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Creators find their second act with YouTube — as employees

How can creators maintain career sustainability? For some, that answer is going corporate

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The oldest video on Matt Kovalakides’ channel appeared on YouTube 12 years ago, back when he was a more traditional filmmaker in Hollywood, dipping his toes into the platform. He loved the freedom and direct access to his audience. His friends thought he was crazy.

Like his other short films, that video — a potato-quality vignette about a man working at a dry cleaner the day before 9/11 — racked up some views and supportive comments, but the work he uploaded to YouTube never gave him breakout success. Kovalakides, better known by a friendlier search handle, Matt Koval, took a break from his channel. When he returned, it dawned on him that he should try getting in front of the camera. He hated the idea. He did it anyway.

YouTube wasn’t yet known as a place to make money, but his skits made him popular enough to attract some brand deals. Still, the money was inconsistent. YouTube was an eccentric way to make a name for yourself. He was already older than most creators on the platform. His work as a creator didn’t offer the kind of financial stability he could rely on. Once his wife got pregnant, it was time for him to seek out what he considered “a big boy job with benefits.”

The answer, as it turned out, was still YouTube. He took a role as a content strategist. But Kovalakides is hardly the first YouTuber to go corporate. Many employees run channels of their own on the side. “We’ve realized that creators don’t want to learn from YouTube employees most of the time,” Kovalakides says. “They don’t want to learn from their parents, or their high school teachers. They want to learn from other creators who are in it.”

Today, YouTubers are a growing cornerstone of pop culture. They’re better paid and higher profile than ever before. Some are bridging the gap between Hollywood and online fame, while others are building empires on their name alone. As creator culture becomes a more viable path, however, problems of burnout are giving way to the question of overall sustainability. Is it a full-time career, or a stepping stone to something else? “I want creators and young people to understand what they’re getting into, and if this is going to be a career-long thing or a job for five years,” Kovalakides says.

“their audiences’ tastes are going to change, and theirs will as well.”

YouTubers collectively upload more than 450 hours of content per minute. Audiences have a seemingly endless ocean of content to choose from, and their ongoing viewership will waver. “People grow up and their tastes change,” Kovalakides says, comparing it to bands you might have loved as a teenager and grown out of. “That’s a challenge that I want creators to understand and be realistic about, that their audiences’ tastes are going to change, and theirs will as well.”

To survive as a creator in 2019, you need to be quick on your feet. High-profile creators like Lilly Singh have listed a growing disconnect from YouTube culture as one reason to step away. Others, like Shane Dawson, have swiftly pivoted to ride and even set trends. In 2018, Dawson used his platform to reach new heights through a series of documentary-style videos on fellow creators like Tana Mongeau, Jeffree Star, and Jake Paul. He’s currently working on another series with Star, with whom he also recently launched a makeup palette. “He’s amazing at how he reinvents himself,” Kovalakides says. The two began on the platform around the same time, but their paths have branched. Kovalakides turns to music as a metaphor once more. “The best career-long musicians really find ways to reinvent themselves and stay relevant. Shane has done that.”

Kovalakides’ transition into the corporate YouTube world has allowed him to better understand the struggles creators face. Revenue is a constantly moving target, unlike the reliable paycheck of a YouTube employee. Putting yourself out there every day online can be an exhausting emotional journey. “I try to convey the experience of that to YouTube, the company, as much as I can,” he says. The company can have an adversarial role with its creators, who feel the impact of platform changes more acutely than anyone else. “I try to make it clear to people that [changes to YouTube] could affect people’s careers, and lives, and jobs, since they’re sitting on top of our business at YouTube. If we make any kind of slight change, they’re going to feel it under their feet.”

Part of YouTube’s strategy has been putting its own employees in front of the camera. According to Kovalakides, there’s always been “a bit of paranoia” about what YouTube employees can say to creators. Channels like Creator Insider are working to strengthen that relationship. It kicked off some two years ago with an internal conversation around employees knowing their own platform firsthand. If YouTube employees wanted to understand what it meant to be a creator, they’d have to use their own product.

Unlike Kovalakides, Sarah Healy and Tom Leung turned to their own channels after they’d begun working at YouTube. Healy works specifically in the games space and kept her own channel where she streamed daily. Leung serves as both director of product management for YouTube’s creator tools and a driving force behind the Creator Insider. What did they learn? Being a creator is harder than it looks.

“There are more steps to [creating YouTube videos] than it might appear to an outsider,” Leung says. “Secondly, that there was this hope that, ‘Oh, we’ll upload our first video and then voila, we’ll be huge.’ You know, the reality is that it’s a large platform where viewers have a lot of choices, and just because you put up a video doesn’t mean you’ll be on the homepage the next day. That applied to us as well.”

The gaming industry may have been one of the first to fully embrace creators alongside press, recent reports have gone as far as to call influencers in the game spaces officially dead. Perhaps more succinctly, as the Gamasutra piece put it, “no YouTuber’s influential status is guaranteed.” Gaming, Healy says, faces a unique challenge: “They are generally churning out more content, just uploading far more, and I think that makes them hypersensitive to any issues or concerns that they might have. Because they really are living on this kind of, like, day-to-day scale, where they don’t have a week to produce content.”

“I don’t think I realized the extent that it would kind of take over my day-to-day life.”

The burden to upload content is one Leung and his team have felt as well, though they have it much easier. In addition to Leung and his core team, a handful of volunteers make the channel run. They have the backing of a full-time job with benefits and internal support, and no one goes it alone as a full-time pursuit. Instead, they all contribute in different ways, whether it’s hosting, creating thumbnails, or coordinating and writing scripts.

Leung credits the process of growing that channel as a formative experience for his understanding of the creator community. “Part of what we learned was the importance of finding your voice,” Leung says. “Which is a trial-and-error kind of process, it doesn’t happen right away, finding your niche, and then also, like, consistency and just sort of grit.” It’s a slow crawl from the first hundred handful of subs to bigger numbers. Intellectually, he says, the team knew that. “But when it’s your own channel and you’re checking into that analytics or you’re looking at that sub count and, you know, maybe it’s not going up as fast as you thought it would, it kind of imparts on you a very different lesson.”

Creator Insider has since hit its stride and serves content to more than 170K subscribers. The channel allows YouTube to connect directly with creators on a variety of topics, from platform experiments and ad revenue to advice, unboxings, and Q&As, in a more personal manner than through a blog post. “The creator ecosystem is super diverse, but I also think that there’s a lot that they have in common … they have a story to tell and they want their story heard by generally as broad and relevant an audience as possible,” Leung says. Creators are constantly seeking new ways to successfully grow and sustain their channels, as well as understand how the platform works.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect one-size-fits-all solution.”

For Healy, juggling both her work at YouTube and her channel felt like balancing two jobs. Her channel may have been smaller in comparison to more established creators, but it gave her insight as to how growing channels think. “What did I learn as an employee who was then a creator was just kind of this idea of how all-encompassing your channel becomes to you,” she says. “I don’t think I realized the extent that it would kind of take over my day-to-day life and my constant concerns of, ‘Am I maintaining not only my content but my community?’ I don’t think I understood the extent of how powerful that feeling is.”

That experience is an important reminder for smaller creators, who may often get overlooked for larger names. “The reason that there’s kind of this gap right now is because we can have these one-on-one conversations with people, and it’s not always the case with our smaller creators,” she says. “We can’t sit down and talk to every single one of them, one on one.”

For both YouTube and its creators, there is still a gap to be bridged in understanding and culture. Internally, Healy says, YouTube continues to work on how to navigate the balance between creators’ well-being and the taxing nature of their online work — not just for the big names, but anyone who’s pouring their time into a possible career. “I think we also will make the mistake of looking at our top creators and talking to them about burnout. But we forget a group of people that are both doing YouTube channels and have other jobs that they’re supporting,” Healy says. “It’s a really, really tricky issue to fix, and I don’t think there’s any perfect one-size-fits-all solution to it.”