From the blog

My plan to build the next generation of podcast hosts

by Mark Steadman, on 20th January 2017

I’m Mark Steadman. I’m a long-time podcaster of no particular note, and a developer for over 16 years. I now run Podiant, a modern, cloud-based hosting platform for podcasts that aims to do things differently.

As a guy quite happy to sit in front of a mic and not petrified of being on-stage, the promise of democratised, on-demand audio has loomed large since I discovered the concept in the very early 2000s. As a web and software developer, I’ve relished even more the challenge of building tools that make this kind of communication easier, more impactful and more fun.

I tried building a network, but with its strong manifesto and editorial ideals, and without any great connections, it became more of a millstone than an outright joy, and I was too impatient to let it grow organically. Impetuousness and restlessness have always been my biggest downfalls.

What I ended up with was probably one of the most technically-advanced and presentable podcasting networks in the world at the time, but almost certainly with the fewest listeners.

Last year, before issuing a press release about a podcasting stunt, and being a little disappointed with the platform I was on at the time, I considered whether it was time to start making my own thing again. “If” I told myself “I’m going to do this, it has to be done right”. So what did that mean?

Build from the centre and work outwards.

I needed to start with an MVP (a minimum viable product). It had to host the feed for my show, let me import my old feed, and give me a presentable website. The player had to work and not be ugly, but right now it just had to sustain my show.

So I took a few days, borrowed some code from my old network and other projects, and by the end of my little sprint, I had something that worked. It looked OK, and it would hold up should the press release ever come good. (I’m still waiting for that to happen!)

The point about it looking good is important, because quite frankly, most podcast websites suck.

Some of my favourite podcasts have shitty-looking websites. Some of them are on Squarespace — which is fine, because it means they’re basic, and basic is good — but some are just ugly, stitched-together affairs that don’t feel like real homes. Or worse, there are two different sites: the “site” for the podcast — like a Libsyn page — and the spiritual home.

And the sites that don’t use Soundcloud, and thus are hosting the entire infrastructure in the same place, tend to be put together by people who value the technical achievement over the aesthetic.

But I wanted both. I used to work as Technical Director for a digital studio in the UK, who were — and still are — at their core, design-led. After six-or-so years with the company, I sloughed off the snobbishness of the techie and realised the value of good user-experience, and I realised that I wanted to build something that podcasters could call home. That meant it needed to look good on desktop and mobile, allow some form of interaction, and make it super-simple for people to subscribe.

So now I knew I had something that would work for me. And chances are, if it worked for me, it might work for others. And so, to the business case… and the problem facing the industry.

There’s no money in podcasting

The vast majority of us podcasters will see very little return for our efforts. Especially if you’re outside of the US. Some of the best podcasts on my homeworld don’t get much sponsorship. Some survive on a little Kickstarter money or other donations, and some carry the obligatory Squarespace ad, but they’re far and away the outliers.

Now, the little piggy part of me that snuffles around looking for truffles is aware, as a podcaster of one truth: while there isn’t money in making podcasts, there is money in hosting them.

People pay for the hobbies they enjoy, so if I build something good, why not make a little something for my efforts?

Which makes the socialist in me recoil. So, how do I assuage that guilt?

Make it “pay what you can”.

If you want to host your podcast with Podiant, you can do so for free. You’ll get all the tools that the highest-paying users get, and you won’t butt up against storage limits. If you can pay $5 a month, that’s great, as it shows that you’re committed to your project, and it means you get a bit of tech support should you get stuck. Pay $15 and you get even more.

I’m aware this is a risky move that may never pay off. It might rinse the funds I accrue as a freelancer under my company’s umbrella. But I don’t think it will. I think people value good services, run by good people who communicate well.

So that’s the gamble I’m taking, and that’s what I used as the strapline as I launched Podiant on Betalist.

The private beta

This story’s still ongoing, but it’s safe to say the “launch” — such as it was — wasn’t explosive. I paid for expedited review and a little extra exposure, and I got some really positive responses. That, combined with an aggressive Twitter strategy — follow en-masse, then quickly ditch the ones that don’t follow back, move to the next traunche, rinse and repeat — and a little mild skullduggery involving web scraping has seen Podiant start with a user base of 57.

Of those 57, 47 have created podcasts, and of those, one has migrated to the platform, with the possibility of another couple coming on-board fairly soon.

At the time of writing, there are 280 unaccepted beta invites Some came from BetaList, others from elsewhere, so we’re looking at around a 20% conversion rate. I don’t count that as too shabby, considering quite a few of those invites were un-asked for.

One of the lessons I’ve taken from my old network is not to try to move too quickly. This isn’t Silicon Valley, nor is it the next potential aquisition by Facebook. It’s a boutique outfit run with love, but with professional-grade tech behind it.

And I’m serious about the tech. Everything’s cloud-hosted so scalable from one machine to as many as we need… or more likely, as many as the product can afford to support. I have much of the technical nouse I need to make this work, so — as is the case with so many of my projects — the only thing it’s lacking for is marketing.

And I’m unwilling to throw money at that problem until I can properly gauge what people really want from a service like Podiant.

I’m already deeply proud of what the platform can do. It’s got a sexy player that works across platforms — and looks great while doing it — and I think I’ve got a handle on the analytics. (The first job is gathering the data, then figuring out what stories to tell with that data, and that will come with time and vocalisation of users’ needs.)

I’ve got big plans for Podiant, but I’m not pushing it. I have lots of freelance work which is keeping me busy, but as I run a number of podcasts on the platform — some of which I make, some which I produce or upload on behalf of others — it’s never far from my thoughts. There’s potential for a big deal on the horizon in March, and if I can make that, it’ll be a great shot in the arm for the platform.

I want to continue to run Podiant with openness and honesty. I’m deeply appreciative of those who’ve already come on-board and want to use the system, and so love talking with the people who use it.

Podiant’s story is just beginning, and I feel this is probably just the prologue. Chapter 1 begins in March, when I’m hoping to open the doors to the world.

If you’re interested in the journey, subscribe to the newsletter and I’ll keep you informed. There’s only been one update so far, so you’re not going to get bombarded.