Elon Musk is considered our generation’s de facto standard when it comes to achievement in entrepreneurship. In fact, there are not-so-crazy comparisons of Elon Musk to Iron Man.
So you can imagine the surprise of today’s guest when he answers the phone and finds Elon Musk on the other line.
Tim Urban is the founder of the incredibly well-written site, WaitButWhy.com. In today’s clickbait-heavy media environment, WBW breaks convention and writes super in-depth articles on fascinating, but awfully wonky topics like artificial intelligence, cryonics, and the chances/odds of there being intelligent life in the universe.
It’s become one of our favorite blogs at Empire Flippers and can be hard to turn away from once you’re there. (We warned you! Expect to lose a weekend on one of your first few visits.)
Tim has given some great interviews, but we wanted to dig into three main topics:
Tim definitely gave us the goods and we’re sharing them here with you on this episode. This was a fun one for me – hope you enjoy!
Update: When we recorded this, the Amazon Associates program had not yet been changed. A few hours later and they released their new pricing table viewed here. This WILL have an impact on earnings and (of course) list prices. We’ll be reviewing this weekend with more to say by early next week.
Direct Download – (Right Click, Save As)
“Perfectionism is contained when you have a deadline and if you don’t have a deadline it can run wild” – Tim – Tweet This!
“If I’m doing good work I’m proud of, then I’m not wasting time” – Tim – Tweet This!
Did you dig the show? Let us know in the comments!
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Empire podcast, episode 167. Well, it’s interviewing Elon Musk talking about procrastination on a ted stage. We’re deep dive on how we might live forever. Tim Urban from Wait But Why has put together, well, my favorite blog on the internet. In this episode we’re going to look at his creative process. We’re going to look at the business behind the blog ‘Wait, but why’ And at some of the positive and negative reactions he’s received lately. So stick with us. You’ll find the show notes for this episode of Empire flippers.com/waitbutwhy. All right, let’s do this.
Speaker 2: Sick of listening to entrepreneurial advice from guys with day jobs? Who wants to hear about the real successes and failures that come with building an online empire? You are not alone from San Diego to Tokyo, New York to Bangkok. Join thousands of entrepreneurs and investors who are prioritizing wealth and personal freedom over the oppression of an office cubicle. Check out the Empire podcast and now your host, Justin and Joe.
Justine: All right, Joe. Anyone who knows you probably wouldn’t say your one to Gush, buddy. You’re not quite so, “Oh, this is amazing. You’re going to love it.” Like that’s just not you. Right?
Joe: Yeah. It’s hard to impress me.
Justine: But even you were a fan of Wait But why.
Joe: Yeah, that’s right. I definitely love his long format and I think that he dives into these topics more than an expert probably would. So it’s pretty amazing.
Justine: One of the things he says in the interview, and we’re going to get into that a little later in the show is that, he’s trying to figure it out for himself. And so he heads down one rabbit hole and then has to take a turn because he has to learn about something else to really understand what it is he’s trying to dig into. And he wants not be an expert in it, but know enough about it to where he can easily explain it to other people and, have a pretty good grasp in a position on things. It’s really interesting. I’m really excited to talk to him. I’m a fan. I tried to avoid guessing this interview because I really wanted to ask them some questions about his side, and I thought I’d be kind of interesting to dig into the business behind the blog too. I mean this is a guy who attracts a ton of attention, just a ton of attention with waitbutwhy.com I think it’s kind of interesting that he was able to turn this, I dunno, love of his into a business.
Joe: Yeah. It’s really cool that he has done that and it’s great that people are waiting on every word so to speak and looking forward to the next huge posts. Honestly I don’t know how he does it. I can only imagine the creative juices that must go into trying to get that post correct. I’ve heard him on other podcasts before. It’s going to be interesting to see what he has to say.
Justine: For anyone who’s not familiar with ‘wait, but why’ I definitely recommend checking it out. But as Joe mentioned, it’s a long form content pieces on all kinds of amazing, interesting topics, and he doesn’t have a really fun and exciting way and he’s done posts on things like the artificial intelligence revolution. Some articles may kind of like glibly mentioned artificial intelligence and how terminators we’re going to take over. He doesn’t go that route. He goes way into it and really deep dives. He talks about things like the Fermi paradox, which your questions whether there are aliens, right? And it’s much more in depth than that, but I think you should definitely give that a read. Surprisingly enough, or unsurprisingly, his blog got so popular and so interesting that it was read by millions of people.
He actually got reached out to you, by Elon Musk. Elon Musk, who’s a fan of his blog connected with him and Tim was able to do a full series on Ilan mosque where he gets him to Tesla, gets [inaudible 00:03:42], talks about colonizing Mars. It’s just an amazing read. I’m really excited to have him on. You mentioned Joe that he takes a long time between actually publishing as posts. I think, we’re all joking and laughing about [inaudible 00:03:55] when’s this guy ever going to post again? He realized that I think and made this funny, I don’t know if you saw that Joe, but like the path toward actually publishing and he was like …. It would show how far along he goes and I just scratch everything and start over and he’s dig little deeper on things we did [inaudible 00:04:11] little cartoon drawing on how far along he was, which is pretty funny.
Joe: I saw that one. It was great. The one that really attracted me to his blog was the AI revolution. That one, if you don’t know or just know a little bit about AI and want to learn more, it really clearly lays it out in layman’s terms. And you know his silly little drawings and pictures make it easy to kind of relate and understand these esoteric topics without getting too complicated, and that by the end you feel like you have some level of expertise no matter how dangerous that may sound.
Justine: I’ve been interested in like AI for a long time. Just personally write something I was looking into and it was interested in about, his posts are great for me to send to people that aren’t so interested but are starting to wonder about it because there is so much going on, especially when you look at like self driving cars and kind of the direction we’re headed so definitely a great post there. All right man, before we get into the interview, let’s pay some bills with a feature listing of the week. What do you got for us?
Joe: We’re talking about listing 40720, this is an Amazon FBA business credit back in July of 2011 so it is a little bit old. It’s in the toys and game niche. This is definitely the type of business that has a steady customer feedback rating, good relationships with their vendors and suppliers. It’s something that somebody could acquire. It could give them a steady flow of income as income replacement.
Justine: Yeah, those are solid interview on this. Do you want to take a look at it? As you mentioned, it’s in the toys and games niche. It’s got a ton of history, so if you want one that’s got a very long solid track record, I’d say definitely give this one a look and make an $8,100 on average per month over, I believe the last 12 months and again, priced at just under $250,000. All right man. Let’s dig into the heart of this week’s episode.
Speaker 2: Now [inaudible 00:05:52] of this week’s episode.
Justine: All right. I’m really excited to have Tim urban on the show. Tim, how you doing, man?
Tim Urban: Doing Great. Thanks for having me on.
Justine: Thanks for being on. Really excited I kind of done an introduction for you already on the show. We talked about the top of the show, but why don’t you tell everyone who hasn’t heard of what you do, a little bit about what you do and what you’re up to at ‘wait, but why’
Tim Urban: My job is writing long, thorough stick figure illustrated blog posts on a site that I cofounded with a partner called Wait But Why in 2013. Since then that’s basically been my life is writing and write about all different kinds of things. Sometimes trying to get to … Sometimes kind of sociology topics in psychology, get trying to understand why we are the way we are. Other times talking about technology and the stuff that we’re building and the world we’re building and what that future might look like. And sometimes how those two concepts like our sociology and our technology go together. I find that stuff really interesting.
Justine: So do we, there’s a ton of people that are reading this. You’ve got some really interesting people following your blog. I know that Sam Harris is a fan. I know Tim Ferriss has tweeted you out and mention you quite a few times and obviously Elan Musk reach out to you, which must have just blown your mind man.
Tim Urban: Oh yeah. It’s a not a call you expect to get ever. So that was weird.
Justine: One of the things I think is really interesting about your blog and one of the reasons I’m a fan is, it’s kind of the opposite of what a lot of people were doing in 2013. Everyone was like “Click Baity, headlines” and it was really short bits of content to deal with our add attention spans, and you went the other direction. You said, “Look, I’m going to do 15,000 words on this. I’m going to do crazy long posts, really in depth posts.” Was that intentional? Did you see that everything was short and focused on the shortage [inaudible 00:07:46]? said, “Look, I want to write content or I want to provide content that’s the deep dive long form.” Did you see a gap and fill it in the market place or was it just something you enjoy it?
Tim Urban: I think actually that there was kind of a gap that we saw. I will take some credit for that because the premise was that, the articles we’d see on the Facebook news feed and on Twitter and other places, articles people forward you, they would be often, like you said, and geared towards getting a volume of clicks. Clearly it was obvious that that’s what they were geared towards. Sometimes they’re really clever. Sometimes there are great, it’s not that they’re all bad, it’s just that, it seemed rare that a really like high quality piece of something on the Internet that you really learn a ton from and, but you’d really enjoy reading it. That was just very rare and any time that happened, it seemed to make the rounds. I would see seven different people would send it to me over a week and said, There it seems to be like a lot of hunger for that.”
And that coincided with something that we thought we could do well. I had blogged on the side for six years, so I knew I could write a blog post and I was really curious person really like to dig deep into the topics that I liked. We were never going to out quantity or a buzzfeed for example. We were going to out digital’s marketing strategy, BuzzFeed or Upworthy or these companies that spend a lot of time and money on the right headline, word choice and the right SEO strategy. We weren’t going to beat them in those things without a lot more money. But the thing we can beat them at is, I could spend 60 or 80 hours literally on one article as opposed to two or five or eight.
We’ve got decided let’s … That’s the thing that we can create that might be actually interesting to a lot of people. We didn’t know much more than that, but that was the premise.
Justine: Yeah, that’s what stuck out to me a couple of years ago when I started reading Wait But Why. Actually, you see, I think there’s a similar gap in the news industry, right? I think this last year I saw some articles from the Atlantic that were similar on topical new stuff, but that were similar in length and depth, and I was like, “Wow, this is..” It shocked me. And I think that’s something that shocked me about Wait But Why. What’s amazing about your blog too is just the depth you go. You are digging deep.
I listened to you with Jordan over at the art of charm and I’ll leave a link to that in the show notes, but he talked about how you were doing the three pieces on Elon Musk. And then you realize, well to really explaining to him you need an explain power, you need explaining how, where that comes from. You need to explain cold. You explain a lot of her things and so you kept going down the rabbit hole. What I’m wondering is this, as you dig into this and you’re following your own curiosities and things that you need to explain to make sense for the down the road, but when does the rabbit hole ends? When you keep digging into these points and dig further and further, when do you know you’ve got it?
Tim Urban: Well, I’m still working on that because I have a perfectionism problem.
Tim Urban: And the problem is, perfectionism is contained when you have a deadline, and when you don’t have a deadline, it can run wild especially in the kind of thing where, the only other thing they can contain perfectionism, it as if it’s the nature of the activity is something where you can achieve perfection, if you’re trying to do a perfect financial model and you’re creating this spreadsheet that’s just has everything you want. you might have a correction, as an issue that makes that take way too long. But at some point you’ll say, “Okay, this literally is exactly what I want. There’s nothing else I can do.” But if you’re doing something like writing music or researching a topic or these things that are in morphous and they can always get better, you can always learn more.
You can always improve a piece of art you’re working on. Perfectionism without a deadline is super dangerous. Currently dealing with that, and then I’ve been working on the same post forever, but I’m finally getting close to the end here. But I think that there is an answer to when you should stop researching. And I think it has to do with what you’re trying to do because there isn’t an objective answer because you could always write a book on something. You could make an entire career on learning something. You can always go more and have a justification for it if that fits your goals, but often that’s not your goal. For a blogger … For me it’s like much, I could do one blog post in a year and really, really, really research it or I could do 40 blog posts and research them all a little bit or somewhere in between.
For me the answer definitely is not for what I’m trying to do for what I care about, for what I like to do for my readers are expecting one a year is not what I’m trying to do. So for me, the answer to your question is I think I try to get myself to a place where I go from being a layman, a curious layman about something to somewhere I could sit down with a bunch of friends who are really curious and smart but they don’t know any more about it than I did. I could sit there for like a half hour and tell them about it, and just by the end they’re like, “Oh my God, I totally understand this. This is so cool.” That’s about it. The effort to go beyond that to where I could give a college lecture on it, to where I could write and put important academic paper on it. That’s like 10, 20, 30 times that the research, and it’s not diminishing returns from my purposes.
For me, if I could tell my friends about it and have them really understand it, they could ask questions. I have answers, I have numbers for them, I have evidence, that’s right. For me maybe on a topic like artificial intelligence that might take three good weeks of research, on a topic just comparing dates in history that in an interesting way that one might take a 48 hours, two days of research.
Justine: it sounds a lot like your preparation for the Ted talk, the piece you did on that way. Like how good does this have to be? Well, for a Ted talk it has to be particularly good. Do you often start posts or you start a piece that you’re working on and you’re deep diving and you can get a little further down the rabbit hole and you’d have to quit, you get to a point where you’re like, “I just don’t think this is going to work” Or “I’m not going to get that kind of conversational understanding what this topic that’s going to make sense for my audience.”?
Tim Urban: I’ve done some left turns. I’ve abandoned a bunch of topics after the first half a day. Just looking at it and either thinking “This isn’t as interesting as I thought” Or “I’m not going to be able to get a good enough place to write a good blog post on this without a huge amount of work.” And so all abandoned it pretty quickly. I have also another just … This is another kind of I think perfectionism trait as I have a sunk costs issue so if I put too much time in, there’s nothing that’s going to make me not do it. At that point it was too unsatisfying to waste what I’ve done, but I will sometimes left turn and the post we’ll start out being about one thing and then it’ll end up … That initial topic ends up being just a small part of the post or ends up being just a piece of that topic that ends up being the post.
Justine: Well, you work on just one piece at a time or do you have multiple projects going on at once that you’re at varying levels of explanation that?
Tim Urban: I used to just because I had a real week deadline situation when I used to just declare on the top of the site that it was every Tuesday. I didn’t have time. I had to just head down on the one I was doing asap. There was no ability to do something else. Now, I don’t have that deadline. What I find is I ended up, someone will say something interesting and as opposed to writing it down on the future topics list, I might just dive in and then that might get really interesting and then I might dive in for six days and then I might say, I’m actually just going to do this post now. I’m super excited about it. Then when I was working on, I’m going to come back to. I’m not thrilled with that process, but I currently have probably six posts that are somewhere in the middle. Some of them have writing in them already. So a lot of them are outlined, a lot of them have, the other ones have researched done already. That’s a new thing and I don’t know for me that that’s a tough way to do it.
Justine: That’s all scary. Multiple things [crosstalk 00:15:40].
Tim Urban: And you have all this momentum to make a post and then you hit a snag and that’s when it’s tempting to, “Ooh, I’ll come back to this one later.”
Tim Urban: But you’ve got to fight through it, because otherwise now that you’re going to come back to that thing with a snag like four months later and didn’t even have the momentum anymore, you don’t even remember what your thoughts were you have to get[crosstalk 00:15:55]
Justine: Or what the problem was. Yeah, of course. I definitely … Multiple project it’s confusing and you lose time when you switch between one project to another. Just like getting up to speed on the other one, there’s some like catching up to do and I feel like you lose some[inaudible 00:16:09]. Tell me about the use of the research that you do and you go in such depth. You must have some kind of process, software, tools, something you’re using to collect and store that research in usable way. Things that make it easy to recollect or to put your thoughts together. How do you do that with notes? Do you use any software? What do you use?
Tim Urban: I actually use very unsophisticated tools. I use Chrome and iBox and text edit. That’s it.
Tim Urban: Because I’m sure one day I’ll find some better software that I’ll love, but right now it’s not pretty, but it totally gets the job done. Chrome is where I do most of my research, just articles and journal articles and Wikipedia and everything, YouTube. And then I’ll often read some books, so I’ll just open iBox kindle on my computer and just open those and I want them on the computer so I can copy and paste blocks and quotes that I can quote later or come back to. I will just paste thoughts and ideas into a big text edit doc, just a big mess for people don’t have a Mac. Tech said, “It’s like the super bare bones version of Microsoft word. It’s just like a text editor.” I have a bunch of them kind of personal tricks for myself. Just shorthand if I bold something it means something to me. If I underline it, it means something else. But I underline and bold that means something if I capitalize. I have put a star next to something. So at this point I can just kind of skim through those notes and quickly see what’s going on. But at the end of that, depending on how on the post I’ve had that document before, be a little length of a 500 page book really, really crazy, like 150,000 words. That is maybe my record there.
And then I’ll go from there. That point then need the hideous process of going through that and starting to break it into smaller documents and starting to form a general outline and then continuing to make new documents. Each one is a little more refined [inaudible 00:18:10]. Eventually ended up with a very tight outline and then document that mirrors that outline that has accepted it, has all the notes pasted into each section where they go. And then once I get to each section in the writing, I can kind of mini outline that particular section, like a detailed outline of that given where I am and then I can go. So I need like the big structure outline and then I can do a little parts later.
Justine: Break it down. [inaudible 00:18:35] you started because you were so late on some of the posts that you started. I don’t know if it was you’re just procrastinating, but you started putting the posts up like, “oh, here’s where I am on my journey. Here’s where I am on the path actually completing this article.” That was great. Let’s talk a little bit about the business of Wait But Why. I was trying to look up how Wait But Why makes money, how it pays the bill like I keep the lights on and the best I could tell, you know patron you have a store, right? Well who do you use for the store? What’s the service they use? Cause they do the print work on the T-shirts and everything, right?
Tim Urban: Yeah. We have a guy, he’s a friend of my business partners his name is Jeremy and he has a business where he helps companies like Wait But Why as it’s kind of functions as their store guy and you split the revenue. It’s really great actually. I’ll be like, “Look, you know we want some new T-shirts and so we’ll take some images from posts that make sense on a T-shirt or will want a stuffed animal for one of the characters or want a poster. If it’s opposed to we’ll probably want to work with a graphic designer, a little bed, cause the stuffed animal will have to find the right kind of a partner there [crosstalk 00:19:37] at that point we put them … Once that’s all done, we basically put them in touch with Jeremy and nil. And Jeremy has a factory that prints posters, that creates T-shirts.
Justine: Is that a company? What companies or is it just him doing it?
Tim Urban: [crosstalk 00:19:52] marinade. They’re pretty small but I think they’re growing and basically, it’s as if we had an employee who did all that except instead it’s a partnership. So, but then we use Shopify as the actual interface. It’s a nice system where kind of inventory is he’ll hold on to the inventory, he’ll deal with shipping, customer service, printing, all of that stuff. And we can provide the customers and the IP, the actual design of the products and the business and he provides everything else. And it’s like we both need each other. Neither of US could do this operation without the other right now. It’s a great … It’s a nice situation there and that’s been a nice revenue source for us. I think if you put even more time into the store, which I hope to at some point, I think we could even turn it up even more, but it’s been a nice way to say around what is young phase. Patriots is another really super helpful source.
Patrion is the reason I can have an employee now so and she can take a huge amount of stuff off my plate. [inaudible 00:20:50] just dig into my research and my writing a lot more than I was able to. She can basically take all the other stuff like translations and store stuff and we have syndication and we have meetings, scheduling and if I do a talk, there’s a lot of booking of stuff. There’s just a lot, there’s always a ton of stuff and it was eating up like more than half of my time and now it’s not. That’s been really great. Plus she’s just great to bounce ideas off. If I’m working in a post, sometimes it helps to just kind of talk at someone and get their feedback on what you’re working on.
Justine: I actually see a lot of stores for kind of brands or around personalities and they generally don’t do very well at all, even with large audiences. But I’m guessing here’s my two a bit better just because you have drawings and there’s more of a connection there, so maybe that just makes more sense especially for hoodies and print T-shirts and stuff like that. But Patriarchy is interesting. I know that Sam Harris, he uses that as well. So for keeping the lights on, that seems to make sense. Do you make any money on speaking fees or anything else around Wait But Why other than that?
Tim Urban: Yeah. Speaking in the last maybe year and a half has picked up and it definitely is also helpful. Speaking can be lucrative if you get on the circuit and then you get recommended. I’m doing a couple of those a month. The good news is they don’t really take away from writing time too much because a lot of them involve trave but I ended up working a lot. I ended up being very productive on airplanes and in hotels. I’m doing two, maybe three a month and that’s very helpful too. And then the idea is to do a book at some point soon. And then that will bring in hopefully more money. So look, we’re not going to be crazy rich with Wait But Why, it’s not really the kind of company does. I think there’s a lot of people that really liked the brand, that really trust the brain.
If we wanted to make it a super lucrative thing, we probably could start making apps that people would like that and we could leverage the trust we have or start selling a lot more books, write long things and sell them as eBooks. Make a series of children’s books that I think there’s a lot of ways we could start a Kickstarter campaign for the oatmeal guide did a game-
Justine: Which was great by the way.
Tim Urban: . I’m sure. It’s a great idea and at some point I could see maybe wanting to do that, but at the moment that’s just not where our head is like we just really want to be doing good things really growing our audience and just maintaining that trust we have that if someone spends their time on something that Wait But Why puts out there going to be happy, they spend time on it.
Justine: Even an interesting blend of like art and business. If I’d say some businesses might be on the 70 to 80 out of 100, they’re way more towards the business and the marketing and everything in your maybe 15. Right? Like you barely marked, you keep ads off. Do you feel any pressure to model this? Is that never like a point of conflict between you and your business partner or do you feel any pressure to not monetize, to do less? Does it feel weird to you to monetize?
Tim Urban: Well, we had ads at the beginning and then we took them off because we just didn’t like them. He and I are on the very much the same page. We both thinking the long view here. We both really liked what, why has become, and we think a lot of the reason we have a really dedicated readership and people who really trust us is that it’s clear that money is not like the thing we’re really trying to do right now. I think readers had been very generous when there’s been, every time I have like an apologetic tone about selling something, I have 10 people emailed me and said, “Dude, you know, it’s okay to make money. Like we want to help you.” I think it’s not that it would rub people the wrong way, but it’s also just a matter of time.
I spent 10 years before doing Wait But Why doing just a business that was business for business and that’s all it was. It had its own purpose and stuff, but our heads were in growing it and making money and I was not satisfied. As a human that’s not just … It just I needed to be doing something more creative. So now that I am, the last thing I want to do is give that up and hire a bunch of people and start building what you products and suddenly I’m back in business. It’s the whole point.
Justine: When a 20% growth next quarter we need, that would be awkward.
Tim Urban: Yeah, I know my job like it used to be as managing people and that’s a really rewarding, amazing job. It’s just not what I want to be doing right now. I really want to be sitting there with my computer, creating something that I’m proud of and that’s fundamentally in conflict with trying to build and scale something that’s going to be a big profit machine that has lots of people. Those are both, again, amazing. It’s just depends on what you want at this time and it’s not what I want right now.
Justine: I have a business partner and we’ve known each other for a long time and we’re able to work out differences. But we do have arguments, we do have disagreements in terms of where our business should go and what we’re up to. But how do you and Andrew deal with disagreements and businesses? How do you get through arguments or problems you’re having?
Tim Urban: We’re really good at yelling at each other. First of all, we’ve known each other since we were five and we can argue like siblings or married couple. So, and we’re very good at … Then the person who was more wrong or more rational apologizes and it’s just, it’s done, it’s easy. So there’s that. But then we also have a very similar set of values. You both really value our own freedom more than kind of anything else. So we were running this other company together and a few years back, Andrew had this urge to start a podcast APP. And we wanted to do it together, but he was really wanting to go and work on that. So he did and he went and worked on it and I kind of held down the fort at the company while he did that because we both value like some one of us wants to do something, then we do it. And now a few years up to that, I was really, really getting itchy to start something much more creative. And Andrew said, “Okay, well let’s … Ideal, it’ll look if I was going to do something like, you know, just the head nun, no business implications that it wouldn’t make sense to do that together, that would make sense to split and do our own thing, which was an option.
But the thing I really was excited about doing, it was writing more content site that can be a really awesome business. So Andrew was pumped about that instead of layout. Always we stayed partners. And the reason it’s a little easier now is kind of, he’s been running and growing our other company and that’s kind of his role. He kind of has the last call there. Even if we talk about everything and with Wait But Why it’s kind of my call and he knows that, and it’s been good because you know he’s getting a lot of value out of Wait But Why that it has a lot of revenue potential in the future. It’s a lot of fun to own Wait But Why. It’s also just when we do another podcast app down the road or something, it’s going to be helpful to have lots of users day one. No, that’s the hard part. So it’s a very valuable thing to have an email list and just attention for when you, whenever you’re going to want it. I think he’s satisfied for that reason.
Justine: I was actually going to ask you about end game for Wait But Why or where you see it in like three, five or seven years. But I mean that kind of answers the question. I mean having people’s attention, having an email list, having something that you can jump start other businesses or other ventures is super helpful. I’m guessing that’s kind of the plan. Do you ever …. Where else do you see it in five, seven years? Yes there’s a launch pad, but what else can you use it for, do you think? How else will it kind of evolve?
Tim Urban: There’s so many options when you have, like you said like attention and trust, you don’t have to go together. And for example, like this summer we wanted to do some kind of like in person thing and see what happens. Everything was on the Internet with our world here. And so we did this thing called wait but high where we basically matched up 4,000 readers into eight person group and 160 cities, for each one was like a curated event based on like the surveys that they sent us. So what we knew about them based on what we think they’d like that people, they liked that area. They lived in the budget and we had an intern for the summer and they worked crazy to get this together. It was super fun and like we didn’t make money off it because we weren’t … We did this one free for the first thing, but we thought, Okay, you know, like that could be an awesome, we could end up hiring someone that starts basically a kind of like a business underway Wait But Why that just does in person events.
That’s an example. Or I could see putting out, like I said, books, children’s books, more products like posters, things like that. At some point you never know when there’s going to be some social mission, some important thing, some cause you care about that just really hits you. And whenever that happens, we’re gonna be able to raise money for something so that it’s … I think there’s a lot of things I would like to do. I would love to do a TV show at some point or YouTube channel. One of those things. Or a book like I’ve been saying. Or-
Justine: You mentioned a podcast, right?
Tim Urban: A podcast. Yeah. I’m thinking of starting a podcast. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin and take on too many things. That’s a mistake I’ve made many times in the past. But it’s nice knowing that when something really hits it, I’m really want to do it. It’s a lot easier to make that really happen then it was until the age of 31 for me when I didn’t have any kind of attention or trust your audience and everything was you have to the big effort to get things off the ground.
Justine: Tim Getting into audience, you mentioned that Wait But Why and then you’ve done some really interesting things. I know in the past you’ve had them send you to your audience and needed a random countries. [inaudible 00:29:09] which is great. We talk a lot about our businesses like location independent in a lot of our peers and stuff. They run their businesses from around the world and do a lot of travel. So I thought that was pretty interesting. As your audience grows. And it’s got much, much bigger than the last couple of years, do you feel like more responsibility to them devolve to deliver a post for one, but also to make sure you get it right to make sure you don’t miss anything and the content and how do you feel about that?
Tim Urban: The larger the audience has gotten definitely has made it feel a lot like more stressful in delivering something that really excellent and really making sure, yeah, it’s right. And I think that can be a dangerous path to go. I’m actually working on trying to get out of that mindset, because the thing that readers really liked was some new good thing every week, maybe every two weeks. When there’s a post like AI, which was a really popular post, that one took three weeks a[crosstalk 00:30:05], they wouldn’t have wanted that to, that took five weeks total. They would not have wanted that to take a week because it would have been a far less thorough posts. I think they want me to use my judgment about how long things should be, but I know they would rather have in a 52 week year, they’d rather have 25 or 30 posts than four or five just for sure.
I would if I decide. It’s just at least right now, the thing is if you change expectations, I think if you take someone’s favorite author who writes a book every three years, and that authors send them, I’m not doing books anymore. I’m going to write a short thing every three weeks. I’m not sure that reader might be say, “We’ll know what, what, no, I want your books. I look forward to your books.” I don’t think it’s inherently worse to write for long things a year. Then I just think it’s expectations and I think if I’m doing good work, I’m proud of then, and I’m not wasting time, that I don’t think there’s actually something wrong with whatever you’re doing, or however long you’re taking. But I think it’s when you have expectations and you set them, you want to then meet them and that’s something I’m working on.
Justine: You’ve answered the different parts of your audience through minis, through the dinner table where you’re asked questions, through the sender. I think that’s really interesting. I think there are probably a speak stuck. It helps you speak to a wider audience. So the people that need the long massive super in depth posts have those too. But they have other ways they can interact either with each other or you’re posing questions that I think or at least understand. What I’m asking though I think though is, how does it affect you? How does it affect your writing when they are hungry for a new post, or when you’re talking about subjects that are … I don’t know, like we were talking about procrastination and you mentioned that a lot of people have gotten back to you and said, “Look, I’ve procrastinated for a month on a paper I need arrive procrastinated for 30 years.” Like that responsibility you must weigh on you at bet.
Tim Urban: Yeah, it does. It does just in that, you really want to be responsible. Both about your facts, if you’re explaining something you want to be accurate. And often accuracy isn’t like, “Oh, I have to look up. There’s the right number. Okay, good. I found the right number.” It’s much more about explaining what the nuance of this issue has four different major arguments and there seems to be merit and three of them and the pro, and it looks like this one is argument among scholars is starting to get more kind of credit over the last five years. That’s the accurate answer. As opposed to picking the first one of those four arguments you read in presenting that like the ultimate truth.
Justine: It’s not clean. It’s not like the numbers 42 and everyone knows it was 42 think that’d be easy. Right?
Tim Urban: Getting to the point where I even know that there’s four major arguments means I have to read everything. I have to read 20 times more than I would if I just was picking the first argument or the most prominent argument that I see about something and presenting it. Instead, I have to read as much as I can to start seeing the outlines of the full picture, which is, okay, there’s four main things and these three seem to be the accurate ones. So it’s that side. But then it’s like you said with something like procrastination or I write about friendship and relationships and the way we think about other people judging us and all these other things.
Justine: Marriage [inaudible 00:33:00] I just got engaged and I wrote that post was like, Ooh.
Tim Urban: There you go. Right? So Post that are more on the kind of sociology side, there’s a lot of responsibility there too, to not just be kind of reckless because the truth is, I think a lot of readers see me as an equal, as a friend who is someone who like a figure, like a friend of theirs who has their own ideas. And if I say something and they disagree they’ll think, “Okay, well I think he was right about that. But not really this, that’s fine.” But there’s also a lot of people who if they like your writing they will really take to heart what you say when you say in in a very opinionated way. I’m trying to be sparing with that. I tried to be careful and use that when I really, really have conviction because …. I don’t know, I did a post on friendship a while back and I just recklessly presented it as if everyone’s got a bunch of like good friends and it’s about like, “Oh blah blah, this and that.” I got a couple of emails from people being like … I don’t, I’ve never had a really close friend and you made me feel like shit about that. I’m like, that was really reckless of me to not think hard enough when I’m writing this post to.
Those people don’t need coddling, they just don’t want you to present it like they don’t exist, which if I’m reading an author, a writer writes something and they’re acting like their worldview and their experience, life experience is the only one I lose respect for them. And I think they’re missing the big picture. And I don’t ever want to do that. And so especially when I’m giving advice or something, I really want to think about my experience in worldview and whether it’s just like everyone else’s. In some ways it is some ways we’re all humans and I can with confidence say basically all of us deal with this thing. And then other times it’s just not. And you want to be cautious and acknowledged that and have the humility and those moments that I think it requires,
Justine: We talked about it’s hard to see the other side. Right? That’s a case where like I could see how it would be difficult to see that. And you feel bad for missing it, especially if it affects you and they’re not like, you know, this ruin my life or anything. But it bothered them. Right. And you’re like, I don’t want that to happen. I know recently you took some flack over and by the way, your audience is amazing and a positivity is just through the roof. But you did a post recently on it’s going to be okay based on the election and I know that you’d like written it right away and publish it or whatever. And you know, some people were like, well it’s, you’re not capturing my thoughts or my feelings or where I’m coming from. You know what I was thinking about this and I’m like, no matter what you do with that post and even the follow up post, which was I think clearer and you’d felt bad about not really expressing yourself but in that realm and at that time, I mean you’re gonna the best you can do is piss off both sides. That’s really the best he could do. And like is it worth it for topics that are that split?
Sam Harris for example, he goes on like the really dangerous Harry topics. Is that something you want to do and do you find that challenge to be worth it?
Tim Urban: For a while I think I would have said no. I would’ve said there’s so many things to write about that alienates nobody. And so you have a hundred people that find your thing and love it and you can write a topic, you can write about virtual reality and you’ll alienate zero of those hundred and a hundred will continue to love your stuff. Or you can write about politics and now 43 of them don’t like you anymore and now you have 57 readers for the next post. Why would you do that? And I changed my mind on that just for a cut mean one, I respect the shit out of my audience, I really think that the people who are big way, but why readers are not the typical people, they’re not easy to alienate if you’re being humble and thorough and reasonable.
People who are alienated when you’re being like that, when you’re being responsible as a writer and being thorough and not being tribal and whatever about it, people who were alienated den, that’s kind of their problem. When I write a book, I’m sure I’m currently writing about all this stuff and I’m sure I’m losing book sales. To me I’m just like, I’m not going to live by that. I’m 35 I’m hopefully going to write for the next 40 years. I’m not going to write terrified of these things. I think honestly from my experience, I think probably 90 plus percent of the people who really like wait, but why are totally down for me to write something that’s on a hairy topic as long as I’m not being a jackass about it. And even when they disagree with me, which they certainly will about certain things, they’re not, that’s not who they are.
The kind of people that say I dislike, he said something I disagree with. I’m done with this guy. Some people at first will, but I don’t think that’s my typical audience member now.
Justine: I saw that they were like, “I’m going to unsubscribe. Well good luck. Take care.” The rest of your audience was defending you [crosstalk 00:37:31].
Tim Urban: But the truth is that post election post wasn’t even a good example because like you said, I wrote that the night of, I did the thing I said I don’t want to do, which is I kind of just brushed off a lot of people’s fears, which is easy when you’re a white male. I think that to not acknowledge that regardless of the reality, and not that I knew what either way, but regardless of what it is, people are feeling all different kinds of things right now and based on their own life experience and to kind of assume that what I’m feeling is sufficient to kind of say, so you should feel this too.
It wasn’t my best moment. It wasn’t that responsible. I think that for the most part I’m proud of that post and that I wrote a few days later and I kind of said, “Look, I talked to a lot of people, I didn’t acknowledge them stuff.” And of course like you said, then I, you know, it’s like that people came in with the wiffle ball bats. I picture like the big, those big cartoony. I wrote the first post and I had 300 people come in and like hit me with the wiffle ball bats and then I wrote, the second post when I acknowledge that then a bunch of [crosstalk 00:38:24] and hit me for Penn during with the wiffle ball bats for would they saw as pandering. So it totally okay. I’m okay getting hit with a wall batts but what I’m not okay with, which is why I wrote the second post, I’m not okay with getting hit.
When I realized that I wasn’t, then I’m getting hit for a good reason. If I write something and I’m like, look, I was humble. I told both sides, I admitted what I didn’t know and I just put out my opinion. And if some very partisan person, very tribal person wants to run in and get furious, that’s totally cool. I’m not going to let you run my career. I’m not doing that because you’re not actually important to me. You’re not who I’m writing for. You’re not who reads this blog mostly and you’re not the people that I’m interested in life.
Justine: If you miss something because you couldn’t get out of your skin and you missed a point of view that you thought was important, then you feel about that you want to clarify those positions.
Tim Urban: Yeah, that was not a point, which is basically the point I made was, people that are acknowledged in the post, people saying, well, it’s easy. If you could just say, “You know, you’re a white male and so it’s easy for you to feel like everything’s going to be fine. But you know, right now people in the left would call it the oppressed people, the oppressed groups in the country. Those people don’t feel that way. And for you to kind of just assume that they should feel that way, turn people off. And that point, if I’m going to look, I’m not, I’m doing it right now. I’m not scared as a white male to talk about these things. And I don’t think any white male should be if they, you know, they have the readers.
I’m writing about all this stuff again, but it deserves an insane amount of nuance, especially if you’re right. It’s the same thing. If I wanted to write about the experience of being a soldier and I’d never been to a war, that’s fine. It’s fine. I shouldn’t be crucified for that. As long as I do my homework and I interviewed a bunch of soldiers and I write with humility and I explained that, I don’t know, then it’s fine. And what you shouldn’t do is say, look, soldiers, if they come back from war, they shouldn’t feel this and that and brush it off. Obviously that’s not gonna go over well with soldiers and it shouldn’t. So that’s how I feel about it.
Justine: Tim you said you’re working on a book right now. Of course we’ll be excited to read that when it comes up. If someone was just saying this podcast and I said, who the heck is this Tim guy in Wait But WHY? And you know I was in, send them over to a couple of pieces from you that would kind of encapsulate what you’re about and what the blogs about. What would you, what should I send them to?
Tim Urban: Well.
Justine: that Elon Musk pieces just like too crazy a Fermi paradox. I don’t know. I’m mad. A little too wonky [inaudible 00:40:38]
Tim Urban: Well, it depends on the person is. I put the posts, the front page sidebar has a popular post section, which is really just the kind of a sampling for people who are new is the way I look at it of posts that have done really well. And I think they’re kind of a good intro to a lot of the different, they span the range of things I write about. So I would say if they’re interested in like kind of 2:00 AM stone conversations about like are we alone in the universe, “Oh my God, the stars are so far away. Oh my God. The big bang was so long ago.” That kind of thing. I think the ferry paradox is a good post to start with because it’s really fascinating topic and the post isn’t that long. It’s not crazy long. It’s like approachable.
So that’s what I would recommend, the kind of people who love space science tech, stuff like that. If someone really loves tech and they really love thinking about the future and they’re ready to do a deep dive, I would say go read the artificial intelligence post. It’s a two part post. The first part is less long than the second. It’s a little more manageable. And that one, it’s a kind of a good primer, a good overview of, of artificial intelligence and that one’s been really popular. And then someone who is on more of the, uh, who wants to think about life and wants to think about their sociology, I would recommend them to kind of one of the animal posts.
Either I’m reading about procrastination and about the instant gratification monkey and all of our heads, if that’s an issue they have or if I think a lot of people can benefit from reading about why we care so much about what other people think. And that’s opposed to, I called taming the mammoth and there’s a big picture of the mammoth. So all of those are in the sidebar. All four of those are in the sidebar. And then at the bottom of each of those posts, there’s related posts. So someone who really likes it is very easy to get on a spiral and dig in. So yeah, I might start there.
Speaker 1: Awesome. Tim, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything you want to plug before we wrap this up?
Tim Urban: No, I would just say people shut up. They’re interested. They should check out the blog whatbutwhy.com and the best way to follow is just subscribe to the email list cause we just email new posts when they’re out. That’s it. So it’s a pretty unobtrusive email list and that’s what we always aim for because that’s the easiest way to kind of for us to reach people who like us in the future. That’s about it.
Speaker 1: Awesome. Tim. Thanks.
Tim Urban: Thanks Justin.
Speaker 2: You’ve been listening to the Empire podcast now some news and updates.
Tim Urban: All right Joe, time for some news and updates. First off, we are in the final stages of interviews for the customer service position. We’ve got Andrew, our listings manager who has been just knocking them out all the first interviews, getting us set up for the second interview is, and we are into deeply into the second interviews now and getting those done. We have about, I think it’s 10 or 11 people, but I don’t a second interviews and we’re really looking for three people. So we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. It’s really hard to narrow it down at this point. And it’s always this way, right?
Joe: It is always this way and we’re getting better and better candidates every time we do these apprentice pose. I’m very impressed. But you know, we’ll keep doing the interviews and I’m, I’m sure we’ll find the right guy.
Justine: We should have this decided hopefully within one week but maximum of two weeks. So we’re giving ourselves a little bit of time, but we’ll have this aside just as soon as we can because we need to see [inaudible 00:43:35] here by end of March, early April. Another point of order I guess is that you and I are going to be much less involved. And the next two to three weeks where I’ve somewhat cleared my calendar, tried to remove myself from conversations, try to put out any fires I can in the meantime and we’re going to be out. And that’s mostly because I’m getting married March 8th so I’ll be in my wedding and obviously you’re my best man. Well maybe it’s not obvious, but you are my best man. So you’re going to be pretty busy with me helping me get this done.
Joe: Yeah. Well, let me just give you an official congratulations there my friend and I will see you soon in Vietnam. But if anyone trying to reach me over the next two to three weeks, you might have a problem trying to get ahold of me. So apologies. But be patient.
Justine: We’re going to have a lot of stuff to get back to after around not looking forward to that. Last thing I mentioned that, I don’t want to get too much into this, but I have gotten so many questions about that. I think we should at least address it. This is going to be our fake news section. Actually. There’s so much fake news gone around. Let’s do a fake new section. So the fake news from empire flippers is just about the rumors going around about some Amazon associates changes. There’s discussions about whether they’re going to change the associate’s program to be a tiered structure, more like the UK where they don’t have a sliding tier up to 8.5% depending on a number of units. It may just be per category. So that’s the rumor, right? And as best I can tell, this all traces back to Facebook groups.
There are people talking about it privately and private Facebook groups and then there was a warrior forum message and then every other blog posts, every other mention of it seems to reference either Facebook groups or that warrior forum posts. They’re just … It’s mostly random people and it’s not everybody that said they got contacted by Amazon and they were going to set up a call, maybe they can talk about it privately. It’s really messy and it’s from randoms and I haven’t seen anything official. We tried to reach out to find out if there’s any official, we’ve got nothing, there’s nothing on any official channels. This is February 23rd and they’re talking about that change going through.
The reason we haven’t been talking about it and what we’re going to do and what you should be doing and all these different things is because, we like to worry about things that are happening and not might be happening. If we put out a warning or alarm bells and everything that could happen, we would miss out on so much that is happening and I think it’s better to worry about the problems in front of you than the ones way further down the road.
Joe: To further that this is like a Google update. If you were standing by on the sidelines worried about the next Google update, then a lot of times you can miss a good opportunity just because the update never happens and that’s happened before and it’ll happen again. And I think the same kind of thing here. Not only do we not know if it’s official, but we don’t even know the details yet and that’s kind of the way you have to approach it until there is actual information out there.
Justine: Last thing I’ll mention on this topic is it’s not binary. It’s not are they going to keep it the exact same as it is or are they going to this categorize a category based structure. There are lots of other options. It could be for a select group of people. They’re changing it because they weren’t profitable enough for Amazon. It could be they’re doing it for certain people when you hit certain tiers or could be an Alpha test or it could be a whole number of things that isn’t going to involve most of us. So until we know officially we will not be commenting on like what we’re going to do or what we suggest you do, right now it’s a wait and see and we’ll let you know as soon as we hear something that is official. All right buddy, let’s do some listener shouts.
Awesome. Those, the indulgent ego boosting social proof segment. First stop. We got a tweet from Pedro. Pedro says at Empire Flippers, any under $5,000 sites coming up. Haven’t seen any in some time. Yeah, Pedro, that goes actually intentional. We’d change. Our minimums are a while back, a few months ago, so our new minimums right now as of February 23rd, 2017 are a minimum of $500 a month in profit from an affiliate site, Amazon associates site and ad sense site, a lead Gen site, it’s a minimum of $500 so that’s effectively going to put a minimum listing at like 10 $12,000 10 to $15,000 typically.
And then for eCommerce businesses, for FBA businesses, it’s a minimum of $1,000 a month in net profit. So effectively we’re looking at 20 $25,000 minimums in the eCommerce space or more complicated businesses that aren’t just straight content Amazon or at some sites. So those are the new minimums. That’s where you’re not seeing the really small deals. What’s the reason for that, Joe? We’ve talked about this, this has been kind of a long time coming. What are your thoughts on the reason I have mine, but what are yours?
Joe: Well, we looked at the numbers and honestly it just made up such a small portion of our revenue and was sucking down a lot of resources and we felt that buyers weren’t getting good deals with these businesses. They were just too all over the place. They were way too dynamic in terms of the revenue. So, we made the decision and I think it’s a good decision and, and I think it will be there and be, will always look at that and see if we need to lower or raise the bar in the future. But for right now it is where it is. And I think that’s a, it’s a good spot for us.
Justine: This isn’t the exact number is, but it’s not far off. But we looked at it and it was like 35, 40% of our efforts and energy and resources in terms of agent’s time and man hours and stuff being spent on revenue that was adding like 5% of the bottom line. So we’re like, “Ooh, that’s not so good.” So why do we continue to these much smaller deals? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’d rather free up those resources for larger deals for, $50,000 deals for $200 a month deals. It just made more sense to us, Pedro. So that’s the answer. I had an interesting mention over at the tropical MBA podcast. Our buddy Kevin was on the show talking about growing and scaling out his Amazon affiliate sites with his partner.
They’ve done a ton of business. They’ve got a really interesting process that I’m going to link that up in the show notes for people to go take a listen to a really great episode. So long one, it’s a good like hour or maybe a little longer than an hour podcast, but he goes into some depth about what they’re doing and what they’re up to and their numbers. So if you want to have a listen to, I definitely recommend it.
Joe: Yeah, I liked that podcast as well. I listen to it just the other day. Good one.
Speaker 1: That’s it for episode 167 the empire podcast. Thanks for sticking with us. We’ll be back soon with another show. You can find the show notes for this episode of more at empireflippers.com/waitbutwhy, and make sure to follow us on Twitter at Empire Flippers. See you next time. Bye Bye everybody.
Speaker 2: Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Empire podcast with Justin and Joe. Hit Up Empire flippers.com for more. That’s empireflippers.com. Thanks for listening.
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