12:50):
I want to ask two quick follow up questions on that. Thinking about Ship 30 for 30 and the fact that you've now run so many students through this program and that you're doing 800 to 1500 every time you do one of these about roughly once a quarter. That scale is massive. And so, I imagine you've started to triangulate and see some themes and see some trends. The two questions I want to ask, maybe I'll start with one, what typically is the biggest delta that you see in people that participate in Ship 30 for 30 from the time they start to the time they end? Because, obviously the goal is consistency. And so, I imagine a lot of people are just like, "I want to write, this is my forcing function, by participating in Ship 30 for 30 in writing." Clearly their writing velocity is increasing. What else increases and how do people change over the course of that cohort?
Nicolas Cole (00:13:36):
Well, I'll say first, I give the ability for us to scale, I do not take credit for, I give all of that credit to my Co-founder, Dickie Bush, who has much more of a brain wired for that, which has been an amazing combination. I can take all of these frameworks and things I've developed over the years and he helps build processes around them and all of a sudden we can expose it to thousands and thousands of people. It's really amazing. But the delta between someone starting and someone finishing, and the reality is most people, it's not that you finish, they then start and keep going. And so, that's the ultimate transformation. But I'll tell you, for every cohort, you have people that go, "I've written more in 30 days than I have in three years. I've written more in 30 days than I ever have in my entire life."
Nicolas Cole (00:14:26):
And it's because when you make it small, that was the whole aha around the Atomic Essay, is when you make it small and actionable on a daily basis, 250 words adds up really quickly. All of a sudden a week goes by and that's the equivalent of writing a long form blog post. But if you tell someone, "Sit down and write a long form blog post," it's very overwhelming. That is the real transformation for me, is when you break it down into bite size pieces, everyone comes to the same realization, which is, "Oh, I can actually do this." Of course, you can, you just got to make it actionable for yourself.
Daniel Scrivner (00:15:04):
I want to ask one more follow up question, which is, so obviously people participate in this program and the whole goal is, this is the start of them continuing to write hopefully forever. And this is something that they're always doing to shape their thinking and get their thinking out on paper. The question I want to ask though is, for the people that complete the program and go on to do really, really well, just subjectively, that could be they continue writing, they develop their voice, this becomes a bigger deal for them. Have you noticed any commonalities about how they approach writing, how they show up and Ship 30 for 30? Just any traits for the people that are the most successful graduates?
Nicolas Cole (00:15:36):
Yes. Besides the classic stuff, which is, it's the people that are most committed and the most disciplined and consistent, et cetera. This might be a nice segue into the Snow Leopard stuff, which is the people that are most successful are the ones that come to the realization that the goal is to become known for a niche they own. Again, took me a very long time to learn this as a writer, your goal is not to just build followers, your goal is not to rack up views, your goal is not even to sell a bunch of copies of one book or your course or whatever it is. Your goal is to be associated with a highly specific topic that is relevant to a highly specific group of people.
Nicolas Cole (00:16:20):
And when you become known for a niche you own, all of a sudden you can write a dozen books and you can create a dozen courses and you can build a dozen products because, you know that, that group of people is looking for that type of thing. Whereas, there's a lot of people that... There's a whole bunch of courses online, how to build an audience, how to get more views, but none of it teaches you how to be different. And that's the whole idea. And as long as you're stuck in a comparison game, it doesn't matter how many times you post a day, no one associates you with anything. That is where you start to see the real transformation of writers happen.
Daniel Scrivner (00:17:01):
That is the perfect segue and let's go ahead and make the segue. For the rest of the time, we're going to be talking about a book that you wrote with two other authors as part of category pirates called Snow Leopard. We'll link to it in the show notes. The subtitle is, How Legendary Writers Create a Category of One. And I've had you on the show before, I think you have a very interesting way of seeing the world and I think a lot of how you think about writing and audience building really resonates with me.
Daniel Scrivner (00:17:29):
I was excited to read this book and obviously a lot of it is directly applicable to what I do, what I'm doing right now on the podcast, what I've done for the last two years with this podcast, whether you're a writer or not, I think that this book, if you're interested in just how do you create a category and why is that important, it's been a fascinating book. Where I wanted to start was asking you about the genesis. I imagine that this had either been percolating for a while or you had an aha moment that said, "This is the book that we need to write next around category creation." What was the genesis or the backstory about writing this book?
Nicolas Cole (00:18:01):
Well, the real genesis was Category Pirates, like I said, is with two other guys. And they both had been writing about category design, invented the discipline long before I had even met them. And when we all got together, the original idea was we want to write a book about category design. And as we got down that rabbit hole, we started to realize, "Well, there's a whole bunch of nuances that go into this. I don't think we're writing one book. I think we're writing 10." And so we decided to start a newsletter, paid newsletter on Substack, started that in 2021. And we covered everything, how big companies build categories, how small companies build categories, how solopreneurs build categories, all these different examples. And one of the... Probably because I started Category Pirates at the same time as Ship 30, literally the same month, I imagine that the success of Ship 30 is what was the wave that was pushing a lot of this into Category Pirates.
Nicolas Cole (00:19:06):
Because one of the questions that we would get all the time is, "Well, how does this relate to messaging? How does this relate to copywriting? If you want to create a new category as a writer, what do you do?" This niche specialty within this broader idea. And so, Snow Leopard was essentially the culmination of a lot of different newsletters. We call them mini books because they're five, 10,000 words long. There's a bunch of these mini books all specifically geared toward writers. And the more that we explored this rabbit hole, the more we realized the whole secret to messaging is, it's not about louder, more often, better, whoever said that you need to see a brand seven times before you buy it, it's just such a misunderstanding of what's happening. The real power of words is taking where someone's thinking is already rooted and moving it somewhere else. And if you're successful at doing that, you literally have one of the most valuable skill sets on Planet Earth. And so, that's what the whole book was about.
Daniel Scrivner (00:20:13):
I want to start off with one of the ideas that seemed like it stood out to me because it seems like the genesis of, if somebody hears that, here's that title, knows that it's about category creation, I think at least in my mind starts going into a like, "Well, why?" And one of the things you get into at the beginning of the book is competing with the same or trying to compete on the better access, which means you're just opening yourself up to massive competition, because you're competing with other people that are doing very similar things. And so your only margin, your only advantage is to do it slightly better, which scales linearly, takes enormous amount of work, versus competing differently and competing on differentiation. I think it's really powerful. Can you talk about that idea a little bit and why that's so important?
Nicolas Cole (00:20:55):
The simplest answer is, if I say, "I'm going to be better than Hemingway, I'm going to be the next Hemingway, I'm going to do so much more than Hemingway." The only thing you're thinking about is that you should remember to go read Hemingway. All I'm doing is just reminding you that I am the next best alternative. I'm like Diet Coke, I'm not the real thing. And so, what most writers do is they root themselves in, "Okay, I want to be a mystery writer, so I'm just going to say, 'I'm going to be the best mystery writer.'" Or, "I want to be a memoir writer. I'm going to be the best memoir writer." But what they don't realize is, they are unconsciously announcing to the world that, "I'm the same as everyone else." Which means you have nothing sticky, you have nothing to hold onto. One of my favorite examples is, I can't say I'm an avid reader of the category, but I think the example's amazing, is romance.
Nicolas Cole (00:21:54):
If you come out and you go, "I'm a romance writer," well, there's a gazillion romance writer, but the moment you come out and say, "I'm a military romance writer," immediately the reader has to make a decision. They're like, "Ooh, do I want to read a love story about the guy who goes off to war and leaves his honey at home?" And it's all focused on military versus then, another writer comes along and goes, "I write Vampire Romance." "Ooh, all right, whoa, now I got to decide do I want to watch vampires get it on?" The whole secret, it really isn't that complicated when you think about it. The whole secret is take the category, if you are like, "I love mysteries," take the category and what is the different modifier word that goes before or after it? And if you don't have a different modifier word, you are not different. You are under the same illusion as everyone else, which is, "If I'm good enough, if I am better, then I get the award." And you're not, you're just subjecting yourself to infinite competition.
Daniel Scrivner (00:22:57):
That's super interesting. One of the things that obviously dawned on me, I think you touched on it a little bit in the book, is I think I would guess that part of why everybody defaults to competing with better or competing against some alternative and saying, "I like this. I'm going to imitate it. I'm going to try to be better than them over time," is because of fear. Because obviously in being different, you're putting yourself out there and opening yourself up to massive fear of just what others will think, what others will say. Is that your takeaway of why we're all so afraid? And if not, what is your takeaway of why people are afraid to be different?
Nicolas Cole (00:23:27):
I think that the deeply psychological reason is, we all say we want to stand out, but really we all just desperately want to fit in. That's the deep psych answer. But I also think that, especially through the entrepreneurial lens, how most people, whether you're a writer, whether you're an entrepreneur, you want to start a business, what you do is you look for where there already are a bunch of people. You look at an existing category and you go, "Well hey, there's tons of money being made in that category. Why don't I go in, do it better and get my slice?" But this fails it, it's like pretending that gravity doesn't exist. You're failing to realize that when you step into that category, someone had to create that. Where did that come from? It didn't just magically appear, someone created the category that now has a bunch of abundance floating around in it.
Nicolas Cole (00:24:23):
You walk into the room and you go, "I'm better." And everyone looks at you and goes, "You didn't invent this party. This isn't your house. What are you talking about?" And so, it's this flawed mindset of thinking, "Oh, I'm reducing my risk and I can capitalize and I can be the fast follower." And all of it is denying the fact that you are now are subjecting yourself to competition and signing yourself up for an uphill battle where you have to try and convince every person in that party to leave that house and to go back to the suburbs with you to go to your house party. That's going to be very hard.
Daniel Scrivner (00:24:57):
It's probably not going to happen.
Nicolas Cole (00:24:59):
It's probably not going to happen. Versus if you just go create a different party, you go, "Oh hey, it's disco night? Oh, over at my house, we're having a pool party." Well, now the person has to choose, "Do I want to be at a disco party or do I want to be at a pool party?" Versus you going, "I have a way better disco party." They're like, "Nah, this is an amazing disco party. Why would I leave?" This is one of those things where you got to really retrain your brain.
Daniel Scrivner (00:25:28):
It's fascinating. One of the things you said on the first page, which I really like I'll just read, is, "Writers without niches are starving artists, because again, they're just competing in these massive competitions. And writers with niches are category kings." And obviously one of the things you talk about in the book that is the precursor to everything we're discussing, is that there's been this rise of people wanting to be a thought leader. And all of this makes sense. People want more followers, people want social validation. The way that people think they can get that because they see other people doing it is by being a thought leader. But then that opens you up to 360 degree competition. Any just commentary on people wanting to be a thought leader and the way that people generally go about that? Which obviously is very wrong, based off the ideas in the book.
Nicolas Cole (00:26:14):
Why does someone want a million followers? First of all, if you gave the average person a million followers, they wouldn't know what to do with it. First of all, you don't even know why you want it. Second of all, if you go, "Well no, if I had a million followers, then I could dot, dot, dot." Okay, if I gave you a million followers tomorrow, nothing about your content quality has changed, you haven't gotten better, which means the vast majority of those people are going to wake up tomorrow and go, "Wait, why am I following this person?" And they're going to leave you. It's like the person who wins the lottery. You don't know how to manage money, you're going to spend it all. Same thing with the idea of followers. Third of all, it's wild how many people... I know a lot of people on Twitter who have 10 times more followers than me and make way less money.
Nicolas Cole (00:27:07):
Which do you want? If you become known for a niche you own, you have a tremendous advantage, tremendous. And you can supply those people and help those people in a gazillion different ways. But if you're someone that just goes, "I write things that go viral and I have a huge audience." Well, where do you go from there? You don't have any way to deepen the relationship and everyone defaults to, "Well, if I had a big audience, then I could do brand sponsorships." Okay, fun fact of the day, how much money does someone with a quarter million followers make? It's a couple hundred bucks a month. You're talking about not far away from minimum wage. A lot of times I notice in this whole conversation, it's, people want things that they don't even understand why you want it.
Daniel Scrivner (00:27:56):
Or what they get from having it.
Nicolas Cole (00:27:57):
Yeah. What's the upside? And I would way rather have a thousand followers, but be super clear about what my differentiated niche is, what those people care about, what problems I'm solving, what they're interested in, and how I can help them at scale, versus having a million followers and going, "Well, the internet thinks I'm cool, but my life's not different." I think one of the, sorry, the last point, I think one of the craziest things in the world is people that have a million followers but then still work a very average job. It's like your internet famous, but nothing about your life has changed and what's the point? And I think a lot of people go, "Whoa, it makes me happy." Okay, great. If you're happy from it, fine. But I don't think most people don't go, "I'm doing it because it makes me happy." They go, "I want to be famous or I want attention."
Daniel Scrivner (00:28:48):
I don't think anyone wakes up and does the gratitude exercise and is like, "Oh, I'm just so glad I've got 50,000 followers or 20..." That doesn't even factor into your life, it doesn't even matter. You don't even know those people most of the time. One of the things that obviously is related to that, that I really loved in the book is this term, content free content, which I think as soon as you read or as soon as you hear, you know what that means. And then, you couple it with this other idea of people sharing BGOs, you call, Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious, which I think is just wonderful phrase. Talk about both of those two things and why those are issues and what's happening there, why people default to that.
Nicolas Cole (00:29:27):
What's a example of content free content? That would be like us having this conversation and you going, "Cole, give me your most helpful writing framework for writers." And I go, "You got it. Step one, you got to do it. Step two, you got to show up. Step three, you got to give it your all. You got to keep going. Step four, when the going gets tough, keep going again." And there's nothing about that, that you don't already know. All I'm doing is just saying the most obvious thing that the listener already knows, which means I'm not actually helping you. And the whole myth is that, in order to build an audience, in order to have a quote unquote, "Content strategy," your goal is to say the obvious thing as often as possible. Who cares what you're saying? Just post 87 times on Twitter a day, read those tweets, live on YouTube, turn the YouTube and do a podcast.
Nicolas Cole (00:30:32):
It's all focused on, how do I maximize the asset? Versus think about, well, what is the asset actually saying? It's shocking to me that you have companies that have billion dollar marketing budgets and they can't even figure out how to get people to read their newsletter. I'll tell you why, because, all you're doing is pumping out content free content. No one subscribe to your newsletter needs to be told, "The key to starting a newsletter is to start a newsletter." Nobody. Zero, people on human Earth, on Planet Earth. Zero.
Nicolas Cole (00:31:09):
You have to, again, un-train yourself. And I think most people look at someone with a quarter million followers and go, "Everything that person says is amazing." "Oh, you have 10 million followers? Everything you say is right." No. Pretend you don't know how many followers they have, how would you evaluate the content? You'd probably be like, "Wow, this is really average and very not helpful." You have to look at the quality of what's being said, not this perceived check mark of, "Oh, I'm this super special famous part." No. What are they saying?
Daniel Scrivner (00:31:40):
Yeah. Do you have any tips on how people can spot that in their own writing? And what I mean by that is, I'm sure when you say that and you give that example, there's people like, "Oh yeah, okay. Well, sometimes I do that." But my hunch is that, there's also a lot of people that are like, "No, I am doing something that's novel. Maybe it's just novel to me, it doesn't have to be novel to anybody else. I think I'm doing something that's helpful, but I'm not." Do you have any good acid tests? Any ways of helping people be able to see whether their content is content free content?
Nicolas Cole (00:32:14):
It's a great question, because now the counterpoint, the nuance is, there is a place for what we call obvious content. Obvious is beginner stuff, super, just press the button on the refrigerator. You know what I mean? Very basic. And there's a place for that, if you understand what your niche is, who your audience is, and what problem you're helping them solve. Because sometimes if you're a complete beginner, you need step one. And if that's your goal, then, you're successful at achieving that goal. But ultimately, as a writer, as a creator, even as an entrepreneur or business owner, your true aim is to move up the content pyramid from obvious creation to non-obvious. How are you starting to say things that people haven't heard yet? That's literally the definition of thought leader. You are leading with new and different thoughts. In Ship 30, I do this thing with writers that I call the tequila test.
Nicolas Cole (00:33:16):
The tequila test being, okay, let's say we're all sitting down and we're going to write an article called, How to Have an Effective Morning Routine. And I ask everyone in the chat, "What are the things that we should put in our article, How to Have an Effective Morning Routine?" And everyone says the same stuff, "Wake up on time, have a big glass of water, have your coffee, stretch, go for a run." We've all heard these things. There's not a morning article routine that doesn't have these things. And I go, "Okay, that's great. Now, after you read one of those, do you need to read any others?" No, of course not. Because all of the others are just saying the same exact thing as the other one. If I come along and I go, I'm going to write an article about, How to Have an Effective Morning Routine, and the first thing that I give the reader is I go, "Hey, step one, the moment your alarm goes off, I want you to roll over, pop open some Azul tequila and take a shot at tequila."
Nicolas Cole (00:34:13):
Immediately what happens? The reader goes, "I've never seen that before. Oh, this is something different." A very easy acid test for, are you writing obvious versus non-obvious or bottom of the barrel content free content is, take a topic, make a list of all the things most people say about that topic, and now you don't say any of them. Now what do you do? And that becomes your forcing function for how do you say something different? And you have a moment where you go, "I don't know what to say." Oh good. Hey, by the way, that's the whole point of being a writer. That's the whole point.
Daniel Scrivner (00:34:50):
Well, it's also how you do thought leadership is, you have to figure out what hasn't been said that needs to be said.
Nicolas Cole (00:34:56):
And I think it's shocking that say that to people and they go, "I don't know what to say." That is the whole point.
Daniel Scrivner (00:35:04):
That's the value.
Nicolas Cole (00:35:05):
Yeah. The value is you going, "I don't know what to say, now let me go figure it out. Let me go create something." Versus you don't need someone else telling you authenticity is key. If you don't know, authenticity is key, you have a bigger problem.
Daniel Scrivner (00:35:19):
I love that tequila example, because it immediately makes me extremely curious what step two in the morning routine was going to be. Because if you're starting with a shot of tequila, just where do you even go from there? And what does the rest of the day look like?
Nicolas Cole (00:35:32):
That's a great question.
Daniel Scrivner (00:35:34):
You can answer that in the rest of the article. I want to spend a bit of time talking about the content pyramid, and this is covered in quite a bit of length in the book, but it's fascinating and I think it's helpful for two reasons. One, as we'll walk through it in a little bit, people will be able to figure out, I think, pretty intuitively where they are within this content pyramid. And it's very helpful just at making it a framework where you can identify, to your point earlier, where you happen to be. But then the other one is, I guess, just it forces you to then think about, "Well, do I want to get to the higher rungs and what does that look like and what does that mean? And what are the trade offs?" And you do a great job of covering that in the book.
Daniel Scrivner (00:36:08):
Maybe we just start with level one and start to work our way up. And level one at the content pyramid, as you covered in the book, is just consumption. This means, as an example, we talked about Ship 30 for 30. These are people who haven't written yet, maybe they have a bunch of stuff in note docs, they've thought about writing, but, mostly are consuming. And you have a really fascinating stat, which is, I don't know if it's historical, if it's timely, but basically the idea is, if you look at any social network or platform, around 1% of people create content, 9% of people curate and organize content, maybe share that in some way, shape, or form. And then 90% of people consume content, which is staggering, but actually makes sense at a high level. And you talk about this level one is just the move from passive to active. What else do you have to add to this? Anything else to add to this, the consumption level one of the pyramid?
Nicolas Cole (00:37:03):
We may have talked about this on the first time we chatted, but again, going back to my years as a gamer, I firmly believe we're all playing a video game. We can have the matrix discussion another time. But the internet is a video game. And so, your social profile, doesn't matter what platform you're on, your social profile is your avatar. You have control over how people see your avatar.
Nicolas Cole (00:37:29):
And I think one of the things that doesn't get talked about enough is because we live in such a digital society now, whether you like it or not, whether you think you're playing the game consciously or not, you're playing the game. You have a profile, you're playing the game. And so when people go, "Oh no, I'm not trying to do X, Y, Z with social media." It doesn't matter whether you think you are or not, when you meet someone, they go and look you up, they look at your profile and they come to conclusions.
Nicolas Cole (00:37:58):
We're doing it anyway. Part of level one is acknowledging that the game exists, just it exists. And most people aren't even, quote unquote, "Playing the game." Doesn't mean you have to go be some guru, but understanding that, it's almost like you have a vacant character, the character's just standing there and you're choosing to not do anything with the character. And the jump in level one is going from passive to active, so instead of just scrolling and consuming, when you land on a piece of content, you ask yourself, "Hey, interesting, how is that assembled? Why are they sharing that? If I was to share my version of that, what would that look like?" You start to go through these questions of, "What does it look like for me to scale myself?" That's what the internet does. You have you, you go to a bunch of coffee conversations, you say the same stories every time. You share the same tidbits about yourself every time, the internet allows you to scale yourself.
Daniel Scrivner (00:39:02):
It's fascinating. And it makes a ton of sentence. Let's move on to level two. We got five of these, so we've got one down, we got four left to go. Level two, I thought was really interesting, including some of the examples in level two. But level two, the tidbit I'll give, please push back on this, add to it in just a second. But level two is around curation. It's curation centric. You're still not coming up with your own original ideas. That's actually a couple levels beyond this. You're not coming up with non-obvious ideas, you're just taking other people's ideas and you're curating them and you're sharing them or other ideas you found.
Daniel Scrivner (00:39:36):
And one of the things I thought was fascinating is, two pieces of this that really stood out to me. One is the examples of Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss as fantastic curation centric people. For me, one, it immediately resonates on why that's the case, but it's also somewhat surprising and I think it calls out that, the goal isn't for everyone to get to level five, the goal is that there's one to know that there's a progression and then figure out what level works for you. Can you talk for a little bit about the positive example of why Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss are good examples of a powerful level two?
Nicolas Cole (00:40:14):
Curation just means you're organizing other people's ideas versus sharing your own original ideas. And there's a ton of benefit in doing that. Think about how much knowledge there is in the world, the average person, we're not going to read every book that exists in our lifetime. If someone comes along and goes, "Hey, I read 10 books and I'm going to distill only the important stuff down for you." You can read it in three minutes. That's really valuable because the curator is now saving you, call it a hundred hours. And so people like Ryan Holiday, his story's fascinating, his mentor was Robert Greene. And Robert Greene wrote 48 Laws of Power and Mastery and all of these historical and psychological books. But all of them are curation. All of them is him going and researching, taking the old stuff and just modernizing it, and making it easier to read.
Nicolas Cole (00:41:13):
Ryan Holiday goes, he had a jagged path, he didn't start here, but eventually lands on Stoicism. What does he do? He goes and reads Marcus Aurelius Meditations, the average person hasn't read Meditations. And he goes, "I'm just going to make this really easy for you." And he's curating it. Tim Ferriss goes, "Hey, you're interested in high performance and how the elite people handle their lives? I'm going to go interview all of them." Curation is basically you saving other people time and you saving other people the learning curve of sifting through complexity to understand something. You're great at distilling down, and that's a very valuable skill set. Not to downplay those writers and creators at all. It's very valuable.
Daniel Scrivner (00:41:57):
Well, and one of the things you call out too, and I think this is really interesting and we should talk about it for a second, is that, I'm trying to think of, there's a wonderful quote that I wrote down here, you've got it, I think it's on page 10 of the book, which you start to get to the point of, you force people to ask themselves, "Do I want to be hyper focused on a niche?" Which means I have a smaller audience, to your point, maybe I end up with a hundred thousand followers instead of a million or whatever it is, to use that as a stupid vanity metric.
Daniel Scrivner (00:42:27):
People can have a strong point of view that might resonate with a small audience. Or you can have stuff that's actually maybe somewhat generic. It's evergreen content, it's stuff that you know can always say something about every single day and someone will be interested in that. And you can have a bigger audience. But I think part of that is by a level two, you could potentially have a bigger audience than someone that is super niche and focused. Can you talk about that? Do you believe in that? Anything to push back on that?
Nicolas Cole (00:42:53):
Yeah. Ultimately the role of creation and curation, I believe everyone should strive in some way to do both. There's days where I wake up and I create new things, and there's other days where I curate existing things. And both are valuable to readers in different ways. In terms of how you build and scale yourself, it ultimately comes down to the question of what do you want? I learned this by writing on Quora, the size of the question dictates the size of the audience. The question, "How do I make more money?" Is more widely applicable than, "How do I make more money as a nurse practitioner?" Smaller question, smaller audience. And so, when you're thinking about curation as part of your content strategy, it's more beneficial to lean into bigger questions because you can grab all of those readers. But there's a nuance is that, then you want to also have the other side, which is ultra niche specific, so that once you get all of those readers in attention, you go, "Oh well, now, this is relevant to you." Hyper relevant. It's almost oscillating between the two.
Daniel Scrivner (00:44:10):
That's super interesting. Moving to level three, we'll try to get through the rest of these somewhat quickly, and I want to ask some follow up questions. But level three then is, you're starting to create your own content, but you're making obvious connections between things. You're not in a non-obvious state, which I think is really interesting. Talk about moving into creation, starting with obvious and how that's different than non-obvious and just some of the learning curve there. Because, I think one of the questions I was interested in, we'll talk about level four in a second, but how someone moves from level three to level four, and if there's ever people that just stay on level three and if that's a fine thing.
Nicolas Cole (00:44:43):
I think the easiest way of thinking about it is, think of obvious as linear. How to go from A to B. For example, if someone's a master of Facebook Ads, they go, "I'm going to show you how to 5x, 10x the conversion of your Facebook Ads." There's nothing non-obvious about that. It's very like, "I have a problem and you're going to help me do a couple things and I'm going to move from A to B." And again, there's a lot of value in that. But it's worth remembering who that attracts and why. Again, obvious content has its place, but it usually has its place for beginners or beginners moving into something more advanced. But that's never going to be the thing for people who are like, "I've been doing this for 10 years. Give me the crazy stuff." There's different levels of where people are at on their journey.
Nicolas Cole (00:45:41):
Non-obvious is less linear and more disparate, more exponential. Its like things happening at unlikely intersections. A lot of my point of view on digital writing, why does my point of view on digital writing sound different? Because, a lot of it comes from the intersection of pro video game playing and writing. That's a very rare... Most people don't mash those two things together. Non-obvious is connecting data points that almost shouldn't or aren't thought of to be as connected, and then you make the person go, "Oh, I never thought of that before." Why? Because those aren't two things or three things that you would normally put together.
Daniel Scrivner (00:46:25):
To go back to your point earlier of, great writing is taking this idea in someone's mind and moving its position or making them see it in a new light. It's the obvious connection is, you're not moving anything, you're just talking about it. You're maybe sharing something that's somewhat interesting about it, rather than, as opposed to trying to move that and create these new connections in someone's mind. One of the points you make that I really like is, obvious connections have a short shelf life and non-obvious connections have a really long shelf life because they don't age. It's always likely to be novel if it's especially non-obvious. I thought that was interesting. And then, you have one other point around demand capture versus demand creation. Can you talk about that for a second and what that is?
Nicolas Cole (00:47:05):
I think if people want to go down the rabbit hole, a really great example of the point you said right before that is, I wrote a book two years ago called The Art and Business of Online Writing. In a lot of ways, very obvious, you want to write headlines? Here's how to write headlines. You want to improve your formatting? Here's how to improve your formatting. And because a lot of the things I shared in that book are, technology moves so quickly. When you're talking about things as they are today, there's probably only a shelf life of a couple years before the game changes. Even as we were writing Snow Leopard, even I was aware, I was like, "Oh man, that book shelf life, I don't know how long, maybe it'll make it 10 years." It's probably not going to make it very far beyond 10 years, because a lot of the things that I shared are specific to how the game is played now.
Nicolas Cole (00:47:53):
When we were writing Snow Leopard, I was very aware of that. And so, I deliberately didn't use a lot of timely examples. It was more about psychology, it was more about how to think about it. It was more about things that have been true for 200 years of writing. And I did that to increase the shelf life. Not only is it non-obvious, but it's going to last longer. That's ultimately the goal. Demand capture is the idea of you go to the disco party and you go, "I'm going to convince everybody to come back to my house, which is also a disco party, it's just better." Demand creation is when you show up and you go, "I'm offering you something completely different. Here are all the differences between a disco party and a pool party. One, you got to wear your clothes, the other no clothes required." All of a sudden the reader or the listener or the viewer has to make a decision, "Do I want to wear clothes at a party or do I want to not wear clothes at a party?"
Daniel Scrivner (00:48:54):
It's a good question.
Nicolas Cole (00:48:55):
It's a great question, we all need to ask ourselves. And so, people think that you can't create demand, and yet no one asks the question, "Well, then how did the world get to be the way that it is today?" The things that we value, we are taught to value. No, it doesn't just happen, someone shows up and goes, "I'm going to tell you why you should value this." Or someone shows up and goes, "I'm going to teach you why you shouldn't value this." And you can get really meadow with... This happens even in society, we teach people to devalue other human beings. Demand capture is when you go fight, you're stuck in the better trap. Demand creation is when you educate on, here are the differences, and now you have to make a choice.
Daniel Scrivner (00:49:44):
This disco party versus pool party is, I'm going to be thinking about this example five years from now. I just love how vivid and visceral, and different it is. And I think it's just a really wonderful, simple framing of a big idea. Let's move to level four. Level four, then I've done the obvious connections, now I want to move to non-obvious connections. Maybe that's because I want my stuff to be interesting six months from now, a year from now, I want to have a longer shelf life.
Daniel Scrivner (00:50:10):
And basically one of the things you say is that, the premise of level four is that you're changing the world with your thinking. And that non-obvious connections have some maybe consequences or maybe downsides. And one of those is, it can take a lot of time to catch on. And you talk about the Copernicus, apologies for any astronomy fans dilemma. And then this idea that, what may happen is you may end up with a smaller audience, but that audience has raving fans as opposed, so say you're 50,000 followers, 5,000 followers, maybe even these people love and really pay attention to everything you share as opposed to 500,000 followers. And no one could care less. People don't even probably know they're following you. Talk a little bit more about non-obvious connection and just anything we haven't covered that you think is interesting that you would call out.
Nicolas Cole (00:50:56):
I do want to double click on the downsides because, again, it goes back to human psychology. People say they want one thing, but then their actions say another. And I imagine, you read that section in the book and you go, "Oh, I want to be a non-obvious creator. I want to come up with things that people haven't said before."
Daniel Scrivner (00:51:17):
You like the idea of having novel insights.
Nicolas Cole (00:51:19):
Exactly. You like the idea of it, but A, saying things that haven't been said before is not always comfortable. There's some risk in that. And B, there is a lot of truth to the fact that, look, the more different the thinking gets, you're going to lose a lot of people. There's a lot of the world that doesn't want to think, that doesn't want to be challenged. And so, it's not about being controversial or anything, it's just, when you start going down a rabbit hole of a subject, you start in the obvious land, which is, just tell me the basics. But then the further you go, you want the stuff that you haven't heard before. And this book is a great example, every writer should read this book. This book is-
Daniel Scrivner (00:52:07):
I think is for any creator.
Nicolas Cole (00:52:10):
I agree. But there isn't a book out there that articulates anything like what's in this book. And I've read a lot of them because I was that writer going, "Give me the obvious stuff. Help me, help me, help me." But the reality is, I know that it's going to take a while and it might never happen. Most people might still be saying, "Hey, you got to go read Stephen King's On writing if you want to be a writer." Okay, let's just keep it real, I love Stephen King and I love that book, but there's nothing in that book that actually tells you what to do to advance your thinking, like anything in this book. I think when you get into non-obvious land, you have to be very comfortable with the fact that your mission is way more on impact versus vanity metrics or even sales or any of those things. It's really about advancing the thinking of the category you're in. And for me, I'm very passionate about advancing the thinking in the mega category of writing and publishing.
Daniel Scrivner (00:53:12):
One of the other questions that I wanted to ask you about is around category creation. And there's a quote in the book that I love, which is, "What readers, listeners, viewers, and potential customers want you, isn't you, it's your category." Which I think one for a lot of people, is probably intuitive but also shocking. And we'll talk in a second about how nobody really cares about your personal story. But can you talk about that, maybe flesh out that concept, that idea a little bit more?
Nicolas Cole (00:53:39):
This is a very hard one for people to wrap their heads around because, what happens is most of the time when a creator starts getting attention, they start to drink their own Kool-Aid. They start to think, "I'm the one who's special." And you can actually see it, where if you go take your favorite, I'm a writer, so go take your favorite author, go look at their first book and go look at their most recent book. And their first book, the big font is going to say the title, the idea, and the small font is going to say their name. Why? Because, nobody knows who they are. And they're like, "The only reason you're going to pick up this book is because you're interested in the idea." Versus, "It's not like I'm some big fancy celebrity. You're not buying the book for me, you're buying the book for the idea."
Nicolas Cole (00:54:31):
And then the book does really well. And then, all of a sudden they wake up one day and they go, "Oh, you know what?" They rewrite history. They go, "Oh, you know what? I was the one who made it all happen. I was the one who was important." Then you go to their most recent book and what's the biggest font? It's their name, "You buy this book because of me." And there's an irony of this where, whenever someone's starting out, most of the time they get it right, they get it right on accident, they go, "I'm going to market the category. I'm going to market the idea. I'm going to market the thing that the reader is actually interested in. And oh, by the way, it's by me."
Nicolas Cole (00:55:08):
And then, the more successful the person gets, the more they believe their own hype, the more they drink their own Kool-Aid, the more they think they're the reason people pay attention to them, the more they make their name bigger and the category smaller until eventually it's all just brand, brand, brand. And then, they're no longer relevant. It happens over and over and over again.
Daniel Scrivner (00:55:32):
I want to talk in a second about myths. You have a great chapter about myths, and I picked a couple of my favorite that I think it'd be worth talking about. But there was another quote that stuck out to me, this is a little bit of a curve ball, you may not have much to be able to add onto this. But you have a, I think it's a snippet in a chapter around hard work and thinkers high. And there was one sentence in there that stuck out to me that I really like, said, "Thinking about thinking is the most important kind of thinking." Can you maybe elaborate on that, talk about why that's so important?
Nicolas Cole (00:56:02):
Everything I just said and what we just talked about on that point, most people that want to build themselves or even you want to build a company, you immediately start in execution mode. You're like, "Oh, okay, well I see other people have a brand, so I need a brand. And I see other people posting on Instagram, so I need to post on Instagram." And before you do any of that, you need to ask a more important question, which is, "Well, how are you thinking about how you're thinking about going about it?" It's like, "Why are you thinking you need to start there?" That might actually be the wrong starting point.
Nicolas Cole (00:56:36):
And so, the majority of the work I end up doing at this point, I phrase it like, in the beginning of my career, I got paid to write lots of words. Now I get paid to write two words. Because the one or two or three words that define your category, literally is the difference between getting on a plane and landing in New York or landing in Miami. Because those two or three words shape which direction people are thinking. Before you start executing, you need to think about how you're thinking about thinking about it.
Daniel Scrivner (00:57:12):
It makes sense. That makes sense. To maybe do a little bit of a weird corollary and productivity, and also I think for a lot of founders, they'd have this same feeling that to your point, a lot of people just jump into execution. They don't spend much time in planning. Maybe just a simpler way to say it or a more direct way of saying it is, make sure that you spend time intentionally planning before you move ahead into execution.
Nicolas Cole (00:57:33):
Yes. And being comfortable with doing it iteratively. You can start, but then every step you should question like, "Am I now thinking about it the right way?" Anyone's built a company. The moment you reach your next milestone, it's, what got you here won't get you there. You need to rethink, "Well, how am I thinking about this whole thing?"
Daniel Scrivner (00:57:58):
It's a never ending game and it never stops. And it is extremely, extremely, extremely iterative. I want to talk about some of those myths. One of the first ones that I really liked, we don't have to spend a bunch of time on, but I think we should talk about it for at least a little bit, is this idea, and it's a myth that the most valuable form of marketing is your personal story. And I know obviously to your point about people jumping into execution, not spending time and planning and just trying to replicate what they see other people doing. There's, "People respond to or think, what's unique about me. Well, it's in my story, so I need to tell my story." It's probably not the right place to start. Talk about why that is a myth.
Nicolas Cole (00:58:35):
This is an extremely nuanced point. I say it a different way in Ship 30, which is, you are not the main character of your story. The reader is the main character. And so, that doesn't mean that you can't tell personal stories, it just means you have to understand why you're telling the personal story you are, as it relates to the wants, needs, hope, dreams and ambitions of the reader. For example, I can sit here and go, "Hey Daniel, 2014, here's my story of how I got started writing on Quora. 2015, I launched this thing. 2016..." And for the first 15 minutes you're going to be kind and you're going to listen. And then after about two minutes, you're going to go, "Wow, this guy just won't stop talking about himself." And we all do that.
Nicolas Cole (00:59:22):
But if I say, "Hey, Daniel, I started writing on Quora in 2014, launched my first product 2015. And I remember you were telling me," as a hypothetical example, "You were telling me, 'Oh, hey, I'm trying to figure out how to start writing on the internet.' Well, here's some of the things I wish I would've known earlier." I'm telling my story as context for the thing that I'm going to explain to you or to the reader. And so, this idea of, just share your journey, no one cares about your journey. They only care if your journey represents or exemplifies some lesson or takeaway that is interesting to them. And you have to understand there's a difference between the two.
Daniel Scrivner (01:00:08):
Makes sense. It's well said. Related to that, the second myth that I thought it would be interesting to spend a little bit of time on, is this idea that anything I say is valuable, which sounds a little bit related. It sounds like you maybe need to filter that through a bunch of filters before you decide what to say, and you have thoughts about whether that's valuable to the reader or not. Expand on that, talk about why that's a myth.
Nicolas Cole (01:00:30):
We've all been in this experience where, especially if you've ever worked at a big company or you go to a conference or something. You've got this big fancy person with a big fancy title, gets up on stage and you're sitting there for 40 minutes and you're like, "Literally nothing that this person has said, A, makes any sense, or B, is helpful to me in any way." I noticed this when I would go straight for all of these really successful people, executives and founders and investors. And it took me a couple years to realize that there is a monumental difference between being good at what you do and being able to articulate how you do what you do. They are different skills. There's a reason why Michael Jordan's the greatest basketball player of all time, and the worst NBA coach of all time, or NBA owner, sorry. Because, they're different.
Nicolas Cole (01:01:20):
And so, there's a myth where someone who's achieved success in their career, they go, "Well, I'm successful, so anything I say is helpful." And in reality to someone who actually reads a lot or is thoughtful about what they're consuming or is a creator themselves, they look at it and they're like, "You literally just told me to wake up on time and authenticity is key and do one more." You're not actually saying anything helpful. And so, part of that then as a creator, or in a lot of these cases as people who want to be quote unquote, "Thought leaders," you have to be honest with yourself about the fact that, you might have achieved a lot in your career, but that doesn't mean you know how to articulate anything that you've done. And so, you need to now go start over, you're playing a different game and learn how to articulate, create frameworks, create mental models, how do you help the next person versus, "Oh, I did it, so what I say is truth."
Daniel Scrivner (01:02:18):
Going back to that ghost writing example, did you have to have that conversation with the people whose books you were writing? That, "Hey, this is all great, but none of this stuff is probably going to make it into the book and here's how I'm going to change it or shift it." And, or how did you help people shift their mindset around that? Or maybe that's just why they hired a good ghost writer?
Nicolas Cole (01:02:36):
All the time. It's a great question. I did a couple books, but I did mostly articles on the internet, same thing, just shorter form. And sometimes I would have the conversation, but in all honesty, this was a very hard thing for people to wrap their head around. If you've been successful in your career for 30 years, the last thing that you want, I was 26, 27 at the time, the last thing you want is a 27 year old telling you, "Hey, you need to go start over and you're not as smart as you think you are." Instead of saying it bluntly, I would have to just keep asking questions or keep trying to push the thinking. And what would happen is the calls that we would have would end up becoming like training sessions, where it was the first time in their life where they had ever asked themselves, "How do I think about problem solving?"
Nicolas Cole (01:03:23):
Because the first time I say, "How do you think about problem solving?" They go, "Well, step one, you got to just sit with the problem. And step two, you got to talk to the people around you. And step three, you got to foster good communication." Cool. None of those things are new. Now I got to ask again, "How do you think about problem solving?" And it's not until you ask seven or eight or nine or 10 times that the person starts to give you things that are original, that are unique to them. And then I go, "Okay, now we're onto something." But, it is a different skill. Being a thought leader is not about getting a blue check mark or standing on a stage or saying Forbes thinks you're smart. Being a thought leader literally is practicing the skill of, how do I articulate where the world is going in a way that no one else is able to articulate?
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:10):
That's so well said. Okay. Last myth, and then we'll move on to a couple more questions. And this goes back to a point you made, I think multiple times earlier in the interview, which is, and this myth is, it's all about how many people see your content. And so, I'd love for you to maybe talk about why that's a myth, and then answer the question, if it's not about views, what are other metrics or other means with which people should be maybe gauging their content?
Nicolas Cole (01:04:33):
Well, here's a great example, and I'll say the, [inaudible 01:04:37], to this is, it really depends on the business model. If you're a YouTuber, you live and die by views, AdSense. Okay, great, "I just want a gazillion views." But the example I would use is, I've racked up half a billion views on my content a lot. And I made very little, if any money on all of them. Now, I made money tangentially. I was able to leverage views to, as credibility to get ghost writing clients. And so, I monetized the service, but I didn't actually monetize the views, which is an interesting point A. And point B, when you focus on views, you're focusing on catering to low common denominator stuff, "How do I tap into wants and needs of everybody?" Or, "How do I tap into universal mistakes or universal fears or universal ambitions?"
Nicolas Cole (01:05:37):
And the problem is that, what happens as a result is you get a lot of surface level readers, you get a lot of people that read, so you get the view, but then the comments are like, "Nice," or, "This was cool." There's no depth. Versus, two years ago I decided, okay, I have half a billion views, more views isn't going to get me anywhere, so I decided to do the opposite. And I was like, "Instead of focusing on views, I'm going to get laser specific on a niche, and I'm going to give people in that niche everything they need in order to be successful, to answer all their questions, I'm going to solve all their problems." And that niche I picked was digital writing.
Nicolas Cole (01:06:18):
And as a result of getting super niche, my views went in the garbage can and my earnings went through the roof. Because when you focus on a niche and you solve people's specific problems, you're not getting everyone's attention. And that's the point. But the people's attention that you are getting, they're the ones who go, "You understand my problem better than anyone? I'm willing to pay you. I want to pay you, I want to pay you, I want to pay you." It's a long way of saying, chasing views for me was basically a waste of seven years, half a billion views. Cool. What did that get me? Not much.
Daniel Scrivner (01:06:55):
Or maybe another way of saying it's like, it seems to be, for whatever reason, which is probably not all that mysterious, that everyone by default just biases for views. Because views feel like the easiest proxy you could pick for success, is just how many eyeballs generally got on this, how many bots on Twitter generally saw this? And so, it's, do don't that and think deeply about what you do want to go after and what metric you're going to use to gauge success. One of the chapters, I want to talk about two more chapters and then we'll move on to a couple closing questions. One of the chapters, is chapter five, it talks about the power of a point of view. And one of the biggest questions that I just wanted to ask is, if you could walk through, even just at a very high level, almost, superficially how you go about developing and honing a point of view?
Daniel Scrivner (01:07:45):
Because I think my perspective, I think it's probably difficult for people to argue with this idea that a point of view is powerful and is important, and you need to have one. Even going back to the example you gave yesterday, working with a ghost writing client, have to ask them the question six, seven times until you start feeling like you're hitting on something. You're like, "Okay, this is valuable." Maybe that's the way of, you just need to dig deep enough, you get to your point of view. But the question I wanted to ask, just super open ended is how do you think about, how do you work with people? How do you encourage people to develop and hone a point of view?
Nicolas Cole (01:08:18):
Here's a great case in point, every venture capital firm on planet Earth says the exact same thing. We invest in entrepreneurs building the future. And they all say, "We have a unique point of view." But if you ask them to articulate, "Well, what's your unique point of view?" 99% of them can't do it. They just go, "Well, we're investing in great entrepreneurs and we look for rare, unique opportunities and entrepreneurs focus on building the future." Cool. None of that's different. You literally just said the same thing as everyone else. You just tried to say it with more conviction. We talked about the tequila test, you ask people, "How do you write an article like a morning routine?" In order to figure out what your unique and different point of view is, you have to first acknowledge, what are the existing point of views, make a list of them.
Nicolas Cole (01:09:13):
The morning routine article, what are all the things everyone says, "Wake up on time, have your cup of coffee, stretch, go for a run, whatever." Make a list of all the existing point of views. Okay. Now, you can't say any of that. What's your point of view? It's crazy when I do these exercises with people, because it's like they go, "I understand," and then they're like magnets, they just immediately gravitate back to, "But I like that old point of view. It's comfortable, it's what I know. No, that's what I resonate with." That's fine. Just realize now you sound like everyone else. And I think whenever I try and articulate this, the counterpoint and what I often hear back is someone going, "Oh, so you just want me to be controversial?" No, that's a misunderstanding of the point. I am not saying, "Go be controversial for the sake of being controversial."
Nicolas Cole (01:10:03):
I'm saying, "Start with the way the world is and consider none of those are options. What do you do?" And I'll give you a great example, me with writing, and I did this on accident, I didn't even have the language for all of this when I came up with this. My point of view was don't start a blog. Now, if you ask anyone about how to start writing on the internet, especially for the past 10 years, 10 out of 10 people will tell you, "You should start a blog." When I come along and I go, "That's step one that everyone else says, I think is wrong." And I wasn't saying that to be controversial, I was saying that with a legitimate reason. I said, "Hey, I found another way. If you don't blog and you write in social platforms, here are all the benefits. Rapid fire feedback loops. You tap into hundreds of millions of readers, it's easier to measure what topics are working."
Nicolas Cole (01:10:59):
I'm not being controversial for controversial sake. I'm saying, "I am giving you a different way of thinking about the thing that you're thinking about doing." And all of a sudden it forces a choice. Everyone has to go, "Do I want to believe the old start a blog, or do I want to hear what this person has to say?" And it's in that choice, it's in that chasm, that you have the opportunity to educate people on something different. But if you don't ever give them a different starting point, then you're just another VC saying, "I invested in the next great entrepreneur building the future."
Daniel Scrivner (01:11:37):
That's well said. I'd love to ask a couple of closing questions, one of them that I wanted to ask is, you're one of two other founders of Category Pirates, and you guys have a Substack that's been incredibly successful. You have this book, Snow Leopard that we've been talking about. I imagine as a writer, before you joined this team and wrote this book, you had thought a bit about category creation, but I assume you've probably learned a lot from your two other co-founders and from the process of doing this. What have been the biggest surprises or ahas or lessons learned, either from your co-founders, or just the process of spending more time thinking and writing about category creation?
Nicolas Cole (01:12:12):
I think the biggest thing is not underestimating the power of every single word. Again, I'd say when I was younger, I got paid to write lots of words. But looking back, I didn't know why I chose 90% of those words. You're more focused on just writing. It's like you're doing. You're doing a lot. And as you learn and as you clarify your thinking, you start to realize how powerful one single word is. If I say, "It's a car or an electric car," one word drastically changes what we're looking at. If I say, "It's a impressionist painting or a cubist painting," one word changes what we're talking about. "It's a dollar, it's a crypto dollar," changes what we're talking about.
Nicolas Cole (01:13:07):
The whole idea of category creation and category design is, it's about being extremely specific about what words you're choosing and understanding what responses those words elicit from people. What problem are you talking about? And one word drastically changes what problem we're talking about. And so, that's why, again, I say, I used to get paid to write a lot of words, now I get paid to write two words, because those two words directionally change how the person's thinking. I think I used the romance example too, you have military romance or vampire romance. One word drastically changes what type of book we're going home with.
Daniel Scrivner (01:13:50):
Massive difference. Everyone listening, I highly encourage you to go and buy the book Snow Leopard. You can get it on Amazon now. You can also go to categorypirates.com and you can sign up for the Substack, which is a weekly paid newsletter I think you guys put out. Those are both, if you've listened to this conversation, if you're bought in on the idea that category creation is important and you want to spend more time doing it, those are two great ways to go and do that. But I want to try to give people a little tidbit of something actionable that they can do to move from being just competing on the better access, into actually moving into category creation.
Daniel Scrivner (01:14:27):
And we haven't talked about it much in this program, you can talk about it a little bit now if you want to, but I know that you and your two other co-founders also do this work for companies. It's very highly paid work, so you will do these intensive workshops. I guess, just to ask the question again, what I'd be curious is, for someone listening who's bought into this, they can go and learn more about Category Pirates, they can buy the book, Snow Leopard, but what maybe can they start thinking about and start doing to move from competing on better to actually thinking about, "Okay, well, now, what's my category?"
Nicolas Cole (01:15:00):
It's a great question. It's a loaded question. I would say directionally, the biggest thing is you are looking for the weird data point. It's the opposite. It's the opposite of what everyone says. Step one, what are all the problems that people have in your general mega category? You're like, "I'm interested in productivity." Okay, well, what are all the problems that people have in productivity? And if you take the time to list out what are all the problems people have in productivity, all the problems people have in yoga, or all the problems people have in IT, whatever it is, you're going to know which problems are the popular ones to solve. You're going to be like, "Oh, everybody solves those problems." And you don't want to do that. You want to go, "Well, what's the ignored stepchild problem?" What's the problem that everyone's like, "Oh, that's too small, that's too weird. No one's going to focus on that."
Nicolas Cole (01:15:52):
Ship 30 is a great example. I even, if you asked me two years ago, "How many people have a problem called, I can't write every day?" At first glance, it's like, "That's weird, and that's really small." And then, you start building it and you're like, "Actually, that resonates with millions and millions and millions of people." First, look for the weird ignored problem, and then you do the same thing on the solution side. What are all the solutions people offer? And you're going to see, "Oh, those are the popular solutions. Everyone always suggests those things." Okay, great, you can't do those. Now what do you do? Look for the weird solution. And then, you start to marry weird problem and weird solution together. And now, what do you call that? Don't just say, "Oh, I do all these things."
Nicolas Cole (01:16:44):
What do you call solving the weird problem with solving the weird solution? And what you call that, the language you pick is usually an intersection of an opportunity to create a category. And this is one of those, "Are you going to figure it out in 10 minutes?" Probably not. But is it rocket science? No. You just need to sit with it. And one of the things that we talk about is, and you need to use data, publish, record podcasts, make videos, make things, and try and figure out, is this intersection of weird problem and weird solution compelling? And the beauty of the internet is if it's compelling to one person, it's compelling to 10. And if it's compelling to 10, it's compelling to a hundred and a hundred to a thousand and a thousand... And the internet scales that, but you have to find the one.
Daniel Scrivner (01:17:36):
In many ways, landing on and closing out on find the weird data point, figure out the weird solution to the weird unaddressed problem, is not the answer I expected, which is one of the reasons I love doing this podcast. And you've been an amazing guest. Thank you so much for joining me, Nicolas Cole, this has been so much fun.
Nicolas Cole (01:17:54):
Thanks for having me.
Daniel Scrivner (01:17:55):
Thank you so much for listening. You can follow Nicolas Cole on Twitter, at Nicolascole77. And you can learn more about Ship 30 for 30, which is one of the largest cohort based writing courses online that kicks off every 30 days, at startwritingonline.com. For more from Nicolas Cole, listen to episode 139 where he joins me on 20 minute playbook, to break down everything from his habits and routines to his favorite books, the best advice he's been given and more. All in less than 20 minutes.
Daniel Scrivner (01:18:25):
You can find a searchable transcript of this episode, as well as our episode guide with ways to dive deeper into the ideas we covered, at outlieracademy.com/140. That's outlieracademy.com/140. For more from Outlier Academy, follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and TikTok. Subscribe to our YouTube channel, at youtube.com/outlieracademy, or visit outlieracademy.com, for more incredible book club episodes, profiling books and authors like, WIRED Founder, Kevin Kelly and his latest book Vanishing Asia, Silence in The Age of Noise and Philosophy for Polar Explorers by famed Norwegian Explorer, Erling Kagge, Impact by Sir Ronald Cohen, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales and more. We'll see you right here with a brand new episode of Outlier Academy next Wednesday.
On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today.
Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.