Molly Burke has over 1.9 million subscribers on her YouTube channel. Her videos rack up hundreds of thousands of views in days; her most popular one, sky-diving with fellow YouTubers, the Dolan twins, has 4.7 million and climbing. Not that she’s counting. In fact, the influencer and accessibility advocate — she’s been blind since she was 14, the result of a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa — makes it a habit to ignore anything that has to do with likes and comments and analytics. “Most people live and die by their Social Blade. But it stresses me out,” she tells Refinery29. “I want the reason why I make content to be the reason why I started, which is to help people and share my story and what I’m interested in, in a fun and creative way.”
Burke's story is a moving one. Growing up in Toronto, she experienced intense bullying and depression. As she was losing her sight, she started watching YouTube videos — "girls that were just around my age talking about makeup and fashion, all of the things that I loved and cared about, but didn't know how to experience or enjoy anymore... these girls taught me and helped me figure out how to love myself again," she told Paper Magazine. Wanting to pass along that feeling of empowerment to others, she launched her own channel in 2014.
Today, Burke, now 25, lives in L.A. and posts videos on everything from what it’s like to navigate the mall with her guide dog, Gallop, to getting matching tattoos with her mom to her activism. She's also the author of the new Audible.ca book, It’s Not What It Looks Like. Here, she tells us how she is spreading disability awareness via YouTube and building a business while she’s at it.
How would you describe your YouTube community?
I’m a member of the disability community, specifically the blind community but at the end of the day, the disability community is so small, we’re all fighting for the same thing — equality and accessibility in the world.
Why did you wait to start your channel until you were out of your teens?
Being out of school eliminated one fear of mine, which was being bullied by students at school. By the time I was 20, I had already toured as a public speaker for two years. I was in a really healthy place mentally. I had worked out a lot of my own opinions on my identity and community, compared to when I was 16 or 18, when I was still recovering from my vision loss.
Everyone wants to be an influencer or a YouTuber these days, but few people know the amount of work that goes into it. Can you pull back the curtain for us?
I make a full-time living on social media and with my career in entertainment, and I make enough to pay staff. I’m doing well for myself, especially given 80% of blind people are unemployed. But the reality is, a lot of the time you see #ad and you assume people are being paid but that’s not always the case. You have to disclose when something is free. For example, I got a free mattress, which I’m grateful for, but free mattresses don’t pay bills. So people think you’re getting paid more often than you are if you do a lot of exchanges for free things. Another thing is how much of our money gets eaten up by costs of the business. My manager takes 20% of everything I do, which is fair because he works really hard for me, but that’s a lot of money! I have an assistant who works full-time for me, three editors who edit my videos, my mom who shoots all my photography. There are a lot of moving parts. Even videos where I’m reviewing clothing, I’m spending $500 to get the clothing to film that video. There’s a lot that people don’t see when running a full-fledged business.
How long did it take you to find success?
There’s the odd person who blows up overnight but that’s not the norm. For me, it took years to get 5,000 subscribers because at the time, disability wasn’t represented on YouTube in a big way. People weren’t searching it because they didn’t know it existed and they weren’t watching it so it wasn’t being recommended, so it was a vicious circle of really fighting to even get people to know content like mine was out there.
Just how much are you on your phone and social media on a typical workday?
This is where it’s interesting, I’m not on my phone that much [Laughs]. I delegate everything I can to my assistants because I want to be able to have sanity and balance. For example, I write captions for my Instagram but they post it. If I want to do a story, I film it, they decorate it, I tell them what hashtags to put, they post it. They reply to my DMs for me. So I would say I’m on my phone less than most people. I think the fact it is more difficult for me to use a phone is also the reason why I delegate tasks to my team. My friends know if you actually want to talk to me, they call me. I don’t reply to texts. I’m not that Millennial who’s obsessed with my phone even though my career revolves around the Internet.
Any advice for future YouTubers?
Commitment is key. Don’t start until you can really dedicate yourself to it. At the end of the day, it’s an algorithm we’re trying to play to and algorithms like consistency. So if there’s any advice that’s more helpful than “be yourself!” it’s to be consistent with what you’re posting and when you’re posting.