If this article were a YouTube video, I know exactly how it would begin. I'd start by introducing myself: Hey, guys! It's me, Kathryn. Or maybe I'd have some kind of catchphrase that I say at the start of all my videos: Well, hello there. Oh, helloooooo. Hey, hi, how are ya? Then I'd get right to it: Today I'm going to be talking about YouTubers.
I know this because I have watched a lot of YouTube videos. I watch them every day when I get home from work. I talk about them with my friends. I'm greeted by the same handful of people in my subscriber box every time they upload, whose lives I've been following since before they knew anyone would.
That time was around 2007. I discovered people on this (then little-known) video website who would sit in front of their webcams and talk about Harry Potter. From there I found more people who used the website for a whole bunch of things. Some treated YouTube like a diary, or used it to stay in touch with each other, or posted about the things they bought at Topshop. I've been watching these people's lives for the past ten years.
I could wax poetic about the early days of YouTube for as long as anyone would stay on this article — which would not be long, because YouTube as I knew it has totally transformed. In the space of ten years, it morphed from a place to mess around with iMovie to a fully-functioning, high-tech hub of creators. For many people, most of whom never knew it could be possible, YouTube is a career, a full-time job, the thing that puts food on their table and then some. Ahead, I spoke to four full-time creators who gave up their traditional 9-to-5s in favor of making videos full time. From a former editor at Cosmopolitan to a stay-at-home mom who just wanted keep a record of her pregnancy, these YouTubers never knew their hobby could become career. Here's what, exactly, that means.
Location: New York
Location: New York
When I stepped in Arshia's home, I was also stepping into something I had never seen before: the other side of a YouTube video. It was just as picture-perfect as you'd imagine, complete with a golden retriever puppy meeting me at the door. Arshia, who's been making beauty videos on YouTube since 2013, was squeezing me in after going the gym and before filming, and then heading into the city for a brand meeting. She'd then spend the rest of the night editing what she filmed, and if all went well, it would go up on her channel — which boasts 158 thousand subscribers — the next day.
This is a far cry from what you might picture when you think of a YouTuber. When clickbait and scandals dominate the mainstream perception of the platform, it's easy to believe that "YouTuber" is a made up word for people who spit out a video in 30 minutes and spend the rest of the day hanging out. When I met Arshia, however, she could not have been more put together, which was partially thanks to her background in fashion and media (she was an editor at Cosmopolitan India), and also because, after talking to her, I discovered that she, and all other full-time YouTubers, was essentially running a small business.
When it comes to filming her videos, which focus on beauty and makeup for people with darker complexions, Arshia is a one-woman show. She showed me her filming set up, which she does in her bedroom with cameras, a light, and a pretty background courtesy of her excellent taste in home decor.
This whole YouTube thing started on a whim. Arshia was familiar with the website, and one day posted a video about makeup for people with brown skin, and then didn't think much of it. When she came back, she saw it had gained traction, and realized that she was filming a niche people couldn't get enough of. She never thought it could be more than a hobby — something you're going to hear a lot in the next few profiles — until her channel had grown so much that it felt like she was juggling two full-time jobs. She eventually decided to give up her day job in media and pursue YouTube full time.
This is where people often get confused. How can you just give up your job? Does YouTube give you enough money? Where is this money coming from?
I had always thought that YouTubers made a majority of their cash thanks to the ads they set up on their content, and Arshia says this is true to an extent. However, most of her money comes from brand partnerships (where brands pay her to promote her favorite products to her audience) and affiliate links (where she gets a cut of the money people pay to purchase the things she's wearing or talking about in the video).
Essentially, she's a freelancer. She pays taxes. She has savings. And she's in no danger of running into financial trouble. As someone in control of her own work, Arshia's channel has opened up a ton of doors. If she were ever to tire of making videos — which is not something she sees happening any time soon — she can always go back to her career in media, but she can also branch out. Thanks to the past four years she's spent as a creator, she now is well versed in communications, working with brands, publicity, video-editing, and social media. Her options are literally endless, and there's nowhere to go but up.
Alba Ramos (SunKissAlba)
Location: New York
Location: New York
In 2010, Alba Ramos was a stay-at-home mom. She had taken a break from school and, after she became pregnant, her part-time retail job. It was during this time at home when she discovered YouTube, and, after watching a few videos from other people, decided to try it herself. She propped a camera on top of a cereal box and started talking. The video went up, followed by another, and her subscribers slowly grew. However, it wasn't until one particular video, in which she shared her struggle with curly hair, that she tapped into something people were excited about watching. Suddenly, her viewers started multiplying.
Like most people during this time, Alba wasn't too aware of YouTube as a way to make to make money. Back in 2010, popular YouTubers had the option of becoming a YouTube Partner, a program that allowed them to place ads alongside videos and make a share of the earnings. In 2012, YouTube opened the program to anyone, regardless of subscribers or views. In 2017, a channel must have at least 10,000 lifetime views in order to be eligible.
But back to 2011. The only successful YouTuber Alba knew of was guru Michelle Phan, who has since gone on to create her own line of cosmetics. So when she also started racking up views and eventually became a YouTube partner, she realized that, like Phan, this could really be something.
Then, things in her life took a dramatic shift.
"The second my child was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old, my husband and I started doing research," she explained. "We started discovering the things we were putting in our body every day, we started to become aware of the effects of that and how those very things could actually improve our son's life."
She decided to pivot her channel to what it is today: A resource for people interested in non-toxic beauty. However, it took some time to get here.
"When I made that decision, it was a hard one. It meant changing my content," she said. "I got threats from people saying they were going to unsubscribe from me...within two videos people started to understand the direction I was going in."
Now, Alba has over 880,000 subscribers on YouTube and 371 thousand followers on Instagram, and in this social-media dominated world, while Alba does get revenue from YouTube views, her social media following allows her to better negotiate the money she can receive from sponsorships or partnerships.
While the financial side of things has changed for Alba since 2010 — she can now safely call YouTube her fulltime job, and works with a management team who covers the day-to-day logistics — creatively, there's not much Alba has changed. She still films at home, with just one camera, one tripod, and one light. And while that may be simple, her schedule is anything but.
When she and I spoke on the phone, she was on day two of a three-day-long project. The day before, shad had been filming from the morning right into the evening, taking breaks to juggle household chores, take care of her son, and put on content on her other social media (for instance, that same day she put up a recipe on Instagram). The day we talked, she had been editing all morning, and didn't anticipate being done with the video until the next day. By the time it goes up, she'll have also created a thumbnail, filled in the description with information and links, and started doing promotion across her social media platforms.
So much of her life is on film, which means privacy is always her number one concern. There's good reason to be paranoid — Alba shared horror stories that have happened to other YouTubers, which range from simple things, like someone accidentally leaving their address visible while opening mail, to being targets of full-scale operations. For instance, one of her friends was filming a video in her car when a viewer took a screenshot, zoomed in on the GPS, and found her home address. They looked at her vlogs to figure out the layout of her apartment, and matched it with building blueprints they found online to discern exactly which apartment belonged to her. Their apartment was eventually robbed.
While Alba has never experienced anything this crazy, she does make an effort to do things like hide the view out of her windows and keep her open P.O. box — which fans and brands use to send her things — in a town nowhere near where she lives.
Eventually, I had to ask her the same question I had asked every YouTuber: What will you do if all this comes to an end? YouTube hasn't been around long enough for anyone to know what comes after, but it's weighing heaving on creators' minds.
"This is a fear that I think we all have," she replied. "I hope to be always on YouTube, but the reality is I won't be able to...because I will age, I will change."
Other YouTubers have pre-empted this by branching out into other mediums. They find revenue outside of YouTube, be it through book deals or Netflix shows or podcasts. Alba has started making moves in a new direction as well, focusing on making skincare rather than just talking about it. She collaborated with Derma E, a 100% vegan, cruelty-free, and GMO-free skincare brand, and created her very own multipurpose oil. Eventually, she'd love to have her own product line that would hopefully become a well-known brand. Until then, like most users, she's taking things one view at a time.
When it comes to YouTube, Shahd Batal and I have similar experiences. We both grew up watching YouTubers, buying the clothes they bought (shoutout to disco pants — thanks Zoella!), and paying them the same amount of attention as we did celebrities in TV or movies. Shahd, however, actually had the courage to try it herself.
"It's easy, you just frickin' buy a camera and then you post it!" she told me. Shahd started her YouTube channel as a sophomore in college, making natural hair videos. She didn't tell anyone, and was sitting in English class when she first hit 100 subscribers. When Shahd finally got her first $100, it became real, and it also was a solution to a much bigger problem: She was having a hard time affording school and wasn't getting any financial aid. She didn't know if she needed a degree to do what she wanted to do, and if she wanted to stay in school, she'd have to transfer — for the third time.
Instead, with YouTube money slowly rolling in and the fact that she lived with her parents, she decided to take a year off. She hasn't looked back.
This did mean telling her parents what it is she does, and they still don't necessarily understand what YouTube is or how it can be a real job. They both hope their daughter will eventually go back to school, but for now, Shahd's father has simple advice: "Don't do anything dumb."
Instead, every day, Shahd wakes up, scrolls through social media, checks her emails, makes her phone calls — although much of the logistical work she's handed over to her management team, Gleam Futures. Gleam is in charge of a large roster of YouTubers, and steps in to negotiate their relationships with brands and other YouTube-related (and non-YouTube) opportunities while taking a small cut of their earnings. The team reached out to Shahd a few months ago, but she didn't decide to take the plunge and sign with them until May.
This opens up room for Shahd to focus solely on her content. She has a long-running list of video ideas, and chooses two to film each day. She flipped around her bedroom to work as a filming studio, and every ten-minute video can take between two and three hours to film. Tack on a couple more to edit and promote the content, and then a few more to respond to comments — before she knows it, the day is over.
This is Shahd's current system, but she recently went through a giant rebranding. After the election, she deleted all her content, and decided to embrace her faith and wear her hijab. There aren't many Black hijabi women on YouTube, and Shahd realized that she wanted to be someone who other hijabis could relate to.
"I want to be that person who says 'Hey, you don't have to take your hijab off, you don't have to let society make you feel like you have to take it off, wear it unapologetically,'" she explained. "I also want people to see that hijabis are such normal people."
While this unfortunately results in the occasional discriminatory comment, Shahd takes it in stride.
"I delete it and I block them right away," she said. "Because once one person comments something, other people feel brave enough to comment it as well."
As for what's next, working full-time on YouTube and living at home means every penny Shahd spends goes right back into her channel, and she hopes to be able to move to L.A. sometime in the next year. She wants to do YouTube for as long as possible, but is equally as interested in off-platform work, like branded posts and modeling.
"I have no expectation of my channel which is the biggest thing," she said. "I will take as much as I'm given. If you would have asked me a year ago what I wanted, this is exactly what I wanted, so now I'm going with the flow."
Keren Swanson & Khoa Nguyen (KKandbabyJ)
While I'd consider myself well-versed in the world of YouTube, there was one particular genre that still managed to mystify me: family vloggers. This is a relatively new (ish) trend on the platform that usually involves a family of four or more making daily (!!!) videos of their everyday lives — and people can't get enough. I had so many questions, but when I talked to Keren Swanson and Khoa Nguyen, I started with the basics.
Their channel began when Keren was pregnant and stumbled upon the genre when looking up videos about raising a baby. She decided she wanted to make her own.
"I thought YouTube was, 'How to make a perfect egg,'" her husband, Khoa, joked. However, he had already used the platform as a home for fun montage videos he made with friends, and was able to teach Keren how to edit. While he went off to his job in real estate, Keren would stay home and make videos about her pregnancy and, eventually, motherhood. For someone who would sometimes work until 1AM, Khoa was grateful for the videos, and watched them as a way to see what his family was up to while he brought home the bacon — until Keren's work on YouTube started making bacon of its own.
Khoa still works in real estate, but has drastically reduced his hours in order to be a part of the vlogs. It can feel like he has two full time jobs, but Khoa is in love with vlogging. They both are — so much so that they haven't once missed a single day of vlogging for the past two years.
"Our job is life," Keren explained. "That's why some days are hard. Some days you're like, 'I don't want to live life.'"
But a reason why people keep coming back to their channel is because they're so relatable. If they're having a boring day, they have a boring vlog, and some viewers have even said they prefer those.
"The day that this feels like 'Oh my God, what are we going to do today for the vlog?' That's the day I want to stop," Khoa said. But it's always felt like the opposite. Every day has a goal, and it gives each day purpose, even if they're just spending time at home.
"When there are days that I don't want to do it, I just think about how grateful I am for the opportunity I have," Khoa said. While Keren often handles the nitty gritty of vlogging — the emails, the phone calls — Khoa is more hands-on, and he loves talking to viewers in the comments. However, when you're putting your family and parenting on the internet, some of those comments come with a lot of scrutiny.
"Family advice is the worst type of comment you can get," Keren admitted. She doesn't mind rude comments about her, but comments about her children really get under her skin. "Every child is different, every family is different," she continued. "You just have to put the phone or computer or whatever down and look around and just be like, 'I'm doing it the way I need to do it and if there was any other normal person raising a child [without a camera] this would not be an issue.'"
The daily vlogging does make them a different kind of family, and with such young children, I had to wonder if the kids even understood what was happening — and if they'd still be on board if they did.
According to Keren and Khoa, their eldest child, who is almost two, loves watching YouTube, but doesn't really know what it is yet. He does recognize the camera, and views it as practically another sibling. He hams it up, and enjoys watching himself back.
"He'll get to the age where he'll understand and then he'll tell us if he wants to be on camera or not," Khoa said. "And when it comes to that point, if he doesn't want to be on camera we'll put the camera down for sure."
While their YouTube channel is their job, they're very selective about how they pursue it.
"We're not a business, we're a family vlog," Keren said. It's important that they fully support a product or partnership before they go into business with them, and they have no problem turning opportunities down.
It is difficult, however, to explain what they do to other people. Often they'll just say they post videos on YouTube and leave it at that. If people have more questions they're happy to answer — and people almost always do. One time they broke it all down for an Uber driver, and now that Uber driver is starting his own channel.
They also interact with fans, but have had to make some changes for security purposes. There are cameras around their house, and instead of people coming to find where they live, the parents encourage their viewers to instead go to Khoa's family's restaurant if they're looking to run into the duo. And they probably will! The family is there almost everyday, and they love talking to subscribers.
"I probably get more excited than they do," Khoa said.
With two successful jobs — YouTube and real estate — the two hope that in the future they'll be able to combine those passions. They'd love to start a YouTube channel dedicated to buying and flipping homes, but even if YouTube went away tomorrow, they'd be okay. The family has branded themselves, which means they can move seamlessly from one platform to another and still make money thanks to their dedicated followers. As long as they have each other, they're set for life.