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.
Stan Prokopenko started with a website.
After graduating art school Watts Atelier and sticking around for another five years to teach the students following in his footsteps, Prokopenko wanted to reach more artists in training. Figuring out how to do it was the tricky part. He launched a website in 2009, and used it to post written and illustrated lessons instructing interested internet users on art essentials like anatomy and perspective. He earned advertising money from the site — but not much. Not nearly enough for art education to be his full-time job.
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Then he found YouTube. And YouTube changed everything.
When he started distributing video lessons on his YouTube channel Proko in 2012, Prokopenko’s advertising revenue went from $40 per month to $450. The uptick encouraged him to try another video distribution avenue: art lessons on DVD. Four months after launching his channel, he directed his YouTube audience to his fledgling sales page.
They bought $11,000 worth of lessons in one month.
Prokopenko still produces those DVDs, but his main focus is YouTube, where he and his team upload at least one new lesson per week for their 1.4 million subscribers (and garner between 2 and 3 million views per month). Once a one-man operation, Prokopenko has now turned his channel into art education brand Proko, and has turned Proko into a full-scale business, with a bevy of employees.
To give you an idea of the scale of that bevy, Prokopenko and seven full-time folks work out of a 3,200-square-foot office in San Diego — and they’re just the core team. They’re backed up by a 10-person fleet of freelancers who help out with tasks related to producing lessons. Prokopenko is also working with a team of six full-time web developers to build the next phase of Proko (we’ll let him tell you more about that below). And last but not least, he has two teams of artificial intelligence specialists working on creating AI-based tools that can help teach drawing techniques, something that will also play into the next phase of Proko.
Prokopenko plans to introduce that next phase later this year, but until then, he and his employees are focusing on churning out YouTube content to ensure those who drop by the Proko channel have plenty to tune in to — and plenty to learn from.
Check out our chat with him below.
Tubefilter: So, first, welcome back to Tubefilter! Has anything changed since we chatted with you in September for YouTube Millionaires?
Stan Prokopenko: Well, the biggest thing to happen is that we’ve been collaborating with a lot more artists. It’s been great to diversify some of the content by bringing in a variety of creators like Kim Jung Gi, with different art backgrounds, to share their knowledge with my students.
On top of that, we also released our first sponsored video with Wacom, which was pretty successful. I think a lot of my students want to learn digital painting, so I’m glad that we’re starting to fill that need.
We were also just nominated for a Shorty Award, so I’m crossing my fingers that we can win in the Education category.
Tubefilter: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from? What’s your background in art?
Prokopenko: I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and came to America at the age of six. As a child, I was really interested in art and was drawing a lot in my spare time. When I got to high school, I took eight semesters of animation and four semesters of drawing/painting. As a junior in high school, I started taking evening and weekend classes at Watts Atelier to improve my drawing skills. My learning then continued at Watts Atelier for five years, and then I stayed as a teacher for five more until I started making YouTube videos.
Tubefilter: When did you get your first check for online video revenue? How much was it for? What about your first check outside of AdSense?
Prokopenko: I started with receiving AdSense earnings from my blog website, three years before launching my YouTube channel. I was writing instructional blog posts similar to my video lessons, just in article form. I was only making about $40 per month from ads. Once I launched my YouTube channel, it grew significantly. My first check from YouTube ads was $450.05 in October 2012.
Outside of AdSense, I started selling DVDs of my portrait course in December of 2012, four months after launching my YouTube channel. In the first month of launching the DVD, I had about $11,000 in sales. After the initial launch, it dropped to $2,000 to $4,000 per month for a while. Now it’s just one of the many courses that bring in revenue and helped grow Proko into what it is today.
Tubefilter: When did you first know YouTube could actually be a full-time business for you?
Prokopenko: When I started selling my portrait DVD! The demand for that kind of content was higher than I expected. It wasn’t too long after seeing those sales trickle in that I went full-time into video creation and building my brand.
Tubefilter: What was that Semaphore Moment for you—the first time you realized you were a professional YouTuber?
Prokopenko: My first video, How to Draw the Head from Any Angle was published on August 16, 2012, and went viral pretty much overnight. As a result, it kind of gave me the legitimacy of being a YouTuber right from the beginning. I’m so thankful for it, and because of all the views, comments, and shares it got, it gave me the motivation to continue making content. It’s actually advice I’d give to any YouTuber to this day: always focus on quality, and your video has a better chance of getting views and a much better chance of converting viewers to subscribers.
But of course, it wasn’t until I started selling premium content that I was able to quit everything else and focus on videos full-time. That’s when I consider myself to have actually become a professional YouTuber.
Tubefilter: What’s your production schedule like? Do you have a set filming and uploading schedule? Do you take days off?
Prokopenko: It’s really all over the place. The way it’s set up now is that there are videos in various stages being worked on every day. My team and I don’t really have a set day where we write, film, and edit. It’s more of a batch process, and the schedule can be altered if it needs to be.
What we typically aim for is to upload videos every Thursday or Friday. I find these days are usually great for our viewers to consume our content, and it generally leads to higher viewership over the course of the weekend. And yes, my team and I take weekends off. I would go insane if I didn’t have a good work/life balance, especially since I now have a one-year old son too. Before I was married and had a team to help me, it was normal for me to stay up all night editing. There were a few times when I stayed up 36 hours straight.
Tubefilter: How long does it take you and your team to put together a video from start to finish?
Prokopenko: It really depends on the video. Lessons like the ones from my anatomy course take a long time. There’s so much research that needs to be done to make sure the content is accurate and entertaining. Those lessons go through many stages: research, outline, script, creating media and filming, editing, publishing. The scriptwriting and media creation take a lot of time because we are really thorough and try to increase production quality with 3-D and -2D animation. From start to finish, these lessons take about six weeks each, but we work on multiple lessons at the same time, since different people work on each stage.
Simpler videos, like my recent self-portrait drawing (above), took just five days. I sat down, filmed my drawing while talking into the camera, and then passed it on to my editors.
Tubefilter: Your series Ask the Pros is particularly popular on your channel. How did that series come about? Why do you think it’s important to give your viewers access to a wide range of professionals?
Prokopenko: It was somewhat of a last-minute thing that we came up with right before San Diego Comic-Con. My team and I were trying to think of an efficient way to create content while I was walking around the convention. We decided that I could walk around with a camera and ask artists the same few questions at their booths, then edit all the responses together into a series of videos (below).
To answer your second question, I think it’s important for artists to see that there’s not just “one way” of doing things to become successful. And success really means different things to different people. Different artists give different advice to their students based on their experiences. And sometimes students hear the same thing said many times, but it doesn’t stick until someone says it in a way that resonates with them. The point is to give my audience access to more than just my point of view.
Tubefilter: You mentioned selling premium courses. Do you know how much sales traffic YouTube drives for those courses?
Prokopenko: I would say that it makes up the vast majority of traffic, but it’s kind of a difficult question to answer. Google analytics attributes sales made from a single session, which doesn’t always come from YouTube. I think most people discover me from YouTube or Instagram, watch my free content for a while, and then one day decided to upgrade to the premium courses. It’s hard to track how they initially discovered my lessons and what ultimately got them to convert.
Tubefilter: How has YouTube specifically furthered your career and helped you make teaching art your livelihood?
Prokopenko: YouTube made it possible for me to reach literally millions of people. I’ve been able to sell my courses internationally because of YouTube’s ability to show my content to any users interested in learning how to draw. That’s not something any other platform has really been able to replicate.
That’s even more true for the educational space I’m part of. YouTube is now used in classrooms all over the world, and I get emails from teachers and students all the time thanking me for the lessons. It’s really something that’s been pretty unique to YouTube, and it’s allowed my business to go from just me working at a desk in my closet to having a 3,200-square-foot office space with employees.
Tubefilter: Tell us more about your team! How many employees do you have? What are their roles?
Prokopenko: We currently have seven full-time employees and one intern working at the Proko office in San Diego. We have about 10 freelancers around the world who help with tasks related to the production of lessons and vlogs. I’m also working with a team of six full-time web developers to create a social online art school launching later this year, and two small teams working on AI experiments to make tools for learning how to draw.
Out of the seven people who work at the Proko office, four are video editors, one focuses on marketing and social media, and the other two are me and my personal assistant. It’s still a relatively small operation right now, but we’re growing at a nice steady pace.
We also work with Studio71. They’ve been a great multichannel network to partner with, and have helped us get some nice deals and expand internationally. We’re currently signing a deal with an agency in China to sell our premium courses there.
Tubefilter: What’s next for you and Proko? What are you building toward?
Prokopenko: A lot is currently in the Proko pipeline. I’ve got a new podcast called Draftsmen releasing soon with my cohost, Marshall Vandruff. We’ll talk about art and tackling problems artists face that aren’t necessarily related to art instruction. It’ll be our outlet for more casual, free-form content, where we can have longer conversations and give career advice to artists.
We’re working on many courses for 2019, 2020, and 2021. A Drawing Basics course meant for absolute beginners, a Perspective course, Dynamic Anatomy, Advanced Portrait Drawing, Drapery, Sculpting for Beginners, and several Masterpiece Demos with some very skilled artists such as Aaron Blaise, Cornelia Hernes, and Stephen Bauman.
The last major thing is a complete redesign of my website, proko.com. Right now it’s pretty much a place to watch all my free and premium lessons, and that’s about it. One of the major goals I have is to integrate more community features into the site. I’m hoping it can become an all-in-one place for artists to learn and get feedback on their work from other students and instructors.
Eventually, we want to open up the Proko platform for other art instructors to sell their courses. It’s been one of the most ambitious projects I’ve had to tackle, and I think it will really improve the overall community we’ve built on YouTube.
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