When a hobby becomes a career
“I couldn’t exactly say that mum and dad were overjoyed at the conversation of me talking about putting off law school to play video games. But I'd say given what that was, which is dropping law school to play video games, I'd say they took it quite well.”
You’ve probably never heard of Elliott Watkins. But Muselk, his alter ego, is another matter - one of the top YouTube creators in the world. Elliott developed a passion for gaming as a teenager and started his very own YouTube channel more than six years ago.
Today he is co-founder of Australia's largest talent agency, Click Management. As Muselk he has worked with many of the top brands in the world and has an audience of more than 10 million followers. He is also an ANZ customer.
Muselk recently spoke with ANZ Chief Executive, Shayne Elliott on webcast about discovering his entrepreneurial spirit and what he thinks is the key to success for any business heading into this uncertain future.
Shayne: When did you start gaming and what accelerated your tipping it into a business idea?
Muselk: Yes, I've always gamed ever since I was a kid, much to my parents’ displeasure a lot of the time. I think all the way back since I got playing on PC and then playing on X Box and then all the way through to when I was at university doing a Commerce/Law degree, it was a good little escape to kind of get away from all the lectures and all the fun that is law school.
Gaming has always been a really big part of my life. I don't think there was really, funnily enough, ever really a moment where I made a conscious decision that I was going to turn it into a business or something that I was going to do fulltime like I do now.
I kind of stumbled into it during law school, when I was playing games a lot and then decided to make videos to share on YouTube, just a bit of a hobby, something fun to do. Kind of enjoyed video editing a bit at the time, and it just seemed to grow and get traction, until it got to a point where I kind of realised that I could do it as a fulltime thing and then it all went from there.
Shayne: Then so getting into YouTube itself, on that sort of platform that was just really just a bit of a hobby, just to have a go at something?
Muselk: Yes, YouTube definitely very much started as a hobby. It was really just me kind of having fun, posting cool moments or things that I thought were interesting online, and then yes, just kind of got traction.
Shayne: So you were doing Law/ Commerce and working for a law firm briefly, then made the switch and decided there was a future in gaming as a business? Tell us what happened?
Muselk: So I was doing the kind of law degree, I think I was about two and a half years in. I did a very short-lived internship at Gilbert and Tobin during the holidays, and I was there for a couple of months and got a taste of how hard those guys work, all day every day.
Then basically I was kind of just doing it as a hobby all through law school, and it was about the two and a half year mark in, where I reached about 100,000 subscribers and I hadn't even told my parents at the time that it was something I even had. They didn't know I had a YouTube channel. Then I kind of raised the possibility of taking almost I guess like a gap year, so to speak, to try to take a break from law school and pursue it full-time, and then it all went from there.
Shayne: When you were growing up at high school, would you ever have thought of yourself as being particularly entrepreneurial? Did you think that was something you might end up doing?
Muselk: Yes, I've always really loved doing my own thing. I remember the droughts that happened in Melbourne, in about 2007, 2008. I remember I started up a watering, garden watering business because they’d only let you water your gardens between I think it was 5am and 7am and obviously not many people wanted to get up at that time.
I managed to find a few people who were willing to pay me $20 to come around at 5am in the morning and water their garden for an hour. I think definitely doing that and kind of feeling like there’s something I've built or done for myself has always been something I found very, very rewarding.
Shayne: So you've got that spirit, you make that decision and your parents didn’t really know about this hobby I guess, which sort of got out of control and was doing really, really well. How did that conversation go when here you are doing law school, got a future ahead of you, young professional all that sort of thing. How do you say I'm thinking of throwing it all in, I'm going to do this permanently. How did that go?
Muselk: Yes, I mean I couldn’t exactly say that mum and dad were overjoyed at the conversation of me talking about putting off law school to play video games. But I'd say given what that was, which is dropping law school to play video games, I'd say they took it quite well. The conversation was, you know I actually think mum’s always been very supportive of me trying things or feeling like you need a break from something.
I think the way that first year of me doing YouTube full time and taking a break from university went, was kind of really framing it as that. As a bit of like a break from the law degree for a year and see how it goes, see how it evaluates and then go from there.
I remember dad would ring me, almost every single day to get updates on how it was going and be like ‘oh are you sure you don't want to go back to university yet?’ I think it took about two or three years before dad dropped the idea of me going back and doing Uni at least part time.
Shayne: So you were willing to try something out, see how it went, but you had a back-up plan?
Muselk: Yes, it was good knowing I had my degree as an option if things didn’t go incredibly. But yes, definitely after about a year, I was pretty convinced I was going to be able to actually have enough traction on the YouTube track to really keep it going.
Shayne: How much thought did you put into thinking or planning in terms of modelling how it might all work out?
Muselk: Yes, the weird thing I've learnt with YouTube, which is both good, because it makes it exciting and also quite terrifying, is you really can’t actually plan too far ahead or really forecast too far ahead. Because it’s such a wild industry, where one day you can be growing by 1,000 subscribers a day and the next day you can grow by 30,000. The fluctuation is just huge across all fronts.
I think what I was really benchmarking off, I remember early on at least, was when I was making kind of a minimum wage level from doing YouTube, and that kind of felt like a nice little tick. Because it was like okay, this is a real job level now. But yes, I don't think I necessarily had a hard benchmark of what success was.
But I think one of the things that makes YouTube both good and bad, it's kind of a blessing and a curse, it’s really addictive when it comes to the numbers because YouTube, every single day and every minute of every day is updating you and giving you a report on how much revenue you’re making, how many views you’re getting, how many subscribers you’re getting.
Every day you post a video, you get to see how that video performs. It’s almost like if you got a performance review every single day in your normal job. It’s - on one hand quite stressful because if things aren’t going well, it’s like getting beaten down with negativity but also by the same token, it’s very motivating to try and drive you to keep going and keep pushing harder and get the numbers up and up and up.
So I think for me, in the early days in terms of benchmarking success, it wasn’t so much about a dollar figure, I’d say, it was just a lot more about the kind of trajectory that I had going. I wanted to feel like I had momentum behind me and that it was going upwards.
Shayne: So you’ve been doing this for a while. Obviously, YouTube is a massive platform and it’s not a ‘set and forget’ business, what’s your process for adapting, creating new content, figuring out trends?
Muselk: On video ideation it’s actually quite hard after a point in time because a lot of the time, most of us will make videos on a single game and the thing is that it’s almost like say, making - coming up with video ideas for a game, it’s similar to if you’ve got say, 10 Lego blocks. There’s a lot of different ways you can put them together but after you’ve been building with those blocks for three years, after a while, you start running out of new ways to do things.
So the first couple of years with a new game or the first year with a new game is amazing because there’s limitless ideas, nothing has been done before. Whereas at this stage now, where most people who make videos on Fortnite, which is my main game, we’ve all been doing it for about three years and we’re running out of ways to re-arrange those Lego blocks.
In terms of staying on top of trends, it comes back to the point I was making before about not really planning too far ahead because you really can’t do it in a space that moves as quickly as the digital online one.
You’ve just got to be very adaptive. You’ve got to keep your eyes out for what’s working, what’s not working. Constantly looking at what content other people are making and seeing what’s getting the best engagement. But, then, also at the same time, making sure that you stay true to your own brand but picking up the meta-trends of where the audiences are.
Shayne: So with COVID you’ll have had to modify the way you operate, I guess. But, you live in a digital world, so that should be relatively doable. But have you noticed any change of your audience? Are there more people - more of your audience engaging because they are at home?
Muselk: Yes, so it was really interesting because YouTube Analytics are incredibly detailed. You can tell how many 13-year-old boys in Zimbabwe watched a video on their phone and exactly how long they watched the video for. You can really go into the minutiae of every single viewer that you have.
So it has been really, really interesting, watching all of that through COVID. The two really interesting things were how revenue overall was affected because you’re right, more people in lockdown meant more people watching videos. So viewership went up but then obviously, counter to that was advertisers really cut back on spending. So advertiser revenue fell, so your revenue per view went down. But, then counterbalancing that again, was the Aussie dollar crashing and we get paid in US fees, so then that counterbalanced it up again.
It was interesting watching that impact but on the audience side, one of the most interesting things was generally, of your total viewership, about 45 per cent is American, about 8 to 10 per cent is Australian.
It was so interesting when America was going deeper into lockdown and parts of Australia was starting to come out of it and free up again, people going back to school, it really shifted those numbers. So it went from about an 8 per cent Australian audience down to about 5 per cent and then American went all the way up to about 55, 60 per cent of your total audience.
You could get this cool snapshot of what the lockdown conditions were around the world by how your demographic of your viewership was changing throughout the year.
Shayne: Thanks for your time today Muselk.
Muselk: Thanks so much for having me.
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