Farnam Street’s 2019 Annual Letter to Readers

Most public companies write an annual letter to shareholders.

At their best, these letters represent an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company to communicate with the people who own the company, the shareholders.

At Farnam Street, we are obsessed with you, our readers. You trust us with something far more valuable than money: your time. Reading Farnam Street or listening to The Knowledge Project means you’re not doing something else. Our job is to make sure your investment in us is getting an above-average return.

I write our letter each year. As you’ll see, there is no shortage of mistakes and lessons learned this year. (You can find past letters at the following links: 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.)

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Brain Food (email newsletter)

Our newsletter mailing list has grown to roughly 250,000 subscribers from 185,000 at this time last year. That’s about a 35% increase in the headline number of readers over last year.

The number is somewhat irrelevant, however, if you don’t know how many people are actually opening the emails. I’m pleased to say our open rate is about 40%. This is down from last year’s 45% but well above the industry average of 20%.

We use a number internally called “effective readers,” which takes the number of email subscribers multiplied by the average open rate to provide us with the number of people who are laying eyes on our content. Last year this equation worked out to be 185,000 × 0.45 = 83,250. This year, it was 250,000 × 0.4 = 100,000. While not too shabby, this 20% growth in effective readers is still far less than 35% growth in the headline number of readers.

Like most of you, I get really busy from time to time. When I’m busy, I am more likely to unsubscribe from things—not because I didn’t get value from them but rather because I just needed to focus, and yet another email was a distraction at that point in time. With this in mind, we created something we’d never seen before. Rather than have you unsubscribe from Brain Food, we now give you the option to take a 30-day break from the newsletter. With one click, we can now temporarily unsubscribe you and see you again in 30 days.

You’ve probably noticed that we’ve been experimenting with pop-ups on the website. That could be one reason open rates are down slightly, as people that have little friction to sign up for emails rarely value our content as much as people who go through a bit of effort to sign up. Right now, the pop-ups are being used more to test wording that resonates. Expect them to mostly disappear soon.

Farnam Street Blog

Around this time last year, we were the 33,000th most popular website in the world. As I write, we’re the ~25,000th most popular site. This isn’t a number we put a lot of weight into as we’re typically in the 27,000–33,000 range. While it seems like we’re not moving up much, it takes a lot to stay in the same place.

One noticeable change that we’ve seen is that the site is easier to share now because of our new URL, fs.blog, rather than the old one (farnamstreetblog.com).

While we made small changes to the aesthetics of the website in 2019, you might see slightly more noticeable ones in 2020 aimed at improving the reading experience and the overall experience on mobile.

We published 31 new articles this year. The following list includes some samples that we’re particularly proud of:

Events

In 2019, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops, one on innovation and one on decision-making. Two years ago, these events sold out in a week. Last year, these events sold out in a day. This year it took under 4 hours for the first and under 90 minutes for the second to sell out entirely. (Join the waiting list on this page so you don’t miss out on future dates!)

While we make many small changes every year, we made two this year that involve how people arrive at our events that I wanted to highlight. First, our sales page doesn’t make it easy to tell your boss the “five things you’re going to learn” from our workshops, so getting approval means you have to do some work; second, all tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. Our goal with these changes was to have an event where everyone wanted to be there, and it works. The motivation and quality of attendees is amazing.

The events are small by design. Fifty people is about the maximum number of folks you can get to know over our short time together. The reason so many events are bigger than fifty people is economics. Events have high fixed costs, and once you hit about fifty people, anyone else you can sell a ticket to is mostly profit. However, putting more people in the room doesn’t make for a better experience for the participants.

Rather than increase the number of people, we’ll be increasing the number of events. We will be running four events in 2020, and they’ll be even better than before, as we’re making a significant upgrade to the content.

We’re also exploring a mega-event in 2021 aimed at bringing together speakers that are not commonly found together.

The Knowledge Project

The Knowledge Project produced nearly a show every two weeks this year! Guests this year included Josh Wolfe, Celeste Headlee, Laura Markham, Howard Marks, Jason Fried, Scott Page, Daniel Gross, Gabriel Weinberg, Thomas Tull, Shelia Heen, Jim Dethmer, Jonathan Haidt, Sue Johnson, Hugh Howey, Greg Walton, Shep Gordon, Emily Nagoski, Jim Collins, Daniel Kahneman, Steve Schwarzman, Scott Adams, Esther Perel, and Neil Parischa.

Last year around this time, we had forty-seven published episodes and 4.8 million downloads. This year we stand at seventy two published episodes and over 11 million downloads. In a world full of sound bites, people are growing to appreciate our deep and nuanced conversations with insightful guests and experts from a wide variety of disciplines. This month, we were honored to be recognized as one of Apple Podcasts’ “Best Listens of 2019”.

The podcast increased in subject diversity this year as we started to explore more areas of life. In 2019, we dove into topics like parenting, sex, and relationships. You can expect that the podcast will continue to explore a wider variety of content than the blog. Upcoming shows dive into anxiety and adversity with psychotherapist Barry Michels, design with legendary car designer Frank Stevenson, and math with professor and mathematician Steven Strogatz.

We did choose not to air an episode this year. I agonized over this decision for weeks and everyone on the team scrambled to try and make it work, but I ultimately pulled the plug. While it’s never fun to send an email to a guest and say we’re not going to air the show, in some cases it’s the best thing to do. The guest would have been unhappy with the show, and since we couldn’t hit the depth we strive to achieve, our listeners would have been unhappy as well. To make it a bit easier in the future to not air a show if need be, we now tell guests we promise to record but not necessarily air the show. This is a production decision. (If you’re curious, only one guest has asked us not to air a show that we’ve recorded, and that was because they felt they revealed too much of their secret sauce.)

Speaking of production, we started editing episodes a little bit for length and flow. Before episode 64, we rarely edited anything. Some episodes, like Jim Collins’, required virtually no editing. Others are pared from two to three hours of recording down to an hour or so of air time.

However, we’ve made the choice to back off on the editing a bit, so you might notice a bit more meandering in the future. We’ll continue to play with this in the future on an episode-by-episode basis to make sure we get the right feel. We’re not artificially trying to make our episodes any predetermined length of time. If we record three hours of gold, you’ll get three hours of gold.

We’re always on the hunt for amazing people and would love to explore more Eastern thinking as well as feature more amazing women. If you know anyone interesting and insightful in line with our previous guests, please drop me a line at [email protected]. While I can’t reply to all inbound messages, I will reach out if I’m interested.

Social media

You can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and now Farnam Street TV (FSTV) on YouTube.

If you’re curious about how we tackle social media, follow us on YouTube and watch as we try to add value in a noisy world.

Courses

We spent a lot of time and effort on a learning course in 2019 that we ended up parking for the time being. We think we have most of it right; however, there was something that just wasn’t working right now. While it sucks to put something on hold after investing a lot of time and effort in it, I expect we’ll come back to this sometime in the near future.

We began work in 2019 on a course we think you’re going to love that’ll come out hopefully in late 2020 or early 2021.

The three mini-courses we’ve already done (The Art of Focus and The Art of Reading being the main two) are now part of the Learning Community. We don’t anticipate making bigger courses part of the Learning Community in the future but will likely continue to do smaller ones inside it.

The Learning Community

We have no aspirations of running the biggest membership community on the planet—just the best. Our Learning Community isn’t for everyone, and yet we continue to collect remarkable people from all walks of life, including entrepreneurs, Fortune 50 CEOs, professional coaches and general managers, athletes, students, teachers, Nobel laureates, authors, and more. We’re brought together by our shared kindness, curiosity, and desire to help one another become more effective.

Not only is the Learning Community a way to support what you love (FS!), join our virtual reading group, get transcripts to all of our podcasts, participate in monthly AMAs with authors, access exclusive meetups all over the world, and so much more—it’s a way to become part of an online community that wants to get better without the shortcuts. A lot of members find the private forum a way to get answers on anything from what book to read next to career and relationship advice.

If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the Learning Community or gift it to the ones you love. Plus, when you join, you’ll also be helping the planet. Since Learning Community members read so many books, we thought it only fitting that we donate a portion of every membership to plant more trees so our forests stay nice and healthy.

If you’re curious, we offer gift memberships and discounts for teams. Visit here for more details.

Books

I’ve been talking about books for three years—and they finally happened. Not only did they finally happen, but we hit The Wall Street Journal’s best-seller list for The Great Mental Models Volume One: General Thinking Tools. To our surprise, the book should be translated and available in a few countries by the end of 2020.

I wrote these words last year and have to eat them:

“There is some bad news, if you’re eager to get your hands on a physical copy. We’re only printing 3000 physical copies. . . . I don’t have an easily explainable answer to why only 3k hardcovers, so I won’t even try to explain it. Learning Community members will know about the physical copies first and get first dibs.”

While we gave away 3,000 copies of the original hardcover to the Learning Community in a feat of logistics I never wish to repeat, a friend of mine, Matt Mullenweg of Automattic Inc., reached out after receiving his copy and asked us to print more and make them more widely available.

After a bit of persuasion, I agreed to partner with Automattic on the book, make a few changes, and reprint the hardcover in another limited run. We printed another 7,000 books, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

Book two should be out before March. It’s printing as you read this. Book three should be available before the end of 2020. One small note: we’ll be printing fewer hardcovers for book two than book one, and fewer still for book three than book two. (Sales in series tend to decline as volumes increase, and we have no desire to store books for a year while they sell down.)

All of the content in the Great Mental Models series will eventually be available for free on the internet at some point in the future. You can read more about the project and what we’re trying to accomplish here.

There are three main criticisms of the The Great Mental Models Volume One: General Thinking Concepts, listed as follows:

  1. The audio is dry.
  2. The book is too short.
  3. The content on the website is so good, why pay for the book?

Let me try to address these briefly.

  1. The audio is dry. Yes, it is. There are two main issues with this. First, the way I read the book wasn’t good enough. That’s on me. Second, it’s a reference book, and reference books don’t tend to make good listening to begin with, so audiobook professionals would be much better narrators. We’ve offered to have the audio re-recorded at our expense but have no control in whether that happens. The rest of the books in the series will be read by a professional.
  2. The book is too short. You can’t please everyone. I hate reading books that are too long more than I hate reading ones that are too short. We didn’t want to waste your time and take what should be 40,000 words and make it 80,000 because it feels like you got more. That’s the type of trickery we shy away from. (With that said, book one is by far the shortest book in the series.)
  3. The content on the website is so good, why pay for the book? I’m not even sure where to begin with this one, as we’ve promised to put all the content of the book online at some point in the future.

The Trade Book

I signed a book deal with Penguin Portfolio in 2018 for a trade book and am beyond excited to be working with the team there, especially Niki Papadopoulos. I’ve wanted to work with Niki ever since she came to one of our events four years ago. I’m busy working away on this book which, assuming I hit my deadlines, comes out in 2021.

Team Farnam

Vicky is our new operations ninja who does nearly everything behind the scenes better and more effectively than anyone I’ve ever met. Devon is leading the charge on our Learning Community, making it more valuable for members. Rhiannon is my partner in crime on the Great Mental Models books. Last but not least, Rosie is helping us with research and more.

Sponsorships

“Most sponsorships are a screaming bargain compared to traditional media buys, particularly if you’re trying to reach an elite or elusive [audience].” —Seth Godin

Now is the perfect time for your company to reach a highly influential audience of decision-makers. There are a number of reasons to consider a sponsorship over the traditional pay-per-click model, including the following:

  • This is the best way to reach our audience. Farnam Street readers are educated, affluent, and leaders in their fields. Our readers trust us, and we work hard to earn that trust. That trust extends to our site’s sponsors. Becoming a Farnam Street sponsor allows you to reach this target audience directly, maximizing your value per view.
  • It offers you affiliation with the best. Farnam Street is widely considered to be one of the best websites on the internet. Sponsoring Farnam Street will increase your company’s credibility in the eyes of existing and potential clients. We’ve seen this over and over again with past sponsors from Slack to Metalab.
  • It inspires your organization. When your employees find out you’re sponsoring Farnam Street, they’ll see that you share similar values and are committed to lifelong learning. One CEO called his company’s response “The Farnam Effect” after he got over twenty positive emails from staff and customers after sponsoring us.

Our website sponsors in 2019 were Royce Investment Partners and Greenhaven Road Capital.

Our podcast sponsors in 2019 were Metalab and Mealime.

Our newsletter sponsors in 2019 were Royce Investment Partners, Greenhaven Road Capital, Atoms, Masterworks, Brave, IVPN, Revtown,Legacy, The Information, MUD/WTR, Tulco, Alpha Sense, Ideo U, Ladder, Vollebak, and kaam.work.

If you’re interested in partnering with us in 2020, send me an email at [email protected].

Ethics

I take your trust in Farnam Street and in me very seriously. This is exemplified by the following:

  • We are not paid by any company for any opinion or article posted on Farnam Street or in any public forum, including podcasts, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter.
  • We receive free products all the time in the mail. If we use them and like them, we try to tell people about them—there are no affiliate links.
  • Farnam Street participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising commissions by linking to Amazon. Simply put, if you click on our Amazon.com links and buy anything, we earn a small commission, yet you don’t pay any extra.
  • Sponsors of our newsletter and website are not allowed to run any code that might track your internet presence. Website sponsors operate on a percentage-of-traffic basis and do not compensate us based on page views. This helps align our incentives with yours.
  • We do not have a Facebook tracking pixel, so we’re not enabling companies to target our audience.
  • We don’t give out your email address to any third parties.

We’re not always perfect, but we try to be transparent and keep our promises.

Thank you

I’m looking forward to a wider variety of content on the blog in 2020 with a mix of deep dives and pieces exploring new subjects.

Thank you for letting me learn with you.

Shane