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How Jordan Harbinger Became a Podcasting Celebrity (Interview)
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In this keynote interview, Alex Sanfilippo interviews Jordan Harbinger about his podcasting journey. Jordan shares about how he got started, the struggles he faced along the way, and ultimately what has led him to the success he has seen today with more than 15 million downloads on The Jordan Harbinger Show every month! Get ready to be challenged and inspired by podcasting industry celebrity, Jordan Harbinger!
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Recently we were talking on the phone and I asked you, “Did the name Jordan Harbinger have any celebrity status associated with it before you started podcasting?” I want to start this conversation with that because I think it would be very valuable for anyone listening and reading to hear your answer.
Far from it. I was quiet and introverted during my childhood and college years. Then I became a lawyer on Wall Street and started teaching a course on networking. As more and more people became interested in the course, I started recording the lectures on MiniDiscs and sharing them.
This was a big hassle, to say the least. When I complained about it, a friend of mine said, “Hey, there’s this brand new thing called podcasting. It’s like a downloadable radio show. You should look into it since everyone in school has iTunes.” Back then, there really wasn’t anything like podcast hosting. At least not that I knew of.
So I rented a Go Daddy server where people could click and download the MP3s. If they had iTunes installed, they could also navigate the text-only menus, click on any episode, and download it to their iTunes. That was the only way to get a podcast.
The idea that someone could be an influencer or an online media personality didn’t exist back then. No one was making a living online.
It’s great to hear that you didn’t start out as some kind of celebrity. I recently saw an article on Yahoo about the Jordan Harbinger Show and PodcastOne, where you guys settled on a seven-figure deal. Can you tell us a little bit more about where you’re today?
Sure. The show gets 15 million downloads a month, which is insane by any measure. For me, that’s surprising. It’s surprising to anyone who knows me. I remember a woman I went to law school with. We were having lunch in the cafeteria when she said to me, “I listened to your podcast. I think that might make you famous someday.” I laughed in her face. In the whole city of Ann Arbor, there were probably 40 people who downloaded my podcast. Yet today, I run a seven-figure business and make more money in one month than I thought I’d make in several years.
I really consider myself a guy who reads books and talks to smart people. So how do I get paid for this work? It wasn’t like I’d a business plan when I started this. I just decided to speak into a microphone and upload it. That was back in 2006.
I didn’t care how many people downloaded it. A few years later, as podcasting stats started to grow in the industry, I realized that a lot of people were listening to my podcast and sharing it. Then I was earning way more from my side hustle than I was from my job as a Wall Street lawyer!
What you just said, that’s key. Keeping it fun. It has to do with the genuine curiosity that you have and the ability to dive into something and learn.
I want to go back a little bit in your history. How long did it take you to start getting traction with this? What made you see into the future and say, “You know what, we should invest in this.”
I do not know if we had immediate success because there were no real statistics to look at. I remember one of the first times I looked at our stats, I decided to ignore all the partial downloads and just said, “Okay, we have 7,000 people who downloaded,” and then I wouldn’t check again for another six months.
As time went by,I got a message from Go Daddy saying, “You are out of data. You need to upgrade your plan.”
I said, “What! How much?” 40,000 people downloaded the podcast that month, which was a huge, ridiculous number in 2010.
In hindsight, I now know that was a very unreliable statistic. We did not have anything to compare it to. Instead, my focus was, am I enjoying this? If yes, keep doing it. If not, do not continue. It was not about whether or not we achieved our projections. This is something I see with a lot of people who are new to podcasting. They quit after about 6-9 episodes.
They assume they’ll automatically become popular, but nobody pays much attention to them, so they say ‘Well, screw this. It’s easier to grow on TikTok.”
I never cared about anything like that. I still look at my podcast stats, but I look at other metrics. But I am not crying because I did not go viral with my dance this month.
One more question before we get to the issues at hand. At what point did you decide to leave your job? When did you decide, “Okay, this is real. I need to make a move here.” What did that transition look like for you?
The first thing I did was move to New York when I got a job on Wall Street as an attorney. Then through luck, networking and applying what I teach in 6 Minute Networking on the Jordan Harbinger Show, I got my own show on Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
I then did that for over four years, with live call-in advice like Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla. We were also constantly referring people from the radio show to the podcast.
That ended when I moved to LA. But I never stopped doing the podcast. And the reason was, “I own this.” If I got fired or Sirius XM went out of business, at least I’d still have the podcast.
So I kept doing the podcast, but it was always just a passion project. I had no choice when I left my Wall Street law firm because it went out of business during the 2008 recession.
I tried to get another job as a lawyer, and it was hard. Then I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, what am I doing here? I’m working my butt off to get another job that I don’t even want when I could be doing this podcast.” I was 28 years old when I went all in. Of course, losing my job made the decision a lot easier.
I remember leaving my traditional corporate job. I was doing really well there, and I was getting more and more perks that came with moving up to the executive level. It was a tough decision for me to make that move, too.
That leads to my next question. When you got all the way in, you probably took the podcast a little more seriously. You started looking for ways to market it and grow it, at least I assume you did. Can you explain how you got to where you’re now?
Yes. I decided I wanted to go on all the podcasts, so I emailed everyone who had a podcast. Over the years I’ve been on hundreds of podcasts. That got me about 5, 10 or 15 new listeners per interview. Then I did that over and over again until I found I had 40,000 people listening to me!
While I hired people to help me but the best thing I did was go to a lot of shows. People might not listen to you right away. But they hear you in one show and then in another that leads them to say, “I keep hearing about this guy.” I also trade ads with other great shows. If there’s another show that’s more than a hundred thousand downloads, I’ll run an ad for them, and they’ll do the same for me. Then we do that every two weeks throughout the year.
All of these things slowly convert over time. After 15 years, I’m still spending money on ads, going on shows and doing ad swaps, because that’s how you build a loyal listener base.
Interacting with your fans is another tip. It’s funny when I try to reach someone who has got 50,000 downloads per episode and they don’t check their email. Or their VA is on vacation and they don’t check their DMs. I read my DMs and respond to everything, and that breeds loyal listeners.
You’ve to take care of your audience, and you do that by always being aware that your audience are real people.That means interacting with them and not just talking at them.
*Another guest of our Podcast Virtual event, Ina Convey, covered this topic very well in her episode on making money with a small audience. Check it out here.
Our listeners who’re both podcast guests and podcast hosts. It’s great to hear that podcast guest appearances have worked really well for you. You mentioned swapping ads, which is a really cool idea. But here’s the thing: You’re a really good interviewer.
Of course, has to be part of it. Because if you weren’t a good interviewer, your show wouldn’t continue to grow. Can you say something about how you’re perfecting your craft in that area, or constantly improving it?
I hired broadcast DJs to critique my stuff. I sent them hours of my show. Then we would schedule one phone call every week to give me action steps. When my voice started to get tired toward the end of the shows, I hired a voice coach to help me.
The goal was to give my voice the stamina and variants needed to talk to someone for hours. Basically, I’ve hired a lot of different consultants. I’m constantly working on things like that.
Also, I listen back to old shows that are a few years old. That’s when you see how far you’ve come. You also start to learn from yourself and critique your own mistakes.
You can listen to something you recorded last week, but it’s more valuable to listen to something you recorded last year. It’s important that you have a good work ethic.
Don’t think, “I’m so good. I don’t have to worry about this anymore.” That’s what mediocre performers in any niche think all the time.
You shouldn’t be looking for things you already know. You should be looking for things you don’t know or can’t do yet. For example, I currently have an improv acting voiceover coach that I work with every week.
Another example: the volume of my commercials is the same as the volume of the show. That’s not a coincidence. The volume that my co-host or the guest has is exactly the same as the volume that I’ve in terms of the LUFS sound metric.
The sound isn’t compromised clip on your car speakers or your AirPods because my engineer makes sure they work on speakers large and small.
There’s not too much bass or distortion. All these things are smoothed out in the back end by my team and me.
It’s incredible to hear you pay attention to those little details and invest in yourself in that way. You mentioned that you read books. How important is it for you to always read a book before taking on a guest? How much research do you do before inviting someone to your show?
They don’t have to have a book, but the problem is if I read 17 articles about someone, 11 of them are most likely the same thing in different words.
Books make it easier. People who’ve written books have clarified their thoughts on a subject. They first wrote a draft of the book, to which the editor probably replied, “That’s it?
You need to flesh that out more. This other idea is very confusing. By the way, the story you told doesn’t make sense or illustrate the point you want to make. So they go back and fix it.
All in all, I want someone who has clarified their thoughts on a subject, otherwise, we might end up wasting my listeners’ time. That’s not to say it’s impossible to find someone who hasn’t written a book yet and still does well.
But if you find someone who only has an interesting story but no book, you really have to put a lot of effort into it.
That’s great advice for all of our podcast guests reading this. It’s an invitation to get your book out there! As we near the end, what were the biggest struggles you faced on your path to podcasting success?
I remember one year thinking to myself, “This is my year. I’m going to make a list of shows. Then I’m going to go to all these shows and switch out the commercials.’ Most people just said, “Well, I don’t know. I’m kind of busy…”
A lot of people out there weren’t hungry for growth. Also, many people don’t understand the value of an ad exchange because they think, “Well, it’s free and I have to promote him.” But if I give them money, they’ll do it. So I decided to buy the ads instead of asking for ad swaps.
The problem with this approach is that it’s very expensive. In 2022, I’ll spend $2 million on my ad budget alone. I don’t recommend anyone do that. You don’t do something like this until you’ve exhausted everything else.
Wow! I think it’s great that you faced a challenge and found a way to overcome it. It costs a lot of money, of course, but it pays off. Have you had any other difficulties you’ve had to overcome along the way?
In 2018, I had a split with my business partners. They wanted to keep doing the dating and pickup artists content but I wasn’t interested in that immature crap anymore.
Also, they didn’t want to invest in the growth of the show because they were afraid I’d get too much power. I was often overruled on things that were obviously good for business.
They wouldn’t even let me buy ads. So I parted ways with them and they sued me, claiming that I wasn’t allowed to do my own podcast.
Fortunately, they couldn’t afford to pay for my shares, so it was impossible for them to enforce the non-compete.
I immediately set to work thinking it would take five years to get back to where I was. It only took me eight months!
But for a month, I didn’t sleep. I had severe anxiety and often woke up at two in the morning shaking. I even lost 20 pounds. It was really bad.
But I came out the other side more determined than ever. To be honest, I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, because I came out the other side and hit it hard, and here we are.
I’ve enjoyed learning about your whole journey. I know there are a lot of people reading this who didn’t know all of this. I’ve one last question for you.
If you could go back to your younger self who’s about to start a podcast and give that person some advice today, knowing what you know, what would it be?
So I would say to my younger self or anyone starting out today,
Assume that you will never make any money. It’s just a hobby. Devote as much time as you would to a hobby that you enjoy. The moment you expect it to pay off financially, you will be disappointed. Nothing ruins a hobby more than turning it into a job.
Even much more than that. Do not assume that you are the one. I know that’s hard for people my age and especially younger people. Everybody is special and so talented.
When reality hits, it’s going to suck. So, don’t do that to yourself. Just assume that you’re not going to make any money doing this. You can’t lie to yourself and say, “But secretly, I’m going to make money doing this.”
You have to really believe in your heart that you’re never going to make a living from it. If by chance it does happen, then that’s great.
Jordan, that’s great wisdom to end this conversation. I just want to say thank you so much for your time and for being on PodPros today.
About Jordan Harbinger
Jordan Harbinger, once referred to as “The Larry King of podcasting,” is a Wall Street lawyer turned interview talk-show host, and a communications and social dynamics expert. He has hosted a Top 50 iTunes podcast for over 14 years and receives over eleven million downloads per month, making The Jordan Harbinger Show one of the most popular podcasts in the world. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, he deconstructs the playbooks of the most successful people on earth and shares their strategies, perspectives, and practical insights with the rest of us.
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