hacksmith-james-hobson

Welcome to YouTube Millionaires, where we profile channels that have recently crossed the one million subscriber mark. There are channels crossing this threshold every week, and each has a story to tell about YouTube success. Read previous installments of YouTube Millionaires here.


In the world of builders who fabricate famous items from pop culture franchises, James Hobson goes the extra mile. Hobson is the creator and star of The Hacksmith, where he has shared real-life versions of Captain America’s shield, Iron Man’s jets, and Batman’s Batarang. Hobson, more than just a science nerd, is also a savvy business who has turned The Hacksmith into a full-fledged company; he’s even given a TED Talk about his operation. Here’s his candid chat with us about his past, present, and future hacks.

Tubefilter: How does it feel to have more than one million subscribers? What do you have to say to your fans?

James Hobson: It feels amazing.

I’ve been chasing this YouTube dream for years, and getting that gold play button was really validating. It means that it has all been worthwhile, and that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing with my life and this business.

Our channel is also an educational outlet for youth around the world, inspiring them to explore STEM fields and to pursue complicated projects that will further improve their engineering abilities. Our fans leave an abundance of uplifting comments and honestly those comments mean so much to us and give us the drive to create even more exciting projects and videos. Hearing that kind of feedback means so much more to us than just seeing the view or subscriber counts go up!

We’d just like to thank all of our fans, new and old, for joining us on this journey, and we hope you are as excited as we are about the future!

TF: Your channel has grown quite rapidly over the past couple of years. Why do you think that is?

JH: A couple? Honestly, almost all of our channel growth has been in the past year! But let me back up a second.

Technically, I’ve been on YouTube for over a decade now. I first signed up in April of 2006, and back then, I was just using YouTube as a platform to share videos I made with my friends. But I actually had a viral video back then too, and that kind of gave me a taste “internet fame”. I had made a backflip tutorial that somehow became the number one backflip tutorial on the net for a good five years and I gained a few thousand subscribers because of it! Unfortunately, the YouTube partner program was rather exclusive back then so I never made any money off of it. I continued making videos occasionally, but usually just for fun.

In 2012 I graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering from Conestoga College, around the same time that YouTube opened the partner program up to everyone. I decided “what the heck — let’s try it again.” I started producing content one to two times a week. That’s when I came up with the name “the Hacksmith” — it’s kind of a throwback to blacksmithing. Back in the day, the blacksmith was the person you’d go to have things fixed, designed, or built; weapons, armor, tools etc. Consider a Hacksmith to be a 21st century spin on the term — a jack of all trades, proficient at most things, but not necessarily an expert at any!

For the first couple of years, I didn’t get much traction. I was putting out content, but was having a hard time finding an audience. In the summer of 2014 I started working on one of my biggest projects — my pneumatic powered exoskeleton based off of the movie Elysium. It was a 16 part series, culminating in my first major test where I curled 170lbs using my creation. That video got a lot of news attention, and my channel doubled in size from 20,000 to 40,000 subscribers!

I’d say that was the moment I really thought “Hey, this could work… I could do YouTube on a larger scale…”

I continued to invest in tools and equipment, and eventually, my shop. I took out a large mortgage from the bank and purchased a house complete with a 1800 square foot warehouse sized garage on the lot. I really lucked out finding this place, and credit having it to being crucial to my success. It wasn’t easy though — the place was in shambles when I took it over. In the first year we probably spent more time cleaning it out and renovating it than we did on projects.

Not even a year after signing the mortgage, I was getting bored at my job. I was a Product Developer for a really cool tech company, but I was burning the candle at both ends trying to do both it, and YouTube. In November 2015, I took the plunge and started doing YouTube full-time exclusively. And that’s when the magic started.

I focused on increasing production quality, and learning from other YouTubers on how to do that. We started another exoskeleton build, this time based on one from the video game series Call of Duty. It wasn’t long before we hit the 100K subscriber milestone. Ian Hillier, my best friend from highschool and college (who often helped behind the scenes) decided to join me, and left his job to work full-time on the channel as well.

We both took massive risks, living off dwindling savings to keep working on the channel — but then we had our first major success. We designed and built a working Captain America Shield, complete with an electromagnet bracer, just like in the movie. Except in the movie — it was all CGI. The project went mega viral, and we grew to half a million subscribers in just over a month!

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Because we already had a huge library of content on the channel, for every view on the viral video, we saw 2-3 views on our older content as well — and I think this is what spiked the massive growth in subscribers! New viewers saw that we weren’t just a one trick pony, and were excited to see more content.

The channel has experienced near linear growth from then, averaging close to 100,000 new subscribers per month, and accelerating. We cracked the 1 million milestone in early 2017, and we’re hoping to double that by the end of this summer!

For more information about my journey on YouTube, I filmed a very candid interview called “One Year on YouTube — from 50K to 1M Subscribers” which outlines exactly how I’ve gotten to where I am today.

TF: What would you say makes your operation unique within YouTube’s “nerd builds” genre?

JH: There are lots of channels out there making cool gadgets and random inventions, but I think we’re the ones taking it the farthest. We focus mostly on making real-life superhero tech — and then using, it too. Basically, watching our channel is like watching the beginning of a superhero origin story. I’m not saying I’m actually going to fight crime or anything, but it’s certainly the inspirational vibe we’re going for.

We’ve got the super cool workshop, we’ve got the awesome technology and equipment, and we’ve got the team. But, we don’t quite have the money just yet. It would be so much easier if I had started out as an eccentric millionaire…unfortunately I’m just eccentric.

The fun part about our videos is that they aren’t just nitty gritty nerd builds. We focus a lot of time on making our epic tests, which feature all the explosions and action scenes that appeal to a much larger audience.

I also think we’re one of the only channels really treating our business like an engineering R&D company. There are lots of maker channels out there, but not many with a big shop, and all the fancy tools (3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines and every power tool you can think of), oh and a whole team of people working on creating projects! I think we kind of give off a bit of a Mythbusters vibe, which is awesome!

So because of that, I think one of our other main differences is our long-term goals for the business. For some people, YouTube might be the end-game, but we see it as more of a stepping stone.

If (when) our channel grows to the 5-10 million subscriber size, we could potentially support a team of 10+ engineers, and actually be a fairly powerful and innovative engineering R&D company — whose home is on YouTube. If that’s not unique, I don’t know what is! With a team like that we could work on even more complex projects, and potentially, real inventions that we could actually manufacture and sell!

The real end goal is to become a company not unlike Stark Industries, or if you’re more of a DC fan, WayneTech Enterprises. But don’t worry though — we’ll keep video production at the core of the business. How cool would it be to see more into Elon Musk’s crazy life at Tesla or SpaceX?

Whatever we end up doing, it’ll be super cool — and we’ll be taking you along for the ride.

TF: Where do you get ideas for new things to make, and how long does one of your builds take from start to finish?

JH: Coming up with ideas is the easy part; choosing what to work on and what not to work on is the hard part. Honestly, we have a never ending list of ideas to pursue! A lot come from movies, comics and even video games — which for us, makes it pretty easy to get inspired. As our channel continues to grow and we get better equipment in the shop, we’re going to take on even more “impossible” projects, which is super exciting!

Some of our projects only take a few days to design and build; others, weeks or even several months. It really depends on the project. Sometimes the video takes more time to produce than the actual project does.

We usually have several projects on the backburner at all times. Sometimes, projects will sit on the shelf for months or even years just waiting to get finished. Sometimes it is funding that is holding us back — sometimes the technology itself.

TF: Have there ever been any things you’ve tried to build that you ultimately deemed unfeasible?

JH: Aha, good question! We have lots of project ideas that aren’t quite feasible with current technology — but that’s not stopping us from dreaming them up and putting them on the back burner for when that day comes. The biggest thing holding most sci-fi tech is the power source. If something like Tony Stark’s arc reactor could be made, it would unlock the possibilities for so many inventions — it would literally cause a paradigm shift in technology. I’m not talking batteries that are 5-10 times better (though that would be a great start!) but 100-1000 times. It would revolutionize the world!

However, speaking of the present, a specific project we’ve had difficulties with is our Flying like Iron Man series, which has been one of our most popular projects. The issue is, it’s a super expensive project. Estimated costs for building it are around $75,000 and while our fans really want to see us fly like Iron Man — our GoFundMe campaign fell a little short.

In about 6 months, we raised just over $3000 — which we’re super grateful for — but that isn’t even be enough to buy one of the EDFs we would like to test for the project (they’re $5000 each). Does that mean we’re giving up? Hell no.

In that time we’ve talked to several companies and managed to get agreements in place to have some of the simpler components sponsored for the project — which adds up. With that in mind — we should be able to do the project for under $40,000 now. The tricky part is that we’re still left with either using expensive EDFs — or designing our own (both time consuming and riskier). For the latter option, we’ve also managed to score a SolidWorks sponsorship for the business — which means, we now have access to professional software that will allow us to design and simulate our flight project prior to even building it. To give you an idea of the value of that software, each software license is worth well over $25,000 with the simulation plugins, so while we haven’t posted many video updates on the project, rest assured we’ve still been working on it behind the scenes.

Anyway, as we continue to design the project, we’re planning on doing another fundraising push to try and raise the remaining $37,000 we need to build it — and hey, if you want to see the project come together faster — you can check out our fundraising campaign here.

TF: You speak a lot about the financial aspects of your content creation. What’s one change you’d like to see YouTube make to help its creators make a more livable income?

JH: Honestly, my biggest concern with YouTube is with their Content ID system. It’s too easy for big players to shut down little channels, and there’s no real way for the little channels to fight back. We’ve seen this happen a few times where little channels have gotten shut down after getting three false flags, and unless you’re a big channel, YouTube’s not necessarily going to help you out, or if they are, you’re not exactly a priority case.

I like where the revenue sharing copyright policy for certain music is going, but I think it needs to be even more sophisticated. For example, let’s say I make a 30 minute long video, and feature 30 seconds of a popular song that has a revenue-share policy (remember most songs don’t even have a revenue-share policy, they just take 100% of the ad revenue). Under the current revenue-sharing system it would be a 50/50 revenue split for the ads. Does that make sense? Not really.

So how would you determine the split? Should it be 1% because the music was only featured in 1% of the video? What if there were multiple songs in the video? While it might make sense to do a duration based split — getting all the music labels on board would be near impossible for YouTube. So while it would be awesome for a system like that to be put in place…it’s quite unlikely it’s even possible for YouTube achieve — but hey, we can dream right?

TF: Alternatively, what’s a financial tip you would give someone who is just starting out on YouTube?

JH: Always have a side-hustle.

While it’s true diving headfirst into YouTube and giving it your all is super important to succeeding…if you end up broke after a few months you’re pretty much out of luck. What I did was I had several part-time freelancing jobs on the side. I was able to supplement my income doing that — basically focusing on the highest paying work for the least amount of time — which allowed me to focus the majority of my time, on YouTube. That’s what will allow you to keep pushing forward on your dream.

But it’s also important to be realistic.Take a real hard look at your plan for YouTube. Unless you’re super unique, or you’ve got something that no one else has, it’s going to be hard to get a foothold and grow your presence on the platform. I’m not saying give up — but you have to be realistic. A lot of the really big channels are big because they’ve been around for so long. Do you think PewDiePie could replicate his success today if no one knew who he was? Probably not.

With that in mind, if you don’t have something that’s unique to you — find something! Because trying to compete with the established players in an established niche (gaming, basic DIY, vlogging, etc) is almost a sure-fire way to fail. I’m not trying to being pessimistic — just realistic.

If you want to succeed on YouTube, you have to bring something new to the table. Here’s a few of our best tips for success:

  • Minimize your expenses so you can maximize your runway. Live in your parents basement and film on a used camera if you have to. It is far easier to start spending money than it is to stop.
  • Diversify your social media presence and use each platform to complement the others, they all have different uses.
  • Diversify your revenue streams so that if one of them dries up unexpectedly, you are still making money — YouTube isn’t and shouldn’t be your main source.
  • Avoid sponsorship deals that are not good for your channel. There are many companies that will send you free stuff but want a dedicated review in return. Free stuff is awesome but it is usually not worth the damage it could do to your channel — the last thing you want is to be labeled a sell-out and lose any credibility you might of had.
  • Finally, don’t sign with an MCN, agent or any other representative until you have done your due diligence. There are many companies out there that just want a cut of your earnings without helping you in return. Avoid exclusive agreements altogether unless it is a very good fit and negotiate the contract so that you can easily leave if it is not working out.

TF: There’s a lot of stuff like your Hacksmith videos on TV. Is that a format you’re curious about exploring at all?

JH: Honestly we’ve been approached by dozens and dozens of production companies interested in working on a series with us, but the issue is, all the networks are still too old school! They just want TV content without any connection to our YouTube brand — but, if I disappeared for a few months from YouTube to film a show, it could seriously hurt our channel — and there’s no guarantee the show even goes anywhere! Digital media is the future after all.

The only relationship I could see working is if both our YouTube channel and the TV show cross-promote content — offer behind the scenes footage and extended cuts on YouTube, keep the TV show the highly produced episodes — maybe a Mythbusters style kinda of thing. If anything, I think an arrangement like that would have even higher audience engagement!

Think about Hollywood — actors are starting to Tweet and Instagram behind the scenes stuff during production — in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in their contracts that they have to share certain things — as it all builds up hype for the movie or show!

I guess what I’m saying is, it could be awesome to be on TV — but it’d have to be the right deal for it to work out.

TF: What’s next for your channel? Any fun plans?

JH: Well, we’re hoping to crack two million subscribers by end of summer, and as we continue to grow — we’re going to be able to take on bigger and bigger projects! We invest everything back into the business, growing the team and expanding our capabilities. I am super excited to find out what the future holds for us.

In the meantime, we are currently working on building a real burning lightsaber, a laser bazooka, Wonder Woman’s indestructible bracelets, a variety of overpowered electric vehicles, and much much more.

One project I’d love to do is the Power Loader from the original Alien franchise. Essentially a wearable forklift that would be capable of flipping cars. It’s completely feasible with today’s tech… it’d just cost more than a new car to build!

Oh — and of course, someday… we want to build a full Iron Man suit.
of uplifting comments and honestly those comments mean so much to us and give us the drive to create even more exciting projects and videos. Hearing that kind of feedback means so much more to us than just seeing the view or subscriber counts go up!

We’d just like to thank all of our fans, new and old, for joining us on this journey, and we hope you are as excited as we are about the future!

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