How to make an audience pay (with lessons from Wait But Why)

Once upon a time, if you wanted to be a creator or an artist, you needed a wealthy patron to support and encourage your work.

Creators today still need patrons to help them in many ways. The “patron” is now made up of many people who are their biggest fans.

YouTubers and cartoonists , musicians and artists–creators all types–are in a unique position to build a business around their loyal audience. These creators have many options to make money from their creativity, including merchandise, endorsements, speaking engagements and book sales.

So I set out to discover how Wait but Why, a favorite blog and one Elon Musk enjoys to read, created a business based on their content.

Wait But Why is a unique website, fuelled largely by long-form content with a sarcastic-yet-thoughtful tone, that’s amassed over 371,000 subscribers and brings in millions of visits a month with its one-of-a-kind content. Tim Urban is the author and illustrator behind the majority of the site’s content. He covers everything, from philosophy to the future, artificial intelligence to procrastination, and anything else that interests him.

Tim is able to take complex concepts or abstract ideas and make them enjoyable, despite the fact that they often exceed a thousand words. This in an age where many claim we have shorter attention spans then goldfish.

It’s this style, depth and commitment to excellence that’s enabled Wait But Why to land itself on the first page of Google for competitive search terms like “procrastination”–truly an example of 10X content: high quality content without equal in terms of the organic traffic, backlinks and engagement it brings.


What’s really interesting is the way these entrepreneurs used an audience-first approach in building a business. This allows Tim to do what he enjoys with the support of his community.

I spoke to Andrew Finn about how they monetize Tim’s unique brain and the content it produces. He is also the co-founder of Wait But Why and the man responsible for much of the blog’s business side.

Learn more about building your blog-based business. How To Start a Blog You Can Turn into a Business

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How did Wait But Why get started?

Tim and I have been business partners almost eight years. Tim and I were raised together and have known each other since kindergarten.

Another company we founded was ArborBridge. It is a tutoring and test prep company. That’s what I do 90% of my time.

Tim started a blog as a side project. It became very popular, especially with the introduction of stick figures. Tim has always had a creative side and it was evident in his other business. We reached a point where we didn’t have to be there. We decided to gamble and let Tim quit his test prep company and allow Tim to write full-time and see what happens.

Tim is a creative genius with a unique brain. We were confident that if Tim were to pursue it full-time, there would be something positive. We weren’t certain what, though.

We were not forced to sell poor ads because we owned another company. We were able to spend a few years building the website without worrying about monetization. This is a luxury that many content creators may not be able to afford.

When did Wait But Why begin growing its business side.

The store was ours from the start. We’ve been just kind of chipping away.

We knew that the site wouldn’t need money for 2 to 3 years. Then it hit us: “This site must stand on its own.”

We made an eBook from a lot of posts, and started with Patreon to add merchandise and other items.

It’s only been the last year, however, that it has come together.

Wait but Why is a business that is still in its infancy. It’s not to make as much as possible. The goal is to create as much amazing stuff as possible, and eventually the business will take care of itself.

Tell me about Patreon– The website that makes it easy to get paid

Patreon was a major breakthrough.

At first, we weren’t sure what Patreon was. We weren’t sure anyone would just give us money.

Kurzgesagt was the first to recommend it.

It’s been a great experience for us because we have a high level of alignment with our audience. They know that we aren’t trying to sell them stuff or put ads everywhere. We’re simply trying to make cool stuff and share it.

People would have probably told us to screw up if we had ads on our site and Patreon.

What is the difference between content marketing and building a business from a site that contains content?

It’s all about figuring out if your business is the content or the products you sell. Which direction is your focus?

You can make content go further than products. If that’s your game, there are many ways to make money.

We were creating a brand of content, which I believe was the difference. Content was the business and writing was the best way to do that for us.

We are entrepreneurs, so we also thought, “Is it fundamentally a good model for business?”

It is because of two reasons.

  1. Because of the written word, and the internet, it scales infinitely
  2. If your voice is authentic and there’s something that no one can duplicate, you can have a monopoly

Tim maintained a blog that he updated every now and again for six years. It was funny, but it was only read by two thousand people.

There is a big difference between being a casual author who is just “pretty damn funny” and someone who thinks about writing every day and how to make it better.

This is the difference between Tim as casual blogger and Wait But Why.

What are the challenges you face when building a business around content marketing?

It is always about the brand promise.

What is the promise that you are trying to make? Which voice are you trying to reach them? What are your expectations of your audience?

We wanted to be authentic, honest, and not overly cheesy. Selling things can seem a bit cheesy, especially if it’s not done right.

WBW’s annual Predictably Late Holiday Sale is here! You get $10 off and free shipping

Tim Urban (@waitbutwhy). December 16, 2015

We will only ever ever sell advertising products that we really love and can actually afford. We would work out a deal so that everyone gets a great deal and create a win-win scenario with the audience. There is always tension about monetization in a business like this.

Finding your niche is the other important thing. Are you a swearer or not? Are you honest about your religious beliefs? Are you doing these things that could offend large numbers of people?

My opinion is that it’s best to be 100% authentic and meet people who are seeking this.

How do you source products to the Wait But Why store Which are your top-selling products?

We work with a company called brand marinade in North California. They do all our merchandise stuff. They even do small runs of t-shirts so that they are super agile.

We made the plush toys ourselves. They were designed by us and shipped from China.

Comparing apples to apples, the best-sellers in the t-shirt section would be items related to procrastination post. These posts also get the most engagement.

These cute little dudes are also a hit with the plush toys.

People are most excited about things that have a life-orientation. People won’t buy artificial intelligence products as much as they will items that resonate with them personally.

The other day I was out to dinner when I saw a man wearing one of our Social Survival Mammoth shirts. It was quite cool to see him out in the wild.


What is frequency important when producing content?

Frequency is not something I consider to be very important.

It is difficult for someone to ask them to read something. It’s important to keep your word when you ask someone to read something.

It was only a handful of posts per week at the beginning. It was then one post per week. It’s now just a matter of time.

Readers often ask when the next post is coming–so I made a post progress meter for this one:

Tim Urban (@waitbutwhy). May 22, 2016

For some sites, frequency is important. There’s so much out there that is just plain boring. It’s about aligning with your promises.

If you want to satisfy the part of your brain that says, “This is crack,” then you can post 5 times per day. You can tell your audience “I need more of this.”

What worked well for Wait But Why?

Facebook is the most popular channel.

Facebook promotion is a great way to promote your content and get it moving.

It’s The Law of Large Numbers at the end of it all. You can make something that is amazing for 10% of people, and maybe 5% might share it.

An audience of 100 people means that 5 people might share it. However, this won’t be enough to make it reach critical mass. If you can get it in front 1000 people, and if it’s great, it will be more likely that it spreads.

If you have to, it’s worth the extra money.

It is also a good idea to do some syndicating, especially when you are just starting out in brand building. Our syndicated content has been on sites such as Quartz, Gizmodo and Jezebel. You can find more information here.

Tim’s approach to negative comments when he is a creator.

Tim has thick skin. Tim has thicker skin than me. Every once in a while, whenever I post something to my section, I start to crap myself.

Tim had also maintained a blog for six years before starting this. I believe he learned a lot from that blog before he found his voice.

You need to realize that the internet is full humans. If enough people read your content, they might not like it. Some may even be offended if it’s controversial. There’s nothing you can do.

We are a lot more educated than most people so we don’t usually have to deal with negative comments.

Tim puts in a lot of effort to ensure he is technically correct about the topics he writes about. While it is possible to disagree with his interpretation, it doesn’t matter if the facts are being presented.

You might be the victim of something awful, or someone might make some negative comments.

Then, three months later, everything has moved on. It’s almost as if that article doesn’t exist.


via What’s the Matter With?


Much of life is just a mind-game: “I’m feeling this feeling.” What is the reason for this feeling? Is it worth the effort? It is not. Let’s get on with it.”

When do you think creators should start to look at ways to monetize the work they create?

It was like we were going to write stuff when we first started. If it’s great, everyone will tell you that it’s amazing and spread it. If it’s not’really great’, it won’t happen. You just have to accept that you are just’really competent’ at this.

An A grade on the internet is nothing. It doesn’t really matter. There are a million people using the internet to create content and do things. To be relevant, it must be A++. People will spread material that is an A++ because it’s important.

Your extra 10 hours are going towards monetization, not creating content. This means that you’re only producing A content. That marginal effort can make the difference between 10x or 100x.

To really grow your fan base, it’s better to get as big as you can first. There are many ways to monetize once you have that.

It works in the same way as the traditional internet business model: First, acquire users. Then, grow and become bigger. Finally, figure out how you can make money.

  • Step 1: Create something people love.
  • Step 2-10 is to go back to step 1.

You haven’t reached the point where people would give a damn if you left, then you aren’t far enough.

What advice would you give to someone looking to build an audience-based business?

Find your niche. With the globalization of the internet, I believe it is important to find your niche.

It’s better to be everything for a few people than it is to be “meh” to everyone.

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Buzzfeed would disappear tomorrow. I doubt people would care about it for more than half an hour before moving on to the next thing. It’s heart-breaking to see Jon Stewart leave the Daily Show or your favorite author, like the Game of Thrones guy, quit the Daily Show.

Automatics are the best. It’s like saying, “If I write it, it will be read.”

What were some of the tools that allowed Wait But Why to grow as a company?

There are so many tools.

It’s hard to imagine anyone trying this 15 years ago. A few people can build a small business today and make it a reality.

The Key Takeaways For Creators and Entrepreneurs

Today’s influencers and creators have an audience that is willing to pay more than their money for their attention: their trust and their trust.

You’re in the best place to build a sustainable business if you have an established audience.

Many businesses are now focusing on building an audience through content to build a brand that resonates and attracts customers.

Content is a part of your business, but it doesn’t matter if it is at the core of your business. Authenticity and the desire for genuine service to an audience are what will pay you back.

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