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 creator has a story to tell about YouTube success. Read previous installments here.
Chris Penn‘s van life started with $1,800.
After graduating college, Penn knew he wanted to travel–but not part-time. All the time. So he bought an $1,800 van on eBay, packed his stuff, his dog, and himself into it, and hit the road.
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At the time, YouTube wasn’t in his plans. He found himself in a cycle of picking up a job or two for four or five or six months, saving up, then driving for another few months before he needed money again. While in this cycle, he started a personal vlog, just as a way to keep track of what he was up to.
To his surprise, people started watching. This plus reading The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and encountering the Pareto 80/20 principle–basically, 80% of outcomes are generated by 20% of causes–made Penn wonder whether YouTube could be one fo those causes. For the first time, he checked his YouTube channel analytics, and realied “about 80% of my views came from 20% of the videos,” he says.
Those 20% of videos were almost all tours of fellow travelers’ chariots, from vans to RVs to tricked-out tiny homes.
“At that point, I rebranded the channel,” Penn says.
That was almost a decade ago. Now, he helms Tiny Home Tours: a full-fledged company of nearly 20 people who produce dozens of long- and short-form videos a month showing what life is like for people living in small scale.
Check out our chat with him below.
Tubefilter: Let’s just start with like some background on you. How did Tiny Home Tours come to be a thing?
Chris Penn: Yes, absolutely. I graduated college, and about two weeks after college, I just bought a van. This was back in 2009 before the “hashtag van life” or all the recent trendiness of it. Basically, throughout my early 20s, just studied abroad a couple of times, traveled a lot, and I wanted to see the state and being that I couldn’t afford an RV, couldn’t afford anything fancy, I just bought a van off eBay for $1,800 and did a very crude conversion on it and just hit the road with my dog for a month.
I didn’t even think about YouTube, making videos, or anything like that and just kept traveling. This is before I was able to make money online, so I’d just get bar jobs for six months and this is after graduating college, work there for four to six months, get some cash, and hit the road for four to six months.
That’s when I began doing a personal vlog. During that time, people would reach out to me, they had a smaller following or they didn’t really have the YouTube channel or any social media presence and then started featuring them on my channel just for a way for them to get subscribers, grow, all that. It wasn’t even like a real content model. It wasn’t something I thought would ever do well.
Then fast forward, I’m still doing the blog, traveling around, and I read the Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and I learned about the Pareto 80-20 principle. Then I went back with the channel analytics and about 80% of my views came from 20% of the videos which were the tiny home videos that I feature in people’s camper vans and school buses and everything. At that point, I rebranded the channel and started a new personal brand channel where I was doing a blog that just solely focused on filming other people’s tiny homes.
Tubefilter: Very cool. That’s really interesting that it fit the 80-20 principle.
Chris Penn: Yes, it was actually a bit more like, when I did the numbers, added everything up. It was like 87% of the views came from 15% of the videos.
Tubefilter: Oh, wow. You were able to narrow in really quickly on what was working.
Chris Penn: Yes. I knew they were doing better and they were evergreen so I knew there was a lot of views coming from it, but I didn’t really understand the breakdown until that point. My personal blog just hit a hundred thousand subscribers and I was a little nervous transitioning but I figured people that were watching my blog, they might be interested in the tiny home videos so I just went ahead for it.
Tubefilter: What drew you to van life and to tiny homes?
Chris Penn: When I was seven years old, I told my grandmother I was going to live out in the woods with my dog, not pay rent or utilities so just the idea of not necessarily adhering to what I’m supposed to do just doing what I wanted to do, has been with me since I was a little kid. Just the freedom of going out in a vehicle because again, I had no idea what I was doing. The very first night, I was so excited at the road, I forgot my sheets and my pillows and everything so I’d stop by Walmart. I don’t know if you know much about van life or RV life but they allow you to park in the parking lot and I had no idea.
I asked the guy if there’s any campgrounds around and he was just like, “You can actually just park in the parking lot, just park at the back.” Like, “Oh cool. Awesome.” It really was just jumping into it without knowing what I was going to do but adhered to the studying abroad, the dirtbag traveling that I’ve been doing just like with my backpack just Australia, South America, Asia, like just always bouncing around. It was just a way for me to afford traveling here in the States. It wasn’t necessarily that I thought it was going to be something I do for a long time. It was just a vehicle, no pun intended there, to travel the way that I wanted to and be able to afford it.
Tubefilter: Yes. When did YouTube become a full-time thing?
Chris Penn: I really focused down on it about four or five years ago because it was always a supplementary income. It’s something that I really enjoyed doing. I think this will put into perspective. The first month that I got accepted into the partner program, I put about 30 hours of work into it and I made 25 cents and I was absolutely stoked. I was sending screenshots, I was like texting and calling friends because I was just so stoked that I was able to travel and do something where I made money through this magic little box called a laptop. I was just enamored with it. It’s always been something that I enjoyed but I never thought that it would be a full-time thing.
Once I started getting a little hint that I could put the systems in place, I could hire people, I could get editors, I could get videographers, that’s when I really started focusing on.
Tubefilter: Yes. How many people work on the channel now?
Chris Penn: We have about 18 people. We have five videographers, four editors and we have admin.
Tubefilter: That’s wild. I did not expect the team to be that big.
Chris Penn: Oh yes. They’re all freelancers so a lot of them have other gigs. This is just a way for them to travel around because everybody on the team lives tiny essentially. They’re in their camper vans. They’re in their school buses and they’re traveling around with supplementary income because it averages about $300 for raw footage and if they edit it, then that’s an extra $200 and they get bonuses on top of that. Again, I don’t know how much you know about life on the road, but as long as your rig is running well, typically, it costs to live per month is about $1,000 to $1,500 per month.
I have videographers like one right now, he has one of our buses because I am also an investor and part owner of a shop here in Kansas where we convert school buses into tiny homes. He didn’t have a rig so he flew into Kansas where the shop is, picked up one of our buses, and went to a couple of events, and he’s filmed 16 tours in the last week and a half. You can use the map pretty quick and you’ll be able to live and travel on that for about two months easily.
Tubefilter: What’s your production schedule like? How many videos are you aiming to put out per week?
Chris Penn: Yes, so we do four videos a week right now, that fluctuates. If we have a lot in queue, then we’ll go higher basically, and then November and December just because queue for ad revenue, we won’t post every day. It just depends. Right now, the workflow that the editors are working on videos that were filmed late May, early June. There’s just that amount of people on the road. Just the amount of content that we do get. We go to the events, we film tons of people because there’s not many tiny home channels, but a lot of the channels will just do the primo, super special, super chic rig.
They’re trying to get the most views where we consistently film tours to where we know we’re going to lose money but it’s more about getting the content out there, sharing people’s stories, and helping the community. That goes back to the initial goal that I had back in the day and the people that we bring onto the team have that same mindset. It’s not about getting a million views every video, it’s about highlighting the community.
Tubefilter: How do you find the people that you end up profiling?
Chris Penn: We have a lead gen where they can reach out to us and then we also have in part of the admin team, we have two people on prospecting through Instagram and then also scheduling the tours of videographers. Depending on where they’re at, where they’re traveling to, they’ll link them up with a particular videographer depending on the videographer’s location because they’re consistently moving around as well.
Tubefilter: Yes. How strict are you in terms of like…What if someone gets in contact with you and they’re like, “Hey, I live in a tiny home…” Is there something that wouldn’t quite qualify or where you guys would be like, “No, that doesn’t really fit us”?
Chris Penn: Yes, like I mentioned before, it just goes to the point that we don’t film the fanciest and fancies. If it’s like a bare van with a mattress on the ground and a cooler, and that’s it then no, we won’t film that. We don’t really get reached out to people that are doing that. A lot of the people that reach out to us are people that want to film with us are those on the road and again, looking for that supplementary income, build their following so they can get brand deals, they can get monetized. A lot of it is people that have built up their rig and now they’re on the road looking to make an income.
Tubefilter: What does your average day look now that you’re in charge of a large team of people?
Chris Penn: Part of that four-hour workweek book basically putting people in the places where they need to be. I have unfortunately pretty much automated myself out of the business where I really enjoy the process of building. I don’t know if you played Sims City as a kid. Did you happen to ever play that game or do you know what it is?
Tubefilter: Yes, of course.
Chris Penn: I was absolutely obsessed with that game and I just loved putting the residential, the commercial, the industrial, the police stations. I just loved building that process. The money that came in from the little town or whatever it was just a ticker that shows how well I’m doing, no bullshit, that’s how I feel about building this channel and everything that we’re doing. The money is just a barometer to how we’re doing but getting back to the point, basically from 5:00 AM to 7:00 or 8:00 AM emails, scheduling, overseeing the team, seeing what people’s goals are and if they’re being met and if they need support moving the pieces around to get that done.
Basically right now, it’s about 5:00 to 8:00 AM, work on the business. Then throughout the day, it’s traveling around, filming, getting content because I film for the channel as well. Working on different content ideas. This winter, my girlfriend and I are going to be living in our tiny homes off grid in Wisconsin and then just hunting, fishing, trapping for our food. We’re canning food right now and filming that so I still have my personal brand as well. That’s just more of a side project. A lot of it’s just traveling around and making sure the gears are running the way they should.
Tubefilter: Very cool. What has been the biggest change in your life, personally and professionally, since you started this channel?
Chris Penn: Not rainbows and unicorns but I think the biggest change for me is understanding that you can only rely on trust about 10% of people because when the channel started doing well, making money, did a lot of project with people. I’ve learned that you need to keep the people around that you trust and that do good work. You need to keep them around and promote them very fast and those that are 75% below in terms of trust and work ethic, just move on as quickly as possible.
Tubefilter: You mentioned wintering in Wisconsin, but do you have any other upcoming projects or upcoming goals that are interesting?
Chris Penn: With that project, that’ll be in the personal brand, and then I plan on doing a couple of college videos for the channel. I think right now is just playing with new content types. We brought a very creative person onto the team where, not familiar. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with OKRs, it’s basically a way of goal setting but basically, his goal that he has for January 1st is 20 new pieces of content, whether that be interviews with drone footage all the way down to doing a documentary on a School Chef that travels around and cooks food for people.
That’s the biggest thing that I’m keeping an eye on besides the winter projects. I’ve been very busy with learning how to can food, making sure I don’t blow anything up, and making sure that’s done right and recently got into archery because I’ll be, I don’t know how you feel about hunting but just got into archery for deer season up in Wisconsin so basically just a lot of my focus has been on the new forms of content and playing around with that and seeing what works.
Tubefilter: I did want to ask, I noticed that you’ve got a good mix of longer-form videos that you’ve been doing, and then you’re starting to get into Shorts as well. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the longer-form tours versus Shorts and how you approach using both of them on your channel.
Chris Penn: Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of Gary Vaynerchuk and our entire business model is based on his free PDF, that 64 pieces of content a day. What my mindset has always been is just produces as much high-quality content as possible and YouTube has shown interest that they want to be against TikTok and other vertical forms.
YouTube’s been the main driver of our business, and they mentioned they are interested in promoting and now they’re bringing out the tools with monetization, I think at least, this is my rainbows and unicorn and fingers crossed hope, this is TikTok 2018, 2019 where I do think with proper monetization, I think a lot of creators are going to move to YouTube because as we all know, anybody that pays attention knows that people just basically repurpose their verticals.
I do think it’s going to be a driving force on YouTube and I think its competition improves the quality of vertical content coming over to YouTube is going to increase think it’s going to more competitive. I think that if you get in early, get a little bit of a reputation for particular shorts and verticals, that will pay off in the future. I’m not really one to worry about analytics too much and right now, just pumping out seven days a week, we are posting four video of the week that are the long-form, and to fill on the gaps on days we aren’t posting, I will upload a short. I’ve been playing around with uploading two or three shorts a day.
More recently, two of our Shorts are doing pretty well. I don’t know how that actually plays out in terms of subscribers or long-term views, but I know YouTube’s on that as well trying to figure out how to show the Shorts to a representative audience that will actually come over to your channel. I think overall, YouTube’s going to bet on Shorts and they’re putting time energy and money into it, then I’m going to try and get in early.
Tubefilter: I spoke to someone a little while ago who said who also does long-form and Shorts and said that he approaches them as if shorts are a commercial for his channel to draw people to long-form content. Is that how you feel too?
Chris Penn: In a way, yes. I’m conflicted because people go to TikTok for a particular thing. They go to Facebook for a particular thing, they go to YouTube for a particular thing. I think if they’re on YouTube and they’re there to watch shorts, I don’t know. I know YouTube’s trying to figure out their algorithm and put things in place to make this happen but one of the biggest things I’ve learned, you asked in terms of things are changing and it goes along with what I said. I’ve learned that my business ideas will run face first into human nature and you have to take human nature into account.
I’m just really curious how that’s actually going to work, that short-form to long-form, if you’re just going to be able to figure it out. Basically, the shorts that we do is just vertical walkthroughs. Just imagine a little appetizer of a tour. I don’t know how that’s going to translate but like I said, I’m just going to throw it out there and see what happens and then check the analytics after a couple of months and see what the actual are. What is that real human nature versus what I think it is.
Tubefilter: Definitely interesting. I feel like established longer-form creators have a better shot of getting into successful short-form content, whereas I feel a lot of people who hit it big with short-form are struggling to transition to long-form. People who are successfully doing both are really interesting.
Chris Penn: I’m just very intrigued by short-form in general. For TikTok for example, somebody had 300,000 on there, are the brand deals going to keep coming or are they going to dry up when they realize that that a lot of people– Okay, I’ll use a real-world example. My girlfriend has 2.8 million on TikTok and they throttled her or whatever, but her main focus is still YouTube and she just hit a hundred thousand.
I’m wondering if that is an example of what’s coming or if hers is just an aberrant thing that happened and TikTok’s kind of dead for her. I’m just very intrigued to see what the future holds because again, YouTube just always seems to pull it off in the end. I’ve seen it for a long time now. I think if anybody’s going to figure it out, I think it’s YouTube and I’m just betting on them.
Tubefilter: Yes. Which seems wise given their track record.
Chris Penn: Yes. I guess we’ll see.
Tubefilter: Is there anything else that you wanted to touch on or anything you feel readers should know about you or your company or your channel?
Chris Penn: It’s just the goal of the channel is to convince, not necessarily convince those but to support people with information that are looking to live this lifestyle and support those and help those thrive that are already on the road because this is an absolutely amazing lifestyle, being able to do the things that I’ve wanted to do. It’s just one of our goals to show people that it’s possible.
I hope that anybody that’s considering it will actually take the leap because I feel incredibly blessed to at least people based in the States and Canada to have this infrastructure to live this life and bounce around and stay on public land and just live a life of freedom. I hope anybody that happens to read this is thinking about this lifestyle to actually do it.
Tubefilter: Actually, this is usually my first question, but I was just really curious about your background. The last question for me would be, how does it feel for you to hit a million subscribers?
Chris Penn: [pause] Sorry. I don’t want to give you lame answers. I want to think about it.
Tubefilter: Yes, no worries.
Chris Penn: I think it was more proud of the team than anything else. I honestly think that the plaque is still in the box at home. The 1 million subscriber thing that I have up in the bus is something the team made trying. I’ve never thought about it. I’m just trying to think through my thoughts here. I never thought about it, but that was more important than the actual gold, the gold play button.
Moving forward, we’re looking to buy an RV park or land to do our own tiny home village and I told everybody it’s staying in the box until we get that piece of land and that’s going to go up in the office, the front reception of whatever we buy. It’s literally just been in a box at home. The one that’s up in my bus, it’s over my iMac because I have a little office in my bus, that’s right above my iMac on the wall of my bus is the one the team made. I think I’m just more proud of the team.
Tubefilter: I’m glad I asked; that anecdote about wanting to buy a place together and have the plaque is very cool.
Chris Penn: Yes. Thanks. We’ll see if we’re able to pull it off. We’ll see if the market ever changes.
Tubefilter: Yes, given the state of things.
Chris Penn: Yes. I have a couple of tabs in my browser of tiny home villages and RV parks where they own multiple places. If things go to shit, then they’re the first people for the contact as well. “I have this much cash, I can get this loan, I’ll take this off your hands.” That’s my plan right now.