After hundreds of interviews with professional creators on the podcast, I've developed a powerful sense of how creators go beyond making things and actually make a living from their creative work.
And people ask me every day how to get started, what to do next, and where they should be focusing their energy.
So I've taken my years of creator science and distilled them into a simple 5-part framework for becoming a professional creator.
And it's been really well received!
But let me start by saying – I probably see many of the same things as you do. There is so much noise, so much advice, and so many differing opinions on how to build an online business.
I didn't create this framework to add to the noise. I created this framework because I genuinely believe most frameworks are incorrect or incomplete. And when people ask me what they should do, I don't have a great resource to point them toward as a starting point.
So this framework and this essay are built to be a roadmap for aspiring professional creators that I can reference. Because of that, this essay will be continually revised for additions and improvements. I've reworked this framework several times already to make it tighter, more clear, and more memorable!
Disclaimers and prefaces aside – I've been sitting with this challenge for months, and I've boiled it down to 5 simple parts. In fact, you can remember it as the acronym PARTS:
- Revenue Model
These are the five ingredients to a thriving creator business. They're all needed. And they build upon each other – I recommend tackling them one at a time and in the order that they are listed in the acronym.
Let's break them down...
I firmly believe that you should focus on a strong premise rather than a specific niche.
Everything starts with your premise. If you don't invest the time into getting this step right, everything else will struggle.
Here's how my friend Jay Acunzo defines premise:
Your premise is the specific, defensible purpose for a project or your overall platform, pulled from your personal vision for your audience. Most work is too generic to resonate, too forgettable to become anyone’s favorite. But by developing our premise — and forcing ourselves to test just how differentiated it truly feels to others — we stand a greater chance of connecting more deeply and standing out more easily.
He has the concept of premise NAILED. He goes further to describe the "XY premise pitch" for helping you describe your premise.
I'll quote his article once more:
The XY premise pitch runs like this:
- This is a project about X.
- Unlike other projects about X, only we Y.
Here, X is your topic and Y is your hook, your angle or conceit or belief system. X is what you explore. That’s not differentiated. Y is how you explore it. That might help you separate.
Here are a few examples:
- This is a podcast about living an awesome life. Unlike other podcasts about living an awesome life, only 3 Books with Neil Pasricha asks its guests to discuss the three books that most transformed their lives, as we search for the 1,000 most transformative books in the world.
- This is a YouTube series about superheroes. Unlike other YouTube series about superheroes, only Power Levels treats TV and movie footage as real evidence and talks to real physicists to determine which characters are most powerful.
- This is a newsletter about trends in society and business. Unlike other newsletters about trends in society and business, only Glimpse highlights trends right before they happen.
- This is a podcast about music. Unlike other podcasts about music, only Song Exploder asks musicians to take apart their songs and, piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made. (PS: You can hear the story of this show on Unthinkable, as I recently had the chance to speak with host Hrishikesh Hirway.)
In all the above cases, these creators operate in very saturated spaces. Their topics don’t differentiate them. But because they’ve developed specific, defensible purposes for their work, pulled from their personal visions for their audience, they stand out easier.
OK, so how do you go about developing a strong premise?
Here are four questions to help:
- Who do you help (and what do you help them do)?
- Why does your content need to exist?
- Why you?
- What is your unique perspective?
Let's break those down...
Who do you help (and what do you help them do)?
Let's start with the easiest questions first.
If you aren't able to describe your target customer and what you help them do, you'll have a hard time convincing people that you can help them.
Start with a simple formula: I help X do Y.
I help creators turn pro. It goes beyond publishing and helps people become professional creators who actually earn a living from their work.
You can go deeper on this when you're ready – if you use an identifier like "creators," dive deeper into their psyche. What kind of creators? How do they see the world and their own contribution to it?
Why is "Y" so hard for them to achieve?
Why does your content need to exist?
On the surface, this question may seem redundant. You just told me who you help and how you help them, right?
But what I'm getting at here is looking at the competitive landscape. Why does YOUR content need to exist amongst the resources and creators that are already out there?
I'm not saying you need to "niche down," but what I AM saying is that you need to understand why your content is different and needed.
In my world, there's a LOT of competition. There is no shortage of people telling you how to make money online.
But I believe that most of these voices lack soul, warmth, approachability, and even depth. Most of these voices are the same repeated, surface-area information that are rooted in a very small set of experiences.
I think I can do better.
Why are YOU the right person to pursue this premise?
In an ideal world, you have some earned insight that you spent years developing.
The most successful creators I know are a wealth of specific knowledge. Specific knowledge that THEY uniquely have – because they earned it.
At this point, I've spent the last six years becoming a professional creator. I've spent time working with one of the real legends in the space, Pat Flynn.
And by interviewing professional creators, I can bring unique perspective to the space. I'm not creating content based on just my own creator experience – but on the experiences of HUNDREDS of other creators. I'm conducting firsthand research and identifying my own patterns and trends because of it.
And as both a practitioner and researcher, I'm constantly able to stay at the edge of what's working now.
Want to take this all a step further? Wrap your answer to this question into an American Idol Story.
What is your unique perspective?
To take this yet another step further, wrap your belief for why your content needs to exist into what Wes Kao calls a Spiky Point of View:
A spiky point of view is a perspective others can disagree with. It’s a belief you feel strongly about and are willing to advocate for. It’s your thesis about topics in your realm of expertise.
This is a concept that I can't stop thinking about. Entire creator businesses have been built on the back of a good Spiky Point of View (SPOV).
My SPOV is that becoming a professional creator isn't an art – it's a science.
Here's how to make your own:
If this seems like a lot of work to define a strong premise, that's because it is.
It's the most important part of this whole framework.
Once you've identified your premise, it's time to start sharing that message with the people who need to hear it.
The challenge is creating a reliable process that ensures your content receives attention.
Think of attention in two halves:
- New audience attention
- Retained audience attention
New audience attention
When you don't have an existing audience, you need to capture the attention of a new audience.
You capture that attention namely through discovery platforms:
- Social media
- Google Search
The idea is simple:
Go where attention and interest for your premise exist and start contributing.
There are corners of social media where your audience is already gathering. There are people searching for topics related to your premise every day. There may even be complementary creators who have already gathered a community of people who fit the profile of your ideal audience.
Your job is to get in front of them.
The first thought is to get in front of them by creating and publishing your own content – that's useful. But you can also get in front of them by contributing to the conversations that other creators have already started.
Those creators may even be open to speaking with you directly in their OWN content (think podcast interviews or YouTube channel appearances).
Discovery platforms have existing, organic traffic for you to basically "audition" and get your content in front of.
And if you're wondering how you can "win" those auditions, I recommend leading with your Spiky Point of View.
Retained audience attention
Once you've reached (or auditioned) someone for the first time, now they've entered your world – at least to some degree.
Once someone is aware that you exist, it should be easier to reach them again.
If they liked what they saw, they may have decided to follow your social media profile. Or maybe they even subscribed to your YouTube channel.
The goal is to retain as much attention as you can – because retained attention is much easier to reach in a meaningful way. You're no longer "auditioning." Instead, you're just delivering on the promise you made that someone has chosen to tune into.
While it's true that a follow on social media or a subscribe on YouTube should mean you've retained someone's attention, I think this is actually only halfway there.
Any third party platform like social media or YouTube actually sits in the middle of your relationship with the audience. The platform determines if and when your content gets seen by that audience.
That's not truly retained attention.
I recommend you become platform resilient as a sovereign creator:
Sovereign creators build sustainable businesses without the need for third-party social media or discovery platforms. While many of us enjoy the benefits of creating content on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok, or even YouTube, depending on those platforms is a risk.
A lot of creators depend on social media for distributing their messages or even providing an income (AdSense, creator funds) and may have a lot of success!
But if any of those platforms went away or even just made meaningful changes to their services, it could have a major impact on the creators who depend on them.
Sovereign creators are platform-independent. They build relationships directly with their audience that cannot be taken away.
The core of my business is built on email. I further develop trust with my audience through my podcast. And my largest source of revenue comes from my membership community.
To do that, think of your retained attention as the audience who have chosen to give you the ability to communicate with them directly via:
- Private community
Those channels allow you to reliably communicate with your audience whenever you'd like – THAT is retained attention.
Retained attention = owned distribution.
Once you've developed a system for capturing and retaining attention, you can start to develop your revenue model – the way you actually earn revenue as a creator.
A lot of gurus will call this "monetization." I like to think of it as a "revenue model" instead for two reasons:
- "Monetizing" an audience feels gross
- "Revenue model" speaks to the potential complexity of this step and how it plays into your overall business model
Make no mistake – creators are entrepreneurs. You need to think of your content business as a business. Your business has a business model. And your business model has a revenue model.
Your revenue model has two main buckets:
- Direct revenue – revenue generated from products and experiences you create and sell
- Indirect revenue – revenue generated outside of the products and experiences you create and sell. Typically captured from the value you create for a third party.
There can be multiple income streams within each of those buckets. In fact, I'd recommend working toward that to cultivate a revenue ocean.
Let's dive into both...
As a creator (especially a creator-educator) you have the opportunity to create and sell your own products – both digital and physical.
These products may be:
- Pre-recorded courses
- Cohort-based courses
- Individual coaching or consulting
- Group coaching
- Templates or presets
- Physical products
- Software as a service (SaaS)
I highly recommend prioritizing your own products as part of your revenue model. Your own products further help you become a sovereign creator and you keep the lion's share of the revenue (minus processing fees and maybe affiliate commissions).
And, in the beginning, just focus on one. Develop one signature product.
One creator I really admire is Tiago Forte. He published a book recently, which was only his second product. For years before that, Tiago was focused on making his signature product, Building A Second Brain, as good as possible.
He ran dozens of cohorts of the Building A Second Brain course before developing his second product!
This is a strategy that Nathan Barry of ConvertKit has called the Skyscraper Model (vs. a Strip Mall Model).
As a new creator, I'd recommend taking this approach so that the majority of your time is spent in creating content to capture attention.
There are tons of ways to earn revenue from your content business that don't include direct sales of your own products to your audience.
The most popular include:
- Affiliate revenue
- Advertising, sponsorship, or brand deals
When you've built a system of capturing attention, that attention is very valuable to other third parties. The sponsorship model exists because companies with their own products realize that their target customers have been curated by creators like us and we can help them reach those customers.
Whether that's on a commission basis (e.g. affiliate revenue) or on a sponsorship basis, there are other companies who can benefit from the attention you've captured.
Together, your direct and indirect revenue form your revenue model.
Capturing attention and having a revenue model is necessary, but not sufficient.
In order for your revenue model to work, the individuals giving you attention must also decide to purchase your products or the products you're recommending.
This only happens when you've developed trust with that audience.
For the most part, trust is formed within your retained audience. If they don't trust you enough to want to receive free content from you, they won't trust you enough to buy something from you.
Trust doesn't just mean they think you have high integrity. That's part of it, but trust means they need to trust your ability to HELP THEM.
Why should we trust you to help us?
Trust comes from overdelivering. It comes from showing up for your audience over and over again.
Most creators develop trust by consistently providing incredible, free content. That's a surefire way to show people what you're about and the depth of your knowledge.
Trust takes time and consistent touch points to develop. There's just no way around it – you have to be in this for the long-term.
You can conceptually understand all of the ingredients above but still fail to earn a living as a creator.
There are creators with huge "audiences" who struggle to earn a living. There are also creators with small audiences earning six and seven figures.
I've seen it firsthand! I'm fortunate to generate more revenue than many creators who have a much larger audience than I do. Each week I'm helping creators better leverage the attention they're capturing.
This is also why most creators will point to their email list, podcast, or other owned distribution platforms as their highest-performing sales channels.
Those channels are where you develop the highest degrees of trust.
If you get the first four parts of this PARTS model, you'll have a business that is reliably generating revenue for you. There are a lot of creators who build strong, successful businesses with those first four ingredients alone.
But if you want to really grow and scale, you need systems.
As I mentioned above, creators are entrepreneurs. If you don't treat your creator business like a business, then your own business will treat YOU like an employee rather than an owner.
What does that look like?
It looks like waking up every morning and knowing that you need to put your time into the business for it to run. Without your own involvement, your fingers on the keyboard, sales won't happen.
It basically means you've created a job for yourself.
Don't get me wrong – creating a job for yourself is still often preferable to working for someone else! But you take things a step further. You can treat your business like a machine.
Treating your business like a machine means creating systems to minimize input and maximize output.
Your goal as a creator should be to spend YOUR time doing what only YOU can do better than anyone else.
Everything else is an input that you should try and automate or outsource. That's easier said than done, but that's the north star.
For most creators, that looks like creative work and relationship-building.
You should create processes and systems that take repeatable, non-creative and non-relationship tasks off of your plate.
Creative work and relationship building are where your genius comes through. Those are the tasks that you can do better than anyone else.
Systems allow you to maximize your time for those tasks.
On the surface, the PARTS model is very simple – and that's by design! But it takes true dedication and investment of time and energy to get these PARTS in place and working together in concert.
But if you're committed to becoming a professional creator, this is the roadmap. Bookmark it, reference it, even build some documents to help you work through it.
And if this roadmap is helpful to you, consider passing it along to a friend.
If you want a hand on this journey, consider joining The Lab. We have nearly 200 creators working together toward the same goal.
And if you have any questions, ask them in the comments below.