Farnam Street’s 2016 Annual Letter to Readers

To the readers of Farnam Street:

Most public companies issue an annual letter to shareholders. These letters present an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company on behalf of the shareholders to communicate with the people who own the company.

Last year I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street. To a large extent, I consider you the owners of Farnam Street.

Investors, or owners, typically 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: Time.

For all of us, time is finite. Reading Farnam Street means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above average return.

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2016 was a record year in almost every reader-related metric.

Readership increased approximately 20 percent, which was decent. We surpassed over 100k readers to our weekly newsletter, Brain Food (OK, that’s a pretty awesome milestone. I might have even celebrated with a bottle of champagne … or two.)

Visitors spent more time on the site (a good proxy for how interested people are in the content). The bounce rate (a fancy phrase for the percentage of people who look at one page and then leave the site) continued to move in the right direction. In short we had more people who read longer and looked at more pages.

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I think we all know that readership increased in spite of our website design, rather than because of it. Luckily, we’re tackling that problem next year thanks to the fine folks at Grain and Mortar. I can’t wait for you to see the new site.

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I’m often asked how we grow our audience. My simple answer is met with skepticism: Our readers tell their friends and coworkers. That’s it.

This is usually followed by an endless slew of unsolicited advice on how to “exponentially increase our growth.” A typical example is the “reward” for generating controversy.

A lot of websites create controversy intentionally. They want nothing more than for 50% of their audience to love an article and 50% to hate it. Why? Because both sides will dig in and then they will talk about it. When they talk about it they’ll link back to the original site, thus driving traffic (and, even more perverse, as a byproduct of how most search engines work, these arguments typically increase search engine rankings).

You almost can’t help but admire the cleverness of this strategy, which takes advantage of hard wired defaults both in humans and search to gain an advantage. This strategy is so common these days it’s not even divergent — it’s the norm!

However easy that play is, intentionally creating controversy to get pageviews isn’t a strategy you’ll find us employing to grow quickly. While it is important to account for arguments from all sides, we’ll stick to our knitting.

While we’re open to new ideas and ways to increase the value for readers, we’re not open to gimmicks or short term strategies. We’d rather be a tree that digs its roots deep, grows slowly, and can’t be easily blown over.

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Events

In 2016, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops (Innovation and Decision-Making) and private versions too. We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone.

One of the most surprising things about the public events is that people get to meet people who are curious, kind, and intelligent. In short, people just like them.

The quality of individuals who attend these events continues to blow my mind. This year we had attendees from Github, Tuft and Needle, AJO, Glimmer of Hope, Warburg Pincus, Rackspace, Inspire Environmental, and two difference branches of U.S. Special Forces, to name a few.

Last year, if you recall, I was worried that we were spreading ourselves too thin with respect to the variety of topics we took on. Reducing the number of offerings in 2016 was the right thing to do as it allowed us time to relaunch the website ReThinkWorkshops.com as well as make significant improvements to the content of both Re:Think Innovation and Re:Think Decision-Making.

Our next event is Re:Think Decision-Making in Seattle this March. I hope to see you there.

Podcast

The Knowledge Project, our podcast, reached over 350,000 downloads. Which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that we release about one episode a month. Things on this front will largely stay the same for the time being. We already have some exceptional guests lined up for early in the new year.

Tools and More

Productivity That Gets Results, our popular productivity seminar, continues to help people avoid the traps that get in the way of being productive. We want to help you spend more time doing what you want to be doing.

The Art of Reading launched to some great feedback and success at helping people improve their information consumption. Yes, we made a course about reading.

We spend so much of our time reading these days — whether it’s email, articles, blogs, books, or reports. The dividends to getting even 5% more effective at remembering, knowing when to skim, and connecting ideas becomes a non-linear outcome.

To my knowledge, our course on reading is the only significantly student-tested course that has worked for executives, teachers, students, NFL Coaches, best-selling authors and more. But we’re making it even better.

We undertook a significant effort over the past few months to materially improve The Art of Reading, which will relaunch in as soon as the video editing is done. (There is no reason to wait to purchase it if you’re interested, existing customers will have access to all the new content for free.)

I don’t want to spoil the other things we’re working on in this space but we’ve made progress on two addition products. The first one is seminar based and should be out soon. The second is larger in ambition and scope and I’ve never seen anything like it. My hope is that we can launch this in the fall as we’ve already delayed a year to make sure we’re getting it right.

Learning Community

Online media properties are continuing to look for ways that create and capture value. The problem here 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 and moves on. Farnam Street tries to take the opposite approach: Add so much value that people want to support it.

Recently, we’ve started to incorporate some of the lessons we’ve learned running a membership program for a year back into the offering. The most apparent is that we’ve moved away from calling it the membership program and are now call it a learning community. This phrase (and our subsequent activities) bring the program much closer in line with what we are trying to create for our readers.

Last year I said that we would use some of the proceeds from the learning community to improve the quality of the regular, free, content. I think we delivered on that this year and I look forward to pushing even more next year. (And every year.)

Rest assured, the majority of FS content will always be free. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the learning community.

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Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than me. Last year we reached the point where I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do myself so Jeff Annello (@mungerisms) came on board. Jeff and I have worked together in the past, and I value both our friendship and the quality of thought he brings to the table. There are a lot of ideas I want to try and lots of great things to come, and we'll continue to work with exceptional people as we go along.

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Sponsorships

I want to thank our lead sponsor for 2016: Slack. I’ll also welcome our incoming sponsors Royce Funds, Greenhaven Road Capital, SparkBox, adventur.es, and Grain and Mortar (who are currently in the process of redesigning the site). We still have one open spot, so if you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog please get in touch with me.

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2016 Report Card

Last year I offered a way to judge our progress. Let’s quickly review what I wrote so I can hold myself accountable.

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.

Here is my view on how we did in 2016.

“The quality of content will be much higher.” We made much progress on this front. We still need to work on better synthesizing and connecting ideas. We need to get better at varying the length of content as we perhaps trended a little verbose toward the end of this year.

“The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience.” While there is room for improvement. We improved the content, added some nice personal touches, and really sought to deepen our connection with readers. These events provide a way for us to do things that don’t scale but add enormous value to everyone.

“The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved.” I won’t say it’s “much improved,” but I didn’t make as many bone headed mistakes this year.

“The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers.” We held off from doing a pop up and instead offered original content to high-quality publications, such as Medium, Quartz, etc. (If you run a publication with a big audience you think would be a fit, fire off an email to [email protected]).

“The site will function better.” Grain and Mortar is in the process of redesigning it now. If you have comments or suggestions, please reach out to [email protected]

“Products will exceed your expectations.” We’re getting better at this. The content quality is great and getting better but we still needed some help with the packaging and functionality. Sparkbox helped us redesign fscourses.com to help create a platform that pairs great infrastructure, design, and content.

Overall, I’m pleased but not satisfied.

What to expect for 2017

I won’t offer as detailed of a roadmap for next year. This year we worked on a lot of low-hanging fruit. Improvements are likely to be more incremental this year. Don’t let this unsexy statement fool you, there is significant value in the trenches.

In 2017, we will work to better synthesize, connect, and explain timeless ideas that help you make better decisions, avoid stupidity, and kick-ass at life. I’ll try to add more personal stories and anecdotes from my journey.

The learning community will continue towards an exclusive vibrant hub of learning that fosters deep connections between participants and value you can't get anywhere else.

We’ll have a new slate of guests on the Knowledge Project, start exploring longer content such as books, and continue to offer you mental tools and tactics that deliver value and live a meaningful life.

We work hard to be the website you want to read. The website you want to immerse yourself in. The one where after 20 minutes of looking around you look up and say “I’ve found my tribe.”

2017 is also the year I start working on a few book projects. Stay tuned.

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Where I’ve made the biggest personal mistake over the past year is thinking I can do two or more things at once successfully. Velocity is a vector dependent concept. Moving in two directions that are not 100% aligned creates drag.

There is a lot of work ahead of us.

Having no idea what tomorrow might bring, I 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 continued time and trust in me and Farnam Street.
—Shane