Nick Quah knows a lot about podcasting. He knows what’s new in the industry, how people are making money, and what people who are interested in podcasting should be focusing on. But he got into podcasting as a side project while working at a totally unrelated job. In 2014, he was working in media and analysis as a research associate. He decided to start a side project to pass the time. That undertaking is now an LLC and has earned him a name in the podcasting industry as a trusted analyst.
Quah writes the newsletter HotPod, a weekly source for podcasting industry information. It began, at first, as just an email newsletter Quah wrote for fun for his peers. Eventually it snowballed into a digital source for people in the industry. Now it’s a standalone business, thanks to a subscription and ad-based model for the weekly digest.
Quah was able to do what a lot of people dream about: Take a hobby and turn it into a side project and then turn that side project into a full-time job.
I talked to Quah about the process of quitting his day job to pursue his dreams.
(Full disclosure: Quah and I worked together a few years ago when he first started the HotPod newsletter.)
When did you first start getting into podcasting?
I started getting into podcasts at the end of college around 2011. But I really got into it in 2013 when I was in graduate school and I hated it. I just needed something to kill the time. It was also a bad mental-health period for me. Podcasting ended up being like a therapeutic crutch because I couldn’t afford a therapist. And they just stuck around ever since.
At the beginning, were you more interested in the storytelling or the business behind it?
As a fan I was interested in almost everything about it. I enjoyed the narrative stuff like This American Life, Radiolab, On the Media. I really liked the interview stuff like WTF with Marc Maron. And also the conversational podcasts like three people sitting around talking about stuff. I consumed a ton of those kinds of podcasts, whether they were about politics, news, video games, or design.
I went through the iTunes charts and got everything I could get and shoved it into my ears. I needed them to fill the silence. The fascination with the ecosystem came much later.
So how did you come to that realization that you were interested in the business angle, too?
I think it was partially because I was working at Business Insider at the time. I was a research associate. It was in 2014 when the Serial phenomenon happened.
I was just really fascinated that there was this thing that millions of people were listening to, and very few had figured out how to make money. And then suddenly there were people trying to figure out how to make money. It was the birth of a new creative industry. That was really interesting to me. It felt like we were watching chapter one or chapter two in the history book.
[Author’s note: Podcasting has been around for well over a decade, and there certainly have been successful independent podcasts for years. The second “podcasting boom” really began in 2013, according to Pew, which is when digital audio shows became more mainstream. Quah first began HotPod in 2014, a short time after that.]
What led you to the newsletter?
A lot of people in my life knew that I was the person that was really into podcasts, and they were really into Serial. They asked, “What should I listen to?” So I started the newsletter largely to write for [my friends]. I would just send it out to about 10 people and that was about it.
At my day job, I wasn’t getting the reporting training that I thought I was going to receive. So I started trying to do a bit of that on my own, to teach myself. So the reporting came out purely because nobody else was doing it and I was interested.
I saw a lot of people trying to write about Serial, but it just felt that nobody quite understood what podcasting was, or what the culture was, or what the industry was. I decided that I could fill the gap, do something fun, and make this a side project. Maybe it’d look good on my resume. But then the thing just kept growing.
I was deeply inspired by Ben Thompson’s Stratechery technology newsletter. I essentially looked at what he was doing; I thought I could adapt a bunch of that to this publication.
At the time, did you think it would lead to a standalone business project?
No, not at all. At the time I really thought I was going to work in digital and newsrooms for a bunch of years; try to learn my way through that system. I started the newsletter because it was fun and I needed something to do on the weekends that wasn’t grocery shopping. I’m not great with downtime.
When did you realize it was becoming bigger than you anticipated?
I started to realize soon after it launched. There were a lot of subscribers that had the @WNYC.org and @npr.org email addresses. I was fascinated by the fact that they were interested in what I was writing. I realized that there hasn’t been a trade industry newsletter for that industry.
And that’s when I understood that I had a responsibility. A few months in, I reached 1,000 subscribers. Not long after, I reached 2,000 subscribers. Within a year I had 5,000. I thought, “I think there’s something there.” It isn’t big, but it means something to some people.
[Author’s note: Twitter played a crucial role in getting subscribers. Media people love to share what they’re reading, which was very helpful for HotPod.]
How did you teach yourself how to run a business?
I was building the ship as it was sailing. I had little reporting experience. I had no industry and analysis experience. And I had no entrepreneurship experience. I figured that if I could do the reporting and analysis, I could try to do starting the business, and maybe it would make sense.
I started to build the newsletter while I was at Business Insider, then I went to BuzzFeed for a while, and then I moved to Panoply, which is a podcast network. It felt weird that I was writing a newsletter about the podcasting industry while working at a podcast company. I thought if I was going to pick one or the other, I’m going to bet on myself. And the only way I could feed myself was if I was to build a business around it.
If I could have had a choice, I wouldn’t have built a business around it. I would’ve tried to find somebody to take a chance on me and hire me to do this work. But nobody was going to do it because I still don’t think anybody saw value in a podcast publication. So I thought, fuck it, I’m not going to wait. I built this thing–it’s weird, it’s bizarre, but it’s given me some momentum. I’m going to try to make money out of this thing. If I don’t, then I’ll just blow this up and go do something else.
So I formed the LLC. I figured out that it was probably better if I had some sort of supporter/subscriber/membership-oriented business [which gives exclusive content to subscribers who pay a monthly price]. When I put those in place, the initial signups were good enough to get me through the first couple of months. Then it grew into a nice size, which provides me with a not particularly comfortable living. But it’s a solid baseline. I also sell classifieds [in the newsletter].
Are you happy that you started the business this way? Going at it on your own?
I do think that, at this very specific point in my life, I made the right choice. I don’t think it would have worked if I worked for anybody else in the podcast industry.
The freedom has given me a lot more perspective. I wonder about my capacity to work with an editor or a person who is supposedly more senior than me because of my writing vantage point. I have inroads and ears and eyes [into the podcasting industry]. I would rather have autonomy.
Is there any sort of advice that you would give to someone who wants to expand their side project into something bigger?
The way I did this fits a very specific kind of human being. And it just so happens that I’m the kind of person that fits that model. I don’t like people telling me that they know better than me.
But I know how hard it is. It’s incredibly hard to go about it this way. If it’s not the mechanics and problem-solving aspect of the project, it’s how do you build a business? It’s the medium- to long-term plan with your weekly production of creating a newsletter. It’s creating a product and making sure that you are disciplined enough to sit within that production timeline.
It is unimaginably hard to work by and for yourself. It’s a little different because the classic startup story is that you have a group of founders that rely on each other. But all I have is myself.
It’s really important to become comfortable with the fact that nobody is coming to save you. If there’s something wrong–if you have no idea what the future looks like, you have no idea what the endgame is–nobody is going to come tell you what it is. You’re on your own. Either bail yourself out or give up.
I see this very much as a position of insecurity. It’s a weird posture because I also don’t know what the endgame is for me. I have long enjoyed writing about this industry. I do believe that it’s going somewhere. But in the off-chance that it completely blows up, I will leave it and find other things to do. For now, it’s a chapter in my life.