In anticipation of the launch of my new book, Forever Employable, I’ll be sharing a series of interviews and stories from people from all different professions who have created a platform for themselves to make them forever employable. In this episode, I speak with Nir Eyal, best-selling author of Hooked and Indistractable.
The cake is the audience you own, not the audience you rent: How Nir Eyal immersed himself in his passion and emerged forever employable
Nir Eyal is a familiar name to many people. As the author of the best-selling Hooked he has given many companies a view into how to build habit-forming products. What’s particularly interesting is that in doing the research for the book, based on his success as an entrepreneur and founder, he built his own habit-forming product: his blog. After exiting two companies that were built during the early days of Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram Nir used the front-row seat he had to these companies’ success to think about and explore what made their products so sticky and successful.
Nir began writing — on a Blogger site (remember those?) — what he was learning. He shared insights, learnings, thoughts on how to build habit-forming products. This was a casual, side gig that helped him work through his own research and thoughts. But something interesting happened on the way to his first book — people started reading his blog. Because he was consistent and active and offered valuable, tactical details not only were people reading but started asking him to consult on their own projects.
Sensing this market feedback, he took his blog posts and turned them into a self-published book of around 150 pages. Using Amazon’s self-publishing platform now called Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), the first edition of Hooked sold 5000 copies and garnered over 100 5-star reviews based primarily on the blog following and the associated email list Nir had developed over two years. 8 years later, Hooked has sold over 250,000 copies and Nir’s email list has over 100,000 subscribers. All the while, he’s been providing content on his blog. He’s not trying to sell anything there — just provide value. The content, the book, the consulting and the speaking career came from adding value to the conversation.
The main thing Nir recommends is owning your audience. When you publish on other platforms, you might get some better distribution, but ultimately you don’t own that audience. Medium, Facebook, LinkedIn et al own the audience. Your goal should be to get your audience to come to you regularly. As Nir has shown this comes down to perseverance, consistency and value.
We talked about the things required to be a successful writer. Here Nir doubled down on the expertise you gain by immersing yourself in your domain. Similar to how Joel Hoekstra from Whitesnake said, “To be a guitar player you have to play guitar” Nir advocates following your curiosity to find a topic that interests you for the long haul. Immerse yourself in what’s already been written and then begin to synthesize your thoughts on that topic. If you write 1000 words per week for a year, you end up with a book. Sounds easy, right? 🙂
Nir shared many more tactical insights in the interview, so do check out the video. He closed out the discussion with this tip about becoming forever employable: focus on a topic or domain area that makes you look forward to Mondays. If you can hit the ground motivated and energetic every Monday, you know you’ve found where to plant your flag.
JEFF: Welcome back. I’m excited to host another Forever Employable Storiesepisode. This time with a relatively new friend of mine, Nir Eyal, author and consultant. Welcome to the Forever Employable Stories accidental video podcast. I say accidental because I never set out to create a podcast. It turns out that these series of stories that I’ve been putting out there kind of qualify as a podcast.
One of the things I love about these stories is that I’ve been looking for people from a diverse set of backgrounds. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career and how you got to where you are today.
NIR:I’m what you call a behavioral designer. I help companies design any kind of products and services that build happy habits in people’s lives. The way I came to do this is I had two companies. The first was in the solar energy business and I sold that and went to business school at Stanford. While at Stanford, I started a company in the advertising and gaming space back in 2007, back when apps didn’t mean apps on your phone because there was no such thing as an Apple App Store back then. Apps meant Facebook Apps. We had this really great vantage point in this new company to see the rise of many of these world changing businesses like Facebook, Google, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, and Snapchat. Being in Silicon Valley at that time was an amazing opportunity and many of these companies were my clients at my second company. When that company was acquired, I had an opportunity to kind of sit down and ask myself what I wanted to do next and I had this hypothesis that the future of companies that would really matter in the world would be the ones that were able to build habits because I could see that as the interface that we interact with technology shrinks – as it went from desktops to laptops to mobile devices to now wearable devices, and now even more recently, auditory devices like the Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana or Siri. Now the interface has disappeared. What I saw happening is that the visual interface, as it got smaller and smaller, left less room for what we call external triggers, for the pings, the dings, the rings, and notifications, which meant, of course, that if you didn’t build a habit with consumers, then your product might as well not exist. If you’re not on the homescreen, if you’re not top of mind, then your product won’t exist.
What I wanted to do was to figure out how do you build a habit-forming product? I coalesced the lessons of what I’d picked up from these companies that I’ve worked with like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; these companies that I saw the rise of. I had many friends who worked at those companies as well. The idea behind this was not only to figure out for myself what business I wanted to start next; thinking I would start another tech company, but more so, I started publishing what I was learning. I just started blogging about it. The idea was to kind of democratize these secrets, the psychology of what is it about Facebook and the gaming companies and Instagram and Slack? What is it about these tech products that make them so habit-forming and so engaging?
I started blogging about it and after about two years, I’ve just casually, for fun, blogging about this kind of stuff and kind of finding my way. I started getting some consulting engagements. People wanted me to help them build habit-forming products. Then a few years into it, I got a phone call from a professor of mine at Stanford and he said, “I really like your model. I really like the research you’ve done. You put a lot of thought into it. What do you think about teaching a class together?” Great. That sound terrific. He kind of gave me carte blanche to design a class with the graduates of the School of Business. I taught there for a few years. Then I moved over to the design school at Stanford; the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, where I taught for many years. That then became my first book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which I originally self-published. I was thinking I had maybe 5,000 blog subscribers at the time and they kept emailing me and saying, “Can you put your blog posts into a book?” “Okay, sure.” I thought it would just be like a 15-page PDF that I’d give out for free. Well, it turned into a 150-page PDF and I decided to put it out on KDP and hit publish and sold a few copies. One day I got a call from an agent and said, “Your book is really interesting. I’m getting some people that I think would be very interested in publishing it. What do you think about selling it?” I said, “Sure, that sounds interesting. What can you do?” She had a pretty easy time of selling it because at that point, it had received 100 five-star reviews on Amazon. That’s kind of the tipping point where people start looking at a book and say, “Oh, 100 five-star reviews and it’s self-published. That’s interesting.” I didn’t have to really sell the book. It was bought. We were off to the races. It was Portfolio, which is a division of Random House, who ended up publishing it. The book has sold a quartermillion copies in the past six years. It’s used in ever industry that you can imagine from healthcare to education companies to all sorts of different businesses. They use the hook model to build healthy habits in users’ lives to get people hooked to good habits as opposed to just frivolous habits. To exercise more. To eat right. To learn a new language, for example. This is some of the applications of the hook model. That was my first book and that kind of launched my speaking career which I didn’t really anticipate. It turned out to be a very fun way to make a living.
More recently, late last year, I published my second book called Indistractable. If Hookedwas about how to build good habits, Indistractable is about how to break bad habits. I understand both sides. I understand the Achilles heel of what makes these technologies so habit-forming. I really wanted to write a book to help me solve my own problem of how often I felt distracted in my life. That book was just published in September and it as a bestseller. It’s already outselling Hooked.
JEFF: It’s a really good story too. In many ways, it exemplifies a lot of the stuff I’ve been talking about in Forever Employable. You said you started blogging casually about your experiences from the lessons from building your companies and seeing what Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were doing. Was this on your own blog? Where were you blogging?
NIR:I was blogging at Blogger or through that platform. At the time, it was the easiest way to start blogging. You just use blogger.com. You built a little website. Today there are even easier tools like Medium which is an easier way to start a blog.
JEFF: One of the things I’ve done in my career, I’ve used Medium and other platforms. Ultimately, you’re the product on those platforms. At any point, they can close that off from you and then your channels is gone at that point. Was there any point where you decided, “I’ve got to take my content and bring it in-house” under your own brand?
NIR:Yes. And this is my first piece of advice for someone who says, “Hey, I want to write a book. What should I do?” A lot of people call me for advice around book publishing and they say, “How did you sell so many copies?” As if you can shove crap down people’s throats. The first answer is write a book people want to read. Write something useful. The second part is to make sure you find people that like what you do. One of the best decisions I ever made was to give people the opportunity to hear from me in the future. That’s who I built this audience over the past eight years or so now. Slow and steady. Kind of built this email list to about 100,000 people now. I don’t sell anything. It’s not very aggressive. There’s nothing to do on my website other than, “If you want to hear from me, I publish every two weeks. If you want to see my next article, if you submit your email in this box, I’ll send you my articles.” That’s it. I also do a weekly newsletter digest of articles I’ve read that I found interesting and maybe my readers would find them interesting too. Slow and steady, that grew my email list to about 100,000 email subscribers. That is my first piece of advice to anyone who wants to build an audience. Social media and Medium and everything else out there is the icing on the cake. It’s not the cake. The cake is the audience that you own; not the audience that you rent. If you tweet or post on Facebook or any platform, they own the habit. You want to get people into the habit of engaging with you directly. The best way to do that is through email for an author. Today that’s become such gospel that to go into a publisher and say, “I have the most amazing book. What do you think?” It’s hard to get a meeting. It’s hard to get their interest if you don’t have an audience. They know that having a big email list doesn’t guarantee success but not having a big email list is a high predictor of failure. There are tons of great books that people spent years writing that nobody ever readsbecause the author didn’t have an audience. It used to be okay because you want to the publisher and the publisher said, “Well, if you want to get your book onto a bookstore shelf, you have to go through us.” That’s not the case anymore. 90% of my books are sold through Amazon. The author can’t sit back and say, “Oh, the publisher will sell books for me.” No, it doesn’t work that way. You, as the author, have to sell those books. The way you do that is by finding people who want to read what you have to write.
JEFF: I used to be a broke touring musician for a bunch of years through college and after college. We would try to get record deals when that mattered. It was a very similar thing. The bands that successfully sold 10, 15, 20, 30,000 CDs out of the back of their car, bus, or van, they were the ones who got record deals because they had proven traction with an audience. They had an audience built in. They had successfully sold their products already without any assistance that the record labels could just sort of amplify that rather than having to create that spark underneath people. It’s interesting.
You mentioned eight years. One of the things I talk about in the book is you start to build your audience and you sort of become this magnet for opportunities and clearly that’s what you’ve done here. I want to talk about timeline here. Give me a sense of how long between each of these milestones. You sell your second company and you start blogging. Two years of casual blogging. I want to get a sense of how long it took from when you started blogging to self-publishing Hooked and then getting that picked up.
NIR:2012, we sold the company I helped found. I had learned a lot of this from working in that company. That’s something that I think is a little bit underrated as well. I talk to quite a few authors who say, “I really want to write a book but don’t have very many interesting things to say because they haven’t been immersed in a field that gives them any kind of authority or more importantly – not even authority, but insight. It was because I was in the right place at the right time that I knew to ask the right questions. Not even that I knew the answers because I think what drives me as an author is the curiosity of answering my own questions. I knew what the right questions were by being in that industry at that right time and place. That might not necessarily be something that is a barrier. You don’t necessarily have to have a special life experience to be a writer, but you do have to immerse yourself in the ideas that have already been shared so that you can talk with some kind of insight. That started previously before 2012.
From 2008 to 2012, I was at my last company. In 2014, we published Hooked; about two years of blogging and teaching, etc. The nice thing is about the age we live in. Becausethe internet gives us access to so much information, it’s all here at our fingertips. You can become a world expert at things that nobody else is really a world expert in, especially if it’s a new field like habit-forming technology that’s very niche. There really are no PhDs in habit-forming technology. They don’t really exist. There are no world experts in that. Well, guess what? If you sit down and you think about it and write about it and research and digest it and really plow into it and talk to the right people and read all the other literature from related fields, you can kind of become your own PhD. It’s all out there. You could become the world expert in whatever esoteric little field is interesting to you because nobody else is looking into it.
JEFF: There’s this concept of planting your flag. I’m going to own this bit of domain expertise, like you’re saying. A lot of the questions that I’m getting these days is, “Everything’s been written. Everything’s been said. Everything’s been done. What can Italk about? What can I say that hasn’t already been said?” I think what you’re pointing out is amazing. You’ve had an experience. You’ve been immersed in some kind of work. If you can look at the trends that are happening in the marketplace and then start to kind of carve out a niche that combines those things, you can plant a unique flag like you’ve done like habit-forming technology, for example.
NIR:I’d also say get a day job. In order to know what to be a domain expert in, you have to get domain expertise. How do you get domain expertise? You spend a lot of time in a domain. How do you do that? You need something to drive you to get past that hump of having to catch up with the experts. That just takes time. It takes time to read what others have written, to debate the things in your own mind, to note the flaws of the way you see the world so that you can see it more clearly. Therefore, you can explain it to others. Don’t rush. The rule that I always use for my own writing is to follow my curiosity. That’s kind of my mantra. When things are hard, I don’t really feel like writing about something, it’s difficult, and I’m getting agitated or bored by what I’m writing and I just want to do something else for a bit, always looking for the curiosity. Looking for the spark of what do I want to know? That can sustain you. If you can keep your day job and then do whatever it is that you want to go really deep on, on nights and weekends, and share that with the world. If you blog every week about a topic for two years – if you write 1,000 words about whatever is interesting to you, not to teach others but to teach yourself. Start every blog post with a question. How to such and such? Why is such and such? Whatever is intriguing you. If you can stay on that topic for just one year, 52 weeks of the year, 1,000 words a week, 52,000 words; that’s a book. You just wrote a book; two books. Very few people can keep with the consistency because they don’t follow their curiosity. They put expectations of themselves. Well, how do I become a best-seller? How do I get clients? How do I make a bunch of money? Don’t do that. Follow your passions. Follow the curiosity of the question you want answered.
JEFF: That’s excellent advice. Before we hit record, we were talking about the Whitesnake guitar player, Joel Hoekstra, who I interviewed for one of these as well. In that interview, he says, “In order to be a guitar player, you have to play guitar.”
NIR:That’s exactly right. To be a writer, you have to write. So many people want to have written a book, but almost nobody wants to write the book.
JEFF: At first, I thought, “That’s dumb.” I was like, no, that’s not dumb. That’s profound. You have to do the work. You have to immerse yourself in the domain. Not to belabor it because I want to move onto the next topic, but really quick – a couple years to get the blogging done. Kind of four years until the book is published, right? From when you sold your company roughly?
NIR:About two years.
JEFF: Then from there, it gets picked up, how soon after?
NIR:Only about three or four months it was purchased. From what I hear – this might be a rumor, but the rumor is that – you know how Amazon will do the recommended books? If you like this, you’ll like that. Apparently, and this is just rumor, if you can 100 reviews, doesn’t matter good or bad, now that trips the algorithm to start recommending you to other people. Now you can start getting free advertising but only about one percent of books on Amazon ever get more than 100 reviews. The vast majority never get 100 reviews. If you can be that 1% of books that gets 100 reviews, for some reason that tripping point. It happened to be that people really liked the book andthe reviews were very good, but as you said earlier, it became a de-risked property. It’s like if you want to start a business, if there’s great cash flow, then you’re happy to invest. It’s when it’s risky that you don’t want to invest.
My agent called me up, which I didn’t call them. That’s the hardest part about getting a book professionally published; finding an agent. When she went out to sell the book, Inever wrote a book proposal. She just opened up the Amazon page and said, “Look, people love this book. How much more would they love it if you professionally published it and made it look like a book published by Random House versus one that was self-published?” That’s all it took.
JEFF: I have felt that pain of finding the publishing agent. I had to write theproposal. I know that pain as well. There’s some qualities that have helped you become forever employable and the qualities we talk about in the book: entrepreneurialism, self-confidence, reinvention, and that type of thing. I want to talk about self-confidence specifically because A) my perception of you is that you don’t lack for it which is interesting. I don’t feel I lack for it either too much but whenever I talk to audiences about this topic, I always do a pole about the five qualities of being forever employable; self-confidence being one of them. It’s always the tiniest one. People are like, “No, Idon’t have any of that. I love to keep learning. I’d love to keep improving. I might even have a little entrepreneurial spirit.” Most people don’t admit to that. But self-confidence, it’s almost zero percent. It doesn’t matter how many people are on a webinar or a call. I’d love if you could share a story from your past that has helped you develop your self-confidence to the point where you say, “Hey, I can write a book. Hey, I can get on stage and talk to a couple thousand people?” Where did that come from for you?
NIR:I took a really wonderful class in college about jazz. I didn’t like jazz. I still don’t actually really like jazz. I like it. I appreciate it, but it’s not like I would come home… Actually, that’s not true. Sometimes I wrote to jazz. But anyway, I’m not a jazz aficionado. But I took this amazing class and what I learned in the class – we had this wonderful professor who as a jazz aficionado. One of the first lessons that we learned was that he taught us about how jazz is really the intersection of African beats and African influence with European instruments and how with that blending of old creates something new. I always remember that. When I thought to myself, “Who the heck am I? What do I have to offer that hasn’t already been said?” I always tell myself, “It’s just jazz.” Whatever it is, even if I’m taking 90% old stuff, the 10% of weaving in what’s in me and unique only to my life experience is going to make jazz. It’s going to make something brand new. That, to me, is how I give myself the permission to say things publicly that when I don’t feel self-confident, when I’m not sure, “Well, has this already been said?” I say to myself, “Well, that’s okay if it’s already been said.” The instruments that made jazz were around for a very long time but they weren’t played the same way. That’s the same way with writing. You can say essentially the same lesson. Many of these lessons, there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s very few things that are really profound and new in the world, but there’s a huge appetite for people to get this same message in a slightly different way. It’s said from a different point of view. That has always given me the confidence to say things with my unique voice.
JEFF: Amazing. That’s super interesting to hear. I haven’t heard the jazz reference before which is great because I use jazz in my work as well used as a metaphor for collaboration techniques and that type of thing, but at the root, at the makeup of it, the fundamental make up of it as inspiration for allowing yourself to reinvent – well, not reinvent, but deliver things that have been around a long time with a different focus or slightly new twist or slightly different perspective that is uniquely yours because you’re the only one who has had that experience with that stuff.
NIR:Right. Like jazz could not have started in Africa. Jazz had to start in America because it was the intersection of these various backgrounds just like there’s the intersection of old ideas with your new experience creates something very unique. The time to be most self-confident is when you lack it most, when you’re getting started. A lotof people, who are just getting started, and ask the sort of questions that you’re asked, “What do I write about? How do I know there’s market demand?” The beauty of starting out is that nobody is reading your crap. I look back at my early articles and they’re horrible. The early blog posts are terrible. They are so bad. I would never have published them now knowing what I know now. Back then, nobody was reading. I didn’t care if it sucked. I didn’t know it sucked. The fact that now I do care. When you get more experience, then you actually should be more self-confident because now you have people to disappoint. If you’re just getting started, write about anything. Just write about something that interests you. Nobody is reading anyway.
JEFF: That’s really good advice. You might as well try a bunch of stuff and then see what sticks. This is so much tactical, practical advice which I love and I pride myself on. Thank you for this. The pandemic has shut down the world. We’re slowly starting to reopen a little. You are based in New York City. You saw the writing on the wall that was happening there and you picked up your family and moved to Singapore, the other side of the world. Temporarily. You’re not there forever is my understanding of the current plan. How are you able to do that? We talk about building these opportunity magnets. This forever employable platform where you are the domain expert. Clearly, you’re the domain expert on a series of topics at this point. How were you able to pick up your life and move it to the other side of the world and continue working?
NIR:That is one of the great luxuries of being forever employable. With this kind of model, you described, you aren’t tied down. When this pandemic hit, we’d been homeschooling my daughter. I have an 11-year old little girl here. We’d been homeschooling her for about five years. I’ve been working from home for eight years or so. It was nothing new for us. Only our rooms changed, but essentially, our day-to-day life hasn’t changed. To me, that’s always been a tremendous luxury. It’s not everyone’s personality. I think a lot of people really like having a boss and an office and they miss that. For me, I live in ideas. I love having time to think and digest and process and research and write. I really love that and really value the ability to decide what I will do with my time.
My first job out of college, I was the consultant at the Boston Consulting Group which is a very high pressure, always on type culture. Now they got a lot better, but back then in 2001, it was a very difficult work environment. I always remember Monday mornings feeling so crappy because I didn’t want to go to work. I hated it. To have to be at this spot, at this time, to me, it felt like being a slave. I just hated it. I made the transition from corporate life, which I quickly learned wasn’t for me, to starting my own business as an entrepreneur. Then I also felt super tied down. Entrepreneurship is not all it’s cracked up to be. Your boss is just your customers and your employees. Now you have obligations. You still have to go to work Monday morning and I still have that case of the Mondays. Today because I’m forever employable, I love Mondays. I can’t wait to get back to work. I think that’s, to me, more valuable than money, is freedom.
JEFF: That was fantastic. You shared a tremendous amount of wealth, of actionable bits of information. I really appreciate you spending the time with me and sharing your story with us. Thanks so much.