Tomas Pueyo (@tomaspueyo) is the author of the the mega-viral article "Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now," which was shared by over 40 million people in a single week after it was published in March. He also happens to be an expert on storytelling, and the VP of Growth at a unicorn startup called Course Hero. In this episode, Tomas and I discuss the universal structure of stories as problem-solving devices, why founders and makers should always think about problems first, and how he applied his storytelling and growth marketing skills to write one of the biggest articles of the year.
What’s up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you are listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions both at their companies and in their personal lives? And what exactly makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses.
In today’s episode, I sat down with Tomas Pueyo. Tomas is the VP of Growth at a unicorn startup called Course Hero. He’s also an expert on the structure of storytelling. He’s written a series of very interesting articles and a book on that subject.
And finally, Tomas is the author of a mega-viral series of articles about the coronavirus, how it works, how it spreads and how all of us can respond to it effectively. In fact, these articles are so viral that it’s likely if you’ve ready anything online about the coronavirus in the past few weeks, you’ve come across Tomas’s articles or at least something that referenced them.
They have been cited by business leaders and government leaders all over the world who have used what Tomas has shared to make arguably life and death decisions. They’ve been endorsed by hundreds of scientists and epidemiologists. My goal with this episode is to sit down and try to figure out how all three of these topics intertwine.
How does Tomas think about the structure of stories? How does he use storytelling to attract millions of users as a VP of Growth at a startup? And how does he use his storytelling skills and his startup growth skills to write such influential and widely shared articles online? I hope you enjoy the discussion.
(End of introduction.)
You are obsessed with storytelling. Do you think that’s a fair claim for me to make?
You’ve given talks about storytelling. You’ve written books and articles about the structure of stories, and you’ve woven that into every area of your life. Why is storytelling so important?
I love understanding things, and the more complex something is, the harder it is, the more I want to understand it. I think that’s a drive that explains a lot of things. It explains storytelling the way we’re going to discuss about it in a second, but also in the focus, for example, on coronavirus.
In the case of storytelling, it’s this. Inside there are patterns to it, as many people know from your journey, that you’re from a thousand faces (ph). The fact that you have a company like Pixar that can have a success rate of a hundred percent, meaning that they really know their stories and how they work. So there are these patterns. To an uneducated audience, you don’t see them at all.
It’s a bit for me like architecture, where you see the façade, but the façade is just that. For you to get a façade you need to build the entire building. There’s all this technical knowledge behind it, and I find it fascinating.
Not only that, but when I started reading and analyzing storytelling structure, I realized that everything that was written was how but not why. I don't know if you read Tim Urban from Wait but Why. They make a difference between the cooks and the chefs.
For storytelling, nearly everything that’s out there, it’s cooks. It’s recipes. Like, “Hey, first you do this thing, and then you do this thing, and this is the structure, and on page 25 you do this.” I want to be a chef about it. I want to understand how it works.
That’s why I've gone into storytelling, to understand why things are the way they are, so that then, once you understand the underlying patterns, you can apply your own rules. You can do your own storytelling if you understand the underlying structure.
You grew up in a house where your father was a filmmaker. Did that play a role in the story of how you got into storytelling?
Yeah, for sure. He had a TV commercial production company in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so he is very focused on that. We were obviously a fan of movies because it’s very close to his job.
My conversations with him about movies were never about a character and whatnot, but rather, “This actor, what he said makes no sense,” or “There’s a loop in this script,” and things like that. Very much a mental level conversation of storytelling. I took this sensitivity afterwards to all the books I read, all the movies that I make, and that’s what led me into that world.
I remember watching movies as a kid. I had a good friend who would come over and we would dissect every part of the movie. We wouldn’t even talk about what the move was about, we would just talk about what they were thinking. It would drive my brother crazy. He was like, “You guys are such nerds. It’s not fun to watch movies with you.”
It’s exactly that.
I’ve read some articles you’ve published online about storytelling. You’ve gone so far as to come up with your own theory for why stories work, why we like to tell stories, why we like to listen to stories. Give us some notes about your theory, because I find captivating and easy to understand.
The very high level is stories are problem solving. First, explain the problem, then you leave the key inside for the story, for the problem, to solve the problem. Then on the end you solve the problem.
That creates a ring structure, because you want to create symmetry between the beginning, where you explain the problem, and the second part of the movie where you explore the solution or the movie or the story.
Being more specific about stories, usually the first half of the story is about the problem and the exploration of a problem. Usually it’s about how the main character has a flaw that prevents that main character from reaching their goals. And then key inside, which is usually called the midpoint in the storytelling, is the revelation of what that core flaw is and the first time that the main character realizes that.
Then the second half is for the main character to try to struggle with that key insight until finally the resolution is when they finally accept that insight. Once you look at this from this perspective, you can see that everywhere in all stories.
The interesting thing about it is also not just this ring structure, but the fractal nature of that ring structure, meaning that it is true for an entire work, but it’s also true for each one of the acts in that work and even within the scenes.
Even within the shots you can see these problem statements, key insights, resolution structure is also that this translates exactly to our job in growth, in products, online products, in that the way to approach growth or product should also be this way, or any problem.
First, you do the problem statement and then you explore that problem statement and what the different approaches are, and then you come up with a solution. So it’s very much is becoming this frame of mind for me to look at the world.
It’s funny because that’s a lesson that so many first-time founders would benefit from understanding. I think the default intuitive approach is first you build a solution. You build some sort of app. You create the product that you want to be out there in the world, and then you look for people who need it.
That almost never works. You’ve always got to do what you’re saying, start with the problem. Figure out what people are driven to do, because people don’t just randomly take actions out of the billions of things they could do in the world. They tend to do things that solve their problems. So you need to think about that first in everything you do.
Exactly. I love that. You’re totally right. You can also see that in a couple other places. For example, when you’re doing a roadmap, you shouldn’t jump into features.
It’s about first, what is the problem you’re trying to solve? Usually it’s a business problem which is connected to the customer problem. You need to have a deep understanding of that problem. Once you have a deep understanding of that problem, then you want to start jumping to potential solutions.
Another example where we see this in startups is on the structure of pitches. There is a reason why main thesis (ph) or traditional wisdom in pitches says there should be a set of slides and even the order of the slides.
The way they’re structured is problem inside solution. The problem was the total addressable market, the pain point, the core pain point that people have. Then you talk about the core insight on how you solved that pain point. What’s unique about your pain point?
Then at the end, you have the solution which is my company can solve that better than anybody else. So this is the team. This is the money that I need, and so on and so forth. And so you very much have that exact same problem/insight/solution structure. You can see that in many, many places in a growth or product world.
So you’ve got this common pattern. You’ve got this problem, then insight, then solution, and that’s in startup pitches. It’s in product development. It’s in storytelling. Pixar uses it. What’s the why here? Why do you see this structure repeated all throughout life, and why does it resonate so well with people who are listening to these pitches and watching these movies?
I think it is evolutionary. There is a very strong value in learning from the experience of others. That’s one of the core reasons why we develop language. It’s not the only one but it’s one of the core ones. The cost of learning from somebody’s experience is very low and the value is very high.
The way for you to learn has to be first in understanding the problem, and then figuring out the solution. You need to first understand the problem because otherwise you don't know whether this is relevant or not to you. Once you understand the problem, “Okay, this is something that might happen to me,” then you’re willing to learn the solution. So that happened for so many generations that from the research that I was able to look at, it sounds like we’ve evolved to learn that way.
It’s almost hypnotic. If you’re reading a book or a novel, sort of famously you’ll get lost in the pages and not be able to pull yourself out of it. Or someone’s telling you a story. It’s captivating and you’re transported to the place where that person was or the characters in the story were in a way that doesn’t happen if somebody’s giving you a PowerPoint.
And the point there is, there is an insight. There is value on the person who says the story because they get goodwill, but also for the recipient. There’s a very strong evolutionary incentive for you to be able to learn from somebody else’s experience, and from this problem and solution.
I got this from a TEDx talk that you gave. I'm sure you remember giving it. You were very animated onstage, and you’re pretending to be a caveman gathering all the kids around to tell a story about hunting, and the caveman pulls out a laptop and is like, “Here’s the PowerPoint slides.”
The PowerPoint. On those slides that I have in that TEDx, I purposely give solutions. I give data points. That’s, to me, the number one issue in all presentations. People jump to a solution. And if you’re not understanding the problem first, you’re not ready to understand the solution.
In fact, the number one TEDx I think in history in terms of views is I think from Simon Sinek. He says something similar. He talks about these concentric circles where you first need to focus on the why, the how and the why first.
But the point of the why is the same. It’s understanding the problem. Usually, whenever somebody is doing something, they’re just giving the solutions, and that’s like a punch in the face. You’re not ready to cope with it.
So not only are you big into storytelling, but you’re also the Vice President of Growth at an online learning startup called Course Hero. Course Hero is big. You guys are getting many tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of page views every month. You have 20 million registered students on the platform. Tell me, how did you get to the point where you were in charge of growing a company like that?
I think very quickly on the background, after my MBA I wanted to know how to maximize my impact, and I realized that creating products online was by far the best way because the scale that you can have is unparalleled.
So I wanted to know how to create products and I thought video games was the best way to do that, because video games use less UI. Because it’s used less, it needs to be really compelling to keep you on.
I did that for a few years and then after that I wanted to have impact. At first I did that and I think that at a fintech company helping people invest. And now in ed tech, the reason I wanted to work in education is I think it’s the root of most problems. If you solve education, you solve many other problems, so that’s why I ended up in Course Hero. But as of my position there, that’s a such a hard question. Who can answer these questions? I can’t.
Tell me about what you do on a day-to-day basis, because most people trying to start startups listening to these podcasts, they’re in the very early stages of growth. They’re trying to figure out how to get their first couple users or customers in the door. You’re trying to figure out how to get the twenty-first million customer in the door. What does that look like?
By the way, the problem that you’re talking about from entrepreneurs is so much harder than, I think, problems later on. So I have all my respect for people who try to do this.
My job is twofold, I would say. One is the roadmap. That is deciding, helping people decide, what we’re going to build. Again, it’s problem/solution. Really deeply understanding the problems that we’re going to focus on, then triaging them, deciding which ones are bigger, can have a bigger impact, have high confidence. And then for the solution, same thing. Which ones, cost-benefit and confidence. So that’s the core piece. Then around that, it’s building the team that can do this. My product is not the product itself, it’s the organization that can build that product. So recruiting is a core part of what I do. Organizational structure is a core part of what I do.
And then these two things I think are the core pieces. On top of that you have high level strategy. It’s a very intuitive roadmap I would say, but it’s also into the team and the cost and how we spend that.
For that you need to take a very big step back on the industry and the competitors and how they work and where things go. If anybody in your audience reads Ben Thompson from Stratechery, thinking about these things is very similar to this strategy level that I need to take care of.
I'm reading a book. I just started a couple days ago so I'm not done with it, but it’s called Story Brand by I think Donald Miller. It’s all about how storytelling can factor into your marketing as a company.
So in the story that you’re trying to tell as a company, you’re not the hero, but your customers or your users are the hero. You’re the guide providing the tools that they need to have that transformative midpoint experience that you talked about so that the second half of their story can be a solution.
You can talk about that in all your marketing. Here’s what their life was like in the first half without your help, and here’s what their life is like now that they’ve been empowered by Course Hero or Indie Hackers or whatever your business is. Do you look at marketing at all like that? How do you think about weaving storytelling into what you do with startup growth?
I do. I think one of the reasons, also why I was always compelled to storytelling is because I'm extremely analytical. I’m not very much a creative guy, so always I found it very compelling that you could use an analytical approach to something that’s creative as storytelling.
But I'm not a very creative person, and as a result, all the areas of branding, of marketing, I am very bad it. I wouldn’t trust myself to create copy or come up with ideas for ad campaigns and things like that.
So my added value when I face some advertising or messaging feedback is rather always trying to understand the problem-solution. Who is the audience? What are we trying to achieve for them? What is the problem I'm trying to solve and does this solve the problem?
So I usually don’t participate in these brainstorms and share ideas. Whenever I do it’s very bad. My valuable position there is not that. It’s more like keeping the stakeholders and the goals in mind.
I’ve talked to a lot of entrepreneurs who had this same realization, that you need to start with the problem first. When they look into what problems their customers are trying to solve, oftentimes it’s not intuitive. It’s not what an outsider looking at the product would think that product is providing.
Recently I talked to Baird Hall who has a company called Wavve. They help podcasters share these little bite-sized audio clips from their show on Twitter. You would think, “Oh, the problem he’s solving is people want to grow their podcast. They want to get more users.”
But in reality, when he talked to his customers and figured out what messaging resonated, it turned out that fledgling podcasters just want to look more professional. They want to feel more like their heroes. They want their show to be impressive and not embarrassing. So that’s why they use the service. What are some of the deeper problems that you're solving for customers at Course Hero?
That is so hard. It is the single most important question that anybody can be asking if they are building companies. For me, I think that there’s one overarching point that is more about the company than the specifics of the product itself.
This core insight is that people don’t want to pay to learn. People want to pay to graduate. This is the difference (inaudible). For learning, essentially the content is free. You can learn anything online, and you don’t want to pay for any. But you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars in the U.S. for college, and what you want is that graduation paper.
So it’s interesting, because isn’t graduation supposed to prove that you’ve learned? So shouldn’t learning be good enough? But if you look into the detail that’s not the way it works. There’s an amazing book I read last year, probably my favorite book from 2019, which is called The Elephant in the Brain.
One of the things it explains, if you look at the data it proves that people don’t want to learn. They want to have this paper that proves that they can work in the place, in a given place and make money. That is the value. It’s making money.
How do you prove that you can work in a company and add value? You need to prove that you can follow orders, that you can be sitting for a long time in one place. You can do what you’re told. You can look into a problem and solve it. You can do that relatively independently and so on and so forth.
That’s the added value of the education process, not as much as the learning, which is why, for example, we have a couple of data points that are interesting. One is if learning was the relevant point, then a person that has studied biology should only focus on biology all their life and math, only focus on math. But that’s not true.
You learn something, and then you can do something completely different. But if the content really what was useful then that shouldn’t happen. And I think that is relevant if you can look at premium in salaries per year of education. If learning was the value, then that should be increasing proportionally through the years, but it doesn’t at all. It is very much like this.
So there is a huge premium on finishing your degree because it proves that you could go through all of that and end up with this paper. That’s one of the core insights, I think. People don’t want to learn. What they want is to make money, and for that what they need is to graduate.
I had a previous guest on the show who runs a series of courses for professionals in the tech industry to become better at SEO, better at growth, et cetera. He pointed the same thing out, that people can learn for free online. You can download this podcast episode at zero cost and learn everything that Tomas Pueyo has to tell you, and that costs zero.
You're right. There’s no certification you get. There’s no way this is going to get you a job, so you’re not going to pay for it. What’s the business model for Course Hero? How do you guys make money?
Well we help people graduate. So it is a platform to share resources, to study. If you have a question, for example, if you want to see how somebody else has approached a problem, you can either pay to have access to that content, or you can share your own content to have access to that content.
That enables anybody, whether they have money or not, to be able to access content. Because it’s people sharing these documents, it’s very much focused on graduating. They might have their study notes. That’s one of the main use cases.
They write study notes and then they share them. You want to see how people have done this. Maybe there’s a past exam and they see the different approaches that different people have had to understand how they should approach it.
That makes so much sense. I think the lesson to distill from that, if you’re a founder listening to this and trying to figure out, “How do I make money with my business, people might you it but they’re not paying for it,” is to think about where the value is and the part that people find valuable enough to pay for, and try to get close to that.
So in your particular case, there’s so much going on in school, so much going on with education, but the part that’s valuable is graduation so you position yourself as, “We help you graduate. We help you pass that test, pass that exam, so you can get the thing that’s of real monetary value to you,” which might not even be the learning. It’s the certificate. It’s the degree.
You’re hinting at a hierarchy of problems, which I think is very important. This overarching point of graduating is what we’re trying to do. But then you need to look into the details, the different problems that people have, and then try to solve that.
When people talk about a point of view from zen thinking (ph) or jobs to be done, but these details are the ones that matter. So for example, one of the issues that students face when you’re talking with them is many students have kids or are working. Twenty-five percent of them have kids.
So if you have kids and/ or you’re working, you have zero time. You have money, a bit of money if you’re working, but you have zero time. So you have no time. You can’t go to office hours. So you have this question.
I have this two-hour slot this week to study this. I can’t go to office hours. I don't know anybody on campus because I don’t have time to spend there. I need an answer when I have the question. And so if you have a way for people to ask questions, a Q & A service, because this is the specific job to be done that they have in this context of graduating.
And that’s the kind of thing you’re not going to be able to figure out if you don’t spend a lot of time talking to people and finding out what actual problems they have.
It’s the only thing that matters. There was a tweet, I don't know from whom, maybe from Graham. The person said something like the number one reason why startups fail is they’re building something that people don’t want, which is the same way as saying they didn’t understand the problem and they’re not solving the problem.
And the second one is running out of money, which to me is, you’re building a solution, without being close enough to the problem and focusing on the problem and solving the problem as you go. And then he said the third one doesn’t matter. It’s just one of these two. That’s 90% of the cases.
So stories are about problems. Startups are about problems, and the thing that put you on my radar about a month ago is this mega-viral article that you wrote on Medium called, Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.
For me, that article solved a problem. For me, the problem was, I've got some friends and family members who aren’t talking this pandemic seriously. I'm not doing a great job of being able to convince them to take it seriously and explain it to them, but this article is amazing.
If I just share this article with them it will solve this problem that I have that my cousin or my aunt will not stay at home and keep themselves safe and also not infect other people. And I'm sure it solved a ton of other problems for lots of other people. What did you hope to accomplish as a result of sharing your thoughts and advice on the coronavirus when you decided to sit down and write this article?
It was very much that. The story, the way it worked is, Silicon Valley was already vocal about the coronavirus, even in January and beginning of February. So I started looking into it based on all these comments from other people, mostly on Twitter because there was very little data, I started looking at the data myself.
I started sharing on Facebook with my friends some of these analyses. It turned out that a lot of people were commenting on them and sharing them. I found that interesting and I kept going. At that point, I hadn’t spent enough time that I felt confident about some of my conclusions.
But then I was looking around especially in startups in Silicon Valley or even tech companies in Silicon Valley, and very few of them were sending people to work from home. That sounded counterintuitive to me because at that point, at the end of February, you had Italy and South Korea that had massive outbreaks.
If you were looking at the day-to-day updates, you would see how many of these cases were leaking from these countries to other countries, especially from Italy. Italy was a hotbed of seeds everywhere in the world.
So you look at the history and you're telling yourself, “Well the same thing is going to happen here. How are people not seeing this?” So my first initial push was to help companies realize this. That’s why in my first article one of the models that I share is, how can you make a decision on how to close or when to close your company?
It was very much focused initially on helping businesses make these decisions, among others because I wanted mine to send people to work from home. I was seeing in my company and all the others that it was hard to convey that message.
Then the article was just an accident. I was putting all this information online, on Facebook, and one of my friends said, “Hey, can you put that announcement that you did for the Bay area and Washington State and make it for Paris, because I have a bunch of friends in Paris here and that would be beneficial.”
So I just put it together, the research I had done in the previous two weeks in one place and that’s the Medium article. I expected that to be maybe 10, 15, 20,000 views at most 100,000, 200,000. That’s what around my most viral article had. Fifty million with all these articles is just absurd.
Yeah. I want to give people some context on when this article came out, too. I think the article came out on March 10th. That’s the week where I think the Western world started to take the coronavirus seriously.
That was a day after Italy announced their nationwide lockdown, couple days after South by Southwest was canceled, a day before the NBA suspended its season. Everyone went from, “Hey, the coronavirus is this thing in a far-off place. We don’t have to worry about it,” to like, “Oh, shit. This is real and it’s coming for us.”
Your article was called, Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now. Like you said, it got 40, 50 million views in just the very first week, which is absolutely nuts. It’s the most viral article you could possibly write.
And it’s a 25 minute article.
Yeah, it’s long.
Who does this? That shouldn’t exist. That shouldn’t happen.
How did the reception, millions and millions of people reading this article and sharing the article, how did that translate into effects on your personal life?
It was unfortunately fulfilling. I would have hoped that everything I had written was wrong and that everybody took measures early enough that none of it ended up being true.
But the fact that it ended up being true, because people did take too long, the government especially, took too long to take measures, meant that a lot of people saw it as an eye-opening piece and as a result they were sharing it to everybody.
What happened is, like you, you mentioned that you shared the article with other people, and that’s what started happening. The first feedback that I got was friends saying, “I received this article from random people, from random groups.”
I have a Russian friend who said that he received this from this group of childhood friends from Russia. My parents were receiving this from random WhatsApp groups without them knowing that it was their son who had written it. So these stories, there was a lot of that, and it was funny. The first one was fulfilling.
The other was, a lot of business leaders were sending messages saying, “It was because of your piece that I closed my company or that I sent people working from home, so thank you.” That was fulfilling.
Then the third wave was governments, governments reaching out saying, “Hey, we took measures thanks to that,” or asking for advice on what to do. That’s what I'm focusing on now. I think the biggest impact that I can have is around helping governments decide what policies to enact, and that’s what I'm focusing on right now.
You’ve gone from writing some Facebook posts for your friends and family to advising governments on how they can prepare for the - it’s crazy.
It makes no sense. It makes no sense. I don’t usually talk about the details of these conversations because I want to assume usually that they’re private, but just yesterday I had a conversation with parliament members of the European Union and I'm saying that because they mentioned it so publicly.
I had a one-hour session with a couple dozen of them. It was fantastic. I am very fulfilled that I can share some insights that are relevant to governments. If it can help them make the right decisions, then that’s enough for me. I have fulfilled my goal of helping others.
One of the things that I've seen around this entire pandemic has been how difficult it is for people to find information and to make sense of it all. You have epidemiologists and virologists and public health experts who are very good at their craft. They understand the science but they’re not perhaps the best communicators or they don’t know how to spread their message virally on Medium.
So people like my mom, for example, aren’t following them. She’s not reading what they have to say because she has no idea where to find it. Then I see your role as almost being an intermediary, where you take what these people are saying and what they’re writing and you’re good at viral growth. It’s literally you job and you’re disseminating a message in a way that people can understand and it solves their problem.
Very much. I am an aggregator. I am an aggregator and a curator of information. Eighty-five percent of what I read over the last couple of months have been papers, scientific papers, especially because many of the aggregation layers that I see are not equipped to read the papers in the way that they are good communicators.
So it’s not just a storytelling issue. It is, but it’s also an accuracy issue. I’ll give you an example. I'm speaking a lot with Spain right now. That’s where I'm from. The Imperial College wrote a paper suggesting that 7 million Spaniards were infected, and that’s around 20% of the country.
That would be a huge deal if that was true because it means that you can have herd immunity for not too expensive a price. So people saw this and, “Oh, there are 7 million Spaniards. My gosh, this is a huge crisis. We should do herd immunity. We should open up the country.”
But you need to learn to look at the details. It’s a model. It's based on a few hypotheses and the range is between 2 million and 19 million people. Then you look at comparisons outside, you realize that most praxes say that the number of true cases is 2 million. So that’s an illustrative example.
But I think your underlying question is interesting. How can you look at all the data that is outside and consume it and translate it into something that is digestible? There are several layers to it. The first one is being able to tell which data to rely on. I think that is a core skill set that people working in startups need to have, because they are going to have different people giving them different levels of advice, different consumers asking for different things.
They’re going to have a lot of insight that is not going to be consistent and going in the same direction. The dilemma of an entrepreneur, for example, if you get a lot of feedback saying your idea is bad, what should you do? Should you listen to it or not?
Maybe it’s true that your idea is bad but from another perspective, you’re always going to be told that your idea is bad. Taking that information in and filtering it is core. The way I do it personally in my job for Coronavirus is always going to the root of what is said and the argument, and then do the due diligence on all of that. That’s why I go to papers only. There’s the root of the data. I look at the methodology to be sure that it makes sense before I trust it and move forward.
You spoke earlier about there being a façade. When everybody watches a movie or reads a story there’s façade where we see the story and we enjoy it but we’re not necessarily aware of what went into making that story work.
I think a lot of people experienced the façade of your article. They might say, “Oh, this is a viral article.” Sometimes people write things and the blow up and they’re effective, and sometimes people write things and they don’t work.
What would you say is at the core of what made your article so effective and so popular? Do you think the things you’ve learned from startup growth and storytelling play a role? Or do you think there are other factors that went it?
It is impossible to tell. I can make guesses on that. The guess that I am the most confident on is that a huge part of it is luck. Luck is not sufficient though. There are a lot of pieces that in my experience in the past have helped for this, that were also not sufficient, but they were necessary.
When we were talking about storytelling, without storytelling I would not be able to do it. Without having created viral apps ten years ago and understanding what exponential growth meant, I wouldn’t have had this intuitive sense of what was going to happen.
Without having worked on mergers and acquisitions as a consultant, I wouldn’t have been faced with a problem of looking at data that’s bullshit and figuring out what’s true and what’s wrong only based on data.
So there are a lot of these experiences that tacitly, intuitively, form a person’s experience. In my case it happened that is was a combination, that in creating this article I respond to the world. I think a lot of this just happens. It happened to me, and it could have happened to many other people in a different situation.
You certainly got the timing right. It came out on what seems to be the perfect day. You also got the audience. You nailed it. You wrote this for business leaders. You wrote this for - I mean, the subtitle of your article, I think now, is Politicians, Community Leaders and Business Leaders, What Should You Do and When?
Those are the kind of people, who when they share what you’ve written, other people pay attention. You’ve gotten all these endorsements. I think there have been some rumblings online about, “Why are so many people in the tech industry the leading voices on what to do in the coronavirus? Are they epidemiologists? Are they scientific experts?”
But your article has been endorsed by hundreds of epidemiologists and virologists and also some other very famous writers and intellectuals including Andrew Yang, Tim Ferriss, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Marc Benioff, my boss, Patrick Collison. A lot of people with huge audiences ended up sharing your article.
You're right. A lot of these experiences that I was talking about did have a direct influence in how the article was written. You mentioned the main title. I played with it a lot.
In fact, you can look at the URL and you will see that the main title initially was different. It was something like, “Act Now or People Will Die.” The reason why I had chosen that first is because it was dark, but then it was probably too dark. It’s a call to action. The article title is a call to action.
The subtitle that you're talking about is very much touching on the core audiences that can receive this, but not only. Because the way it’s structed is, the overmass message is for these leaders, but for that message to reach leaders other people need to send them the message.
By calling out these core audiences, leaders, the subtext of it is not just, “Hey, this is just for leaders.” It’s, “Whoever you are, send this to your leaders.” These are a couple of examples. At the end of the article there’s special call to action which is something like, “This is probably the one time this decade where sharing something might actually save lives.”
I debated a lot internally on whether to write that or not. In some situations, that could be called a dark pattern, saying to people, “Hey, share this thing. There is a good reason for you to share this thing.” So I very much debated internally a lot but then I thought about it and realized, “Well this very much is true.” This is one time where this might be the case.
So I know this is going to work and I should be using it in this situation. So all the viral experience I had in the past, white patterns, dark patterns, gray patterns, and the decision I had taken in the past not to use the dark patterns, but the fact that I knew about them helped me create what at this point became white patterns that I wouldn’t have known otherwise if I hadn’t worked in virals.
Well listen, Tomas. I know you’ve got to run. I’m like you, I'm an analytical guy. It’s fun to hear about the thought that goes into building an article like this and the fact that it’s not a hundred percent of an accident, although luck does play a huge role.
Thank you for coming on and taking the time to share what you know about storytelling. Listeners, I hope you go, and you find some of Tomas’s writings, especially about the ring structure of storytelling and act two and act three of his articles on Medium about the coronavirus.
Tomas, can you let listeners know where they can go online to find out more about what you’re up to and what they can do to protect themselves and their families and their businesses and employees during the next few months?
For some, I'm going to host a fourth article this week and it is focused on specific measures that governments can take, also citizens, but it’s specifically focused on governments. I think it’s important for everybody to read to make sense of the debates that are going to be starting to rage in the coming weeks, one of them for example about privacy.
We’re going to be talking about privacy for the next few weeks, that contact tracing for it to work will require privacy. People should be expecting that. I have a newsletter that people can sign up for at the bottom of each one of my articles. I’m also active on Twitter so you can find me on Twitter.
But on things that people can do today, the key one is probably masks. That is the one thing that we can all do. Build your own mask and use it always when you go out. That single thing, if it’s done consistently, can reduce the transmission rate by say 50%. We don't know but it can be that. It can be even more. So if just with this action we can have such an impact on the pandemic then everybody should do it.
All right. Listen to this. You heard the man. Wear a mask next time you go out. Tomas Pueyo, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thank you for having me. This was fun.
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