The Freelance Collective loves to highlight interesting people bringing creative brilliance to the world.
Meet Mike Davis.
He’s the man behind Humans of Purpose which is Australia’s leading podcast championing the community’s most inspirational purpose-driven leaders.
Created in 2017, Humans of Purpose has recorded over 250 hours with top politicians, Olympic gold medallists, best-selling authors, not-for-profit CEOs, and more.
We wanted to find out more about Mike, and his podcast, so asked him some questions.
Read on and be inspired.
Photo: Mike Davis in his Melbourne studio
Q: Tell us about how Humans of Purpose came about and why you started it? What accolades have you had along the way?
I was at a career crossroads wanting to move out of working in government, into more meaningful work that would have a greater social impact. I was regularly reaching out and having coffees with these amazing people who were firmly focused on creating social impact often through their own startups, purpose-driven businesses or social enterprises.
I was an avid podcast listener and when I went on a trip to New York with my wife we were spending most of our days just walking around and exploring. At that moment I realised that no podcasts existed showcasing our local purpose-driven leaders that captured the quality, inspiration and enjoyment of the coffee conversations I was having. I thought that many others may be able to benefit from these coffees, if I could turn them into a podcast.
So I did. I have no background in audio or production or podcasting and started out (and still) create Humans of Purpose on a 2016 Macbook using free software Garage Band. It was a slow, stumbling and very experimental journey that faltered a number of times. But after about 150 episodes we started to gain significant traction, getting the formula right to unlock a decent following and a good number of supporters.
Milestone achievements include reaching over 6,000 listeners each month and being able to attract and secure exclusive and often first access to some of the most sought after guests in Australia. In 2018, we were featured as one of Red Bull’s most inspiring podcasts. Digital agency, Neon Treehouse became our major sponsor earlier in the year and we have since grown our digital and online presence. We have also developed a growing presence in the US and UK markets. In October we will receive a global podcast award from AI Global Media, Corporate Vision – Most Impactful Podcast Australia 2021.
I will say that podcasting is not about accolades or public recognition; if you are starting one yourself with the intention of getting recognised, you are never going to succeed. I do what I do because I love contributing to a more informed, inspired and more altruistic society- not for any public recognition.
Q: You’ve quit your job after some issues with your employer – can you bring us up to speed on this?
My previous employer, the Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS) threatened to sack me if I continued to run Humans of Purpose. Even though I ran the podcast after work hours and I never discussed politics or policy, they felt that they could tell me what I could and couldn’t do in my private time. I felt that this was a significant overreach that crossed a moral boundary for me.
I’ve been raised by two lifetime public servants and always strive to do what is best for the public, but equally important to me is my privacy and freedom of expression. Humans of Purpose had become a very important part of who I am and I was not going to sacrifice this for an employer who had me on an 8 month contract of which 6 months was the probation period, with no future prospects of extension.
This issue highlighted major deficiencies in the archaic Victorian Public Service (VPS) Code of Conduct, which was designed pre-social media and podcasts and purports to regulate public servants behaviour outside of work, even extending to non-paid voluntary work and personal online expression.
The Age and The Canberra Times both published stories on my treatment and I have since been in discussions with Victorian Public Service leaders about major reforms to the VPS Code of Conduct that are now on the agenda. After the stories ran, I had a number of public servants at DJCS and other agencies reach out to me to express similar concerns about being subject to harsh and punitive treatment because of their voluntary or social enterprise activities outside of work hours.
Ultimately, the public service hasn’t yet adapted to the “new” world of social media, blogging, social enterprises and other forms of broadcasting that ultimately make them better public servants whilst contributing to a better civic society. The most talented people are often working across a range of projects and are engaged in important civic conversations and this is a clear case in point as to why the government hasn’t been able to attract the best people out there.
Q: This is your side hustle – are you now stepping into the world of freelancer, or what’s the plan next?
I wouldn’t call it a side hustle because I pour much more money into it each month than I make. It is not a sustainable business at present. It is ultimately a side project that I think contributes to a lot of social good by building a strong listener community.
The reputation of Humans of Purpose, enabled me to be engaged by Cooper Investors to produce the Mental Wellth podcast series on commission. This was my first foray into using podcasting as a more documentary style medium to explore a social issue. I would certainly entertain doing more commissioned work like this again as it was very rewarding and enabled me to extend my creativity and love of documentary storytelling to the podcast medium.
The goal for me is to continue to grow our community of listeners whilst I continue my career as a for-purpose strategy consultant. I have no aspirations to be a full-time podcaster. However, it would be nice to at least break even so that the podcast is a sustainable use of my time.
Q: What are some of the common traits of the leaders you’ve interviewed?
The best leaders I’ve interviewed are open minded, curious, aware of their weaknesses and focus a lot of their time on giving their time, energy and resources to their friends, colleagues and community. They also do more than one thing. Beyond their day job, they have other hobbies, passions, startups or investments. It could be painting, yoga, cycling, cooking family meals or writing books, blogs or playing an instrument.
They don’t need to be good at any of these hobbies, it’s just doing something that you start out as terrible at and incrementally improve over time. This builds patience, resilience, commitment and also different ways of thinking about work and leadership.
The best leaders also rely on a range of mental models to think about the problems they are trying to solve. They don’t just come with one tool, they come with a broad toolkit that they can apply to solving complex problems. Flexibility is also very important and understanding that it’s okay to be wrong and fail and all this means is that a recalibration is required.
Q: What’s the side hustle been like for you – how have you managed your time without burning out?
I only record podcasts at night after work and usually after I’ve had time to workout or eat a light dinner. I spent Saturday mornings editing, producing and putting the finishing touches on the podcast to be released that week.
I try and limit podcasts to 45 minutes in length and also try and only put in about 15 minutes of preparation per guest. This enables me to use ‘beginner’s mind’ to enter the conversation in an authentic and curious way that also enables our audience and any newcomers to easily access and engage with the topics we discuss.
I will try and record a maximum of 2-3 podcasts per week and will never release more than one episode per week.
Q: Have you monetised Humans of Purpose, and if so, how?
We were doing pretty well up until mid 2020 when COVID-19 took hold. At that stage I had to stop the podcast for a few months due to my own poor mental health and we sadly lost about 75% of our Patreon supporters. At that stage I decided that we couldn’t just rely on the community supported model anymore and that we needed to have more reliable monthly income.
Thankfully, Humans of Purpose has provided much needed inspiration to the community during the challenges of COVID-19 and beyond and our listener numbers have never been higher. This has enabled us to accept dynamically inserted ads using our podcast host and monetise episodes this way. The revenue is low currently, but if it follows our growth it will enable us to break even and ensure sustainability sooner rather than later.
Humans of Purpose also generated me the opportunity to produce the Mental Wellth podcast series for Cooper Investors. The revenue from this engagement has enabled me to focus on improving the quality and reach of Humans of Purpose. Hopefully, more podcast series commission opportunities are on the horizon!
Q: What are the key podcasting tools you use to produce Humans of Purpose?
Garage Band on a 2016 Apple Macbook. It is free software and is the best software I’ve ever used for audio production. I also use a tool called Auphonic which uses AI software to optimise the quality of each recording I produce. Not having any audio or production training or experience, Auphonic has been a godsend.
In terms of equipment my setup is mainly Rode microphones and hardware along with a Zoom H6 recording device.
I use Google Sheets to collaborate with our partner Neon Treehouse and to plan all episodes, content, posts, scheduling and more. We recently made the move to podcast host Acast also, who have been great to work with.
Q: What have been your key learnings along the way?
Remembering to focus on why I started the podcast. The purpose is what matters and it has always been about showcasing local talent who are improving our society through their socially impactful work.
Another learning has been to don’t worry about the numbers. Do what you think is working well and take most of your feedback from people, let the numbers take care of themselves. Once it becomes about the numbers you’ve lost sight of your purpose and may risk your authenticity and originality.
People are never what they seem and everyone has a million layers of themselves that they could share with you. Your job as the podcaster is to ask great questions that draw these complexities out. People are never boring, your approach to unlocking their value and complexity is usually what needs work!
Finally, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So you need to be ambitious and reach out directly to people that genuinely interest you. Tell them why they interest you in a smart and resonant way and generally if it suits them they will be happy to podcast with you and share their insights.
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