Digital masterclass: lessons from a YouTube maestro

13 May: When we met up with U.S YouTube expert Matt Tabor a few months ago, he was in Australia giving a masterclass to those keen on starting up a YouTube channel, including advice on how to ultimately monetise it.  We never could have predicted that his advice back then about working in a virtual world could have been so prescient.  The advice and tips from the producer of one of the world’s biggest YouTube channels is timely, direct and sage.

The following article was originally published on 22 January 2020.

We met up with YouTube expert, Matt Tabor, who recently hosted a Victorian Government-funded Melbourne masterclass to promote digital entrepreneurialism.

In a Collingwood warehouse for digital creatives, visiting New York-based YouTuber Matt Tabor takes a seat in a converted shipping container, which doubles as an office. Outside, the hangar-like space hums with activity: people at communal tables or on couches are glued to tablets, typing, video editing or Photoshopping, while others take a break and play table tennis.

It’s not lost on Matt how apt the space is for an interview, given the inventive nature of the YouTube community. “It’s a metaphor for how weird and awesome this industry is,” he says. And not to mention global. Recently, he’s flown to Palm Springs, Atlanta, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Rome, Ukraine, Romania, New Zealand and Tokyo to advise YouTube creators.

There’s a reason he’s in demand the world over.

As a writer and producer with Kevin Lieber’s Vsauce2 since 2013, Matt’s an ideal person to quiz for tips on how to make it big online. The Vsauce brand is a YouTube giant, with more than 25 million subscribers and three billion views across five channels posting fun videos on science, technology, psychology, philosophy, history, gaming and pop culture.

Text overlay says Woven Math - Quantify your Threads, VSauce2“On Vsauce2, we’ve just put out our 411th video,” tallies Matt. The bulk of the audience is aged 18 to 30, and the average length of a video is 10 or 20 minutes.

Having Matt in town to speak with our YouTube community was a great get. He was here as a guest of Victoria’s Digital Creator Program, a partnership between Melbourne digital agency, Changer Studios, and YouTube and funded by the Victorian Government. The program involves 13 workshops across the state to grow our next generation of YouTube creators and foster a stronger culture of creative entrepreneurship.

Although he’s never been here before, Matt’s fast become a fan of Victoria’s digital community. “There’s awesome talent here: Melbourne has more energy than LA in both the tech and creative side. There’s energy, commitment and focus and people talk to each other a lot, which is not the same elsewhere. The level of talent’s impressive. It’s major league: a hot bed of creativity.”

That sort of creativity comes easily to Matt, in the most surprising of places. Working with Vsauce2 from his 19th-century family farm nestled near the New York village of Cooperstown, the Boston University history graduate draws on his experience as a former editor-in-chief for education publications and as a professional poker player in Las Vegas (turns out that’s super handy for maths-related YouTube videos).

Intriguingly, a farm address doesn’t damage creative output. “There’s an audience for everything at this point on YouTube and whoever is going to serve that audience can do it from anywhere. I don’t even have a real internet connection! Cable doesn’t run to my house because I’m so remote, what I have is like a bad 4G. I get my internet from a cell tower miles away. I work with one of the largest YouTube channels in the world and I don’t even really have internet. And, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to be based in Los Angeles or Manhattan; I can live where I want. I can have an internet job in my living room, in the middle of nowhere with no internet. It’s nuts, yes?

“And I’m in Melbourne to show locals how to make their YouTube job a business that can employ several people, that can draw in the talents of several people. You can do it in Melbourne, anywhere. I’m in New York, Kevin Lieber [Vsauce presenter] is elsewhere on the US east coast, our editor’s in London, and the main Vsauce team is in Los Angeles. I work with Australian team members, too. The network’s tremendous, it’s always on.”

Tile of Matt Tabor with YouTube, power, camera icons overlaying around the tileMatt Tabor’s playbook:

10 golden rules for Victorian digital entrepreneurs

1. Know how to launch

“Identify the audience you want to attract, then attract them and figure out the monetising so it lasts longer than a year. And know that if there’s a time to fail, it’s at the outset. You’ll discover ‘I love filming, hate editing, love speaking off-the-cuff, prefer a script.’ Do a few videos and be honest in assessing how they’ve gone: listen to feedback and recalibrate. Get video and audio editing training, too; a lot of it’s free online, and some universities offer it. Also, get a crash course in the entrepreneurship. Because, there has never been a greater opportunity for entrepreneurship, all it takes is a mobile phone.”

2. Delegate to avoid burn out

“If you do everything yourself, there’s fatigue: it’s gruelling after 50 times. Maybe source help on writing, social media engagement with your audience in real time, research, graphics. Build a team of people you can trust; doesn’t matter where they’re located.”

3. Collaborate to build your follower base

“I understand when YouTubers are possessive about their audience because they’ve worked really hard to service them. But by getting some help and scaling, you can do twice as much content for your subscribers.”

4. Be professional to attract sponsorship deals

“Sponsorship can go up to six figures: Fortune 500 businesses work with YouTubers. But in five years’ time, expect to see more medium and smaller businesses working with local YouTubers to serve their local audience in a mutually beneficial way. Vsauce (which has 25 million subscribers) had a cruise ship line sponsor a video about a solar eclipse. Yet there was a YouTuber with 1500 subscribers who had a tea company sponsor her YouTube channel that hosts virtual tea parties. So, sponsorship success is not about your subscriber number. Many times, brands come to you: YouTube creators’ inboxes are filled with people asking for a shout-out. But you can also approach a brand and say, we’d like to collaborate. But you’ve got to be professional, have good communication, be easy to work with and meet deadlines. Simple stuff, but it goes a long way so that brands then say, ‘let’s collaborate again.’”

5. Respond quickly to audience preferences

“The audience tells you what to do via comments, shares and average viewing time. Patterns emerge. So, rather than sitting down and planning out a year of content, we develop our content bit by bit and we listen to the audience. A massive surprise from the audience on Vsauce2 is the degree to which people are interested in maths: it just needs to be accessible. We’ve found an appetite for something that no-one knew existed: before, maths was pretty much for the maths people.”

6. Find the video length sweet spot

“That depends on the type of video and changes throughout the video, too. At Vsauce, at the beginning of a video, every seven seconds we want to give somebody a reason to keep watching. Then 12 minutes in, if somebody is that far along, we can afford to have, like, a 60-second explainer monologue and not worry about people dropping out. Pace changes depending on the topic, too. Michael Stevens, the founder of Vsauce, his last big video was about 25 minutes: it was on the Banach Tarski Paradox which is difficult to grasp and yet, it got 25 million views.”

7. Find your niche

“A grandmother in Mexico has a cooking channel with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. And there’s a cheese making channel with 100,000 subscribers. If you have a couple of thousand subscribers, even less, it’s completely viable to pursue it.”

8. Get a feel for where YouTube will be in five years

“Content will evolve. In 2005 when YouTube launched, videos were a couple of minutes long. Then, they were 12 minutes. And now, some people are doing hour-long documentaries and podcasts. In five years? At Vsauce, we’re looking to add more people from outer regions, voices that have traditionally been marginalised and lost through social pressures or geography. And, in places like Russia, the United States, Canada and Australia, regional creators are becoming more important.”

9. Keep in mind virtual reality and artificial intelligence (AI) may help shape the future of YouTube

“A lot of people are betting hard on that. The immersive elements and real time capabilities of AI are incredible. And advancing all the time. I was in the public square at Yerevan, Armenia a month ago and they had an orchestra playing music in real time, composed by AI. I was thinking, this is an Isaac Asimov science fiction novel. This wasn’t even real ten years ago.”

10. Know that making mistakes along the way is OK

“Oh God, mistakes, do you have six hours? The biggest mistake that I made was not jumping right into it. I was just, ‘I’ve got to ease into this’. No, no, you really don’t.”

Some of Vsauce’s greatest hits

The Pizza Theorem

Excluding the 2.2 million viewers who’ve already watched this tutorial, we’ve all been slicing pizza wrong.

Can Pasta Hold Your Weight?

Vsauce flies to Rome to build a chair out of spaghetti. 1.2 million views and counting.

What is a Paradox?

5.8 million viewers have learnt the difference between a dilemma and a paradox. You can too.