If you’ve ever searched for beauty tutorials online, then you’ve likely come across YouTube superstar Michelle Phan. At age 27, Michelle has amassed over seven million subscribers and over one billion views, created her own makeup brand, em cosmetics, and is the co-founder of beauty social networking site and sampling program IPSY.com. She has been profiled in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Nylon, Forbes, and Seventeen and has produced over three hundred videos to date.
In the following interview, Michelle shares how she built her brand online, her views on digital versus traditional media, and her top pieces of career advice.
Amanda Healy: Why did you decide that YouTube would be the best platform to develop your personal brand?
Michelle Phan: YouTube was free. Not only for content creators, but for people to watch. It was like a huge television set for the world and very accessible.
AH: What were some of your original goals?
MP: In 2007 I was an art student, and like any other college kid I was struggling and strained. School was becoming a job, and with constant deadlines for paintings and designs I needed a stress-free outlet for my art. I started a personal blog with photos and my readers wanted to learn how I did my makeup. I posted a few pictures, but then realized that the beauty of makeup is best seen in motion. My school laptop had a built-in webcam, so I planned my first tutorial and downloaded a free editing tool.
I’m not going to lie, my first video was AWKWARD – editing myself was so embarrassing! But I got over it and posted it to YouTube and didn’t look back. To my shock, the next day it had over 10,000 views and surpassed 40,000 by the end of the week! It was incredible to read the comments and have people all over the world thanking me, asking me how to do a smoky eye, how to do an acne cover-up, etc. The comments kept pouring in, and that’s how it all began. My viewers were like little ducklings following me around; I took them under my wing and now it was my job to love and nurture them.
AH: Why do you think that initial video was so successful?
MP: No one was making videos like that back in 2007, or at least not at the same quality level. People were shooting video on flip phones, so my video stood out because it looked professional.
AH: What challenges did you face?
MP: Being overwhelmed was my biggest challenge. Growing up, I moved around a lot and didn’t make many friends. I was always the new girl, quiet and doodling all day in my notebooks. Now I had 10,000 friends overnight. I felt this incredible connection with people I had never met nor probably would never meet. But I felt like I knew them and it was both exciting and overwhelming.
AH: What does it take to pull together one of your videos?
MP: The process has changed completely from when I was first getting started. Four years ago I would think of an idea, go out and purchase the supplies, buy a background, practice once or twice, then shoot the next day with a tripod, costume, and lighting. I would take two to three days to edit then upload the file to YouTube and select a thumbnail. The total process would take about ten days.
Today I have a team that helps pull everything together. YouTube is no longer my full-time job as I have so many additional projects. It’s become a means rather than simply an ends. Now I’m producing content for my blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. and I tailor it by channel. My YouTube channel is my largest base and that machine needs to be fed, but now I’m feeding a number of other machines as well. To manage this, I have an unbelievable team who assists with most of the logistical details. What hasn’t changed is the editing – I still edit about 70% of the videos myself! It’s my way of adding my personal touch.
There is a famous painter named Rubin who was a rock star in the artistic world. At one point his work was so in demand that he created a factory and taught all these artists to draw and paint in his likeness. When each painting was complete, he would pick up the brush and touch things up and add his signature. This is similar to what I do now. While other people assist me, I make sure to add my own flair. The bonus is that in doing so I’m able to provide jobs for others. I could do it all myself and keep all the profits, but I prefer to live simply and enjoy being able to offer others the chance to do what they love. I believe in paying it forward to help my team to achieve their own dreams and ambitions.
AH: How have your goals changed?
MP: They change every year. You need to check in often and challenge yourself to chase something new. Four years ago my goal was to build a network and launch a makeup line. Now that I’ve achieved both, I really want to help others who are talented build their own brands.
AH: Switching gears, how do you cut through the noise when 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute?
MP: It’s similar to how a TV network has to grab the attention of the viewer. It all boils down to having the right content for the right audience. Twenty years ago niche audiences were so much smaller. Now “niche” can mean ten million. Everyone can cater to their own niche market and still do well. The idea of monopolizing viewership is an old way of thinking. People want to watch what they want to watch and there is a YouTube channel for every taste.
AH: How do you mix digital media with traditional to amplify your brand?
MP: Leveraging both is so important. Some people think their brand can live online and disregard traditional media and vice versa. The truth is, the two thrive off each other. Traditional media needs help, and digital media needs structure. A hybrid model is a beautiful blend and adds a halo effect.
AH: Do you believe you need a strong online brand to make it in business?
MP: It depends on your audience and customer. Some heritage brands that have been around hundreds of years don’t necessarily need a strong digital presence, but they are mostly the exception. If the goal is growth, then an online brand is essential. Do you go to restaurants that aren’t on Yelp? The Internet has become our source of validation and information.
AH: What are your top three pieces of career advice?
MP: The first is to ensure you have support. You need positive reinforcement in your life whether it stems from your spouse, parents, friends, or children. You also have to support yourself. Entrepreneurship is like climbing a mountain; there are moments where you aren’t going to want to continue and you want to give up. You lose sleep, you lose your social life, but the view at the top is so breathtaking that when you look down at how far you have climbed the sacrifices are worth it.
You also need to have unwavering passion for what you do. Everyone is good at something; figure out where your talent lies and bake it into your career. For example, say you are passionate about music but aren’t much of a singer. Instead of aiming to be a rock star, look for roles in the music industry where you can fuel that passion – maybe a stage manager, a sound mixer, a songwriter. People have this impression that a career path should be linear, but life is more of a zigzag than a straight line.
Lastly, have a strong sense of your brand and vision. Entrepreneurship is not just like climbing a mountain, it’s also like a forest and you can get lost easily if you don’t have the right guide. If your goals change, you can alter your direction but don’t do it overnight. Think of rebranding like remodeling a house; don’t demolish the old to build a new, take your time and be subtle in your additions.
Learn more about Michelle and visit her website at http://michellephan.com/.