Not-so secret lives of vloggers; ‘You can’t predict what will take off . . . you have to have a large library of content to provide a base for monetising’

September 12, 2013 5:53 pm

Not-so secret lives of vloggers

By Emma Jacobs

Michelle Phan: ‘You can’t predict what will take off . . . you have to have a large library of content to provide a base for monetising’

Alex Day is a celebrity; of sorts. The 24-year-old musician from Essex is recognised in the street. Fans are always nice to him but their comments can be tricky to handle. “I’m never really sure what to say to people who like my video of me sitting in my pants in my bedroom talking about my mum,” he says. Seven years after creating his own YouTube channel, called nerimon, Mr Day is a star vlogger, or video blogger. Back in 2006 he dabbled in video to relieve his teenage tedium. “I was 17, bored, in college studying media. I had a MacBook and making videos was just a thing to do. My audience was just bored college guys like me wanting a bit of distraction.” Since then he has been posting songs, music videos and funny films about his everyday life. Resisting offers from music labels, he has released three albums and two EPs. In December 2011, his single “Forever Yours” reached number four in the UK charts. He earns about £100,000 a year from a combination of YouTube revenues (via the partnership programme that gives the content creators a percentage of advertising income), music sales (through which he earns 70 per cent of his income) and merchandise.To say he is pretty happy with his lot would be an understatement. Relentlessly upbeat, chatty and chipper, the musician is ecstatic about his working life. “My time is my own and I share fun videos. I can do some stuff, just [mess] around and call it work. It’s pretty freeing.”

However, his YouTube career can prove unfathomable to older generations. “I can say to my nan: ‘I’ve got 10,000 subscribers on YouTube’ and no part of that sentence means anything to her.”

Mr Day is one of a growing number of people eschewing traditional media for fame and fortune on YouTube. The video-sharing website estimates there are more than 1,000 vloggers making six figures annually. Launched in 2005 with a video from the elephant enclosure at San Diego zoo and bought by Google in December 2006, the moneymaking opportunities are also being seized upon by traditional media groups. Last year, Shine, Elisabeth Murdoch’s TV production company, bought ChannelFlip, a media agency that represents some popular YouTubers. Meanwhile, music and television mogul Simon Cowell has launched The You Generation, a YouTube talent competition.

Tom Pickett, vice-president of YouTube’s content operations, wants college leavers to choose a career on the medium as an alternative to the usual professions. “Millions do it as a hobby or creative outlet. Others want to create a business. We want it to be an aspiration for people to make a career out of it.”

Mr Day, however, is “uncomfortable” about the “idea of YouTube stars”. After all, he says, “it doesn’t involve skill beyond being able to [do things like] eat the most amount of cinnamon possible”. YouTube, he says, “is a way of showing your content. I am sharing with people what I care most about. You’d never say ‘I want to be a Twitter star’. It’s just a conduit”.

Philip Franchini, better known as Phil DeFranco presents the Philip DeFranco Show, a news programme on YouTube in which he opines at high speed on populist stories, especially sex, politics and celebrity gossip. Describing his job in turn as “making videos on the internet”, running a “web start-up”, owning a “production company” and “just a guy that makes cool [stuff]”, he is sceptical about the earning potential. “Don’t do [YouTube] for the money,” he advises. “You will be severely disappointed for a while if not forever.”

Like Mr Day, he got into YouTube because he was listless. “I was extremely bored during college. My life was going to class, doing homework, working at Outback Steakhouse as a server, and finding things to do with no money in my pocket.” He started watching “people babbling into cameras about their day – my first thought was ‘ooh free people-watching entertainment’. After a few months I came to the conclusion I could do this as well if not better.”

As it turned out, to begin with he was worse than his competitors before he “slowly found [his voice] complaining about other YouTubers and news stories”. Today sxephil, his channel, has almost 2.85m subscribers and 1.14bn views. He spends nine to 14 hours a day in the studio working on videos as well as a merchandising company selling posters and clothing.

Twenty-six-year-old Michelle Phan, who grew up in Florida with her Vietnamese mother, a nail technician, is the world’s most popular online make-up expert. With over 600m views, her channel features tips, including “how to take the perfect selfie”. She moved from writing blogs to video tutorials on applying make-up in 2007 following a request from readers. The following year she quit her job as a waitress to pursue a YouTube career. Her strategy has been to build up beauty businesses, including ipsy, a subscription cosmetics company, and partnerships with traditional brands, becoming the official Lancôme online make-up artist, which involves offering beauty tutorials on the company’s website. Last month she released em, a cosmetics line in conjunction with L’Oréal.

She is cautious about the significance of viral videos for raising your profile. “You can’t predict what will take off. It’s a lottery and depends on the mood of the country and timing. I know people who have had one good video and then had no backlog to discover. You have to have a large library of content to provide a base for monetising. It takes two years to build up a channel of content.”

Mr Franchini agrees that creating a database is important: “I never went viral. I was a slow builder. It’s probably the reason I’m still around and thriving after seven years while others have popped and fizzled out. I’ve built a long relationship with the nation.”

The best part of this kind of career for Mr Day is that he gets “to make exactly the stuff I love, without interference, and I have learned to trust my instincts”. Working as a sole operator has been a steep learning curve: “I am better at loads of individual aspects of production than I wouldn’t have otherwise [had a chance to do].” Though the flipside is it can be pretty lonely: “I’m doing it all on my own. I don’t have a support network around me to help me get my stuff out there, get it heard or read by the people that matter, help it break out on its own the way more traditional systems would.”

Nonetheless he thrives on the frontier mentality of this new world. “Rules haven’t been established for online content. The difference with YouTube is that you can make it by yourself – it doesn’t depend on a media executive selecting you to appear on television.”

All three YouTube stars agree the key to building a fan base is being genuine and interacting with the audience. “Lots of music managers try to come up with a backstory where their artist spent years on YouTube building up a fan base but it’s not true,” says Mr Day. “The younger generation are protective of the environment. They can spot a fake.”

Mr Franchini underlines the importance of engagement: “Oprah has 20.7m followers on Twitter and rarely gets over 300 retweets or favourites on her [most] popular tweets but Tyler Oakley [a fellow YouTube star] has just over 1m and gets far more interaction. I jokingly told him he could tweet ‘People are so basic’ and get 2,000-12,000 retweets in less than a day.” It was retweeted 6,000 times.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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