Can you make money as a thought leader online? How the experts are turning their ideas to currency.
Learn how Anne-Laure Le Cunff, David Perell, Codie Sanchez, Steph Smith, George Mack and Josh Spector have made an income sharing their ideas online.
In this post you’ll find a study of the people successfully making money online from sharing what they think and have come to learn — aka their ideas — and my attempt to distill this type business model / career path for anyone exploring it for themselves.
This will be a two-part series initially with profiles on people I believe have successfully modelled this approach to business building.
In the big bad world of the internet, there are a lot of people making a lot of money online from sharing their perspectives on the world.
As I explored in my last post online business owners (myself included) will often share parts of their lives online in the hope of growing their bottom line. Yet whilst I write about entrepreneurial careers my revenue currently comes from coaching founders who are deciding on the next step in their businesses. My writing creates demand for a service I already offer, and if I didn’t write I’d still have a business.
For me and other business owners the ubiquity of social media, mass distribution channels and streaming platforms has made having an online presence a frictionless and inevitable consequence of living life online, as we do already in and outside work.
But how important building a personal brand and sharing online actually is, will depend on whether you have a business in which you are the product, or whether you have a business whose products and services benefit from your personal brand.
There is a particular breed of business owner that I’m excited to explore in this post, who sit somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.
The creator/thought leader/entrepreneur who makes an income sharing their ideas online. Ideas in the form of content (written, audio, video or otherwise) which are then disseminated via distribution channels, such as newsletters, blogs, social media and online communities.
The sort of people who probably always struggle to explain what they do to anyone outside of the world in which they operate. But this is a growing and highly viable career path and desirable one at that.
We’re firmly in the Information Age where information is a commodity exchanged for currency. It’s not oil or machinery it’s our attention being traded here. The attention economy dictates that whoever yields the most eyeballs (followers, views, likes, shares) wins.
Businesses in the information age can get by and even thrive with just a laptop and internet connection and may even be run by a single person generating 7 figure revenues.
It is unlikely you see these figures as a result of pure play content creation, however. A newsletter alone (even a paid one) is rarely what drives the bulk of these creators income. Whilst email subscribers may be one of their largest metrics from a growth standpoint, the associated income is typically complementary to rather than a direct result of this content.
My hope is this post might inspire you to see what is possible when you share your ideas online — because there is certainly money to be made — but not to fool you. As you’ll see, making money from your ideas online is a reward for hard work which does not happen overnight.
When it comes to monetising there are (broadly-speaking) two different ways people have approached it:
i) The people make an income from their work (whatever work that might be) and then share their ideas in the form of content to build an audience which in turn drives more work.
ii) The people who start with the content itself which builds an audience and then monetise either by creating a product/service their audience will buy, or sell access to the audience in exchange for a fee.
However the line between these is so thin and so blurry its not always possible to tell who is making money from doing what. Even though so many people in this space build in public; meaning they write about how they build their businesses, learnings and changes along the way.
So if you’re interested in these people go do some digging, these posts aim to provide a snapshot rather than an in depth analysis! Ready and willing to take that on though ;)
Hope you enjoy reading and if you’re new here, hi, I’m Ellen Donnelly, exec coach for founders and creators with a background hiring for startups. I write bi-weekly on how to define an entrepreneurial career path that works for you.
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Why I’ve included David:
You can’t really cover this topic without mentioning David Perell. Not only has he made a name for himself sharing ideas on the internet but he teaches people how to do exactly this as part of his course Write of Passage. David is “On a mission to teach thousands of people to write online, share their ideas, and build an online audience”.
He’s someone who speaks and writes with clarity and conviction and the way he covers topics with true nuance and original perspectives have enabled him to stand out from the crowd in a meaningful way.
Ideas David covers:
Travel, culture, media, marketing, and technology and how they intersect as well as a big focus on society’s relationship with information and how we make sense of the world by consuming ideas.
How David makes money
David writes, tweets, makes podcast, teaches, invests, and speaks to make money. He describes his favourite pursuit as the long form essays which often exceed 10,000 words and he says the act of researching and writing them has “transformed his worldview”.
This has created somewhat of a media engine which he has outlined below as how his business model fits together — where dark blue lines are current and dotted ones future activities. Source
The Online courses section refers to Write of Passage — the 5-week online writing course — which is by far the largest of these revenue streams.
What we can learn from David:
Those looking for a quick fix might be tempted to look at David’s approach and go out to build an online course of their own (at $2m revenues and counting this sure looks good to me).
But it’s evident that David’s success in this space is built on his history of sharing ideas so prolifically and building an incredible audience on Twitter. If it weren’t for those activities the world would not know about his writing school or necessarily invest the time and money it asks.
What’s interesting is that David didn’t set out to build a writing school. He built the idea over time from learning and speaking to his audience (starting out with an exploratory tweet to test interest) and so if it weren’t for the audience-first model he wouldn’t be where he is right now.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
Website | Newsletter | Twitter |
Why I’ve included Anne-Laure
Running in similar circles I’ve been aware of Anne-Laure a while. She has always worked on exciting initiatives and shared her highs and lows publicly along the way. In 2019 when I felt lost about my own career path I read her end of year reflections in detail, scribbling down how she was carving her self-employed career path after leaving Google. Fast forward to today, I’m a member of her Ness Labs community for creators and founders, as a founder myself, and have loved being a part of her world of likeminded people that she’s brought together in this space.
Ideas Anne-Laure covers:
Neuroscience, creativity, mindful productivity, wellness and work
How Anne-Laure makes money
After leaving Google Anne-Laure became an ‘indie maker’ building products online but was open about the fact this was a challenging income stream to scale and she relied on consulting contracts to pay the bills.
She studied her Masters degree in Neuroscience at Kings and at the same time shared her learnings in her blog (which became Ness Labs) and grew her email list and Twitter following exponentially. She built a library of articles that speak to subjects of interest to her audiences and this has created huge domain authority and SEO-based growth and optimization overall. She has never missed a weekly email and to this day exceeding 30k+ subscribers, she gets a 50% open rate. The real money came in 2020 when she launched a paid membership for her community off the back of it. In December 2020 she was at 1500 members paying $50/year ($75k ARR from the membership site alone). Source.
To get to this point Twitter was a big acquisition channel as she built in public — sharing dashboards of membership numbers as she went. Then leveraging her email newsletter as another growth channel, she sends out links to her own articles, curated content and Ness Labs community updates to show readers what is available as a paying member. Her emails lead to paying members which she says is more enjoyable more reliable than sponsorships. Sponsors might pay up to $1500 per post but the effort involved in managing these partners converts to a smaller hourly rate. Now she’s launching other products including courses and growing the community overall.
What we can learn from Anne-Laure
Anne-Laure also took an audience-first approach; creating masses of free content and showing up religiously first. Her route to monetisation has been community rather than gated content. As a way to create stickiness in this community she continues to show up weekly with content that reminds her audience of the value of remaining part of her world. She’s also created incredible connections and events within the community so people come back for each other and peer-peer learning.
As to audience growth, she says the secret to Twitter is to not to be shy about what you post and be open to sharing the work in public: the questions and mistakes and relationships you make.
Website | Newsletter | Twitter
Why I’ve included George
I had the pleasure of meeting George a few years ago when I was recruiting a position. Not sure if he remembers this but it was evident from our brief encounters that he would go far. Then the other week I saw his name pop up in my feed and realised he had become a prolific writer of marketing content and mental models and amassed a huge online following.
Ideas George covers
George writes about Clouds and Dirt. To elaborate… Clouds he describes as mental models and big ideas (the theory) and dirt the tactics and tools aka (execution of the theory). The subject matter at hand tends to be startups, founders and their growth strategies.
How George makes money
From what I can see George does not make money from his content, nor did he leverage his content to build a business around. George is making the bulk of his income from his marketing agency Multiply which supports tech and ecommerce businesses through digital marketing. But content is a big part of this machine. The ideas he shares are like case studies that he applies to his own learning when working with his clients on their growth marketing efforts.
What we can learn from George
Having a personal brand and sharing his ideas online through social media and his newsletter serves multiple purposes:
i) He attracts smart, like-minded people who he can learn from and implement their tools and ideas back in his business.
ii) He demonstrates his knowledge and credibility which drives client leads towards his business
iii) He is diversifying his options. If his business failed or he no longer wanted to work on it, he’s created the conditions to jump to the next thing with ease thanks to his personal brand. He’s not George Mack the founder of Multiply, he’s George Mack the Clouds and Dirt guy. Mental models and marketing knowledge can be applied to almost any field today. He might also monetise his content in some form soon… watch this space.
Website | Newsletter | Twitter
Why I included Steph
I first discovered Steph through Ness Labs’ newsletter mastermind group and from the minute I heard her speak it was evident Steph was one to watch…. I was quickly obsessed.
She writes about topics I care deeply about and holds an impressive resume for someone in their 20s. My interest in her work has only grown since purchasing her complete guide to creating content online today. Its been a worthwhile investment in navigating important choices in content creation such as choosing a niche, platform, email provider, monetising, SEO and more. This guide has it all.
Ideas Steph covers
Content creation, remote work, productivity, side projects, honing your craft, indie maker projects.
How Steph makes money
Steph Smith has built a loyal readership online through her blog, indie projects, digital products and more. Led by her own passions and interests, she will create products that intrigue her or she feels her audience would need.
Some of her best performing projects have been the books she has published online, using Gumroad. Doing Content Right as I mentioned is a 284 page PDF that includes extensive advice and tools for creators and writers looking to build an online audience. I’m such a fan of this guide I became an affiliate for the product (which also has a very clever pricing strategy based on demand but that’s one for another day). Here’s the link to buy Standing Out in 2021: Doing Content Right if you’re serious about the topic on this post you can’t go wrong learning from Steph’s work and her follow up on navigating the minefield that is SEO here.
What makes Steph unique (from this list at least) is she has built all of these income streams at the same time as working in full time jobs. And demanding jobs at that. Steph was running a remote team at Toptal before being headhunted by The Hustle to run their Trends product, one of the biggest revenue streams for the paid newsletter with 1.5m subscribers.
What we can learn from Steph
Steph turned her writing and audience building side projects and passions into her career path. She’s someone who has balanced doing what she loves with earning good money, having creative freedom and working in cool companies.
She’s proof you can have projects on your own terms without quitting your job. Read more of her views on this here.
Now working at one of the most successful newsletters in the world Steph says that she gets paid well to learn from really smart people each day. She can apply her tools from her work back into her own projects. But what’s interesting is that Steph started creating her own projects independently which led her to being found on Twitter by The Hustle CEO Sam Parr.
Oh and if you’re wondering how Steph does it all? Her latest ebook deep dives into how to manage your time effectively and I’ve heard it’s a good’un. Buy it here.
PSST — Enjoying this article? Make sure not to miss part two with more thought leaders and creators profiled in two weeks’ time by subscribing here.
Why I included Josh:
Josh is another guru in this space; he’s all about helping people carve a career out of their creations. He teaches people how to build an audience, develop social media strategies and newsletters which ultimately mean that they can build businesses around their creative work, or get more creative in their business.
He’s been doing this since 2016 so Josh was clearly ahead of the curve on this theme and his 25k subscribers and multiple revenue streams are proof that he’s onto a big thing. He was also a guest on the newsletter mastermind with Ness Labs (a theme going on here…) so I had the pleasure to speak with him about some of his journey.
Ideas Josh covers:
Writing, course creation, audience building, newsletter writing, monetising your creative work
How Josh makes money:
Josh writes about creators and learns from their tactics to drive revenue so its no surprise he is at the cutting edge of monetising his own creations. Whilst newsletters are a viable income stream (especially with as many subscribers as Josh has) they are best complemented by other products and services too — to diversify and spread risk from a business model perspective.
Josh has five income streams that have gradually built up over the last five years since running his newsletter: paid consulting (people would reach out organically via the newsletter asking Josh to solve certain problems)); Medium’s paywall at its height was generating $1.5k per month from work Josh had already written and re-posted on the platform; a paid newsletter and ebooks as well as classified advertisements from relevant brands wishing to promote their products to Josh’s audience of creators.
NB: Josh kindly pointed me to this existing article describing his business model, from an interview with Simon Owens. If you recognise Simon’s name I referred to his piece the other week about viral content not always resulting in more income for creators.
What we can learn from Josh
Josh is someone who has stayed in his lane and honed his craft for a very long time. With a degree in Journalism, experience running content, marketing and entertainment businesses and living in Los Angeles, there is probably very little Josh doesn’t know about creating a buzz from your creative work. He’s got to where he is through consistency, depth over breadth, and applying his own learnings from client work back to his business and vice versa.
Whilst I imagine he earns decently from his newsletter and digital products, he’s maintained 70% of income base from his client work. He does not frequently share who his clients are… but with the Oscars cited as one I’m sure the rest of the roster is impressive. These consulting gigs allow Josh the freedom to experiment creatively within his newsletter and digital product lines as they don’t demand that he makes a return right away. Asking for too much return from your creative endeavours too soon can strip them of the magic that brings audiences back time and time again. Josh has struck is a smart balance we can all learn from.
Why I included Codie
Codie’s profile jumped out the moment I first discovered it. From her bold visual designs and colours, well-crafted copy and great photography, she has personal branding down to a T.
Her work sits at the intersection of marketing and money and has a message of empowerment which she says is of most service to women, veterans and Latinos. She has created a huge loyal following and converted her newsletter into a paid membership. ‘The Cashflowians’ is a group for contrarian thinkers to learn from one another and experts in her network about generating passive income.
Like others on this list, Codie has been public about her journey from burnt out on Wall Street to running businesses that create freedom and financial success. Learn more in her Twitter Thread here.
Ideas Codie covers
Her motto is that people take their life and business into their own hands and achieve financial freedom. She talks about investing, building and selling businesses, passive income, crypto and ‘contrarian thinking’. She is openly political and doesn’t hold back from sharing her views about the role of money in society.
How Codie makes money
First and foremost Codie is an investor and business builder. She’s started and sold companies including a $1B+ AUM business in Latin America, she’s a partner at a growth equity firm and invests in startups, growth equity and small profitable businesses.
Alongside her activities in the finance space she has built an audience via social media and her newsletter, which she has turned into a paying community. Each week her newsletter goes out to 90k ‘Contrarian Thinkers;’ interested in building and acquiring cash-flowing assets. This newsletter has led to her ability to create a paid membership currently priced at $299/year.
I polled Twitter before writing this newsletter and asked “Who's making a living from sharing their ideas on the internet?”. I tagged Codie and she responded:
So whilst Codie is a multi-millionaire, know that its not solely from being a content creator. But these ideas are where her heart lies. Her bio states that the most important thing she’s working on is bringing together people with a single mission “To help each of us achieve mental and financial freedom, questioning everything to find the answers most won’t give”.
What we can learn from Codie
Codie is a woman on a mission. Whilst her prolific social media presence may improve her business acumen (generate access to ideas, network, deals etc) you could argue there are more lucrative ways she could be spending her time and energy than with media.
But from what I can gauge her incentives lie in helping others. For Codie, acquiring cash-flowing assets is of political and societal importance as much as financially driven. Its these ideas she is disseminating in her work. We can learn that having a valuable topic for your content is one thing (how to earn more money) but standing for a mission — having a why — is another.
Yes you can make money from sharing your ideas online. These experts are evidence to the fact, and so am I in my own efforts to share online as I build The Ask.
But none of the people listed are purely making money from their own ideas. They are either working on other people’s businesses and adding a service in exchange for a fee (like George Mack and Josh Spector), also have a job to support their creative work (Steph Smith) or have service they already offer where their content and ideas serves to increase demand for it.
The boldest of them all are those who show up consistently and create content for free, without a product or service to offer. Who show up in the hope and faith that building an audience is a business model, but one that requires you to play around and find something that works. You start by testing demand, polling your audience, building in public and creating something they are actually in need of (Anne Laure Le Cunff and David Perell).
As for me, my content is free, but coaching is not.
If you’re interested in working with me 1-1 to define your next steps in your entrepreneurial journey, you can book a free consultation call with me here to learn more.
As for monetising my content, I’m enjoying learnings from others first and am in no hurry. I’m in no hurry to conclude this question either and will be back with more case studies so stay tuned for part two where I’ll be covering more others including Sahil Bloom, Justin Mikolay, Li Jin, Packy McCormick, Tiago Forte and Janel Loi (if you read this - hi! - lets chat on Twitter @ellenkdonnelly - I’d love to hear your take on commercialising ideas online).
As always thank you for reading, until next time ✌️
Ellen Donnelly, Founder + Chief Coach, The Ask.