Utahns making millions on YouTube

Published: Wednesday, March 13 2013 4:55 p.m. MDT

Devin Graham was a student at BYU studying film. His dream was to work in Hollywood on feature films until he and roommate Jeff Harmon began to look at YouTube. Graham’s YouTube channel has 996,604 subscribers and 179,136,891 video views.

Courtesy of Devin Graham

YouTube, established in 2005, already has some unbelievable data to prove just how massive the social media site has become.

According to YouTube's statistics, there are more than 800 million unique users who visit YouTube each month with more than 4 billion hours of video watched. Seventy-two hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute.

When YouTube first began, videos like "Charlie bit my finger," "David at the dentist" and "Baby laughing" quickly became the ideal upload. But while funny home videos were a big hit at the beginning, kids are no longer the only ones finding viral fame.

In fact, since YouTube created its partner program in 2007, which allows Google ads to appear on videos, several artists and filmmakers have turned to YouTube as their sole income. That's right, several YouTube "celebrities" have quit their day job and are currently living off their online success.

And several YouTube celebrities are establishing themselves right here in Utah.

The list doesn't include just one or two of the well-known names, such as Lindsey Stirling or The Piano Guys. Several Utah YouTubers — or Utubers, as they call themselves — are pursuing their YouTube careers full time.

Utah is the No. 3 location in the world for YouTube celebrities, just behind Hollywood and London, according to Ricky Butler. Butler, who established his YouTube advertising company Plaid Social Labs in Utah, said the creativity found in the Beehive State is off the charts.

"Utah is seriously exploding with YouTube celebrities," Butler said. "I think what's happening, specifically with Utah, is that we're the first community that has decided to do quality production.

“I think being a YouTube celebrity is an awesome career,” Butler said. “Some of these celebrities are making millions of dollars.”

As the number of Utubers grows, a business community has formed to collaborate with other successful channels. Josh Gibson, who manages this tight-knit community via Facebook, extolled the benefits of joining together.

"It's a really awesome community — everyone is really nice and willing to help out," Gibson said. "We've found that through collaborating and helping each other out, we can each grow faster and also grow as a community here in Utah. I think that's the beauty of the YouTube scene. People who learn the ropes enjoy being able to come and help inspire others who are passionate."

Gibson recognizes how unique this type of community involvement is.

"I think there is an element to it that is especially present in Utah — that everybody is just very willing to help each other out for fairly non-selfish reasons," Gibson said. "I think that is a big reason why Utah YouTubers are so successful. They're not only willing, but love to help each other out."

But just how, exactly, can someone make a career out of uploading videos? Several Utubers shared their success stories.

Devinsupertramp: Devin Graham was a student at BYU studying film. His dream was to work in Hollywood on feature films until he and roommate Jeff Harmon began to look at YouTube during his senior year.

"He came to me and said, 'Hey, Devin, let's market this product' because he knew I was going into filmmaking and he was going into advertising and it seemed like an awesome fit," Graham said.

Graham and Harmon created some innovative videos, after which Graham left school and decided he wanted to see what kind of traffic he could produce for his own site.

"I realized with YouTube that it made it so you became your own boss and you had your own studio so you didn't have a lot of pressure. The only person you have to report back to is your fans," Graham said. "I think it's definitely like the best of every world."

Inspiration for a video is not a problem for Graham, who grew up making snowboarding and extreme sports videos with his friends.

"I just film things that I would just absolutely love to film anyway," Graham said. "If you are doing something on YouTube, you are working non-stop, so it definitely has to be something you're passionate about."

Since Graham took to YouTube, he's been financially stable. He said there are three major ways by which he makes income. The most obvious is the Google ads on each video — the more they’re watched, the more he's paid. Graham said companies contact him to either purchase his video footage for commercials, or for their product to be featured in his videos, such as the Rocky Mountain Fly boards that were used in his water jet pack video.

Graham recently worked on a Red Bull commercial, and Dr Pepper purchased some of his content for commercial use.

Orabrush: Harmon didn't look into YouTube until Orabrush inventor Robert Wagstaff turned to some marketing students at BYU as a last resort. Harmon produced the first YouTube video for the company, and it went viral.

"Viral is good," Harmon said. "We like videos to go viral, but that's not where we focus."

Successful YouTubers learn quickly that establishing a fan base is one of the most important elements. Then, if you are an advertising company on YouTube, your pursuits change slightly.

"Our goal is to go for conversion," Harmon said. "We want to be relevant and we want to convert. So if somebody sees our video, it may not be the video that they picked to watch, but it's interesting enough that they keep watching and by the time they finish watching they are sold."

Harmon has learned that providing engaging content is most important for a video, especially if your video is a type of advertisement.

"As soon as you are a brand, you have a huge disadvantage," Harmon said. "People don't like to be a free advertiser for a company; you have to earn it."

Once you've earned it, however, you're in. Since the YouTube videos launched, Orabrush has grown exponentially, while also inspiring students who have worked for the company.

Stuart Edgington is now known in the YouTube world for having created several kissing videos, such as the Mistletoe and Spider-man videos. Edgington's channel, Stuart Edge, also created a video about bad breath, which was sponsored by Orabrush.

LindseyStomp: Lindsey Stirling was a BYU student who wanted to be on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show." She was a classic violinist who also loved to dance. Her talent was so unique that she performed on "America's Got Talent" and was a quarterfinalist.

But things didn't fall into place until she teamed up with Graham and turned to YouTube.

"I tried many different things to have my ‘break’ but I just started putting videos on YouTube and that was actually what made all the difference in the world for me was slowly gaining my own fan base after I'd been told 'no' by everybody else," Stirling said on "Larry King Now."

Graham was the filmmaker behind the beginning of Stirling's artistic viral videos. When discussing Stirling's and Graham's success, Harmon offered some numbers.

"For these guys, it's really like they own their own cable television shows," Harmon said. "A good cable TV show normally has around 400,000 subscribers — they have so many viewers per day and that's exactly what YouTubers are doing."

And that's exactly what Stirling has done in less than two years. Currently on her channel, Stirling has 245,551,024 video views and 1,699,490 subscribers to her channel. Because of her success, Stirling found multiple means by which she can make a living. Google advertising and iTunes is where it began, but Stirling's interest in Zelda and other video games opened the door for advertisement opportunities, such as Assassin's Creed, Just Dance and Skyrim.

"As a musician, it's like free advertising for me," she said. "I put my videos out there, people hear my music and (the) first thing they do is they click my link to iTunes to buy my music. And also I get offers all over the world for performances."

In September of last year, Stirling released her first album, which features 10 original tracks. She is currently on her 2013 tour, playing in Utah on March 29.

"You know, I love to create really positive music," Stirling said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I like the vibe to be positive. I like it to be something with energy. I love anything that makes me dance."

Old Spice: Jason Bagley hails from BYU, as well. Although he doesn't manage his own channel, Bagley was one of the masterminds behind Old Spice's YouTube success.

"The Internet and social media has opened up so many creative opportunities in all fields and all areas of creativity, but certainly in advertising as well," Bagley said.

Shortly after the Old Spice commercial “The man your man could smell like” hit YouTube and national TV, the idea exploded. But Bagley said it was when they began to interact with users on YouTube by creating video responses to viewer comments that they realized the real success they could have with this social media site.

"No one is going to go on YouTube and search out commercials just for the sake of looking out commercials," Bagley said. "They are going to go because of entertainment. So your commercials have to be at the same level of creativity and entertainment as everything else on YouTube."

ScottDW: Scott Winn was also a BYU film student with Graham, but it took him awhile to believe that YouTube was the way to go. Five months ago when Winn produced his first video for his channel, Cute kittens fly in slow motion to hip hop, he recognized the opportunity available on YouTube and decided to pursue it full-time, rather than finishing school.

"My whole perspective has changed," Winn said. "Going the traditional route is all about connections and is really slow. It's a lot easier to get yourself out there with YouTube because it's a straight shot to show people. I'm already getting offers with bigger films than I've ever done."

Winn not only uses his channel to show his exciting slow-motion film in videos such as Fruit Ninja, but he has found an opportunity to produce music, which is his true passion. Currently, Winn is writing original music for his videos as well as some of Graham's videos.

Cute Girls Hairstyles: Mindy McKnight didn't study film or advertising, but she has lots of hair to do — she’s got five daughters. Many people commented on the stylish looks her girls adorned each day, so in 2008, McKnight created a blog in order to share the fun hairstyles with family and friends.

"It grew bigger and bigger and my husband said, 'Hey, why don't we try filming them instead of just taking pictures, and stick them up on YouTube?'" McKnight said. "We really did not even go into it knowing that you could make money off of YouTube. It never was our intention for it to become our career or our business."

But that's exactly what it became. Not only do they receive revenue from the Google ads, but companies have contacted them as well. Disney purchased some of their footage for a style website.

"I was a stay-at-home mom before I started this," McKnight said. "And initially it started out making a few extra bucks here and there, and then it became where it was a pretty good secondary income and now my husband has quit his career and he's working full-time with me to run our YouTube business."

Bored Shorts TV (Kid History): The Roberts brothers grew up making home videos. However, each went their own way in their own careers before they ever posted to YouTube. It wasn't until Randy Roberts came to his brothers Brett and John, along with roommate Richard Sharrah, to help him film a short for a competition, that they decided to create Kid History.

"He entered the competition and won it, so we put it up on YouTube and it started getting a lot of views," John said. "We really didn't have any ambitions for it; we didn't even know that you could make money off of YouTube at the time."

Soon, Kid History began to grow and establish its own following.

"We kind of connected with some other YouTubers and they told us we should really capitalize on it and start creating videos more frequently and that we could turn it into a business," John Roberts said. "Eventually we hired some full-time people to help us out, and we got a studio, so now we're doing videos every week. It's been really fun."

Utah's unique community

This list is not a complete compilation of success stories from those in Utah, but it demonstrates the unique community Utah has established. Not only do Utubers share advice, but they have found success collaborating together. Shay Butler, from the YouTube channel Shaycarl, recently collaborated with Graham during his rope swing shoot. Stirling and The Piano Guys also collaborated on their Mission Impossible video.

But why Utah? Graham had a few theories on why the state has produced so many successful channels.

"A lot of people in Utah are very passionate about what they do," Graham said. "Another thing is it's kind of an addiction."

But according to Harmon, it's an addiction that makes sense.

"Why would you go after TV with that political messy world when you can just control and start your own cable television station?" Harmon said. "You're just your own boss and Google is going to continue to pay you as long as people watch."

Sarah Sanders Petersen is an intern for Deseret News where she writes for the Faith and Family sections. She is a communications major and editing minor from Brigham Young University.

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