No Laying Up
Welcome to a fresh edition of Growth Croissant! 🚀 🥐
I’m Reid, your host on this journey. I’ve been lucky to be part of incredible teams that launched and grew some of the most well-known consumer subscription products: Hulu, Crunchyroll,
HBO Max, and now Substack.
Growth Croissant will be an evolving home for our learnings, painful lessons, and frameworks for making hard decisions. My goal is to deliver you a comprehensive and actionable guidebook on how to grow your business.
In a recent post, we discussed some of the trends defining the future of media. To help show what the future of media will look like and to bring some of the frameworks from the Croissant to life, we’ll do an occasional deep dive into examples of modern media businesses.
Today’s post will cover No Laying Up (“NLU”), a golf media brand that has spiced up an otherwise sleepy niche. It’s an excellent example of a modern media business:
A lean team catering to a specific group of people.
A thoughtful, focused approach to distribution and building an audience.
Multimedia creative output, supported by multiple revenue streams.
Owned by the team running it with no investors or outside capital.
What sets NLU apart is a focus on slow, incremental growth and improvement across everything they do, and the ability to focus and say “no” to a bunch of opportunities. It’s also a bit unique in its origin as a friendly group chat, which morphed into a Twitter account, and has now become a full-blown media company with five “partners” and a growing cast of key team members.
I deeply admire how No Laying Up operates and have wanted to write about them for a while. The final nudge came after listening to an interview with Neil on the Making Media podcast. I strongly recommend listening to the interview (Spotify, Apple) — it’s a true masterclass on building a modern media business and a primary source for much of what’s written below.
By diving into No Laying Up, I hope to bring to life some of the themes and frameworks we talk about on the Croissant, and paint a picture of where the media world is going.
Let’s get to it!
Would you do it if no one was watching?
In 2013, No Laying Up started as a friendly group chat and eventually morphed into a shared Twitter account. For a while, NLU was a hobby — something they all did for free (or even spending money out of their pocket) while working full-time jobs. Gradually, the five partners eventually quit their jobs to focus on NLU.
In interviews, Neil mentions how much effort and patience it takes to build an audience. For the first few years, no one paid attention to what they were doing. But that was fine — they had no intention of starting a business and were making each other laugh, and that’s all that mattered.
If you’re starting a podcast, newsletter, YouTube channel, or any creative pursuit on the internet, having the right motivation and expectations is important. A lot of people expect to find an audience right away, partially because the success cases are well-known. But it’s far more normal for no one to pay attention when you’re just starting.
If you’re trying to make something you think other people will like, but you’re not into it, the first year or so will be a slog. Conversely, if you find inherent value in what you’re doing, it’ll be much more enjoyable and easier to keep doing it. You won’t care as much if no one else reads, watches, or listens to what you’re making — any audience or engagement will just be icing on the cake.
For anyone thinking about making the leap and starting a creative pursuit, it may be worth asking yourself: would you do it even if no one paid attention?
Creative footprint and distribution
Fast forwarding past its humble origins, No Laying Up has blossomed into an influential brand in golf media’s small but passionate and growing niche. Let’s take a quick look at NLU’s creative footprint, approach to distribution, and how they build their audience.
Social and audience building
Many folks are introduced to No Laying Up on Twitter through the NLU handle or the team’s personal accounts. Golf is a slow spot and lends itself well to a second-screen experience, making Twitter the best fit for NLU to engage with its audience in real time and reach new people. Other social platforms (e.g., Instagram, TikTok) serve as a way to highlight the “greatest hits” from videos or podcasts they’ve published.
Focus is imperative when building an audience. The NLU team puts tons of effort toward Twitter and other social platforms, serving as a forum for live discussion and a way to reach new people. But the team is careful to avoid splitting their attention and chasing new platforms or trends, instead taking a more measured approach to expanding and evolving what they do. Their careful approach has paid off — their audience knows where to tap into the latest conversation, leading to one of the largest, most engaged followings in golf media.
Podcast and live shows
The backbone of their creative footprint is the No Laying Up podcast (Apple, Spotify), which just crossed over 700 episodes. The podcast includes interviews with professionals and other folks from the golf world, as well as tournament previews and recaps. They have a few other podcasts, including the fan-favorite Trap Draw, where NLU dives into non-golf topics (e.g., Rory McIlroy joined a few times to discuss the final season of Succession).
NLU flexes its creative muscle the most with its video series on YouTube, especially the two flagship series: Tourist Sauce (8 seasons with 78 total episodes) and Strapped (11 seasons with 33 episodes).1 These shows deserve their own posts — they are unique, authentic, entertaining, and the special sauce that separates NLU from other golf media brands. On a more pragmatic level, part of the nudge toward video was how much easier it is to sell a multimedia package (podcast + video + social) to sponsors.
In the Making Media interview, Neil often references getting into a rhythm of continuous, incremental improvement with everything they do. There’s no better example of this in action than their video series — while the earlier seasons of Tourist Sauce and Strapped are endearing and entertaining, both shows get markedly better each season.
Not long ago, these types of highly-produced shows could only be done at larger media companies. NLU is showing that’s no longer the case. Here’s Neil on the production value and approach to storytelling for their YouTube series:
One of the beauties of the Internet and YouTube and current media landscape is that it democratized video, like it doesn't have to be a movie production. The story and the authenticity matters more than anything else.
Site and newsletter
At the center of the NLU universe is their site and newsletter, which host some integral parts of NLU:
The Pro Shop, which sells a variety of NLU merch.
The Refuge, a forum for NLU fans, some of which is limited to Nest members.
The Refuge is a vibrant forum that brings NLU’s biggest fans together around a digital water cooler. Discussion topics range from planning in-person events and golf trips, coordinating Peloton rides, or discussing what to know as a new homeowner. When NLU tries new creative ideas, The Refuge can serve as a constructive source of early feedback, helping them better understand their audience and reactions to what they produce.
The newsletter is also an essential ingredient to NLU operations. In the past, the newsletter has focused mainly on new merch. More recently, the newsletter has evolved to spotlight long-form writing, podcasts, and videos.
No Laying Up’s revenue breakdown and associated distribution strategy is similar to Barstool Sports, with three main ways of making money: sponsorships, merch, and community. Here’s a rough breakdown of how NLU makes money:
NLU has a thoughtful approach to how they’ve built their business — they don’t chase money mindlessly and often turn down growth opportunities. Let’s take a closer look at how NLU makes money.
The right way to do sponsorships
NLU is a gold standard for how to sell sponsorships the right way. They only work with a few sponsors, most of which commit to annual or multi-year agreements. The upfront commitment provides stability for a small team, helping plan and fund a full year of production.
Of course, it’s not easy to sell these annual, multi-media packages. With that kind of commitment, you could imagine sponsors coming up with some requests or ideas of their own. NLU has shown a growing astuteness at threading the needle, successfully balancing the needs of the sponsor, NLU, and, most importantly, the audience.
For example, right after welcoming Titleist as a new marquee sponsor, they published a video of the NLU team visiting the Titleist Performance Institute.2 While it could be viewed as an entirely-sponsored video, it’s one of NLU’s most watched and liked videos over the past year.
And then Titleist played a part in helping bring this gem of a video together, the most-watched video of all time on NLU’s YouTube channel:
Forming this partnership with Titleist came with some wrinkles. There’s a hot debate in golf on how to limit the advancement of the golf ball, which is making a growing list of golf courses obsolete. Titleist has a strong view on this debate as new regulations would seriously impact its business. The NLU team has a mostly opposing opinion — something they had to over-communicate early on, making it clear that it was a topic they would have to discuss in an open-minded and honest way.
With any creative idea, NLU starts with “Does it serve the audience?”, an especially valuable question for sponsorship-centric businesses. Of course, an audience-centric approach leads to saying no more and takes extra effort to find the right partner, but it helps protect NLU’s brand and relationship with its fans.
In an earlier post, we mentioned the risk of ads harming the user experience, especially when letting an ad network or platform sell ads on your behalf. NLU handpicks each of their sponsors, which are usually products they already use. NLU does not monetize via programmatic ads, turning down easy money from YouTube’s AdSense or Spotify’s automated ads.
“Marketing we make money on”
At 40% of revenue, merch is a meaningful part of the NLU business, especially as a source of cash flow during the year (most sponsorship revenue arrives at the start of the year). But the merch business also provides strategic value, serving as an influential marketing vehicle for NLU and helping expose new people to their brand.
Most importantly, merch allows folks to express their fandom and easily identify other NLU fans. If you’re wearing NLU merch at a golf tournament and see someone else rocking NLU gear, there’s an instant connection (in other words, NLU passes the t-shirt test).
Neil is careful to point out that merch is tedious and time-consuming. It can quickly become a cash drain if not managed well. He also points out that their focus on merch and membership likely limits the growth of sponsor revenue, but that’s ultimately a healthy tradeoff.
I'm a big believer in not becoming too reliant on one revenue stream or one part of the business, even if that hinders growth.
While sponsorship and merch are well-oiled revenue streams, there’s untapped potential for NLU’s membership: The Nest. As it is today, The Nest caters to the most passionate NLU fans, providing full access to The Refuge, invites to events, and discounts on merchandise.
For a new person entering the NLU world, the value prop of a Nest membership can be a bit opaque, and the signup flow can be hard to navigate. The NLU team rarely promotes The Nest, occasionally appearing in the newsletter or on social. All of this results in only people dead set on buying a Nest membership doing so, leading to a virtually nonexistent churn rate.3
The NLU team is fully aware of the opportunity around The Nest, but again, they’re careful to split their attention across too many things. While NLU has steered clear of over-promising the value to Nest members, Neil mentions memberships have grown steadily without any consistent promotion, allowing The Nest to evolve naturally alongside the community.
With the recent addition of Kevin Van Valkenburg, a superb writer and seasoned Nest member, perhaps NLU’s long-form writing will become a bigger part of The Nest membership. In any event, it’s not hard to imagine The Nest becoming a gradually more meaningful part of the NLU business over time.
What’s your mission?
To start each year, the NLU team does an off-site and reviews their mission statement, carefully reviewing each word. The mission statement is a guiding light in sharpening what creative projects to pursue and how to go about them. Here’s NLU’s current mission statement:
To entertain and inform a community of avid golfers around the world.
Through various interviews, the NLU team consistently points to two mistakes they see other media outfits make and try to avoid themselves:
Treating your audience as if they’re stupid.
Trying to make something you think other people will like.
My take on the first point is that many media businesses try to be too much for too many people, spreading themselves too thin, to a point where no one really cares about what they’re doing. There will only be a few media brands like the New York Times or Netflix, but there are endless opportunities for niche media businesses. It’s okay to focus on a specific type of person and go deep. For NLU, “avid” is the operative word differentiating them from mass-market brands targeting all golfers.
On the second point, the NLU team are avid golfers, so they’re firmly part of their audience. When discussing which projects to take on, a useful initial filter is whether they’re excited or curious about it. That doesn’t mean they pursue everything that passes this filter, but it’s a crucial first step.
Often, there’s a gravitational pull to please your entire audience.4 Having a mission statement helps you stay true to your values, motivations, and worldview — why you’re doing what you’re doing. As an extension, you’ll maintain the trust you create with your true audience and the authenticity that defines your brand, even as the team expands and your creative footprint evolves.
What I most admire about No Laying Up is their focus on gradually improving what they create and how they operate, not searching for growth hacks, chasing new platforms or trends, or capturing short-term wins. One of the recurring themes of the interview with Neil is the Warren-Buffett-inspired idea of getting rich slowly. A defining characteristic of NLU is turning down easy money or growth opportunities and staying focused on a slower, more sustainable pathway to growth.
I'm cool with people criticizing us for moving too slow.
My motivation is like, I don't want to exit. There's no 10x thing.
That’s all we have for now — what stood out about No Laying Up and how they operate? Do any lessons or notes resonate more than others? I’d also love to hear whether these types of deep dives are valuable and, if so, which individuals, teams, or brands we should cover next.
As always, thanks for reading,
Shane Ryan of Golf Digest has an excellent article on Strapped. The last line is a wonderful summary of the show: “The glib thing to say after watching the show is that you wish you had friends like Randy and Neil. The truth, which is harder to admit, is that you wish you were a friend like Randy and Neil.”
A half-day club fitting session at Titleist Performance Institute will cost you $600, more than a round at Pebble Beach. IMO, it looks pretty awesome and totally worth it!