A podcast network post-mortem

From the years 2015–2020 I ran the podcast network, Spec Network, Inc. alongside my co-founders Brian Lovin, Jon Cutrell, and Bryn Jackson. In December 2020, that network closed.

This is a retrospective of my experience as a producer running that network of 12 podcasts for the last five years.

How It Started

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In 2013, my partner and I saved up every penny we had, packed our bags, and moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco.

Back in Minnesota, we had very few friends in the design and development community and our career growth was based on books and online tutorials. In the Bay, though, there was this electricity of creative people. We suddenly had the chance to sit down with designers and developers we had watched online, or read about in books. We could easily DM someone on Twitter and grab coffee while casually chatting about all of our shared interests and things we were building.

Our whole world opened up in that move and having instant access to so many amazing people made us realize we had an opportunity to do something. We needed to share these conversations with people who felt isolated back home.

So in January 2015, Brian and Bryn kicked off the Design Details podcast to capture the conversations we were already having with the designers behind the products they loved. By some twist of fate and a little bit of dumb luck, we met a company who wanted to sponsor the show right before that first episode aired. We didn’t know anything about podcast sponsorships but we said yes and figured out the rest fast!

We knew we didn’t want to work with a CPM sponsorship model, so we developed a strategy that showcased the value of the hosts time to produce a show and that sponsor accepted our flat rate pricing for our first six episodes.

Along the way, we noticed that another show called Developer Tea was always neck-and-neck in the iTunes charts with Design Details.

We talked with the host, Jon, and realized that we had the same pain points. The hosts wanted to focus on the content, and production was taking too much time.

Instead of chasing each other up and down the charts indefinitely, we decided to team up, solve those pain points, and create our own little corner of the podcast world — Spec Network.

Our goal was to keep the focus on the content as much as possible. I took over all post production, day-to-day tasks and sponsorship management, while the hosts focused on creating content.

All of our hosts would get 70% of revenue from sponsors coming in and the rest would be split across producers and operation costs.

The goal of the network was never for itself to make money. It was always our top priority to keep this network fun and build a place where we could meet cool people, learn from each other, and bridge the gap for people who lived outside of the Bay.

That idea connected with people and for the next two years the network was on fire! We were getting nominated for awards, sponsors were pouring in, and the community wanted to see us do more.

So, I quit my day job and we gave the audience more.

We added more shows, took interviews on other podcasts, started producing written content, made t-shirts, started speaking at local events, and even spun out our 10,000-member Slack team into a whole new product. We felt unstoppable and it felt great to do something people actually wanted for once.

How It Changed

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In 2018, things started slowing down.

Sponsor mindset shifted, and suddenly we were working with fewer sponsors who cared about the community, and more sponsors who wanted us to meet ever-increasing ROI requirements.

If anyone reading this makes a podcast: back then, the only thing we could give sponsors was direct download numbers per episode, but that was quickly not enough to keep our supporters happy. Over time, they wanted more from us. More invasive stats, more campaign integration, more links, longer air time — hell, one sponsor even demanded scheduled tweets about them (It didn’t work out).

Trying to keep both sponsors and hosts happy was beginning to feel like a burden, and while expectations changed, our standard terms remained the same. This translated directly into loss of sponsors.

Remember how I said I had quit my job to run the network in the beginning of 2016?

Well, by 2018 I didn’t have enough income from Spec to make my own ends meet, which meant I needed to get back out there. I needed to get work that helped me pay bills.

So I rolled up my sleeves, applied for jobs, and leaned on friends I had made working on the podcasts to help me get interviews.

But there was another problem to solve: I wanted to keep the network going. I knew I couldn’t keep my current workload on the network and work a full-time job at the same time, so I needed to ask for help.

I started taking interviews for jobs and reaching out to the community for podcast support, simultaneously. I got lucky and found my wonderful co-producers, Mikhail Delport and Drew Luper. They stepped in to help me with the shows right after I took a job with Figma, but that also meant my time was now split.

I spent my weekday mornings waking up early to answer sponsor emails and make sure the hosts and producers had what they needed before going to work. My evenings and weekends were booked solid editing audio and responding to more emails.

I bet you can guess where this is going, and you probably guessed right: I burned myself out in the first 3 months.

I lost time and energy while the network I’d worked so hard to help build had slipped away into what I like to call “maintenance mode”.

How It Ended

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In 2019, we realized that the network couldn’t get to the next level alone, so Brian, Jon and I started reaching out to see if we could sell the podcast network to a larger network or a startup with focus on the design and development community.

Everyone we spoke with admired our work in the community, but ultimately didn’t see the monetary value in a niche, bootstrapped podcast network that gave most of its money back to the hosts.

After that, we looked back to the audience for support.

We added a Patreon to Design Details to see if we could make it sustainable without ads, partnered with Breaker to offer listeners ad-free content at a reasonable monthly cost, and started providing transcriptions to add extra value.

Nothing we did could move the needle enough to make us a viable business anymore and worst of all, we ran out of the momentum we needed to level up.

We felt defeated at the end of 2019, but went into 2020 with optimism. We had goals to speak at more live events, host a conference of our own and get the network back to its roots, back to building for the community.

Then 2020 happened.

By March, we had almost no sponsors to speak of and our team needed to take months off to focus on family and mental health. (I think we all needed to take a break). Without sponsors, the network struggled to keep the lights on and the optimism that Brian, Jon and I felt in the beginning of the year was rapidly dissolving. Instead of being a fun side project, Spec was an obligation and a burden.

So we made the decision to shut it down.

Our hosts were at a good place production-wise by now. They didn’t need the network anymore. So we made sure they had everything they needed to keep their shows going, and helped them get back to what we wanted our podcasts to be in the first place:

A fun side project that might just help someone feel more connected to the community we love.

While it is sad to see this end, I leave with hope for the future and gratitude for the people I met:

Thank you to Jon, Brian, Bryn, Mikhail, Drew, Joy, Andrew, Sean, Rockwell, Paul, Una, Chris, Rafa, Kevin, Brett, Tom, Rob, JP, Jesse, Sam, Caleb, Jake, Marshall, Josh, Kaushik, Donn, and Michael for building this with me and of course, thank you to our audience for listening!

Parting Gift

I’ve taken countless calls over the years with people asking for advice on getting a podcast started, and the biggest lesson I’ve learned in these past five years is this:

It’s easy to make a podcast, but hard to find an audience that cares.

As a final parting gift, I’d like to share some of my onboarding docs used to help get our shows started:

Written by

Learner of things & project enthusiast // movie buff, dog whisperer and lover of a good-strong brew @Sarahberus

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