Welcome to Creators Going Pro, where in partnership with Semaphore — a creator-focused family of companies providing business and financial services to social media professionals — we profile professional YouTube stars who have hit it big by doing what they love. Each week, we’ll chat with a creator about the business side of their channel, including identifying their Semaphore Moment — the moment they truly went pro.
If you’re looking for 24-year-old Canadian YouTuber Jake McCormick — aka ‘Papa Jake’ — chances are you’re going to find him in a box fort.
It was his love of the video game Halo that first brought him to YouTube, where he started esports group ‘Team Epiphany.’ Over the eight years since, McCormick has turned his YouTube experience to a new genre, using his DIY skills to transform his channel into a smorgasbord of family-friendly videos that show him making some of the world’s coolest box forts.
And he’s got quite the audience to appreciate those forts — to the tune of more than 5.5 million subscribers. His channel, where he adheres to a strick three-videos-per-week upload schedule, nets between 120,000 and 150,000 new subscribers per month, and averages around 40 million views each month. He also has a sizable following on other platforms: 89,000 followers on Twitter, and nearly 200,000 on Instagram.
Despite his growing popularity and the grueling amount of content he puts out, McCormick is firm on keeping a small team and basic equipment. He doesn’t spend much on videos, and for most videos, he scrounges props from around his house. His videos, he says, look like videos his young fans could make — and that’s the point. Like the build-your-own-box-fort kit he released last year, his videos are a testament to the sorts of things his enthusiastic viewers are capable of producing.
Check out our chat with him about how he found YouTube, how his YouTube audience found him, and where he wants to take his channel from here.
Tubefilter: Tell us about your background! What led to your decision to join YouTube?
Jake McCormick: I started making YouTube videos in 2009 while I was just starting my first year of high school. Throughout my secondary education and into postsecondary education, I continued to work to grow my channel. Originally, I attended Ryerson University for Business Management, but ultimately decided it was in my best interest to fully pursue my YouTube career — and, toward the end of 2014, I chose to drop out and embrace being a full-time YouTuber.
Tubefilter: What made you choose YouTube as the place to share your content? What was the catalyst for you deciding to start a channel?
JM: At the time [in 2009], there weren’t many alternative options to choose from. YouTube was the main outlet to seek out and watch online videos. For me, it was all about sharing my personal content and utilizing a platform where people could watch and engage with my videos. In 2009, the place for that was YouTube.
I was inspired to start a channel when I noticed there weren’t any videos on the specific topic I was looking for — I’m a huge fan of Halo. I was browsing YouTube trying to find updates on the newest Halo game and couldn’t find any options that packaged all of my needs into one video. That is when I started my weekly YouTube series to update fans on all the weekly news regarding Halo. This was my first successful series, and it earned me my first 100 subscribers!
Tubefilter: We have to know about your box fort skills. You’re incredible at it — and you released your own box fort kit. How did you find the box fort-making side of YouTube, and what was the process like for producing and releasing your box fort kit?
JM: We started making box forts on YouTube sort of by accident. We were in the process of rebuilding our office space and had a ton of excess cardboard laying around. That, mixed with a slow week of video ideas, pushed us to make our first box fort. I had always been into building forts as a kid, and engineering cool bases for sleepovers and hanging out with friends. It was clear that once we started making box fort videos, the passion was already there, and all of my childlike ideas and memories were brought back to reality. I would say that any skill I have regarding this topic came from years of making forts and being creative as a child.
As for our Box Fort Kit, we had a lot of fun working on it. We were approached by a third-party company to assist us with manufacturing and distributing, and it was the first time I had ever done anything like that. Although it was a lot of fun, it was also a huge learning experience. Manufacturing and distributing a product around the world while trying to maintain your standard of quality along with a price point you believe to be fair is the most difficult part. I like to believe I learned a lot from the process, which will hopefully help me the next time I choose to do something of that nature.
Tubefilter: When did you get your first check for online video revenue? How much was it? What about your first check outside of AdSense $? Have you had any sponsorships?
JM: I received my first check from YouTube in 2011. I had been doing YouTube for a couple years at that point, and had no idea you could make any real money off it. I partnered with BBTV in 2011, and that was the first time I realized it could be more than just a part-time hobby.
My first AdSense check was $400, and at the time, I was beyond excited! This was mostly because I could finally get my parents off my back about getting a part-time job! The first sponsorship I got was a few years later, and it was from Ubisoft. I believe it was for a Far Cry game, and they had me fly out to San Francisco to play with other YouTubers who, at the time, were considered celebrities to me. At that point, I realized there could be other revenue streams then just Adsense.
Tubefilter: What was that Semaphore Moment for each of you—the first time you realized you were a professional YouTube creator?
JM: It’s weird, I still don’t really feel that way. I would like to say when I dropped out of university, that was the moment for me, but even now, I just sort of feel like I’m having fun and making personal videos. If I expanded my team and had an office with a few employees, I would feel that way, but I never really aspire to do that. It would lose the magic of it all. The day I have someone filming me with a movie-quality camera and holding a boom mic over my head isn’t something I hope to see. I feel the strongest connection with my viewers when I can hold the camera myself and vlog right to them.
Tubefilter: When did you realize you’d found your audience? Once you knew you’d found it, how did you grow it?
JM: This was probably the hardest thing for me to do. As I mentioned above, I started YouTube as a gaming channel and bounced around a lot with different styles of video-making. I always knew I loved comedy and making people laugh, but finding the right audience was really hard for me. I tried going for a much older audience, and then a much younger audience, and then a mix of both. I also realized that, as I grew up, those who watched me would respond differently to me. It was a lot harder to captivate an older audience when I was only 16.
It wasn’t until about two years ago that I felt I had really found my ideal audience. This mostly came after just trying to be myself and make funny content that I enjoy. I love playing pretend and doing role play and acting, so I incorporated more of that into my videos, and then the audience just naturally came with it. The great thing about that is I still make my videos in a way that an older audience can also enjoy. I am always happy when I hear parents say they can’t help but laugh along with their kids while watching my videos.
Tubefilter: Do you ever have a set budget for videos — particularly large-scale videos like your billionaire box fort? How do you budget for your channel overall?
JM: That’s a good question — we certainly have to set a budget for every video we do, and try our best to stick to it. For most of our videos, we try to make them the same way a kid would at home, therefore using items we have in the house and recycling props we have already bought. I feel like a lot of the magic in our videos comes from this strategy.
When we do need to buy stuff, we generally set a budget of around $300 and try to purchase assets or props that can be reused. If we go over budget, it’s normally okay, because we typically don’t spend all of every video’s $300 budget. I’m not super strict with things like that, as I like to operate in a way that I can make the videos with as much freedom as possible. If I do start going over budget, I’ll likely hear about it from my team.
Overall, we keep our channel expenses and personal operating expenses to a fair minimum, not so much because we are cheap, but more because I’ve been doing YouTube for nine years now, and I know how volatile it can be. It’s great to have a big team and an office and a film crew, but when the going gets rough, a lot of the channels that do have those things can hurt hard.
Tubefilter: What’s your production schedule like? How often do you film? Do you work certain hours (or work certain days, considering you often do full-day or multi-day challenges)? Do you have an upload schedule, or do you upload whenever videos are done?
JM: Because of the way we operate, we do everything ourselves — and because of that, we often work seven days a week and considerably long hours every day. We upload every other day, and often film all our videos the week, or sometimes even same day, they go live. This goes back to the feeling of magic that you get from our videos, as we don’t have a lot of time to reshoot or second-guess our scenes… We just go with the natural feel of the creative direction. If we have too much time to shoot a video, often it doesn’t work as well.
Our weekly schedule usually starts with us sitting down on Monday morning and planning the week’s videos. Then I go and script all of the videos and come up with title and thumbnail. Scripting for me is typically just the intro skits and a few points I want to include in the video, then the rest is just vlogged or made up on the spot. Once scripting is done, we go and film and edit and upload until the week’s done — and then repeat.
Tubefilter: You mentioned you don’t want a big office or lots of employees. What’s your current team look like?
JM: Our team is fairly small; however, we have added a lot of new members over the past few years. We currently have Logan and myself, who are in all the videos and do 90% of the work. Logan edits our videos while I handle a lot of the creative side — doing thumbnails and coming up with ideas — while managing the channel.
Aside from us, we have an assistant who handles all of my emails and helps with the social media side of things. I use the word “assistant,” but it is really an odd job that includes all this along with creating weekly reports on how videos are doing, what stats videos have improved on, and what areas we need to improve such as click-through rate, average view duration, and even noting points in the videos that caused an increase or decrease in viewer retention. She also gives me an overview of our viewers and how they are currently feeling.
We also have a helper who is on set most days to be an extra in videos if we need something like that, or to clean up after we are done. It’s much more efficient for us to finish a huge box fort video and have someone else there to organize and clean all the props while we get to work on uploading. The helper job also includes being an extra cameraman and packing and transporting gear to and from shoots.
We also have a few contractors who handle backup editing if need be, and a tax and accounting team. However, they are not in-house and are only called upon when needed.
Tubefilter: What’s next for you and your channel? What are you building toward?
JM: While I can’t share everything just yet, one thing we are looking at launching soon is a new channel for a scripted series we have been working on. It’s a bit of a mix between cartoon and real life, and we’re super excited for it!
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