Today’s episode is all about creating content, in particular, how to create written content that people actually want to read.
David Perell is the co-founder of an online writing school called Write of Passage, and he is an expert at teaching people how to cultivate ideas and distill them into writing.
He’s also an extremely savvy marketer, with tons of important insights into the future of social media and internet marketing.
David joins us on today’s podcast to share specific writing strategies that have worked for him, what it really takes to grow a Twitter account that has the potential to change your business, and a whole lot more.
E-commerce finance is difficult. It requires a methodical, disciplined, and persistent process with a trusted partner and deep subject matter expertise.
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There is no better way to optimize your e-commerce business profitability than to reach out to the team at Ecom CFO, and a big thanks to Ecom CFO for sponsoring the show.
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Dan: Welcome back to the pod we’re just gonna jump right into this one. So much to take away from this conversation. I am still talking about the ideas with my team, how we can implement some of today’s guest’s strategies. I really believe he has many important insights into the future of marketing, and processes that we struggle with, whether it’s written content or otherwise, things that our customers actually want to read. So today’s guest is David Perell. And he’s developed in partnership, with author Tiago Forte, a successful online writing school called ‘Write of Passage’. And we’ll get into more of what that means and how he teaches people how to cultivate ideas and distil them into writing. In today’s conversation, David’s going to share his own insights and strategies that have worked for him. In addition, we’ll discuss the details of what it takes to grow a Twitter account that has the potential to change your life and business. And we’ll take and we’ll get his take on the hotly debated topic of ‘To Pseudonym or Not to Pseudonym’.
Dan: That and a lot of other good stuff coming up. I absolutely loved this conversation. So let’s get to it. I started out by asking David, what distinguishes ‘Write of Passage’ from more traditional online courses, where you just click a ‘Buy Now’ button.
David: So we run live cohorts. And a lot of the way that the internet went for the last 10 years, at least online education, was thinking of passive income and making self paced courses where you’d make it once and then you’d benefit from making it for a long time. Just normal product, you make it once and then you sell it forever. And I think that works fine. But one of the things that was very surprising to me, at least, when I started running live cohorts was, first of all, as a student, they were much more impactful for me. So that made it exciting, because I could meet friends and I could just surround myself with people who had this passionate intensity and commitment to the course that was actually quite contagious. And second of all, if you actually think of learning, people who listen to this podcast have a huge selection bias. They’re people who are self learners, who are able to just go out and learn on their own. The fact is, for most really difficult skills like writing, it really helps to have people around you, there’s a reason that Harvard and Yale and like all these colleges, high school, middle school, elementary school, these are cohort based courses. And this idea of learning in groups, learning in communities is something that is one of those things that seems new, but it’s actually been the core of education historically.
Dan: That’s what’s interesting, because you’re using this word cohort. But we all know exactly what you mean, which is we’ve all paid to go to school at one point or another. Do you see yourself as competing directly with schools in that way?
David: I would say more and more ‘Yes’, right now, the answer’s ‘No’. I mean, when I go to Thanksgiving, I have to walk my aunt and my uncle out of thinking that what I do is an online scam, because that’s how online courses have been. And they were like, ‘Wow, so you’re just ripping people off online?’ And I’m like, ‘No, there’s actually this whole new movement of cohort based courses and live online instruction. And this thing is really serious’. So until I can go to Thanksgiving, and you know, Aunt Sue, or whatever, can look at me and say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty interesting. I totally get why you’re doing that’, I don’t think that we’re competing against education. But zooming out a little. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the different graduate level writing programmes that are offered at Ivy League institutions and just other places that have fancy coat of arms and multimillion dollar marketing budgets and none of them are fundamentally internet native in a way that ‘Write of Passage’ is. And over time, it’s classic disruption theory, where we can offer a product that I think serves a certain kind of customer better for now we can do it at a much lower cost. And over time, as we grow, and we develop and culture changes, yes, we will compete with graduate programs.
Dan: There’s a set of expectations that go along with paying Harvard to learn about writing, everything from the coat of the arms, to the status, to the network, and so on. What are those expectations for your students?
David: There are a couple things. So there’s content and there’s community, and then there’s just joy. So, with content, what people expect for me is that they’re going to be continually surprised and that I’m going to tell them things that they didn’t know. I think that a lot of the way that different communicators go wrong is they’ll just throw a bunch of facts at you. But the way that I see teaching is just looking at what paradigms and assumptions people bring to the table, and then only attacking those. I’m so excited to get to use this metaphor.
Dan: What’s one of them?
Dave: So yesterday, I had the first deep massage of my entire life. So I walk in there. And this woman is just like, killing me. And so she hits one of my pressure points on the lower part of my back, and I’m like ‘Ow’, and she’s like, ‘Wow, it’s funny, you feel more pain there, even though I go sort of less hard on your back in terms of pressure, because I hit your pressure point’. And I think that this is a great metaphor for teaching. What you want to do is you want to find the pressure points, in terms of the wrong assumptions and paradigms that people bring to the table when it comes to writing and I have three of them.
The first is most people think that writing should be a solo experience. So they’re like Henry Thoreau going out into the woods in the mid 19th century, I’m gonna go to Walden Pond for two years, I’m gonna come back with a big book. And I say, screw it, let’s make writing social, let’s make it conversational. And through conversation, we’ll come up with new ideas. The second is that you can write from abundance instead of writing from scarcity. A lot of people that show up to their computer, they’re ready to write. And they look at their computer, and they have a white screen with a black flashing cursor, and no information or ideas that they’ve collected to help them. I say, do the exact opposite, collect so many notes, so many ideas, and the residue from so many conversations that you just have so much information that you can’t even help but writing. And the third is that a lot of people write but they don’t publish. And as you know, from doing this podcast once since 2008, or so, when you publish ideas, you create serendipity for yourself, you create opportunities, you get feedback, the quality of your work improves. And so I say make writing social, write from abundance, and write in public.
Dan: Do you feel like writing has been devalued on the web in the last 10 years, especially long form?
David: So I think that there’s a lot of things that are like this. To the median person, the answer is certainly, yes. So, I have a theory that people are becoming less literate, and we don’t measure literacy properly, because we think of literacy as one thing, but there’s actually two different kinds of literacy. There’s what I call ‘street sign’ literacy. There’s what I call ‘library literacy’. So street sign literacy is the ability to look at a straight line, look at signing or filling out a form. That is a certain kind of literacy without question that’s gone up. It’s an incredible human achievement. Now, there’s library literacy. And this is the ability to read dense philosophy. This is the ability to think abstractly, to actually look at the nuance and the logic of an argument and begin to parse together what makes sense and what doesn’t. And I have a theory that that’s actually going down as a percentage of the population which, to answer your question, would mean yes. However, however, and this is a very important qualifier, smart people read and smart people will continue to read, because it’s the most efficient form of information transfer. And it’s the one that will continue to last the longest. So, if I make a YouTube video, in 15 years, it’s just going to look outdated, maybe even 10 years. If I write something, I know that people 300-400 years from now will be able to read that. And because writing is such an efficient form of information transfer, you attract the smartest and most qualified people by writing online. And there’s a direct correlation between the length and the wonkiness of what I write and how popular it is, which is the opposite of what most people think the trend is.
Dan: And the correlation meaning, the more wonky it is, the more popular it becomes?
David Totally, so my most popular essay is a 15,000 word piece on how Peter Thiel was influenced by Christianity. And the quality of people who’ve reached out to me from that piece is just sort of mind blowing, actuall. And you know, I write a bunch of short pieces, and they just don’t get the same. The same response. Now, there’s outliers all over the place. But I can tell you. for certain, that I am doubling down on long form writing, because of what I’m seeing, and because of the quality of people who reach out to me through it.
Dan: Let’s roll back to tapes a little bit and get a sense for … Obviously, I’m an enormous believer in your strategy and admirer of it in general. And I think it has like a tonne of benefits for business as well. So let’s go back and see how this emerged in you.
David: I totally mean this. I distinctly remember an afternoon, I was living in New York, and I used to get off work at around 5pm-6pm. And, during the summer months, I would go walk around Hoboken where I lived at the time, and I was trying to figure out, you know, what am I going to do with my life?
Dan: What were you doing?
David: I was working for an advertising agency. In New York. It was really cool. I was on the sales team. It was a cannonball into the professional world. The CEO of this company reached out to me and said, ‘Wow, you sound really obsessed with marketing and, and the future of advertising’, from a Twitter thread. And I said, ‘Yes’. And he said, ‘Come join our sales team’. And that year, we did $44 million in revenue with a team of four people. And we were doing social media for Twitter Jordan brand, Beats by Dre, and a lot of the most culturally relevant companies in the world, not because of my doing, but I just really got to see what it looks like to go sell to those companies. So I’d get off work. And I distinctly remember being in northern Hoboken listening to your voice on the Tropical MBA podcast, and just thinking, what do I want to do? And around that time, I came across people like our mutual friend, Taylor Pearson, who were making a living on the internet and it became very clear to me that I wanted to use the internet to further myself socially, intellectually and professionally, and that’s what I was able to do. And also that’s what ‘Write of Passage’ is about.
Dan: What were the first, like small things that you did, maybe some of those awkward first … things that felt too small given the vision you had in your head.
David: So a couple years before that – so I would intern in New York. And my sophomore year of college, I was sitting in my room, there was a company called Skift. They were a travel, news and data company, and I was on Twitter, they’re like, ‘Hey, we’re hiring an intern’. And I literally responded to the tweet saying I wanted to do it about 20 seconds after they posted it. So I get shipped up to New York, I do an internship that summer. I made $8 an hour that summer. And I can’t believe I mean, you know, I had help from my parents living in New York that summer, thank God, but I was in New York. And I really wanted to meet people. And my mom used to always say, ‘It’s all about who you know, it’s all about who you know’. And I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go meet people’. And so I would email all these people and be like, ‘Hey, let’s go get lunch. Let’s let’s do this, that’, and all these people would say no. So I’m sitting there, a 19 year old kid, and I’m like, I gotta find a strategy here. And so I started doing interviews just like this one. And so I would email people and say, ‘Hey, can I interview you?’ And I emailed the director of social media at ‘Golf Digest’, and at the time, I just quit the college golf team about a year before. And I love golf, thought I wanted to go work in social media in the golf industry. So this guy, 26 year old guy named Corey, and he had my dream job. So it’s like, ‘Hey, come to Conde Nast headquarters. It’ll be in Times Square on the 30th floor’. We did this interview, looking over Times Square, amazing. And two weeks later, he calls me up, I’m in my Brooklyn apartment. And he goes, ‘Hey, I’m going to a conference in San Diego, I have an extra ticket, want to come with me?’ And I said, ‘Sure’. So I went to San Diego and spent a week together out there. And I think that the reason why that was so impactful was just going through the motion of – reach out to someone who I’ve never met before, do something that helps them, have a good relationship with them, just enjoy each other’s company, then have some serendipity happen, and then keep that friendship going. It sounds so trivial, and so trite, but it’s something that I’ve done hundreds of times now. I make all my friends like this, my entire social and professional world comes through that same strategy. And I think it’s one of those things that you can hear intellectually, but it doesn’t really mean something to you until you actually experience it for yourself.
Dan: Do you think your mom is right?
David: Totally. I really think that who you know is important. Now, it depends on what you do. The returns for me from meeting new people have gone down slightly since I have started ‘Write of Passage’ because I just have a very clear sense of what I need to do. I just need to do the work and stuff. But early in my career, she was so unbelievably right.
Dan: Tell me about the few things that led to the founding of ‘Write of Passage’. It was your first business, right?
David: Well, kinda. So I was doing consulting. So basically I got laid off from this job. And I was just heartbroken.
Dan: So you didn’t want to quit and be this big, badass entrepreneur guy. You wanted to keep working at the advertising firm.
David: We were crushing it and so when something just rocks you, you remember dates perfectly. And I had just gotten back from a family trip. I come to the office on Monday, this is Monday, or Tuesday, January 2nd. On January 3rd I went out for drinks, and we had just gotten the Bud Light deal. And I remember looking at my friend Cam just saying, ‘Wow, this is a rocket ship’. And 48 hours later, it was Friday afternoon, I’d gotten a call from my boss the night before. And he said, ‘Hey, let’s chat’. And I came into the office the next day for happy hour, I had a Bud Light in my hand celebrating the end of the week, and he said, ‘Hey, come to the office’, and I found out that they’re doing a restructuring and it was time for me to go. I was just shook, shook. I think it is critical moments in time like that, you’re in such a state that anything somebody says to you, you hear and internalise in a way that your mind can’t be accessed like that in any other moment. And the director of HR, the guy who is in the office as I got laid off, he’s outside, he’s smoking a cigarette or something, as I walk out the building, you know, head down, and he looks at me and he goes, ‘You’re special, you really got something going for you. Keep going’. And who knows if that’s true? But he said that to me, someone who I looked up to, and it just gave me this rocket fuel of momentum. Now, what happened from there was it took me a while to really get my feet going under me.
So the whole idea at this advertising agency was this idea that people are media companies, and I said, you know, just scratch the media, people are really becoming companies. Okay. So now, where do we go with that? And it became very clear to me that every company was becoming a media company if they touched consumers at all. And so I tried to do some consulting, and ended up getting some gigs. And this all happened over like, almost a two year period, ended up getting some gigs. But mostly in the financial industry, helping people learn to write and I just got tired of telling people the same things over and over again. And it was just right at the perfect time where online education was really blowing up and I called my now business partner, Tiago. I said, ‘Hey, I’d love to make a course with you’. By the grace of God, he said,
Dan: Break it down a little bit. At the time when you’re doing the consulting. Are you starting to build your brand? You said you had the Twitter account.
David: That’s a good question.
Dan: You’re a beast on Twitter. Let’s just get that out of the way, and maybe dig into how the role that that’s played and all that.
David: So one thing that you might not know is I was a huge Casey Neistat fan at the time. Casey Neistat is a vlogger. He has now two and a half million subscribers on YouTube. And the whole idea of like, ‘I’m gonna film myself and make a video about my day’. Casey Neistat really popularised that, and he made a video every single day for 534 days. And I used to watch that every night in college. And so I moved to New York, because I was so inspired by Casey Neistat. And I said, ‘That would be something I want to do’. So I made a video every day for 114 days. And after 114 days, I had a grand total of 31 subscribers. I put in so much work into those YouTube videos, and nobody cared. Nobody cared. And they were so embarrassing, in retrospect, and I was just trying to figure it out, man. From there, I remember calling my dad, and I said, ‘I’m going to build an online audience. And I’m not going to try to do the whole celebrity thing, that kind of online audience. I think that there’s actually this new kind of online audience where you talk about ideas. And if you talk about ideas, then you can parlay that into a business. And I said, you know, what, over a two year strategy, this is not a good idea over a 10 year strategy, this is the best thing that I can do with my career. And I know it’. A lot of people talk about, ‘Oh, I need to predict the future’. And I’m not that interested in trying to predict the future, what I’m interested in is understanding the present at a deep enough level that then you can see, ‘Okay, what’s going to be a big deal? What is something that’s definitely going to grow?’ And it was like the law of gravity to me that the mainstream media was losing its monopoly over the creation and distribution of ideas, and that individuals were going to pop in and get a hold on people’s attention. It happened faster than I thought. But I’ve always known that to be true, and it’s still so undervalued by modern society.
Dan: You mentioned that attending Tiago’s course, ‘Building a Second Brain’ unlocked your passion for writing. You described to me what happened in that course, obviously, this is the moment this is that time period, what were the years that you were like doing consulting for financial clients?
David: So I did consulting for financial clients between about July 2017 and say, November 2018. And I took Tiago’s course in August of 2017. So I mean, I’m one year out of college at this point, I’m a 22 year old kid running through New York. And the thing about New York is – New York amplifies how you’re doing in life more than any place I’ve ever been. If you’re doing well in New York, it’s the greatest place to live. If you’re not doing well, in New York, it sucks. And I was not doing well in New York, I was a nobody. And I would look up at these giant skyscrapers, and I would be like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m just this little pawn on the ground. And there’s nothing to my name, I need to make something of myself’. And what Tiago’s class did for me, what the whole idea of writing from abundance did for me was, it made me realise that I could collect ideas over time. And that by the time I sit down to the page, writing is way easier for me if I can have existing ideas, and then distil them and translate them into crisper, cleaner, more compressed writing, rather than trying to sit down and just come up with ideas on the spot. I mean, I think if you were to poll 100 people for the quality of their memory, I would say my memory is in the bottom 10%. And so I couldn’t rely on my memory to write well, I was getting C’s in my college writing classes. But I was like, ‘Wait, I have ideas I can think. And I have a vision for how the future the world could look like’. And what writing from abundance did for me was it made me not get stuck when I would sit down to the page. I remember walking into Starbucks, sometimes sitting there for 90 minutes. And I wouldn’t get any writing done day in and day out. It gets so frustrating. I’d walk right out of the Starbucks, I would start walking. Boom, boom, boom, it was like a pop rocks of intellectual epiphany for me.
Dan: I love that concept because there are so many people that desire to write about their passions, but they get stuck. I was reading this book this morning called ‘A Course called Scotland’. Have you ever heard of this author? He’s a golf writer, his name’s Tim Coyne. So I think this is an interesting example. Because it’s not a heady topic. He’s talking about golf in Scotland, you know? But the idea is that if you want to write about golf in Scotland, just go there, go there. He’s playing 36 holes a day for 50 days. And the writing is going to just unravel from something like that. And I think, it becomes more complicated for a lot of writers when those topics become more esoteric but I think what you’re describing to me I’m relating to is a similar kind of approach, which is like, ‘Well, you know, do the equivalent of 36 holes a day, but do it in the ideas that you’re intend to write about?’
David: Totally what people miss about writing is they think that writing is typing. Writing is not typing. Writing is a collection of activities that you do that is essentially the approach that you bring to the life that you live. It’s the activities that you say yes to, it’s the way that you look at those activities as you go through them. It’s a form of conversation. Are you asking questions and trying to actually try to elevate the plane of conversation? Are you just going back and forth like a game of ping pong talking about the weather that day? Ok then do you have an idea, are you collecting notes, are you just letting those ideas flitter away into the wind? Then it is a way of living a life so that you’re trying to structure the world for yourself, trying to make sense of it, to tell stories for other people, and what you actually type and what goes on to the page is so secondary to the actual way of being. And this is the problem with isolating writing in terms of structure and grammar. I mean, that’s part of writing, but it’s such a small part of writing that it misses the point entirely.
Dan: There was a three year period early in my career where I was a writer, I essayed about the digital nomad lifestyle, and a lot of those essays ended up on this podcast. And one of the things I noticed about that life, I loved how you described it is – it’s always there. And it’s incredibly time consuming. It took me a long time to generate those pieces. How do you do that and run a business?
David: I’m trying to figure that out, man.
Dan: I mean, because this is the dream, right? That you would be able to generate an audience by living that writer’s lifestyle, by doing amazingly interesting things by cultivating ideas and theories and conversations, and then creating these beautiful, compressed roadmaps into that world for others. I love that work. But then making money off of it, that’s always been a trick because it’s a different energy almost.
David: So I think that there’s two questions there. The first is how do you manage the time that it takes to write and not just the time, it’s actually more the energy that it takes to write with running a business?
Dan: Tell me about that distinction, that energy versus time.
David: When I write for 90 minutes, I’m absolutely exhausted. I don’t think that people also realise just how much writing you can get done in 90 minutes. So I write for 90 minutes every single day. And I’m basically not in a good mood until I get my reading done. Now what I’ve started doing is I delete Twitter from my phone every single day. And I’m not allowed to look at an idea from somebody else until I’m done with my writing. So this morning, I sat down, pure focus, write for 90 minutes. And then, right after, it’s at that point, 9.30 in the morning, and then I can just start my day and do whatever. And I know that I’ve gotten my writing done. And when I get my reading done, I reward myself, I’ll go out, I’ll get some delicious tacos. I’m in Austin, so great breakfast, I’ll go out and get a delicious latte. Like I look in the mirror and I go, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, one step closer to being a prolific writer’. I mean that with no hyperbole at all, it’s like a touchdown dance. And the reason why I write in the morning is I need full, full immersion and high energy in order to do that. And if you’re doing low energy writing for, for two hours, you might not get as much done as you would with high energy writing for 30 minutes.
Dan: But how do you know that when you’re spending that hour and a half that that time isn’t squandered? That it’s not arbitrary time, that that writing you’re doing is making a difference?
David: So I’ll tell you exactly how I do that. What I do is I end every writing session with a message to myself. And then what I do is I spend 24 hours, a little less, 22 hours before my next writing session. And I think about exactly what I need to write about, and I get it in my head. That way, by the time I sit down, I’ve already done the thinking, I just need to get the stuff on the page. So tomorrow I’m writing this piece called ‘what happens when you hit a golf shot’, and it says ‘first, finish the section about the horse’s gallop. Second, finish the section about biomechanics. And then finish with the mental game’.
Dan: I’m just curious about the business element with Tiago, how did that phone call go? There’s part of the story where Tyler Cowen played a big role in you being able to … tell me how it all the soup all came together, where we’ve launched this highly successful writing school.
David: So let me start with the theory, then let me go to the practice, then I’ll end back up and I’ll show you how the practice goes right into the theory. So the theory is that, and this is what I want to do for 1000s of people over time, there’s a three step process that you can basically follow and doing that, if you have a long enough time horizon, and you’re pretty diligent and committed to getting better, this is the way to build an online business that that I know how to do.
So the first thing you do is you take a part of the world that you’re interested in, and you just start reading about it. And you say, ‘I’m gonna write about this every single week, some article here, some article there’. And when you start off, your writing won’t be good, it won’t be good, unless you’ve spent a lot of time writing, but that’s not most people. And it won’t be good and that’s okay, that’s totally okay, keep going. That’s step one. Step two is as you begin to write, your writing will get better. And rather than writing about, say, internet marketing, you’ll begin to write about a specific sector of internet marketing, for example, how you can convert people from Twitter to your email list, and you could go and become the world’s expert in that, you’ll end up finding a very specific niche that you can write about.
And as you do, you’re going to then attract all the world’s experts in that niche. And so what you do is you kickstart this virtuous cycle for yourself, where the better quality ideas get higher quality people, then you get higher quality feedback, higher quality information flow, which gets you to better ideas, and you then build an audience doing that. Once you have an audience and once you know a sector well enough, the holes in the sector where there’s opportunities for new business will actually be quite obvious to you, there are so many things about the world that are suboptimal or broken, places for economic opportunity.
The third step that you do is you start a business to go solve that problem. Now, what did I do here? So I started writing about how people were becoming companies. I had a series early on called ‘Naked Brands’. And the whole idea there was that on social media, people want to follow people, not companies. So that’s where I started. And I kept on following that rabbit hole, kept on building an audience. And all of a sudden, I had a bunch of people reaching out to me saying, ‘Okay, how do I build an audience? And how do I then get more leads for my business and sort of have what you have’, which is a certain kind of credibility. And then I started actually helping people do that. And one day, I went on Twitter, and I said, ‘Hey, my goal is to help 1000 people to write next year’, and I said, ‘If you’re interested in learning, shoot me a direct message’. And I got three 500 direct messages in the matter of a couple hours. And I think I had 12,000 Twitter followers at the time. It was just a ridiculous ratio. And I said, ‘Whoa, I’ve never experienced a flood like this’. And one of the things you realise when you spend some time on the internet, I just call it ‘the flood’. Like, when you somehow experience the flood, you just double down on that. I just wrote this piece called ‘Why you’re a Christian’ and I got all of these emails from people telling me about their stories and their own relationship with faith. And when you get something like that, you’re just, ‘Wow, you can actually experience the scale of humanity’.
And so that’s what happened to me. So I said, I’m going to launch this writing course. And from my very first launch, because I had that audience that I’d spent two years building. It wasn’t that big, probably 8,000 email subscribers, and probably 14,000 Twitter followers. So big, but definitely not huge by any stretch of the imagination. And, from that, we made six figures in the very first launch of ‘Write of Passage’. And we made about half of that and the second one, I was actually worried, total seriousness, I was worried that I had exhausted the market for everybody who wanted to write online. I was just scared that I wouldn’t have a business. And back then it was still kind of an experiment. And then it really started to take off and the whole thesis about online writing and really my ability to teach it to people, once I saw the success of some of my students, I ended up saying, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. And this is what I’m gonna do for many, many, many years’.
Dan: Did you struggle with this idea of your own credibility teaching others?
David: Yes. So Tim Ferriss used to promote this thing called the ‘Five Minute Journal’. And maybe he still does. But after I got laid off, and had no idea what I was gonna end up doing, I used to write in that journal every single morning. And there’s one section where you write sort of like a motto for yourself. And I wrote, ‘I’m going to turn my youth into an advantage instead of a liability’. So, to answer your question, as forthrightly as I can, I worried about that incessantly for years. And the strategy of my career was finding the pressure point of whereby youth could actually catapult me instead of bury me.
Dan: When I go to your website, there’s a lot of essays about all kinds of random things. Why don’t you just pump out essays about ‘How to write great on the internet, please buy my course’?
David: Honestly, I think that that would be boring. For every strategist, that is the smart thing to do. But now my motto is moved towards soul. And that is on a piece of paper that I look at every single morning
Dan: What does it mean?
David: It means to be driven by the heart as much as the mind, and to follow what excites me. I think that building an audience around online writing was a prerequisite for doing that. But also, it’s very important to me that I teach writing, not because I’ve written the best essays on how to write well, but because I’ve written really good essays where people say, ‘Wow, I want to write like that’. And it just so happens that I also teach writing. And that’s why I write about golf. That’s why I write about Christianity. That’s why I’m all over the place. Because my heart and my energy is bringing me in that direction. It’s what excites me. And I think that the reader can, in some very ineffable way, can sense excitement and enthusiasm in the writer. And that really helps to create good writing. And at the same time, I don’t want to be the person who built a successful writing school by just talking about writing the entire time, I really want my work to stand on its own, and just so happen to teach writing on the side.
Dan: Well, one of the things that you’ve managed to do is – I made a joke with Ian yesterday, where I was like, ‘We joined Twitter too early and too old to ever see it for what it really was’. For us Twitter was like a business card, it was like too close to our soul. Whereas I think you see Twitter in a completely different way, in a strategic way. Describe to me how you use Twitter and help old guys like me be better at it.
David: So it’s changed a lot. What happened with Twitter was – Twitter, as a company, made a decision to start having an algorithmic timeline. And then, from that, it homogenised the platform.
Dan: So what year was this about? Do you remember?
David: This was 2017-2018. So when I first started using Twitter, in 2014, people didn’t get likes on their stuff. And the only way that someone could see what you tweeted is if they followed you or followed somebody who retweeted what you said. So as a result, it didn’t have a routing mechanism like it does now. Now, if I read a bad tweet, or tweet that doesn’t get a lot of engagement, it will only be seen by say, 5% of the people who follow me. If I write a popular tweet, it’ll be seen by like 1,000% of the people who follow me like 10x more, millions of people more. And what that means is that Twitter, in a way that I feel very emotionally ambivalent about, but from a career perspective I just took advantage of it, basically said, ‘This is how you should tweet now, tweet like that’. And so it was very pithy, it was very punchy, rewarded, extremely clear writing. And that’s what I did. And I just tweeted over and over and over again.
It was actually only in 2020, where my Twitter audience just blew up. I started the year at about 30,000, I ended the year at about 160,000 followers on Twitter. It’s sort of like the Gulf Stream, there’s just these sort of like wind tunnels of strategies that you can just follow, and they can just take you there. And so that was really the tweet storm for, for me, and sort of still is like, if you write tweet storms, and you just ask people to follow you at the end, it’s just an amazing growth hack. And so that’s what I did.
Now, that’s just a number, and a number is cool for signalling and whatever. But I think that far more interesting is the ability to use direct messages. And that is something that Twitter’s really unlocked for me. I met all of my friends through Twitter, meeting them through direct messages, and it’s just the best tool ever created for making friends through ideas. Because what you do is you become a lighthouse for like minded people when you put ideas out on Twitter. And it also is the best way to actually meet people who think differently about things. I’ve been thinking a lot about some, just how to invest my money, for example. It’s just interesting talking to my dad, who is just older and grew up in a different time. He’s like, ‘Hey, read this Wall Street Journal article and do what the Journal says’. And cool. But the thing that I would rather do is, okay, I can use Twitter, and I can go find the world’s leading Bitcoin experts or investing experts or public markets, experts, and I can just start following what they’re saying. And then begin to sense make on my own, or actually reach out to them and have conversations. And I would so much rather do that, because then I can get some non consensus ideas, if I’m really gonna get after it and try to make some fun and risky investments. And so that’s what I use Twitter for,
Dan: How much would it cost for a founder to grow a popular Twitter account in 2021?
David: I don’t think it costs you anything in money. I just think it costs you a lot of time and a lot of energy.
Dan: How much?
David: A lot, man, I think that it took me two hours a day of spending time scrolling and producing on Twitter for the last couple years. Let’s just say 1,000 hours is what it would take you 1,000 or 2,000 hours to get to 50,000 followers on Twitter, if you’re doing it every single day, and you’re super committed. And, this is key, you’re willing to give the algorithm what it wants. All art is a balance between what the artist wants and what the medium wants. If you only serve the artist, you end up following what your heart wants, but you often don’t get a lot of success. And that’s where you end up with these tortured artists who are just doing what their heart is telling them to do. And then, on the other side, there’s all of these people who only serve the medium and they look at the platform, they’re obsessed with numbers, they’re obsessed with statistics, they just do exactly what the platform is optimised for. And the problem with that is it’s soulless, and it leads to burnout. And it ain’t no fun. And so as long as you can find that balance between what your inner artist wants, and what the medium wants, I would say between 1,000-2,000 hours.
Dan: Say I just graduated from ‘Write of passage’. And my intention is to focus on a small part of this new financial world that’s going to be emerging. Or it could be anything, say something international and fun, like banking trends across the world. I would go visit banks and stuff, I think that’d be really interesting, because I’m a boring guy, I like banks. Should I use a pseudo anonymous identity to do so? And how do you make that judgement?
David: I love this question. So I think for starters, way more people should be writing under pseudonyms and pseudonyms are absolutely awesome. And if I were to start again, I would strongly consider writing under a pseudonym.
Dan: Do you mean, you put YouTube videos up all the time, do you mean you’d be like anonymous in that way, or just mean, you’d be like, you know, Pave Dirrell?
David: No one would know what my face looks like, I would not show my face on YouTube, I would have my voice, but I would just work with a piece of software to tweak it. And I would have a fake character. I’d be like ‘The Austin Traveller Man’, or in this case, ‘World Finance Guy’. And I would create a whole persona. I mean, it’d be like Mickey or Minnie Mouse, this character would have a whole personality like Harry Potter, right? Like the way that you feel about Harry Potter. It’d be a cartoon character. And then what I would do is I’d build a whole voice for the pseudonym. And then, the way that I would really build equity, which you don’t get when you write under your real name. It’s not just about identity, it’s the fact that, if I take a year off, nothing gets written. So what I would do is, I would then hire a whole team. And I would just have a brand guideline, very similar to the ‘New Yorker’ where all these writers can write under the ‘New Yorker’ style, and it can have that same ‘New Yorker’ voice. And we would build a whole media empire under a pseudonym.
Dan: Or ‘The Economist’. There’s also the advantage of being able to be more honest. If I’m being honest, there’s lots of things I’m not willing to say on this podcast, because it’s associated directly with my identity.
David: Of course,
Dan: We kind of came up in this generation that’s like, pre, like, there’s plenty of examples of people doing this right now. But I think that that’ll be the norm in the future. Because you think about, just back to your Twitter point, the fact that you were like, more switched on to the reality of Twitter. Where I was a little bit more, ‘This is my business card on the internet’. And because of that over identification with it, not only did I kind of miss some of the changes or just wasn’t invested in them as a strategy. This idea that people get hurt by criticism online and stuff, because we’re not made to be personas at scale. And so now, for the first time, the internet is introducing the solution to this is like, ‘Hey, you were building David Perell the product the whole time, right? Don’t confuse that it was about you’, like, you know, all these famous authors, they were always building products that were in some important way separate from them. And now we can just basically get rid of the connection altogether. And still do it in a really soulful way. And I think that that’s definitely how I would do it, if I could do it all over again. I would be ‘Bank Finance Guy’, for sure.
David: I’m really good friends with some people who have giant pseudo anonymous accounts on Twitter. I mean, one friend, one friend has like 350,000 followers, and I actually don’t even know his real name. And we’ve hung out five, six times. We text every week or so about what’s going on in the world with the very smartest people I know. I call him by a pseudonym. And we all do. That’s what the friend group does. I’ve asked him, you know, ‘Who have you gotten to meet’, and all these sorts of things. And he’s gotten to meet the CEOs of multiple fortune 100 companies through the pseudonym because they reach out to him and his ideas are awesome. And I don’t think he’s giving much up at all, and he can be super free as a result.
Dan: Final question. I just want to talk about golf for a second. I think there’s this reputation amongst people that aren’t inside the game of golf, that golf is really stuffy and judgmental of outsiders. What’s your perspective on the golf community and what it has to offer to people who haven’t tried it out yet?
David: So I actually think that that’s partially true. Golf is actually two communities and one, which is what makes it so interesting. Golf has an element to it that is very stuffy. So if somebody invites me to, I’m going to go play a course called ‘Peachtree’ in Atlanta. It’s one of the top courses in the country, a private club. I know if I do something that is out of bounds, this guy can actually get kicked out of the club for having me as a guest. And I know that golf has an element of this very sort of classic stuffiness that a lot of people don’t like. Now, at the same time. Golf is also the beer drink and guys and gals at the Muni.
Dan: You mean municipal.
Dan: So it’s like the city golf course.
David: The city golf course. Here in Austin, we got a little pitch and putt, we can go out there with whoever the heck we want. And it’s super casual. It’s fun, it’s actually a lot closer to mini golf. And it’s casual. I think that golf really has both things. I’m quite fascinated by the elitist culture, I just think it’s interesting and I really enjoy the culture of just going around having a good time and relaxing. And so I think that golf is both. And also, there’s a real etiquette to golf because, the fact is, what you do on a golf course really impacts other people. If you play slowly, you’re going to hold people up, if you aren’t very good, you’re going to hit into other people, there’s kind of a danger there actually. And there’s just the culture but at the same time, other elements of the game are very open to just everyday people. And the reason why I encourage people to play golf is it’s the best game or activity I’ve ever seen in terms of making deep friendships.
Dan: Tell me about that.
David: When I was in high school, I had a friend named Xander, still do. Xander is my best friend in the world. Xander and I, every year, we only really see each other once. But we make time to go on a four to five day golf trip. And, in those four or five days, we get time together in depth where we go out and we’re having shared activity, and we’re creating memories and experiences together. We come in, we have lunch, we’ll sit down for dinner that night. And I think that’s how really strong friendships are formed through a combination of shared experiences that have a sense of challenge. And then also just what I live for is long one on one conversations. And golf gives you both of those. And you get to do it in a place that’s beautiful. And with the people that you love, and because you can play and be out there all day, you can build everlasting friendships.
Dan: I absolutely loved this one on one conversation. Big shout out to David. You can check him out and all his work at ‘Write of Passage’ and his wonderful personal website perell.com, and his very non pseudonymous Twitter handle is at David_Perell. That’s it for this week. Thanks to our final. That’s it for this week. Final big shout out to our sponsor, EcomCFO, reach out to them. Links to everyone and everything mentioned in today’s episode in the show notes over at TropicalMBA. That’s it. We’re out. See you next Thursday.