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Office Hours: I’m Steph Smith. I host the a16z Podcast and build my own projects, like Internet Pipes. AMA!Featured

Hi Elphas!

I’m Steph Smith. I currently podcast from 9-5, but for the last 6 years from 5-9 I’ve been an indie creator.

I started my (fully remote) career in tech almost a decade ago at Toptal, where I led their 20-person publications team reaching millions of readers. Following that, I went on to lead Trends at the Hustle, which was acquired by HubSpot. While I was there, I spearheaded HubSpot Creators, including their growing Podcast Network. Now, I host the a16z Podcast at Andreessen Horowitz!

In my spare time, I love tinkering online. I'm a self-taught developer that's topped Product Hunt a few times, and my book (Doing Content Right) and latest project (Internet Pipes) have both sold six figures. My blog has also been read by over a million people, where I muse about remote work, productivity, and tech. Plus I have a podcast with my husband: The Sh** You Don't Learn in School!

Ask me anything about the ins and outs of content (audio, video, blog, newsletter, book… you name it!), remote work, technology, internet tools, spotting trends, juggling side projects, learning to code, pricing, continuous improvement, being nomadic, or anything in between. :)

Thanks so much for joining us @stephsmith!Elphas – please ask @stephsmith your questions before Friday, March 29th. @stephsmith may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Hello @stephsmith I love the personal user's manual concept you shared in a certification training for distributed teams a few years ago. I know it's been a minute, but I wonder if there are any key updates or other iterations you've learned that you would add to that approach since then?
Hi Salette! Thanks for the reminder -- I really need to update my own manual!I created this document (https://bit.ly/user-manual-questions) ~2 years ago that identifies several more questions to consider. I think the area that not addressed enough is the way people prefer to work. Not just whether they happen to be an early bird or night owl, but things like:* Do they prefer async or sync communication? * Which tools are most familiar to them? * Which tools do they struggle to wrap their head around?* What is their ethos on meetings?* What kind of projects do they dive into right away?* What kind of projects do they find they procrastinate on most?* Are they good with process or do they need a hand there?Per the last few, it depends on the culture and how these manuals are received, but I believe in people being really explicit about what they're bad, okay, good, and exceptional at, and being able to be extremely candid about the first two buckets. They'll surface no matter what, and the whole idea of the manual is to pre-empt those inevitables so that people can support Hope this is remotely helpful! And for folks that haven't seen the original manual, here's the link. ⬇️https://bit.ly/steph-smith-user-manual
Thanks @stephsmith ! Good additions. I found this manual so inspiring and think it should be an essential element of every onboarding experience.Great to see you here. Rock on with the podcast and all your interesting new pursuits!
Hi @stephsmith! Thank you for supporting & sharing your generous wealth of knowledge here with us! I’m building a DTC / B2B video monetization platform that leverages AI and no-code for creation & distribution. As video becomes more prevalent as a content medium (and in podcasting in particular) are there tools you feel are lacking or wish existed to assist with creation & distribution? Or conversely, any you could not live without!
Hi Angela! A few things come to mind:1. Most importantly, I would LOVE to see better analytics for podcasts. The data is so minimal and inconsistent across applications, making for a pretty impossible task of understanding what is working, and therefore, reliably growing. Related: https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1425556277594247171.2. Generally for distribution, I'm also excited about the potential for these tools to do much of the clipping for you, although the tools I've seen here aren't "there yet" from my perspective. Perhaps clips become so commoditized at that point that there should be a new distribution form anyway!3. I'm also excited to see better AI tools for stock video and the eventual ability to really lock in a visual style there. For example, I'd love the ability to animate something like this on my own, but I think we're likely pretty far out from that: https://youtu.be/xgf2FD62j3g?si=tV5SIjk31UUGtkEH
Thank you @stephsmith! TRUE validation on podcast analytics, it's crazy that your twitter post was from 2021 and is still relevant today. We've found this to be one of the main aggravations in video distribution platforms as well and are working hard to change that across the board. Appreciate the perspective on clipping and AI creation...same requests for video, we are working on nailing AI trailer automations for promotion. Thanks again for participating in the AMA, I'm keeping updated with your newsletter and both pods! (Love that you host with hubby btw-coming from married founder/s ;)
Answered a few questions yesterday, but will be back in a few hours to get through more! 😊
Hi @stephsmith ! So great to see you here (first met you at Trends!) What industries/jobs do you think AI will affect positively? As an entertainment marketer/advertising exec, I’d love to know how to pivot as certain jobs are reduced and/or increased. Thanks for your time (again!) 😁
Hi Mandy! At this point, it feels like AI will touch just about everything. It's impossible to make predictions, but if we look at the past, technology doesn't tend to reduce jobs but instead create new types of jobs.For example, I still think there are going to be a TON of marketers -- maybe even more! But those marketers will look different. Just consider this: 25 years ago, social media marketing, search engine optimization, and UX design did not exist! So while technology disrupted the people writing jingles on the radio, the societal demand for marketers did not reduce.Along a similar vein, there will still be artists, but perhaps a different kind of art. On one hand, we'll see new artforms that can only be created with AI, like this "make it more X" phenomena (https://twitter.com/venturetwins/status/1728956493024919604), these visual anagrams (https://twitter.com/DrJimFan/status/1730253638935920738), or this spiral art trend (https://www.reddit.com/r/StableDiffusion/comments/16ew9fz/spiral_town_different_approach_to_qr_monster/). Similarly, there are artists today on Instagram doing *very* human things that are only getting more popular with the advent of AI, whether it's humans painting live at weddings, or these accounts filming things up close, icing cookies, creating rock sculptures, creating tiny frogs, etc:* https://www.instagram.com/hol_fox* https://www.instagram.com/macrofying/* https://www.instagram.com/sculpttheworld/* https://www.instagram.com/indiarosecrawfordIn other words, I don't really think the solution is to try and find an industry that won't be impacted, but to continue learning and think about how to leverage AI and/or things that are uniquely human.Related resources:- https://pessimistsarchive.org/ - https://keeplearning.buzzsprout.com/987811/9788436-43-technology-that-people-feared
Wow! What a great career. Would love to know your steps to reaching 1M people, and six figure books. Looking to launch a podcast and have built a product that attracted global interest from Fortune 50 companies and built a product that helped to predict disease.
Thanks Rosi! This tweet may resonate, as it was all an iterative process of many years in building an audience. https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1454279055755280390https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1454302358930743305If you have specific questions about getting started with the podcast or your product, happy to help answer!
Hi @stephsmith, Just wow! I honestly don't know what question to ask most since so much of what you're doing and have done is where I'm venturing. So I guess I will ask a philosophical question vs a technical one. What would you say has been your motivation for doing the work of your blog, your book and project? What drives you? Has it helped to with setting your goals and accomplishing them? Also, what kind of help and support did you get along the why and how did you find it?
So great to see you on here Steph! After hearing you on the MFM pod a number of times, I'm always so impressed by your innate curiosity and how much of an idea machine you are. What tools, tips and tricks do you have for becoming an idea machine? And more importantly, often the people with the ideas aren't so great at execution- but you seem to have mastered both. Any advice on this? Thanks!
Thank you so much! I cover the idea generation piece in Internet Pipes heavily. There are so many methods, so I view it kind of like building up your tool chest. Things like paying attention to seasonal or localized trends, using tools to understand scientific papers or patent filings, studying "not so niche" Reddit communities, etc. I'd say one important piece of it all is setting up as many "passive" tools like Keywords everywhere or Syften so you can pick up on trends without having to actively thinking about it, and then of course, really nailing your "content diet". I feel like that term is overused, but I think I've really reigned mine in with time and share that in the material too.Re: execution, I think it's just about really constraining timelines to ensure you get something out there. I talk about that more in this answer!https://elpha.com/posts/o104jghn/office-hours-i-m-steph-smith-i-host-the-a16z-podcast-and-build-my-own-projects-like-internet-pipes-ama#n765qold
I thought of another good question: Can you explain in minute detail how you go from idea, to execution of the idea, to making the idea profitable, and sustaining or growing that opportunity?I'm one of those people who believes that success is about knowing & understanding the details.
Such an impressive trajectory! I'd love to learn more about how you go about spotting trends in tech/content... do you have a process? How do you evaluate them – fleeting vs lasting impact?
Hi Tajuana! Thanks so much.I talk about the spotting side a bit more in this answer: https://elpha.com/posts/o104jghn/office-hours-i-m-steph-smith-i-host-the-a16z-podcast-and-build-my-own-projects-like-internet-pipes-ama#n765qoldHowever to get to your question of evaluating them, I think it's really important to identify what you're looking to build. If you're looking to make a few grand of passive income, a "good" trend might be something that is increasing in search volume (and sales volume via something like Jungle Scout), but is generally not very well known. Something like an air quality monitor or even more niche, spicy pickles. However, if you're looking to build a really sizable company, you're probably going to want to identify some really foundational trend, like the ones I wrote about here: https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1500986096745779200. In this case, it matters much more how long you think a trend will last and the scope of your solution.Of course, in both cases you'd want to explore competitors in the space, identify how you can uniquely complete, decide if you're suited/excited about the problem, etc. All of that is also covered in Internet Pipes.
Hi Steph! Thanks for being here! With so many projects and responsibilities, how do you maintain productivity and ensure continuous improvement in your work?
Hi Steph! Just want to say you've had a really amazing career and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. I'm trying to start a newsletter and I'm quite lost as to how I can grow my subscribers over time. Do you have recommendations as to what could be effective strategies? Thanks!
Hi Sylvia! Thank you so much. I talk about this in Doing Content Right -- both in terms of figuring out what your "personal monopoly" is and how to then grow with time. Happy to send you an Elpha discount (feel free to DM me), but a few paragraphs wouldn't do the answer justice.
Hey @stephsmith! Thanks for taking the time to come up here. My question is: You seem like a very capable woman (I mean, the proof is in your intro 😏🤟🏾). Are there any moments in your life, that you can pinpoint, that made you believe that you were capable of accomplishing all of it and more?Followup question: Is there any advice you'd like to share, from your own experiences, that have helped you tap into your power?And of course I'd LOVE to hear about your rituals for continuous improvement. #ForeverAStudent #RenaissanceWoman #InMyRenaissanceEra
Thank you so much! Yes, I think I was lucky early on to be flung into circumstances where I could surprise myself. For me, that started with chess, which I started playing when I was maybe 5? You can see pictures here: https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1315741756273483776But what's underrated about chess is that it's purely objective AND the kind of thing that a young girl can actually outcompete a 50-year old man in, which I often did. In a way, that taught me a lot about ignoring preconceived notions of what I (or others) could or couldn't accomplish.My parents also exposed me to a lot, so I had my fair share of failing and succeeding in all types of things: https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1694558746582909257BTW, I love this question about tapping into your power because we've all got it somewhere. But I think sometimes we look too much for external sources of inspiration (which of course, have their worth!), instead of relating to the most confident prior versions of ourselves. I talk about this further on this podcast with Jennifer Kamara, because even though I am generally confident, I've gone through phases and it's easier for me to bring back my confidence knowing that I've been there before, instead of trying to compare myself to a successful stranger.Episode here in case curious: https://youtu.be/0U5uH-FwCWo?si=dHPJm6rQ4JLXlzOZ :)
I love this answer, and it confirms something I've been pondering about for a while: Being capable & where it stems from. I also love the fact that at age 5 you were competing against people who were 50, and you learned early on that just because you're older than me, doesn't mean you're smarter or better than me. Once you let that sink in, another unlocked power opens up to you!Thank you. I've started to check out your podcast which is pretty cool. And I'll check out the episode with you and Jennifer Kamara. Cheers!
I'd love to get your take on trends in B2B marketing. I see a big move towards human-to-human emotional resonance, rather than mainly logical/rational approaches, although it's by no means mainstream yet. Do you have any go-tos for trendspotting in B2B? And do you see anything interesting on the far horizon? Thanks for your time Steph. Now following your podcast - fascinating!
I share several tools in Internet Pipes for trendspotting -- B2B or otherwise! I typically start with consumers though, since you can easily learn what people are searching, buying, questioning, forming communities around, etc and then that typically bubbles up to B2B. For example, there's this Reddit mapping tool (https://anvaka.github.io/map-of-reddit) which is pretty cool for getting a sense of what people care about, and then you can use a tool like Gummy Search to do into any community more deeply.BTW I do agree with you that people are looking for more human connection and even with the important drive toward AI, the arc likely won't be as straightforward. I often cite this example about chess (https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1651372700550701056), but there are also very human artists that are becoming more popular than ever and delivering new art forms, as I detail in this answer! https://elpha.com/posts/o104jghn/office-hours-i-m-steph-smith-i-host-the-a16z-podcast-and-build-my-own-projects-like-internet-pipes-ama#nsuy27cl
Thanks Steph, such an interesting response. It will be fascinating for sure to see how this move towards human-to-human connection in marketing melds with AI. That Reddit mapping tool is gold - thanks for sharing.
Hey @stephsmith Thank you for doing this Q/A for us. What form of content builds the most intimate connection with an audience email or podcasting in your opinion? Unfortunately, I am torn but biased as a manager of podcasts who loves newsletters. Since AI has made recording a podcast easier, how will sponsorship and monetization change in the long term in your mind? I know YouTube is looking at labeling AI content. How has learning to code changed how you think professionally about solving problems for example, if at all? Have a great weekend!!
Podcasts for sure build a more intimate relationship, assuming you can stay consistent. Just consider the pure function of time spent "with someone", but on top of that podcasting tends to include all the more human elements, whether it's filler words, voice tonality, laughter, etc.In fact, I often say that there's a sliding scale of content and podcasts are your "best friends": https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1566129623951233026However, you should know that podcasts are incredibly hard to grow (mostly due to the distribution and analytics: https://twitter.com/stephsmithio/status/1425556277594247171) and because they are so *human* it'll be even harder to grow if it's AI-created in my opinion, relative to other forms of content. For now, I don't really see a significant change in the monetization model, so long as you're reaching real people which generally you can tell with a podcast better than other channels since it's harder to simulate a download and you can see consumption.Learning to code was one of the best things I've ever done. I don't code regularly anymore, but I view it more like your ability to effectively interface with an increasingly technical world. Almost everything is being digitized, not just our jobs, and I don't want to be any further removed from understanding that world.Relevant resources:- https://blog.stephsmith.io/finding-programming-inspiration-by-learning-to-code/- https://blog.stephsmith.io/learning-to-code-apps/
Hi Steph! It's so nice to have you for our Office Hours this week, thank you for making the time.So good to see such a rich background! How did you get into this career path and tell us more about "The Sh** You Don't Learn in School!" what are some topics you'd like to discuss and why?
My career has been non-linear to say the least! I'd say the most major inflection points were (1) finding a remote job and (2) learning to code and creating my own side projects.(1) I started exploring remote work back in 2015, when I was working full-time in Toronto, commuting 2 hours per day. I was seeking freedom and that ultimately led me to tech, because that was the only field that allowed fully remote work at the time, albeit only a few dozen companies offered it then. But in hindsight, ending up in technology was the best possible outcome, because it exposed me to so much (marketing, design, product, code, etc...), including:(2) In 2018 I decided that I didn't want to just exist in the technology industry, but build in it myself. So, I decided to teach myself to code and started launching a few of my side projects. Even though I now make enough from side projects that I wouldn't have to work, I've continued to work FT since hitting that milestone (in 2020) and I love that my pursuits have somewhat coalesced into a few passions, like podcasting, data analytics, etc. We actually kept the Sh*t You Don't Learn in School (https://listenandlearn.co/) intentionally broad so we could tackle any topics that we were excited about. Some of my favorites including:69. Tipping Culture: Have We Gone Too Far? (https://keeplearning.buzzsprout.com/987811/13481313-69-tipping-culture-have-we-gone-too-far)68. The Cost of Excellence (https://keeplearning.buzzsprout.com/987811/13474356-68-the-cost-of-excellence)37. Should Billionaires Exist? (https://keeplearning.buzzsprout.com/987811/9219416-37-should-billionaires-exist)38. Open Salaries and Solving for an Equitable Workforce (https://keeplearning.buzzsprout.com/987811/9288188-38-open-salaries-and-solving-for-an-equitable-workforce)43. Technology that People Feared (https://keeplearning.buzzsprout.com/987811/9788436-43-technology-that-people-feared)
Hi Steph Smith! Great to connect with a fellow podcast enthusiast! I was recently working at Spotify in creator partnerships and programs under their podcast vertical. I was recently laid off from Spotify and am wondering, how do you navigate the volatility of the tech industry to find new professional opportunities? What inspired you to create your own podcast? Do you believe there is a way to find opportune career growth in a remote setting and if so how do you make sure to stand out and advocate for yourself when there is minimal face time? Thanks in advance and just followed you on LinkedIn :).
Hi Tracy! So sorry to hear about your layoff. Happens to the best of us. I created my personal podcast out of pure interest, as I did with all my side projects. I mention this because I think it's much easier to build your own projects on an unrushed, passion-driven timeline -- at least to start -- so that you can have as much creative freedom with them, without being hampered by those projects being your lifeline. I talk about that in part 2 of this article: https://blog.stephsmith.io/you-dont-need-to-quit-your-job-to-make/Now, of course, I realize that's really unhelpful advice for you at this time, but I'm also sharing because I've found that those projects are ultimately what have built me any network or career antifragility that I can claim now -- not the specific roles or titles that I've had at specific companies.I also am a strong proponent of remote work because I prefer that my work advocates for me instead of facetime. Again, that's where side projects that display your creativity, ambition, etc speak much greater volumes. I like to say, "evidence" over "confidence".Hope this answer doesn't come across as dismissive as you navigate this volatility! I just think that the way to stand out in an environment like this is to put your work out there, instead of most people putting themselves out there (via a resume, conferences, etc)Feel free to DM me with any follow-ups or I can see if I can connect you with anyone relevant in the space, depending on what you'd like to do next! 💚
As a self-taught developer, what advice would you give to others looking to start their coding journey, and how has coding changed your approach to problem-solving?
This is from a few years ago, but I think this video will answer your questions and I still stand by the lessons! No better time to start than today. https://blog.stephsmith.io/learning-to-code-products-in-1-year-2/
Hi @stephsmith my name is Motushi Ahmed. First I want to say congratulations! I know a lot of hard work must have gone into this. It seems like you are a multi-hyphenate, much like myself and I also have hopes to launch a podcast, a book, and build more content. I would love to hear a little about how you laid out your schedule and kept focused. I have been using the 12 week year book but still find myself sometimes struggling with all these initiatives I'm trying to simultaneous achieve. Would appreciate any insight you have on this. Thanks in advance!
Hi Motushi! Nice to meet you.The most tried and true methods I've found is to (1) track what I do and (2) work in narrow, constrained seasons.1) This was more helpful early on, when I was learning to code where I tracked how many days I actually learned to code. It was my north star at the time, so I made sure I had real data on whether I was actually working toward it or cheating myself.Relevant resources:https://blog.stephsmith.io/a-year-of-sponge/https://blog.stephsmith.io/you-dont-need-to-quit-your-job-to-make/2) With my book, Internet Pipes, and other major projects I've launched, I built them in very narrow periods. The book 7 weeks. My first course was done in ~3 weeks. My latest project was done in <2 months. In each case, I was probably over ambitious about what I could achieve in a constrained time, but Parkinson's Law took over and I got the thing done. And the more I've gotten to know my psychology, the more I know that those things never would've seen the light of day if I had allocated myself longer timelines. And once I commit to a timeline, I go all in. It’s almost like I’m cramming for a test. Essentially all of my free time is focused on that one singular goal. When I go for a run, I’m brainstorming examples for one chapter. When I’m brushing my teeth, I’m thinking about how I can reframe another chapter. The ambitious timeline meant several 3AM nights, but it significantly compressed my timeline and after the goal was reached, I could completely relax. I also used the weight of pre-orders to my advantage so the pressure of people waiting ensured I got the thing out there. Hope that helps!
Hi Steph, thank you so much for the response! I absolutely love everything you are saying here. I have originally established all my goals to be in tandem but narrowing the scope and really focusing on one first seems to be a better option. This is very inspiring and I read the posts you share and really resonate with both of them. I also think of myself as a literal sponge, and need to actually take a step back and observe what I'm soaking in. Furthermore, after becoming a consultant and working with founders directly, I have realized just how much time I have to devote to things and have been very self aware about my energy. I will focus on trying to narrow my scope and build out a feasible timeline with actionable plans for my goals. Need to do some task prioritization and figure out which one to focus on first. Thanks for all the tips!