Building a portable audience

Why and how we can build portable audiences through our current gigs which we can take with us for future endeavors

This week I saw a tweet that struck a chord:

Josh’s advice here doesn’t just apply to journalists – it applies to anyone building an entrepreneurial career. Being intentional about audience portability can ensure that the work you do in your day job can be building a long-term asset (personal audience) which will de-risk any future ventures you may start. It’s one thing to build an audience through the job that you currently have. It’s another thing entirely to ensure that if you left that job, you would be able bring (some of) the audience you built with you for your future endeavors.

When you have an audience through your job, you’re borrowing that audience. The key to audience portability is converting the audience from borrowed to owned. There are two steps to generating audience portability: (1) make sure you’re working with stakeholders in your day job that align with your long-term target audience, and (2) Use side projects to drive audience portability.

Make sure you’re working with stakeholders in your day job that align with your long-term target audience

Whether you’re working for someone else or building a startup, the stakeholders you work with through your day job are going to be the audience you have the potential to build. If your job is to sell to startups, then you have the potential to build an audience of startup founders. If your job is to partner with content creators, then you have the potential to build an audience of content creators. 

In my post about founder/product/market fit, I wrote about how it’s easier to find product-market fit when founders are building for markets (AKA customers) that they genuinely care about – where they’d enjoy spending all of their time talking to customers and learning about their problems. The same goes for audience portability.

The first question to ask is, “is the audience that I’m borrowing through my day job the audience that I want to build for myself long term?” If the answer to that question is “no” then audience portability isn’t much of a concern. Even if you figured out how to make that audience portable, you wouldn’t care about it anyway. So before you worry too much about audience portability, make sure you align the stakeholder groups you currently work with through your day job with your long-term target audience. This can prompt you to re-think how you spend your time at your day job (or influence which job you take).

When I was job searching, a mentor gave me a simple prompt to consider when thinking about any BD roles: “what customers do you want to spent your time talking to?” It follows that the customers you spend time talking to are going to be the folks who can become part of your audience. For me, the answer was pretty simple: I wanted to work with startup founders and the organizations/investors who supported these founders. Throughout my time at AWS, I’ve been able to build that audience through my work at AWS, which aligns with the audience I want to build long-term.

Use side projects to drive audience portability

Most people think of side projects as prequel to a full-time gig. While that can be true, it’s a myopic view of side projects. Side projects can be a lever for professional growth, they can help you make friends with common interests, and they can help you get much-needed reps as an entrepreneur. We can add one more thing to the list: they can help you make the audience you’re borrowing from your day job portable.

There are two ways I’ve seen entrepreneurial people drive audience portability. The first is to use side projects to convert a portion of a borrowed audience into an owned audience. The second – which is way more efficient – is to create a personal flywheel between your borrowed audience from your day job and your personal audience.

Using side projects to convert a portion of a borrowed audience into an owned audience

Newsletters are the simplest example here, which Josh Constine alludes to in his tweet. If journalists can negotiate having their personal email list signup link in all of their articles, then they would be converting a portion of their day-job audience into their long-term personal audience. This newsletter is another an example. Through my day job, I get exposure to a lot of founders and investors. Through that exposure, they develop affinity for AWS while connecting with me personally. Those who find me interesting enough (beyond my role with AWS) sign up for this newsletter and become become part of my audience long-term.

The most common, light-weight example is social media. When people are given large platforms at their day jobs and share their twitter handle or Linkedin profiles, they’re offering a bridge for the audience to connect with them personally, converting that temporary audience that their borrowing from their employer into an owned, portable audience. If someone gains 10K twitter followers through a job where they run a big podcast or frequently give talks to large audiences, they don’t have to give those followers back when they leave.

Higher-touch side projects can apply here too, like angel investing, running online communities, or even running a monthly meetup or dinner in your city. I’ve seen people use these side projects to convert the borrowed audiences from their day jobs into an owned audience that they port over to the next chapters of their career. 

Creating a personal flywheel between your borrowed audience from your day job and your personal audience

The above tactic – using side projects to convert a portion of a borrowed audience into an owned audience – is essentially extracting value from your day job. As a result, the audience you can build is limited to the size of the audience you are borrowing (and your conversion rate). If you’re hosting a massive podcast or writing articles with millions of pageviews, that can still be a significant portable audience you can build with minimal effort.

However, a more abundant approach is to build a personal flywheel between your day job and your personal audience. Rather than the one-direction value extraction that you can cultivate with side-projects, a flywheel means that you not only extract value from your day-job, but that your day job gets value from your own audience. This can create a virtuous cycle that results in a much bigger portable audience (while also making you better at your job).

One example I’ve observed up close is Allie Miller, the Global Head of Machine Learning BD for the AWS Startup Team. Before joining AWS, Allie already had a burgeoning following as an AI influencer. Having this following when she joined AWS made her even better at her job. She’s been able to leverage her existing audience to promote new initiatives from the AWS AI and ML teams, to hire for the startup team, to promote initiatives that other team members are working on, and to quickly make inroads in valuable AI communities. In short, AWS has benefited from Allie’s own growing audience. In turn, through her highly visible position, Allie’s been able to continue growing her audience on Linkedin, Instagram, and Twitter. In September 2020 she had 600K Linkedin followers, and as of the writing of this post, she has over 1.1M. As Allie’s following grows, she’s able to make even more of an impact through her work at AWS, which then accelerates her independent following. That following that Allie has built will follow her throughout her career. Allie’s flywheel is a virtuous cycle which creates accelerating value for both AWS and herself.

Audience portability is something every entrepreneurial person should be thinking about. Beyond salary and experience, our day jobs can be contributing to other entrepreneurial assets we want to stockpile, which can help us with our future endeavors. If we’re not building a portable audience through our day jobs, then a lot of the potential value we can get from our current gigs will go unrealized.