What’s the point of vlogging?

On January 2, 2017 I published a video on YouTube telling everyone I was starting a daily vlog. I also told them I’d probably fail. I did.

I remember the exact meeting I was in at Accenture in 2001 when I found out a manager I was working with had started his own “blog”.

Though I was in a technology group researching trends, I still found it weird that someone at work would blog. What a strange word. “Blog”. I didn’t pay any attention to the blog after he told me about it. Who wants to read this guy’s personal journal online anyway.

Blogging went mainstream. My first blog was published after I started my first company in 2005. I wrote a couple posts, then lost motivation. I got a little more serious in 2010, but just barely. A post here or there. By then, there were so many good writers out there and I was so far behind. What was I possibly going to add to the wealth of good content out there? And how could I possibly stand out?

I’d missed the opportunity.

But in 2011, Dustin Curtis invited me to his new blog network, Svbtle, on one condition, that I post one article every single week. And that regularity and Dustin’s exposure helped get a ball in motion that hasn’t stopped.

From then on I’ve taken blogging and writing online seriously. My audience finally grew. That Svbtle blog and other writing opportunities started to propel my companies forward.

Now, I’m publishing at least twice a week. My writing is a major driver of traffic to Highrise and projects I work on. But I regret not using those years before more wisely — practicing, finding my voice, learning how to do it better, and growing (if even slowly) an audience. Imagine how much further I’d be today.

One of the biggest regrets I have in my career was that I didn’t jump on what that Accenture manager was doing.

It’s strange when my friends and family ask about my “vlog”. That word again seems so foreign and weird.

Yet, people have been doing it for awhile with Adam Kontras being celebrated as the first to post a video blog back in 2000. Now, dozens/hundreds of celebrities make 7/8 figures running their vlogs, often with teams of well skilled editors and cinematographers behind them. How can I possibly add to this and stand out?

And I see all these trends in video taking over the content of site after site after site. Facebook and Instagram are investing heavily in video as Zuckerberg has already predicted he: “wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”

YouTube is surging with hours of video watched growing 60% year over year, even though it was acquired over a decade ago and the product isn’t fundamentally different.

Six year olds are making $11 million a year on YouTube and being featured on primetime-old-people-television like SNL. Ask a bunch of kids or teenagers what they want to be today, and it’s rarer to hear “athlete” than it is to hear “celebrity vlogger”.

Another missed opportunity?

Well, I could keep missing it, or I can take a dive like I did with writing back in 2011 and finally commit to it.

So I started an experiment to publish a video every single day on YouTube. How’d I do?


I failed at actually completing a video every single day. I started out strong, but petered out at one point trying a bit too hard to game the numbers and perfect individual videos. Motivation would also wane.

But I don’t like giving up on things I promise I’d do.

So in July 2017, I re-committed myself to getting a video done every day. Even if it was something tiny. Like a quick YouTube Live video. I mostly kept to that promise minus some days I got pretty sick.

The result: I tripled my audience. My editing got faster. My ability to find stories in my content got better. My camera work improved. I think the quality of my current videos are 10 times where they were a year ago.

And these videos have helped me snowball other content. A good idea on the vlog judged by views and likes often helps me focus on things that become even better ideas in articles I write. And so my writing has gotten even stronger and more useful to building my audience and supporting our business — all because of the vlog.

Apart from failing to meet the daily goal, I’d say running this vlog has been a big success.

But it’s still far from where I want to be, far from the people I look up to.

So what will 2018 hold? More of the same. I’ll keep at that vlog. I’ll keep experimenting and trying to improve it. I’ll keep trying to grow it.

Because sure, it still feels weird opening up about my day and life so much in a “vlawwg”. But I remember how I felt the same way about the manager blogging so many years ago.

And I won’t repeat my mistake.

P.S. Speaking of 🙂 You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

How do we get more subscribers, followers, and signups?

It’s the question we all have at some point running a business.

Someone recently noticed that I have a larger YouTube subscriber count then they expected, given my channel’s newness and the relatively small number of views so far. Their channel was getting a ton of views from some neat niche content, but he was having trouble getting repeat visitors and subscribers.

What was I doing differently?

I don’t like my wedding photos. It’s been 15 years! And I still remember how much I hated the haircut I got two days before the event.

I don’t spend much money on things other than camera gear and computers. Most of my clothes look like someone else had them during their good days 🙂 But soon after my wedding, I decided to find a fancy salon and pay fancy prices to someone who knows exactly how I’d like to cut my hair.

I met Valerie.

Valerie has been awesome. I’ve been seeing her for years. And when I heard Valerie opened her own salon, of course I followed her.

Her business is solid. Given her skill and personality, she’s created a loyal customer base who will gladly go where she goes. But I’m sure at some point, she and her partner will find themselves in the situation all of us business owners find ourselves.

How do we get more?

James Corden might be my favorite late night talk show host. For all sorts of reasons. But he really caught my eye with Carpool Karaoke, where he drives along with a celebrity and they break into song.

When James first started the show and particularly this segment, success didn’t seem likely. They couldn’t book anyone. With sheer willpower and luck they booked Mariah Carey, who refused to sing when it was time to tape Carpool. Somehow James and his charming personality convinced her to sing. He had to start first.

Today, he’s blown up. Every A-lister wants to be on Carpool.

As I watched James videos, I spotted something interesting:

At the end of every single video James posts on YouTube, he asks folks to subscribe and check out other videos. He even points in most videos to exactly where he would like them go next.

You wouldn’t think he’d have to do this. Doesn’t his fame carry him enough? He already has almost 11 million YouTube subscribers.

But you do this long enough, and you realize how much you have to encourage people to do the thing you really need them to do. You can’t make them guess you need more subscribers or likes or followers.

You need explicit calls to action.

At the end of my first haircut with Valerie at her new salon, her partner Anna caught me filming the haircut for my vlog.

When she heard I’d be posting the video to YouTube, she asked that I tag their page and link up their site. Of course I would. And a week after the haircut, I gave them positive reviews on Yelp and Facebook too. I don’t think I’ve ever given anyone a Facebook review. I haven’t reviewed anything on Yelp in years.

But that call to action from Anna at the end of the appointment really stuck in my head and got me to… act.

I think far too many people feel embarrassed to ask for action. They don’t want to “put people out”. But what’s really happening is that most people watching content, reading your articles, trying out your stuff, might like to subscribe or share, but don’t realize that’s important to you until you ask.

You aren’t putting people out. You don’t have to be a pest. And they can ignore you. I didn’t have to link up anything about my salon.

But I love what Valerie does, and of course I’d want to help spread her new salon. Since Anna made it clear they could use all the love possible, I’m even more inclined to do it.

Almost every video, every blog post, every email I send out, I make sure I explicitly call out what I could use the audience to do next: please like the video, heart the post, visit Highrise. And the numbers speak for themselves. When I add those calls to action I see the traffic, likes, followers, spike compared to versions where I don’t.

Want more followers? Ask for them. If James Corden does it, no reason you shouldn’t.

P.S. 🙂 Please help spread this by clicking the below.

You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a no-hassle system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise. And if you need a new hair stylist in Chicago, go say hi to Valerie.

Looking for a distraction… or optimism?

A friend of mine was recently bummed about the lack of success a business venture turned out to be. So he started looking for a hobby… a distraction… something.

I have a hiring secret I haven’t shared before. I like to hire people handy with a camera.

Javan, who works here at our sister company Basecamp, is a tremendous developer. He used to actually work for me at my old company Inkling. I don’t think I’ve ever told him about this, but the thing about him that really sealed the deal on us hiring him at Inkling originally was that he had a great looking photo portfolio. He practiced taking beautiful photographs. He even made his own minimal photo software.

There’s something about folks who work with cameras and photography who I find are constantly on alert for interesting opportunities in the world. They take what others see as mundane, and they find something else. Something unique and beautiful to share with the rest of the world.

That’s a habit I enjoy having around me. Especially because it makes me aspire to do the same.

I’m clearly not a psychologist. And I’m not offering advice on turning something like depression around which really needs qualified, professional assistance. Believe me, I have my own tough time managing my psychology.

But there’s something so optimistic and uplifting about working with a camera and looking for the interesting things out there from a haystack of seemingly boring, routine tasks.

I’ve been doing a semi-regular vlog now on YouTube, and I keep noticing: there’s always something interesting.

Sometimes it’s harder to spot than others. But as I look back at the video I’ve captured each and every day, there’s always something. Even if it’s small and short.

More often though, there’s so much that was interesting and beautiful I have a hard time fitting it all into a single concise movie.

So on January 1, 2017, I announced I’d be trying my hand at a daily vlog — well on January 2 to be exact. I film on one day, publish the next 🙂

There’s a lot of reasons I’m not optimistic it will succeed. And when I say succeed I’m not referring to getting the followers or views I want.

I’m not optimistic because I’m not sure I can keep up with the demands a daily vlog could take. I have found myself spending hours and hours just editing a 7 minute video. I can’t keep doing that and fit in the rest of my life. Can I figure out ways to speed up the process? Will experience just make me faster?

I think so. Maybe. I’ve already shaved off a ton of time with some recent changes I’ve made.

But also I think this vlog could fail because my life is mundane. I don’t travel much, or hang out with famous friends. I like to stick close to home, spend as much time with my family as possible, and work the rest.

And that’s why I need to vlog even more frequently than I have so far. Because it is interesting. There’s always something. At least one creative challenge or business problem each day running Highrise. Not to mention the endless lessons I uncover trying to raise a child.

So with that, I start a daily vlog.

Please come and follow the journey. I hope it provides some help in areas important to you.

And please, if you ever have a question I’d love to help, just ask. I’m reachable over YouTube comments, Twitter, and email.

My friend looking for that hobby? He bought a new camera.

Camera equipment suggestions

Thanks Corey! Thank you so much for watching. I do have suggestions 🙂

I have this awesome Canon 80D DSLR camera.

The quality is amazing. I’ve got a couple really nice wide aperture lenses that create this beautiful shallow depth of field. Gorgeous video coming from this setup.

And I rarely use the damn thing.

First rule for me: convenience trumps quality.

The DSLR is just not convenient. When there’s a hint of bad weather I refuse to have that gear out because I don’t want it ruined. And it’s so big. I don’t like carrying it around with me because it attracts too much attention. I don’t want the unwanted attention. I just want people to be their normal, interesting selves if I’m capturing video. And it’s so easy to bump into something. So I keep it wrapped in a protective case and lense cap on.

With all that babying of my DSLR, if something interesting happens, there’s no way my fancy camera is anywhere near being able to capture it.

I focus mostly on what I can capture with what’s available and inexpensive. I do most of my shooting on a GoPro Session.

That thing is super convenient and relatively cheap. I’ve dropped it a dozen times and it looks brand new. If my iPhone had taken the falls it has, I wouldn’t be shooting movies anymore. I keep a necklace attached to my GoPro and wear it around my neck so it’s always on me and not in my pocket. In my pocket is just another 7 seconds that whatever was interesting has a chance of getting missed. The Session is also just one button click to capture. Not multiple swipes and taps.

So I’d recommend just getting good with filming with what you already have. If you need more convenience get a GoPro. When you feel like you’ve gotten pretty good at engaging folks with what you can edit together with those things, then look to things like DSLRs.

More importantly I’d focus on taking stable video. Grainy video is watchable. Shaky video is not. Shaky video makes people throw up. So get whatever camera is affordable and ultra convenient and figure out how to stabilize it. That might mean just resting the camera on something, or getting a small tripod. Do whatever it takes to get it stabilized.

All that being said, I like nice pictures too. Recently I found myself cracking open the DSLR again to get some shots to mix in with my GoPro footage. And I might invest in a Mavic Pro soon to get some nice aerial footage of Chicago stuff. But my main shooter is that GoPro.

I’m just someone who’s just trying to get better at making creative, engaging movies, and that doesn’t mean better gear. It means me getting better at telling stories through video about what’s going on around me and in my life. And often that’s about making sure I can capture something interesting as soon as it happens.

So I don’t worry much about gear, I spend more time studying how a movie from Pixar keeps people glued to their seat. I read books on screenplay writing and filming documentaries. I mention a couple other things here that I think are important: like figuring out how to edit with music, and learning to take short shots. You’ll also find yourself needing to create a workflow to store everything. All that video is going to suck up your main hard drive. I use a Samsung external SSD drive to move video to. And started fooling with Amazon cloud storage as a remote backup.

Hope the helps!

P.S. Like Corey, you should follow my YouTube channel! Where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us create better businesses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while starting your own small business, handling customer support or staying in touch with all your new fans on YouTube 🙂 check out how Highrise can help!

Hosting a YouTube Channel

I have a 5 year old niece, Madeline. She’s awesome. She wants to run her own channel on YouTube. Like her uncle. 🙂

I don’t have a very big channel. Yet… But it’s new and it’s growing. And already I’ve learned quite a few things about filming videos and getting people’s attention without resorting to crazy clickbait titles like “I’m quitting YouTube” (only to announce you’re taking Saturday off)

Madeline called the other day asking for tips to host her own channel. She likes to film herself playing with her toys. That might sound a little odd to someone out there without any young kids who watch YouTube, but it’s a really popular genre. My two year old has watched a video of Madeline changing her doll about 20 times. And keeps asking for more.

But this isn’t advice just to 5 year olds playing with toys on YouTube. This is for everyone.

Schedule yourself

A common piece of advice about creating content is to: “Setup a schedule. Publish one post a week. Publish one video a week. Fans love regularity.”

But scheduling your content on a regular basis also has a much deeper reason.

We are often under the impression that we are happy when good things happen to us. But in actuality, we are happiest when we decide to pursue a particular goal and then achieve it.

Alex Korb, The Upward Spiral

Your content isn’t going to be very popular for a long, long time. If ever.

And you will have a hard time controlling that. You can’t force how viral something becomes. You can do your best to get better and that makes a big difference. But there’s a lot of great people making videos and content and they get a fraction of the audience they probably deserve.

It doesn’t feel good if your stuff doesn’t grow like you want it to. And that can be extremely demotivating.

But what you can control are the decisions you make in terms of quantity and quality. You can set up small and then larger goals about accomplishing certain types of videos and their frequency. That’s going to feel good because it’s something you actually have power over. And that will keep motivating you to do more. Until one day, you might just get the audience you setout for.

So get on a schedule and feel good accomplishing it. Once it gets easy, make your goal more aggressive and challenging.

Don’t sweat the name

It’s funny how often people starting things worry about the name. So much that they end up without starting anything.

It’s all changeable.

Especially a YouTube channel. Don’t worry about the name. You can change it later. The only thing permanent for a YouTube channel is the custom url, and you can’t even get one of those until you’ve gotten a little bit of traction on your channel.

Give the channel any name and move on. Call it something else later.


If you’ve watched anything on YouTube, there’s a good chance you’ve watched an unboxing. People open up every conceivable thing under the sun on video. And other people spend billions of hours watching it.

Why? Hope.

They’re opening up something you don’t have yet. You want just a glimpse of what that’s going to feel like when you one day get a box just like it. It’s a big element of surprise too. Is this thing they want going to be worth it? Are they going to enjoy the new thing, or criticize it? We don’t know, because they haven’t opened it yet. And that suspense, even in such a trivial way, is powerfully interesting.

So as you make videos or articles or whatever you do, put some time into thinking about how to unbox things. What are you going to surprise people with as they watch your show. If you are doing a toy show like Madeline, I recommend keeping your stuff literally in boxes until you are ready to open them up on camera so folks can share some of your suspense, but for most of us it doesn’t have to be so literal.

No shaky video

I won’t belabor the point here. I’ve already written an entire article on this subject alone. Keep the camera steady. Get a tripod. Don’t just let someone hold the camera. Of course they can in a pinch, but really they should have lens stabilization on their camera, which is unlikely (iPhone 8 Plus has stabilization by the way, and fancy camera lenses.) But even putting a camera on a stack of books is better than someone holding it. Keep it steady.

Keep it short

Make everything you do in video as short as you can. Don’t repeat yourself or spend too much time on one thing. Use short shots.

One thing you probably don’t notice about the TV/movies you watch are how short each shot is. When two characters are talking, the camera is probably only stuck in that position for less than 10 seconds. If they stay on the same person’s face, you’ll probably see the camera at least change to a different zoom or angle.

Pretend there’s a ten second time limit on the camera. Take some video. Stop after 10 seconds max. Take some different video of another thing or from a different angle. This is easier if you have multiple cameras or you’re willing to spend some time editing. But for now, just get clips that are 10 seconds or less, and you’ll be a lot less frustrated editing your footage.

Add music

Short shots and music can make the most mundane things interesting. Don’t take my word for it:

I bet you watched that guy do his office work longer than you thought you would 🙂


The easiest way NOT to come off as a clone of someone else is to only borrow pieces of ideas from people doing different things.

Want inspiration to make videos about toys? Spend more time watching videos that aren’t about toys. Learn interesting things they do that people aren’t doing yet in toy videos. Bring ideas from other things you are interested in to this thing.

For me, there’s definitely people vlogging about their families or showing off their work. And there’s people writing books about business and doing TED talks about psychology. But I’m trying to marry a lot of those interests into a single YouTube channel that I think is pretty fresh. Still isn’t quite what I envision it to be, but it’s off to a good start.

Here’s a great example of Ellen and Violet doing most of the above things with their toy unboxing channel:

Which is off to a great start with just over 100,000 views. Even Ellen has trouble getting huge view counts for everything 🙂

P.S. You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us create better businesses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while starting your own small business, handling customer support or staying in touch with all your new fans on YouTube 🙂 check out how Highrise can help!

Apps to make movies, workflow, and music for YouTube videos

Thanks Chris! I’ll answer here as these choices have some background and interesting consequences.

The only app I use to make movies right now is iMovie. But that isn’t a strong endorsement. I think it’s a great tool to get started with, but it has some limitations as you get further along. If you’re looking to start making movies I’d begin with iMovie (or equivalent on Windows), since it’s pretty easy to figure out most things on it.

One thing though that trips you up as you get along in the movie making effort is the fact that the iMovie library itself contains an archive of all the movie clips you import. So let’s say you have 1GB of movie clips in some folder, then import them into iMovie, now you have 2GB of movie clips on your hard drive. This makes doing any kind of workflow around your movies and hard drive space difficult.

My iMovie library is so large I had to move it to a separate 1 terabyte external SSD drive. The move brought a noticeable slow down to doing things inside iMovie.

I’m not an expert in other apps, but I’ve read things like Adobe Premier only holds pointers to your clips in other locations. So 1GB of movie clips remains 1GB of clips. And they exist in the location you stuck them in. Though of course that will have cons too if you move them, since the pointers will all break.

But the movie projects themselves aren’t that important to me once a movie is finished, I’m fine trashing the project and whatever pointers it has, as long as I have backups of the original, raw footage.

This is the external hard drive I’m using:

I’ve been happy with it.

Though I’m still trying to figure out what my long term storage workflow is going to be. Am I going to just collect a bunch of these SSDs over the years? Or get a big NAS type device? Not sure.

One thing I do plan on exploring is Amazon’s unlimited storage solution. $60 a year for unlimited movie storage.

Sounds like a great deal if I can use that as cloud backup of all this movie data I’m collecting. I don’t need the cloud storage for streaming, I really just need it in case of fire and other emergencies.

That’s about all I use in the workflow. Pretty sure I’ll move to Premier or Final Cut Pro here soonish, though they have their own issues. I’d also like to color grade my film a little so will explore other tools to do that too.

As for sound, yes, it’s all GoPro onboard microphones these days. The Session 5 is definitely better than the Session 4 on this front. 3 mics vs 2 mics help with that.

You also want to be real careful about how you hold the GoPro so it isn’t rubbing on your hand or clothes.

There are folks who do attach better mics to their GoPro setups. And some people use separate sound capture hardware all together. I’d love to have much better sound right now. But I just don’t have the patience for more equipment. My DSLR already has the shotgun mic, and that’s noticeably better sound than onboard mics, but the convenience of using a GoPro really trumps the quality most of the time.

As for other sound, I really enjoy adding music to these vids. A good song can make all the difference of making something mundane something interesting. YouTube has a free audio library with a bunch of decent and interesting tracks that you can add to your videos:

I’ve used a bunch of those. I’m starting to explore more though. The YouTube library just doesn’t have enough of what I want. So I just started using tracks from Music Vine. They’ve got affordable and flexible licensing. And another option which I’d like to explore is just reaching out to folks producing cool music on Soundcloud. I think that’s a channel many of the better known YouTubers have pursued. Soundcloud makes it super easy to reach out to people producing music on there:

Lots of new music producers on there would love some extra publicity and links to their work, if they were asked and gave their permission. Just need to create some relationships.

I’d love to hear more from anyone out there about video editing and finding/licensing music. Any new video editing apps worth a good look? And interesting places to find people producing great music they’d want heard in up and trying YouTube channels 🙂 ?

P.S. You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us create better businesses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while starting your own small business or handling customer support, check out how Highrise can help!

How do you plan out your vlog themes/scenes?

Billy Schrero asks about my incredibly popular YouTube channel. 🙂 I kid, I kid. But it has been growing nicely, the videos are getting more and more engagement. It’s been a great learning experience. And this is another great question I’ve experimented with.

“You write the film you want, shoot the film you can afford, and edit the film you have.” — Anon

At first I just grabbed a camera and started filming, and maybe that works for some, but I realized I could do better. So I started doing a little planning. I’ll write a short script now in a writing program like Draft and plan for a handful of “scenes” or shots with possible dialog. I don’t try to perfect this at all. It’s just rough thoughts. Each paragraph break is a new shot in my head.

Part of the script I wrote for a recent video

I often try to get the dialog to fit into individual Tweet sized bites, as my goal is to keep the shot and dialog to 10 seconds or less. If you watch shots on TV/movies, you’ll be hardpressed to find a shot that lasts longer than 10 seconds, before the camera switches to some other character/angle/background. 10 seconds proves to be a great rule of thumb to keep you interesting. Sometimes I’ll go off script a bit and will talk for 30 seconds or more. But I’m really trying hard to keep a spoken thought under 10 seconds.

One key benefit to the script is it helps remove repetition. There’s something about repeating oneself that stinks an even stinkier smell on video then on the written page. A script helps you focus down your ideas so you don’t end up rambling on camera.

With script ready, I’ll shoot each of those “tweets” by talking to the camera for 10 seconds (hopefully less than 10, but often more), then move onto another place or angle. But I’m never reading from the script. I just improvise what the idea was of that dialog I had planned.

As far as themes, it’s just random stuff I bump into that’s interesting. I read an insane amount. There’s always something interesting in say The Wall Street Journal (I get the paper version every morning. Want something easy to scan while you eat, and have kids dropping yogurt everywhere? Get a real paper), or the 10 magazines I have lying around. All these stories beg me to ask more questions and explore some threads a little further.

I’m also always on the lookout for questions. Sometimes it’s folks asking me directly, or I got to tons of forums like Reddit/Inbound/Quora noticing themes of what people generally like to ask. And I’ll keep those questions in my head as I think about my next topic.

And that’s about it for the planning. I’ll write up my 7–10 shots that I want to capture and I’ll find places to capture them during the day. I used to even try to plan where I think they’d occur, but I lost patience with that level of planning. Now I’ll just remember to shoot one of my pieces of dialog if I find myself in a neat place.

I keep my eyes peeled for interesting things going around. Whether it’s my kid, something on the skyline, or some movement that catches me. My eyes are constantly wandering for interesting things to capture. I wear a GoPro around my neck now just to make that even easier.

And then at the end of the day I have all this dialog and things I’ve done or captured. I’ll try and weave them together. Sometimes something happens where I realize I can grab some older footage from a previous day. And hopefully it comes together into something interesting 🙂

One last thing I’ll mention today about my process is I draw a bunch of inspiration from people breaking the 4th wall in TV and movies. My favorite: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Other interesting examples include mock documentary style video like The Office and Modern Family.

Hope that helps get the juices flowing for other people making videos!

P.S. You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us create better businesses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while starting your own small business or handling customer support, check out how Highrise can help!

Most important vlogging advice?

One of the most popular and rapidly growing YouTube channels today is a “vlogger” (video blogger) named Casey Neistat. A big reason for that growth is Casey is a filmographer, not just any random citizen with a camera. He brought to YouTube the skills he honed while creating award winning feature films, a series for HBO, commercials for Nike, etc.

So when he offers advice on how to film or edit, I take notice. But there’s one piece of advice I feel he hasn’t directly called out to his audience, but subtly has made apparent over and over again.

In one episode, Casey is stuck in meetings all day and asks his wife to film the vlog. He hands her a camera and tells her:

Hold the camera steady. That’s the most important thing. No shaky camera.

He says these exact words to a bunch of people he hands his camera to.

You even see this priority in his mode of travel. He’s obsessed with his Boosted Board, a motorized skateboard he rides throughout New York City.

I think most people just see it as a toy perfect for a thrill seeker. But it’s far more than that. Casey has discovered the perfect camera dolly for filming the type of movie he films where he is the star and also the entire crew. By filming on a moving skateboard he gets to film himself going through life in a much smoother manner than when he films himself walking.

If you pay close attention, you’ll see the interesting lengths he takes to make sure that camera is as stationary as it can get. Here’s an example from his latest vlog post:

Notice anything? Look in his glasses at the reflection.

You can make out the camera he’s holding. It’s a point and shoot. He’s holding it without a tripod. But he’s got it resting on the edge of a door or wall panel to help keep the camera steady.

He treats the world as his tripod.

Of course this is a goal more than a rule. There’s plenty of shaky video even in Casey’s work. But you’ll notice the shaky stuff is often kept to very short shots and surrounded with very stable shots.

And sure, sometimes shaky camera movement is perfect for the story it helps tell. Movies like the Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield were all about regular folks holding and running with a camera. Steady cameras wouldn’t have told the story as well. But even in those cases, people were turned off:

Some theatergoers experienced nausea from the handheld camera movements and actually had to leave to vomit. In some Toronto theatres, ushers asked patrons who were prone to motion sickness to sit in the aisle seat and to try not to “throw up on other people.”

As I watch a lot of amateurs and even find myself getting started, this is far from obvious. We think “vlogging” and we think we need to capture ourselves doing something interesting and moving, and since we’re holding the camera it has to move with us. It doesn’t. Spend the time figuring out how set it down on something.

One of the things I’ve added to my filmmaking is primarily using a GoPro Session.

I’ve started wearing one around my neck so I can pull it out quick and capture something. In a recent vlog, you can still see far too much shaky video, but it’s interlaced with a lot of steady shots.

And the GoPro Session made it really convenient. Since it’s square, I can drop it on a table, a cup, even a roll of paper towels to create a stable tripod while I film something. And since it’s relatively cheap compared to my phone or a DSLR, I don’t mind if it falls off of some situation I thought was stable.

P.S. You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us create better businesses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while starting your own small business or handling customer support, check out how Highrise can help!

Is “content marketing” dead?

Felipe Barbosa asked a question on Inbound.org recently that generated a lot of great conversation, “Do you think content marketing will become so competitive that people will just ignore it?Reposting my answer:

Every time someone visits the Facebook News Feed there are on average 1,500 potential stories from friends, people they follow and Pages for them to see.

That’s a 3 year old stat Buffer reported in their article: We’ve Lost Nearly Half Our Social Referral Traffic in the Last 12 Months

Buffer has suffered at their content and social game, and they’re one of the best ones doing it.

It’s inundated. It’s getting harder and harder to play. It’s clear there’s a problem if you wanted to make a dent in your business with “content marketing”. Now what do we do about it? Two big things come to mind.

1) Get better.

Most of us are still pretty poor at creating content. Afterall, most of us do it part time while we do other things like make products, customer support, HR, do sales, etc. etc. So we don’t commit to creating things like articles, lessons, whitepapers as if it were a craft we were committing our whole lives to. Then we’re inundated with garbage content anyone could have written. Listicles that are recycled over and over from one publication to the next.

So instead of treating it like a hobby, hire people who do it professionally. Of course if you’re still in the early phases of starting a business and it’s just you wearing a dozen hats, we really need to commit to become better creators ourselves.

Want to write better content? Become a better writer. Study how writers have excelled at their craft. Especially storytelling. How do storytellers keep people rapt with attention? How do movie makers keep people in their seats for 2 hours? How do novelists break through the clutter? They’ve been working at figuring it out far longer than we have on the internet.

Take a writing class. Attend a Moth event. Study film like a film student rather than a consumer trying to turn off their alpha waves.

I think most people struggling with making better content really need to take a step back and figure out how to become better students.

2) Find new channels.

One big hint: kids want to become YouTubers. They aren’t reading PDFs or sharing whitepapers.

What makes that so interesting, is that most of us as people running businesses and creating content just really don’t understand it. Yet.

We see YouTube and it’s like oh we can post a video of us talking about our business or sharing business advice. That doesn’t really cut it. The next generation has far different expectations of what they want out of the video they consume.

Pranks, visual effects, action sports, makeup tutorials, vlogging. Snapchat is a form of communication. YouTube is now a serious career goal. There are so many lessons in how those folks record and create content.

It’s a big reason I’ve moved so much time from my writing schedule over to video production and editing. I used to spend a considerable chunk of my time writing what I think is fair to say some decently interesting articles. But as time has progressed, I see they get less traffic and less and less engagement.

So at the risk of stopping what works, I’ve now started making terrible YouTube videos, like filming myself talking to my cell phone camera in my bedroom. Turned out terrible. Terrible lighting. Terrible sound. Terrible image quality.

But I noticed people still seemed to enjoy them. So I upped my frequency and attempt at getting better. I invested more time in learning how people take interesting shots, how they talk to the camera, how they set up lighting. What kind of equipment produces what results.

It’s been a fascinating journey. I made a fairly quick jump to about 700 subscribers and I can see engagement improving. Still, a far cry from the millions of subscribers and views the top YouTubers are getting, but I still remember only have 50 Twitter followers once too and I know I was able to change that.

I think we need to take some risks at experimenting with these new channels. And not just a “let me install Snapchat on my phone and try it for a few minutes” kind of experiment. But treat it like a craft. Treat it like a 14 year old girl who snaps hundreds of times a day, every day from first thing in the morning until she falls asleep. There’s gold in them thar hills we just have to go deep exploring some new hills.

And of course, YouTube and Snapchat is going to feel like next Twitter (or even MySpace) one day. Then something will be next. There’s always something next.

Here’s an interesting resource. Alison, an employee here at Highrise, runs an awesome program called Girls to the Moon, running some neat events for teenage girls to explore science, engineering and business. Alison also interviews these girls in a podcast on what’s important in their worlds. Fascinating lessons.

P.S. You should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us create better businesses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while starting your own small business or handling customer support, check out how Highrise can help!

YouTube Tips and Tricks — Part #1

I’ve recently started a new YouTube channel to talk about the things I normally write about: psychology, science, and history, and how they intersect with helping us run better businesses. And it’s grown at a nice clip so far with over 340 subscribers. That’s tiny in the realm of YouTube where my favorite channels are in the 3–4 million subscribers, but it’s a good start for a recent production. Jason and I also started another channel called Work in Progress, which picked up about 1700 subscribers fairly quickly. (To answer a common question: Jason and I have been dormant on the Work in Progres Show. It’s awesome to do those, but our schedules are hard to sync up. Hopefully soon we can start those again).

But why even focus on YouTube. Here’s two things I’ve spotted recently:

Facebook VP Nicola Mendelsohn says about the future of Facebook in 5 years: “We’ll be all video.”


“My kids don’t have a YouTube channel — but they pretend they do” 5 year olds are now pretending they have their own YouTube channels.

Video increasingly becomes more important. So it doesn’t seem a bad bet to invest there. Here are a few helpful tips, tricks, and even gear I’ve uncovered along the way that weren’t obvious to me when we started these projects.

Add a subscription button

YouTube lets you add something called a “watermark”. Since a watermark is often used in photography so people won’t steal your work, you might not realize you can use it for a completely different purpose on YouTube: to encourage people to subscribe.

And even more non-intuitively it’s in your Channel settings called Branding:

If you go to Branding you can upload an image, and even pick a time when it appears. I go with 10 seconds so it might get more noticed when a viewer gets comfortable with the video for a bit. Here’s my watermark if you want to use it yourself:

Does it work? To be honest, I haven’t given it a thorough A/B test. A/B testing strategies on YouTube are almost impossible (wish they would give creators some abilities there). It seems like subscriptions got a bump when I added these to Work in Progress, but might be worth testing if you can.

Do an intro video

Again, not something that’s super intuitive at YouTube. But when non-subscribers see your channel for the first time, you can show them a video to introduce your channel. Given that people use YouTube to watch videos, I’d encourage you to add an intro video in addition to your About page. To add one, just film something as an Unlisted video (if you make it Public and Listed it’ll show up in your normal set of uploaded videos and will be redundant for anyone who’s already subscribed).

Next, you add this video as a “trailer” in YouTube. Navigate to your Channel page, then click the tab “For New Visitors”. There you can add or remove a Trailer:

Can’t A/B test the intro video very well either, but when Jason filmed a nice intro for us at Work in Progress, subscriptions jumped.

Advanced settings

Go over to Advanced settings and give those a look. For Channels that aren’t on YouTube to monetize through ads (like ours isn’t), you probably want to turn off the defaulted ads:

Depends on what you are trying to accomplish, but again, this wasn’t obvious that you could turn these off and where.

Here’s some other links you’ll want to check out:

Use those pencils to change the Avatar and Background art on your channel. You can also use that right pencil to add links to your Channel that can link to some other properties.

Don’t use the default thumbnails

I swear they always look bad. They might work though for comic effect — In multiple videos it looked like I was crying or screaming:

Now, I make sure I grab a decent image from the video or upload a high resolution picture. Often I just use a resource like Unsplash to get free and free-to-do-whatever-you-want licensed photos.

And it makes for a much more interesting list of videos:

Video quality

1) Don’t worry about video quality

I’ve learned a bunch about making better looking videos. It’s taken awhile, and I still have far to go.

First, I’ll say, don’t worry too much about video quality. Worry first about audio and lighting. There was a study I read long ago that people will watch things they can’t see as long as the audio is good, but they won’t watch things that they can see clearly if the audio is poor.

Make sure you have your audio situation figured out. Be careful with earbud mics because they often brush up on your collar or shirt while you talk and make a lot of noise. Also, if you are going to be talking with someone using something like Google Hangouts, use earbuds. Otherwise the output of your speakers is likely going to end up in the video causing a crazy echo.

For lighting, at a minimum try to film with some sunlight coming towards your face from behind the camera. Make sure there aren’t any lights at your back facing the camera.

Here’s how I started: just my phone recording a Facebook Live video that saved to my phone. I then uploaded it to YouTube. The quality is terrible:

It’s not in HD. The aspect ratio is wrong. The lighting is awful. I fooled with this selfie Ring light, and it just made me look green.

But I still got subscribers, and people still started watching the content. You’ll realize that’s what matters most. With the videos Jason and I did together, the video quality was never great, since we were often using our webcams, and didn’t spend much time worrying about lighting or audio.

Didn’t matter. Lots of people still tuned in.

So get the basics down, worry more about what you’re talking about. When you’re happy with the direction of your content, then start worrying about video quality.

2) Go with a cheap 1080p webcam and a mic

Wanting a small step up in quality, I found the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920.

It films in 1080p for decent looking HD videos. But I made the mistake of using Photobooth on my Mac to make the videos. Photobooth uses the wrong aspect ratio for YouTube, and I don’t believe creates videos in 1080p even though the camera does. They ended up in about 480p.

Then I realized I could start filming in Quicktime, the player. If you open up the Quicktime Player on your Mac, you can actually film new movies:

Using that with the Logitech I was finally recording in a 16:9 aspect ratio, and the videos were in 1080p. This was a nice jump in quality on YouTube. I also added a decent microphone — the Snowball for $50.

With about $125 for that webcam and mic, and some sunny windows, you can do a pretty great job of making videos talking to your audience.

3) Get a DSLR

Recently, I still wanted more control over the quality of these videos, especially poor lighting. I find myself filming in my basement or on a cloudy day. I don’t want to worry so much about finding the perfect windows or buying lighting gear. Another thing I wanted to correct for is crappy backgrounds. On some days I find myself surrounded by baby toys or giant cutouts of Big Bird for my 2 year old’s birthday party.

How can I minimize the junk I can’t seem to avoid? And I was curious and wanted to learn more behind making great looking videos.

So I decided to splurge on some gear. And I’m real happy I did.

I looked into solutions that work well in low light as well as can give me a shot that minimizes my background by making it blurry — otherwise known in the photo/video world as a shallow depth of field.

And found a Canon 80D DSLR camera with a 30mm Sigma f/1.4 lens would be a great fit.

So what do those things even mean? I won’t go into too much detail as there’s a lot of it. But I will share some specifics that led to me picking this camera and lens.

First the camera turns out to be one of the more user friendly of these sophisticated cameras. There’s a lot of bells and whistles that can just lead to complexity, but the Canon handles it well. Also the camera has a great touchscreen on it that flips 180 degrees so you can see yourself in it as you film — perfect for the types of videos I want to make.

As for the lens: The 1.4 is the lens’ f-stop. The lower it gets, the wider the aperture the lens can have. When it does that, it works great in low light AND gives you a sharp focus on just what you want to focus on while the background blurs.

The Canon 80D has a “crop sensor” which means that it has a slightly smaller image sensor to a full frame sensor. That doesn’t mean a ton unless you really need the quality of a full frame, but it does mean you need to be aware of how it changes your lens attributes. For example, a 50mm lens is great but on a crop sensor camera like the 80D you would need to place the camera way across the room from you if you wanted to film yourself talking to the camera. That’s because the crop sensor has a multiplication factor of 1.6. Meaning, if you have a 50mm lens, the 80D will make that lens seem more like a 50mm * 1.6 = 80mm lens. So a 30mm like the Sigma I have, works more like a 48mm.

With the 30mm Sigma, I can put the camera on the table in front of me and still see myself in the viewfinder.

I also added a camera mounted condenser microphone to the mix. And for a tripod, since I find myself in all sorts of weird places filming these I just went with something that seemed flexible and portable.

Again, this was an investment you probably don’t need to make starting out; I probably didn’t need it. But it was something I wanted to learn a lot more about, and still wanted to keep giving my channel some better quality. So I thought I’d invest in the future of it.

And maybe just this is just a coincidence, but the last video I made was with that new gear and is my most viewed video so far in the channel by a lot.

For some other great tips on things like camera reviews and even settings you want on an 80D check out Chris Winter’s channel.

I hope that provides a couple tips you weren’t aware of. Of course it’s not exhaustive. I’m still learning a ton, and I’ll follow up as I keep learning more. And please, let me know if you have any favorite tips or secrets to filming great videos, getting videos to spread, or encouraging new subscribers. Would love to hear from you.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, you should follow my YouTube channel 🙂 And if you find yourself overwhelmed while organizing your own small business, check out how Highrise can help!