Here’s the Most Important Career (and Life) Asset You Can Develop

In 1931, Winston Churchill found himself more or less exiled from political life. In the previous years he had found himself vehemently fighting members of his own party over a number of issues and when a new government was formed, Churchill was not invited. He was viewed as out of date and out of touch by his fellow politicians and so began a period now known as his “wilderness years.”

An ordinary politician would have been powerless when voted out of office or driven to the fringes by political enemies. Not Churchill. Because he held onto something even more valuable than office—he had a platform.

Most people are unaware that Churchill made his living as a writer, publishing some ten million words in his lifetime in hundreds of publications and published works. In fact, it was his enormous worldwide readership that Churchill cultivated through books, newspaper columns, and radio appearances that allowed him to survive the periods in which he did not have the ability to directly shape policy. Instead, he was able to reach directly to the people about the rising threat of world war, not just in Britain but worldwide, including in America. During his infamous time in the so-called political wilderness between 1931 and 1939, Churchill published 11 volumes and more than 400 articles, and delivered more than 350 speeches. His enormous platform—based on his editorial contacts, his extraordinary gift with words, and his relentless energy—allowed him not only to be relevant but also to guide policy and opinion across the globe until he was eventually brought back in to save Britain and eventually and in many ways, the world.

For any kind of leader, creator or entrepreneur, this kind of platform is essential. Because it is the ultimate insurance policy and the most durable form of influence and power.

Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, writes that, “In the old days, you could stand on a small hill or a wooden stage to be heard. That was your platform.” In the literal sense, that’s a platform. This was the tool and the approach you used so that you and your message could reach people. Today, people think of a “platform” a bit differently. Many see it as how many social media followers you have, or the ratings of a television show. I would argue that this definition is almost equally simplistic.

In my definition, a platform is the combination of the tools, relationships, access, and audience that you have to bear on spreading your ideas—not just once, but over the course of a career. So a platform is your social media and the stage you stand on, but it also includes your friends, your body of work, the community your work exists in, the media outlets and influencers who appreciate what you do, your e-mail list, the trust you’ve built, your sources of income, and countless other assets. A platform is what you cultivate and grow not just through your work, but for creative work, whatever it may be.

The question, then, is: How do we build an audience of this kind? How do we develop something that supports us perennially throughout our career?

In 2008, I came to the realization that while I would one day like to publish a book, unless things changed, I would have no way of actually telling readers about my book. I decided I would build an e-mail list. But what about? I wasn’t important or interesting enough for people to just sign up based on my name alone. So I came up with an idea: What if I gave monthly book recommendations? (The thinking being that one day I might recommended one of my own books to this list.) Once a month for four years I sent this list out, and as a result it grew from ninety original sign-ups to the five thousand people to whom I announced my first book. By the time my next book came out two years later, the list was at more than thirty thousand, and today it’s at more than eighty thousand.

With the release of my latest book, Perennial Seller, I didn’t need to do as much marketing or beg to be on every podcast. The vast majority of people I wanted to reach with the book were already signed up for my list, they were already in contact with me. I just had to reach out and say: Hey, I need your support! (and in the future, if I were to ever be dropped by my publisher or driven to some sort of authorial wilderness, I would always have this support to fall back on).

This is the reason that if I could give a prospective creative only one piece of advice about platform, it would be this: Build a list. Specifically, an e-mail list. Why? Imagine that, for reasons entirely outside of your control, there was a media and industry blackout of your work. Imagine that, due to some controversy or sudden change in public tastes, you were suddenly persona non grataImagine if no publisher, no crowdfunding platform, no retailer, no distributors, and no investors would touch what you’ve made.

Think about a band like Iron Maiden—radio hasn’t played their kind of music since the mid 80’s. MTV hasn’t played their kind of videos in almost as long. But in that time they’ve put out a dozen albums which have sold millions of copies. How? Because their relationship was directly with their audience. They had a platform. They have an enormous email list.

There is a theory about the entertainment business put forward by Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine. He calls it 1,000 True Fans: “A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author—in other words, anyone producing works of art—needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.”

With one thousand true fans—people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce”—you’re more or less guaranteed a livable income provided that you continue to produce consistently great work. It’s a small empire and one that must be kept up, but an empire nonetheless. Iron Maiden has more than 1,000 fans, just as Churchill did, and it’s what allowed them to reach so many people.

After his successful launch of his book Choose Yourself, my client James Altucher completely embraced self-publishing and all it entailed. He built a podcast that he distributes directly through his e-mail list. He then created an exclusive, high-ticket newsletter that gives financial advice through e-mail. He created a members-only book club. He wrote several more books, selling many of them directly through his website and thus amassing not only hundreds of thousands of e-mail addresses, but physical mailing lists and payment information for his fans as well. It’s now a huge platform that, by his estimation, grosses more than $20 million a year in revenue.

As creators, to do our work without a platform is to be at the mercy of other people’s permission. As business people, to not have a platform means we are dependent on having a certain job, or backing. Someone else must fund us, someone else must give us the green light, someone else must choose to let us make our work. To a creative person, that is death. It’s not a career, it’s a dependency. Having an audience that we own? That we’re bound together with like hand and fist? That is life. Yet as I’ve said before: This does not just happen. It must be built.

So don’t wait. Build your platform now. Build it before your first project, before your first great perennial seller comes out, so that you have a better chance of actually turning it into one. Build it now so that you might create multiple works like that. Build it so you can have a career—so you can be more than just a guy or gal with a book or movie or app. Because you’re more than that. You’re an entrepreneur, an author, a filmmaker, a journalist. You’re a mogul.

This won’t just happen. You have to make it happen.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.