Delivering The Impossible in 7 Days

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 6: Completing the Puzzlesubscribe and buy here

I am not afraid of the hard work required to make my goals become a reality. If anything, I relish the prospect of setting myself an “impossible” target. To that end,  on my 35th birthday, I made the decision to try something new. I wanted to do something creative; Something that would force me to learn new skills while also making good use of existing ones: I would launch a new podcast from start to finish in one week.

The Motivation

For years I have listened to podcasts and heard a lot of common problems when a show is just starting out. People who are new to podcasting have no idea how to go about accomplishing their goals, and many people who are not software engineers spend countless hours setting up websites, learning about XML feeds, fiddling with settings in blogging engines, and otherwise doing things that take away from the actual creation of the shows they want to share with the world. Ever the solutions provider, I plan on fixing that. I am preparing to build a podcasting network for people who want to focus on their craft rather than the technical aspect. What better way to test this idea than to go through the process myself?

This was the genesis of Discover ADN, an interview podcast dedicated to learning more about the people who use the microblogging component of App.net. Six days after inception, the very first episode of the show was released, with subsequent shows shipping every three days after. But how?

By breaking these components into smaller pieces everything became much more manageable.

As with any multi-faceted project, the work of creating a new podcast had to be broken down into bite-sized pieces. I needed to define the format, line up the guests, organize a website and distribution mechanism, as well as find a way to recoup some of the costs without annoying the listeners. These four elements needed to be tackled in the brief moments between the day job and family time. By breaking these components into smaller pieces everything became much more manageable.

Planning the Format

Because this was going to be my first interview program, I wasn’t quite sure what the format should be. Radio shows have a number of different formats for this, ranging from call-ins to “reporter-on-the-ground” shows. What would work best for a podcast whose host is separated by an ocean from the vast majority of the listeners and the guests?

After some quick experimentation, I decided that an “8 Questions” format seemed to be the most logical. It worked well with the ultimate purpose of the program and would give guests a good indication of how long an episode might be. With a fixed question set I would have more control over the length; Every episode has an unstated goal of being 22 minutes in total but can sit anywhere between 18 and 30 minutes depending on how verbose the guest wants to be. I decided that no show should go outside these limits.

With the format out of the way, the next step was to create the questions and plan the flow. I created a template: Four questions about [App.net](). Four questions about the person’s interests. One open question about something the guest likes. The final question: the guest’s recommendation for three individuals to follow on the social platform.

The structure was planned. Now I needed to find people who wanted to be on the show.

 

In my house is a large closet that dampens sound better than any other other space I’ve found. Inside there’s even a shelf at just the right height to act as a desk. When it comes time to record, I commandeer this room and turn it into a very rough recording studio. I figured that if Dan Benjamin could do this when starting the 5by5 podcast network, there’s no reason I couldn’t do the same. I sent out a post saying that I had only two hours to get some preliminary work done on the new project. Within minutes some people had responded; one agreed to be a guest and let me practice recording a show with them.

It was a disaster.

The first show was so bad that I scrubbed it and re-recorded two weeks later. What I wasn’t expecting from this single post was the amount of support for the project that immediately sprang up. Within a week I had two dozen guests lined up. On the second week of the project, I recorded 12 shows — to be broadcast over the coming weeks — and the show was picking up steam as more people on App.net spread the word. I practiced, and I improved. As with all projects, the more practice we have with doing something, the better the end result becomes.

As of this writing, 25 days have passed since the first episode aired and over forty people have expressed an interest in being a guest on the show. My concern about having enough guests to keep the show going was certainly valid and had to be planned for, but turned out to be wholly unnecessary.

The Distribution Network & Website

Of all the things that needed to be completed, the distribution mechanism was perhaps the simplest. Every episode of the podcast is uploaded to 10Centuries, where a globally-distributed delivery network is ready to send files to listeners as quickly as possible. Full disclosure: I am the owner and developer of 10Centuries. Being in control of an existing distribution network from top to bottom means that I have one less thing to worry about. This also made it possible to build an interactive website with a lot of custom functionality for the show in as little time as possible.

The website was quite a challenge, though. How can a podcast have a website that is both interactive and worth using? Something really useful needed to be created so that people would have a reason to sign in and use the website in a meaningful way. I had less than 25 hours of total development to create an attractive, useful website before the 4th episode was released; This gave me just eight days.

I created a game plan:

– purchase a good theme from ThemeForest to save time (1-hour limit)

– customize the layout to work with 10Centuries (4-hour limit)

– create the basic pages required by App.net for the developer incentive program (10-hour limit)

– create the App.net functionality (10-hour limit)

People who work in the field of education rarely have a great deal of free time. I spend the better part of 45 hours a week in a classroom leading students to reach their goals and have a family at home that needs just as much attention as the people I work with. This project had to be done during the “quiet times” when traveling on the train to various locations, during lunch breaks, and late at night before sleeping. Delivering on time meant not socializing online when seated in front of a computer.

It paid off.

Although I found that building in the App.net functionality required a little more time than I’d originally anticipated, the entire web project was complete within my self-imposed 25-hour limit. This might have been impossible if I were using a different CMS.

Fundraising

The goal of the Discover ADN podcast is not to earn a lot of money, but to promote a social platform that I love while also learning the skills necessary to make a great podcast. That said, I am investing a great deal of my own resources into this project. What I’m asking in return is the ability to buy better equipment with which to hone my craft. Pestering listeners for donations is not the best way to do it, though. Like with every other step of this project, I needed a plan.

App.net is a social platform that offers an incentive for developers to create tools that interact with their service. Every month they distribute $30,000 USD to the creators of applications based on feedback from the people who use those programs. While the money people receive is reportedly not a great sum, every little bit could go towards better recording equipment, better editing software, and even hosting the episodes. $50 a month for six months adds up to a really good microphone, after all.

In order to realize this goal, I needed to make the website interactive. By this I mean that people needed to be able to do things to their own App.net account through the website itself. As this is an interview program, it made sense to let people follow the guests and recommended people in a single location. With this, the Recommendations page was born.

Every month, App.net sends out an email to members of the network asking them to vote on the applications they found most useful in the previous month. By tallying all of the votes, the $30,000 pot can be fairly split and distributed between all of the developers who have qualifying applications in the Developer Incentive Program. By creating this single bit of functionality, it was now possible to vote on the usefulness of this website. The site and the podcast go by the same name, and this is done with the hope that people will see the two projects as one and the same. If they enjoy the podcast, they’ll give the website a good rating. If the podcast isn’t very good, then the ratings will reflect that.

But this isn’t the only source of income. At the insistence of a listener, I also launched a crowd-sourcing campaign on IndieGoGo. Of all the work this project has required, this element took the most time and patience. This is the process I followed:

– determine the feasibility of a crowd-sourcing campaign

– determine the base amount of money the project needs

– determine the best platform to seek the financial assistance (KickStarter, Backer, IndieGoGo, etc.)

– create the campaign

– promote the campaign

The first two items were completed in a single afternoon. The third seemed obvious at the time, and the last two is where I figured all of my efforts would be spent. In reality, the campaign creation is where 90% of my energy has gone. What words should be used? What sort of rewards could be offered? What seems like a reasonable pitch? All of these things had to be considered before the campaign could go live. After 12 days with input from a lot of people, the project was released to the world.

The initial goal was met in under three days, and there is still some time left on the clock for people to contribute if they find value in the program. I’ve been both incredibly lucky and incredibly humbled by the incredible amount of support people have shown for the podcast, and it just goes to show how something can go from an idea to reality to something bigger in very little time when there is a group of people who believe in the project and are willing to contribute.

Looking Forward

All in all, this podcasting project has succeeded for two reasons. First, I have made commitments with people regarding the program and the website, making procrastination all but impossible. Second, I’ve had lists with clearly-stated, realistic goals to keep me focused on what to do next. As it stands, this means that I can focus on the shows, which always follow the same simple pattern: – ask a person to be a guest on the show – set the date/time for recording – prepare the questions ahead of time in Evernote – record the show at the appointed time – edit the show immediately after – post it online with the release date set into the future.

Having done this 20 times now, I can complete an entire episode in under three hours. Depending on the success of the crowd-sourcing campaign and App.net’s Developer Incentive Program, this may get reduced to an hour and a half in no time at all.

Lessons Learnt

My first foray into contributing to an online community dates back to 1999 when I created websites for some of the various online groups I belonged to. Later I moved on to writing software for the Palm and Windows Mobile handheld computers that predated the iPhone. From there I moved on to creating web-based services for people around the world. Of all the projects I have done in the last 15 years, Discover ADN has had the fastest and most positive reception. So what have I learned from this exercise?

1. If the goal is to provide a community service, make something the community wants

Looking back at the projects I have shared in the past, very few of them were created because other people wanted them. The projects were undertaken because I wanted a thing. While this is as valid a reason to create something as any if there is no market for our work, very few people will find value in it.

2. We cannot do anything alone

I am lucky to know many of the wonderful people who use App.net to communicate with the world. If I were new to the service or someone who did not actively participate in the community, then this podcast would have needed a much longer lead time to gain traction, if it could gain any at all. I have an extraordinarily supportive community of unique and encouraging people to thank for making this project what it is.

3. Get it on paper

With the vast majority of my projects, I keep a lot of details in my head. This typically works well for small projects but can induce a lot of stress and heartache when ambitious objectives and moving goalposts create a project plan so complex that important elements are forgotten or done out of sequence. By putting the ideas down on paper first, we can ensure milestones are more static and the ideas of today are not forgotten in the onslaught tomorrow.

Creating a podcasting network is a huge undertaking, and the Discover ADN podcast is just one piece of a very large and complex puzzle. With this latest “impossible” task under my belt, I’m one step closer to my ultimate podcasting vision.