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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.

An automated system for delivering high volumes of exclusive content to patrons

This took a lot of tinkering, but I think I've finally figured out the best currently available way to manage and deliver a wide variety of exclusive items to patrons.

Optimizing and automating the links between research, production, and dissemination will probably be one of the main edges that internet intellectuals have over institutionalized intellectuals — so I am working hard to maximize this edge.

I shared this with patrons a few weeks ago, now I’m sharing it here in case other internet producers find it useful.

What wasn’t working

Periodically uploading stuff to a Dropbox and giving patrons a link — as I had been doing — was not great. It wasn't easily or effectively searchable, and patrons didn't have any way of knowing if something new was posted.

I was going to give patrons access to my Evernote archive — I got this idea from Gwern, who seems to live near the cutting edge of internet production efficiency. In fact, I became a patron of his just to get access to his Evernote, to see how he does it... With ~50,000 notes, his archive was almost completely impenetrable for me (I do have a 2013 MacBook Air, admittedly, but it's still lightning quick for pretty much everything I do.) The web version was unable to load or scroll or search fully, and when I tried importing his shared notebook to my desktop Evernote app, the app was unusable for a whole day (stopping sync and exiting and logging in and out wasn't even enough to fix it; I figured it out later.).

I’ve also been trying to figure out how to give my patrons advanced access to podcasts as well. Patreon has a facility to provide patrons with an RSS feed for podcasts, but they don't have a posting API so it would become yet another manual task for me. It might sound like no big deal, but I need to be ruthless about minimizing manual tasks, or I'll never get any serious work done.

What I finally decided on

Patrons at $5/month now receive one exclusive, searchable archive of pretty much everything I’m working on, before any of it gets published: Not-yet-published writings, all my reading highlights as I clip them, pre-release podcasts and transcripts, pre-release videos, raw materials with no destination yet, cut material with no destination yet. Plus 3 separate RSS feeds to help them follow along in a way that works for them.

1.) There is one master, high-volume RSS feed of any and all new updates to the drive. That one is a bit messy since it reflects a wide variety of new items. Subscribe and follow along to see what's brewing, but I can't promise this will be particularly pleasurable reading on a daily basis.

2.) A separate, clean, always-readable RSS feed of web reading highlights from the news and blogs I read (and whatever pre-1923 books I’m reading from web archives).

3.) And then a separate audio RSS feed for all of my podcasts before they publish, and any other miscellaneous audio content I might be working on or playing with. This one can be added to podcast apps.

An extra benefit: Unedited podcast transcripts are also included, and they're searchable. These will not be edited for the foreseeable future, so they won't be usefully or enjoyably readable. But if you heard something cool in one of my old podcasts, and you can't remember what it was, or which one it was, a search of the hard drive has a decent chance of turning it up. The day might come when it will be feasible for me to have these edited, but that's not on the development roadmap at present.

If you're not already a patron, you could join just to get the links, and then peace out. Or ask around. I don't really care, I'm generally pro-pirating.

I want to create a system, a community, and such great work that those who can spare the cash want to do so — even if it's easily pirated. And if people honestly can't afford to pay for things, then I want them to have it.

How I set it up

The system is not terribly sophisticated. I just wired a few web services together. Below I’ll just describe the setup generically. If you’d like to see exactly how I set this stuff up, let me know. I could do a post on it, but won’t waste my time if nobody’s too interested in this stuff.

The best service for hosting a patron-only hard drive turned out to be Google Drive. Its API seems more flexible than Dropbox and its various Docs and Sheets and so on allow me to slot my various items into the Drive in a way that's efficient and tidy. Finally, it has fast and reliable search across the whole shared drive. It seems that the search function even covers words inside of images (such as screenshots), thanks presumably to Google's built-in OCR. So patrons are given a shared link to this master drive. As I said above, I’m not worried about policing the link.

Then I used Zapier to create a few automations that route my everyday reading and working activities into the Google Drive, sending different types of media into a few different folders. The final RSS feeds themselves are generated by Zapier, too. The RSS feeds are linked to particular subdirectories in the drive, and they leverage some filters, which is how I can ensure that the reading highlights RSS and the audio RSS will only contain the correct content types.

For all the news and blogs and web pages I read, I’ve always used Feedly. Any web page I decide to read gets sent to Read Later on Feedly, via the Feedly browser extension for Chrome. Feedly has nice highlighting with an API, so everything I highlight gets automatically logged into a spreadsheet in the Google Drive. That logs the URL and the date. Then the highlighted text gets sent to the reading highlights RSS. (If the snippet is less than ~200 characters, it also gets tweeted with the URL).

I read epubs and Kindle books and PDFs on my iPad. For text highlights I use some scripts to generate tidy PDFs of my highlights into the Drive when I’m done with something.

A Tidy PDF of Book Highlights (Example)

A Tidy PDF of Book Highlights (Example) A Tidy PDF of My Personal Highlights From a Book (Example) — get one here.

For graphs or tables or anything that’s not highlightable, I take a screenshot and send it to the Drive. That’s robust and snappy via the iOS share menu. Non-standard stuff like screenshots will get picked up in the master RSS feed. Screenshots actually display nicely. Patrons last week could have followed along with all the graphs I clipped from Norris and Inglehart’s new Cultural Backlash. See, for instance, how this screenshotted graph would appear in your RSS reader (in this case, Feedly):

For my one-man podcast operation, I use Auphonic for automated editing. Auphonic lets you export to multiple destinations at once. In addition to exporting to Libsyn, where I will schedule podcast releases into the future (to spread them out), I set Auphonic to post every new edited podcast into the Google Drive. These automatically get pushed to the exclusive podcast feed immediately, so as soon as something is edited then patrons can hear it.

Also, anything added to Evernote gets pushed to the Drive as well. The benefit of this is that Evernote has the best web clipper I know of, and integrates with nearly everything. The drawback is that Evernote itself is slow and clunky, and when Zapier exports Evernotes into my Google Drive, they are somewhat unpredictable and not always very good looking or ideally formatted. But it works and the exported content shows up in Goole Drive search, which is the main point. (Nobody will be going into the Drive to enjoy or use anything there, but to find and take it.)

For anything else, I just have to drag and drop into the Google Drive web page. But that manual task is much easier than posting anything whatsoever into Patreon’s website. And no doubt I’ll figure out ways to automate more processes.

As I made clear to my patrons, this system is still in “beta.” I’m sure there are some bugs, and I’ve asked patrons to let me know of them. But I did test this system rather extensively, and it seems to be the richest possible system for patrons to observe and explore what I’m brewing — while decreasing, rather than increasing, the amount of time it takes me to share work-in-progress with them.

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