Things I've learned while growing a YouTube channel to 3000 subscribers
And why I'm quitting.
If you would have told me two years ago, that I was going to start a YouTube channel and run it, joyfully and (somewhat) successfully, for a whole year, I would have a) laughed nervously, b) excused myself, and c) sought out professional help.
Because I would have suspected an imminent mental breakdown or mid-life crisis.
Two years ago, I was at my wit's end, career-wise. Burnt out, melancholic, and with crippling anxiety and confusion about what to do with my life. I couldn't write anymore (my whole occupation up until then.) I could not reply to emails, or even formulate cohesive thoughts. So starting a YouTube channel would have sounded about as reasonable as becoming a motivational speaker or a life coach.
Of course, I didn't start my channel while still in that self-loathing state. I recovered a lot over the course of the next year, mainly thanks to sick-leave benefits, watercolor painting, and releasing the need to ever become “successful” or “remarkable”. I created a blank slate for myself. And from that blank slate, new ideas about who I could be and what I could do started to emerge.
I'd watched YouTube somewhat habitually for a long while, and followed a handful of creators I enjoyed. Most of them gamers or creatives. And it was through them that I realized what being a YouTuber could be like. I got curious about their world. I admired being able to show up like that, just the way you are, and entertain people, or share a story, or teach a skill. I'm a former actor, so I have an exhibitionistic side. I've always enjoyed cracking jokes and making people laugh. And the possibility of getting to do that in an environment where I could control the whole process and the outcome was intriguing.
Besides, I was an artist now. I could just paint and draw, and add voice-over to it. I didn't need to show my face if I didn't want to.
So I started researching (on YouTube 🙄) how YouTube and making videos worked. Like with everything on YouTube, it was a rabbit hole. It took me several months from getting the initial idea to actually starting my channel. And a few more months to put out my first video, which went live on the 6th of July 2021.
Since then, I've published a new video almost every week. My channel has 45 videos and over 3000 subscribers at the time of this writing. People have spent 8500 hours watching my videos, some of which have gathered 10 000-20 000 views by now. My channel is earning me a modest $60 or so per month.
A few weeks ago, my channel celebrated its first birthday. And that is also exactly the point where I decided to quit YouTube.
I will get into why I made that decision later on, but first I would like to reflect on what this whole project has taught me. And what it could teach you, if you're curious about starting a YouTube channel.
What I’ve learned after 1 year of doing YouTube professionally:
1. Anyone can “do YouTube”.
Truly. Even if you're a camera-shy introvert like me. Even if you never want to show yourself. Even if you don't want to talk on camera, or even off camera, or don't talk at all. There are many ways to make great videos. And there is an audience on YouTube for every topic or niche imaginable.
Yes, there is such a thing as the "typical YouTuber personality." They're often loud, high-energy, good-looking, and talkative, with hundreds of thousands of followers.
But there are a lot more people making a very good living on YouTube who are nothing like that. There are plenty of slightly awkward and shy, but very relatable and sweet people doing great on YouTube. And those people were my primary role models when I started out.
As long as you're drawn to the craft of making videos, and comfortable with putting your work out there, there is nothing holding you back. You don't have to become someone you're not. You don't have to adopt a special "YouTuber voice". You can be you and do great on this platform.
2. Learning how to make good videos takes time.
A lot of time. It's very overwhelming when you're a complete newbie like I was. You know what a good video is supposed to look and sound like, and the urge to do everything right from the start is certainly there. But at the same time, there are a million things to learn. And so much you don't even know that you don't know. In other words, a real nightmare for a control freak perfectionist.
But the great thing about being alive today is that everything you need to know is taught online, for free. The way forward is to take just one small step at a time. Being okay with being a beginner. Being okay with putting out crap. But putting it out there anyway. And then creating something just a little less crappy next time.
This became an exciting game to me - the game of becoming less crappy at YouTube. I built a difficulty ladder for myself, where my first video was going to be the simplest, most low-pressure thing I could imagine. No voice-over, no showing my face, just a painting process shot with my iPhone, and cut together with some music. It was "level one", so to speak. And it let me learn the very basics of video editing without overwhelming myself.
From there, I added more types of shots, voice-over, and eventually talking to the camera (which felt sooooooo awkward at first), writing detailed scripts, et. c. For every new video I made, I got a little bit better and quicker at it. The more experienced I became, the more relaxed I got in front of the camera, and the more fun I had. After about six months, I finally started to feel like I knew what I was doing. Which was an amazing feeling.
3. Growth is slow and unpredictable.
I was aware and prepared for this right from the start, thanks to my research. I knew no one was going to watch my videos for quite a while. I had heard growth was going to be very slow, especially in the beginning, but then gradually speed up exponentially. And that it was going to happen in spurts, with plateaus in between. You would never know which of your videos would take off, and when.
And this turned out to be my experience as well. Very few people watched my early videos. Which was great, because those videos sucked anyways. 😂 It took me almost exactly six months to reach 1000 subscribers. But only four months to reach 2000. And three months to reach 3000. So it is speeding up, and that is despite my upload frequency slowing down over these past few months.
Once you get the snowball rolling, it's going to have some momentum regardless of what you do. We'll see how it looks in a few more months, when I haven't published anything new for a while. But YouTube is a search engine after all. It's not like Instagram - a hamster wheel that you need to keep running in to stay visible. The stuff you put out on YouTube has a life span. It's going to stay there for many years and rack up views and gather subscribers, if it's any good.
And that's the reason I was comfortable with spending all this time growing my channel. It felt like building a body of work and not like running in the hustle hamster wheel of social media.
My channel will keep growing, with or without me. And I feel proud of myself for enduring those first slow and tedious months before my work gathered momentum. It's probably not that different from any other creative endeavor. Slow and steady persistence is the name of the game. The first year or so is the hardest, but if you could just make it through that - the rest is going to feel much easier. You have gotten the ball rolling, built your skills, and created a body of work that's going to keep doing the work for you.
4. YouTube will mess with your head.
Now we get to the not-so-fun realizations after a year of doing YouTube full-time. It messes with your head, big time.
I was prepared for this as well, after watching countless videos by frustrated, depressed, and burnt-out YouTube creators. I knew about the haters and the trolls, the ever-changing algorithm, the pressure of keeping up with uploads, the influence of the channel analytics on your creativity and sense of self-worth, the copyright strikes that could get your channel taken down or demonetized (= removing its ability to earn you money), and much more.
Making a living off of YouTube, or even just spending a lot of time there, comes with some unpleasant side effects. My channel is still very small, so I'm lucky to not experience very many of the creator-specific side effects yet. I haven't had any real haters or trolls, and have managed to keep a regular upload schedule, as well as reply to comments. I haven't been targeted for my occasional uses of GIFs or sound snippets the way I know bigger creators are all the time.
I have let the analytics get to me though. It's inevitable. Every YouTuber will tell you not to obsess over your views, subscribers, watch hours, retention rate, click-through rate, and all of the other metrics YouTube keeps track of for you. It's valuable information since it keeps things transparent and helps you create videos that perform better on the platform.
But. It can also completely cripple you and destroy your self-confidence. Hustle culture among YouTubers is a very real thing. I quickly became exhausted by these "YouTube YouTubers" and their endless videos about how to beat the algorithm. And the YouTube algorithm, being the way it is, kept putting these videos in my feed. Whether I subscribed to them or not. That's just how YouTube works. It knows everything about you, and so it can kind of read your mind. And its algorithm is an engine for obsession and radicalization, taking your curiosity and interests and pushing them to the extremes.
And this, I feel, is the most precarious side effect of spending any amount of time on YouTube. Whether as a creator or a consumer. It will mess with the very core of your being. It will manipulate you. It will erode your ability to pay attention, stay focused, and avoid distractions. It will suck you into rabbit holes and spit you out on the other side, stressed out, exhausted, and confused. It will steal hours of your time every day if you're not careful. It will get you hooked on clickbait and cheap trash content.
I'm not saying YouTube is all crap. Or that its creators are. YouTube is an amazing platform for which I'm immensely grateful. I rely on it for everything from research, learning creative and practical skills, solving problems, and gathering inspiration, to finding social belonging and connection, feeling less lonely, and getting quality entertainment. YouTube is invaluable and I will never stop using it completely.
But it has a dark side. I wish that dark side could be mitigated one day, but I have very little hope. Big tech companies tend to get stuck in their ways. So it falls on every one of us to navigate around these pitfalls.
Why I quit
You might have guessed by now, why I chose to leave YouTube behind. The final point above should be clue enough. But I just want to elaborate a little bit on this, because another thing I've learned from this whole experience is when to quit and when to keep going with something.
I'm multi-passionate, and I love learning new skills. I love the initial stages of a project or creative discipline: the research, the learning curve, figuring out the jargon, setting the goals, and building the foundation. And then, as I start gathering steam and proficiency, I also start losing interest. This has led to me starting and quitting lots of things in my life. Things that might have become great things. It's my biggest Achilles’ heel and I'm quite ashamed of it.
I've been wanting to quit YouTube at least two times over the course of this year. The first time was, I believe, about 3 months in. Growth was sooo slow, I felt ugly and boring and worthless, and I just had second thoughts about it all. It felt barely worth it.
But then I realized the main reason why I felt that way. Not because of the actual work - I enjoyed making videos and getting better at it, and I wanted my channel to grow. But because of the analytics, and my expectations around them. I was impatient and frustrated. Solution: stop looking at the fucking stats every 5 minutes and focus on making videos and having fun.
The second time was around the 8-month mark, when I was becoming more competent in my video making and therefore a bit bored with it. Plus, the weekly video-making hustle was getting to me. I wondered if maybe a podcast would be a better fit for me. It would still be kinda similar to video making, but maybe less demanding? Not having to film but just record audio.
I started my podcast and made 1 1/2 episodes before I realized what I was doing. I had thought the grass was greener over there in podcast land. But it turned out to be even more difficult for me, as a "non-talker". I couldn't show my artmaking, and I couldn't rely on visuals to tell a story. Plus, a podcast has way less discoverability than a YouTube video.
I didn't really want to leave YouTube. And I realized I could just take the reasons I wanted to go into podcasting and apply them to the way I made videos. So I re-committed. I bought a very good online course about YouTube, and I switched up my game, making it more challenging for myself. And just like that, YouTube was fun again.
We all hit roadblocks in our careers and with our creative projects, where the work suddenly starts feeling boring or too stressful, or just wrong. The solution isn't always quitting, but simply switching it up and re-committing. Slowing down the pace, pivoting, or upping the challenge.
Sometimes the solution is to quit though. So how do you know which is which?
For me, it came down to asking myself a series of questions:
"Do I still enjoy doing this?"
"Do I want to give up right now because I'm impatient, bored or tired?"
"What could I do to make this work interesting again? Or less stressful?"
I highly recommend asking yourself these questions, whenever you feel unhappy with your work. They might help you tease out the real reasons behind your discontent, and how to fix them.
I quit YouTube because I wasn't having fun anymore, and I could no longer make myself enjoy the process. I could feel it impacting my voice and personality, and the way I showed up in my videos: Talking quicker, cutting away everything that wasn't to the point, in the hopes of maintaining people's attention better. I no longer wished to be more successful, in fact, I started dreading my channel growing bigger, with all of the repercussions that would have. I knew that I would have ended up burnt out and depressed if I had kept doing it. I don't trust the platform, and the less I rely on it as an income source, the better. And on top of that: spending time there devoured way too much of my time, stressed me out, and destroyed my ability to focus and be creative and productive.
Just because I'm leaving YouTube behind doesn't mean I view the whole thing as a failure or a mistake. I'm so happy I decided to do this. I'm proud of everything I've learned. I've built valuable skills and a body of work. I still enjoy making videos, and I can continue doing that without having to be on YouTube. I love telling stories, entertaining, teaching, and connecting with people. And I can do that in other ways that are more sustainable for me.
If you're still curious about starting a YouTube channel after reading this - if the craft of making videos sounds fun to you - I think you should give it a try. Don't be discouraged by my reasons for quitting. Everyone is different and affected differently by outside factors. You might get to the same point as me in your YouTube journey and feel completely different about it.
Heck, I might decide in a few months or years to pick up the channel again. It’s unlikely but totally possible, knowing myself. A lot of YouTubers take breaks, go on hiatuses, and show up again refreshed and committed. And who knows what will happen to the platform in the future, maybe it will get better.
The truth is: Algorithms come and go, but great content (and content creators) prevail. If you can create good stuff - whether it be video, audio or text - that entertains, educates, and inspires people, and you can do it consistently for a long enough time: You don't have to worry about the algorithm. You just need to do your thing.
So go ahead. Start that channel. Make those first crappy videos. Ignore the stats. Learn the craft. And have a great time doing it. I sure did.
I have been thinking about this newsletter more over the last couple days. I feel like we much in common including thinking. I can over think overthinking. This book is fabulous. I wish I'd read it forty years ago. It helped me chart the path I'm on now.
How to be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass by JoAnneh Nagler - https://www.amazon.com/Artist-Without-Losing-Creative-Compass/dp/1581573677
P.S. I set up my Substack account after watching that video and made a first post, ready to do the second one. It reminds me of a better version of Blogger in that there is the ability to interact. YES YES
I'm older than you. My daughter is 36. I have had several creative businesses over the years and started a new one in April. I decided in advance what I was and wasn't willing to do and I also realized that there are parts to every job that we don't like however, I really like working for myself in a creative field so I chose which "dislikes" I could work with. I like sharing, writing, teaching and I didn't want to deal with social media so I decided to do a website/blog and - reluctantly - YouTube and have been quite surprised by how much I enjoy it. It allows me to share what I know and encourage others and that's fabulous. One thing that really helped is some software called Descript where I edit in the text. Another is that I am only documenting what I want to do. I had one video do incredibly well that was more technique oriented. I want to do some of those but not mainly so I was grateful for the bump in traffic, more subscribers, and continued on in my way. Another is that I don't look at the analytics. If I can't succeed doing things the way I want to do them, then I'll do something else. AND... a huge thing throughout my whole life has been that I start the day with me time. I have coffee and then I go to my studio in my pajamas and work for an hour on something for me, that I want to do, that no one will see. It nurtures and energizes. It's private creativity. You will find your way. I spent last year celebrating the year of turning sixty... which I did in June... and I can tell you that forty was great, fifty better, and I am totally enjoying sixty especially that I know myself and what I'm willing to do and I'm willing to let go of the rest. ALL THE BEST.