In March of 2023, I took a good hard look at our accounting and rubbed my temples. Superpath had finished 2022 with about $550,000 in gross revenue and a nice profit. I set my sights on $1m in 2023 and had a strategy and forecasts to back it up. But from the very beginning of the year, growth was really hard—and sometimes, impossible—to come by. All the things that came easily in 2022 were so much harder. As I studied our 2023 YTD numbers at the end of Q1, I realized that—at the very least—I needed to adjust my goals for the year. (How naive that feels in retrospect.)
I first noticed trouble with the job board, which dropped to nearly zero after many months of $5,000+/month revenue. The business was okay without that revenue, but in retrospect, it was a signal that things were slowing down.
Next, it was our marketplace. In the spring, content marketers were flattened by a wave of tight budgets, which led to tons of layoffs and a dip in content spending. We lost several large customers all at once, mostly because our POCs were laid off and their CMOs wanted to pause content. Then it was sponsorships. Our weekly newsletter, which had been sold out for 18 straight months, went unsponsored.
Spring and summer were the worst few months of my four years working on Superpath. I had to let go of our one employee in May. I came to that realization while on a family vacation in which I worked the entire time and dealt with it as soon as it became clear I didn't have a choice. It was the worst vacation of my life.
My stress levels were through the roof and it seeped—no, it cascaded—into the rest of my life. I was just about ready to quit and find a job. (And I might have, if there had been any jobs available.) Of our four lines of business, three were suffering and one was not enough to sustain the entire business. It was a painful realization that maybe I wasn't the entrepreneur I thought I was—and that maybe this was the end of the road.
The "Content Recession"
I went through a brief period of sulking, which eventually gave way to a lackadaisical month or two. I stopped caring so much about work and tried to allow myself to pour energy into other things. More time with the family, camping trips and training for an ultramarathon. I didn't know how to fix Superpath because I had no idea what was happening to content marketing more broadly. We dubbed it the content recession. I assumed that the demand for content and the people who provided it would return, but I wasn't sure when and, frankly, wasn't going to drive myself insane trying to sell stuff that no one wanted.
I didn't take a deliberate break at that time, but I did mentally check out for a bit. And I didn't realize how badly I needed to take my foot off the gas. It was really refreshing to spend some time away from my computer, doing and thinking about other things. But come late summer, my business partner Walter and I had to have a tough conversation. The gist of it was basically, "Are we going to do this or not?" It was a long, soul-searching conversation. We seriously weighed the possibility of selling the company for parts or turning it into a side project. We talked about some of the strategic errors, but also about personal stuff like burnout.
Just what I needed
I'd never really considered anything but a 100% commitment to the business and I have to admit that it was freeing to realize that I had some options. Even just thinking about getting a job or taking a break was so invigorating that it boosted my spirits. Still, I decided to take a proper break. I took 10 days off. My wife and I disappeared into the northern Arizona wilderness for a backpacking trip followed by a few days lounging at the pool in Las Vegas. Damn, that felt good! I didn't think much about work while I was out there, knowing that having some space would help me find what I really wanted out of all of this.
One thing that became clear upon my return was that Superpath's business model wasn't really working. It functioned, but it wasn't thriving. All along, my hypothesis on our go-to-market strategy was a slight variation of a typical media publication. We drive people towards a central place (in our case a community instead of a media site) then monetize (1) a small percentage of members directly and (2) the rest via ads.
We've added around 500 members/month for several years. But even a lightweight analysis showed that our conversion-to-paid model wasn't working. Either our paid offering wasn't compelling, or not enough people knew about it. This very official-looking visualization that I made a few years ago started to feel more like a wish than a reality.
After much reflection, I now feel that communities are not analogous to media sites. There is overlap, of course. A community and a media site both publish content, sell ads, and aggregate people (members or subscribers) in a single destination. The key difference, I believe, is that the community format attracts users whose primary intention is to connect with other users, rather than to consume content.
So now what?
We've had a marketplace element to the business going back more than two years, but I now see Superpath as a whole as a marketplace. Our value proposition is that we can give demand and supply opportunities to transact with each other. The community itself has an important off-shoot—members' ability to ask questions, network with one another, attend events, etc.—that keeps it lively and attractive to new members. This is a key part of our effort to grow a healthy, engaged supply side—both for the sake of itself as well as to make our B2B offerings more attractive. To thrive, Superpath needs both (1) an engaged community and (2) tactful, helpful ways for supply and demand to transact.
This thinking has really changed my approach to Superpath. The business is—or, can be—a vertically integrated one that provides all kinds of valuable opportunities to content marketers by brokering relationships with businesses. (More on that as I bring the vision to reality.)
I'm going hard on our marketplace. Content marketplaces are a dime a dozen, but I think we have a chance to build one focused on:
- Extremely high-quality content
- Fair pay for writers
- An environment where both parties feel comfortable (e.g. safeguards around rates, disputes, content standards, etc.)
Two tailwinds lead me to believe this is the future of Superpath:
- The market is highly fragmented. Most companies are forced to rely on social networks to scrape together freelance teams.
- Content has become too expensive to produce in-house. Most teams are already relying on freelancers to create content. Not only do they want the flexibility, many still feel the sting of layoffs earlier this year and aren't in a rush to hire.
This is already up and running. I'm currently tuning up the UX, working on a landing page, sales materials, etc. You'll hear a lot more about it in 2024.
I'll finish 2023 with more energy and conviction in this business than ever. But damn, it's been a hard year. Still, there were a bunch of highlights:
- We launched our podcast, Content, Briefly, in February. It's been a ton of fun. We're 36 episodes and 12,000 downloads in as I write this in mid-December.
- I hired a VA which has made my work life SO much better.
- We rolled out a paid version of the Slack community. This was a little painful at the time, but the paid group is thriving and I'm so glad we did it.
- We quietly created a new version of the marketplace. We're on pace to pay freelancers over $1 million in the first 12 months.
- We relaunched the partner program and revitalized that line of business. (That LinkedIn post turned into 10 sales calls!)
- On a personal note, I trained for the Leadville 100. I made it 77 miles before missing a time cut-off. I'd finished the race twice before and felt prepared to run a great race. (It was devastating so this part doesn't exactly fit into the highlights section.) Still, it's been a great year of running. In July, I ran three marathons and a 50k solo as part of my training. I spent many hours alone in the mountains (my favorite thing to do!). I also ran the NYC marathon this fall and will finish the year with 1,700+ miles.
- We've helped a lot of people. Every week, I hear from people who found gigs or jobs on Superpath, or met a person who became a mentor, or connected with someone that they ended up getting lunch with, or used our salary report to negotiate a raise. This is the beautiful thing about a community—people find each other and good things happen. Often, I don't even know about it until much later.
Perhaps the most important highlight of 2023 was the chance to do some soul-searching. The business was on the brink earlier this year. I really didn't know if we'd make it. It was tough, but it gave me a chance to think the entire business through from scratch—a freedom I typically wouldn't allow myself.
I recall a few years ago listening to an interview with Lance Armstrong. He described being outed as a doper and all that followed as a terrible experience with one important silver lining—he found out for real who was with him and who wasn't. Anyone still standing was a true friend. Putting aside any feelings about Lance Armstong, 2023 has provided a similar experience for Superpath. It forced me to ask a bunch of really hard questions about the business and myself. What's left is a fired-up founder and a no-BS agenda to fix all the problems that were so blatantly exposed this year. I don't have doubts anymore. I'm not certain all my plans will work, but I'm certain I can assess success or failure, and adjust accordingly. And that is one of the most profound learnings of my career so far.
I'll wrap up the year feeling confident that we're working on the most important projects. I'll also finish 2023 a little humbler, a little more grateful to still be working on Superpath, and with a newly lit fire in me. 2024, here I come.