The Acquired podcast's origin story

Transistor Team

9 min

When Fast Company decided to do a profile on Acquired, they called it “the number one tech podcast sensation.” 

But when I recommend the show, I describe it as “like the Hardcore History podcast but for great businesses.”

Ben and David’s tagline for the show is simple: “We are the podcast about great companies and the stories and playbooks behind them.”

How did Acquired get started?

The concept for the Acquired podcast originated in early 2015 when friends Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal were hanging out in a bar in Seattle.

Ben and David were venture capitalists at Madrona Venture Group and often met after work to geek out on different topics. "I had two ideas for podcasts," Ben recalls in an interview, "and David was so intrigued by one of them that he said: ‘If you want to do that idea, I want to do it with you.’"

The initial concept they chose was to do a podcast about technology acquisitions that succeeded. Because they were venture capitalists, they thought this focus would help them be better at their jobs.

“We made a list of companies that were acquired where it was actually beneficial,” said Ben, “there were so many situations where the opposite was true: companies with big valuations that had no revenue or acquirers that had to write down their investment post-acquisition.” 

In my interview with David, he recalled that they had three main goals for starting a podcast:

  1. To learn: Back then, mergers and acquisitions were the primary outcomes for venture-backed companies. Ben and David wanted to follow their curiosity and understand what made a business acquisition successful so they could get better at their jobs.

  2. Grow their network: Their second goal was to grow their connections within the tech, venture, and startup community.

  3. Increase their influence: Ben and David saw the podcast as a medium to elevate their profiles as venture capitalists in the Seattle area and the USA more broadly.

I love these goals: they wanted to learn, get introduced to fascinating people, and increase their professional profile in their industry. When starting a podcast, these are realistic and achievable aims!

“Initially,” David told me, “I didn't think about it as doing a podcast. I thought about it as: ‘Ben and I would have these conversations anyway.’ For the first 1-2 years, I put zero thought into how I was coming across. I was just having conversations with my buddy!”

Passion leads to more podcast listeners

When I listen to Ben and David, I sense they would be doing the Acquired show even if nobody was listening. They’re clearly passionate about their topic.

When Cal Newport reviewed the show, he asked: “What explains the success of Acquired?” The answer, he said, is simple: “It’s really good. The key to this quality is effort.”

Today, they spend around 100 hours of research per episode: they’ll read multiple biographies and other reference books for each company and founder they profile.

You can’t fake that level of excitement for a topic. Acquired is compelling for its audience because the hosts are obsessed with figuring out what makes great companies like Nike, Berkshire Hathaway, and LVMH tick.

The general advice for new podcasts is to make your episodes short: 25-35 minutes (about the length of a typical commute). But Gilbert and Rosenthal sidestep this advice and craft extensive, deep-dive episodes, often spanning three to four hours. 

David and Ben don't just present historical facts; they turn it into a story that grabs you. Listening to them, you can't help but catch their excitement as they lay out the twists and turns of a company's journey to the top.

The podcast quickly became a magnet for people who loved hearing the sagas of great companies: CEOs, founders, venture capitalists, executives, and tech workers.

Acquired podcast listeners are in Engineering, CEOs, Product Management, Venture Capital, Operations, Strategy, Sales, Finance

“The podcast just grew organically,” describes Rosenthal, “we've never had huge spikes in growth.” But people in their audience talk about the show with their friends, which has led to compound growth: “Since 2015, we’ve doubled our audience every year.” Today, the podcast has over half a million listeners.

The Acquired podcast also benefits from a dynamic that Seth Godin describes as “people like us listen to podcasts like this.” I see people in the business/tech world organically recommending Acquired all of the time. This is a good question for other podcasters: “What kind of people recommend my show, and how do they describe it?”

Providing an "11-star experience" for podcast sponsors

Initially, David and Ben brought on sponsors to add brand legitimacy to their show. For example, they approached their first sponsor, Silicon Valley Bank, for the credibility and legitimacy it would bring to the podcast. 

“We went to our good friend who was running SVB in Seattle at the time,” David told me, and they begged him: “Can you please sponsor the podcast? You pick a number –  We don't care if it's $1; it's not about the money. We think having Silicon Valley Bank as our sponsor will add to the brand of our show.”

By associating themselves with a well-known and respected brand in the tech ecosystem, David and Ben were able to elevate the status of their show and attract more listeners and guests.

That initial sponsorship also helped them generate a unique model for other show sponsors.  “We did a lot of things for SVB that became hallmarks of how we work with sponsors: we put the SVB logo on our album card, we put it on our website,” David recalls, “we didn’t do ‘ad reads,’ we had folks from the bank give their perspectives in the episodes.” 

Ben and David at their Acquired Seattle arena show

Rather than just running traditional ad reads, they now partner with sponsors over a 6-month period. The aim is to create sponsored content that adds value to the listener experience: “We strive to create ad content that adds just as much value as the main episode and feels native to the show.” They also have a companion show, ACQ2, featuring long-form conversations with sponsors.

David Rosenthal describes their approach this way:

We approach sponsored content through the lens of “how do we use this as an opportunity rather than a tax on the show? How do we make it interesting content? How do we make this an 11-star experience for our sponsors and listeners? (This is an idea we got from Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.) We ask, ‘What is an 11-star podcast ad?’ And the answer is it looks as little like a traditional podcast ad as possible!’

Ben and David go above and beyond by offering additional opportunities for sponsors to engage with their audience, such as emceeing conferences, hosting dinners with top sales prospects, and driving traffic to their events.

This focus on providing an “11-star experience” for sponsors, combined with “the most valuable and entrepreneurial audience in the world,” enables them to charge $500k-$700k for a 6-month sponsorship.

Acquired podcast sponsorship packages and pricing

Many podcasters want advertising revenue but don't think about what the advertiser is getting in return. Acquired is a good example of how to give advertisers a lot of value for their sponsorship dollars. And by focusing on long-term relationships and mutual benefit, Acquired can charge a premium for their sponsorships.

The rise of the "independent media brand" in podcasting

In 2024, the podcast industry is reeling from big networks and platforms canceling shows and doing layoffs. David’s perspective is that podcasting is headed in another direction: 

The future of the podcast industry isn't the mass-produced, network-driven shows. Instead, it's the independent, boutique, bootstrapped shows: Andrew Huberman, Tim Ferriss, and David Senra.  Most podcast networks want shows that can reach a massive scale so they can serve programmatic ads. But the beautiful parts of the podcast medium are the opposite of that. It's the relationship between the hosts and the listeners.

Ben and David own all of the equity in Acquired; there are no outsider investors. When creators own their content, they have complete control over its direction, growth, and revenue. Furthermore, being independent allows Acquired to produce the show their way; they’re not forced to produce episodes that will work for direct-response ads.

They feel like they’re leveraging the best parts of the podcast medium: “Most of the big podcasts are stuck in the performance-based advertising world,” David comments, “people don’t appreciate the true potential and power of podcasting. If you think about the core advantage of podcasting, it's the relationship between the host and the listeners.”

Why did the Acquired podcast switch to Transistor?

“What brought you to Transistor?” I asked David, “I’m always curious about what causes people to switch podcast hosting platforms.”

David replied:

We were with Libsyn for a long time. We evaluated every podcast hosting provider out there, including many of the big ones. But, what we found was that most hosts weren't sophisticated enough on the technology side to do what we wanted, or they were just way too complicated and ‘enterprisey.’ Transistor was just in this incredible sweet spot for us: you have great technology, you were willing to work with us, and you had built a lot of the analytics and data we needed for our business. We could use you in the way that we wanted to run the Acquired business. So it's been perfect. We're so happy with you guys.

Ben and David think we’ll see more successful boutique podcasts where the hosts are highly passionate about their topic and craft. These are creators who are investing time and energy into making something exceptional. "Transistor is the perfect platform for those kinds of shows," David mentions.