In this interview, as part of The Confessional series, I sat down with a well-known YouTube creator. He got started on YouTube back in 2008 as a high-schooler, and has built up several successful channels (both in front of the camera and behind it).  

This conversation was a lot of fun – we discussed the early days of YouTube, the impact of sharing one’s life online, digital fame, and the role of emerging video platforms.

Some specific highlights from our conversation include:

  •    What the early Youtube community was like
  •    The Future of YouTube and Digital Celebrity
  •    The importance of diversifying and building communities beyond YouTube
  •    The challenge of both living your life and documenting it for the camera
  •    Advice to brands looking to work in the space

The Confessional is a series of anonymous interview with influencers, brands, marketers, agencies and MCN executives to get honest, no-bullshit opinions on working in the space – the biggest gripes, the toughest lessons, the most valuable advice.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What brought you to YouTube, how did you get started?

I used to be in a rock band in high school, but ended up cutting my finger open, so I couldn’t play guitar anymore. Then, in multimedia class, I was seeing all these people on YouTube, like Phil DeFranco and Smosh, and was like, “This is awesome. They’re just doing what they want to do. It’s funny. It’s really cool. It’s a new avenue for me to be able to perform (since I couldn’t play in the band anymore).”

Then I saw this article come out that said, “YouTubers are making six-figure salaries” and I’m like, “Holy shit! They’re making this much money doing this from their living room? I want to do that.” And so I just started making videos, posting them to YouTube.

What were the early days like for you?

YouTube has now become a thing where there’s this expectation that you can make money off of it. In the beginning, it was more like, this isn’t something that everyone’s doing for money. It was something that people were doing for just the fun of it. In the early days, the community was much smaller. It wasn’t oversaturated yet.

I moved to New York City in 2009, doing YouTube as a hobby while I started doing internships. While I was there, I saw the rise of YouTube and the community start to flourish. I could see what YouTube was going to be today back then. I knew it was the wild west which was the perfect opportunity to excel and make a name for myself. That’s when I made some of the best relationships and friendships in my life.

When I went to a YouTube gathering in NYC, that’s when I really started to realize just how unique and powerful this was. That was the selling point for me – getting to know the community, becoming friends with people I had only seen or communicated with online, and experiencing the joy of collaborating on videos with them.

I met people back then that were so talented, you just knew they were going to be big. Many of them went on to become extremely well-known. There was an energy of everybody wanting to be something greater than themselves… All of us became very successful in our own ways.

Back then we were striving to do something that, until that point, was completely unheard of. It was the wild west.

That was a time when I made some of the best relationships of my life; relationships I look back on that make me ask myself why there isn’t as much happening in the community like this these days? I don’t know if it’s because we’re older, why nobody’s organizing community events and gatherings like this anymore. Well there’s VidCon, but VidCon’s more for fans.

It felt a little more special then. I’m not saying it’s not special now. It’s definitely still very special.

And why do you think that sense of community has dissipated? Is it the introduction of YouTube becoming big business and a lot of companies getting involved?

All of these influencers are the new celebrities. They’re going to continue to be celebrities. There’s a market for it, whether an MCN does it or someone else does it, people are going to create a business model around it.

It’s something that’s just naturally going to happen. This is a market. There’s a market here.

You’ve seen a lot of change in the space. What do you think is next?

What’s going to happen is that MCNs are going to fizzle out, in their current form anyway. It’s not sustainable for MCNs to take 30% of creator’s revenue just to provide a dashboard.

We’ll also see more, unique platforms emerge that people will build audiences around and make money off of. So there will always be ways to continue being yourself, enhancing what makes you special, and following your passions. There’s just so many more avenues today for people to reach their goals and make a living doing social media then there were before, so there’s just going to continue to be more. And each year there’s more money being poured into the space to sustain it all.

Do you think it’s realistic for someone today to think they can build an audience, or do you think it’s much harder now?

It depends on the type of person you are. If you want to be something and you’re committed to it, you’ll do it. If you can do that you can succeed anywhere, not just YouTube.

What made it easier in the beginning was that YouTube was less saturated, it was easier to hit the front page and reach everybody on the platform. Today, everyone in the world is using YouTube. It’s good and bad because you can reach more people than ever now, but it’s also harder for people to find you.

The only person that’s going to hold you back is yourself. If you believe you can, stay committed and focused, you’ll make it happen for yourself.

And how has the introduction of all of these platforms beyond YouTube (Vine, Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat) impacted you?

These new platforms have been amazing for diversifying revenue streams.

YouTube isn’t the only platform where you can make money anymore. Also, YouTube videos are more permanent, while the other platforms offer unique approaches with added benefits. You can upload Facebook videos more than once, the lifespan of a Snap is short, and producing a Vine takes way less time than a YouTube video. This makes it easier to do brand deals and pursue other ways of monetizing your audience so you can take your craft to the next level.

Is it challenging to keep up with the introduction of all these new platforms and places to build audiences?

I’m always looking for new ways to grow, diversify, and understand the space better so I can make it work for me.

I never expected YouTube to be the only platform that ever existed, and I never put all my eggs in one basket. I saw YouTube as something that… was simply a platform. I never really intended for it to be anything else.

It came naturally to me. It’s only natural that I would try to diversify and use the platform as a way to jump to the next thing I’m most excited about. I’m quick about staying up-to-date, spotting trends, and jumping on things early.

How do you balance living your life and creating content for all these platforms? Do you feel pressure to always share what’s happening to you publicly?

It’s definitely a balancing act. It’s tough when you’re really trying to grind it out on social media, but also trying to live in the moment too. Like when you’re in a great moment and your first thought is “Let me Instagram this”, vs. “Let me enjoy this for what it is and appreciate it”. It’s hard, but it’s fun.

It’s also hard to completely be yourself while performing in front of a camera to an audience. You’re always doing it with a sense of catering to what the audience wants, not what you want, and you have to be careful with that.

There was a time in my life when I decided that I only wanted to be true to myself. I took a step back from being in front of the camera, and stopped doing the character, the performer, the actor. I was just myself, and it worked out really well for me. I’m a lot happier now.

Do you love the fans and that kind of attention, or do you just wish it was digital and in the real world you were more anonymous?

I’ve always found a good balance. Even at the peak of my public presence, when I was getting recognized fairly often, I thought it was awesome. I had fun with it.

I enjoyed meeting fans in person and listening to them. It felt cool that people were watching me, and realizing that I brought joy to so many people’s lives. I’ve met fans that tell me “You always brighten my day”, or “You helped me get out of my depression”. It’s rewarding to hear, that really touched my heart and gave me a sense of purpose.

I never got attached to it though. It wasn’t something that became a need. Now, I get more enjoyment being out of the spotlight, focusing on what I want my role to be in the bigger picture of what’s happening in the world and how I can use my gifts to push us forward in positive ways.

What do you think is the biggest piece of advice you’d give to brands who want to be successful in this space?

If you’re trying to work with an influencer that fits the audience you’re trying to target – let them do what they do best. Loosen the reins and give them some extra freedom to explore their creativity and what works for them. These people know their audience better than anyone else.

Also, be willing to pay as much if not more than you’d be willing to pay mainstream celebrities. There’s more and more articles these days coming out confirming social media celebrities are more popular than mainstream celebrities, because of the high-level connection and loyalty with their audience.

The brands that are going to survive in the end are going to be the ones that do social media the best, and the ones that do social media the best are going to be the ones that fully understand the space, know how to work with it, not against it, and pay influencers what they’re worth. If a brand can stay ahead of the game, be innovative, they will not only reap the rewards and see greater success, but will become an integral part of the most important movement in our planet’s history.