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Six lessons from Tiago Forte and Building a Second Brain

Jay Clouse
Jay Clouse
4 min read

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This week's episode of Creative Elements with Tiago Forte got a LOT of love on Twitter. And not just an anecdotal positive response – the Spotify data shows that this episode may have the highest listener retention ever!

If you don't know Tiago, he's the creator of Building a Second Brain. One of the earliest cohort-based courses (CBCs) that really shaped online education.

Building a Second Brain is a five-week course that helps you organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.

And in an effort to be more creative and successful in promoting the episode on Twitter, I put together a Thread with several of my takeaways (it didn't take off).

But here are my biggest takeaways:

Lean into your interests

Building a Second Brain exists because Tiago was reading a popular article about how to organize your Evernote. He took the comment section to "rant" (his words) against the use of Tags in Evernote.

People in the comments section loved his points and wanted to learn more.

This led him to write an article in February 2015 called Tagging is Broken.

That one rant started it all. He was following his interests and beliefs, and his unique viewpoint on tagging is what caught the attention of the market.

That blog post was re-shared by Evernote themselves and it was off to the races.

Start niche – even if you see a broad future

Building a Second Brain began as a course to teach people a better way to use Evernote (i.e. without tagging)!.

Talk about niche. That's a specific outcome (better notes organization) for a specific person (Evernote users).

And Tiago, because he had experience as a teacher, decided to teach it live over Zoom for the sake of "making up for his own deficits."

I really like this approach – it's faster to bring the "product" of his course to market. It also made the course resilient in that anything students found unclear they could ask about directly. And it was easier to iterate and improve because he didn't have the pain of throwing away videos from a pre-recorded course – he could just teach it differently the next time.

This is still true of CBCs today, by the way. And why I'm bullish on cohort-based courses as a step in the process of developing a self-paced course.

Listen to the market

Tiago noticed that students in Building a Second Brain weren't always using Evernote – they were using other note-taking software. And they didn't join by mistake, they just realized that they could apply Tiago's same methods to other software.

This began the transition to "better note-taking in Evernote" to "Personal Knowledge Management," the term Tiago uses today.

He realized that his methods weren't about the tool (Evernote) itself...but about a way of thinking about managing your digital files.

Those insights keep coming – and now he says his students are using PKM as a way to manage their businesses as creators.

But here's the thing – if Tiago hadn't started so niche, focusing simply on Evernote...he may not have gotten enough traction to eventually broaden out.

Blow people's minds

Tiago talks a lot about building an excellent student experience in the course. When I argued that a lot of CBCs seem to be valued for their community more than their content, Tiago pushed back.

To him, that assertion wasn't indicative of the CBC model failing to provide good education. It was indicative of creators failing to provide a good education within their CBC.

He says the best way to blow peoples' minds is to underpromise and overdeliver...but he sees many creators "promising the moon" with their course.

Borrow first, build later

A few months ago, Tiago began publishing on YouTube and already has 32K subscribers. The videos are super high quality, and he actually invested $100K in building a home video studio.

Why? Because he noticed that a huge number of his traffic and course students came from other creators on YouTube – guys like Ali Abdaal and Thomas Frank.

While focusing on building a great curriculum and great writing served him in the past, he realized he now has the resources to stop relying on OTHER creators' channels for traffic and could build his own.

Financial results aren't linear

Tiago made a really important statement that is easy to miss...

"Cohorts 1 through 9, were...almost negligible in revenue compared to each cohort since then. So in cohorts, 10, 11, 12 and 13, each one of those, we made quite a bit more in revenue than all of cohorts 1 through 9 combined."

🤯 🤯 🤯

Building a Second Brain has had up to 1,000 students per five-week cohort. And right now, the base price to join is $1,500. If all 1,000 students paid only the base price, that's $1.5M in revenue for a five-week course.

Those are CRAZY numbers. Tiago and his team run several cohorts per year, and I've seen other estimates of the business bringing in about $5M per year.

But what I want to really call your attention to here is the highlighted part of that quote. The first NINE cohorts were negligible in revenue compared to EACH cohort since then.

So, if you're just starting today...keep at it.

Your results can compound in the same way.

Bonus: Listen to the full episode 👇

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Jay Clouse Twitter

Writer, podcaster, and community-builder helping people become professional creators. I write this blog and host Creative Elements, a narrative-interview podcast talking with today's top creators.

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