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Are You A Builder or A Farmer?
Companies consist of two types of workers: builders and farmers. Which one are you and which does your company need?
Welcome to Dispatch #42 of The Audio Insurgent.
Greetings from the sunroom of my house. As I write this I’m watching the sun come up in my backyard and delighting in seeing the hostas bloom. All of my hostas (plantain lily) were transplanted from my parents’ house in Ohio before my folks downsized. I transported them in the trunk of my car back to New Jersey–more than a dozen varieties. They all survived, but for the past two years, their young blooms have been mowed down by my neighborhood deer (we live down the hill from a nature reservation). Apparently, in addition to being beautiful, the hostas are also delicious. Each year I try a new remedy to keep the deer away. This year, knock on wood, I think I have won…for now. But, of course, now I have said this, they will most likely be eaten by tomorrow morning. We’ll see.
Okay, so on to business.
Since podcasting is in a transformative period, my writing here this year has focused much more on the strategic/business side of podcasting–and just now realizing how long it has been since I wrote about the fun stuff (at least to many of us): making great creative work. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into things to share and look for those in the coming weeks.
Also, some will claim I’m burying the lede in this piece, because I’ve been working on something to deconstruct podcasting’s growth over the past few years…and I’ve stumbled on something plainly in the open that no one has noticed. There will be a whole dispatch on this soon enough, but for now… just read on.
Also in the coming weeks… as The Audio Insurgent rolls towards Dispatch #50 later this year, I’m thinking about the role this newsletter plays in my life. I have some ideas to share with you on that. Stay tuned.
But for now, we can’t expect audio companies to thrive unless they have the right cultures and structure to allow great creative work to happen. A friend has an interesting construct that applies to podcasting.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: BUILDERS AND FARMERS] One of the central problems with podcasting today is that it has too many farmers and not enough builders. It wasn’t always this way–there used to be a lot more builders, but many of them left too soon.
Let me explain.
My friend Will Page has a theory about companies and those who create, manage, and work at them that I think is an important lens to look at podcasting today.
Will suggests that everyone involved in companies can be put into one of two categories: “builders” and “farmers.” Builders make things, and farmers extract value from things.
Will is an incredibly smart guy. He’s a fellow at the London School of Economics, was the former Chief Economist at Spotify during its developing years, and regularly is seen in the pages of BBC, Financial Times, Billboard and The Economist.
He explains his builders and farmers theory in his fantastic book Tarzan Economics: Eight Principles for Pivoting Through Disruption (recently released in paperback in the UK under the title Pivot). Like many great books, it gives you a deep journey inside an original thinker's head. I get to talk to Will every week, and I still loved reading his book–and even enjoyed re-reading a few parts to prep for this dispatch.
The book offers a very detailed walk through of “builders” and “farmers” with a number of thought-provoking examples (Che Guevara: builder, Fidel Castro: farmer), but I’ll share the basics here, then explain why it feels important to me at this moment in podcasting.
As Will says, builders value “flexibility, creativity, and agility” and use those attributes to build something out of nothing. Farmers value “process, producibility, and frameworks,” and use those things to generate long-term value. Farmers often come in after a company becomes profitable or after an IPO or sale.
Builders tend to get a lot of attention, yet as Will says, “The world needs farmers. They know how to industrialize. I know how to scale. They know how to take a message and find the bottle that will help it travel. Builders may build, but it’s farmers who spread.”
Once a company hits a critical point (like a sale or IPO), the builders move out and the farmers move in. Builders can be called back in at other stages, but once their job as a builder is done, they should go. Same with farmers–once the drive for optimization slows, it is time to bring back in more builders.
Companies need both builders and farmers–neither is inherently better than the other. They serve very different functions. Sometimes even the same role in a company can be occupied by builders and farmers at different stages of its growth and lifecycle.
You? You can only be one thing: you are a builder or a farmer. Like many things, it actually is a spectrum–rarely are you fully one or the other. You most likely have traits from both.
But in your role at a company, it is pretty binary. At that time, in that role, your company needs you to be either a builder or a farmer. Point being you grow out of (or into) each role, meaning you don’t belong there forever.
With permission, Will’s kindly shared the table from his book for exclusive reproduction here.
So, the book, and the builders/farmers construct, are really thought-provoking. But how does it apply to podcasting?
One possible application of Will’s above table is the perennial podcaster question about YouTube. “Farmers stubbornly dismiss YouTube as a podcast platform as it doesn’t behave by their said audio-only RSS rules,” Will told me. “Builders recognise the customer is always right - and if they say YouTube is their #1 podcast platform then you need to bring water to the horse and find your audience there.”
But the larger connection is that today’s podcasting leadership is stuffed full of farmers. There are some builders, and there used to be a lot more, but many of the builders have exited their roles. One of the reasons podcasting seems a bit stuck at the moment is because the builders aren’t running many of the podcast companies anymore, and the transition to farmers happened far too early. Were they banking that we hit a plateau and were way too early?
I’d even argue that most of those recent podcast transplants from other industries like to think they are builders–and that is what their companies need, but these former TV, print, and movie execs are actually farmers. They aren’t bringing in big audacious ideas–they are optimizers. They are trying to build scale. They are trying to mature the market.
Good for them, but without the builders in positions of influence, they end up optimizing shows, portfolios, and business models that aren’t fully baked yet–that aren’t ready to be scaled and optimized.
I don’t fault these farmers, they believe in podcasting as much as anyone, but they often aren’t what companies need right now.
The farmers should focus their attention on the business and operations of podcasting. Podcasting grew so much, so quickly, that a lot of the ways companies do their podcasting business could use a careful look and reconsideration: roles don’t make sense, processes aren’t efficient nor accomplish work smartly, and areas of the business should be re-tooled or let go. Farmers are great for figuring that out. And worst of all, individual shows aren’t growing the way they should, given the growth of podcasting as an industry.
But when it comes to creative work–we need more builders. We need a lot more builders. They don’t need to burn cash to build, they just need some space to play, dream, and experiment.
One of the major evidence points, to me, can be found in the monthly “Top Podcasts, Publishers and Sales Networks” report shared by Podtrac. Like many of us, I get a monthly email from Joshua Martin sharing the charts (you can sign up to receive them too in the link above). I’ve been receiving them, and collecting the information, since 2018. Recently I decided to dump a bunch of it into a spreadsheet and look at it over time.
Not surprising: Since 2019 (when the current methodology was put into place), podcasting has seen amazing growth–audience for podcasting is up more than 50% among the Top 10 publishers–and monthly downloads have more than doubled, from 552 million downloads a month to Top 10 publishers in April 2019 to 1.1 billion downloads per month to the Top 10 in April 2023.
What is surprising: that growth in downloads seems to be driven by new shows, rather than growth of existing shows. While downloads doubled, the Top 10 publishers distributed three times the number of shows than they offered in 2019. Working just on the averages (because show-by-show numbers aren’t publicly available), that means that all those new shows are less effective at attracting and retaining audience. Podcast publishers have been green-lighting more and more and more and more shows–a dizzying attempt at scaling podcasting, yet examples of distributors effectively growing shows in their portfolios is scarce to non-existent.
I’ve said this before: those in charge of podcasting think growth will be driven by more shows. While not entirely untrue, real healthy success is indicated when existing shows are heard by more and more people. Over saturating supply is a mistake made by farmers moving too fast and misunderstanding their customers.
We’ll dive more into what I see in the Podtrac numbers in an upcoming dispatch–I want to stress test what I’m seeing with others a bit first. Look for that soon.
[TODAY’S SECOND THING: INVESTING IN MANAGERS] Just a quick thought on something that’s been really bugging me. During challenging economic times, you’ll read a lot about companies who view downtimes as the best time to invest in R&D for new products and improvements to existing products. It makes sense: when demand takes a dip, it gives you an opportunity to invest resources and attention into the ideas and products you’ll have ready for the next upturn.
So, it is a bit dramatic to refer to this time in podcasting as a “downturn”—it is better classified as a slowdown or a balancing–but let’s go with that idea. So what should podcasting be investing in now?
Many of you would say “new shows!” But I think that isn’t true. Because of the constant supply needs (to always have new fresh content), podcasting (like TVs, movies, and books) always needs to be creating new things.
I think this is a great time for podcast networks and companies to invest in…managers!
I spend a lot of time working with audio and podcast companies and analyzing both companies that I consult for–and others that I don’t. The most common problem I see in audio companies today is under-qualified management that aren’t very good at their jobs yet, who lack in editorial and people leadership skills, and are given no mentoring or investment in their growth. They’re podcasting superfans, but don’t understand the medium and its business well enough to creatively lead. They could generate so much more value, both for their companies and the rank and file creators they work with, simply by growing into better managers.
When asked, I counsel a lot of companies and executives to spend some time, resources, and cash simply training up their managers to have better instincts, understand business, media, AND AUDIENCE more thoroughly, and improve as teachers, managers, and guides to creatives in order to help them make better and better work.
There have been a number of laudable efforts to train editors and creators of color to be next gen editorial leaders (like the impressive Neon Hum Editors’ Bootcamp), but the industry needs to be thinking inclusively about a few levels up from that as well, and more on how to train the next generation of executives who will lead companies.
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.