Hannah Hart never sought fame. The YouTube star majored in Japanese and English literature at UC Berkeley, and worked as a proofreader at a translation firm after graduation.
“I had hoped one day I could get a career in entertainment, but it seemed like too scary of a thing to pursue,” she said. “It wasn’t practical.”
But Hart had a lucky break one day in 2011 when she uploaded a jokey video of herself cooking while drunk; she just wanted to send the video to her friend.
“The only way I knew how to send it was to upload it to YouTube,” she said. She titled it “My Drunk Kitchen,” and e-mailed the link to her friend.
And then the comments started rolling in.
“I said, ‘This is so weird. Why are all these strangers calling it a show and asking for another episode?’” she said. Hart made the wise decision to please her newfound fans.
One and a half years after her first upload, Hart was finally making enough money to make her YouTube channel a full-time job.
“After episode six or seven, I got an interview with Time Magazine and I decided to keep my job but leave my apartment and start couchsurfing,” she explained. She focused her efforts on growing her channel. “Probably a year and a half later, I could start to pay rent again and it became my full-time job,” she said.
Now, Hart’s face is plastered on ads around New York City: You may recognize her if your commute takes you through Union Square station. She has more than 1.8 million subscribers on YouTube, a bestselling book and a nationwide volunteer initiative.
Hart’s not alone. Tyler Toney of the popular YouTube trick shot channel Dude Perfect remembered how hard it was for him to make the decision to quit his job as a landscape salesperson to focus on his channel.
“It was definitely scary when we first started because three of us were married and we have families to look out for,” he said. “It was really scary at the time, but it was really validated for us just a few weeks after because we started hitting on all cylinders – we had brand knowing down the doors that it really paid off for us.” His channel now has 4.45 million subscribers, celebrity fans (and guests) and business partnerships with brands.
Zayna Aston, spokesperson for YouTube, said there are thousands of YouTube users making six figures through their channels. YouTube content creators mostly make money through sharing ad revenue with YouTube, though they can also sell products and music through their channels.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that YouTube stars can pave a sustainable career through the online video-sharing platform. YouTube reaches more U.S. adults 18 to 34 than any cable network; the website has over one billion unique visitors a month. User PewDiePie has more than 36 million subscribers: That’s more than the entire population of Canada.
The beauty of the format, though, is that there is no barrier to entry. Anyone with a cameraphone can record themselves and post on the site.
“YouTube has democratized access to video creation,” said Aston. “It has given anyone who wants one a mouthpiece so creators don’t have to go through any greenlighting process.”
Aston said many of the most popular YouTube channels deliver highly targeted content. “There are creators who say they couldn’t find content they wanted to watch, so they created it, which is why you have such a diversity of creators,” she explained. “They can put out their content to a global audience on YouTube and aggregate an audience around even the most niche content.”
Unlike television shows, YouTube creators are not necessarily attempting to create mass appeal. “I don’t care about having everyone in America like me,” said Hart. “I just want to attract people who like what I do. I don’t want to make it mass consumable, ignorant programming.”
Aston said, “They have the ability to be completely creative by themselves without any external input. There’s no one there doing script rewrites or saying, ‘Change your content to fit the distribution network.’”
It’s not entirely true that there is no external input: YouTube creators’ success largely depends on interacting and building a community with their viewers.
“They’re my chairman of the board and they’re my friends; they’re the people I want to make laugh,” said Hart.