How a podcast for entrepreneurial parents generates $200,000 a year
Sarah Peck explains why she didn't chase scale when building her Startup Parent podcast.
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It’s often assumed that if you want to run a successful media business, you first need to achieve massive scale. Most of the articles that profile successful creators focus on YouTubers, podcasters, and other content producers who reach enormous audiences each month and then convert that reach into seven figures in revenue.
But there are some creators who have managed to build strong businesses with relatively small audiences. They’ve accomplished this by drilling down into lucrative niches and then selling high-priced products to just a few customers.
Case in point: the Startup Parent podcast. When I interviewed host Sarah Peck last May, it was generating only around 2,000 downloads per episode, and its newsletter following was even smaller. Despite those low numbers, she was on track to generate $200,000 in 2021.
Where does all that revenue come from? Well, the podcast sells sponsorships, of course, but the real monetization driver is the Wise Women’s Council, an intense six-month “leadership incubator” geared toward female-identifying and non-binary parents who are also entrepreneurs. Peck charges participants anywhere from $4,800 to $7,800 to enroll, and she often receives far more applications than she can accept into the program.
In an interview last year, Peck walked me through why she launched the podcast, how she designed the incubator, and why dozens of women have signed up multiple years in a row despite its high price tag. Let’s jump into my findings…
Designing high-priced products
Like many successful creators, Peck began building an online audience while working in a completely unrelated field. In her case, she got a master’s degree in landscape architecture and landed a role at a major architecture firm in 2008.
Two years into that job, she launched a website at sarahkpeck.com and started blogging as a side hustle on a wide range of topics. The exposure she got from the blog led to an opportunity to teach a storytelling course for General Assembly. She enjoyed the experience and came away from it wondering if she could cut out the middleman and develop a similar curriculum online.
The writing course she ended up creating was intense. I actually interviewed her about it back in 2017, and here’s how she described it:
“I sent out new material every day, five days a week,” she said. “They did writing assignments, and I read them and reviewed one of their assignments every week.” She wrote over 35,000 words of materials for the course, conducted live Google Hangouts, shot pre-recorded videos, and answered emails. “The overwhelming feedback I got was that it was great, but it was too fast. So I slowed it down and did a second one that was six weeks long.”
Peck sold the course for $500, but didn’t know whether there would be much demand. “It was a small group writing program for 30 people,” she told me. “It sold out, which surprised me. I didn’t think I had a big enough email list to do that.” The success served as an eye-opening lesson for her: sometimes it’s easier to sell a high-priced product to a small number of people than it is to sell thousands of low-priced subscriptions or ebooks.
She continued to build this side business for a few more years, and then in 2013 she managed to sell $30,000 in online courses. “I was like, hey, if I leave my job, I can probably double that and scrape by,” she said. “And that’d be pretty exciting.” Peck pivoted to a career as a freelance writer. When she wasn’t developing courses, she wrote thought leadership content for high-level executives. “I got a couple key retainer clients. I really loved doing it.”
Peck loved the long hours and hustle of startup culture. At one point in our interview she talked about how much she missed waking up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday and working until 6 p.m. But then in 2015 something happened that would change her ability to work crazy hours for the foreseeable future: she got pregnant. “I was pregnant while working at a startup, which is insane. I kept thinking, why am I doing this? This is actually much harder than I thought.”
As those thoughts kept swirling around in her head, they eventually solidified into an idea: what if she were to write a book about her experience working at a startup while pregnant? With so much media coverage about the lack of diversity in tech, the idea had a certain news hook to it. “I pitched a proposal to a literary agency in downtown Manhattan. I got an agent. With a 3-month-old baby, I left the startup to start working on a book.”
A book idea becomes a podcast
Landing an agent was relatively easy, but now Peck had to begin the hard work of convincing a major book publisher to give her a contract. “I wrote five drafts of a book proposal, each about 20,000 words, so 100,000 words total,” she said. “It never came together.” But something interesting happened when she was working on the second or third draft; her agent suggested that she expand the scope of the book so it didn’t just focus on herself. What if she interviewed other women in tech who were also parents?
Peck loved the idea and soon began scheduling Zoom interviews with well-known tech figures like Renee Diresta and Sarah Lacy. The audio quality of these interviews wasn’t particularly good, but that didn’t matter since Peck was just using them for her own transcription purposes. It was while transcribing these recordings that it dawned on her that people might enjoy listening to these very personal conversations she had with other women. “I was like, oh, these should not be private. What if I start a podcast? I’d never thought about starting a podcast before.”
But there was a problem: Peck had just quit a full time job to write a book, one for which a publisher would presumably pay her an advance. She wasn’t super excited about the prospect of doing a bunch of labor for free. “And so I reached out in advance to get sponsors. I made a really compelling pitch that went something like this: women make 80% of household decisions, and women who are in the startup space are managing the business finance decisions as well as the household decisions. And when they get pregnant, they are in a moment where they’re determining which brands to use, and often those choices last for 20 years, so getting in front of this audience is highly lucrative.” She ended up securing $35,000 in sponsorships before even launching the show.
Peck launched the Startup Pregnant podcast in September 2017 (she renamed it to Startup Parent later on). The Zoom interviews she’d recorded were too poor in audio quality, so she conducted a fresh set of interviews with a better mic and recording software.
The conversations Peck has with her guests often stretch to over an hour. Though each interviewee is an expert in her field – whether it’s psychology, health, or tech – the two often spend a significant portion of the interview simply chatting about what it’s like to be a parent. In the September 2021 interview with behavioral scientist Vanessa Van Edwards, for instance, the two devoted the entire opening section to talking about their struggles to potty train their children and their exhaustion caused by lack of sleep. It’s the kind of conversation that millions of mothers all across the world have with each other every day.
In terms of audience growth, there was no explosive liftoff. For the first several months the podcast only had a few hundred downloads per episode, and it only grew gradually from there. But the amount of engagement she got from that small audience surprised her. “I started getting a lot of thank you letters. It grew to a stack of 200 letters. I talked to my husband and said, ‘this is a long stretch to not have a full-time job, but I think we’re on to something, and I think this is really hitting a niche that’s important.’”
At this point, most burgeoning media entrepreneurs would double down on advertising and maybe launch some sort of subscription product. But with only a thousand listeners, there was only so much she could charge to advertisers, no matter how engaged her audience was. And even if she managed to convert half of those listeners into paying subscribers – which would have been a stretch – then she’d still only be generating revenue in the low five figures. Peck was too established in her career to simply grind it out with the hope that a larger payday was on the horizon.
Luckily, she was already well acquainted with the notion that it’s sometimes easier to build a high-priced product and sell it to a small number of people. She set to work brainstorming what such a product could offer.
An incubator is born
Peck didn’t just want to create an on-demand course that could be consumed passively. After speaking to so many entrepreneurial parents for her podcast, she knew that what this group truly needed was a place for communal support – a venue for venting problems, brainstorming creative solutions, and supportive listening.
She eventually settled on launching what’s often referred to as a Mastermind. As one website describes it, “Mastermind groups offer a combination of brainstorming, education, peer accountability and support to sharpen your business and personal skills … Members challenge each other to set strong goals, and more importantly, to accomplish them.” Peck likes the model, in part, because it doesn’t place the entire burden on a single coach or teacher to solve everyone’s problem; instead, knowledge is shared in a less hierarchical way.
Peck decided to launch her first Mastermind in 2018, but she faced a major challenge: she was pregnant again. “And with both pregnancies for me, I vomited for 18 weeks, which is a long time to be puking. It’s hard to describe in words, but I felt miserable.” The Mastermind was scheduled to start in July, but she was due to have her baby in October, which was right in the middle of the six-month course. “I kept asking myself, how can I do this in a way that I can take maternity leave? And what I ended up doing was getting three guest teachers to do the second half of the program for me.” The irony didn’t escape her that she had solved the very kind of problem that the Mastermind had been designed to address: how to operate a startup while simultaneously parenting.
Peck priced that first Mastermind at $1,800 and mostly relied on her podcast and newsletter for promoting it. She needed a minimum of four people to sign up, but was hoping for at least 10; she ended up getting six.
The course went relatively smoothly, though Peck realized that she would need to come up with a better way to schedule the group sessions. “Every time someone had a scheduling problem, it made doing live meetings harder,” she said. She decided that, for the next one, she would announce the schedule in advance so the parents could plan accordingly.
That first Mastermind only made a little over $10,000, but Peck found the results encouraging enough to announce another one the following year. “With each iteration, it got a little bit more refined, and a little more specific,” she said. They also got more ambitious, with Peck recruiting high profile women within the entrepreneurship community to come in as coaches. This not only allowed her to expand the program’s offerings, but she also began to offer one-on-one sessions at a higher price point. For the second Mastermind, about 18 people signed up. For the third program, she raised the price to $3,600 and signed up 28 people. In 2021, the incubator had 40 people paying $4,500 for the basic program, and $7,500 for more individualized coaching.
The demand for the program is so high that Peck actually requires people to apply to join. “We got like 100 applicants, and we accepted 40 people into the program,” she explained. “For a lot of people, it’s just not the right time. We are looking for people who are 10 years or more into operating a business.” When someone doesn’t qualify, she’ll send a polite reply explaining that they’re not quite ready. “They’ll usually respond with, ‘oh ok, then consider me for a future year.’”
One of the things that surprised me was that a sizable portion of Peck’s business comes from repeat customers. “About 30% of our people have returned year over year,” she said. In some cases, alumni end up becoming coaches in the program. For instance, Michelle Florendo, a decision engineer at Stanford, enrolled in the Wise Women’s Council for two years in a row. “And I said, ‘do you want to coach with us?’ And she’s like, ‘I’m not sure because, I really want to be a member of the program.’”
Expanding the business
So where does Peck go from here? In just a few years, she managed to take her small podcast audience and leverage it into a six figure business, but one that purposefully limits the number of customers. I asked her whether she hopes to expand it further. “I think there’s such a sweet spot in entrepreneurship where you generate anywhere from $400k to $500k. A quarter of it goes to taxes. A quarter of it goes to growth. A quarter of it goes to your employees. And a quarter of it goes to you. I think that’s just such a rad way to have a job.”
To accomplish this, she’ll have to go from offering one Mastermind per year to two. “I think I could do 120 to 150 people in the Wise Women’s Council every year,” she said. She’s also begun to brainstorm various informational products she could offer. “Things like how to take maternity leave, what you need to know in the first three to six months of having your kid, how your work schedule will change when you have a kid, and how to negotiate and communicate with people who don’t have kids. Those kinds of courses.” She even imagines a kind of SaaS model where people subscribe for unlimited access to courses.
But whatever strategy Peck pursues, she recognizes the limitations she faces as a parent with small children. As she explained to me in an email, “we had 8 months without childcare in 2020, and in 2021, my average work hours per week was around 22.” She doesn’t resent these limitations; in fact, they helped shape her decision to not chase scale at all costs. “Scale matters when you’re making a volume play for the business, but there are so many businesses that are well served with 10, 100, or 1,000 people, and I think there’s a whole world out there that people are missing out on because they’re forcing themselves into a model that requires them to get millions of downloads.” Internet stardom is nice to have, sure, but it’s not the only path toward building a successful media business.
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