Free hotels, brushes with greatness, and exploding pancakes. The origins and lessons learned from a 6-year passion project.
The origin of The Hopkinson Report blog and podcast was pretty simple.
I had just come on as the product marketing manager for WIRED and I knew that podcasts were taking off. Searching for "wired" in the iTunes store led to muddled results with poor branding, while our sister publication at Conde Nast, The New Yorker, had a beautiful landing page with coordinated icons. So I dug into Apple's requirements and was told:
"To have an 'artist page' on iTunes, a brand needs at least 6 podcasts. You only have 5."
Armed with my spanking new Macbook Pro, a basic knowledge of Garage Band, and in retrospect, way too much cockiness, I concluded that I should be the one to create a sixth show and have my own podcast under the hallowed WIRED brand.
In fact, it led to a compliment that I'll never forget. I was walking with my then-girlfriend down 14th Street in Manhattan, excited about the prospect of my own show but working through the logistics. Suddenly she stopped, turned to me, and said:
"You've never once thought about how this experiment could fail, have you?"
I was speechless. She was right. This was all brand new to me. I was going to get a lot of exposure. There were a ton of moving parts. This could go horribly wrong.
But she was also right that ... while I was concerned about some of the logistics, I never once thought that this new experiment could fail. It was a huge insight for me, and it's one that modern tech companies fully embrace:
Do the research
Take calculated risks
Don't dream about it... test it and "ship it!"
If something doesn't work, it's not a failure, it's a plot twist
So with that, I flew from NY to San Francisco to officially pitch the show to a group of WIRED staff, including the Senior Writer at Gadget Lab, the PR Director, and Senior Producer.
The meeting unraveled into a wild tale involving domestic terrorism, celebrities, rats, and exploding pancakes, and thus is best told in person,
The bottom line is that I somehow got the go-ahead, and was off and running on a 255-episode venture that led to dozens of interviews, rooftop parties, research on Japanese toilets in Tokyo, free international travel, insightful SEO experiments, and a book deal.
Timing is everything
On the plus side, part of the reason for my "success" was that I was at the right place (WIRED) at the right time (2008) and made things happen. Everything was new and exciting, which made it a lot easier.
Joe Rogan, Marc Maron, and Adam Carolla all started their podcasts around 2009.
On the down side, I got out too early (2013). After 6 full years behind the mic, the podcast was no longer serving me, so I shut it down. Unfortunately, there was still room to grow.
In 2014, big names like Tim Ferriss and James Altucher launched their podcasts, as well as the shows Serial and Startup. Apple made listening to podcasts on the iPhone easier, and sponsors started throwing cash at niche audiences.
Or check out this detailed Podcast Ecosystem research report out of Silicon Valley.
So you might be asking ... should I launch my own podcast?
The optimistic answer is yes. As I just noted, even when it seems they've hit a peak, there still might be room to grow. With the ubiquity of mobile phones, everyone has a podcast player in their pocket, which means instant access while at the gym, doing errands, or commuting to work.
The realistic answer is no, don't start a podcast. People often come up to me with great excitement about their new podcast idea. My response if I'm feeling particularly snarky?
"That's amazing ... tell me when you get to episode 10."
Reason being, in early 2019, there were approximately 700,000 podcasts. What will you do to differentiate yourself? How will you be so compelling that you will force a current listener to replace one of their favorites with yours?
Much like blogs, podcasts are relatively easy to set up ... but notoriously difficult to maintain.
Lump it in with your New Years resolutions to hit the gym 3x a week and only eat organic kale salads for lunch if you will, but consistency is key. What sounds fun and exciting at the beginning, becomes real work after a month or two. Thus, I'm guessing 95% or more of podcasts never make it to double digit episodes.
It's all about the relationships
The overwhelming benefit from doing my podcast for 6 years were the relationships that I fostered. Look at the all-star list of people I got to meet:
Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder, author, and investor (and now Mr. Serena Williams) who was incredibly down to earth, funny, and genuine from Day 1 (Episode 3)
Mitch Joel, Speaker, Author, Podcaster, Senior Executive (and mentor) who connected me with his agent, leading to my book deal
Adam Carolla, Host of one of the top-ranked podcasts, actor, comedian
Julia Allison, A dynamic WIRED Magazine cover subject as the "internet influencer" economy was first taking shape; advice when meeting her was "brace yourself"
Diana Levine, A genuine, unselfish celebrity photographer (Kim Kardashian, Barack Obama, 50 Cent, Paris Hilton) who ended up taking headshot photos for me
Jason Zook, An amazing entrepreneur who later became a coach and friend
Matt Walters, A friend and voiceover actor who humored me with funny accents
Jeff Howe, A WIRED writer and author who coined the term "Crowdsourcing" and coincidentally has the same initials and birthday as me
Anthony Casalena, I interviewed Anthony in 2009 when he was running a little startup with less than 30 employees; the name recently rang a bell and I looked him up ... oh yeah, now I remember ... his company was called Squarespace and now has 900 employees and a market valuation of about $1.7 billion
Kevin Hartz, Another 2009 interviewee for ticket company Eventbrite ($1.4 billion)
Grace Helbig, A relatively unknown YouTube star in 2010, now an actress, comedian, and podcaster, with 2.8m subscribers on her channel; Grace was kind enough (along with Michelle Vargas), to actually guest host my podcast while I was in the hospital with a broken arm from mountain biking; we've never met in person
The value exchange of having a podcast was really quite simple (though I understand I had the power of WIRED's brand behind me the first few years). I needed someone to interview that was cool and interesting, they needed a place to talk about what was on their mind.
After amassing more than 300,000 page views and 60,000 podcast downloads in its heyday,
TheHopkinsonReport.com blog still exists online, although it's showing it's age (it's not mobile responsive, there are some broken images, and the audio has been archived).
Is there are a future podcast on the horizon? I'd love it!
However, while I naively rushed into things the first time around with boundless energy, I'm now cursed with knowing how much work it is to produce a great, consistent show. While this has made me wait for the right opportunity, hopefully the stars (and pancakes) will align again some time in the future.