The Innovators

Spinning Viral Stars Into One-Man Empires: The Rise of YouTube's Multi-Channel Networks

The Innovators


Innovators push the boundaries of the known world. They're change agents who are relentless in making things happen and bringing ideas to execution.

Spinning Viral Stars Into One-Man Empires: The Rise of YouTube's Multi-Channel Networks
Sawyer Hartman

Penna recalls the very moment that she, too, became an entrepreneur. Following massive layoffs at Current TV, where she was employed as a documentarian, she realized, somewhat harrowingly, that “never again could I let somebody else determine my fate.”

Seeking autonomy led Penna to a groundbreaking juncture: she is frequently credited with serving as the very first manager of a YouTube celebrity, working as second-in-command to one of the site’s biggest stars circa 2010, Philip DeFranco.

Though Penna started out in television production, the proficiencies of MCN executives -- being a relatively new business paradigm -- run the gamut. For instance, Penna’s co-founder and Big Frame’s CEO, Steve Raymond, was formerly a top digital media executive at NBC and MTV.

Early to arrive, they began receiving queries from advertisers eager to connect with other YouTubers, and, at the same time, YouTubers who were keen to reach out to brands they loved.

Related: 'David After Dentist' Dad Now Wants Christianity to Go Viral

The company they started out of a tiny studio office just three years ago looks virtually unrecognizable today: Big Frame now represents more than 300 channels on YouTube and counts a cumulative subscribership of over 39 million.

“When I started out, it was just this small, weird collaborative thing we were all doing,” Penna said. But then brands wisened up, and the money started flooding in.

“It used to just be a fun and experimental thing that salespeople would do with leftover ad dollars, like, ‘This would be a cool thing to show my boss.’” Now, digital spend is a critical component of most marketing plans. Since its inception, Big Frame has partnered with over 500 brands, including household institutions such as ChevroletCoverGirlMacy’s and Pepsi.

Sawyer Hartman

YouTuber Sawyer Hartman was drawn to the community much in the same way as Penna. An ex-girlfriend happened to be one of the site’s most popular stars, and after becoming introduced to some of her friends, Hartman was hooked.

“They weren’t waiting around for other people to make their dreams come true,” he observed. “Through dedication and perseverance, they were doing it on their own.”

Though Hartman started his own channel shortly thereafter, he admits some trepidation in signing with Big Frame. “Viewers are so smart,” he said, “and I never wanted my audience to feel like I was blatantly advertising something.”

Related: Google's Most Senior Female Executive Tapped to Run YouTube

Perhaps Hartman’s reticence was valid. Critics of MCNs say they take advantage of their channels, and in one high-profile case, the YouTuber Ray William Johnson threatened a lawsuit -- and subsequently departed -- Maker Studios in a nasty skirmish last year. Johnson alleged that the network demanded 40 percent of his channel’s ad revenues and 50 percent of its intellectual property in perpetuity.

But for Hartman, Big Frame’s relatively small roster and Penna’s knack for thinking outside of the box -- as well as her purely servile approach -- sealed the deal last year. Network representation not only legitimized him at the negotiating table, he says, but has yielded untold business connections.

Today, mentioning companies like in his videos has enabled Hartman, who makes short films on his channel, to fund these projects. He also subsists wholly on this income.

And as an aspiring movie director with more than 1.5 million subscribers, Hartman’s ultimate career goal typifies the fortuitously intertwined relationship between YouTube and the major motion picture industry: his biggest dream, he says, would be to see his work on the big screen one day.

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