How Lewis Howes Got to 40M Podcast Downloads, the Bestseller List, and Ellen’s Couch

Lewis Howes answers a question from an audience member during the Summit of Greatness on September 14, 2017 in Columbus, Ohio. Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Lots of people launch podcasts. Few of them run for 500+ episodes, do more than 40 million downloads and manage to snag guests like Maria Sharapova and Tony Robbins. Fewer become New York Times bestselling books or do millions of views on YouTube.

So how did Lewis Howes manage to do this? Well, I could speculate or I could just ask. Lewis has a fascinating story: former professional football player whose career went sideways before it really even began turned online marketer turned podcaster turned guest on Ellen.

After the responses to my interviews with Tim Ferriss, social media maven Greg Baroth, and the authors of the runaway bestseller Blue Ocean Strategy, I decided I’d abuse my relationship with Lewis to ask him how he built his wildly successful podcast and beloved brand. We also touch on his new book, The Mask of Masculinity, which I had the opportunity to be an advisor on. Enjoy our interview—essentially a case study in building a platform and growing a product—below!

A lot of people know you because of your podcast but you started building your platform much earlier. When I look at an archived page from your website in 2009 it shows how early you were to understanding of Linkedin and building up an audience and expertise there. What were those early days like, and how did you build up your platform of fans to eventually launch the podcast and books to? How should an author or any creative think about building an audience from scratch?

My whole life, I had been an athlete, and I stumbled into business because of a career ending wrist injury back in 2007 when I was playing professional football. I started learning Linkedin because I had a ton of extra time on my hands, so I spent my time on that platform like it was my job. I had a laptop, the internet, and my arm in a cast. I had nothing better to do than spend hours looking at people’s profiles and noticing what worked and what didn’t.

I stood out as an expert on Linkedin because I invested in learning the platform, and I helped people get results. My recommendation to anyone just starting out is to find a niche area and get good at adding value to others. By “adding value” I just mean, help other people save time or money.

I was a terrible student and I hated school. A lot of people have a fear that if they don’t have letters behind their name, or the right certification, they can’t ever be an expert in anything. I realized early on that I didn’t need have to have impressive credentials to be considered an expert — I just needed to add value and help other people get results.

In the early days I had so many ideas for things I wanted to do – I wanted to sell courses and start a podcast and work with affiliates and do webinars and speak on stage and host events…and the list goes on and on. What really helped me grow and scale was taking action on those ideas. I would do whatever it took to execute on all the business ideas swirling around in my head – even if some of them flopped or required me to step way outside of my comfort zone. My experience from meeting thousands of my own students and podcast fans is that there is one huge thing that holds people back – not just from growing and scaling but from ever getting started — this fear of failure or perfection. I always joke that I launch projects two months too early, just so I can get them out into the world.

I always share on my podcast that I do not profess to be great. I’m a student, and I’m constantly learning from my guests. I built up my podcast through consistently providing quality valuable content and constantly being open to my own growth without being attached to the end result. In the early stages of the podcast, I was only doing one episode per week, and then I started adding two episodes, and then I added in my 5 Minute Fridays, and then I added video. This was a slow and gradual growth and has taken years to get to where I am today.

You did a webinar interview with Robert Greene nearly five years ago and it eventually became the first episode of The School of Greatness. Can you tell us the background of how the show started? Did you envision where it would be all these years later?

Wow talk about a throwback. There’s no way I could have known how big the podcast would get or the doors it would open for me or how many people it would impact. Before I started the podcast, I was working 12 hour days, eating fast food, and gaining weight, just hustling to grow my successful online business. I didn’t want that lifestyle, and I wasn’t feeling like I was growing personally or professionally in the way I wanted to.

My friends were also getting into podcasting and living in LA, I knew how often I found myself sitting in traffic listening to podcasts. I had developed a decent network through the years of building my social media business, so I had something to start with.

My biggest motivation for starting the show was that I wanted to learn from people way smarter and more successful than me. I figured if I could record the conversations and publish them, other people could benefit along with me.

If you listen to that first episode, the audio quality is terrible, I had no idea what I was doing (I probably launched it two months too early before I could really learn the ins and outs of podcasting) and it’s not even a real interview. But it was a start. I figured it out as I went along and just committed to consistently posting episodes no matter what.

I got better as an interviewer because I was consistently practicing and I invested in better audio quickly, which helped people take me seriously.

It really grew from people listening and sharing. I realized I had a gift for getting people to open up and share stories they usually didn’t. This was a reflection of the personal transformation I was going through at the time as well. I just kept investing in the show and it kept growing and it has since become the backbone of my business and brand.

Walk us through how you grew the podcast. What were the key levers of growth that had the biggest impact? You can be as specific as you want—readers of this column love details.

Why did you decide to add a video element? Scheduling interviews with the high-profile guests that you have can already be a pain even if it’s over the phone or remote via studio. What has deciding to do the interview in person added, and how have you seen video drive growth for your show and personal brand? Are you bullish on video still?

I had a background in social media marketing when I started the show, as well as a sizeable email list, so that was a huge help in the early days. I started by interviewing the most impressive people I already was friends with or had connections to. This was really important because they had audiences to promote the show to or big enough names that people would pay attention. Early guests like Robert Greene, Bob Harper, and Tim Ferriss all fell under that category. I promoted every episode on all my social media accounts – Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

There were really five milestones that helped tremendously in the growth of the show:

#1 – Sharing my personal story

A huge turning point in the podcast was in 2014 when I opened up and shared my personal history of rape and abuse that happened to me when I was a child. It allowed me to be vulnerable about myself like never before, and honestly it just felt like a huge relief to not be holding in a secret. I think that vulnerability opened up a new level of being able to connect with my guests and listeners.

People kept commenting before I shared this story publicly that something about me had changed. What they didn’t know was that I had shared with family and friends, for the first time in my life, that I had been sexually abused. I was finally opening up and letting myself be supported and heal. My audience could tell something was different, but it wasn’t until I publicly shared the story that they really got on board with me as a person.

I’ve seen this same thing happen again and again with other successful influencers. Those who are willing to share their full, true stories are the ones who gain a loyal, quality audience.

#2 – Doing 3 shows each week consistently

I started off like most people doing one show a week, which felt like a lot. But once I got an idea of how to podcast, I realized growing the show was going to take me getting a lot more downloads. The quickest way to do that was to put out episodes quicker.

I started doing two episodes a week, which was big jump, but it also made me more committed to the show. I worked harder to network and get quality guests since I had an expectation from my audience to deliver.

Then I kept getting requests to do solo rounds, so I decided to try a short inspirational episode of just me talking about a principle of greatness on Fridays.

People loved it and it became a whole new side to the podcast that got shared on its own. Committing to three episodes a week has been a huge part of getting my download numbers to where they are, as well as building a quality relationship with my audience.

#3 – Not being afraid to ask for reviews

My goal was to get people to share the episodes and write reviews on iTunes since I knew that would affect my rankings the most. I asked for shares and reviews at the end of every episode, blog post, and email for years. Just because people were listening didn’t mean they were automatically going to share or review the show – I had to consistently ask for it. (I still do this by the way.)

I see a lot of people miss this one. iTunes is by far the most popular platform for podcast listeners and their rankings really do matter if you want to get seen by new people. Getting consistent, quality, new reviews on your show is so important to stay relevant over there, so keep it as a top priority, no matter how big you get. Social proof from thousands of unique reviews is powerful.

#4 – Creating a social media checklist for the promotion of each episode.

We do Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and email for each episode. Creating a streamlined promotion process has been really helpful in just making sure the promotion of the podcast happens. There’s no way I would be able to do this all on my own or make new content for each platform. That’s why investing in a team and getting efficient processes for each post has worked so well. Different parts of my audience interact with me on different platforms, and I can tell it makes a difference to be promoting the show on all of them. Using a social media scheduler is really helpful here so that it doesn’t become overwhelming and hijack your day.

#5 – Adding video

I would say adding video has been the biggest lever of growth, and hasn’t really been a pain at all for me. I actually started adding video to really big guests about two years in, but I wasn’t doing it consistently. I would hire a videographer to come film episodes I knew had the power to attract a new audience. For example, the first time I interviewed Tony Robbins I flew to him, hired an on-site videographer, and promoted that episode more than any other.. To date, that is still my most viewed video on my YouTube channel. Once I saw the engagement and power of people sharing videos, I knew I needed to invest in consistent filming and video promotion. It was definitely an investment without an immediate payoff, but in the first year of filming the podcast, my YouTube channel grew from 30,000 subscribers to nearly 100,000. Since then video has become huge and seems like a necessity, so I’m glad I invested in it when I did. It’s also an invaluable library of content that shows up high in search rankings, which is great.

Once I started doing consistent filming of the show, I knew I couldn’t do anymore Skype interviews. This meant I couldn’t get people on the show as quickly as I might have over the phone, but the quality of conversation is so much better in person, it’s 100% worth it.

Because I meet every single guest in person, usually in my studio in my home, I get to build a quality connection with each one that usually turns into a real relationship. We exchange phone numbers, start texting, and I have  way to keep up with them personally to see how I can support what they are up to. It’s been a game changer in expanding my network. I won’t be stopping video anytime soon.

You’ve also made a move towards higher and higher profile guests. Can you talk to us about the art of convincing someone big to come on the show? How does your pitch go?

My pitch is really simple when I reach out to big guests. Usually they are introduced to me through a mutual friend, which is great, so I’m able to just tell them the reach of the show and mention a few of the big guests we’ve had on. It helps to have big name guests because then other high profile people will take me seriously. Once I’d had Tony Robbins, Arianna Huffington, and Jack Canfield on the show, I had a new level of credibility. The video has really helped with that as well. I have a highlight reel I can send to publicists showing several big name guests with me on the show and that says a lot right there. One of the most important parts about booking big guests is keeping up with what they are working on. When I know someone has a new book or big project coming out, I know it’s a good time to reach out because they are looking for ways to promote it. When I tell them my audience stats and that I’d like to support them, I make it easy for them to say yes.

Constantly networking, taking meetings, and being open to meeting new people is really important as well for this. I’m constantly putting myself in situations where I’m being introduced to new people. It means I have to be open to new experiences and constantly push myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve hopped on planes to go to events just because I know there will be really great people there that I might meet. The difference between meeting someone in person and making a genuine connection versus cold-emailing someone’s publicist is massive. I always think about how I can add value to each person I meet so that their first impression of me is that I’m a giver. Then down the line people will want to come on the show once they know it’s not all about me and my agenda.

Earlier this year you realized a lifelong dream to be on Ellen’s show. That must have been surreal. What was the impact like on your career?

I had actually envisioned walking on stage and hip bumping with Ellen for over a decade. It was a really a surreal experience to do that. I’ve done a ton of speaking events before and I’m not typically nervous to do press, but being on her show made me nervous for the first time in a long time. I think it’s because I knew how many new viewers I had the opportunity of connecting with.

I worked with my mentors and coaches for weeks before the show, because I had so much I wanted to say, and I only had a few minutes to get my personality across to Ellen as well as her millions of viewers who were meeting me for the first time.

Being featured by any major media outlet or press, especially Ellen, gave me a whole new level of credibility. Being on that show has helped bring in an entirely new demographic of listeners to the podcast.  

And talk to us about the new book and the new direction it’s going for you. Why decide to take on this topic, which is deeper and more controversial than your other book?

My new book, The Mask of Masculinity, is completely based on my own struggle to live as an emotionally free and authentic man while still feeling like I have worth as a man in society.

Growing up as the stereotypical Midwestern dumb jock, I really didn’t have a place or context to understand my emotions, especially pain, sadness, frustration, anger, or hurt. That led to years of broken relationships, loneliness, and pain.

I finally came around to the fact that this wasn’t going to change if I didn’t do something about it, so just like with the podcast, I decided to document my own education on what it means to be a man in today’s world.

It’s been really insightful and fascinating to explore this topic with other men (of all backgrounds and ages) because there have been some common themes among all of us. Several of us experienced sexual abuse when we were young and didn’t talk about it. The global statistic is that one in six men experience this — but the true numbers are probably higher.

Additional research showed that young boys and teenagers will describe masculinity with the stereotypical one-word answers like strong, tall, tough, rich, brave, independent, etc. But when they are asked if those words describe the men in their lives, they admit there’s a disconnect.

In my own research interviewing men on my podcast, I learned that the majority of men associate masculinity with being in service, providing for others, and sacrificing for the good of others versus muscles, dominance, and testosterone.

But this is exactly the disconnect that I was raised with. It led me to decades of chasing an illusion of masculinity that was unattainable if I wanted to also be myself. So I put on mask after mask to try to appear like the illusion.

Without an outlet or vocabulary to discuss what is going on inside their heads and hearts, these are the statistics of American men today: 88 percent of homicides are committed by men. Men are six times more likely to commit suicide than women. They are half as likely to visit a doctor.

They underperform in school compared to women but are more likely to engage in reckless sexual behavior, use illicit drugs, and be an absentee parent.

It’s no wonder to me we are hurting this badly. Coming from a life of covering up all my insecurities, fears, and pain in the hope of being seen as “a man,” it has taken me years of dedicated, vulnerable, supported self-awareness training to even begin to reverse these trends in myself. But it’s worth it.

My intention with this book is for men (and women) around the world to realize what I’ve been learning: vulnerability is strength, authenticity is power, and being emotionally honest is essential for healthy relationships. My hope is that the men who won’t listen to doctors, therapists, and TED talks might listen to me because I’m one of them.

It’s been one of the hardest projects I’ve ever taken on, pushed me to the furthest edges of my comfort zone, and brought up all kinds of fears, but I know it’s what’s needed in the world right now, so I’m committed to spreading this message to as many humans as I can.

Ryan Holiday’s latest book, Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts is a meditation on the ingredients required to create classic books, businesses, and art that does more than just disappear. His writing has been translated into 28 languages and sold half a million copies worldwide while his creative firm, Brass Check, has worked with companies like Google, Taser and Amazon. You can join the 80,000 people who get his weekly articles.

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How Lewis Howes Got to 40M Podcast Downloads, the Bestseller List, and Ellen’s Couch