Blogcast #15: Josh Nielsen, creator of Zencastr

Rebecca: Hello and welcome to the Entrepreneurial Journey Podcast. Today I have Josh Nielsen with me. Hello, Josh. How are you?

Josh: I’m very good. Thank you for having me, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Absolute pleasure. I’m a little bit nervous about interviewing Josh today because he is the founder of Zencaster, and Zencaster is a really good podcast recording platform and I’m currently using his software to interview him for our podcast. So go easy on me today, Josh.

Josh: Well, thank you for giving me the shot.

Rebecca: Oh, absolute pleasure, absolute pleasure. Okay, so as looking back in your bio and you are Mr. Tech, through and through, you’ve been in the tech world as far as I could tell, forever, what brought you to the podcasting world?

Josh: Yeah, so I definitely sort of, I don’t know, drifted into it. I’ve always, podcasting has been around for a long time. I’ve known about ’em for a while and I’ve always enjoyed listening to podcasts. I’d never had ambitions to get involved in it as a business from the beginning at least, although I did get my first job out of university by calling into a podcast that was like they do a live show and then they distribute as a podcast. So I’ve had these different intersections with the medium, but really what got me into realising there was a space for a product that I could build in the podcasting space was I’d been building something totally different. I was working on a project to help electronic musicians collaborate, create music together online and create licence free content that they can use to remix and that sort of thing.

And music is a really hard space to build a business in, and I learned that the hard way. But somebody, while I was going around telling everybody, Hey, here’s what we’re building, it’s great. I, I think I was pitching Techstars in San Antonio and went to their Techstars for a day thing and they had mentors, speed dating, and one of those men, you sat down for three minutes and talked to each person and one of them said, I don’t know about music, but podcasters have this problem with the quality of their audio and getting files back and forth. And at the time I was like, yeah, okay, but music’s my passion. And I had a couple of co-founders on that project and we were all, the common tie there was we were musicians and that was our thing. So I actually sat on that for a good couple years and then that project fizzled out.

I moved away to a different country. I was in a different stage of life, found I had a kid on the way and was looking for, having a kid made me realise I don’t have forever to figure this out. So I was like, what’s a quicker path to revenue using what I know how to do? And I just went through all the different ideas that I had and had come up and one of ’em was like, I went back to that podcast, see I did. I was like, huh, I wonder what that guy really meant. I didn’t do any investigation at the time, but I knew I had a few friends who were podcasters and so got ’em on the phone and was just like, Hey, what’s the real problem here? And at the time, 80 plus percent of podcasters are remote, or sorry, they have a remote guest or a remote co-host on 80% of the content. And at the time everybody’s using Skype to record the content and I mean, this is going back eight years or something and that’s bad, basically. Yes,

Rebecca: It’s hopeless.

Josh: It’s not so bad anymore, but it’s still at best it’s going to be highly compressed. At worst, you have dropouts, robotic sounding voices and you could see on Twitter audiences members flaming the podcast hosts. They’re like, Hey, your quality’s horrible. I can’t listen to this. I’m unsubscribing that kind of a thing. So yeah, that was the somewhat long story of how I kind of followed the trail to get into the podcasting space.

Rebecca: I like that. I love the fact that having a child really focused your mind and your attention and there’s nothing quite having a little human being depending on you for you to go, I can’t really mess about anymore. This is serious.

Josh: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Rebecca: Oh, I love that. Yeah, somebody invited me to a Skype meeting last week and I went, I didn’t think this thing still existed. Clearly it does. And he said, yeah, it’s free and anybody knows anything about, I live in Scotland, Josh, and anybody who knows anything about people in Scotland is that they don’t like spending money unless they really have to. So it was sticky.

Josh: Yeah, it’s shocking how quickly Skype just disappeared. Yeah, it was dominant at that point.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah, it really was. Okay, so that was way back and you’ve been going for eight years I think, roughly. Is that about right?

Josh: Yeah, been, yeah, I think 2015 was kind of the year that I launched the very raw, kind of open beta of the service, but I wasn’t have funding and it wasn’t a full-time thing. I was doing contract web development for different companies at the time, and so I was doing that half to three quarters time and then the rest of the time I was spending on Zencastr. And so I ran it for almost two years just as a free service on the side while I was continuing to work for other people to kind of figure out that how to get it off the ground, make it work well, let the technology that was built on top of mature a bit. It was one of the things that enabled this type of platform was the browsers started launching APIs that let you do things like access the microphone and save audio and that sort of thing.

And that didn’t exist before. There were other people that had downloadable desktop applications that tried to do this double-ended recording thing. And I guess I didn’t explain that part. The reason why this works better than Skype is it records you on your end, me on my end and locally and high quality. And then we mix that together after the fact instead of trying to record the live stream. And so the key that was, that’s how you had better quality, but it was a real pain. If you had a guest and you said, Hey, I need you to download an app and instal it and do all of that, then it’s kind of hard to train each time a one-off guest, that type of thing. So the ability to just have a link, send it, have the app pop up right there, all they have to do is put in their name. That was that friction point and removing that friction point was the key between having something that didn’t really work and having something that actually worked for people.

Rebecca: So we’ve seen we’re going to get onto small businesses and how they can use podcasts for themselves in a minute, but at a sort of macro level, we’ve seen a massive explosion in podcasts and now you’ve explained the technology that’s part of the reason for the explosion. Definitely. I think there’s another part though. What’s your take on the massive increase in popularity of podcasts?

Josh: I think there’s a lot of factors. I think in a age where things have become so polarised and it’s very easy to find differences and disagree, podcasting I think has really stepped up as a way for people to engage in long form content where they can really hear and be heard and communicate themselves completely and then have at least come to an understanding of one another if not an agreement. And as opposed to Twitter where you can only say so much at a time, people take it in the least charitable way possible. Now you’re arguing with everybody. That’s one aspect. I think the technology has evolved to where bandwidth is less of a concern. It used to be that you just couldn’t, you had to download the podcast, you couldn’t stream them. Now you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to take up the space on your phone or whatever.

You can easily consume them on a bunch of different platforms. So I think a lot of just progress in technology has gotten us there. And then tools to make it easy to actually create a podcast, not trivial, to put all the pieces together and make it work and that then find and grow your audience. And that’s where we’re really focused on these days is if you talk to podcasters when you say, what’s your goal? They don’t say, I want to record in high quality, which was really all we did originally. They say, I want to find and grow my audience. I want to make money. Either I’ve got a business that I’m trying to drive traffic towards or I want to make the podcast my business. So we’ve had to zoom out as a business and say, let’s focus on the real problems here, not the one piece that we’ve already solved.

And so I think the growth of social media around the podcasting space is a really key element of, and this is even outside of podcasting, just a key element of getting the word out and using the algorithms of these different platforms to find your audience where they’re at and let them know who you are, what you have to say. And so all of those things together I think have really served to create a pretty interesting ecosystem. And a lot of listeners out there, there’s billions of podcast listeners, and it’s still a wide open territory. I think a lot of people feel like hadn’t started already, maybe they missed the boat or something. But if you look at platforms like, well, Twitter again, for instance, I think they’ve got something like a 30, 40% creator to just audience ratio, meaning the amount of people that are creating versus the people that are just listening and consuming and TikTok is similar or something like that. Podcasting is still well under 1% of people in the space are creators and all the rest are just listeners. And so there’s a huge amount of room if you look at other mediums for creators and audiences that to be found for them.

Rebecca: That’s really interesting. Somebody pointed out to me, and again, this brings us nicely onto small to medium sized businesses who want to use podcasting as a marketing tool. Our audience isn’t huge, Josh at all. We want to grow it obviously like everybody else. However, somebody said, we’ve had 4,000 downloads this year and somebody said, what would it take to get you in front of 4,000 people? And as a small business, that would be virtually impossible, but we’ve been able to do that with a podcast. How do you get started if somebody’s sitting there and thinking, what do we do? How do I get started? What’s best practise?

Josh: Yeah, a lot just business in general. I think it’s don’t be afraid to just get out there and start doing even the wrong things. You’re going to learn by doing. You’re going to learn a lot more by doing than reading books. And I don’t even know if there are a lot of books about how to podcast, probably not. So I think just jumping in, I think a lot of people get hung up on like, oh, what’s the name going to be? Who’s the audience? What’s the theme, what’s the format? And my co-founder and I recently launched a project called Josh and Adrian Suck at podcasting, and we don’t even publish half the time, but we just sit down and record regularly. It helps us use the platform and make sure we’re intimately aware of how it all works, but also just because spent so much time, do we want to have a podcast about podcasting?

That’s fun for a while. But I tried that and you can only talk about microphones and technique and all that for so long wasn’t so interesting to me that I wanted to regularly do that. And so that fizzled out and so we just said like, Hey, let’s just do what we’re telling other people to do. Let’s just hit record, start seeing what happens. And as you go through that process, I think you’ll start to find, Hey, this is where, this is what I’m obviously interested in. This is where the conversations go, or these are the kind of guests that I would like to talk to. Let’s figure that out. But even beyond that, I would say maybe you don’t need a podcast. Podcasting is, and this is maybe not that great for my business to say this, but it is not marketing on easy mode at all, right?

It’s a lot of work. You had to be dedicated and if you want to have success, you have to be regularly producing content and be reliable for the listener. And that’s one of the things that we’ve started to try and figure out. One of the interesting dynamics in the podcasting space is as it’s become, the lines are beginning blurred between what’s a podcast, what is not? Is this a YouTube channel or is it a podcast? Is it syndicated to RSS or not? Is it in clip format or full length content? And in the end, the audience doesn’t really care and oftentimes the creators don’t care as long as the message is being conveyed. And we’re seeing more and more that the primary way people are consuming podcasts is by way of clips, excuse my phone. That’s okay. Rookie mistake. I now have it silenced. I feel better now.

But yeah, people are consuming by way of clips as opposed to the full long form content. And so then that leads us to say, well, maybe we just make clips instead of, because there’s a lot more pressure I think, in saying, you’ve got to create a well-produced 35 minute piece of content that’s got this format, and you have to be on the whole time and be asking great questions and all that. Whereas if you say, let’s just get on and record for an hour, and if we get four or five really good clips out of that, that’s success and let’s publish those and use that to go out and get the content. That’s what people are consuming anyway. And you can also, it opens up the content, whereas instead of saying, Hey, here’s a podcast with podcast founder, you could say, Hey, here’s a five minute clip where we talk specifically about marketing through social media and how to get, and that speaks to what people are looking for. They’re probably not thinking today, oh, I want to listen to a podcast with the founder of some company. They’re like, Hey, I have a marketing problem. Oh, they’re talking about social media marketing, and then you have a bunch of those clips, put those out there. That’s kind of what we’re orienting around. And then it’s a lot less pressure for the creator and the guests to always have something amazing to say because sometimes you don’t.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’ve done it the other way around, so I’m just really nosy. So I ask people lots of questions, so I find it really easy. Plus, I’m a coach and consultant trade, so I ask questions for a living. So that bit’s straightforward. We’ve started taking clips from the main podcast and that works really well. And you’re right. What we’ve found is by adding them to our YouTube channel, we’re getting a completely different audience on YouTube than we are on the podcast platforms. So that’s one piece of content, getting us different types of audiences, which is great. And I love that advice about just having a conversation because I think you’re absolutely right. People get really stressed about it, don’t they? And it’s actually the more chilled you can be, the better. And there’s some great podcasts out there, obviously Joe Rogan being one of the most famous ones and possibly the biggest in the world. Is that the biggest podcast in the world, do you think?

Josh: Yeah, I think he’s still got the Crown.

Rebecca: Yeah, and there’s a massive one in the UK. I’m going to swear now, so if anybody’s going to get offended, then close your ears. But the one in the UK is called Shag Married Annoyed, and it’s always at the top of the list in the UK whilst it’s edited, it’s a husband and wife just having a conversation about nothing in particular and about their various arguments and beefs that they have with each other. They have particular sections that they do every week, but it’s fairly loose and people really like that. They like seeing behind the curtain, don’t they?

Josh: Yeah. I think that’s a big part of the allure of the podcast is the idea of being a fly on the wall and experiencing this sort of intimate conversation and why it’s so useful to not trying to ignore the audience. I suppose.

I asked you before this call, tell me about the audience so I can somewhat craft the message to them, but I found if you are trying to speak to the audience during the call, that can get in the way of actually having the real conversation that people want to hear. And podcasting. Sometimes that can be hard, but usually after a few minutes you forget about the camera and the microphone and you just start having a one-on-one conversation, and this is why the audio, or sorry, the video element is so helpful as well, and why I think podcasting is also evolving into that video side is people want to connect during the call when they’re creating the content and when they’re listening to the content and viewing it as well.

Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely. So how’s your business going? My podcast is about your entrepreneurial journey, so how’s it going? What’s happening?

Josh: Yeah, I mean, never a dull moment. No, it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride. I mean, from the beginning of the company, it had pretty modest ambitions. It was really just started as a lifestyle business, but then as I was building it and launching it, cereal, this American Life came out, they started getting million downloads per episode, and then everybody saw, Hey, there’s money in those hills. And podcasting started to blow up. Business outgrew something I could handle on my own, and that led us to build a team, raised money. Covid was a big factor in all of this because suddenly everybody was stuck at home looking for ways to still connect and socialise now had the time to maybe start that podcast they’ve always wanted to try out. And so that was a big inflexion point for the business. And then now what I’ve been talking about is we’re really focused on the growth side.

We have monetization tools and we’ve got all the Creation suite. We help people host and distribute. None of that matters if you can’t find an audience, if you’re trying to monetize your podcast or use it to grow your business, if you don’t have an audience, it’s not going to do anything for you. And if you just publish a podcast through on the RSS feeds, that’s a drop in the bucket. There’s millions of other shows out there and nobody is going to find you. You’ve got to find them. And so that’s one of the latest products that we’re working on is helping people. We have an AI powered tool now that goes through your content, finds the most interesting parts for each different platform that you’re going to be targeting, and then we help you schedule that out and distribute them throughout the month and make it just as easy as possible to get those clips out onto the other platforms, use their algorithms to find the audience and then bring them back into your podcast or your business, that sort of thing. So that’s kind of the most, oh, sorry, go ahead.

Rebecca: I was going to say that’s genius.

Josh: Well, hopefully it’s a new product, but it does seem to be working well. One of our creators had something like 500 monthly downloads, and then after using the clipping tool to put clips on YouTube, shorts had some last I checked that had 40,000 views in a six week period of time. Wow. It can make a really big difference. And it’s really just about, you already have the content if you’re podcasting, it’s just about actually going through the work to get it clipped, get the descriptions and stuff, get it out there and let the other platforms find your audience for you instead of doing the grind yourself.

Rebecca: You have just saved Alison who does our editing of our podcast hours of time. Okay. So I’m going to be honest here, Josh, we moved away from Zencastr. We’ve just come back to Zencastr because I’ve seen the improvements and I also thought, I can’t record this, not on his platform that I’m British. It would be too embarrassing. I wouldn’t be able to do it. So we’ve come back and I, I’ve noticed you’ve got all those bits, and I actually phoned Alison and said, Alison, you going to love it because you can do the clips. It’s automated, so I’m going to let you know. I will give you feedback on the difference it makes to our audience numbers, because that’s exactly what we do. We distribute them out there, but using that automated tool is fabulous, so that’s easier for small to medium sized businesses. That actually takes the hardest bit out, I think, Josh, because the recording and the production on your platform is a dole that’s really straightforward. So yeah, nice one. Okay. What’s the future

Josh: Hold? Yeah, we found that the biggest reason for Churn for podcast, there’s some industry report, was the pressure to publish on all these different platforms and feeling like they weren’t growing their audience if they didn’t. So yeah, so we’re definitely trying to crack that nut and yeah, it seems to be working well, but I interrupted. What was the next question that you had?

Rebecca: What’s the plans? What’s the future vision for the business?

Josh: I mean, we don’t plan that far out. I mean, we’re very much in the moment, and that’s a big part of it is just trying to tackle this audience growth problem. But I will say there’s still a lot of low hanging fruit as far as really making it truly easy to create. And I think we’re interested in expanding not beyond the podcasting space or beyond our existing creator base, but what we found is that a lot of the people creating podcasts as podcasters, no, they’re marketers, I don’t. Or they’re business owners and this is a means to an end. And so we’ve zoomed out a little bit more and said, okay, we’ve got a really great focused podcasting product, but how can we help all the people that tried to start a podcast and gave up for whatever reason, it was hard to find the right guests, so they didn’t have as much time to focus on it.

Their business got, if you’re a business owner and you’re dealing with payroll and all the other stuff, sometimes it can be hard. And so how do we help people get the message out that maybe don’t need to have a podcast or don’t want to or tried and failed or whatever. And so that’s where we’re, I see more of the future going into is just more being like Zencaster is a great place to help you create content and syndicate it out to all of the platforms that you want to be on. Podcasting is one of those, and we can help with that, but we can also help getting your clips onto TikTok or YouTube or whatever platform you’re trying to target, and in a fun, easy, engaging way. One of the things that we’re working on actively right now is just making it not only easy to record and create the clips, but how to stylize them and make them fun and frame them and have backgrounds and styled text and those sorts of things because that’s the people that are doing it well and are doing all those things.

And that’s one of our biggest requests from our creators. That’s really what we do is we just listen to or try to as best we can. We have a wealth of feedback and ideas that come into us from the user base and we always have. And so it’s never been that hard to figure out. The hard part is knowing where to focus, not what to do. The big picture I think has always been fairly clear, but it’s like, what’s the thing that we have? We have limited resources. What can we focus on now? What are the next steps? And sometimes we’ve gotten out of step. I mentioned that we’ve got monetization tools. We built out a whole monetization suite and found that very few people can make that work because we haven’t fixed the audience growth problem. And so then we had to say, okay, let’s keep that going, but we need to come back and figure out how do we actually find and grow the audience, get people connected with who they’re trying to connect with. Then we can figure out how to pour gas on the monetization side.

Rebecca: And I never started it for money. That was never the intention. If we grow our audience and start earning from it, then it’s a bonus, which will be fantastic. So I appreciate that tool. I’m going to make Alison listen to this before she puts anything else out there because

Josh: She can

Rebecca: Follow your instructions. What’s really interesting for our entrepreneurial audience, Josh, is that you’ve been client led, which is really important that they listen to their clients too. You’ve had to zig and zag to fit with time and the pace of technology, and you’ve responded to it really, really well. And even if you’re a little muffin shop on the corner of the high street, you need to respond to technology. I don’t care what business you’re in, you need to incorporate it into your business somehow. And also, I like the fact that your attitude is very much, well, we’re just going to keep going. Is that because you don’t have investors or do you have investors now?

Josh: No, we do. We’ve raised a few rounds of funding, and we even did a bit of a crowdfund as well. So our creators have had the opportunity to be part of the business, which is fun and also a big responsibility. But I think depending on which cohort you’re talking to, they tend to be more high level. For instance, the venture capital side, they don’t get too involved in here’s the strategy or the products that you need to be doing. It’s like, are you growing? Let’s figure out the marketing side, or that kind of thing. So we’ve always had a pretty free hand as far as figuring out what’s the next best thing we need to build for the creator. But yeah, that definitely does change the game a little bit. I mean, we went from being a profitable, I mean, Zencastr was profitable from the first month that we launched the paid plans and then grew from there. Then once you take venture capital, then you grow the team, start spending a lot of money more than you’re making with the idea that you’ll grow into it or be able to raise again. And so you’re kind of on this treadmill, and that’s a whole other thing.

I don’t recommend raising money unless you really have strong traction already and kind of have a need for it. I think a lot of people want to, and I’m not sure how much of your audience is planning on being a startup, so we can shift gears if this is not going to be less interesting for them. But I think a lot of people feel like raising money is the starting point for a business, and that’s just kind of backwards and it’s going to be really hard to raise money unless you’ve got a track record and some good connections. But we kind of did it as a matter of need already had profitable growing in a space that was growing strongly and growing so strongly that multi-billion dollar businesses were getting into the space and either launching competitive products or buying competitors, and we were like, Hey, we’re going to get pushed out of the space if we don’t raise some money and start moving fast and growing fast. So

Rebecca: That makes sense. That makes perfect sense. Okay, so if your business is Zencaster had a personality or was a character alive or dead, fictional or nonfiction, how would you describe it or who would it be?

Josh: Ooh, who would it be? Man, I mean, this may sound egotistical, but me, I dunno. I feel at this point up, so for the longest time, the business was just me for three something years and then figuring out how to grow that, and that’s been a big part of the challenge, I think has been how do I A, grow the business beyond myself, B, separate my ego and my self-worth from the business so that when maybe things aren’t going so well, I’m still functional, and when they’re going really well, I don’t get too big of a head and that sort of a thing. Because yeah, my goal at the beginning was a solopreneur, start small, stay small kind of a thing. I just accidentally grabbed a tiger by the tail by getting into the podcasting space at the right time. You did?

Rebecca: Yeah, you really did. I like that. You’re absolutely right, Josh, that I recognise that fight that you’ve described, and I’m sure many of our audience do. When things are going well, there is a tendency to think you’re a bit invincible. You’ve got this and everything’s amazing. And then when you inevitably hit the low, because there is always a low somewhere, you’re right, your identity and ego is tied up with that. I’m 53, it’s taken me until probably I’ve turned 50 to let go of that. It’s hard, isn’t it?

Josh: Yeah. And I really, for me, not to say that I’ve totally solved that problem, but the biggest thing to help with that I found is just involve hire the right people, give them autonomy, trust them, and then it becomes a group. It becomes a group effort, and it’s not just represented by you. That’s much more than you. And you can share the weight of the mantle of all that with other people. And we’ve now grown out a great team, awesome people. They’ve all got stock options in the company, and we’re really trying to build something great together that not only changes my life but theirs and then our creators as well.

Rebecca: Yeah. Well that’s nice. That’s a good place to end. Thank you so much, Josh. I really appreciate your time and I wish you all the luck.