[REPLAY] #102: Tiago Forte – How Building a Second Brain went from public rant to thriving cohort-based course

June 16, 2022

[REPLAY] #102: Tiago Forte – How Building a Second Brain went from public rant to thriving cohort-based course
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Tiago Forte is the creator of Building a Second Brain. Tiago has spent more than 10 years researching and personally experimenting with a new way of organizing our digital lives and improving our productivity as creative professionals.

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Tiago Forte is the creator of Building a Second Brain. Tiago has spent more than 10 years researching and personally experimenting with a new way of organizing our digital lives and improving our productivity as creative professionals.

The Building a Second Brain system is the result of thousands of hours spent teaching, speaking, coaching, and writing about Personal Knowledge Management.

In this episode, we talk about Tiago’s interest in digital organization, how he came up with the name Building A Second Brain, the course and his email newsletter’s growth over time, and how listening to signals from the market guided him to write the book and start a YouTube channel.

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Jay Clouse 00:00

Hello, my friend. Welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. Today, I'm re-airing my very recent conversation with Tiago Forte. This episode originally aired as episode number 102 on May 10th, of this year 2022. And I'm re-airing it this early because Tiago's new book, Building A Second Brain, is now available for purchase as of this week. When this episode originally aired, immediately, it became one of the most popular episodes of this show to date. And a lot of listeners told me that they pre-ordered the book. Well, now you can order it and get it very, very soon. So if you haven't already listen this episode, I really think you should. I think you'll enjoy it. Links to order the book are in the shownotes. And if you do pick up the book, tweet at me and Tiago @fortelabs on Twitter and let us know. We'll get to that full episode, right after this.


Tiago Forte 00:49

When you can't pay the rent from your little self paced online course, you can't do it well. You can't iterate, you can't evolve it, you can't invest, you can't have a team, there's no future. And so I love talking about the profitability of CBCs because it just allows these courses to become real businesses.


Jay Clouse 01:06

Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show.


Jay Clouse 01:31

Hello, my friend, welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. I spent three days last week at the first ever, Creator Economy Expo or CEX, if you're a fan of acronyms. It was the first live event I've attended since before the pandemic. I was planning to visit South by Southwest in March 2020, before the launch of the show, but you know what happened next. I forgot just how powerful live events can be. A lot of the folks that I spent time with were internet friends that I already knew pretty well. Some of them were members of the Creative Companion Club, but I hadn't met any of them in person. It's wild just how much more quickly you can connect with someone when you're sitting beside them or sharing a meal. Now, of course, we can make up for a lot of that with video calls, but it's just not quite the same. So I'm thinking more and more about how I can find ways to meet more members of the Creative Companion Club in person, even if it's piggybacking on other events that other groups are organizing that we all want to attend. In the meantime, I'll continue to try and create as close to in person interactions as I can in my courses, in my community, just like today's guest. Today I'm speaking with Tiago Forte, the creator of Building a Second Brain or the digital notes guy as his Twitter bio reads. Back in 2014, Tiago started writing about productivity on medium. And immediately, people were drawn to the way he thought about prioritizing his time and organizing information.


Tiago Forte 02:58

All the smartest people on the entire planet are on the internet. All the most influential leaders, the best selling authors, the most experienced consultants, the most, you know, prolific video creators, we have access to all minds almost. And so that's great. But then that creates a new problem, which is curating and filtering and making sense of and actually structuring all that information. Because you can't just drink from the fire hose. You can't just like, you know, take it all in all at once the brain has certain limits to what it can take in.


Jay Clouse 03:34

When you hear Tiago speak about this problem, it feels very obvious and relatable, even if we hadn't thought about it that way before. I think we've all had those moments when an email hits our inbox that we want to read, but can't quite read right now. We get a new book recommendation or see an episode of a podcast release that we know we want to listen to. But often we aren't in a position to take action on that information at that moment. So what happens? Do you have some sort of process for bookmarking that information for later or do you let it fall into the abyss? Most of us don't have a great system. So Tiago began helping people to build one.


Tiago Forte 04:14

Building a Second Brain, is a system for managing the flood of information you are surrounded by every day, and a set of habits for using that information to create the career and the life you want. This is about learning how order and creativity can be combined to generate prolific outputs, how to capitalize on the full potential of your ideas, and what you are capable of achieving in the world.


Jay Clouse 04:41

Building a Second Brain began as a cohort based course that Tiago was teaching live. This was several years before CBCs were cool. But he had a background in teaching in the classroom. So he wanted to find a way to model that experience online.


Tiago Forte 04:55

And that was Cohort 1, January of 2017. In April of 2022, we're launching Cohort 14, the first cohort had, you know, 2530 people, the biggest one we've had had a 1000. We've taught 13 cohorts of this course.


Jay Clouse 05:11

As you'll hear in the interview, the Building a Second Brain course has had a lot of success. The price has changed over the years, but it's around $1,500 today for the base level. And with up to 1000 students, that means building a second brain likely generates millions of dollars in revenue per five week cohort. That success opened the door for Tiago to write a book also titled Building a Second Brain, a proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential. You can preorder the book today and will be released on June 14th of this year, 2022. A link to the book is in the show notes So in this episode, we talked about Tiago's interest in digital organization, how he came up with the name Building a Second Brain, the course and his email newsletters growth over time, and how listening to signals from the market guided him to write the book and start a YouTube channel. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram @jayclouse tag me, say, hello, let me know that you're listening. I'd love to hear from you. And now let's talk to Tiago.


Tiago Forte 06:22

I think because I'm naturally a disorganized person, people, I think have a hard time believing that. But usually the things that you teach are the things you are, you are actually challenged by. Because if it comes naturally to you, and you're naturally gifted, and it's like no big deal, you don't get why with like,


Jay Clouse 06:39



Tiago Forte 06:39

why do people value this right? You teach what you need. And I'm actually quite a, in school I always got caught, I never got particularly good grades, teachers were always oh, you need to be more diligent, your mind is wandering, your you need to be more organized, which I never, of course, took seriously, only when I enter the professional world. And I realized, oh, this is why all those teachers said I had to be organized, there are actual things in my life that I want. There are experiences that I want, there are jobs I want, there's a career that I want, there's trips that I want to take people I want to meet that actually directly depend on my ability to have my stuff in order, is when I really started investing in it. And by then, of course, everything was digital. You know, by the time I started my career, everything was on computers. And so I kind of skipped the whole paper, I still have, you know, terrible paper note taking skills, it's just scattered pieces of paper lying around. I really went into computers straightaway. And that's been the focus of our senses digital organization.


Jay Clouse 07:45

Was there some moment or experience you had where you started to fight back against, you know, your disorganization? And you started to realize, like, oh, this is unlocking something for me that I've been missing.


Tiago Forte 07:57

Gosh, so many moments. I kind of think about everything in terms of projects. That's actually the very core of the organizing system that I teach is called P.A.R.A., the P in P.A.R.A. stands for Projects. So everything is a project. I mean, truly everything, you know, dating these days is a project, you have to download the app. So you like people talk about it, like a part time job, you know, managing all the the back and forth communication. You know, we got a dog last year, that was a whole project.


Jay Clouse 08:25

I'm doing that right now. I had to tell my fiance, I was like, the only way you're gonna get me to do my fair share of raising this dog is you have to help me think of this as a project, I need to prioritize it in my mind as a project.


Tiago Forte 08:38

Exactly. I mean, any even buying, we bought a fridge, that's a whole project. Fixing the plumbing in our bathroom, project. Obviously everything at work, you know. A lot of, a lot of times I, one of my favorite things to do is look over people's shoulders as they work, as they manage their to do list and just use their computer. And I'm always amazed to see people's to do lists, often there are single tasks that are massive projects. And the person goes, I don't know why I can't seem to get to that it just keeps getting rolled over from one week to the next. I'm like it's because that is not a task. It's a gigantic project.


Jay Clouse 09:12

Yes, yes. It's like one checkbox, launch my website.


Tiago Forte 09:15

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Launching your website is at least like 15 different projects.


Jay Clouse 09:21

Yeah. Well, real quick, we won't go too deep in this because I know you have a blog post that covers this in depth. I'll link to it in the show notes. But what is the A.R.A. in P.A.R.A.? Can you give us just a high level of that?


Tiago Forte 09:31

Yeah, so projects are like the first class citizens, they're like, the most important, that's why they come first. But not everything is a project, right? So the A, the first A stands for Areas as in areas of responsibility. So these are things that are they don't really have a beginning and an ending or like an outcome like a project, but just things that have to be paid attention to indefinitely, things like your spouse, your relationship with your spouse, your kids, your house or apartment, your car, your finances, your health. These are just like ongoing areas of your life. the R is for Resources, which is like everything else, things you're interested in, interesting subjects, classes you're taking, interesting, you know, resources from the web, stock, photos, testimonials, like all the other stuff that you have access to. And then the last A is for Archives, which is anything from the previous three categories that is no longer active. And in some ways Archives is the most important thing because the fundamental issue with digital content is it proliferates endlessly, right? Like with hoarding, like physical hoarding, at least you can only fill your house, right, like there's a actual constraint. But with the cost of hard drives, there is actually no constraint on how much digital stuff you can consume today.


Jay Clouse 10:52

Okay, so I hear you completely on this, you know, I had a weakness that I had to overcome. And that gave me the superpower of being able to teach other people how to overcome this weakness. But a lot of people overcome weaknesses all the time and don't become internet creators that are teaching others how to overcome that. So how did that evolution happen?


Tiago Forte 11:10

Yeah, you know, it was this long, unexpected, what felt like a series of accidents. I think if there's one thing that I do well in this sort of domain, and something I really recommend all creators and just all people is to just listen to your environment. Like just listen, just just be open to what your your physical environment, your informational environment, your relationship environment. It's like, if there is a recurring message, if you're finding the same trend or pattern again and again and again in your life, that is pointing to something, there is something in you, in your psychology and your psyche that is wanting to be recognized. It was just such a long process. I mean, actually, the very first thing I wrote was a rant. I saw on medium, there was a popular article on how to organize Evernote, and I was like, oh, I'm starting to use Evernote. Let me like, see what this is about. And I read the thing, and it was so bad, it was so wrong, that that very moment I just went, I opened a new article and on medium, which is where my blog was, and I just like wrote out, no, this is why it's bad. That blog post is still alive, if people want to find it, it's called Tagging is Broken. And I just went to town. I just hate tags. I'm very anti and biased against tagging. And that's the kind of thing you don't even really, I wasn't even really looking for a response. I just wanted to blow off some steam and people loved it, right? Like that's a sign from the environment, when you go off on this extremely niche esoteric thing and people go yes, I agree with you. I've always thought this I you know, tell me more. Then people started saying tell me more. Okay, well, if that's not the right way, what is the right way and I was like, oh, shoot, now I have to come up with like a recommendation. And so I wrote this blog post called How to Use Evernote For Your Creative Workflow. Put it on medium, you know, you had a few 100 views, but then didn't go anywhere. But then like six months later, Evernote itself asked to republish that blog post on their own blog. And that's when it really blew up, became really big in their community. Another six or nine months after that, one of my friends asked me, Tiago, have you seen the comments on that blog post, and I hadn't. And so I went back, and I scrolled all the way to the bottom, and I see every single comment is like, this is the most helpful thing on organizing information I've ever seen. This is the best article I've ever read on digital note taking, one after another, one after another. And then I still thought about it for another six months, this was like a 18 month to 2 year process of me being like, hmm, maybe there's something here. And then eventually, that led a few months late after that to my first course, which I taught in a live format, which we now call cohort based courses, CBCs.


Jay Clouse 13:49

That's amazing. So many pieces of that story are so mind blowing to me and like, exciting, because, you know, you followed your interest you, you wrote a blog post, if you hadn't had put that out into the world, you basically create your own lottery ticket that Evernote happened to see. And they're like, can we do this, which you happen to see their response and consent to them doing that, then you went back and you looked at the comments, and you saw some patterns there and that led to the course, there's so many places that could have fallen apart in people who are sitting here thinking, you know, maybe things aren't going as well for me as I want them to, like you said, listening to your environment, there are probably signals happening that you might want to pick up on that you gotta be careful not to miss.


Tiago Forte 14:32

Seriously, you got to pay attention. Like there's small, there's subtle, they're little signals that I think it takes, it takes open mindedness to hear, it takes courage, because often the signal is telling you to stop doing something you're doing and to do something completely different. So it takes some things, but I think it's powerful.


Jay Clouse 14:51

I'm going to use this as a marker in time you said Cohort 1 was January of 2017. I listened to a great interview you did with Nathan Barry on his podcast in February of 2021, when you had 40,000 email subscribers, and you said you had 5500 in 2019. So you can kind of see the trajectory of this growth up to February 2021. But that 2019 to 2021 growth is pretty crazy. Can you help us get a sense of what growth and scale for the Building a Second Brain business has looked like over the years?


Tiago Forte 15:24

Yeah, that's a great question. Definitely been exponential. I mean, I was just looking at these numbers, actually. So cohorts 1 through 9, were pretty, I would say almost negligible in revenue compared to each cohort since then. So like in cohorts, 10, 11, 12 and 13, each one of those, we made quite a bit more in revenue than all, than all cohorts 1 through 9 combined so


Jay Clouse 15:50

Is that due to pricing or volume?


Tiago Forte 15:52

It's due to a few things. So pricing did steadily increase from started out, started out at 500 in the beginning, and then it kind of increased by like $100 increments as I like gathered my courage until 1500 for the lowest. We also add a new tier so 1500 is the lowest tier and there's two others, that's part of the volume is also a huge thing. But gosh, there's, it's funny because that that line is like kind of smooth, right? But there's so many inflection points. In fact, every cohort has been an inflection point. Every cohort I've learned or discovered, or realized some big thing, like a few that come to mind are one of them was realizing that everything I was teaching didn't just apply to Evernote. That was a key, that was a key moment like I really was so wedded to this one piece of software. And again, it was signals, it was people joining the course, using all sorts of other note taking apps, which made me realize like, I would talk to him and be like, did you, are you here by mistake? Did you not read the? And they're like, no, no, I use something else but this is just as helpful. And I was like, oh, interesting. So this isn't a course on how to use Evernote. This is a course on digital note taking. And that was like one, I sort of transcended the one piece of software, right? But then within digital note taking suddenly people start using it for other things that aren't note taking. And then I realized, oh, this is something bigger, which I've called PKM, Personal Knowledge Management. But then even in PKM right now, people are sort of forcing me to broaden and transcend that framing in the direction of like the creator economy, and like monetizing your expertise and making a living and forging a new path for your career, your business and it's been them that have driven each of those shifts, not me, I'm just here teaching my little course, my little curriculum. But the market, the audience kind of reveals these insights.


Jay Clouse 17:47

I love that and the frustrating thing about this is a lot of creators will get started and they'll start with that broadness. I'm guilty of this myself. And while you may be right that you can do this broadness, I bet if you started Cohort 1, and you're trying to do this, like broad applicability of monetizing your stuff within the creator economy, you might not have gotten those first 25 people to enroll, it might not have been meaningfully specific enough for him.


Tiago Forte 18:10



Jay Clouse 18:11

After a quick break, Tiago and I talk about what drove building a second brains growth, both in terms of subscribers and students. And later we talk about his decisions to write a book and start a YouTube channel. So stick around and we'll be right back.


Jay Clouse 18:27

Welcome back to my conversation with Tiago Forte. Before the break, we were talking about how Building a Second Brain has become more broad in who the cohort serves and how it serves them. It's no longer about this niche course teaching people how to better organize their Evernote account. But now it's Personal Knowledge Management, they can serve anyone who wants to better manage the information they're consuming on a daily basis. But even though the course has much more broad appeal today, I told Tiago that I don't think it could have actually gotten this far if it didn't start very niche.


Tiago Forte 19:01

I agree. It's such a hard thing to wrap your head around because you're like, oh, I want to reach lots of people. I want to help lots of people. I want this to be successful. So you go for the big, the big pond, the big ocean. But it's like, oh, gosh, you have to overdeliver, you have to blow people's minds. The only way I know how to blow people's minds is to under promise.


Jay Clouse 19:23

That's a good way to do it.


Tiago Forte 19:25

Keep the expectations very small, so that I actually have the opportunity to do more. Whereas so many of these courses, they promised the moon, they promised the moon, I'm like how could you deliver on this promise? You can't make it easy on yourself.


Jay Clouse 19:41

What's the core promise that you find yourself making in your messaging and your communication more often than not?


Tiago Forte 19:47

You know, it's expanded, it's expanded along with that expanded framing. In the beginning, it was, you have too many notes in your Evernote inbox. Here's how to set up some notebooks to organize them. You know, which is the parent method. It was so small. These days it's much more like tap into the, tap into your self expression. You know, you have stories, you have ideas, you have tacit knowledge within you. That is priceless. That is, that could be the basis of a career, of a community, of a product, of a whole business if you have the courage and the willingness to look inside yourself and the willingness to create a system, right? Like this is where I think my course differs from most everything related to creativity. Most things about creativity kind of focus on your imagination, or the ideas you have, or on brainstorming, or on like writing which is all of that is quite far down the funnel. I'm like the very beginning of the funnel. Unlike you don't even know what your ideas are, you don't even know what you should be talking about. You don't know anything, all you have is a blank little note and write down the most mundane things that happen to you. You have a conversation and someone's eyebrows go like this, write that down, that's a no. You read a book, and there's a good quote, write that down. You're watching, like, I get so many notes from TV. You know, I see a cool scene from a Netflix show, write that down. And if you do that, for just a few weeks, suddenly, you will look at the software, you'll see 30, 40, 50 interesting nuggets, right? Put them into an outline, or a slide deck or a tweet storm or whatever it is. And you'll be amazed at the the consistency of insights and realizations and stories and little nuggets of, of insight that you have just in your day to day life.


Jay Clouse 21:38

The name Building a Second Brain is such a beautiful representation of the idea inherent in what you're doing. And I heard you say on Noah Kagan's podcast that you think that's been a big part of growth, also, did you have that name back in cohort one in January of 2017?


Tiago Forte 21:53

I did.


Jay Clouse 21:53



Tiago Forte 21:54

I did. I know I actually, it's funny. Even that, though, was a signal from the environment, I couldn't think of a name. I remember and I still have the note where I brainstorm this. And it's pretty funny to look back on because I came up with things on my own, like, the incredible power of digital note taking, you know, these kinds of names, just boring and too narrow and non inspiring. And I remember I was down in LA where I'm from, and I had I met up with a friend for breakfast, and we just brainstorm names. And he was just like, well, it's almost like you're creating like a second brain. And I was like, my first reaction was like, that's ridiculous. That's, that's such an exaggeration, right, like, like, we always sort of think less of ourselves, we like discount our own ideas. And then I thought about it more. And I'm like, wait a minute, that's exactly what it is. And then we just iterated on what the verb should be creating, constructing whatever. And building just has that alliteration of the B and the B and we had it.


Jay Clouse 23:02

Such great lesson there to of let me explain the concept of somebody who isn't me, and then have them explain it back or frame it back to me.


Tiago Forte 23:10

I bet.


Jay Clouse 23:10

So many people listening to this can use that exact strategy to come up with much better content or copy, I should say, messaging further ideas.


Tiago Forte 23:18



Jay Clouse 23:19

Let's talk about this, this email growth that you noted with Nathan of 55 subscribers in 2019 to 40,000 in February of 2021. What moved the needle on that so much?


Tiago Forte 23:29

Yeah, this and it's good to focus on this because email growth drives everything I do, everything. Even with all the, all the discussions and things people have said about oh, your email list, I think it's still under emphasized. Because it's like, everything you do has a ready and waiting audience of people that are just like ready to receive it. So I joined ConvertKit, August of 2019. I had 5500 email subscribers, but those 5500 I hardly ever sent anything like once every few months, when I had some new things, usually some new product to launch, which is the classic mistake that people make, right? When I, when I need something from you, I'll let you know.


Jay Clouse 24:09

Yeah, totally.


Tiago Forte 24:11

And honestly, this is going to be very boring, but I just implemented one after another, all the best practices. I can't even say there was anything very innovative. I added opt in forms to all my blog posts, like right in the middle, no clever strategy, just sign up to my email list. I committed to writing a weekly newsletter, which is so unbelievably powerful. It's kind of ridiculous how how powerful just that is. I started, what else did I do? I had lead magnets, right? Every time someone would you know, register for one of my free events, I would add their name to the email list. I just started doing all the stuff you hear. And it started taking off. And I would say what really fueled the takeoff was COVID. COVID was just like rocket fuel. I mean, every online education business saw some of this. There were just 10 times more people online, 10 times more people at least taking online courses, they had no nothing else to do, all the other activities were shut down. And so from the beginning to the end of I mean, it's not really the end, but the two years of COVID so far, there's been probably a 5x to 10x increase in the size of the business.


Jay Clouse 25:20

Wow. The opt ins and lead magnets. Those imply that there's traffic coming somewhere where those things live. So what's, what's driving traffic? Is it SEO or is it sharing and to what degree?


Tiago Forte 25:35

Yeah, yeah, great point, right? It's really organic. It's completely organic. I really don't even do SEO stuff. It's just not my wheelhouse. It comes from honestly this just sheer volume of blog content which, to which I have a lot of, really a lot of. And that comes from my second brain. Like, there's no secret there, except everything that happens to me is fuel. I write it down. And that's what allows me to publish, I think, on average one piece of content per week. And sometimes that's a super in depth, multi part guide, blog posts. Sometimes it's just like, a personal reflections. Sometimes it is a case study. Sometimes it's a book summary. In fact, book summaries have been some of my most important pieces. And I just love, so I think my sort of, like, unfair advantage here is I love writing, I love it to an unreasonable degree, like I don't suffer when I write, I don't have writer's block, I've been writing since I was a teenager. And so I just have that muscle, I have that skill. And so I just love to write. So it's not really a strategy for me. I didn't like set a goal for myself publish this mini, you know, 1000 words, I just do it. And I publish, you know, the best of what I come up with. So you're right, in that that that prolificness, which comes from my note taking is like the core driver of my traffic.


Jay Clouse 26:53

One quick follow up, you said that book summaries have been really important, because those are highly searched for documents. And that's bringing a lot of traffic, I'm guessing?


Tiago Forte 27:01

Yes, yeah. And I am not even that strategic about it. I do books that I, I really enjoy, first of all that really impact me. But second, there's a particular kind of book that I summarize, which is, it's a book that is so important. It's important to my work, it's important to the general consciousness out there. It's important to the future of productivity, and knowledge management and personal effectiveness. It's almost like I'm evangelizing. It's like people need to know this. It is important to the world that this be more known. That is what justifies. And so you know, it's a lot of work, like reading a book takes what, 5 to 10 hours, probably takes me another 10 to 20 hours to summarize that book. Because this is the other thing, I'm not just summarizing. So it's not a book review, right? It's not a book review, like, oh, the author said this, here's what I think of that, then the author did this, here's what I think of that. I'm actually trying to like speaking the first person, and summarize the book in the author's own voice, which is actually a lot harder, right, I have to actually understand the material more deeply. But all that means that yeah, when people search, say, The Body Keeps the Score, one of the most popular nonfiction books of the past few years, my I think my my blog posts is one of the first results.


Jay Clouse 28:15

So good, so good. And I know there are a lot of people listening this who are thinking like ding, ding strategy is write book reviews. And that might work, especially if your audience are people who are predisposed to want to read books, and that person is also aligned with your work. But you could also build an audience of people who aren't going to be interested in your product, if that's not the type of person that you're trying to attract. So warning to people, ding, ding, ding book reviews. Well, I want to talk about this first cohort, again, of Building a Second Brain, because in 2017, CBCs, probably won't even called CBCs at the time, right, that's a pretty new name. So talk to me about the growth of CBCs as a learning modality. And obviously, you were a pioneer in that in a lot of ways. I'm curious to know your outlook on that type of learning moving forward now that it is more invoke?


Tiago Forte 29:09

Yeah, it's been amazing for me to see the growth of this, because I didn't try to create this new format. It really came from like my insecurity, it was like, oh, I seem to know some stuff that I want to teach. But I don't have the commitment level, nor the budget, nor the skills to create the typical, like, big self paced course, right? Those are very production heavy, you need video skills, you need, you know, audio stuff. I didn't have any of that. So I just said, let me just do it on zoom so that I can just, it's more like a conversation. And it's two way and it's interactive. So that I can like, honestly, it was just so I can like make up for any deficits. I can answer any questions that are lacking from what I've presented. But the odd thing about that is people even though that was like lower quality, like grainy zoom footage, right, and like bad audio, and it wasn't super polished, it was much better along a different dimension, which is just the human connection. You know, that first cohort of 30 people it was like, it was like an intimate gathering of mostly people I knew. And we were just there discussing things. It wasn't like I have the truth. I have found all the answers which I will now impart to you. Which if you think about it, that's not what people are interested in. They don't they don't want to just be told, you know, the one truth, I guess, at least people who are interested in like these higher end programs, they want to explore it, they want to interact with it, they want to ask questions, they want to debate and examine different aspects and different facets. And so all of that led to the possibility that CBCs could charge way more than any self paced course. People valued enough, there was an value delivered. And what that unlocked is like, once people can make a living from something, they can really, really do it well, right? When you're when you can't pay the rent from your little self paced online course you can't do it well. You can't iterate, you can't evolve it, you can't invest, you can't have a team, you can't. It's, there's no future, right? And so I love talking about the profitability of CBCs because it just allows these courses to become real businesses. You know, we now have a team of 11 people, what the education you can deliver with 11 people is just not even in the same, in the same stratosphere, as you know, just a series of pre recorded videos.


Jay Clouse 31:32

When we come back Tiago and I talk about the value of curriculum versus community in a cohort based course, his experience writing his new book, and why he's moving on to YouTube. Right after this.


Jay Clouse 31:45

Hey, welcome back. I'm really interested in the cohort based course model. But as I shared in my interview with Wes Kao, it's not like this model of teaching, is that new? In fact, I'd argue that cohort based courses are one of the oldest methods of human learning. We're just doing it online now. But one reason people really seem to love CBCs is the community that is often built around the course. So I asked Tiago, what his students evangelize the most, the Building a Second Brain curriculum or the Building a Second Brain community.


Tiago Forte 32:18

So I think it's really both. It's really both like, a lot of people have noted that people stay for the community, which I think is true. But look, I mean, this is this has become competitive, right? Like this is the paradox of the internet. There's no barrier to entry, anyone can create anything and sell it for whatever price people are willing to pay. So it's an open, open playing field. But it also means I mean, competition is a real thing, like people are evaluating your course versus other courses, right? And not even just courses on the same subject. They're looking at a course on design versus a course on web programming versus a course on something else.


Jay Clouse 32:57

A trend that I'm watching is, a lot of the times when I see people talking about any CBC, this has nothing to do with Building a Second Brain at all. But when I see people talking about any CBC, I see them more often remarked on the relationships built than the curriculum itself. And so it makes me wonder what the future modality of things are because information wants to be free, right?But people can't compete on being Tiago Forte, you are the only Tiago Forte, they might not be able to compete on being able to curate the same room that you curate. But the information inherent in courses itself is going to move more and more towards wanting to be free one way or another. So I'm just trying to futurecast a little bit with CBCs generally.


Tiago Forte 33:40

Yeah, I think I think a little bit differently, I get what, what that assertion is trying to say, but I think if the community is the most valued part of a CBC, it's probably that the content just needs to be better. Like this is something interesting. A lot of people said lectures are a thing of the past. You know, you shouldn't do lectures, lectures of the old school, that's how universities do it. Our lectures are the highest rated part of our entire program. People love the lectures and we put so much effort into our lectures, we practice them three or four times, every second is planned. We spent $100,000 on the studio, you can't tell based on the video, but the studio that I'm in is a is a film set. Like we we did the work to make the lecture good, and therefore people liked the lectures. So the community is valuable. But I think, I don't think content isn't going to become obsolete. I think more and more content will be free. I think you're right. You know, like you look at YouTube, YouTube has has almost decimated the self paced course, a lot of the self paced course market because the the YouTube videos you see every day are way better than the average self paced video. But I think it's both, it's both and it's community is getting ever more valuable content is wanting to be free. But that just creates demand for even better, more distilled, more actionable content inside the course itself.


Jay Clouse 35:05

And there's probably an X factor here of how much of the learning is generated by the questions and interactions between the people who are in that course cohort at that time. So it's something that you can't, you can't copy either or predict unfortunately.


Tiago Forte 35:20

Exactly. There's an interesting thing here, which is okay, you're totally right. You can't predict or control that. But there is one input, there's one way that you can influence it, which is the caliber of the people, right, that is the one variable you can have a major impact on. And I think people don't, this is this is like a major blind spot. I think for many people on the internet in general, is we tend to think of people as kind of interchangeable unfortunately, like, like this is this is exacerbated by the way we talk about followers. They were like, oh, this person has, you know, 100,000 YouTube followers, this person has 50,000 as if those followers are fungible, as if they're just like every subscriber is equal to every other subscriber, or every email, a person on your email list is equal to every other. That's so not the case. It's so so so not the case. I know people I'm sure, you know, people that have enormous amounts of followers that can't make a living, and others that have almost no public presence that are doing amazing, right?


Jay Clouse 36:15

Yep, 100%.


Tiago Forte 36:16

So you can shape and you must shape the people that join your course. And there's ways to do that, right, like a premium price is one, having a lot of access to you is another, having exclusive content that they can't find elsewhere. You know, like, what is the content that on your on your subject of choice that is not on YouTube? What is the content that you can't just download an ebook, often, what that points to is, is information that is tacit, that you can't just write down, that has to be demonstrated, that has to be imparted. It points to personal, vulnerable, knowledge, knowledge about your failures, knowledge about mistakes you've made, knowledge about the way you you have overcome trauma, or mental roadblocks or blind spots, it points to social knowledge, knowledge that is, is held by a group, not just one person. So it's interesting that like, as explicit, like content that can just be written down or made into a video becomes evermore public and free. There's other kinds of knowledge that become evermore private, and sort of internal.


Jay Clouse 37:21

I'm gonna resist going down that rabbit hole, because there's a couple of things I want to cover. I've always been impressed with how clearly intentional you are about how you spend your time, and the projects that you do invest energy and resources into. You've just taken several months to write the Building a Second Brain book. So what was it that convinced you that was the right project to take on?


Tiago Forte 37:41

Yeah, yeah, you know, it was quite a bit longer, it was really more like, well, it was a year to read the proposal, which is absurd.


Tiago Forte 37:50

It's just absurd. If you on internet timescales, those of us who spend a lot of time online, we're used to things happening in like hours or days, it was a full year writing, writing and iterating on the proposal, and then the proposal was sold, and then another year to actually write the thing that I talked about in the proposal. So it's really been like the past two years, it's been my main focus. And it really, so it's, it's really interesting how, like, the internet is this gallery of wonders, there's so many options, there's so many ways you can succeed, right, infinite ways. And so that creates this difficulty of you really have to be in touch with what you want. What do you want in your life? How do you want to spend your days? How do you want to wake up in the morning? What do you want to see on your calendar? Instead of oh, what do I have to do? What is the only route? What is the necessary, no, like, whatever you want, there is now a way to fulfill that path. And, you know, I had different options I could have, like, after the cohort was successful, and I had the live course, it was like, what is the next major product launch, basically, what is the next, you know, item in my portfolio, and I could just, I really took months to think about it, because I could see that this first product, the life course provided enough to live on, right, which is kind of an amazing gift that with one product, I can make a living that is already just amazing. And so the second product really has to be something else, it has to be either a work of love or compassion, or it has to be specifically to reach as many people as possible, or it has to be, you know, some other goal. And that's really the one that I chose was reaching people. I just reached this point that I I think second brains change people's lives, I know that they do. And the knowledge about what they are, and how to create them is incredibly niche and scarce. It's like a handful of people in very niche internet subcultures that know about this thing, right? And I don't know, I spent most of my 20s abroad, you know, working in developing countries, I taught English in Rio in Brazil, then I worked in microfinance in Colombia. And then I was in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. And I just was like, haunted by all these, these faces, these people that I knew, who didn't have the opportunities that I had, you know, didn't, couldn't work for tech companies, couldn't work online, couldn't go anywhere in the world and do any kind of work that they wanted. And I just decided that I was going to do the most public mainstream broadcast of these ideas. And it's funny because that is a book. I think the other big, big blind spot of internet people is we tend to think if something is online, then it's universally accessible. And that's just not the case. It's not at all, a book has a far broader reach than something that is purely online.


Jay Clouse 37:50

Oh, wow.


Jay Clouse 40:55

How much crossover is there between what you teach in the book versus what you teach in the live course format?


Tiago Forte 41:03

It's exactly the same. I didn't hold anything back. I just got everything from the course and distilled it into into writing.


Jay Clouse 41:10

I would imagine in your life course cohorts, there are a lot of questions that come up from students about like, okay, you've, you've now moved this personal knowledge management to be tool agnostic, but I love this tool, can you help me apply this to this tool? And then of course format, you can do that, you can help walk them through that. How did you address that in a book that's going to be the same person to person?


Tiago Forte 41:33

That was the big challenge, that was a big challenge, because I had to really find even more so than in the course, what are the principles, right? Not just the features, but the actual timeless principles that apply not just from one note taking out to another, but from one generation of note taking app to another.


Jay Clouse 41:54

Totally, yeah.


Tiago Forte 41:55

Even to non note taking apps, other kinds of information management tools, even to paper, right? And all of that on a timescale, like like a mainstream nonfiction book, you really have to think in at least a 10 year, like the payout, the payback from that is going to happen over at least a decade. And so I think the way I addressed that is just focusing on principles. And then every time I reached a point that I wanted to recommend a specific thing, I would just link to the website. And on the website, we're gonna have resources that can be updated all the time, videos, guides, recommend different apps, links to those apps like that can change constantly. The book is like the the official kind of doctrine.


Jay Clouse 42:34

So smart, I love seeing what people are doing to tie physical books now to ever changing methodology and ideas and resources and things and explicit calling out like, hey, there's a companion website to this that you can learn from, I think that's so smart. And I don't see a ton of people doing it even still.


Tiago Forte 42:52

No, no, it's I think there's not a lot of people that make the Internet to publish in bridge in general, because it's just requires such a different mindset, works on a completely different timescale that we're just not used to working digitally. But I think they're also highly complementary, I would encourage people if I'd say if you are trying to reach the broadest possible audience, which not everyone should do or can do, but if that is you, think about publishing, you know, you won't make any money, you'll lose a lot of money. Publishing is not a profession anymore. It is an expensive hobby, right? It is, it is your money loser, your loss leader. But this is where the CBC or any courses so valuable is I can lose, I can lose all sorts of money on the book, knowing that if you've been seriously if 1% of people who buy the book, buy the course we are in incredible shape. That's more than we need, 1% conversion, right? Yeah, that is the power of pairing a practically free book with a high end course.


Jay Clouse 43:54

So smart. You have been really prolific over time on your blog, you've written so many blog posts, I imagined what this book writing process, you probably had an editor. What was it like having someone say, like, now this isn't good or I would change this?


Tiago Forte 44:08

Oh, my gosh, Jay, it's so yeah, if you're if you're used to basically blogging, where no one can tell you anything, no one can cut anything. No one can say, don't say that. No editing, no filter, no gatekeepers, which is the beauty of blogging, right? And this is this is the process I wanted to go through is almost to as a forcing function on myself, on my own psychology to, to force myself to go through this mainstream publishing route. And what I learned from I really learned some incredible principles about what it takes to reach way beyond your niche, right? It's like, and there were so many frustrating moments, there were there are moments that I was like, pissed. I was like, angry. I was like, tens of thousands of people have told me this is good. Who are you to say that it doesn't work like I know better than you, right? It's like all my like reaction to like authority figures. But I just like took some time, like breathed, meditated. And ultimately, I deferred to the authority, the experience of really three people is my agent, who actually was the editor for Getting Things Done so I really trusted her because she edited the book that inspired my career. So when she says something, I was like, oh, I have to listen. And then my agent who was the same agent for James Clear in Atomic Habits, so she has quite a bit of credibility there, right? I chose people that had this like undeniable credibility, because I knew that I would rebel. And I would, I knew that I would need to trust them based on their past experience. And then the third person is the publisher who actually purchased th, the book, who has a long string of successes behind her. So these three powerful women were like my three coaches to get me through the psychology of writing a book.


Jay Clouse 46:01

Speaking of projects that you've chosen to take on, I was seeing that you're starting to publish on YouTube, some incredibly high quality videos.


Tiago Forte 46:10

In a world that's moving faster and faster, we all have to find resources and tools to help us make sense of the noise and the chaos of daily life. I'm Tiago Forte, I'm a father, a writer, and a productivity expert. And I'm on a mission to help people use technology to live more productive and meaningful lives. Today, we're talking about using Notion as a second grant.


Jay Clouse 46:37

Which leads me to believe that now YouTube is becoming a priority. And I would love to hear about that decision.


Tiago Forte 46:43

Yeah, you too. Wow, YouTube has been a journey, been such a journey. It is so not natural to me in any way. It is not natural for me to think about video and lighting, and backgrounds. It's not natural, natural for me to perform, and do multiple takes, it's not or act, it's not natural to think about sound like all the skills involved in video is the opposite of my my natural skills. But it was really, so what led me here is a combination. I think, first of just wanting to learn something new, you know, it's like riding, I've been doing it so long. It's like, it's like riding a bike, it just happens in the background. And I'm not really challenged by it. So wanting to learn something new, being willing to learn something new. But also, we started looking at our course where our customers coming from, where our subscribers and students coming from was YouTube. And not even our YouTube channel. But Ali Abdaal and Thomas Frank and these people were becoming our main source of traffic. And so we just realized, well, we can just depend on them forever, you know, and hope that they keep sending people our way or we can again, listen to signals in the environment, right? It's trying to tell you something, and invest in our own YouTube channel, which has taken, if I knew what it would take to create the system we created, I don't know if I ever would have done it. Because there were there were so many layers, like we had to remodel our garage into a studio, which that by itself took like nine months, right? Because we had to like change change the floor, there were acoustic properties, there was heat, right, with all the lights, it gets hot so then we needed a big air conditioning, well, not a big air conditioning, well, you need these vents. And then you have the vents, you have to change the exterior walls. It's like this cascade of consequences. Then I had to hire someone a full time person just to manage that. Because I just didn't have the time. Then we worked with a consultant Kevin Shinn, who I think you've also worked with.


Jay Clouse 48:35

Yes, yep. Shout out Kevin Chen, dream to the horse. Edeka.


Tiago Forte 48:38

Absolutely. So he came down for two separate five day trips. We consulted with Kevin for 10 full days, on just lighting and sound and background and all these different things. It's, it's totally crazy. I have such an appreciation for what it takes to make a really good YouTube video now. But the end result of all that is we are now on a which was always the goal, a weekly publishing cadence to publish one new YouTube video every Thursday. And it's still early days, I think we've just done like four or five. But early results are promising.


Jay Clouse 49:12

Yeah, so smart. And a lot of people who listen to the show who are in the earlier stages of their creator journey, they look up to people like you and it's easy to see like, all of this is working concert right now. That's what it looks like to succeed. And they try to start doing all these things. But if you listen to the story, you just told us, it was very intentional and piece by piece and medium by medium, literally perfecting 13 cohorts Building a Second Brain before you started doing the book and now video. And I hope people take that to heart because I think that is the path.


Tiago Forte 49:43

Thank you. Yeah, it's it's, it's so you can never predict, it's so unexpected and surprising. But I think all all the challenges in the middle steps, right? Like you know where you are now. And you can probably envision where you want to be just look at the people you admire. They have teams and the offices and the studios and they have the different social channels, all of the ambiguity comes from how the current state gets to the end state, right? And it's like, if you were a startup and you raise millions of dollars, you could just hire that whole team all at once, right? Just hire like 25 specialized roles, but that's not how it's gonna work. You're probably bootstrapped, I'm bootstrapped. So I can hire one person at a time. And each person is a major financial commitment and it's going to completely change our business. So then it's like it's it's an exercise in like judgment, wisdom, self awareness, really connecting with people and like getting them, are you the one that is going to take us to the next level? Because you can't afford to make a bad hire.


Jay Clouse 50:49

One of the lessons from Tiago's story that I can't stop thinking about is the power of brand. Building a Second Brain is such a powerful brand that he hit on so early. That brand has an intuitive understanding, a promise that it's making, it's easy to pronounce. I probably value the power of a good name more than most, because when you hit on something good, it can do a lot for you. Even his book is simply titled Building a Second Brain. I also want to highlight Tiago's intentionality in terms of when he added on new platforms. He ran more than a dozen cohorts of his course before he worried about the book or expanded on to YouTube. That patience allowed him to invest heavily into his video studio and convince an incredible team to back his book. We often rush into things, but if you bide your time and build more credibility, you can layer these projects on and potentially have a bigger impact out of the gate. If you want to learn more about Tiago, you can visit his website buildingasecond brain.com or @fortelabs on Twitter. Tiago's book Building a Second Brain is available for preorder until June 14. You can also find that at buildingasecondbrain.com. Links to all of that are in the show notes. Thanks to Tiago for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you'd like this episode, you can tweet me @jayclouse and let me know and if you really want to say thank you, please do, please, please say thank you. Please leave a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. That helps a lot. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you next week.