In this episode, Adam and Carlton are joined by Claire Shorall, co-founder and CEO of Topknot. Claire talks about how to use teaching methods to craft compelling content, flipping social media monologue to empowering dialogue, and leveraging user-generated stories to fuel content strategy.
Highlights from the conversation:
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Transcription generated by Otter.ai
Adam Vazquez 00:06
Today’s guest is Claire Shorall who is the Co-Founder of TopKnot. Topknot is an online personal development platform designed for women and has been invested in by the likes of Backstage Capital, Homebrew, Uprising Ventures, and others. Claire is the CEO at Topknot and she joined to talk about the impact her background in education has had on building this startup, how to use the methods teachers have used for decades in crafting compelling content, and how Topknot has leveraged user-generated stories to fuel their content strategy. I really enjoyed all of the places we went in this conversation and think you will too. Let’s dive in with Claire Shorall from Topknot.
Adam Vazquez 01:05
Alright, we are back here on Content Is for Closers, back at it again. We have a very special episode for you, as I said in the intro, with Claire Shorall, but before we get to that, Carlton, you heard the episode, what do you think about the unique perspective she had, the energy she brings as a former teacher?
Carlton Riffel 01:22
Yeah, it was good. Like you said, I share that background with her. I was a teacher for about seven years and that is one of the hardest things is sometimes translating what happens in a classroom with what you do from a day-to-day as a content creator. There’s this rapport, this back and forth that happens in the classroom that sometimes you can’t get when you’re just publishing content so I think it was good that she was rethinking that and kind of creating this new model within their platform for engaging people at a more didactic level.
Adam Vazquez 02:00
I think the one part that stuck with me and that I really mulled over even after the conversation, Claire talked extensively— I mean, all of it was great, but extensively about how the content that they create on the platform is not necessarily advice, it’s more of this trigger for a conversation, but in the moment I was like, “Man, how does that work?” Because as marketers, oftentimes we think too transactional and what she’s doing is cultivating these conversations over time, which I’m sure you resonated with as a teacher from your experience.
Carlton Riffel 02:32
Yeah, there’s this idea as content creators that we need to tell people what to do. Sometimes you need to just ask questions. It’s the Socratic method. It’s saying, “What do you think about this?” and getting some of their feedback and seeing where their brains light up at certain moments in time.
Adam Vazquez 02:49
The other thing I really appreciated was their use of user-generated content. We’re seeing that as a trend but the way that they’re doing it, it’s essentially most of the content that they produce is user-generated. I just thought that was interesting. It seems like a wider trend that we’ll probably continue to see over time.
Carlton Riffel 03:07
Yeah, absolutely. There’s more and more platforms that are providing easier experience for that, too, to create user-generated content. But definitely it’s that authentic, more realistic “this is exactly how the product works” or what’s happening with the product and it allows for people to trust basically the team or the product or the company more.
Adam Vazquez 03:26
Cool. All right, well let’s dive into it with Claire Shorall from Topknot. All right, we’ve got Claire Shorall here on the show, CEO of Topknot and co-founder as well. Claire, thank you for joining us on Content Is for Closers.
Claire Shorall 03:48
I’m so excited to be here.
Adam Vazquez 03:50
I feel like we could take this so many different ways. We just had a pre-episode talk about running and then that spilled somehow into football and Big Ben in the Hall of Fame and all these things. We almost started diagramming offensive line schemes, which I got pretty excited about.
Claire Shorall 04:06
That’s the next episode.
Adam Vazquez 04:08
Okay, that’s part two. Today, I want to talk to you more about obviously, what you’ve done, the things that you’ve built at Topknot, and specifically the role that content has played in kind of why you are doing that and how you’ve developed it. So maybe for those who are a little bit uninitiated, could you just give us a quick sense of what Topknot is?
Claire Shorall 04:11
That’s part two, exactly. Yeah, I’d be delighted to. Topknot is a personal development club. We’ve created a space intended for women and non-binary people to learn about themselves, to make plans, to take actions. There’s a core activity, it’s called Topknot Time, it’s this weekly, one-hour session where people explore and design in partners. It’s like a ritualized space, you keep coming back to it, you make progress. The ultimate hope for all of our members is that they figure out what they want and they’re able to make progress and move forward on that goal alongside others doing the same.
Adam Vazquez 05:03
Okay, cool. Is it slanted towards career? Or is it broadly just what you want to do in life?
Claire Shorall 05:12
Yeah, so career is actually 1/6 of the topic areas that we work within, so we call ourselves a “personal development” club for that reason. It sort of is a nod to the fact that everything is intersected, so we look at work and wellness and play, relationships. I should have all six memorized, but I’m currently working on play so I’m deeply in that space right now. But yeah, you bring whatever topic is most exciting, whatever is top of mind. What’s interesting for me, at least, is that I find that lessons from one sort of bleed over and impact other areas of my life, but it is explicitly not just about work, so that gives the space a different feel.
Adam Vazquez 05:54
That’s why we’re able to talk about running and football and all these other things around it. It makes sense.
Claire Shorall 05:59
I’m so multifaceted.
Adam Vazquez 06:01
I think one of the things that initially made me be like “I need to talk to her about this” was— Well, first of all, I heard you on Chacho’s podcast Running In Public. Go listen to it if you haven’t. Really great episode. And so you had this career as a collegiate runner, collegiate athlete, and then went and became a teacher. That’s a different route from most of the tech founders, most of the people that you hear raising money today. “I went and taught for three or four years” is not necessarily part of that playbook. How did that experience shape what you’ve built at Topknot and how you think about that kind of collective person?
Claire Shorall 06:37
Yeah. Well, let me start by saying, so I actually taught for 11 years.
Adam Vazquez 06:41
Oh, 11 years. Wow.
Claire Shorall 06:44
Yeah, so teaching is an utter passion. I was full time in the classroom for five years but then for the following six actually maintained one computer science class, just because I couldn’t step away fully. I just feel most alive when I’m in the classroom. This is actually the first school year that I’m not teaching, but I shall go back at some point. When I was in the classroom, content was really interesting because I actually taught three different courses. So many people are a biology teacher or a history teacher and maybe they teach one type of class. I personally would have really struggled teaching the same thing five or six times a day. That would have been very hard for me, so I taught AP bio, AP calculus, AP computer science, and then a handful of other topics. That is what’s known in teacher lingo as “multiple preps” and most people try to avoid that. I loved it, but what it relied on me to do was get really good at structure. If you think about it this way, when I was planning, I was thinking about the structures for academic discourse, reading and writing protocols that could be used again and again, vocabulary acquisition strategies. Then I took content—whether it be evolution in biology, or integrals in calculus, or variables in computer science—and overlaid them on these structures that my students knew how to use. In fact, many of my students I actually saw three times a day, sort of like STEM nerd camp. But yeah, so then in that way, content became something that you overlaid on top of something else that was already working. That heavily influences how we think about things on Topknot. The other thing I would say is, I think a lot about audience and what the point is of what I’m putting in front of people. I taught AP to students across the board so I had something called an “open AP policy,” meaning that regardless of your “readiness,” if you wanted to be there, you were invited in my classroom, which meant that many of the standard materials were actually above grade level for students in my room. Instead of like scaffolding everything or using different content for some students as opposed to others, I really thought about all the different ways we could present the material so everyone had an access point to it. I think about that a lot as we’re putting out content. If you have a central narrative—some of it could be imagery, some of it can be conversations like this, some of it is more long form reading or writing, but there’s always an entry point—and if you trust that your user or your student or whoever is the recipient of that message wants to learn it or has the capacity to get there, there’s a bunch of different ways and it’s incumbent on you to try to diversify how your content actually looks.
Adam Vazquez 09:40
No, yeah, it’s super interesting. I have a couple of threads you mentioned in there, so first you said “scaffolding.” Is that a…?
Claire Shorall 09:48
Oh my word, I’m sorry. I’m so teacher lingo-y. That’s my bad. Scaffolding is a teacher term that is describing supports that you put in place in order to help students understand content. Sometimes that means using text below grade level, sometimes that means using reading strategies to highlight specific words, giving vocabulary sheets. It is a support structure to get to whatever the learning goal is.
Adam Vazquez 10:18
So where I thought you were— No, no, it’s great, because what I thought it meant—and I’m curious now then how that relates—is in the content and marketing world, we have all these frameworks and everyone’s trying to come up with a framework to make themselves look like a pseudo philosopher who also can create revenue or whatever. Does that relate to then how you build frameworks or these models or scaffolding or whatever? Is that what you’re creating? Is that what you’re saying in Topknot in order to help foster conversations? Because if it’s that diverse, you’re having all these different, you know, kind of how does that come together into the content?
Claire Shorall 10:19
I’m sorry. Yeah, Adam, you want to drive? Because I think you figured it out. Yeah, so we have three pillars at Topknot. One is equity, the second is intentionality, and the third is growth. One of the core things for equity is creating a structure that allows for a ton of different entry points. One of the things I know from having been a teacher is that people like consistency, they like having expectations being set clearly. When we built Topknot, there was actually a version of it that was more content heavy. It was like, here are some lessons, this is what awareness is, this is what acknowledging backslide looks like, and so that was a very content heavy approach. But what we found was actually, if we build rails, if we build a system and we build a structure in order to foster productive dialogue that could go across a range of different things, this actually is a more useful way for us to get at the goals. Not everybody needs to know the coaching terminology or the exact skills, but if the structure is infused with those things and it holds the type of coaching-oriented space that we want, then we’re actually going to meet more people. So yeah, that’s exactly— You hit the nail on the head and I think that’s what makes us different.
Adam Vazquez 12:16
Yeah, it’s unique because you have that background from education where a lot of people would probably go too quickly to execution or to “here’s what you need to know” and you’re able to provide that depth. In one of the articles I read in preparing for this—obviously I have to do deep research into Claire—you did an interview with Kultura magazine and you talked about the idea of you were over advice, like I’m sick of advice, I’m done. How do you coach your mentees—to the point you just made about putting the rails in place—in order to foster conversations that are past the normal life advice that might come from something like this?
Claire Shorall 13:03
Let me start by breaking down why I’m over advice, and this is back to teaching. It’s so central to who I am, I’m not going to escape it. If we took advice to extreme, we could have everyone just sit in front of TED talks, listen to 5, 10, 20 of them, and like, poof, you’d have it figured out. Obviously, that sounds ludicrous because people know that it doesn’t work that way, but many of us don’t stop to ask why it doesn’t. The cognitive load that it takes in order to be able to hear someone’s story, extrapolate out the key learnings, and then make that real for yourself is super heavy. We need to acknowledge that that is so enormous as to be insurmountable. It’s helpful to hear advice for reasons of camaraderie, to know that other people went through it, but I don’t actually think it’s an effective way to step forward. As far as coaching is concerned, advice has very little role in it because coaching relies on this understanding that the answers are within and they are uniquely yours. Let’s talk about how this works at Topknot. There is no place for advice because the structure doesn’t have any time or space to allow for it. You are able to share where you are with your thinking and then your partner is actually provided powerful questions that are created by our coaches. They are disseminated through the platform and those are the questions that come up. You are being deeply listened to and heard, those people are reflecting back things that they heard you say or reading between the lines or what struck them, but there’s never a place for you to say, oh, and the last time I did it, blah, blah, blah, whatever that was. Or actually, I think a gap that people don’t recognize in their own way when they’re just being supportive with their friends is that, instead of asking things that are open ended and truly creating a span of opportunity for the person (so for example, what could you do? What are the options in front of you?), they’ll say things like, “Have you talked to your boss?” That’s actually a really limiting question because it narrows out a whole range of possibilities. That question probably comes from a good place, but it also probably comes from your lived experience and so it may not feel like advice, but it’s couched in this understanding of like, “Well, if I were you, I would talk to your boss. Have you done that yet?” This is very different than people who are out there saying “you should live life this way” or “this is what worked for me.” It just doesn’t really have a place. We are predicated under this understanding that most people don’t have a learning focus space that’s for themselves and that they’re being deeply heard. That in and of itself is both catalytic and revolutionary.
Adam Vazquez 16:05
Yeah, that’s awesome.
Claire Shorall 16:07
I don’t want to say wisdom isn’t important, I want to say definitively that advice and wisdom is equally for the person giving it and it may not have the intention that you put it out in the world for.
Adam Vazquez 16:24
I think it’s a broader problem too, which you sort of talked about at the beginning, where a lot of the content that we’re making today, although it’s being distributed through these dual rail systems (like social media or whatever), the content itself is a one-way narrative. It’s my experience or it’s my playbook or it’s my framework, to go back to that. It sounds like what you’ve done is flipped that and made it this user-generated or student-generated or whatever experience. I wish there was more—and maybe it’s just more Topknot is for different audiences—but I wish there was more ways to do that in content rather than just have— because the other thing is just overwhelm. I shouldn’t say this because it’s what we do, but there’s so many podcasts, there’s so many audiobooks, there’s so many. Obviously you have to be aggressive in selecting and figuring out what works for you and what’s helpful, but you all help folks do that in a way that’s really unique. How do you see that? I know we’re going to brainstorm in a little bit, but have you seen other content avenues or channels that can do that well? Help that introspection?
Claire Shorall 17:39
Brooke, my co-founder, and I and the team that we have put together, all of whom have educational backgrounds, see the world in a different way. There might be people out there who are doing similar things, but I can’t list one that I know or that I’m aware of. I do think so frequently players that are compared to us literally use a space to exchange ideas or something that is predicated on an understanding that tips will be shared. It takes a certain amount of patience and it takes a certain amount of trust in yourself to believe that you’re going to uncover these things. It does take time. It’s not an overnight thing. It’s not like, “Oh, yes, I just got the best medium article. Now I know exactly what I’m going to do.” Or, “so-and-so sent me their PDF.” Or like, “I got this Excel spreadsheet, and boom, out comes the answer.” We are selling a process and I’m acutely aware of that. I understand why many others sort of shy away from this route. We frequently look at wellness related things and habit trackers and things that are like, “Oh my word, you’re on fire! You’ve done so many!” There’s never that in the Topknot world because that’s just not actually a thing. The more effort you put in, the more you see out, but evaluation and progress can be hard to measure and something that is so subjective and so much about your own experience. To your question, I’m not sure who else is creating these introspective spaces. There are clearly friend groups and discussion spaces out there that are cultivating super meaningful dialogue, and we identify really strongly with those spaces. But yeah, no, I think we’re trying to change the game for consumers, in particularly to put power back into your hands to figure out what you want in a way that actually is about you.
Adam Vazquez 19:54
Yeah, I’m getting echoes of— We had Ruben Harris on recently with Career Karma and some of the education piece there and then we had the Head of Community for Trusted Health, her name is Nicole Warshauer, and some of the community elements from that, but I think the user-centeredness of it is unique and something that I want to spend more time thinking about. As it relates to Topknot, another— I can’t remember where I got this, but somewhere on the internet, you talked about how LinkedIn was integral for you getting early signups, an initial waitlist. Maybe talk a little bit about how that happened or anything else that helped you build momentum in the early stages.
Claire Shorall 20:39
LinkedIn was definitely the most helpful of social platforms from the jump. And I think, even to your question at the beginning, like, “Is this about work?” And like, “No, it’s not just about work, but I think work is pretty visceral for a lot of people and designing their life and what they want around work feels like a necessary.” And so, yes, I think a lot of people who were oriented in that space were more attracted to picking up this work and to joining the club. There’s also this piece where we are really intentional about the choices we make. We are in a constant conversation about our relationship with social media overall, like an Instagram or TikTok does not feel like a very intentional use of time for us personally, so it’s hard for us to invest in those platforms in a way that feels genuine to who we are as a company, so that is a constant conversation that we have internally about how we want to utilize tools like that. Our blog is massive. Sometimes I feel like I work at a magazine just because I keep on putting out stuff and we’ve highlighted so many incredible individuals. I think that’s really on-brand for us because it’s an opportunity to explain things fully. We definitely share, for anybody who is writing on our blog, like, allow yourself to be messy. This is about process. There doesn’t have to be an ending with a bow tied up on it, so we are trying to create a space that is different. Also, our blog, for example, never lists— Well, never is an unfair statement. Our blog allows people to identify however they see fit, so it doesn’t necessarily say their job title at whatever company. It’s more like whatever. Yeah, so we try to live those things out.
Adam Vazquez 22:30
Are those the channels that you enjoy? It sounds like some of that is, like, you enjoy them personally so you’re better at them.
Claire Shorall 22:38
I think, well, certainly, there’s a reason why we didn’t really have a presence on TikTok or something because that is not where I’m personally spending my time. I’m probably missing out but you know, it’s interesting, I took my first week off of work and I realized that I should do this way more frequently. In a long time last October, I put my phone away and I didn’t check my email and I didn’t check any social platforms. When I came back, the only one I was really interested in was Twitter. It was fascinating. Like, other ones are starting to feel like a slog to me. Maybe it is actually just a reflection of the fact that— Actually, let me give medium it’s due. Let me give all of— I subscribe to all journalism. I love reading articles. I think for the most part—other than Twitter, which I’m going to put a big asterisks on—I like to have people story tell or explain their perspective or put enough data or pithiness. Literal snapshots are less savory for me. LinkedIn makes sense because people who are on LinkedIn are aspiring to change something or are sort of more goal-oriented maybe. It is a space that is drawing people interested in development at large. These other spaces are definitely a conversation that we like having, we like grappling with. This is kind of like a Topknot thing, to grapple with who you are in the world and what you really want out of it and I suspect that we’ll see a lot of changes to how we utilize them in short order.
Adam Vazquez 24:34
Sure, yeah. I tend to agree. In terms of my personal consumption, the only platforms I have are Twitter and LinkedIn, but I probably would push back on your TikTok thing because I’ve seen so many people, businesses– Obviously there’s the insane, but there are businesses that are doing things. Specifically with the next phase of you all’s demo, it’s probably there, but I also get why you’re not over there selling Topknot on the next like, you know, competing with Jackson Holmes on a dance off or something like that. I understand that.
Claire Shorall 25:13
Well, and Topknot is not about any one person. It’s about you, so it doesn’t have to be me on TikTok, and I know that, so I’ll never say never.
Adam Vazquez 25:24
That’s a good point. Okay, so for the last question I want to hear any trends you’re excited about around— you’ve talked about in storytelling, you did an interview with Elpha and you talked about specifically when it comes to storytelling that, to look fully forward, it’s difficult to look back. I kind of highlighted that because, for me, a lot of my storytelling does come from looking back. That’s where I draw inferences from or examples or even just get ideas from, and it can be limiting, but I was just curious how you think about that, or how your storytelling process continues to help you move forward?
Claire Shorall 26:05
I love that you pulled this quote. It is from a coaching orientation. People often ask, what’s personal development? What’s coaching? How’s that different than therapy? And like, “This is far too simple. Please bring a therapist on. Bring somebody who can talk about this fully.” Often therapy is thought about as unpacking things from before whereas coaching is looking forward. A lot of the stories that we tell ourselves, oftentimes, it can be self-limiting, if we are trying to move forward, to dwell too much on what we’ve historically done because it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Outside of the coaching context, your path is really interesting, and actually in coaching as well, unpacking that. There’s oftentimes when I’m working with my coach that she’s asking me what childhood Claire would want in this circumstance and those can be really poignant moments. It’s an interesting framing just to push yourself. If things didn’t have to be impacted by everything that preceded it, what sort of opportunities are opened up? I think all of these things are about asking yourself interesting and powerful questions and not pre-determining what the answer has to be.
Adam Vazquez 27:28
Yeah, I could totally see the practical application too in terms like, just taking something silly, we were talking earlier about our shared running club in Strava. In my head, the last couple of years, I’ve thought, “Yeah, I’m an ultra runner because I’ve run an ultra.” You know what I mean? But am I today an ultra runner? Well, no, and I’m nowhere close to that, but in my head, I was relying on those past things as sort of that identity. I think that’s sort of what you’re referring to as well. Just because you did something or you have done something, that shouldn’t limit what your potential is (obviously) moving forward. You can build on that.
Claire Shorall 28:08
Or because you haven’t done something.
Adam Vazquez 28:10
Claire Shorall 28:12
That’s probably my stick handoff to Ruben and Career Karma. This is where we are. We are in this space of deeply trusting that people can make of themselves what they want. We all are kind of going at this in different avenues but when you were like, “Oh, this reminds me of Ruben,” yes. There’s so much in common in just how much confidence we have in you.
Adam Vazquez 28:38
Cool. This has been great. I am curious, before I let you go—aside from all of the famous Hall of Fame retirings that are happening right now in the NFL—what are some of the trends, what are some of the potential ideas that you have coming into the end of January 2022 for the rest of this year that you’re just really excited about?
Claire Shorall 28:59
I’m really excited about user-generated rich content. What I mean by that is people sharing their stories in a way that feels consistent and kind of low lift but gives you a sense of who they are. I think Glossier does a super well with their “top shelfie,” which is people describing their makeup routine. Famous people do it and average users do it. I love that concept of like a plug-and-play way for members or people in your community to be able to share something rich. I also think there’s a push towards authenticity on social platforms. I’m not sure that the ones that exist can be totally reformed, although maybe this is actually where TikTok steps in. I’m really interested in this platform and friends who created it called OwnTrail, which allows for people to put their journeys out there in an authentic way, but I just think sharing more of your real self. Ultimately, I’m interested in seeing how the metaverse conversation plays out in 2022. Back to my love of long-form journalism, there was a recent article in The New York Times about this couple that got married in the metaverse and people who own property in the metaverse. My instinct is, I just recoil. There’s nothing that sounds exciting or that I want to do, and yet I know like offices are moving and Avatar. Basically I want to sit with my own skepticism and just see how other people have that playing out. It’s definitely something I want to develop a better opinion about in 2022 because I might just go straight up pen and paper. That’s where my heart is. My heart is going down a path where I’m like, “I’m not sure about this.”
Adam Vazquez 31:05
I’ll expect that. I have some resources just to share maybe after this, but I do see where, to what you were talking about earlier about the transparency, I think that’s where there could be a connection to the metaverse specifically. There could be, in theory—although everything is like fake in the metaverse, even though everything is like fake quote, unquote digital or whatever—in theory, you can’t fake actions or behaviors as much because it’s all tied to a public blockchain of some kind. So anyway, I’m also pretty curious there. Definitely buy—it sounds like we can just announce this right now—the coming Topknot NFT that will be for sale.
Claire Shorall 31:51
Oh boy. I’m gonna bring that back to my team today and they’re gonna be not pleased that that’s the next direction but, you know, promises made, promises kept.
Adam Vazquez 32:01
That’s right, that’s right. Claire, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for sharing all of your thoughts. Before we let you go, where can people catch up with you if they want to keep track of what you’re doing?
Claire Shorall 32:12
Yeah, thank you for having me. This was delightful. I am glad to initiate a larger audience into the world of teacher lingo. Sorry about that.
Adam Vazquez 32:22
No, it was helpful.
Claire Shorall 32:23
You can find me at, my personal handle is @CKLshorall, which is S-H-O-R-A-L-L. And then Topknot’s handles are all @withTopknot or at withTopknot.com.
Adam Vazquez 32:37
Cool. We’ll share all that in the show notes below and catch up with you soon.
Carlton Riffel 32:42
And that’s a wrap. Thank you for listening to this episode of Content Is for Closers. We hope you find this show really helpful as you grow your business with content. Maybe you know of other people who would find this show helpful as well. How about you send them our way? If you didn’t like this show and you want to tell us that, then you can head over to contentisforclosers.com where you can send us a message, give us some feedback, ask questions, or find detailed notes for every episode. Until next time, keep creating and keep closing.