How Rejection Ended Up Being The Best Thing To Ever Happen To The Hosts Of ‘Shameless’
"We had nothing to lose. There was no reason for us not to put the hours in."
The following is an exclusive excerpt from Cult Status, a new book from Junkee Media co-founder Tim Duggan. The book explores the new generation of entrepreneurs who are building businesses that are purposeful, principled and creative.
In 2018, Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald were both 23 years old, living in Melbourne and working as journalists for one of Australia’s leading women’s lifestyle websites, Mamamia. They worked independently but each week their writing shifts would overlap for a few hours on Sunday morning, giving them a chance to bounce stories off each other, swap ideas and laugh until they realised they both viewed the world in a similar way.
They were, in their own words, ‘smart women who loved dumb stuff’. They loved talking about Instagram, influencers, YouTube stars, reality TV, Love Island and all of the associated drama and miniature news cycles each of those media create. And they knew that if they enjoyed dissecting it so passionately, other people would as well.
They had an idea to create a podcast that, instead of focusing on traditional TV and movie celebrities like so much of the media, talked about breakout personalities who were rising on social media and who not many other outlets were taking too seriously. They wanted to unite a community of young women who all felt the same way as them.
They took their idea to their bosses at Mamamia, who ran the largest women’s podcast network in Australia. They were enthusiastic, and together they workshopped the idea and took it to some key advertisers to try to sell show sponsorship of it. Just before the show was about to launch, Mamamia decided it wasn’t the right fit and pulled out.
Zara and Michelle were devastated. They were certain that being a part of one of the major podcast networks was what they needed to get mainstream success. They knew their idea would work and were terrified that someone would get there before them. However, instead of retreating to writing, they asked their bosses if they could start their podcast on their own, outside of work hours. Mamamia gave them written permission and six weeks later the first episode of Shameless launched.
“I think it was the best thing to ever to happen to us to have the podcast rejected by them,” says Michelle now, “because it’s been right to do it on our own and learn all the things that we have and be able to actually reap the rewards.”
Work Smart, Work Hard
From the start, everyone underestimated them.
“We were obsessed with making the podcast as successful as it could be,” says Michelle.
“Basically from day one, it became our number one priority.”
They took it extremely seriously, focusing on what they wanted to say, how many people they wanted to reach, and how to build a community around themselves and the podcast.
View this post on Instagram
On today’s episode we had an argument about avocados and needed to call Zara’s boyfriend Oli to settle our disagreement once and for all (he… failed to do this). What else? Masterchef! Reese Witherspoon’s dress brand’s PR disaster! Weird dreams galore! Go go go 🏃🏼♀️🏃🏻♀️🏃🏿♀️ And let us know your thoughts belowwww
“From episode one, we had spreadsheets to track our progress and we had targets for every single week,” recalls Michelle.
“How many downloads we wanted, what percentage growth we wanted week on week. And it wasn’t just for the episode downloads, it was also how many members in our Facebook group, what’s our Instagram following.”
Week after week, their number of listeners slowly grew until, a few months in, questions began to be asked around the office.
“There’s a real beauty in flying under the radar,” says Michelle. By then, they’d had enough of a taste of what their podcast could become, and Zara and Michelle both quit their full-time jobs to focus primarily on making the podcast a success.
“We were really young,” says Zara.
“We had nothing to lose. There was no reason for us not to put the hours in.”
They would walk the aisles of Woolworths supermarkets writing down the names of brands on the shelves that they used, then trawl LinkedIn to find the marketing managers. They designed and printed posters advertising the podcast and crept into women’s toilets at universities to stick them on the walls.
“It was never some frivolous, silly attempt at a podcast,” says Michelle.
“It was like a business venture from day one, and we were committed to making sure it worked.”
Keep Your Community Engaged
The fierce determination paid off. In just over a year, without the backing of a major podcast network and with just word-of-mouth growth, Shameless was downloaded over three million times, receiving 3,000 five-star reviews on Apple Podcasts, and named Australia’s Most Popular Podcast of the year at the Australian Podcast Awards.
But their most important metric in all their success? The engaged community they are building around themselves and their podcasts. Out of all of the metrics, it’s the young women who are part of their community on Instagram, Facebook and their newsletter that is their proudest achievement.
“We talk all the time about how beautiful community is,” says Michelle.
“Creating a community of like-minded women has just been incredible and that’s been the driving force behind Shameless.”
View this post on Instagram
Keeping a growing and vocal community in check also comes with its difficulties however, as Zara and Michelle discovered recently when they closed down their podcast Facebook group, preferring the calmer waters of Instagram and singular focus of topical groups like their bookclub on Facebook that are easier to moderate and keep on track.
There was one defining moment when they both knew that their choice to quit their jobs to work on their podcast was the right decision.
In January 2019, less than a year after sitting in front of a microphone and recording their premiere podcast episode, Zara and Michelle put on their first live show. It was a chance to meet the community they’d created in the flesh, and record a live episode of Shameless in a theatre in Melbourne. They had no idea if anyone would turn up, or what size room they should book. They searched around and found a 250-seat theatre. They took a deep breath and put the tickets on sale.
View this post on Instagram
Within eight minutes, every seat in the theatre sold out. Then the venue’s website crashed. The overwhelming demand had brought down the ticketing and website. Shocked, they booked a larger venue with 500 seats for the following night. Every seat to the second show sold out the same day.
“I realised that we were absolutely onto something here if this is how insatiable the appetite is,” says Michelle.
The pent-up demand showed Zara the power of the community they were building.
“We have a community that is engaged — and I think that can be really hard to come by these days — and that is invested in you and wants to listen to the things you do or read the things you write… the minute we knew that we could grow it and have faith in the support of that community, that was huge for us.”
Be Prepared For Brutally Honest Feedback
Their honest approach with each other and their audience has help them create a business with a supportive community around it. They can’t imagine going on this journey by themselves.
“We kind of balance each other out in that when one person is having a really bad day, the other person can lift them up and vice versa,” says Michelle.
View this post on Instagram
Happy MONDAAAAAY everybody! On today’s episode: the chairwoman of the ABC thinks young people “lack resilience” and need cuddles lol. Plus, what to do with Ziggy Alberts’ anti-face mask comments and an analysis of the intersection between mental illness and social media, as shown by Kanye West. Let us know your thoughts below 🥳🥳🥳🥳
“We can also speak really brutally honestly with each other when we need to. We probably have a relationship more like sisters where we can be blunt and direct, and also know that that’s not going to upset the other person.”
Zara adds that they can each take the reins when needed.
“We get really overwhelmed, so it’s good that there’s two of us. I don’t think we’d be able to do it without each other.”
The strength of their community will also be on display next month when they release their first book, The Space Between, as a guide to your 20s.
With the backing of a growing number of people who believe in the reason why Zara and Michelle started their company, and despite being just a few years old, Shameless Media has all the foundations of a business that’s earning some serious cult status.
This is an excerpt from Cult Status, a new book from Junkee Media co-founder and publisher Tim Duggan. Cult Status explores how to build a business people adore, and is published by Pantera Press.