We have a complaint

We finally launched Sleep Tight Premium on Apple Podcasts, an annoying process that took forever. Not everyone is pleased that Sleep Tight Stories features subscriber only stories. We always have produced stories specifically for subscribers, but you wouldn’t see that unless you took that leap of faith and subscribed via Supercast. Apple, being Apple, shows these stories amongst the ad supported stories to boost conversion.

As always we will listen to feedback and adjust as needed.


Not easy

“You’re 4x more likely to succeed with a business than a podcast. If you’re podcasting to make money, stop!” According to the PodMatch June 2024 report.

Sharing for future reference. Reports like this are generally geared more towards gaining traffic to a website, than gaining real insight, but I do agree with the sentiment.


Accomplishment stuffing

“Hello, I’m an accomplished, multi-award-winning podcast producer known for creating captivating audio content for such famous shows as ….”

One of the trends I’ve noticed lately—well, maybe not a trend, as I’m sure it’s always been common—is listing all possible accomplishments in a self-introduction or description of a show. It always makes me smile, but then it leaves me wondering: If this is the way people promote their work and themselves, should we be doing it too? (The above was from a speaker’s introduction at Podcast Powerup.)

I notice it in podcast descriptions, like “multi-award nominated … show” quite often.

In our latest ads, we had written by Jaime Lee Mann for Sleep Tight Stories. She started with the line, “Sleep Tight Stories is a calming bedtime podcast with more than 60 million downloads.” I rejected it immediately. Aren’t our quantitative accomplishments irrelevant? But other shows mention these facts as a matter of course.

Perhaps this is a matter of personality. We prefer to keep quiet, which might be the antithesis of everyone else’s strategy for building a small business.

I’ve experimented with sharing what we are up to and what we have done – to see how it makes us feel. Getting some recognition is important, especially with all the time and effort we put into our work. I just can’t imagine sharing everything I know or have done each and every chance I get.


More cover art

These are our latest covers without titles. I think these are a better match for what we are doing than far too polished look I can produce in AI.


Toronto Visit

Sheryl and I spent the weekend in Toronto, flying up early Saturday morning and returning early this morning. This was, I believe, the first time we had flown anywhere together without the kids in 21 years, and it was long overdue.

We flew up to attend the Podcast Power Up Summit, which is part of the Radiodays North America & CMW Music Conference. I don’t generally see much value in attending conferences, especially since most occur in the States, and the cost of flying down there from the Island is usually exorbitant. This one eschewed the common “this is how you create a podcast-type fare” for more interesting discussions.

Walking into a room full of strangers who seem to know each other is a source of discomfort for Sheryl and me. At any social gathering, I would be that weirdo standing in the corner drinking coffee while everyone else is on the dance floor. I was better this time and managed to chat with people I have connected with over email. We had our picture taken, listened to some interesting people talk about podcasting, and generally enjoyed the whole experience.

The highlight of the weekend was the box of pastries we ate outside at Blackbird Baking in the Kensington Market. There is nothing like getting a sugar and caffeine high while people-watching. Delicious pastries.

The other was going to hear Barry Elmes with Brian OKane on Trumpet. Brian attended Humber while I was there, and as it turned out, I hadn’t heard him play in 37 years—a number I doubt, but it appears to be true. He sounded great.

We did a lot of walking on Saturday, about 33km. And it felt like we were being constantly gassed. I have never smelled so much cannabis in my life, and there are cannabis stores everywhere. I have nothing against cannabis, alcohol, sugar, or whatever substance you need to bring about temporary happiness, but the amount seems problematic.

There is one constant in travelling out of Charlottetown – inconvenient flight times and delays. I’ve always flown light, but this weekend, flying with just a tiny backpack greatly alleviates the stress of boarding and onboarding. I am off to Calgary at the end of the month, and I think I’ll try to fly with just a tiny backpack again. It’s worth it.


Montague Post Office Woes

A week or more ago, I ordered a couple of bags of what I thought might be some lovely-tasting Geisha from Vancouver and gave them my home address to ship to.

I’ve been doing this all the time lately, especially from Amazon, as we get packages shipped very quickly to our door—quicker than we did in Stratford. Sending them to our Montague PO Box can add 2 weeks to delivery. I didn’t realize just how slow they were until we tried ordering a box, and it showed up 2 days later.

Most roasters ship straight to our door, so I didn’t give it much thought. Except it seems this roaster uses regular Canada Post, which, when they received the box without a PO Box number in Montague, immediately sent it back to the sender (or maybe they are enjoying my coffee in the back room). What a waste!

The people who work there are generally very nice, but the whole system is a joke.


Generative cover art

We are behind schedule in launching our new Apple subscription, in part because we have to upload a thousand or more files manually. Apple has an API that podcast host providers can tap into, but the feature isn’t on by default with ours, and they seem just about impossible to deal with, so here we are.

One of the pain points we are trying to address is how hard it is to listen to serial fiction in a date-based feed. If you want to listen to any of the chapter stories we have produced, you have to scroll down to where the beginning is and start from there. And you need to do that each and every time.

To address this, we have created several new “shows” with these stories in serial format so you can listen to them as intended without scrolling.

We are ready to launch four of these right away, but we are waiting for cover art. I’ve contacted three separate artists to illustrate these covers, and the process is excruciatingly slow and expensive.

I had a meeting over coffee with a local author this week about a project. She showed me how she creates her covers using Canva Pro, a tool that everyone seems to have migrated to. Her process was incredibly slick and effective.

I haven’t had much luck using AI to create art of any kind—it always has that glossy sheen and bad lighting. But this time, the results were consistently different.

These images contain errors, but the quality seems quite astounding, especially considering how little effort I put into the prompt.

The problem with using generative tools is that you can say, “Please remove the red flower, but keep everything else the same,” and it will fail.

While I strive to maintain consistency in requests for recreations, the exact reproduction of an image from request to request can vary slightly due to the generative nature of the AI model I use. Each time an image is generated, even with the same prompt, there might be minor differences in details due to the stochastic elements of the image generation process.

I have mixed feelings. I still can’t shake the feeling that using tools like this is somehow wrong.


Should we celebrate more?

I think about this question from time to time. We don’t celebrate our successes, no matter the size.

Tomorrow, Camren has his last IB exam, effectively ending not just three weeks of the hardest exams he may ever face but also the end of high school for him. He’s going out for dinner with a buddy because we don’t really make a big deal of things.

I regularly see podcasts making a big deal of achieving some download target—maybe 10,000 or a million—or splashing all over their social media the fact that they were mentioned in an article somewhere. We did once when we reached 500 stories on one of our podcasts, but it was more a function of having nothing else to say.

Is this an essential part of promotion?

Sometimes, I think we are afraid of being seen and run away from any outward appearance of success.


How’s your day going?

I started mine with my obligatory walk up the hill that is our street, which is usually followed by a short walk and run, as has been my habit for weeks.

As I walked, I thought, what the hell is wrong with me? I can’t see anything clearly. My eyesight is digressing faster than I had ever imagined possible. It was then I realized that I was wearing my reading glasses, so I walked back into the house, put on my proper glasses, and the world was correct again.


The invisible podcast ad campaign

The 2nd of May marked the start of our first campaign to promote Sleep Tight Stories. While there was a wild disconnect between the dizzying dollar amount and impressions assigned to the campaign, we have never been able to do any significant promotion like this until now. We had high hopes for its success.

We prepared copy and spent hours producing audio spots for network and broadcast.

In the past, we were featured on Spotify in Australia and mentioned in a Canadian tech newsletter, which gave us a significant uptick in these regions.

It may still be early for this campaign, but our numbers are way down, not up. Either the campaign is not running as we have been told, or this is somehow staving off our disappearance from Apple Podcasts. It’s pretty disappointing.

Our goal this year is to broaden our focus beyond podcasting to include different platforms, including print, and introduce new products altogether. This is both to diversify our income and improve my mental health. There is no denying that without Sleep Tight Stories, these other efforts will become increasingly difficult.


Contrasts

This past week has been one of contrasts.

We recently invested in having Jaime Lee Mann write copy for us. The impetus was an ad run we are contracted to have for our Sleep Tight Stories show. And, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a writer lead how we move our efforts forward, by writing copy that identifies what we do. Often, product development is engineering-led or, in enlightened organizations, design-led. It makes sense for us to have words lead the way forward; she has a great imagination.

Jaime is a professional through and through and great to work with. She genuinely cares and is a nice person, to boot.

The others we work with could learn a lot from her.

To them, an agreement and pay schedule are but a guide. There is zero communication and regular mishaps. The latest is an ad running across all our shows that we didn’t approve. It’s loud, doesn’t identify as an ad, and is entirely out of character for our show.

When you work with someone as great as Jaime, you sleep at night comforted that someone you work with cares about the end result. Last night was an anxiety-riddled half-sleep, with me worrying about how our shows would be ruined tomorrow.

Big company’s ≠ professionalism.


Money

From Daring Fireball, an apparently oft-cited quote from Walt Disney,

We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.

works well for all kinds of creative work in which you make a profit.


Value

I’ve taken some time to think instead of do. I like to dream, and according to my elementary school teachers I had a real talent for dreaming in class.

So, I have been dreaming up new ways to frame our activity to make it a sustainable source of fun and income until that inevitable day of cognitive decline arrives.

Ego gets in the way. I can’t just publish a kid’s podcast. I must publish five all by myself. I can’t just publish five podcasts; I must also publish a bunch of books with toys and other things. We will keep it tight and tidy, but we need some help to do so. So, I have been reaching out to people.

I am admittedly very cheap, and other than coffee, I find everything overpriced. Except it seems my time. That I have learned is grossly underpriced.

The plus side of selling yourself cheap is that it may open you up to all kinds of opportunities you might not have otherwise considered, like creating audio for kids. The negative is that you are poor.


Fellow

I don’t generally get excited about purchases of any kind, but this grinder from Fellow had me checking the FedEx website a few times. After seasoning the burrs, I haven’t had a bad cup of coffee. The only issue is that now my caffeine intake is way up.


An Island Moment Part 2

Back in July 2019, I wrote about what was perhaps the best personification of a healthcare system that worked. I use this example a lot when I mention in conversation about how things should work here, and though it’s a mix of private and public care, I am thankful for it.

Today I get to share the other end of the scale.

Lately, I have noticed that the text on my computer screen is not as crisp as it once was, so I thought I should update my eyeglass prescription. I found it hard to believe that my eyesight could deteriorate in a couple of years, but Sheryl was complaining about the same, and well, middle age.

Being busy, I put off the appointment until today, and it seems Dr. Catherine Arsenault has saved the day again—although perhaps too late.

During my last visit less than two years ago, she mentioned that the pressure in my left eye, where I had trouble before, was rising, and it was best to see Dr. Elaraoud again for care. His office was supposed to call, but they never did. And, being busy and not realizing the importance, I didn’t call Dr. Arsenault back to check on the referral. I guess with a new prescription, feeling well, and not suffering from any effects, I let it slip by.

As a result, there is some irreversible damage to the nerves in my left eye.

I started to get angry and mentioned that I could fly elsewhere for care, including the US, if necessary. She assured me that Dr. Elaraoud’s office would indeed call this time. Quickly, I calmed myself down as I realized that it was on me to take matters of my health more seriously, not a dysfunctional health system.

Workplace Progressives
An Island moment


The kids

In 1986 I was a shitty trumpet player with no business attending a music school dedicated to performance and the business of music. But I did. And I did so with only a student loan and the support of a single parent. I went to school in Toronto, didn’t work during the school year, and had a place of my own to live in. I ate a lot of pizza and drank lots of beer.

Camren, a dedicated competitive athlete with an academic record I could have only dreamed of, has been awarded scholarships and bursaries for 2024, but he still doubts he can attend. The costs have risen exponentially, while the scholarship awards have not, nor have salaries. How many kids will no longer be able to afford the quality of outcomes a higher education provides?

What a world we have left for them.


Coaching

I had a coaching session recently in Charlottetown. I’m generally not one for believing in the value of life coaches or other similar services. I prescribe more to the David Goggins approach to life, or at least Mel Robbins.

But it was one of the most valuable 90 minutes I have spent in a long time. I don’t know what it was—the timing or a need to share. Most likely, she was simply really good. I used to consider myself a master of the user interview, but she was far better at establishing a positive connection with a stranger than I ever will be.

I went in there looking for guidance on how to change my mindset, and I left with a number of key questions that need to be answered before any strategy or change might occur.

Sometimes, you need the right person at the right time to give you that push you need to move forward. I look forward to another session in the future.


Editing

I recently hired an editor for an early story I wrote, Nibbles The Mouse.

It’s a humbling experience, as the pages are full of red.

I openly state when asked about my writing that I consider each story to be nothing more than a rough draft. It’s true, but it’s a kind of hedge born out of insecurity. I didn’t realize just how true it was until now.

The story will be better for it, but I wish I had caught the mistakes earlier.


Negative reviews

At the beginning of our journey, we received a rash of negative reviews of our work. Though it sometimes stung, we made changes over time to address these concerns and haven’t often received this kind of critical feedback since, which is a problem.

We aren’t so big that we get much in the way of online discussion or mentions in the press, so I went looking. With the interest in screen-free ways to access audio, like Yoto player, Tonie, and our sponsor Storybutton, I decided to dive into forums that discuss the experience of listening to audio on these platforms.

It’s important to note that these listeners have far different expectations than those sharing an iPhone or iPad with their kids. They also are not necessarily aware of what a podcast is or the community built around podcasts such as ours.

There were two criticisms I have found stated time and time again.

The first was advertising. It’s an understandable complaint. We have gone a few weeks without an ad, and then boom, there is an advertisement for bed sheets or meal delivery before every story. I don’t like ads much either, but without ads, there wouldn’t be stories like Bernice the Bear, which their kids seem to love. People don’t often realize that others have a mortgage to pay.

The other complaint concerned our birthday shoutouts. “Why the hell are there 100 birthday shoutouts before a story?” was one complaint. Kids love hearing their names on a podcast, and we are often surprised by how popular this part of the show has become. But it hasn’t scaled well. Even after charging $35US per shoutout, we still get inundated with requests.

We haven’t considered creating with these closed platforms in mind, but as I find more of these criticisms and the platforms increase in popularity, we’ll likely make more changes to how we produce our audio.


Just start somewhere

Whenever I mention to those with more talent and experience in writing that everything I release is essentially a very rough draft, I can see a slight grimace forming at the corner of their mouth. To release a story that is not perfectly formed is not best practice.

Our listeners don’t seem to mind too much, as children tend to possess an interesting combination of open appreciation, criticality, and forgiveness of the less-than-perfect.

This allows us to produce more stories on a tight time schedule. You can’t expect perfection if you only have 3 hours or so to write something new.

Eventually, some investment in time and money must be made in editing so that the stories can be released in different mediums for reading. Without the benefit of Sheryl’s voice and my music, the accuracy of the word becomes more important. With hundreds of stories, it is difficult to know where to start, but that’s where the uniqueness of our model comes into play.

I have access to the listening data, regular communication from listeners, and comments and reviews of all our stories, which tells me which resonates most with kids. So, while I may like the story about a Mermaid visiting Souris, it turns out that the most listened-to story was about a mouse in a barn. In fact, over the course of a year, Nibbles the Mouse has been listened to hundreds of thousands of times. I have no idea why.

In the Montague Community School writing class, we were asked to submit a story to share during the final banquet. The teacher graciously offered to edit each of our stories and then print off copies that others could take home. So I took the opportunity to send her a copy of Nibbles the Mouse, and now I have a far more complete version. I think she was slightly taken aback by my copyright message on the first page. It was a bit heavy-handed (it had a reprinted with permission message), and I hummed and hawed, but in the end, I acquiesced to the instruction I received from lawyers.

With a more polished version, I can find an editor and an illustrator and start creating prototypes to see what format best fits these stories.


Story waypoints

I’m about to finally finish a series called The Magical Book of Dreams, which I started for Sleep Tight Stories a year and a half ago. It’s a story about a girl whose father disappears, and she goes off to find and then rescue him. I found it very hard to write, and my writing style changed about five times throughout the time I have been writing it. Though a mess, it’s proven to have a following, and we often get requests for when the next chapter is coming.

I read an excerpt that at the bi-weekly meeting of the Montague Writing Group. I don’t think they came away impressed, and they had some helpful feedback.

Next, I hope to publish it in print and ebook, but because it’s so messy, I think it’s going to cost a fortune to have it edited. Once done, the publishing part should be more straightforward than the other stories I have written, which occupy the space between board and chapter books. They will also require more illustrations.

The other continuing series is The Transfer Student, about a girl who moves to Canada from Mars. I started this series after I was inspired by Patti Larsen’s Cat City, which we published and are re-mastering as time permits. The Transfer Student is far less developed and will take considerable time to complete before it’s finished. The story never explicitly states the location, but I will somehow find a way to weave Charlottetown into the story.

By the time both of these series reach their respective end points, it will be the end of June, and it will be time for a couple of weeks of working outside.


Some local works

I’ve been collating the remote digital bits to my life of late. Online health checks, Montreal clinics for a doctor, mentors for design and business, online co-working, and Zoom-based social gatherings. These fill holes that I find can’t be filled in our remote summer paradise.

I signed up with the Start-up Zone again last summer in the hopes that I might use the space to fill that need to be around people during the workday. In the dead of winter, I find my Montague office very isolating, and the old men at Home Hardware can only be so accommodating. I never got to the Start-up Zone but made some great connections.

It’s not official, but that resource will cease operations at the end of May. It was always an odd place, but I found my year as a resident company incredibly useful. It was very active and busy, with plenty of opportunities to connect with people and learn new perspectives. It has never recovered from the COVID shutdowns and has received little direction from the board until now. Other organizations have been trying to fill the gap, like PEIBWA, a strangely female-only resource, and Innovation PEI, which has recently published some material to help would-be entrepreneurs. Neither have an environment conducive to the magic of a happenstance connection with a peer.

However, I have found a couple of other local organizations with programs I am starting to enjoy. Creative PEI is running a course I joined, which will follow Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way. I particularly enjoy trying to write my Morning Pages every day. They also have an Artist’s Support group, which I attended. It’s comforting to be around people who live through the same challenges as you, who are not obsessed with leveraging real estate assets as their primary output, and who make things because they feel they need to be made.

I have been a member of the PEI Writers Guild for a couple of years(?), but I have never participated in any of their events. However, they have a monthly writers’ meet-up that I will attend. If I can summon the courage, I plan on reading at their monthly readings at The Gallery.

While so much of what I do seems to be increasingly done off-Island (relying on off-Island health services is an odd one), it’s wonderful that there are still some opportunities to connect here locally.


It’s home

Answering the question as to why we live in Prince Edward Island requires just two words: it’s home. All the many advantages of living here can surely be found elsewhere. And the many disadvantages, like the lack of social services and health care, high taxation, etc., are negated by simply repeating those two words.

That doesn’t necessarily apply when it comes to running a business. Does it?

I finally received a bill for legal services that we received from McInnis Cooper. I’m glad I have a sense of humour, as it was laughably high considering what service was rendered. A copy of their findings was also going to cost extra, which I declined.

I like working with people across a table and with a whiteboard or paper handy. It’s enjoyable to connect with experts like those at McInnis Cooper. As such, I have been trying to be as local a company as we can be, even when their fees are 2-3x as much as those of a remote competitor.

Recently, as we have placed more attention on the financial side of our business, I’ve realized that all our business is conducted in US dollars. We do nothing in Canada. We have US currency accounts and are also in the process of opening a bank account in the US.

We’ve decided that no matter the size of our tiny shop, we will not hire employees. There are many reasons for this, the most important being that I don’t want to be someone’s boss. The work that we hire for will be done remotely by freelancers or contractors outside of Canada.

So why not move the whole company to another, perhaps more favourable jurisdiction? What advantages are there to be had by being located here (locating elsewhere is surprisingly easy)? Why be local at all?

During my search for an answer to this question, there were many reasons listed: Tax benefits, legal system, access to trade agreements, banking and currency exchange, access to talent, reputation and branding, funding and government support, and healthcare.

The only one of these that interested me was tax benefits, and that will require a conversation with an accountant. I don’t foresee any government support.

We will categorize this as a thought experiment for this year, but if we are lucky enough to continue or even grow, we will look more seriously at it in the new year.


Apple Tax

The tech news is often full of articles reporting on Apple’s dominance with its app store and the percentage it charges. There is less talk about how businesses are compelled to spend a significant portion of their budget on digital advertising with Google and Facebook to ensure visibility online.

I’m sure the economics work out well for large companies, but for a really small shop like ours, I’m happy to pay Apple this fee.

We host our premium feed with Supercast, and payments are made through Stripe. The service is completely open, and the fees are relatively low. I can access customers’ emails, listening habits, and other information I shouldn’t be privy to. This would seem ideal from a business/marketing standpoint—low fees and lots of data.

Except it’s not. How many times have I acted as tech support for a $7/month charge? Too many. Hours and hours have been spent. Or all the time, I have had to refund a charge, which costs me the fee that both Supercast and Stripe levy. Not to mention those who are too lazy to email and simply dispute the charge with the credit card company. This not only costs me the fees from Supercast and Stripe, but the bank charges me $15.

For many, this is no big deal, but each hour spent sending emails, offering tech support, or managing payments is time I’m not spending doing other, more important things, like creating something people might want to pay for in the first place.

So, we are going to move from open to closed and move all our offerings to a service that manages those aspects of our business. We’ll also find another way to establish a relationship with our listeners.


Buckets

I’m working on trying to change my mindset. A mental hack perhaps. I am trying to put certain aspects of my life into mental buckets. When there is time to devote to that “bucket,” I’ll take the cover off and devote whatever cognitive capacity I have at that moment to that bucket. Perhaps this is called mindfulness, or living in the moment? I have yet to really look into the proper labels. In a way, it’s related to not taking your work home with you.

What I have found is that I have a tendency towards workaholism in the sense that I cannot disengage from work-related problems, likely due to some underlying issues like anxiety or perfectionism. I tend towards rumination – I dwell too much on problems, primarily in our business.

I think the underlying anxiety I feel is related to age and the question that Sheryl once asked, “If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?” A question I don’t have an answer to. There is also a tinge of anger towards the source of many of our problems, something I will write about later.

I recently shared with Camren one of the methods I was taught many years ago, related to musical performance. Often, problems creep into your playing as a musician, or perhaps there is a particular music passage that you always play poorly. Sometimes it’s stage fright. These issues become even more acute the more you focus on them, and it can get to the point that you can hardly function at all.

I was taught early to be a systems thinker. What are you doing holistically? What process to being better are you taking? Almost universally, when I focused on the process, the problems went away.

That’s the approach I am going to try to take again. The first step is to stop this incessant focus on the problem and just try to be good (which is good enough) at what I want to do.


Podcast rankings

Do these real meaning? I have no idea. This is our current rankings for the US in our categories. Our other podcasts don’t rank as high.

Usually I look at these to see who is spending on promotion and to get a sense of what other people are working on. These ranking also illustrate that there are very few independent producers left.


Decision made

I don’t remember having my future laid out so early, but this seems to be the norm for Camren and his classmates in IB.

We started talking about university in a more serious fashion at the start of the school year. Camren had his schools of interest narrowed down to about five, plus one in the UK, and I suggested a couple in the States.

My opinion was that in Canada, at least, with some exceptions, the undergraduate education you get is going to be of an acceptable standard, no matter the school. As long as the courses he wanted were offered, he should be fine. But, my life experience has been that the farther you venture from home, the greater the discomfort, the greater the potential for wonderful memories, learning and experiences.

He agreed, but in the end, it came down to two choices: Victoria University, which we visited earlier this year, and Mount Allison University. He chose Mount Allison and will continue to swim competitively with the varsity swim team. He is very excited and happy.


Obsolescence

Does your hammer lag when you wield it? Your paintbrush stutter across the canvas? Or does your pen simply stop accepting ink?

My Mac is simply a tool I use, and sometimes I believe the online nonsense about planned obsolescence. Then, when I go to Apple.ca, I look at the prices and think that perhaps I should use a different tool, like a typewriter and reel-to-reel tape.

I won’t change. It’s too ingrained; I’ll just suffer through a laggy cursor and a myriad of other issues that creep into my workflow (like increasingly crappy user interfaces) until I break down and enter my credit card number.