To the readers of Farnam Street:
Most public companies issue an annual letter. These letters offer an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company to communicate with the people who own the company.
I decided this would be a good year to start a similar tradition at Farnam Street. It’s not that I haven’t written annual letters before. As a board member and advisor, I’ve written a few in the past. However, I’ve never written you an annual letter before. There is no good reason for that. To a large extent, I consider you to be the owners of Farnam Street.
Investors, or owners, traditionally exchange money for shares in a company. I think your investment in Farnam Street is just as important. You trust me with something far more valuable than money: your time.
For all of us, time is finite. That means we need to think about opportunity costs. Reading Farnam Street means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above average return.
2015 was a record year in almost every reader-related metric for Farnam Street.
The number of Farnam Street readers increased dramatically. The time people spent reading a page (a good proxy for how interested people are in the content) increased. The bounce rate (a fancy phrase for the percentage of people who look at one page and then leave the site) decreased dramatically. In short we had more people who read longer and looked at more pages.
We offered three public Re:Think Workshops (Leadership, Innovation, and Decision Making). This took a lot of effort from an amazing team. The quality of people who attend these events continues to blow my mind. One former Harvard Business School professor summed it up nicely by saying you won’t find a better crowd of people at a public event anywhere. The feedback for all of the events was positive with the exception of one person (over 100 positives and 1 negative – we’ll take it). I felt we were at risk of spreading ourselves too thin, so we've decided to pare down to two in 2016 (Decision Making in February, which is already sold out, and Innovation in the fall). We’ve opted to put Re:Think Leadership on hold for now. Additionally, we have 13 people coming to Re:Think Decision Making who have attended Re:Think workshops in the past (including 6 who are attending Re:Think Decision Making for the second time) — I can’t think of a better metric to help gauge success.
The Knowledge Project, a successful podcast, launched. The first few episodes have been downloaded over 100,000 times. The audio quality sucked at first — which is entirely my fault — so we’ve spent a lot of time and money getting that to a decent place. I can tell you firsthand, the quality of conversation doesn’t matter if people can’t hear it. We’re much better now but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Our first ever online product: How to be Insanely More Productive launched. I remember being on a train coming back from Toronto when I first put this online. I figured this was a good place to start as I’m often asked to talk about productivity. I guessed about 50 people would sign up and I’d get some good feedback on how to deliver an online course that delivered tangible results in people’s lives. I was blown away by the participation levels and extremely positive feedback. I still get emails almost weekly from people saying how it helped them gain control of their lives and spend more time with their family. However, similar to the first episode of The Knowledge Project, this webinar offered first-rate content in third-tier packaging. I had another webinar planned for September on How to Read a Book, but I delayed the launch until I could find the right people to help re-package and re-formulate the material into something much better.
Membership program and the economics of running an online media company.
Perceptive readers will note the change of perspective from “I” to “we” in recent posts and newsletters.
Farnam Street had reached the point where I couldn't do the things I wanted to do long-term and still keep the day-to-day going. Despite having a team of people working hard to bring you events like Re:Think Decision Making, it's largely been a one-person endeavor until now.
I had to decide between pursuing my goals short-handed, which limits what can be accomplished, and growing with like-minded people who share my vision for Farnam Street. I chose the latter. And the first such hire started in November.
In late summer I started courting Jeff Annello to work with me at Farnam Street full-time. Not only does Jeff exemplify the Farnam Street ethos but he's a paragon of quality thinking. We've worked together in the past and had been waiting for another opportunity to do so.
Many people don't realize that Farnam Street takes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars a month to sustain — and that was before bringing Jeff on board.
For years, generous readers like you have supported Farnam Street with donations. Without exception, I've reinvested all of that money back into Farnam Street.
I wish all help came as cheap. Jeff and his new fiancé, as you can imagine, don't fully subscribe to this long-hours, no-salary package.
This was the impetus that led me to Re:Think the donation model. While I haven't done away with donations, you can still contribute that way if you wish, I've opted to focus on a membership program.
Online media properties, as you probably know, are going through a bit of a rough patch as they look for ways to create and capture value. The problem, from a reader's perspective, is that most of these organizations want to capture more value than they create — they focus on the wrong side of the equation. This leads to a short-term engagement between creator and audience, as the latter realizes they've been had.
Farnam Street takes the opposite approach: Add so much value that people want to support it. Our goal is to be so good that having a membership becomes a no-brainer, while at the same time, using some of the proceeds from paid membership to improve the free areas of the site.
The vast majority of content will always be free, and you can expect the free content to increase in quantity and quality as we head into 2016. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you'll consider contributing either through an individual or corporate membership.
One thing I want to make clear is that, although I've done a good bit of the work to date by myself, Farnam Street is a team. There is no way we would have gotten where we are without the wonderful support of a few key people who wish to remain behind the scenes. These people play more of a role than you can imagine and we all owe them our thanks.
I also want to thank our lead sponsor for 2015, Greenhaven Road Capital and our two lead sponsors for 2016: Slack and Siebels Asset Management Research. It’s not too early to start thinking about 2017. If you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog please get in touch with me.
We will continue to work hard every day to offer readers and members more value in 2016. That’s not an empty statement. Allow me to explain. Here is what you can expect and hold us accountable for in 2016:
The quality of all content will be much higher. We will do better at adding context, presenting ideas in compelling ways, adding tools to your mental tool box, making things practical, and exposing you to mental models that will help you be better at what you do. We’ll further our exploration of what it means to live a meaningful life and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world.
The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience. While everyone has described their experiences so far as off the charts, I see so much room for improvement that it’s hard to fathom how we’re exceeding expectations. Everything from onboarding and hotel options to the overall experience while at the event will be improved. We have an amazing team in place for the events. They consistently sell out.
The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved. I’ve already taken care of this to a large extent. Where possible, I'll do more in-person interviews as these offer more meaningful and deeper conversations.
The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers. For a large part of the year there was an annoying little pop-up that appeared on the screen asking for your email address. This was a mistake. While it helped us grow at about 2500 readers a month, it’s annoying to some and degrades the reading experience for all. You deserve better. I fumbled here and hopefully recovered. I was aware of how annoying it was and failed to act. The allure of 100,000 readers is a strong pull — especially when my mother reminds me that her “small town” (my words, not hers) has more people than I have readers. Anyway, the pop-up is off now.
The site will function better. We will be seeking to engage a web designer in 2016 or 2017 to redesign the site to improve navigation, organization, and the overall reading experience. This is more about finding the right person or team to work with us and less about the year in which it happens.
Products will exceed your expectations. We have two new things slated to roll out in 2016 — a mini-course in January on How to Read A Book and a project I’ll reveal when the time is right. To help ensure we’re delivering at the quality and caliber you deserve, we’ve invested in hiring the right people to help design, develop, and deliver these courses. I hope you'll offer your honest feedback.
We have no idea what tomorrow will bring so we try to prepare for an uncertain future. I show up to the office every day looking for opportunities to move forward in the best way I can. That’s usually putting one foot in front of the other and trying to make incremental progress without regressing.
Thank you for your time and trust,