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.
When we here at Tubefilter last chatted with Donut Media, the car-focused content production company had just brought in its one millionth subscriber on YouTube, where its eponymous channel was averaging around 15 million views per month.
Now, a little over a year later, the channel is at 2.73M subscribers, and regularly tops 30 million views per month.
For Streamy-winning Donut–which launched in September 2015, made a seven-figure revenue in 2016, and doubled those earnings in 2017–this next-gear growth rate is the result of years of grinding it out, building toward what cofounder and CEO Matt Levin says is the ultimate goal: “Donut every day.”
Prior to founding Donut (with $800,000 in seed funding from Techstars Ventures, Fontinalis Partners, digital vet Chris Williams, 3311 Ventures, and Luma Launch), Levin worked at multichannel network AwesomenessTV, where he learned the ins and outs of content production. His experience there made him realize two things: one, that he wanted to be on the flip side of digital content–that is, making it himself rather than distributing other people’s; and two, that there was room for content about something he loved–cars–with a unique angle.
The angle? That cars are for everyone, regardless of gender, age, and knowledge or skill level. Donut’s first logo featured pink shadowboxing (a departure from the often ubermacho air of traditional automotive publications and productions), and its first viral video starred two grandmas experiencing the magic of a Lamborghini Murcielago for the first time.
Levin and his then-small team (now more than 20 strong) also set out to make a diverse range of weekly shows that’d appeal to viewers who enjoy different aspects of cars–or who maybe have never tuned in to car content before. There’s Thursday’s Up To Speed, highlighting everything you need to know about the latest greatest rides, and Monday’s WheelHouse for more lifestyle-esque content, like the 12 roads you should drive before you kick it. Most recently there’s HiLow, comparing extra pricey car parts to the good ol’ basics, and the lookback history lessons of Past Gas, Donut’s very first podcast.
Debuting more shows and different mediums is part of “Donut every day,” too. Essentially, Levin and co. want anyone who might be interested to come to Donut Media’s channel and find new content there every single day. They’re also continually working to expand the definition of “anyone who might be interested.” Last month, they debuted Car Wars, a sponsored series featuring popular YouTubers from other genres: gamer MatPat, techie Linus Sebastian, and comedian Gus Johnson.
“I like to think we’ve made more mistakes than anybody else,” Levin tells Tubefilter. But Donut’s persistence in navigating tough times and its commitment to sending a message of inclusivity has successfully brought it a dedicated, and fast-growing, audience.
Check out our chat with Levin below.
Tubefilter: Let’s jump right in! You were a product head at AwesomenessTV before you launched Donut Media. How did you end up at Awesomeness? How did you go from that role to launching your own media company and YouTube channel?
Matt Levin: I had a strange journey to YouTube. Immediately prior to Awesomeness, I was actually working in tech, and before that, I was in film. When I learned about the worlds of tech and media coming together, this was in the early multichannel network era; I was totally hooked and wanted to be part of it. I ended up at Awesomeness, and it was a great place to see firsthand how much YouTube and technology were transforming the entire media industry.
I had a great experience there, but it became clear over time that I wanted to be on the creator side of the business. I looked around and saw so many opportunities for launching channels around things I was passionate about. When we got started, automotive YouTube was really just getting off the ground, and we felt we could offer something to viewers that no one else was.
Tubefilter: What does YouTube offer you and your team, as professional content creators, that helps further your careers?
ML: I know that a lot of creators complain about YouTube–ourselves included–but honestly, we’re so thankful it exists. There is no other time in history when a small operation like ours could have built a big following so quickly, AND been able to make money while doing it. YouTube has radically changed what it means to work in media from 10 or 20 years ago. There are no gatekeepers, no executives; you succeed or fail based on how much a real audience likes your content!
We have to wrestle with the algorithm and monetization changes like everyone else, but YouTube was the first to share revenue in a meaningful way that allows businesses like ours to thrive.
Tubefilter: How have things changed on the business side of Donut from the beginning to now? How many employees did you start with and how many do you have currently? Has the per-video amount you invest into production shifted?
ML: Donut has transformed a lot. The first two years we were in business, we were more of a production company, making videos for hire and doing our own YouTube content on the side. But once our YouTube channel started taking off, that became our focus, and we shut down our production business. That was a hard decision, as it was the only thing making money at the time, but it turned out to be the best one we ever made.
At that point, we were four or five people, and today, we’re over 20! I am shocked that people operate YouTube channels on their own. I am incredibly fortunate that I get to come to work every day with the most talented, hardest-working group of people I have ever met–and we still struggle to keep the train running sometimes! For anyone thinking about expanding, I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have the right people and to build the right culture. Once you do, there isn’t anything more rewarding.
As for video investment, we’re definitely spending more per video than ever before; it’s really important to us to create the best content we possibly can. We know that sometimes, we would get just as many views even if we spent less time making the perfect edits or animations, but we feel better when we go that extra mile–and I think our fans appreciate it.
Tubefilter: What was your content strategy when you launched Donut? How did you plan to make the channel a standout not just in the car space, but for YouTube viewers who may not normally tune in to content about cars?
ML: From day one, we all felt that too much of the car community–including many car publications–were very snobby and exclusionary, and generally just not friendly places. I’ve watched YouTube tear down those kinds of barriers and destroy the gatekeepers in other communities, and we want to do the same for cars. We strive to make videos that anyone can enjoy, whether you’ve been racing cars since birth or don’t even have a license. We want to share our passion for cars with as many people as possible, and it’s been fun to see the broader YouTube community embracing us.
Tubefilter: When did Donut get its first check for online video revenue? How much was it for?
ML: I had to look this one up. In July of 2016, we made $7.66! Thankfully, we make more now, but it does not feel like it was that long ago that we were struggling to make ends meet. We still try to have lots of other revenue streams outside of YouTube, but we’re very happy with what we’re making on the platform today.
Tubefilter: When did Donut’s first sponsorship/brand partnership deal roll in? How do you approach brand deals?
ML: After we shut down our production-for-hire business, we took a bit of a breather from brands to just “work on ourselves.” Once we had our channel in better shape, we started working with just shout-out type advertisers since that was easy for us to get our heads around and easy for us to execute.
Since then, we’ve expanded that to making really high-quality branded content. It has been important for us to make sure that everything we make feels true to our brand and will be enjoyed by our audience. We say “no” to brand deals just about as often as we take them, because if an advertiser or agency is going to try to compromise our content or our integrity, there’s no amount of money that’s worth it. Though I’d be lying if I said I haven’t lost sleep thinking about some of the paydays we’ve turned down!
Tubefilter: What was that Semaphore Moment for you—the first time you realized you were a professional creator?
ML: I feel like we are a bit backwards on this one! We were professionals who had to figure out how to become creators. We had to forget so much of what we had learned about the “right” way to do things in school and on film sets, and instead look at the way real YouTubers operate and try to emulate them. Launching Up To Speed was the first real step in that direction, and the moment we really embraced what Donut could be.
Tubefilter: How do you source cars for videos?
ML: Hey, if you have a suggestion, I would love to hear it. Honestly, it’s all over–seeing a cool car on Instagram and trying to reach out to the owner, meeting people at car shows, etc. But now, we’re pretty fortunate in that a lot of car owners and PR folks come to us with cars, so hopefully that will get a little easier with time.
Tubefilter: How long does it take Donut, on average, to put together a video, from scripting to filming to uploading? What’s the content production schedule look like when you’re balancing multiple weekly shows?
ML: This is another question I wish I had a better answer for. We have dedicated teams working on each show, and we force ourselves to keep them all coming out weekly. Ideally, we shoot a month’s worth of episodes in a single day, and then the editors have about a week to edit each episode. The biggest challenge right now for us is writing; we want to make sure everything we do is well researched, thoughtful, and funny, and that is really, really hard to do on a weekly basis. Our writers and everyone else work incredibly hard to meet those deadlines, and we’re working on hiring more people and other ways to make the burden more manageable. It’s really important for us that everyone avoids burnout and takes care of their mental health.
Tubefilter: Last time we chatted, you said Donut was planning a LOT more shows. Can you give us any details about upcoming programs? What’s Donut’s eventual programming goal? Do you want to have a kind of traditional TV feel, where you’re debuting new content/running shows multiple times per day, if not 24/7?
ML: “Donut Every Day” is our big goal for 2020. The difference between four uploads a week and seven is so huge. I just want our fans to know that every day they want to check in, we’ll have something brand-new for them. Honestly, we really don’t want to go into the TV feel; these days, I think TV is boring compared to YouTube, even though a lot of high-paid executives have convinced themselves otherwise.
We’re finding ways to work with a bigger budget–like our new show HiLow–without losing the feel that I think makes YouTube such a fun place to spend time, and want to keep pushing boundaries in a way that still feels like Donut.
Tubefilter: Is Donut expanding into any off-YouTube ventures you can tell us about?
ML: Yes! If you don’t already know, we actually recently launched our first podcast. It’s called Past Gas, where we go in-depth on car history, and you can get it wherever you listen to podcasts. OK–that’s the end of my plug. Past Gas has been super fun to make, actually, getting to go deeper into these stories than the YouTube platform usually allows us to.
Tubefilter: What do you think is Donut’s “secret sauce”—the reason its content both resonates with viewers and turns a profit for the company?
ML: We refuse to give up! Seriously, I like to think we’ve made more mistakes than anybody else, and we’ve launched more bad shows than anyone else in our category. But our audience is patient with us, and if we keep tweaking and changing and listening to them, eventually we’ll be able to make something great.
We really do focus on our fans 100%. We’re really fortunate in that we get to work with a lot of advertisers who genuinely want to reach that audience in a transparent, authentic fashion, and they let us tell their stories the way we think best.
Tubefilter: What’s next for you and for Donut? What are you building toward?
ML: More shows! Seriously, though, we are having a blast, we really enjoy working together, and we get to make videos about a topic we love. I’m not sure it gets better than this! We certainly want to do more–podcasts, and merch, and live events–but what it comes down to for us is having fun, having a great fanbase, and just trying to give them the best product possible.
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