How the Acquired Podcast Became a Sensation

My podcast producer recently turned me onto a show called Acquired, which features its co-hosts, Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal, diving deep into the backstories of well-known brands and companies, from Porsche and Nike, to Amazon and Nintendo.

It turns out I was late to this party. In the eight years since Acquired was originally launched, it has grown into a huge hit. The show now serves more than 200,000 downloads per episode. As Rosenthal revealed in a Fast Company profile last summer, they now face the problem of their audience becoming too large for their advertisers to afford paying the full fair market price for their spots.

What interests me about Acquired, however, is less what they’ve accomplished than how they did it. The conventional wisdom surrounding new media ventures is that success requires frenetic busyness. You need to produce content perfectly-tailored to your audiences’ attention spans, master The Algorithm, exist on multiple platforms, and above all else, churn out content quickly to maximize your chances of stumbling into vibe-powered virality.

Acquired did none of this. Gilbert and Rosenthal’s podcasts are very long; the two-part treatment of Nintendo I just finished clocked in at a little under seven hours. They also publish on an irregular schedule, often waiting a month or more between episodes. Combine this with the reality that they largely ignore YouTube and have no discernible social media strategy, this venture should have long ago crashed and burned. But it instead keeps growing.

What does explain the success of Acquired? The answer is almost disappointingly simple: it’s really good. Gilbert and Rosenthal don’t just look into the histories of the companies they profile, they master them — tracking down obscure books, reading every relevant article, pouring through investor filings, interviewing people who were involved. Fast Company reported that for their episode on Nike, Rosenthal prepared a 39-page script and Gilbert created a 4,000-word document listing insights to mention during the taping.

The key to this quality is effort. Early in the show’s history, Gilbert and Rosenthal spent around 5 to 10 hours researching each episode. Today, this number has grown to around 100 hours, and for good reason. “What I do know is that every time we’ve done more work,” Rosenthal explained, “the reaction and the results, both in terms of what people say qualitatively and the numbers, go up.”

I’m telling this story because the growth of Acquired helps explain a seemingly curious choice I made in my new book, Slow Productivity. In this work, I present three principles for embracing a more sustainable and meaningful approach to your professional life. The first two principles are clearly related to slowness: “do fewer things” and “work at a natural pace.” The third, however, seems somewhat out of place: “obsess over quality.”

As the Acquired story emphasizes, however, it’s this third goal that supports the other two. When you decide to obsess over quality, as Gilbert and Rosenthal did with their podcast, slowness becomes self-evidently the only way forward. Gilbert and Rosenthal didn’t monkey around with YouTube, or social media strategies, or optimal customer growth strategies, because all of that fast effort would get in the way of the slow pursuit of excellence.

We’re used to the idea that slowing down might help improve the quality of what we do. But in many cases, this relationship can also exist in exactly the opposite direction.

#####

Speaking of Slow Productivity, the book comes out on March 5th, but if you’re thinking about buying it anyway, please consider pre-ordering it, as this really helps draw attention to the title. If you do pre-order, I want to thank you with some bonus material about the philosophy.

The process here is simple: (1) pre-order the book from your preferred book seller; (2) email your receipt to [email protected].

That’s it. We’ll verify your receipt and then immediately send you the bonuses. (More details, including how to pre-order a signed copy from my favorite local bookseller, are available here.)

Related Posts