Category Archives: Inspiration

The Second Captains paywall – A smart, calculated experiment in new media models…

Full disclosure before we kick off – as you can see below, I’m a huge Second Captains fan. I’ve got the mugs and yearbooks. I know all the quotes, I’ve seen the TV show and I’ve followed the lads since they were fledglings on Newstalk.

And I’m also an avid media watcher, meaning this week’s announcement that Second Captains is moving from its cushy nest in Irish Times towers towards the wilds of a paywalled, community funded model from next Monday made me irrationally excited.

Maracana with the lads

A photo posted by Shane O Leary (@shaneoleary1) on

The Captains have decide to offer fans a ‘metered paywall’ model, in the guise of a New York Times or Irish Times, and will begin charging users €5 a month for a new ‘World Service’ edition.

The show will be kept ad free, and two free shows on Monday will remain, but in place of Thursday’s double bill, they will instead put out one daily podcast between Tuesday and Friday.

Mark, Ciaran, Ken, Simon and Eoin have shown plenty of balls in their media career. They’ve backed themselves to move from Newstalk, set up their own podcast against the backdrop of some scepticism, pitched and their own TV show, and won a new audience through their summer stand-in slot on RTE Radio 1.

In all of this, their fans have followed them.

But this is a different kettle of fish. Asking people to pay 5 quid a month is where the rubber hits the road.

Niche or enormous, there’s no middle

I’ve spoken before on this blog about how media is fragmenting and new models are emerging. Essentially, to succeed in modern media, there are two choices.

On the one hand, you can strive for enormous scale and hope that pays off. Try to make money by monetising your readers through display, print or paywall subscriptions, try to speak to everyone and cast the net as wide as possible. This requires experimentation and a reliance on distribution platforms, since most of us consume our media through social feeds now (and also leads to clickbait). Buzzfeed is probably the best example, but most daily papers play this game too.

On the other hand, you can be really, really valuable to a small cohort of people and hope that they love your work enough to provide enough income. Often, this requires a heavier paywall and ancillary revenue streams like events, merchandise etc. You can see this in effect across media, in places like The Economist, The Farmers Journal, The Information, Skift and in podcasts like ‘The Anfield Wrap’ and Marc Maron. In a similar vein, individuals like Tim Ferriss have created their own mini media empires too. It requires that you understand your fans, are very close to them and relies on you continually creating lots of value for them.

There’s very little middle ground between these two options, and media companies without serious scale or serious relevance are getting squeezed badly.

With the Second Captains paywall, the lads have chosen the latter route.

‘1000 True Fans’

They might not have heard of it,  but the way Second Captains as a brand has grown takes a lot from the ‘1000 True Fans’ approach, first coined by Kevin Kelly. According to Kelly, because of the lowering distribution costs on the internet, it’s now much easier to reach the people who really love what you do. The 1000 figure is just an arbitrary number, but the essence to his point is that if you can find a certain number of people who will buy anything that you put out, who really get huge amounts of value from what you do, and then service them directly without intermediaries,  you’re in business. It’s a theory that’s still very relevant in 2017, as the lads will attempt to prove.

If you lived in any of the 2 million small towns on Earth you might be the only one in your town to crave death metal music, or get turned on by whispering, or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web you’d never be able to satisfy that desire. You’d be alone in your fascination. But now satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you.

The way Second Captains has grown its following has been both methodical and masterful. This move to paywall hasn’t come all of a sudden. They haven’t just started asking people for money, their growth has been staged, they’ve built slowly and smartly creating products and events, branching out into other media and even building their own brands through journalism.

With the new model, they’ll likely be ramping up these extra revenue streams, but critically fans are already used to paying. According to producer Mark Horgan, speaking in the Indo this week, “The way our audience has developed is interesting. Many are the same people who listen every week and they want more. They’ve been dedicated since the beginning. It’s also rolling the dice in some ways, but it’s perfect for this type of journalism. At our last event, in December, we sold out in hours. Part of the deal with the new membership subscription is that members will get first call on tickets.”

The benefit of radio and podcasting is that it also really lends itself to creating strong relationships with fans, since your in their ear for 4-5 hours every week. It seems the lads are now ready to monetise all the work they’ve put in to these relationships.


So what are the economics like? From the outside, this seems like a gamble. Why move from under the brand of a large media group (The Irish Times) that can offer you distribution and fame?

But Killian Woods put out this interesting set of tweets during the week, and, even with back of fag packet sums, the money part seems to make sense.

When you really analyse it, the risk here is small and calculated. The lads have a hugely valuable brand. That won’t be going away. They own their own channels too, which is crucial.

And even if this goes wrong, the worst case scenario is they go back to usual podcasts and sell advertising. I’m also pretty sure that another media company would come calling very quickly. But it won’t go wrong. They’ve done the sums, they know how much their fans love them and they’ve seen other models in media make money this way. This is never going to be an explosive growth business, but I’d be pretty bullish that it’s a smart decision.

Irish people are willing to pay small recurring amounts in subscriptions for a high value service, particularly in sport, and particularly if it’s a company with a strong value offering that you can’t get anywhere else.

Best of luck Second Captains, and congrats on a ballsy call that should show the way for the rest of Irish media.

They never go home those boys.




How Netflix applied business stoicism to grab the Brazilian streaming market…

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Marcus Aurelius

In 2011, the lure of owning the Brazilian market must’ve been enticing to Netflix. For good or bad, Brazil is the beating heart of South America’s economy. It’s an enormous country that sets the trends for a whole continent. Brazil also has a huge smartphone penetration, along with a love of T.V. dramas – every night, about 42 million people watch a drama from ‘Globo’ a conglomerate of media companies that controls the market.

From the outside, it looks like a market ripe for streaming disruption. So the strategic decision was made – Netflix wanted to grab Brazil before another service could get there.

But often, as the old military saying goes, the map doesn’t match the territory. What appears to be from the outside isn’t always the reality once you start delving a little deeper.

Very quickly, Netflix found itself encountering problems. (This brilliant article does a great job outlining them.)


Local audiences at first met the company with skepticism, bafflement, or indifference. Few people were signing up, and those who did were hardly watching. The problems started unravelling very quickly. Brazil in 2011 had poor quality internet, even in the big cities. Mobile signals were at best 3G and plans throttled customer for streaming over their low data limits. The infrastructure was poor.

At the same time, people didn’t have the hardware in their homes to stream. Modern T.V.s with wireless connectivity were a luxury, and thus most families who did watch Netflix, did so on poor quality laptop screens.

And to compound matters, Brazilian young people, the very cohort who were crying out for the service, tended not to have credit cards to pay for it. Those who did have credit cards were often reluctant to hand over their information to a company they didn’t know.

Brazil had become a strategic quagmire. A black mark on Netflix’s rapid global expansion. Something had to be done.


In his brilliant book on stoicism ‘The Obstacle Is The Way’, Ryan Holiday describes the power of seeing barriers and problems as opportunities. Mixing the teachings of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius with modern business, leadership and war stories, Holiday outlines how blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive, how our perception is often the thing that’s holding us back, and how great men and women see impediments as chances to grow rather than the end of the road.

By focusing exclusively on what’s within our power, seeing things through a different lens and understanding that every scenario is potentially malleable, we start to realise that problems are rarely as bad as we think. Or rather, they’re exactly as bad as we think. 

Many people perceive stoicism to be a rigid, pessimistic outlook on life. Holiday makes the case that it’s actually the opposite. It’s infinitely elastic. It provides us with the opportunity to evolve when something goes wrong.

And that’s what Netflix did.


They weren’t discouraged that their efforts were being hampered by factors seemingly beyond their control. They didn’t give in and waste the billions of dollars that had already gone into the Brazilian experiment.

They accepted, adapted, ‘controlled the controllables’. They saw what many companies would see as a huge negative as an opportunity.

To improve connectivity, Netflix invested in web servers around the country, and teamed up with telecommunications giants such as Telefónica, which were in the process of introducing high-speed broadband nationwide. Netflix supplied the companies with additional servers at no charge, meaning they got what they wanted, the telcos got an opportunity to offer the service to their customers, and of course Netflix got to piggyback on existing relationships.

To fix the hardware problem, Netflix took another partnership approach, this time with Asian consumer electronics manufacturers, offering them a great opportunity to sell more smart TVs in Brazil. Of course, this too was win-win, as Netflix came bundled on all new T.V.s sold, another ‘growth hack’ for the brand.

To fix the credit card issue, the service began for the first time to accept alternate forms of remittance. They began taking debit cards, payments via Apple’s iTunes, even phone credit as monthly billing.

And to fix the trust issue, the brand started to legitimise itself by buying T.V. advertising airtime. Another first for Netflix, which had previously focused only on digital, P.R. and inbound marketing.

The results have been predictably astounding. Brazil has become Netflix’s largest market outside the English-speaking world. Analysts estimate it has 4 million to 5 million subscribers in the country, trailing only the U.S. and U.K.

By practising a company wide policy of stoicism and being practical and solution focused in the face of huge obstacles Netflix broke new ground for streaming and cornered the Brazilian market.

They retained perspective in the face of adversity.

What stands in the way becomes the way.





The weird trick I use to improve my concentration and bring on a ‘flow’ state

One of my resolutions this year is to spend less time procrastinating and more time writing. But it’s hard when distractions are so prevalent. Like pings from social media, the lure of having multiple browsing tabs open and the difficult of clearing your head to concentrate on a complicated topic.

I find that writing, once I get into it, puts me into a ‘flow’ state. If you’re not familiar with the term ‘flow’, it refers to that feeling when you’re performing optimally, full of energy and focus. The endorphins are flowing, you’re in the moment and not distracted by anything else.

Personally, when I reach that stage, often it can result in two or more hours passing by, and I’ll be still locked into whatever I’m writing, completely unaware of what’s going on around me.

It’s a term coined by writer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I did copy and paste his name!) and his thinking is that everyone has some, or a few activities that get them to this stage. My goal for 2017 is to do more of one of the things that gets me there.


But for the past year or two, it’s taken longer and longer for me to really reach that stage of full, lucid concentration. Meditation has helped certainly, and my focus is much better after a few days of repetitive Headspace usage.

But luckily, I’ve recently found something else that helps immensely too.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say it has had a pretty big impact on my daily productivity.

I’ve always been someone who has needed silence to fully concentrate. In an open plan office, or indeed any kind of office with more than one person, this is a rarity.

Over Christmas, while listening back to a Tim Ferriss podcast with WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, they discussed tactics to bring on flow and optimise your mental state. The whole episode is great, but one part of the conversation turned to ‘repetitive music’ – listening to the same song over and over on repeat. Both had the same experience of it being incredibly powerful.

After a bit of searching, I came across other people who had felt the same thing too. In the book ‘Daily Rituals’, which examines the daily routines of some of the greatest creatives that have ever lived, silence and repetitive music are both mentioned a few times. Authors Michael Lewis and Ryan Holiday have written about it too:

“I think melodic music, played on repeat, puts you in a heightened emotional state–while simultaneously dulling your awareness to most of your surroundings. It puts you in a creative zone.”

So I decided to try it over Christmas when writing out a few blogs and thoughts. And, whether confirmation bias, the placebo effect or something else, it really, really works.


I began listening to repetitive instrumental music that looped for hours, or songs with minimal lyrics. Previously, I had listened to Spotify playlists with a mix of everything while trying to work, and found myself trying to decipher lyrics rather than fully concentrate. But for a track like The XX below, there’s nothing to get caught up on except the background melody.

My focus has improved immeasurably. It stops my brain from hearing other noises and getting distracted.

Of course, the work has to be interesting and challenging, but then, working in marketing, it usually is. With writing, I very quickly start to feel like I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and even when I flick the tab to do research I’m still engaged. Previously I ran the risk of wasting a few minutes brainlessly perusing a social account.

It’s probably the same reason why people use white noise generators to block out outside sounds and help them sleep –  it allows your brain to background the sound, but still blocks out any other noise. It provides providing some structured sound to concentrate on and forget about.

So that’s it! A really simple, but for me, incredibly effective way to get into the zone quicker and be more productive in 2017. And isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

I’m sure this won’t work for everyone, but I’d love to hear your experience if you try it out.

Oh, and this site is a god send too for repeating YouTube tracks automatically. 1 hour looped versions of instrumental tracks are quite difficult to find for some reason!