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Post title image: Top of The Pods: Lessons in building great products from The Rest is History

Top of The Pods: Lessons in building great products from The Rest is History

Uncovering the strategies behind an industry juggernaut.

Desk Notes

It takes a lot to bring Grimes, Marc Andreessen, and Ayo Edebiri together - but Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland have managed it.

With 6 million monthly downloads - half of which are outside the UK - the Rest is History podcast provides one of the best examples of product-market-fit I can think of.

If you’re a podcaster, there’s obviously a lot to absorb, learn, and emulate. But if you strip everything away, there are lessons for anyone who wants to build an insanely great product.

Lesson 1: you’re never too big to stop experimenting

The Rest is History started in November 2020. Two and a half years later, they’re now on episode 352. The earliest podcasts (short debates on general topics such as greatness and civil war) are unrecognisable from what listeners now expect.

Everyone experiments in their early days, but what sets the Rest of History apart is that it’s never stopped. From walking tours of Amsterdam, to deep dives into Irish History, to a 32 part World Cup special, the podcast just keeps on iterating. They never settle, no matter how big they get or how flattering the coverage.

The lesson? You never outgrow experimentation.

Lesson 2: find your power-users and treat them well

A lot of the podcast’s success can be traced back to the decision early on to work off a subscription model instead of relying on advertising revenue alone. The Rest is History Club now has over 20,000 members paying £6 a month in exchange for additional content and access to a members only discord.

This means a level of recurring revenue that would be the envy of most Series A would startups, but also a legion of devoted RIH megafans who have spread the word of Holland and Sandbrook far and wide.

In 2022 my conversation has been reduced to only one subject: the podcast The Rest is History. I am a helpless, devoted, pathetic fan. So is everyone I know.

– James Marriott

And things have escalated. There’s a Rest is History book club, a fan created a searchable wiki of each episode, and a member even made it onto the podcast after a particularly angry tirade about Dom and Tom’s treatment of Charles I in an episode about the English Civil War.

The podcast found their true believers early, and put them to work.

Lesson 3: take a point of view (and never be boring)

The podcast is also a lot weirder than people give it credit for (I call this Paul McCartney syndrome). In the world of podcasting, to have a show that is undeniably small-c-conservative, and wears it openly, is an unusual thing. It breaks the pattern of what we’ve come to expect, and when users start listening - often hooked by an episode linked to their own interest - quickly offers them another rabbit hole, and sends them down it.

The best form of objectivity we could have is to recognise we could never be truly objective.

– Tom Holland

The hosts are also more than willing to go niche and deep, rather than broad and wide (this is the problem with their earliest episodes). From Love Island themed episodes to readings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s - rightly forgotten - book about the hundred years war, there’s always an angle, a point of view, and it’s never boring.

They’ve long given up trying to appeal to everyone, and the show’s all the better for it.

Lesson 4:  make people root for you, not just the product

Both Holland and Sandbrook are also excellent at bringing themselves into each episode. They represent the two poles of English thought: between country and city; cavalier and roundhead, and the contrast between the both is difficult to dislike.

You need a relationship to build on, and then everything else flows from that.

– Jack Davenport

And then - as most successful people do - they’ve found that the success of the podcast means having to give more of themselves to it than they expected when kicking off the Rest is History.

From episodes on their favourite historical books, to a version of “this is your life” for Dominic, many of their listeners will know more about their lives than their own friends do.

Often people tell a story about the product, and then stop. To make something truly great you have to tell a story about yourself as well.

Lesson 5: maintain quality at all cost

Finally, they’ve achieved the holy grail of scaling: the quality of their product has increased, not decreased, as the podcast has grown.

The process by which they run each episode - one of the hosts usually takes the lead, does several days of research beforehand, with the other taking a lighter role - means that it never feels like they’re just reading from notes put in front of them with 30 seconds notice.

I love it because it doesn’t feel like, ​“I Googled this thing!” – these are people who have dedicated their lives to certain subjects.

– Ayo Edebiri

The output is consistently plentiful as well (13 episodes in June alone), meaning the biggest surprise of the podcast is that they can maintain this pace alongside books, speaking tours, and general life. But they do. And they have to.

Because it never gets easier; you just go faster.

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