What is the secret to scaling your content business?

Learn Srinivas Rao’s 5 pillars for building a scalable system for your content business and hear his personal story of turning his passion for writing and productivity into a successful media empire.

This is a transcript from a recent webinar hosted by Sandy Mangat, VP Growth & Marketing at Charli AI in conversation with Srinivas Rao, podcast host, author, and CEO of Unmistakable Media. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Introductions and about Srini

Sandy: I am super excited to have our guest on today we’re joined by Srinivas Rao, host of The Unmistakable Creative podcast and the CEO of Unmistakable Media. He’s got so many accolades, I could probably spend a lot of time going through all of them.

The thing that I want to highlight the most is Srini has spent the better part of the last decade perfecting, how to be the most productive best version of himself and bring that best version to his businesses and how he turned his passions into this flourishing business. And that’s what he’s going to share with us today, going to go through his journey from hating his nine to five, to becoming a published author and building this scalable media business.

Srini has also been a wealth of knowledge for me and the team here at Charli AI, because of his expertise in the productivity space; he’s just had amazing insights that has helped us improve the product a great deal.

Welcome Srini! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how the unmistakable creative came to be and yes you can totally share a little bit about how you became to be your advisor as well.

Srini: I have a story of a life plan that just went wrong, I graduated from business school April 2009 thinking that I would have some sort of normal job. Of course, 2009 was a terrible time to graduate from school and the best piece of advice I ever got during that summer was from a consultant, when I’d started my blog, who said, the worst thing that you could do when you’re unemployed is to spend all your time looking for a job which is incredibly counterintuitive.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but now, looking back I realized how true that was because if you spent all your time looking for a job you’re focused on the one thing that’s wrong with your life. And so he said, do something.

So I started a blog that eventually led to me interviewing people as part of that course, which subsequently became, you know, the first version of the podcast which was a podcast for bloggers called one podcast FM, where I just interviewed up and coming bloggers, I had a day job at that time, and I ended up getting let go from that job in 2011.

What ended up happening after that was me just sort of cobbling together a bunch of freelance projects until I had a mentor who came along and really helped me narrow down what I wanted to do, he asked me, probably what I think is one of the most important questions anybody asked me said, Do you want to be doing any of this in five years, and most of the answer to it was no because I was freelance writing, book marketing, social media manager and I narrowed it down to the podcasts and writing books.

In the next year or so, things really started to turn around I self-published a book that became a Wall Street Journal bestseller through the series of freakish coincidences, and that eventually led to a book deal, which eventually led to the rebrand, of the podcast, this is unmistakable creative, and that was 2014 so 8 years ago.

So, eight years later, here we are, you know, having built the unmistakable creative and how I became an advisor to Charlie was Sandy emailed me about the product. And, you know, my gut reaction was to follow the Mark Cuban rule of I don’t attend meetings unless somebody is writing me. But I actually you know went and looked at the product first and I told Sandy I was like wow I really like this product and that kind of became sort of my rule of if I was going to work with a startup. I wanted to make sure that I actually liked the product and use it, I actually do use Charli to store all my documents now, you know if you’ve ever run into that problem of sifting through your hard drive for something like an insurance policy or health insurance record or tax returns. This solves that problem. As somebody who deals with the sheer volume of information that I do, it’s a godsend, like now when my accountant asks me for something, I’m like oh, you know, just pop it open Charli, so I tend to save a lot of things there really particularly documents and PDFs. I still have stuff on my computer when it’s media-related. I found it to be really one of those great things because we come across so much information throughout the day that we don’t even remember and so when I want to remember something, you know, or a link that I want to save I always keep it internally but yeah, so that’s the short version of a ridiculously long story.

Sandy: So we are going to get back to the kind of topic of information overload, especially as it impacts content creators and some of the tools that you personally use to help combat that in your business, but for now I wanted to actually ask you a question about your book, The Unmistakable Creative: Why Only is Better than Best, you talk about some of these exact qualities that you believe helped in unlocking that long term success. So could you tell me a little bit more about that and, your idea of being unmistakable.

Srini: So, as I mentioned, I started out, interviewing, bloggers, about how they grew their blogs and eventually I got really bored of it, but there was a pattern that I just noticed over and over and over to the point at which it just started to drive me a little insane, and my friend Tara McMillan, especially if there’s great creative potential in the things that make you angry, and the thing that made me so angry was that I would see somebody who would take an online course from, you know, some expert or influencer, and then they would follow that person’s instructions to the letter, they would make a website that looks exactly like that person’s tried to create content that looked exactly like there’s or sound like there’s and just literally to the letter, try to basically be that person. Ignoring the blatantly obvious variable, that would make sure that that advice actually didn’t work and that’s themselves, and you see this over and over and over, it’s not just individuals who do this businesses do this but in business, as you call it best practices. And so as a result, particularly in a sea of noise you just get washed up in a sea of sameness and you don’t have any original ideas so people actually hold back on the very things that would make them stand out.

My friend Mark Dorian does a lot of our work on our site, not the album covers but sort of the logos and the branding. He really was the one who came up with the visual voice of the brand. And he said something to me in a conversation that always stayed with me he said that I want my work to be so recognizable that I don’t even have to put my name on it, and you’ll know it’s mine, and you know my friend Lars, if anything, that he does rolls through your newsfeed, you know, I’m taking one look at it there’s nobody else that could do that. And it’s not that the style is, you know, particularly, it’s not like he has some sort of really detailed artistic talent, it’s just distinctive he is incredibly talented, but there’s something about the signature that he puts on it that you just look at it and like wow, he doesn’t have to sign his name to this I know it says, even if he does it for me. If he does it for anybody else. And what I realized is that if somebody has that capability, their competition is irrelevant.

The thing that I think is challenging with this is that people want the formula right like Okay, give me the six steps to be unmistakable and if I did that, then you wouldn’t be unmistakable.

Sandy: Although there aren’t the exact formulas on how to be “unmistakable” but there are more formulaic ways to start thinking about your life so that you can uncover how to be unmistakable. I noticed that in our conversations too like, and this is kind of like the dichotomy of you as you’re this like a creative thinker, that you also think about things in more of a methodical way than one would assume. So I’m wondering why was that important for you to uncover? Was that a skill that you had to learn to start thinking in this formulaic way about certain things or? Were you always this way?

Srini: No, I definitely wasn’t always this way, I mean, part of it, I got terrible grades in college I was a horrible employee at every place that I worked at, which is why I don’t think they get a job, but a big part of it is that I knew that if I wanted to be consistent, prolific with my work systems were going to play a role and a lot of creative people resist systems because systems create structure and people think that structure is an impediment to their creativity but it’s actually not.

It basically frees you up to be more creative because now you’re not worrying about how to manage your work, how to do all these things you can focus exclusively on the work by building out systems that free up your cognitive bandwidth, you know we have systems for everything from capturing content, capturing ideas to creating content to whatever it is, but the funny thing is when people hear systems they start to kind of think about technology, what everybody has systems in their life, they just don’t call them that, if you put key hooks in a certain place in your house you have a system. If you have auto-pay for any of your bills you have a system. And so what I’ve done is I’ve just taken that night and applied it to creative work which is I think where all this comes from.

Challenges for Content Creators Building a Business

 

Sandy: What were some of the challenges that you specifically faced early on when you were trying to turn your creativity into this business and channel it and apply these systems and formulas?

Srini: I think the big challenge and this is something I think it’s common, is that there’s so much information and a lot of it is conflicting, you know, trying to figure out what’s worth listening to what’s not worth listening to.

I was never somebody who didn’t work hard  but for some reason, the results weren’t there. I was struggling to grow the blog and I thought to myself, I’m doing what you’re supposed to be publishing frequently all that stuff. I realized that what that does to you is that it puts your focus on outcomes, as opposed to focusing on the process. When you’re focused on outcomes, it’s incredibly demotivating because until you achieve the outcome you feel like a failure to you’re trying to focus on something that’s completely out of your control. So, writers will occasionally come to me and say “Oh, I want to write a book that sells a million copies” and I said “well I can’t help you with that one because I’ve never sold a written book that sells a million copies and two, that’s a ridiculous goal because you can’t predict if your book will sell a million copies”.  So until this person sells a million copies of the book they feel like a failure. What was a big challenge for me was to learn how to stop thinking about outcomes and to start focusing on the process because ultimately you get rewarded for outcomes but the funny thing is that the way you achieve outcomes system process.

That actually ended up becoming the bulk of what the second book ended up being about was the process behind how I do all of this work. And, you know even that second book now is incomplete because we didn’t do a section on systems because, at least as detailed as they become now part of it is the tools now are far more sophisticated and they’ve evolved, you know, in four years, the progress has been dramatic. So, I mean, in an ideal world, you’re going to have systems that handle a lot of the grunt work for you, and we’re going to see a point at which technical proficiency is going to matter a lot less than your ability to imagine what is possible with a particular tool or a particular piece of technology.

Sandy: Based on our conversations and what you’ve seen in your community, it sounds like a lot of people do struggle with that kind of understanding. Do you have any specifics you can speak to that you’ve seen creatives in your community as well as yourself struggling with when it comes to creating the process for building the business and making it scalable?

Srini: Yeah, I think the first place to start really is to think about this from the standpoint of IDEA capture right nobody has a shortage of ideas so you have a shortage of ideas is like saying you have a shortage of plots. That’s ridiculous. But the problem is we don’t have the discipline to capture ideas and to capture ideas and to create the discipline you need systems so simple example.

Let’s say that you start a blog right. Everybody people people think, well I’m gonna write my blog, we’re going to publish this week you know you wake up in the morning. The problem with that is that it’s not that you had no shortage of having sort of ideas what to write about you just didn’t capture those ideas you’re always starting from scratch.

A really simple dumbed-down version of this is something that Steven Johnson wrote about called the spark file, which is literally just a piece of paper, a Google Doc with thoughts and, you know, and all the only structure to it is that it’s organized chronologically.

Another one is where people get tripped up is they try to do too much in one day.

we have this sort of delusional idea that there’s gonna be a day when every single thing, you know, we’re going to be the same like state of productivity but that’s just not feasible. It’s not realistic. And so I think that we have to make peace with this whole idea of getting enough done in a given day enough that we feel, you know, we’re going to be able to keep moving things forward.

The other thing that happens here is when you have visible progress, which is a huge motivator to some people, and Harvard even wrote a book about this called the Progress Principle, and this takes us back to process versus outcome. So let’s just use the book example because that’s one I’m clear with no one knew about it before, so we say the person’s like, oh I’m gonna write a book that sells a million copies. Well, until that person sells a million copies. It’s going to feel like they’re not making any progress, even if they’re writing every day, whereas if they track their word count, and see every day that this thing is moving forward, they have stayed motivated to accomplish the goal so systems have this sort of interdependent effect, they’re not just from engineer time or being more productive, they actually have almost a psychological effect to give you the sense to progress increase your motivation, which is really key.

Sandy: If I’m a creative or creator who’s starting to think about, actually scaling my business I maybe got a few successful kind of like blogs or some other outlets. Maybe I’m starting to think about hiring people, like what are some of those areas that you need to be thinking about early, as opposed to dealing with them when they become a problem.

Srini: Yeah, I think that the big one is process. Victor Chang, who wrote a book called extreme revenue growth, talks about when he goes into a startup, the first thing that he has any founder do is document the process for every single test that they can do on a regular basis, whether that’s sending invoices, whether that’s you know customer onboarding. The problem is that once you add people to your team and you don’t have that process in place, what ends up happening is chaos.

Where it has to start is looking at what is the process and why do we do this, and then create a checklist for the process. Why a checklist? Well, something as simple as a checklist can help you avoid a lot of errors.

Just take publishing a blog post as an example right most of the process for publishing a blog post is repetitive you publish it in WordPress or whatever your CMS says we add links we add images. Now, if you have to store that information in your brain, you’re basically wasting your most valuable cognitive bandwidth on really low-quality activities, as opposed to having that video, with real valuable creative thinking.

Sandy: That’s actually a really great point because as you were talking about I was thinking, one of the unique challenges specifically for creatives and great entrepreneurs is. You have always been kind of like the sole employee of your business for a very long time, you create new distribute, you do all the administration, you kind of do every job possible, and then at a certain point, if you want to scale you have to start to delegate things, and you know, in our previous conversations I think you talked a little bit about how kind of unraveling these processes and writing them down helps you realize, like where you can delegate and where you need to spend your time because you talk a little bit about, about that.

Srini:  There’s an article called, I think it was either on entrepreneur Forbes called this is your path to the $1,000 an hour mindset. And this article really fundamentally made me think about this very differently. So first off you wanna think about what your time is worth, just assume it’s like $5000 an hour, if it’s even if it’s not that you know that might sound ludicrous, because at some point it will be ideally, because then you will start to think like a person whose time is worth $5,000 an hour. The idea was really simple this guy said to me, at the end of every week, create a series of three columns and label each column $10, $100, $1000, then basically go in and put what you did that week in each column.

So, the podcast is a good example right for producing the podcast, there’s only one thing that I can do that nobody else can do and that’s everything else from setting it up, you know to be published to design the cover of art to writing a description of the show to do shows, all of that can be done by somebody else. I don’t need to be the one doing all those things, you know I still choose my own guests because that is a big deal to me.

I mentioned a checklist another you can do is create live videos which are actually way better than checklist like you know a video is worth 1000 words because you literally show people exactly what to talk about. So again, one way to do this is every time you run across a process that has a question I start to think through how to document this. Like I think a lot of people like this idea of a system is set and forget it. Unfortunately, it’s more set it and keep an eye on it and notice that it rolls and it’s also going to break, especially as you start to automate, things will fall apart, and almost always it’s human error that causes things to fall apart.

The 5 Pillars for Scaling your Content Business

Sandy: Yeah, I can definitely attest to that having set up a bunch of automation myself using tools like Zapier, they definitely do break and you do have to keep an eye on them. So our systems aren’t perfect, but I think just the, the, taking the initiative to set them up. I think already teaches you so much like figuring out those $1,000 tasks I think I start thinking like that after we have that conversation and it helps give you clarity on I think back to your book like what makes you unmistakable, like the things that make you unmistakable are the things that are your 1000 $5,000 tasks and everything else is just part of the process to get you to that moment, we are running a little bit behind, and I know that everyone’s probably really excited to hear about these five specific pillars that you’ve identified for building that scalable content business.

So Srini, what are these five pillars and could you tell us a little bit about each one of them.

Srini: 

  1.  Managing your focus: The first ones obviously focusing on living in a world full of distractions, and you have to be able to focus for some extended period of time to move things forward and that’s different, you know, in terms of what your brain is like when you’re working like that what you need to do is become sort of an observer of your own behavior, you know Jim Collins I think had the whole idea of Jim the hedgehog and he basically noticed like what is adding meaning what is driving me crazy.
  2. Create creative habits: Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. And I think that that is true for creative work as well as your Creative Habits are the compound interest of a successful creative business or creative career, because you’ll start with one habit, you know, for me that was 1000 words a day and a keystone habit creates a ripple effect into every area of your life so I went from 1000 words a day to meditating for 10 minutes a day to reading, you know, anywhere between 50 to 100 pages every day to all that, so that’s, you know, another big one is your habits, and the other one.
  3. Create foolproof systems: Without systems you’re kind of shooting in the dark, and, you know, every time you don’t have systems it’s kind of one of those things where like we talked about, you’re just blowing your cognitive bandwidth on, you know, pointless and meaningless activities, and you need systems you know for IDEA capture need systems for content creation, you need systems to work for just about everything.
  4. Invest in personal knowledge management: Knowledge management in a lot of ways it’s kind of an overlying, umbrella , because everything else stems from your ability to manage your knowledge and, you know, in a world full of noise if you don’t have the ability to decipher what’s relevant from what’s not, signal from the noise. You’re just gonna feel completely overwhelmed and be dealing with information overload and part of that comes down to being mindful of how you consume content and your knowledge management systems actually enable you to be much more mindful about how you consume content. Because what you get from personal knowledge management is the ability to externalize information, and as we talked about before, you’re not storing all the stuff in your brain and you don’t want to store that stuff your brain because once you externalize, whatever it is noted from books notes whatever now you have the space in your intimate connections between ideas to really think creatively to synthesize and you’re once you can synthesize all that you can actually use that to create so you actually become much more prolific as a result.
  5. Automate!: The thing that ties everything together is automation, your automation capabilities, and getting really really good. I have a friend who runs a really successful company called Depth consulting where he teaches companies how to use their Airtable to automate complex processes and save some fortunes and build that business. One of the things that he told me is even the biggest companies, half the battle is and most people don’t know their process. So, for example, when we book podcast guest, there’s sort of a workflow to what they can cut us from which goes into their day before I can send them a note which basically is with a calendar link all that goes into air table, and you know we know when an episode is scheduled we know the dates our Illustrator uploads album covers and all that is stored in a database, so that entire process of contacting somebody booking an interview, sending them is intentional and all that is done through automation now imagine having to do all that manually, you know that would, when we built this into my process for managing all this went from 10 hours a week to like 10 minutes a week.

Advice from Srini

 

Sandy: So the first one is, if you could just give one piece of advice on habits and managing attention, I know that like this is a huge topic and it’s one of those where it can feel like it’s an easier said than done type of topic but if there’s one thing that’s worked for you personally or one thing that’s worked for some folks in your community?

Srini: So, with the concept of the minimum viable action, which is the smallest possible thing you could do to create some sort of interest so people often come to us okay how do I read 1000 words a day, I don’t I tell them don’t read write 1000 words a day start by sitting down at your desk and picking up a pen, if it’s all you do consider that a victory. And that sounds ridiculous, on the surface but if you do that for six or seven days in a row, you sit down at your desk and pick up a pen every day.

Sandy: So obviously tools, there’s ton of them out there and we need them but how do you pick the right automation tools? Do you have a method for choosing them?

Srini: So that’s one thing I think it’s really about what is your workload. Does this tool actually facilitate what you’re trying to accomplish or does it impede what you’re trying to accomplish.

Rapid Fire Questions

 

What are your kind of like top three or four tools that you’re using right now?

Mem – Note-taking tool (check out Srini’s youtube tutorial series on Mem)

Readwise – Snapshots of books and articles you’re reading

Notiv – Note-taking tool for zoom meetings

Favorite creator right now and why? Maybe, someone, you want to interview?

There’s a creator that I want to speak to and it’s A.R. Rahman. This guy literally defines the phrase, music has no language, I don’t speak Hindi so I have no idea what he’s saying. And I still really like it.

Best advice you’ve gotten recently?

Mike Milbank says, often people are focused on the possibility of going to college and they ignore the probability that they’ll accomplish that. So people go and try to do things where they have no natural advantages. What’s the probability that I’m gonna become LeBron James or play in the NBA this year? No matter how passionate I am about basketball, it’s never gonna happen. The best advice I’ve probably ever gotten and it’s hard advice to hear for a lot of people.