Comedian Louis CK recently produced an "HBO special"-style show, but with a difference: HBO wasn't involved -- and neither was any other network.
CK did all the work and took all the risks. But he also kept all the money.
The project was made possible by technology unavailable 10 years ago. The cost of the cameras, website, editing equipment and other necessary elements would have been far too high in the past.
The special, called "Live at the Beacon Theater," cost CK $170,000 to make. It was edited by CK himself on a regular MacBook Pro. Distribution, which happened entirely on the Internet with a digital rights management-free download costing $5 for each user via PayPal, took place on a site built for $32,000.
That's a lot of money. But the whole project paid for itself in a few hours after the special went on sale. Within four days, CK had made $500,000. And the money is still rolling in.
The most interesting thing to me about CK's venture is not that he produced a special and made a lot of money, but that bootstrapping his own production and distribution gives him control over his work and also more job security. In the past, comedians have always depended upon TV studios, comedy club owners and others in order to make a living. If the people and companies that control access to audiences decide that they don't like you, or demand that you do things you're unwilling to do, you lose your job.
But by doing it himself, CK now doesn't need the approval of anyone but his fans.
In a jobless recovery, with ageism rampant and retirement options anything but secure, this is an important lesson for all of us.
How Leo Laporte re-invented his career -- and his industry
CK's venture reminds me of something Leo Laporte did.
Laporte is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster who created and hosted technology-related TV and radio shows for about 20 years, including on PBS, CNBC and MSNBC.
In the late 1990s, Laporte created and co-hosted The Screen Savers and Call for Help on TechTV, and later a series of other TV and radio programs.
Like just about everyone who creates and hosts any kind of TV or radio talk show, Laporte was at the mercy of the suits, who invariably try to exert creative control and generally stand between talent and audience.
After experiencing disputes and cancellations and generally being jerked around by the industry powers that be, Laporte launched his own company six years ago called TWiT LLC to create and host TV and radio talk shows about technology. (Full disclosure: I occasionally appear as a guest on TWiT shows.)
Laporte launched this venture accidentally, taping a free "show" with some of the people who made The Screen Savers. It was such a hit, he decided to turn pro. He created a show called This Week in Tech (TWiT), which used the then-newish Skype to connect guests and used the Internet to distribute audio and video podcasts, which Laporte calls "netcasts."
At first, the show was a low-budget affair and took advantage of the technology available in 2006. Revenue came, and still comes from, advertising and viewer contributions. But as technology got better and less expensive, and as the revenue started coming in, Laporte expanded, upgraded and optimized his operation. The TWiT company now has about 20 shows, employs about 20 people, and is profitable and successful. Laporte recently opened a large, purpose-built, multi-set studio, complete with a seating area for a live audience. And because Laporte funded the whole thing himself, he's in control of the content.
Like Louis CK's project, TWiT programs are better than anything Laporte -- or, in my opinion, anyone -- has ever done in his field. Without corporate meddling, the shows are more authentic and directly connected to the audience. They constantly improve with a rare kind of friction-free evolution that exists when you don't need to get permission to change.
And rolling his own has given Laporte job security. Nobody can cancel him, and he doesn't have to quit when the suits demand creative or ethical compromises.
The experiences of Louis CK and Leo Laporte should make all of us reconsider what new digital technologies have made possible for our own careers.
Turning pro with Google+ Hangouts
But wait a minute, you might say. I'm not America's hottest comedian, nor do I have decades of broadcasting experience. How does all this apply to me?
You might be surprised.
What's important to know is that new opportunities arise every year. What CK and Laporte did when they started was not possible five years earlier. And what was impossible last year may be possible now.
One brilliant example is the Hangouts feature of Google+. Hangouts, the social network's free group videoconferencing feature, didn't exist even six months ago, but now people are using it to remake their careers.
People with something to teach are turning Hangouts into classrooms, for example.
Music teachers like Rob Michael and Serge Chubinsky-Orlov are able to welcome students from all around the world and teach group classes (taking advantage of Hangout's ability to handle 10 people at once).
Lee Allison launched the Google+ Cooking School. Here's a recording of one of his classes.
Photographer Maximilian Majewski does a Hangouts-based show called Photohangouts.
Jens Graikowski launched Hangouts-based "Cool Languages Classes," which are open to students from all over the world.
Performers like Daria Musk are turning Hangouts into global stages. Musk told me that Google+ Hangouts "changed my life and career overnight."
As Google+ grows, just about anyone with something to share or teach will be able to find paying students, even if the subject is obscure.
This week, Google announced upcoming features that could make Hangouts even more career-transformational.
One Hangouts feature known as Hangouts On Air lets a select group of users live-stream Hangout sessions via YouTube.
Google said that it would expand the number of people who can use the service, and make it "self-service," meaning any approved user can just initiate a live broadcast.
Better still, Google will record these Hangout sessions and post them on YouTube.
These features will be soon rolled out to all Google+ users.
I was on the TWiT show This Week in Google this week, and Laporte told me that if these features had existed when he founded TWiT, he might have used them for some of his programming. That's just another way of saying that Google's new Hangouts make following in Laporte's footsteps a lot easier than it would have been five years ago.
The new world of career re-invention
The Google+ Hangouts feature is just one example of the new universe of technologies that cut out the middleman and let people connect directly to an audience, customers or students.
Others include Amazon's various publishing programs for self-publishing at very low cost, or Kickstarter, which uses a pledge system for raising money to create just about anything, from mobile gadget accessories to documentaries. And there are hundreds of others.
The trick is to constantly re-examine what your skills and passions are, what markets exist for those gifts, and how new technologies that eliminate the need for controlling intermediaries can help you create a new business that puts you in the driver's seat of your own work -- and your career.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com,
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.