Q&A with Adam Davidson, author and podcast host of The Passion Economy

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

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Adam Davidson is an accomplished journalist, author, and podcaster. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker and credited as being the first to describe what the ‘passion economy’ movement was all about. Previously, he was an economics writer for The New York Times Magazine and won a Peabody, one of journalism’s most prestigious awards. 

Last year, Adam published his outstanding book The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century, which explores our changing economy and the new rules that offer hope to millions of individuals to thrive in the 21st century. It examines how work and entrepreneurship are radically shifting and how common elements of the current economy, such as talents and profitability, can collaborate to create successful businesses and brands.

Adam is also the co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and CEO of the podcast production company Three Uncanny Four where he hosts the Passion Economy podcast, interviewing guests about their small, passion-fueled endeavours and unearthing some incredibly inspiring stories.

What motivated you to write your book The Passion Economy and what were you hoping to achieve?

It is a scary, uncertain time, economically (and in so many other ways). I became convinced that part of this fear comes from people not understanding that the fundamental rules of our economic system have changed. If people understood how the economy works now, they would realize just how many opportunities there are to thrive.

You recently launched your podcast, The Passion Economy, off the back of your book, which celebrates the unconventional routes to business success in your interviews with guests. Is there a guest or story that you found particularly inspiring?

What is most inspiring is just how many stories there are. There is no way to tell them all. There are people in every corner of the globe, every profession, every age, who are finding exciting, fresh ways to succeed.

You communicate with your audiences across a range of formats as a journalist, author and podcast host. How important is it to have a mix of different channels, and how do you find they differ in promoting your key themes?

Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Audio can be remarkably intimate. Listeners feel that they truly know the person speaking through their headphones. Print is, often, better at conveying complex, nuanced information that requires deep thought. I’ve done enough TV and film to know that visual communication can be incredibly powerful, and its impact long-lasting. 

I would hate to limit myself to just one medium. I think it’s great to be able to reach people wherever they happen to be. That being said, each medium has its own requirements and it’s not good to assume that once you master one, the others will be easy. Or that the same content can work through any medium.

As a publishing agency, whitefox has seen a shift in how consumers want to engage with content. There is greater demand for quality and authenticity. Increasingly readers are becoming the driving force behind the type of content being created; happy to support projects they back and believe in. Is this a trend you think is set to continue, and where do you see this going?

I believe the shift towards authenticity and intimacy is a return to how people have always wanted to hear stories and share information. The weird thing was the 20th century, during which content was produced at a massive scale and designed to appeal to everyone, everywhere. 

I am thrilled that we are moving towards a world where content is measured more in quality and authenticity than in quantity – quantity of content, quantity of the audience. 

This requires creators to realize that a smaller number of profoundly engaged people are worth a lot more than millions of indifferent ones. But that only works if the audience is spending some of their own money to support the work they most love.

I think we’re at the very beginning of this return to intimacy in storytelling. I expect us to see a rich array of new technologies, platforms and business models. It will continue to change and adapt. But the fundamentals are eternal: people want to hear authentic storytelling from people they like and trust.

In your writing, you talk about the importance of ‘niche audiences which find value in the products or services being offered by the creators’. How does one identify and cultivate a niche audience?

This is the most important feature of the passion economy and the hardest to generalize. For some, a niche audience needn’t be more than a dozen or two people. For others – selling a relatively low-cost product – the audience may need to be in the hundreds of thousands. 

The right niche would be an audience who:

– You can clearly identify through specific characteristics. 

– Highly values you. 

– Is the right size given the cost of your product and service and the kind of income you want. The formula would be something like: (AUDIENCE SIZE) X (PROFIT MARGIN/UNIT) X (NUMBER OF UNITS SOLD EACH MONTH) ≥ (HOW MUCH YOU NEED TO MAKE).

One key note: the niche can change over time. It will, typically, grow smaller in size but be more profitable as you better understand the value you can uniquely provide and the people who most value it.

What are some businesses from around the world that have grabbed your attention recently? In your opinion, who is getting it right?

I’m focused on smaller businesses because that is my interest. I find the food industry is quite interesting, since most of us can see, quite quickly, what the unique offering of any particular restaurant, wine, candy bar is – are they properly conveying some special something that is quite different from others? Or are they presenting as a commoditized also-ran? How does the price reflect a unique value that this product or service provides and others can’t?

What would be your advice to those looking to publish a book that is aligned to their cause, business or brand?

The most important thing is to have something to say, something that is unique and urgent and is big enough to be told in book form. Who are those people whose lives will be improved by this book? What do you know about those people? How will this book impact them?

A book can be an odd thing – it takes a very long time to produce and that production generally happens in solitude. I would look for ways to discover the book in public – through blogging, podcasting, live events (when those are safe) and other methods. 

And finally, what are you reading at the moment?

I have a space-obsessed 9-year-old son, so I’m mostly reading about astrophysics and astronomy!

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.