You Can’t Make it on YouTube Anymore
At Least, Not Alone
In 2009, I went to NewTeeVee Live, a conference put on by the GigaOm people, because I was starting my own online media conference and I wanted to see the sort of things that were being discussed. It was, as many of these conferences are, fairly underwhelming but with little spurts and sprinkles of valuable insights and a couple of really excellent, memorable conversations.
One thing I will never forget was a panel of venture capitalists…four rich guys on the stage who were each asked, “What, if anything, would you definitely NOT invest in right now?”
Every. Single. One. Said. “Content.”
Now, this was upsetting to me, an (arguably) professional content creator who was about to start a conference that focused on content and creators. It filled me with doubt about things that I had never even thought to doubt. That was scary, so I was angry.
Their answer, it turned out, was the best thing in the world for me.
And it was good for them too! They absolutely shouldn’t have been investing in content. Content, at that moment, needed minimal investment to stand above the crowd and the kind of oversight (and overhead) a VC investment would require would have strangled any video production on the internet. Indeed, overhead devoured nearly all of the productions from that era that did more than attempt to buy Top Ramen for the director / editor / writer / talent / everything else person (or pair of persons) who produced it with no outside help.
That was a great time in online video. We were not making money, but it was a lot less complicated…
A couple years after that conference, VidCon was doing well, Vlogbrothers was growing, and we were selling merch for a bunch of YouTubers through DFTBA.com. Profitability was starting to actually seem like an achievable goal for a lot of people who started this as just a creative outlet. I was sitting on a couch after a friend’s wedding in Winter Park, Florida talking to Barry Blumberg, a terrifyingly smart guy who has run the business side of SMOSH for years. He refers to Ian and Anthony (the SMOSH side of SMOSH) as “The Guys.”
“The guys are so genius,” I’m paraphrasing, “They‘ve always known that they can’t look like TV. They have to look just a little bit better than what the average person can do.”
I got what he was talking about immediately. There’s something exceptional about watching a video and simultaneously thinking “That was genius!” and “I could have done that!”
I have always admired Ian and Anthony as a businesspeople and creators. And I respect Barry all the more for giving credit where it was due (exceedingly rare, especially in the early days of online creators working with Hollywood people). Barry was, for around 10 years, the president of TV animation for Disney, so that will give you an idea of his prescience and interest in new and valuable things.
If you look at the (ingenious and astoundingly steady) history of SMOSH, Barry is absolutely right about this strategy. From day 1, “The Guys” were just a little bit better than (pretty much) everything else on YouTube. At first they were a little more over the top with their lip sync videos (a lot of YouTubers, embarrassingly enough, got their start this way. I, in fact, may have done one or two…*sigh*.)
Then they spent a little more time than anyone else was willing to commit to something so trivial as a YouTube video. Then they started actually spending money! Who would do that!? Then they started HIRING PEOPLE! LUDICROUS! And yes… eventually, they even took investment and got acquired. One of only a handful of native online video content companies that has had a traditional exit.
Now, in 2014, there is mainstream excitement about online video. YouTube is a significant piece of Google’s bottom line, Disney has paid some crazy amount of money for MAKER and people want to be YouTube stars. They see it as a thing that you can become, rather than a thing that just happens to you. So yeah, there’s a lot more competition.
‘The Rule of SMOSH’ still applies, though. You still only have to be just a little bit better than everyone else to get noticed. But a little bit better is getting to be quite a lot — enough that you’re going to have to lay down some cash and some plans before you get started. And maybe you need even more than that. Maybe you need a bump from a big YouTuber or a bit of a marketing budget. And, yeah, maybe all of this is going to require an investment…along with the necessary connections and savvy to acquire and manage that investment.
You see where I’m going here.
The good news is, the leap the industry has made is too big.
We went from $0 startup capital to $500,000 startup capital. We went from one or two people doing all the work to teams of 20 or more. There is a huge market for interesting content to be made by interesting creators. So many unexplored topics, so many unquenched demographics! Three to five person teams can work on a show that 30k to 150k people will really love and all of them can make a living. It’s enough investment to look better than what the average person can do, but not so much that you need a million viewers to become sustainable.
I want this to happen because I love making online video, and I want as many people as possible to have the awesome job I have.
And yet, somehow we aren’t seeing those small businesses emerge. Here are some reasons why I think this is the case:
- Investors (even MCNs) don’t want to invest a tiny amount of money in something that, at best, is only going to be sustainable. The overhead alone is going to drive you into the red.
- YouTube and MCNs and advertisers all want viewership consolidated. It’s easier to buy and sell a few large properties than many small ones. These institutions control how a HUGE number of dollars are spent so there is less incentive to create niche content.
- It is much easier to hire your 20th person than your 1st. There are a lot of efficiencies that come with scale, and starting and running a business is an entirely different pain in the ass than starting and running a YouTube channel.
- There may still be a lack of expertise. Most people who are trained in video creation are trained with TV and film in mind. There aren’t a lot of “Online Video Stuides” programs at Universities. The people who have been steeped in it and love it and care about it are almost all very young, and so they have less experience. Not just in creating content, but also in managing money and and people and relationships.
There’s a gap in the market here that isn’t being filled. Not because people don’t want to fill it, but because of bullshit and inefficiency. I hate that. Worse, because money is pouring in and a lot of people don’t understand The Rule of SMOSH, new entrants are spending Hollywood-level money to make their content stand out. People who are new to the medium are starting to think that online video is not “Just a little bit better than everything else on YouTube” but “Just a little bit worse than everything on TV.”
That perspective is a super dangerous road to go down, and it’s not one you’ll see my content anywhere near (and not just because we can’t afford it).
But The Rule of SMOSH is still a thing. Those three to five person productions could easily stand above the rest if they were to come at it with fresh perspectives and ideas and concepts and voices. I suspect that some people would like online video to not have changed. It would be nice if one person could still do it on their own (though, to be clear, I didn’t even do it on my own…I had my brother.)
And yes, there probably are still stand-out, solo performers who will take the world by storm via YouTube. But that is not the path to an explosion of new content like we saw between 2006 and 2011. That’s what I’d like to see: An startling increase depth and breadth and diversity of content. Of course, I’ll also settle for a slightly slower path to homogeneity.
How? Ah! Another list!
- Hey, you might want to come to VidCon! We created a new “Creator Track” specifically for people interested in the nuts and bolts of online video as a craft and an industry. And, like, what ulterior motive could I possibly have for encouraging you to buy a ticket!?
- Think about the audience. Why they would choose to spend time with your content? Can someone tell their friends what your channel is about in five words? Would they know what to expect when you upload a new video? Once watching one video…why would they come back for another?
- Find something you’re stupid-excited about. There is going to be a lot of tedium and B.S. so you need something that energizes you.
- Find people who share your stupid-level excitement. Because, look, maybe you can do it by yourself still, but it’s far more than twice as easy to do it with help. We’ve entered the era of small teams.
- Don’t think this just happens. People sometimes think that a video pops out of my head with no more work than extracting a booger. Every video is a challenge (an exciting one, sure, but a challenge.) Every collaboration is complicated. Lots of ideas are scrapped. Scripts are re-written and scoured and labored over and I was a professional writer for three years before YouTube even started. John for much longer than that.
- Figure out how to make it just a little bit better.
Hank and his brother John have started several channels since 2007 including Vlogbrothers, SciShow, Crash Course, and Mental Floss. Their videos have been viewed more than a billion times. Hank is also the CEO and founder of VidCon, the world’s largest conference discussing and celebrating online video, which attracted more than 18,000 attendees in 2014.