Starting and Growing a Podcast Show.
My experience with the Data Stack Show
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Almost two years and more than 80 episodes later on the Data Stack Show, I have a completely different understanding of what it takes to be a host of a podcast and why someone would want to become one.
This post is a reflection of all the things I’ve learned, and I feel I should share.
The before the beginning
Before I move into the things I’ve learned, let me add some context by telling you a few things about me and what made me get into this podcast adventure.
I’ve been using the Internet for a very long time but for a big part of my cyber journey, I was mainly a consumer of content. The reason I didn’t create content had mainly to do with my personality. I was too terrified to expose my thoughts in the vast Internet.
Then I decided to start a company, and as you can imagine, that changed everything!
The need to survive and my belief that the shame of failure from not trying is greater than the shame of exposing myself, slowly but forcefully pushed me to start exposing my self in many different ways.
I had to raise money, I had to sell, I had to do marketing, I had to hire people (probably one of the hardest tasks), I even had to explain why I was starting a company, instead of finding a job as an engineer in an established company, to the people around me.
Every one of these activities was hard for a different reason, but the fear of exposing myself was common among all of them.
The good thing is that after some time and quite a lot of pain, you start getting better. Exposing yourself does not feel that bad, even when you indeed embarash your self 😊
A couple of years later, and after the company I started got acquired, I found my self in another company at its beginning—RudderStack.
As in every early stage company, the ideas of what we can do are more than what we can execute, but one idea in particular triggered me. That idea was to start a podcast.
The issue with starting a podcast was that everybody knew it was something that would require commitment, but nobody knew exactly what it would take as it was something completely new for everyone.
I saw the podcast as an opportunity for me to push myself even further. I knew was much more confident in exposing myself, but this was on a different level, mainly because of the consistency and commitment it required.
I volunteered to do it, although I had no idea what I was getting my self into. 🧨
🐛 Almost to the first episode
We are in mid 2020, the pandemic is peaking, I’ve just moved to the United States from Europe, and RudderStack is in its infancy. The company is just a couple months old (officially, unofficially it was a bit older than a year).
I’m looking into starting the podcast and I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. I had the impression that I would get on a Zoom call, record something and then upload it somewhere, and that’s it. But that’s far far away from what it takes, I learned that pretty fast.
First, I realized that I need some kind of branding—names, logos, copy etc. Ideally I would also need a landing page for the podcast so people could find it.
Then there was the whole audio thing—music, intros, outros, and a ton of other stuff I had zero idea about.
In my first attempts, I tried to find freelancers on places like UpWork to help. Unfortunately it didn’t go very well, and it’s me to blame. I had no idea how to assess their skills or come up with requirements.
The project didn’t start very well, and it was already getting delayed 🙈
Then something great happened! Eric joined us at RudderStack. In case you don’t know who’s this Eric I’m talking about, he’s my co-host on the show, but at that point he wasn’t actively engaged with the podcast yet!
While chatting with Eric about the project and how hard it was to get it started, he mentioned to me that he knows an agency that helps with that stuff. I asked him for an introduction and fortunately for me this intro ended up with us working with them to setup the show!
🧗 What it took to get this damn first episode live
So, with Eric’s help and the amazing people at Heard Podcasts, we were set to start the show.
Now, something interesting I’ve learned is that launching a new show is not that different from launching anything else on the Internet, including products. Let me tell you of a few of the things that we had to do before we were ready to record the first episode.
First, branding! We had to figure out a name, write down some copy, figure out colors and styles, come up with a logo etc.
And what was one of the hardest things to figure out? I’m sure many of you guessed this right, it was the name! I don’t remember how we came up with the name “The Data Stack Show” but I’m happy with it now.
Once we figured out all the branding stuff and the logistics, the really hard part started. How are we going to find guests? What are we going to talk about with the guests, and, most importantly, how am I going to consistently do that week after week?
I started getting terrified. 😰
🎬 The first episode
You should go and check the first episode by the way, you can find it here.
Alex, was a great guest and a very kind one indeed!
I knew Alex through work. Mattermost was a customer of RudderStack, and we were spending time together on product related issues.
When I was looking into who to ask to join, I reached out to him because I felt it would be easier to have someone I knew a litle bit about already as our first guest. Alex was excited to join and having him secured for the first episode as the guest made me feel less stressed.
But still, how do you prepare for a podcast episode? At that point I thought that it was better to do some homework. So, I did the following:
- Checked the company
- Figured out some interesting problems they were solving with data
- Found some notes that I had from supporting them as a customer
- Checked Alex’s background
Based on all the above, I came up with a number of questions. Then I shared the questions with Alex to make sure he was comfortable chatting about that stuff.
If there was some value on all the above, that was in making me feel confident enough that I was as prepared as possible for the first ever episode, but reality is always more complicated, right?
So, probably the first problem I had to deal with was where to put the questions in front of me so I could follow them without having to awkwardly look to random places.
Also, I realized that following a sequence of questions is just hard. What if the answer to the previous question makes zero connection with the next one? What if they feel completely disconnected?
How do you make the conversation feel natural and not like going through a DMV testing questionnaire? 🙄
I don’t know how good this first episode was, but I didn’t feel like I did a very good job or helped Alex tell his story in the best possible way.
This approach continued for a couple more episodes where I was iterating on the process.
📖 The first lesson learned
One of the things I started noticing is that iterating on the process is hard because of how important the interaction with the guest is.
You don’t interact with every guest the same, and you don’t find every topic equally interesting, and that’s a big thing. No matter how you try to be consistent in the way you deliver the experience, you just can’t. You are part of the show as much as the guest is, and the end product is the result of the communication that you have with that person.
To be honest, the above realization didn’t help much at that point because I couldn’t figure out how I could use these insights to improve the quality of the show without having to spend a lot of time beforehand interacting with the guest.
But this knowledge really helped with what came up next.
🔧 The first major improvement
Happened when Eric joined the show as a co-host.
I mean, look at this guy 👆, you can tell from his look that he means serious business right?
When you have 2 hosts and one or more guests, the end product is defined by the communication between all of the participants.
By consistently having two hosts, we created a baseline there, defined by the communication and the relationship that I have with Eric. This was great because the show started building it’s own “personality” in a way.
Eric has such an energetic and positive attitude that really helped the show to become less “sterile” compared to how it felt with my grumpy and technical style of essentially interogating the guests.
It helped the guests relax, and it helped me relax, too. I could focus more on the communication itself and less on the execution of the task of talking with people.
Eric joining the show helped us start building much needed momentum, and kept me grinding in the first couple of months. Because of Eric, I didn’t give up on the show.
In terms of the preparation of each show, we kept coming up with some questions that we shared with the guests beforehand. As we will see later, though, this didn’t last long.
Preparing for an episode 🤓
Preparing for the show was a challenge at the beginning, and there are a couple of reasons for that. I’ll be talking in first person here, but I believe what I’m going to say reflects Eric’s feelings, too. If this is not the case, I promise to update the post! 😃
As I mentioned earlier, having canned questions didn’t feel right. It made the conversation awkward, at least from my point of view. What happens when the answer to a question from a guest should trigger a follow up question I didn’t forsee?
Our guests where pretty much always excited and happy, but still, I wasn’t feeling confident in my ability to come up with good questions, and most importantly, with questions that one after the other, told a story.
As we recorded more episodes, I got more relaxed, and I started to stop following the scripted questions. Instead I would continue with follow up questions triggered by the answers I was getting.
Then, we stopped sharing the questions beforehand to the guests. Instead, we would arrange the recording meeting to start 30 minutes earlier to spend some time getting to know each other and discussing interesting topics we could discuss during the recording.
This is pretty much the process we still follow today, and it works much much better than any kind of beforehand preparation with lists of questions.
We share what we think with the guest, and we make sure to ask what they’d like to chat about, and, importantly, if there’s anything they don’t want to discuss.
I have to say, though, that my tendency to completely divert from what we’ve discussed during our preparation call hasn’t gone away. If I think of something interesting to ask, if my curiosity comes up with something, I just can’t resist, and usually we end up discussing stuff we didn’t even think of before the show starts.
I’m fortunate to have a co-host and guests that tolerate this so far! Hopefully, it’s also one of the ways I contribute to the show and make it a bit more interesting.
🧑🏻💼We all are sales people or try to be
You might wonder what this has to do with running a podcast show. As with everything else in life that requires more than yourself, you need to engage in some kind of sales activity to move forward. Seriously, this is an important life lesson!
Why? Because guests for your show do not just stand outside your door waiting for you to record an episode.
Especially at the beginning, you pretty much have to reach out and find one guest after the other. If you want to consistently release an episode per week, recruiting guests can become stressful and time consuming.
Finding guests at the beginning worked like this:
- Try and get RudderStack customers as guests.
- Reach out to my network.
- Reach out to Eric’s network.
- Run out of all the above options.
At this point, RudderStack was a very young company, and we didn’t have that many customers, but we got a lot of help from many of them. They were really supportive and willing to get on a Zoom call to chat about their data infrastructure.
Then I started reaching out to my network. Eric did a much better job bringing people from his network to the show, and that kept us on schedule for a while.
With all the above, we managed to consistently release one episode a week for a couple of months, but recruiting guests required more and more time.
At that point, I relaxed completely on this matter and decided to just reach out to anyone who I thought was doing something interesting. When I was participating in events, I would ask people if they wanted to join me on a podcast episode, I would cold reach people on LinkedIn and Twitter etc. etc.
It worked! People were super happy to get on an episode and share the stuff they were building. To be honest, I’m still impressed with how happy people are in doing that. My assumption here is that getting on a podcast is also a relatively small time investment for the guest, while there’s potential value through the exposure. (As a comparison, I’m probably spending much more time on writting this post than it takes for a guest to participate to a podcast episode).
We started to streamline the process of recruiting guests, but as the show grew, the process was still becoming a nightmare to manage. You need to coordinate times and days, often you have to reschedule, then you need to communicate with the guest (and also with a couple other folks, especially if the guest is representing a company).
So, the logistics around running the show are becoming more and more complex.
That’s when this guy here joined the team 👇🏻
The show wouldn’t exist today without him. Brooks is the soul of the show and the person who makes sure whatever crazy idea Eric or I have just happens. He started taking care of all the logistics, making sure we record the right amount of time, communicating with the audio editors to ensure the quality of the show, find guests, post about the show, and many many other things that all together keep the show alive.
Recently, this awesome lady joined the team to help 👇🏻 Brooks scale the operations!
As you can see, the small project that started with just me trying to figure out what a podcast is, today has a small team of amazing people making sure it keeps going. I can’t express how grateful I am to be part of this team!
🍾 If it was a b2c company raising money with this growth trajectory, we would be popping champagnes (maybe) 🍾
This is what the month over month growth of listeners looks like for our show. It might not be a 1:1 copy of a hockey stick, but it shows some pretty healthy growth.
When we started the show, I had no idea how podcasts perform in terms of engagement and growth. I knew a lot of things about web content but nothing about using audio as a medium for communication, and thus I didn’t know what to expect.
Also, it’s important to notice that although there are way too many tools available to track growth in other mediums, when it comes to podcasts, the metrics you can get are pretty awful.
When it comes to analytics, we have to consider how people usually interact with podcasts. The most common reason that someone listens to a podcast is to relax.
Podcasts are usually consumed during off-work hours. The fact that there are so many people out there that tune in on our show while not at work makes me feel even more proud of what we’ve achieved with the Data Stack Show.
You might wonder how we grew our audience. To be honest, I don’t have any magic to share here. Distribution happens through a limited number of standard channels, and we haven’t done any kind of advertisement. I’m not even sure if advertisement is a thing in channels like Apple podcasts.
What I would say has worked is utilizing the audience we have and engaging with the brand of our guests. Each guest has some social network presence, so helping the guest with sharing the episode, we ensure that more eyeballs (or ears) tune into our show.
We try to make. this process as easy as possible. We create social sharing cards and send them to our guests on time before the release of the episode. Then we remind them about the show and that it would be great to share it etc. etc.
I would say that being consistent with this process is what has driven our growth so far. But we are still looking into this, trying to find new and creative ways to increase awareness around the show.
📢 Your Audience 🎙
Podcasts are interesting when it comes to the relationship you have with your audience, especially compared to other mediums.
The main reason for this is that you don’t have easy access to your listeners. You don’t know who they are, and it’s not straightforward for them to reach out to you.
Probably this is a result of how podcasts are distributed through the different platforms. Apple and Google have every reason to keep you close but not that close to your audience.
Another reason might be the lack of tooling for tracking content consumption for podcasts.
Maybe there are more reasons, but the point is that, at the end of the day, it’s not easy for the host of a show to interact with the audience.
Embrace that. In my oppinion, that’s a very liberating fact when you accept it. Being detached from your audience is good in some ways. At least it has turned into a great thing for me.
Being detached enough from the audience makes me less worried about how I perform, so I can focus more on satisfying my curiosity.
To be honest, having the luxury of not worrying about the audience that much is also a result of the sponsors of the show. We never had any kind of pressure from RudderStack in terms of performance and metrics. This also removed a lot of the stress that other shows might be experiencing as they rely on advertisment for funding.
Track your growth, try to figure out new ways to reach more people, but do not obsess over it.
🧪 Experimenting is Fun 💡
If there’s something that I really appreciate about the Data Stack Show and all the people involved it’s how much freedom I’m given to experiment.
I get bored easily, and whenever I feel that something starts becoming repetitive, I get grumpy. But this is part of my creative process as a person. As soon as I start feeling like this, I also start thinking of new things to do.
That’s what’s also happening with the show. Since we started, we have experimented with many different things, including some successes and failures.
Some things that didn’t work include stuff like issuing POAPs as NFTs. It was fun though, and I learned a few things about this crypto craziness!
The most successful experiments were around the format of the show. Some things that worked well:
- Eric and Brooks had the idea of recording small teasers that are posted a day or two before the actual episode.
- I had the idea of having panels on topics, e.g. getting a couple vendors on data quality to chat about what data observability is.
One of the most fun moments was a spontaneous experiment that happened when Eric and I attended the Data Council event in Austin.
There we had the opportunity, for the first time after Covid-19, to connect with many interesting folks in person, and we thought of recording some small episodes with whoever we could “kidnap” from the event. It worked pretty well at the end.
Experimentation is an ongoing process and one that we all enjoy a lot at the show.
I’m talking too much 🤐
Ok, we are at the buzzer here (as Eric usually says when it’s time to finish an episode) and I’ve been talking too much, but before I close I want to share something more.
Why do I do this show?
There are a couple of things that keeping me doing this show.
The first reason is the team. If I had to continue doing this by myself, it wouldn’t have lasted for more than 2-3 months.
Seriously. It might sound like a cliche, but the people involved in this show are a major reason I continuing doing it. Eric, Brooks, Ali and their determination to make this show successful, together with the relationships we have built, are the driving forces behind the show and my need to be part of it.
Another important reason is the people I meet. I can’t think of another content creation activity that connects you in such a way with so many amazing people.
I have connected and chatted with some super smart and fun people. If you are considering starting a show, this is one of the best arguments I can have to convince you to do it.
Another important reason is my curiosity and my endless need for learning. All these people that I connect with have things to teach me, and I exploit that. Every question I ask is a genuine question that I have about something, and it really makes me happy to feel that I get an answer.
These are some of the reasons I feel so fortunate to host the show, and hopefully these are also good reasons for you do do a show if you are considering it.
But, I also want to tell you a reason not to start a podcast show, and this is an important one.
Don’t start a podcast show as a marketing activity for your company, especially if you are an early stage startup. Podcasts are not a good channel for lead generation, and if you try to generate leads, trust me, it will be a disaster.
Podcasts are good for branding, especially personal branding. If your end game is about that and you have the stomache for a long game, then do it. But as with anything that has to do with branding, good luck measuring success.
So, if you are considering a podcast show, do it to have fun, after all, that’s what your audience will be looking for.