"Learn to sell. Learn to build. If you can do both, you will be unstoppable." - Naval Ravikant

To build on the internet, you don't need to pay for employees, retail space, or a factory. Likewise, to sell on the internet, you don't need a distribution deal with traditional gatekeepers like record labels, Hollywood studios, or media companies.

All you need is a device with an internet connection.

Modern builders are social media influencers, streamers, software engineers, writers, musicians, online teachers, entrepreneurs, dancers, and people that run meme accounts. Pretty much anyone that creates something.

Through the internet, builders can distribute their product throughout the world at virtually zero cost from their mom's basement.

Over the past two decades, the internet has redefined what it means to build and sell. In this post, we will explore how mastering these two skills empowers people to do meaningful work in the 21st century.

Building in Action

With 18M YouTube subscribers, David Dobrik is the most popular social media influencer for Gen Z. But six years ago, he was struggling to buy $25 worth of groceries.

At 18, his parents gave him an ultimatum. Go to college or move out. So he decided to move to LA with friends to create social media content. At the time, Vine was becoming popular so he ran a few sports accounts that shared highlights. He made $1,500 to $2,000 a month by charging people to share their content on his accounts.

As Vine started declining, top creators moved to YouTube. Many Vine stars had massive budgets for professional editors and elaborate sets for their YouTube videos.

But Dobrik went a different route. With just a handheld camera, his videos were action-packed with pranks, challenges, giveaways, and social time with friends.

Over the next five years, he became one of the most prolific YouTubers. With three videos every week, he was producing content at a frenetic pace. Through his consistency and innovative format, he's now one of the most influential YouTubers in the world.

Today, he sells merchandise, has multiple podcasts, and has toured the country with his group The Vlog Squad.

He dreams of becoming a late-night host like Jimmy Fallon. Yet, his average YouTube video already receives more views than the top three late-night shows combined.

“If you’re in it for the money, there is no way you will ever make it. Never. That’s not going to get you there at all. I just made fun video with my friends. That’s the key. Actually that’s not the key. Laughs. Don’t watch this and take tips from me. Just go do you. If people see that you're passionate about what you’re creating, they’re going to enjoy it.” - David Dobrik (source)

How to Build in the 21st Century

Every tweet, snap, IG story, blog post, computer program, YouTube video, and e-commerce store is an example of building. On the internet, builders are rewarded with immense creative and financial freedom because of two key reasons:

  1. The internet makes it cheap to build things
  2. The internet makes it cheap to share what you build

As a result, the internet rewards those that have a bias for building. Many of the most influential creators of this generation were discovered because they shared their work on the internet.

In the past, producing a hit song required a fancy recording studio and radio partnerships. Now all you need is $100 worth of equipment and an account on YouTube or SoundCloud.

In the past, to raise money for a business you needed to take out a loan, have savings, or live in Silicon Valley. Now all you need is a laptop and a Shopify or GitHub account.

The internet democratizes the ability to build. Let's look at a few principles for getting started.

Start simple

When building something, the hardest part usually isn't building the product. It's building something people want. Ask yourself, "what's the simplest version I could build to confirm that people want this?"

Instead of taking three months to build an app, use Google Sheets or create a landing page that asks for credit card details using a service like Stripe. Instead of writing an entire book, create a blog post. DoorDash started as a landing page with local restaurants and every customer call was routed to the founder's cell phones. Time is precious. Starting simple ensures you don't waste it.

Be consistent

For two years, I held off on writing online because I was waiting for the perfect moment. I kept feeling like there was more to learn before I was able to write. But after studying some of the most creative people in history, I realized that the best way to learn is by creating. Not by reading books. Not by staying up until 3am in your underwear watching YouTube videos. But by doing the damn thing. Now my only regret is that I didn't start sooner.

Understand your psychology

After writing for the past six months, I've realized that the hardest part about building is managing my roller coaster of emotions. One of the shittiest feelings is spending 20 hours on an essay only to receive a lukewarm response. It's tough. Every time that happens, it makes me reconsider whether this is the best use of my time. But then I'll have an essay go viral and think I'm destined for greatness. More likely though, I usually just have a dozen people acknowledge it which puts me in a state of perpetual doubt. But my mentality started to shift once I reframed my expectations.

Rather than focusing on outputs (e.g., how much engagement I receive), I focused on inputs (e.g., how proud am I of what I produce). All we control is our inputs. If you're a slave to the outputs, you'll be dragged around by a force you don't control. Like wakeboarding while your drunk friend is driving the boat.

Instead, focus on what you control. Your work ethic. Your creativity. How you react to your emotions. I still struggle with this one but focusing on building something I'm proud of at least gives me the creative energy to keep going. Even if nobody gives a shit.

Now that we understand what it means to build in the 21st century, let's take a look at how to sell.

Selling in Action

In 2018, Lil Nas X spent $30 to create the biggest hit of the year. But it wasn't an accident.

Before he was a world-famous musician, he was a master meme maker. For a few years, he ran a meme account on Twitter with over 100K followers.

“I was just on the internet all the fucking time. I started to isolate myself — I don’t know why. I guess I was finding out who I am.” - Lil Nas X (source)

He was part of a network of powerful meme account creators that artificially boosted engagement by sharing each other's content.

The accounts were eventually suspended by Twitter but Lil Nas developed an astute understanding of how to make viral content.

So he started a new account with the strategy of building a large audience again through memes and then leveraging the audience to promote his music.

But his followers weren't interested in the music.

"I’d post a funny meme and get 2,000 retweets. Then I’d post a song and get 10." - Lil Nas X (source)

After failing to gain any traction with music, he decided to be more thoughtful about how he distributed it.

Around this time, he found the beat for Old Town Road and believed it could be his breakout hit. So he paid $30 to lease the beat and spent the next month writing lyrics.

From the start, his goal was to engineer virality:

“It was the first song I genuinely formulated,” he says. “I was like, ‘I gotta make it short, I gotta make it catchy, I gotta have quotable lines that people want to use as captions.’ Especially with the ‘horses in the back’ line, I was like, ‘This is something people are gonna say every day.’ ” - Lil Nas X (source)

But his most important decision was how he shared the song. Instead of just posting a Soundcloud link, he created a meme and used the song as background music.


He created multiple meme videos with his song and convinced his friends to share it on their meme accounts. He would also share a Soundcloud link below the video to make it easy to find.

Shortly after, the song started gaining traction.

To make the song show up higher in Google search results, he added "I Got the Horses In the Back" to the title in Soundcloud. He even created multiple Reddit accounts and posted asking "What's the name of the song that goes 'take my horses to the old town road'" which ended up being one of the first results when searching for the song on Google.


Another key growth tactic was that Lil Nas labeled the song as country instead of hip hop. The country music charts are far less competitive than the hip hop charts so it was easier for Old Town Road to make a splash this way. As Old Town Road climbed it’s way to the top of the country music chart, executives disqualified it since “wasn’t country enough”. Most major media outlets covered the story which made it even more popular.

Over the next year, Lil Nas went from being homeless and having a negative balance in his bank account to breaking the all-time record for most consecutive weeks for a number one hit.

In the midst of the madness, he tweeted out a reflection of his meteoric rise:

"u can literally scroll down my account and see my promoting this fuckin song for months. each accomplishment it gets just makes all this shit feel so worth it. i can’t stop taking about it."

How to Sell in the 21st Century

In the past, selling a product required partnerships with retailers, record labels, Hollywood studios, or cable broadcasters. But the internet is turning that on it's head. With the internet, it's virtually free to share a digital product with anyone in the world by posting on social media or creating a website.

On the internet, selling is less about verbal communication skills and more about learning how to engineer virality on social media. Let's look at a few principles for doing so.

Do things that don't scale

Before you have a large audience, your advantage is that you have time on your hands. Use this time to experiment with different ways for giving your product or content a boost. For example, Lil Nas X did things like creating multiple Reddit accounts to upvote his posts.

When AirBnB was starting out, the CEO would go to hosts' apartments to take high-resolution photos that they could use on their profile. As your audience grows, it will take too much time to do some of these things but doing things that don't scale is a key advantage early on.

Partner with big nodes

A big node is anyone that has a large audience of people that is similar to your target audience. To partner with them, think about how you can add value to them. Lil Nas X created meme videos with his song and DM'd them to other top meme accounts so they could share with their audience. It was a win-win. If you're a writer, you can summarize a book or essay from someone you admire and if it's helpful, they may share it with their audience which could help both of you.

Identify your growth loop

The purpose of a growth loop is to ensure that when someone uses your product or sees your content, they get at least one other person to see it too. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle that can lead to massive growth. Most social media platforms have built in mechanisms for growth loops like retweets on Twitter and shares on Facebook. Other platforms are harder to go viral on like Instagram and Snap. In fact, one reason why the recently launched streaming service Quibi has had trouble growing is because they blocked screenshots which makes it difficult for the content to go viral.

For software products, popular growth loops include referral programs and search engine optimization (SEO).

With the internet, it has never been easier to build and sell. But turns out, most people don't. By learning to build and sell on the internet, you will be in a small minority that is creating the future.

Thank you to Nick Drage, Dan Hunt, and Compound Writing for reviewing drafts of this essay.

Jul 26, 2020

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