Review of Based Mansion LA: Observations, Finances, and Bibliography

On the weekend of February 28, I rented a mansion in Los Angeles for two nights and stayed there with about 15 people from the internet. I facilitated a mini-conference; everyone there presented some ideas. After that, we partied. In this post I'd like to share: a few lessons learned, some financial accounting, a few observations, and a bibliography of all the books and films mentioned in conversation throughout the weekend.

The main thing(s)

The main thing is that I pulled it off and it was epic. Possibly, potentially, legendary. Only time can tell, but feedback was overwhelmingly, almost absurdly positive. More than a few people said things like, "most amazing thing I've ever been to." I won't brag and show you tons of testimonials, but let's just say this email I received afterward is not even an outlier.

Other observations

I feel roughly 90% confident that I will do another event similar to this, bigger and better. Personally I'm leaning toward a more production-oriented version, more on the "writing retreat" model, somewhere in the mountains or something.

This was my first time ever hosting a fairly elaborate event IRL so I found the preparation and execution fairly stressful, though not too bad. A second time would likely be much less stressful, since I'd know what to expect.

On the one full day, Saturday, I facilitated a mini-conference of sorts. Everyone gave presentations and we discussed. On the whole it was quite interesting and edifying for all, I think. But I could have done some things better. It was too long, first of all. I should have planned a longer break in the middle, or split it across two days. I also should have kept time better, I was too relaxed about that. Next time I should also give people more guidance in the few weeks before, to support them in planning their presentations. The first time I couldn't really do this because even I didn't know what it would be like, but next time I will have a better idea of what to expect.

The numbers

A month beforehand I announced the idea and circulated an application form. One purpose of the form was to gauge interest and willingness/ability to pay, so I could then compare this data to projected costs and see if it was feasible.

Since it was my first time ever doing anything like this, my only goal was to actually pull it off and send everyone home happy. My only financial objective was to break even. And I acted accordingly, which meant that I spent any potential profit on any little thing that might increase the odds of success and decrease the odds of serious problems or unhappiness. If I do another, I will probably try to earn a modest profit, and when I prove I can reliably deliver experiences that people love, maybe in the future I'll be able to do quite profitable events. So far, so good!

I received a total of 46 submissions.

I decided to try an aggressively tiered pricing model. The idea was to offer a few expensive options, so that hopefully I could use that money to offer a few spots for people who are broke. I gave people three options. Remember that this is before I even booked a place. I checked out some prices on Airbnb and suggested these options based on some very loose math.

53% or 25 people wanted the cheap option: Floor/couch/sleeping bag on a first-come, first-served basis (2 nights) for ~$100

36% or 16 people said they'd want a private bed in a shared room (2 nights) for ~$300.

11% or 5 people said they'd want a private bedroom in their own room (2 nights) for ~$900

So then I emailed everyone who I thought would be a good fit. I should note that this quickly became a clusterfuck. Since I'm now a regular user of Airtable (it's my no-code database on the backend of IndieThinkers.org), I tried to stay organized by importing all the responses into Airtable but I was a day late and dollar short. So it was really chaotic, and I think I possibly failed to email some people (sorry if that was you!). But I wasn't sure if this event would even really happen, so I wasn't going to make a whole slick system in advance! But now, I know that if I try something like this again it's really going to happen — so next time I'll create a robust system for managing this stuff before announcing and receiving applications.

In the end:

4 people paid $100

4 people paid $300

1 person paid $900

This would have amounted to a total revenue of only $2500, which could have got me a crappy LA mansion, but I would have still needed money for food and booze (which I promised).

Honestly I could have just hyped it more — made more blog posts, videos, go on podcasts to talk about it, etc. — and I would have gained more paying guests. Every time I mentioned it publicly I got a handful of new applications. But luckily, a random person on Twitter asked if he could donate $1500 to the event (he declined to be mentioned in gratitude). Thanks again dude!

So once that happened, I pretty much crossed the threshold of revenue required for me to confidently book a legit mansion. Total revenue: $4000. I closed the application form and focused on making this happen. Only had a month or so.

I booked a nice place in the Hollywood Hills that could sleep 15 people. The mansion cost $3,282 for two nights.

Based Mansion, living room

Instead of trying to get more paying guests, I decided to use the extra space generously and focus on making it the best possible experience for everyone.

First, I offered a free private room to the guest speaker at my live podcast event. Surprisingly, he accepted and stayed at Based Mansion all weekend. In retrospect this worked out really well for everyone, because he seemed to really enjoy himself and obviously event participants always enjoy having some "featured speakers" with name recognition or whatever. So that was an accidentally great thing; next time I should probably try to bring on board some "featured guest(s)" on purpose. If you're a semi- or micro-famous intellectual of some kind, hit me up and maybe I'll pay your expenses to come out to my next event.

Next, on a first-come-first-served basis, I offered free spots to already paying members of my private community for independent intellectuals. It was a natural fit, and I'm still experimenting hard with ways to deliver as much value as possible to my people in that community. On the whole, the composition of the group that attended Based Mansion, and the chemistry as a whole, was honestly pretty perfect. So in the future I'm planning to make my IRL events free or at last steeply discounted for paying members of IndieThinkers.org. I think that aspect worked out well.

Dinner on Saturday night I had catered by Chipotle. Dinner cost $298.90

I promised a light breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and ample adult beverages throughout. Before arriving at Based Mansion I picked up these things; that supermarket run cost me $300. One of the guests chose to make their own supermarket run and buy a bunch of other nice things for the group. Had they not, perhaps my $300 worth of things would not have been enough. Or it might have been uncomfortably spartan. So next time I should plan to spend a bit more per person.

I had to Uber there and back and that was kind of expensive. I think it was about $30 each way. So figure $60 for transportation costs.

The labor cost was substantial, unsurprisingly. I use Toggl to track how I spend my time, so I can tell you I clocked 33 hours and 7 minutes preparing the LA event (not counting the hours being in LA). This overstates the labor cost for Based Mansion insofar as I also did a separate, live podcast show/party at a public venue on that Friday night (which I counted as one project in my time tracking). On the other hand, my time tracking under-estimate labor costs insofar as it only counts focused work sessions, and I definitely did a lot of little random things like emails and DMs about Based Mansion that I didn't always punch the clock on. So it's probably not a bad estimate of how long it takes to plan something like Based Mansion. So if you count the labor costs then of course Based Mansion did not break even. But it was fun to challenge myself and I can write off the labor cost as an investment: by earning the trust of people and showing I can and will deliver on apparently extremely good IRL events, I am earning the right to do bigger and potentially more profitable events in the future. So forgetting labor costs, the final tally looks like this...

Total Revenue: $4000 -
Total costs: $3941 ($3,282 + 298.90 + 300 + 60)

I kid you not, it really cut that close.

Goal of it actually happening: accomplished.

Goal of breaking even: accomplished.

Goal of creating an extremely unique, fun, edifying, and memorable social-intellectual experience: accomplished.

I profited 60 bucks, for only 33 hours of labor! That amounts to an hourly wage of about about $2/hour. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Additional observations for next time

I kind of wonder if I should have taken more photos and videos, and shared them more publicly. I chose not to, out of respect for everyone's privacy. But if I wish to do more events then having good photos and videos in circulation would probably have a major positive effect (thinking with my business hat on for the moment). On the first try, going too hard on that probably would have been corny and might have felt weird to people, so I'm glad we didn't. But in the future, perhaps, if I can set expectations adequately, and get permissions, it would be good to come away with more photographs and videos of what the whole thing was really like.

Another obvious takeaway is that, next time, I'll need to go for a higher price point on average. I don't at all regret offering a really cheap option and getting scrappy to make it happen, this first time around. But next time I'll probably make the cheapest tier more expensive, and then offer scholarships quietly to whatever degree I can. Personally my mind keeps envisioning, say, a week in the mountains for people writing books, somewhere more like $500/per person. Maybe some fancy VIP tier for a higher price tag. Then if there are really great students or broke people I'll just let a few come for free or something like that.

And finally, again pretty obvious, if I plan my next one much further in advance, I should have no problem making the finances work. Doing all of Based Mansion in about a month was kind of ridiculous, in retrospect. The planning actually wasn't too bad to do in that time, but many people need more time to book a weekend trip. So next time I'll announce at least 3 months, and probably more like 6 months, in advance. Probably on my newsletter first, ahem.

The bibliography

I did my best to take notes on all the books and films I heard mentioned by anyone at Based Mansion. Check out the bibliography of works cited at Based Mansion LA.

Calling all indie thinkers (literally)

Over the past week, I’ve conducted more than ten private Skype interviews with a diverse group of internet intellectuals, “content creators” of the higher-brow variety, cancellation-vulnerable professionals, and lesser-known upstarts aspiring to be one of these…

The reason I organized these Skype calls is that I spent the past month studying all the best practices that have emerged from lean/agile tech-startup culture. After nearly exhausting all the relevant Y Combinator and Indie Hackers content, it became apparent that one of the most important ways to succeed in building something effective and financially sustainable on the internet is to talk with the people for whom you plan to build it.

In my case, all I know is that I seem to find myself at the center of something quite new (conducting a financially sustainable academic career purely on the internet) and a decent quantity of people are now contacting me for various forms of advice. This seems to suggest I am in a position to create something of value for people, but I’ve never seen myself as an entrepreneur or “founder” and I’ve never really had any visionary business ideas.

But I really need to start making money lol. I’m now fully 6 months out from exiting academia and, while Patreon and freelancing odd-jobs are currently enough to pay the bills, it would be nice to put some caviar on my nachos.

So I figured I would learn everything about how and why startups succeed/fail, and then transfer that knowledge to the “content creator” game.

I still don’t know what, exactly, I’m going to build. So I’m just doing the one thing that everyone in-the-know says you should absolutely do first: I’m having one-on-one conversations with people in my orbit about their “pain points” (I know you like that business-speak baby). I’m trying to figure out the problems encountered by other internet-based intellectuals, cancelled or cancellable academics, and higher-brow “content creators,” and then I’ll try to solve them with something that people want to pay for.

I have no idea if this will work. After talking with people, I honestly now feel like I’m starting to see a vision of something that could really work, but entrepreneurs are notorious for their irrational over-confidence. Discounting for that, I feel utterly clueless about whether I’m really onto something.

So I’m just going to keep moving forward, in very small steps, trying to converge on an objectively data-driven idea. I’ll keep you posted, of course.

One positive result that’s already emerged from this exploration is I’ve come upon a possible catch-phrase to summarize this weird, pregnant-but-not-yet-born niche I’ve been theorizing. It’s simple, natural, short, and unpretentious. It is at least 10x better than all the awkward and cringey phrases I’ve been using until now, for lack of any better options. Instead of repeatedly saying things like “internet intellectuals, content creators of the higher-brow variety, and cancellation-vulnerable professionals,” from here on out I’m just going to refer to us all as indie thinkers.

By the way, if you feel this describes you, I’m still conducting interviews. if you’d like to setup a short Skype call. I'll just ask you a few questions about your problems. Who doesn't want to vent about their problems?

Introducing Deleuze vs. Heidegger on Technology, Enslavement,
 and Escape

That’s the title of an online course I’m developing with Johannes Niederhauser. You may remember Johannes from his widely admired appearance on Other Life: “Heidegger, Ecstatic Time, and the Community of Mortals” (livestream, podcast).

Our plan is to produce about 8 hours of content, mostly traditional lectures and a couple of discussions. There is no firm date set for the release — whenever it’s ready — but it shouldn’t take more than a couple months or so.

We’ll be doing a livestream introducing the course project this Sunday. The watch page is here. Subscribe and click the bell to get a notification when we go live.

Quick note on a site change

For those of you who've subscribed to receive my blog posts via email, you'll notice my posts are now coming from a different email address. This is just a quick note to let you know, in case you're confused.

Email replies still come directly to my inbox, so feel free.

Advancing to Level 2

I’ve now been on Patreon for one year. It's been good, but I think I need to level up. Would you like to help? If so, I have a new flashy object with your name on it. Read on.

Review and Projections

First, a little review of my Level 1 experience thus far. Patreon growth rates seem healthy enough, as you can see below. No particularly spectacular hockey-stick trajectory, but slow and steady seems good to me.

Other Life Patrons

According to my Youtube metrics on Socialblade.com, I’m currently on track to have 11k subscribers by this time next year, and more than 1 million views. In 5 years, I’m on track to have 143k subscribers and more than 14 million views.

As far as I can tell from piecing together podcast market data, the Other Life podcast is somewhere around the 80th percentile globally. Not bad, but I think I can do better.

Thus far, I've done almost everything — livestreams, videos, and podcasts — with just two pieces of cheap, basic gear: The Blue Yeti mic and the Logitech c920 webcam. Each one was about 100 bucks.

Leveling Up

Now that my audience seems to be growing consistently — especially in the past few months — I think right now is the time for some long overdue upgrades. Especially the audio on my livestreams and podcasts — I really want to give listeners a noticeably more enjoyable experience. When my wife and I took a little road trip a few months ago, it was the first time I drove a car in many years. After listening to some random True Crime podcast for hours at a time, I really changed my mind about the importance of audio quality for podcasts. Professional audio quality is like an ear massage. Professional audio quality won’t make you interested in a podcast, but if you are interested in a podcast, then professional quality dramatically expands how long and deeply you will listen. On that drive, I sadly realized that very, very few people would ever choose to listen to my podcast for several hours on a long road trip. Nobody can listen to anything for that long, unless it includes a free ear massage. I am sure that haphazard audio also decreases word-of-mouth recommendations.

And now that I'm even livestreaming / podcasting with other people in a shared physical space — and potentially with guests passing through town as well — we really can't all sit around one USB microphone anymore.

So the time has come for a basic but adequate, entry-level-professional setup. A few dynamic mics, possibly two cameras, and some solution for mixing multiple mics into livestreams, videos, and/or podcasts.

This will get expensive, so for the next two weeks I’m going to conduct a light but frank campaign to boost my Patreon numbers. I promise not to do this again, at least for another year (one short and sweet annual campaign seems reasonable for "content creators").

In the past year, a lot of people have told me about their plans and intentions to eventually become a patron. If you're one of these people, I’m writing this post to remind you. If you've been meaning to become a patron, just do it now.

If you're a fan of my stuff and you'd personally enjoy higher production quality — perhaps you wish my podcast was audibly pleasing enough for long drives — then become a patron now. Or if you're already a patron, consider bumping your pledge temporarily as I level up.

A Special Gift (possibly — probably? — worth millions one day...)

If you become a patron before September 18, you’ll be grandfathered into the official class of Other Life OGs. After September 18, you can still become a patron of course — but you’ll never be able to say you were with me from the beginning. C’mon, you want to tell your future kids that you supported me before I blew up…

To recognize and appreciate the official class of Other Life OGs, I’m introducing the very first piece of Other Life “merch" to ever exist. Here’s a preview.

It’s just a little sticker, but hey — a $2k baseball card is just a little piece of cardboard. Nobody in the world has this sticker yet, and nobody ever will — unless you’re an active patron of mine on September 18, 2019. It’ll be priced at cost, about 2 bucks.

If you decide to become a patron now, thank you.

If you boycott Patreon for political reasons, you can help fund my work through other channels: Donorbox, Paypal, crypto, etc.

Within a few weeks, as you start to notice better production qualities, you can take all the credit...

Progress report for first book project

I launched a pre-order form for Based Deleuze a little more than a month ago (June 20, 2019). I committed to publishing a short book of about 20k words by September 20 at the latest.

I currently have 15.9k words, so the writing itself has been proceeding smoothly. That’s great, but the financial viability of the project comes down to its total earnings and the total amount of time it will have required from me.

Let’s start with the time costs. I’ve always tracked my time, but since leaving academia I’ve been doing so with extra rigor. This is because my time-use data will be crucial for evaluating the return-on-investment of all the particular activities and projects within the Other Life ecosystem. Without this information, it would be nearly impossible to iterate my system toward long-term financial viability.

So far I’ve spent 52 hours and 22 minutes working on this project, including the product design and setup. This number is slightly biased downward, however, because I did have somewhere around 3k words worth of notes and fragments on my hard drive before starting the project. It’s also worth noting that I already spent a large amount of time reading toward this, over many years before now. Obviously, if I wanted to produce such a book on something I hadn’t already read a lot about, the time costs would be far greater. So extrapolations from this data assume future projects where I can again draw on pre-established reserves of my own past reading and ideas. Fortunately those reserves are large (one of the reasons I felt like I’d have a fighting chance defecting).

You might be curious to know where that 52 hours has gone, exactly. Here is the breakdown. I use the free time-tracking browser-extension by Toggl, and conveniently there is an R package connecting to the Toggl API, which allowed me to rapidly produce the table and graph below.

Task ~Time
writing 29h
citations/notes 8hr
reading 5hr
online audience research/outreach 4hr
product design/landing page 4hr
newsletter & patreon post introducing the pre-order 2hr
customer service 1hr
ebook tablet mockup 16min

Visually, it's easy to see that just sitting down and writing has been the lion’s share of the work. I should say, by the way, that these time estimates reflect only focused work. So "writing" means writing, not all the time I spent at the café where I went to "write."

Finally, we need to know how much the book is on track to earn. It’s currently guaranteed to sell a bare minimum of 96 copies for a total of $537.50. The graph below shows my royalties.

If I see zero additional pre-orders, then I’m currently getting paid about $10/hour, though that would probably become more like $6/hour given the work that remains to be done. Data from other projects I’ve seen around suggests that I’m likely to come somewhere near doubling this in the few days after the final publication. If we figure the book earns $1000 total, and the book will take me 80 hours all in, then my writing for this book will have earned me about $13/hour.

If your first thought is “that’s pretty bad,” then you are just a sad person! I am quite content with this midterm data, for a few reasons. A big question I’m eager to see the answer to is: How many sales can I expect, on average, each month after the publication hype is over? Even if it’s only 2 additional copies each month, on average, if I live to be 90 then that’s another $6,840 the book will have earned. Then I will have made about $98/hour for my fringe theoretical writing this summer. That’s pretty close to my current market worth, and more than I was making as an academic.

Another reason why I’m more than happy with the results so far is that it’s my first time producing a rather new kind of book, in a whole new kind of market. I don’t want to overhype my pioneer cred, but I’m the first academic I know who has quit a comfortable academic position expressly to convert all my work to independent web-based equivalents. Given the novelty and uncertainty factors, I have been very realistically braced for my first few experiments to fail or underachieve. Thus, from my point of view, these numbers are looking good as far as I’m concerned.

Also, presumably I’m going to learn a lot from this process, and I am connecting with more readers than I was connected with before, so it’s almost certain that future projects will do better than this one (on average). Especially if I deliver an excellent book that people find valuable, and they tell people, etc. "Growth mindset," baby.

Executive summary: So far, so good, in my opinion. There are tons of people right now, this minute, working for $13/hour or less. I consider it an early success to have established this as my guaranteed lowest-possible floor on my very first book — while writing exactly what I please, from wherever I want…

And of course, if you haven't already, pre-order Based Deleuze here.

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