Over the past few months, many of us have found ourselves with slightly more time at our hand than before. The lockdown has brought out the children in many of us, as adults dusted off their hobbies and got back to their original interests and passions. Along the way, some even realised that these days it’s far easier to think about making a living by following your passion.
The digital world has transformed the hobbyist market into something more driven, what many are calling the passion economy. Here expertise, interests and hobbies are being thrown under the spotlight, helping create a wave of passionate self-made entrepreneurs in a range of subjects. This passion economy stretches from experts conducting online fitness or dance classes to curated newsletters to podcasts and vlogging collabs to content pieces such as videos or expert articles.
With the emergence of the passion economy has come a new wave of growth for platforms such as Substack, Patreon, OnlyFans, Masterclass, MasterSchool, Medium, upGrad, Unacademy as well as mainstream options like Twitch for gamers, Spotify for podcasters and YouTube and Vimeo for creators who want the largest reach.
Medium, Patreon, Substack and others have made it dramatically easier for even luddites to start their own digital publication, without any coding knowhow. While Blogger and other blogging platforms have existed for decades, the ease of customising a publication and tailoring the content for the audience is several degrees greater with Medium and Substack. This has lowered the entry barrier significantly to publish online content.
While the gig economy commoditised your skills, passion economy is focussing on monetising your individuality and personality. For instance, GOQii founder Vishal Gondal hosts the podcast ‘The Vishal Gondal Show’, historian/investment consultant Vedica Kant and engineer Anmol Maini co-write a newsletter (‘Keeping Up With India’), and veterans in the corporate world, Kaushik Subramanian and Anupriya Singhal run a blog (gyaanokplease.com) on the consumer market geared towards helping MBA students.
Perhaps unsurprisingly these creators all have other day jobs. So what drove them to start these side projects? The answer is twofold.
First, to build personal branding and credibility. Vivek Raju and Azhar Jafri who run a newsletter called Simplanations noted, “This is a way to showcase our skills (and strengthen them side-by-side) which has many soft benefits like meeting interesting people and finding potential future gigs.“ Fintech executive Rahul Mathur too started InsurTech, a newsletter on insurance technology to gain ‘fresh engagement’ beyond his regular professional circle.
The other goal is to drive knowledge exchange. Ravish Bhatia, who is a product manager by day, runs a podcast (Use Case) and a newsletter (Turnaround) on startups. “The fact that every week I needed to prepare and research on a new topic to talk on with an expert VC/founder meant that I had to push myself to learn new things,” he told Inc42.
Similarly, Kaushik Subramanian and Anupriya Singhal, both senior level executives at large consumer companies, engage with business school students through their sessions. Kaushik saw a gap in business and management education and started a blog in 2010. Over time, it grew to over 500K pageviews and is regularly visited by business school graduates and students. Subramanian says there is no plan to monetise the blog as it is simply their way of paying it forward to the community. With the needs of students and graduates changing these days, the duo is now planning a full revamp of the blog.
We spoke to about half a dozen creators and one resounding reply to the monetisation question was that passion projects work best in niches. Which reminds us of what Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly once wrote, “To be a successful creator you don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.”
Bhatia also pointed towards Kelly’s ‘1000 True Fans’ mantra when he said that passion projects are hardly meant to be mass products — it’s best to get a small niche capable of paying for one’s product. Raju and Jafri, who gained 2,000 subscribers for Simplanations in the past two months, also noted that once they gained a sizable reader base, they will try to convert a small percentage of the free readers into paying subscribers.
“It is difficult to say how many will convert as paying for newsletters is still not a common thing in India. But that’s what excites us since we get to experiment in these untested waters,” Raju added.
Interestingly, Maini and Kant’s newsletter ‘Keeping Up With India’ was started as an experiment to see if Indians would pay for curated content. Today, they have 400 subscribers on the paid WhatsApp newsletter, and 1300 subscribers on the free Substack publication.
Talking more about how he settled on the subscription price and frequency of the newsletter. Maini said that initially he restricted the paid newsletter spots to 30 spots per week, assuming that it will be really tough to gain a paid reader base but much to his surprise, these spots would usually sell out in 5-30 minutes. So, he tried increasing the price a bit and seeing if it impacted the number of subscribers. Finally, he settled on INR 299/year ($9/year) after several weeks when the spots didn’t sell out as fast.
US-based venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz which is an investor in Substack has also proposed a similar monetisation model which talks of getting 100 true fans to pay $1,000 each for your product and thus make a sustainable living of a small devoted audience.
Former a16z exec Li Jin wrote, “Creators should segment their audiences and offer tailored products and services at varying price points.” Start with building a large, free audience on social media or email and then convert some of these consumers to patrons and subscribers. On top of that, the creator can also leverage some of the paid customers to higher-value purchases, such as extra content or exclusive access, she added. Incidentally, this week Jin announced a new show on following passion projects as business ideas.
Further, Simplanations’ Raju envisioned the passion economy to follow the growth path of platforms like YouTube and Twitch, which also started off as platforms for creators to show their passion. These days YouTube creators and Twitch gamers earn significant income through these passion projects, while many creators continue to do passion projects as side-gigs for extra income, to build their personal brand or simply to stay in touch with what they love. Even among the newer indie passion projects, there will be some that graduate to full-time work, while others remain a thing on the side.
Further, with platforms like Substack, Medium, WordPress, Vimeo and Spotify there are a wide range of monetisation channels available to the creators, and they don’t have to rely purely on a large follower base to earn ad revenue.