👀 Make your own rules (or steal some of these)

Ft. Andrew Huang (musician, YouTube legend, and author)

Sponsored by

Anyone who has achieved a full-time living as a creator has learned how to fuse creative and business skills. These skills are needed to produce great content that attracts a loyal audience and allows you to monetize.

Think of it as a Venn diagram: one circle is "creativity," and the other is "business and marketing skills." As a creator, you find success in the overlap. Suppose you feel more like a creative and less like a marketer, or vice versa. In that case, there are two options: practice skills from the other circle to push yourself into that overlap or find a creative/business partner with a complementary skillset.

— Francis Zierer, Editor

P.S. Don’t forget to fill out our usual poll at the bottom of the newsletter if you have feedback on the content of this specific issue.

There are very few books about the creator economy. An Amazon search for that term in the books category only returns 284 results, the majority of which either aren’t explicitly about the creator economy or aren’t even books.

Books aside, even when some clever creator posts a YouTube video explaining what the algorithm is prioritizing on the backend, their advice may already be outdated by the time you see it. Is it possible to write a book of advice on how to succeed in the creator economy that hasn't become irrelevant by the time it hits shelves?

In short, yes. Musician and longtime YouTube creator Andrew Huang has found a way with Make Your Own Rules: Stories and Hard-earned Advice from a Creator in the Digital Age, published last month by Simon & Schuster.

What makes Andrew's book successful is his choice to focus not on platform-specific growth hacks, but on the underlying principles of creativity, marketing, and business that anybody trying to hack it as a creator in the digital age needs to know.

Andrew's first foray into what we now call the creator economy came two decades ago when, as a college student, he built a no-code Fiverr predecessor. Just kidding (sort of), Andrew earned his first dollar online by selling songwriting commissions on eBay. Platforms like Fiverr didn't exist yet. He'd make most of his income through these eBay commissions for the next few years. In the book, he identifies six "seasons" of his career as a musician-creator, each broken down into four to six distinct income streams.

Andrew is a musician before he’s a YouTuber, but that platform is where he’s built his fame (find his growth framework down in the “Steal This Tactic” section of this newsletter). YouTube royalties, tellingly, have never made up more than 30% of his revenue in any “season” of his career — to be clear, this isn’t necessarily because those royalties have been especially low, but because, at times, his revenue from other sources has been comparatively quite high. He’s always had a well-diversified revenue model.

It's important to note that Andrew does not run his business alone. His wife, Essa — who has a professional marketing background — has worked full time on the business of Andrew Huang for most of the last decade. Besides her, there are five other people on the team, covering everything from content production to social media to business management. In our conversation, Andrew recommended that creators bring other people into their process "as early as possible."

The book is geared towards an audience of creatives who have yet to be exposed to the core principles of operating a business online (i.e., what an effective content marketing strategy looks like). It's also useful for people who need help with their creative practice, offering advice on core problems like how to come up with ideas or free oneself from perfectionism.

Andrew is uniquely well-suited to write this book; he is uncommonly talented in both creativity and business. This is partially a result of his two decades forging a career as a creative online, but it is also probably why he’s been able to do so.

“I’m the kind of person who would rather be optimizing my studio layout than drinking a cocktail on a beach. Maybe being that kind of person is what helped me find success in the first place! Freedom in life is not the freedom to move through it with ease and pleasure, it’s the freedom to choose to do what’s meaningful to you.”

Andrew Huang, in his book, Make Your Own Rules

We recently spent an hour with Andrew chatting about:

  • 📍 Why he focuses his output on just a few platforms

  • 🧑‍🏫 His approach to creating his online music production course

  • 🪞 Scaling as a creator without losing authenticity

  • 📕 Writing this book (his first) and giving timeless advice

Read an excerpt of our interview below or listen to the full podcast here.

No time to read or listen to the rest? Before you go, here are a few quick lessons from Andrew’s work, applicable across niches and platforms.

  1. Set just one or two concrete goals for your work as a creator and organize everything you do around reaching them. After years of highly creative (but only loosely organized) work on his YouTube channel, Andrew hit 200,000 subscribers. When he decided to focus all his energy on gaining more subscribers, he brought in 1 million in only 20 months. More on this in this issue's "Steal This Tactic" section.

  2. Set boundaries on what you will and won’t commit energy to. While you should go out of your comfort zone and test new things (formats, platforms, topics, etc.), this should only ever be a small part of your routine. Commit the most energy to what you know will work. For example, you don’t need to promote your work on every social media platform; experiment with all of them, but only commit real time to one or two platforms where your efforts see the best return.

  3. Understand the growth limits of your audience. As Andrew writes in his book, “I have some of the most viewed music production content in the world, and it will never be able to compare with the top channels that focus on cars, computers, or comedy. I also know I would have a much harder time building an audience if my passion was creating videos about model trains or fountain pens.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview as a podcast on any major podcast platform. Just search for “The Creator Spotlight Podcast.”

You have social accounts, but your work is primarily focused on YouTube. You’re not a “repurpose everything” type. Why is that?

In part, it's about what I am interested in creating, both behind the scenes and as a final product. Creating short-form versus long-form content or in-depth versus surface-level content is a different process and gives the audience something different.

In some ways it’s about the monetization possibilities as well. It’s a nice byproduct that it’s more profitable to be on YouTube for the same amount of work as it would be to create for a different platform. But I was interested in doing YouTube before I knew how all of this stuff would be able to be monetized.

Another part, and I remember very clearly when I had this realization, is you just don’t have to be on every platform.

Andrew maintains a presence on a few platforms, but it’s clear where his priorities lie.

You offer a paid music production course. Courses are a difficult category — there are so many out there and the quality varies. What advice would you give to people navigating the creator course marketplace, both as consumers and creators?

When I’m looking for courses that I might take, and I’ve done a handful of online courses, I definitely look into the creator and the platform. Some platforms have a bit of curation that hopefully means their courses are of higher quality.

Definitely, the courses I’ve taken have all been from creators who are quite well-known or who I have followed for a long time.

It should be possible for someone’s work and credentials to speak for themselves. Hopefully they’re also a good communicator, because doing an online course may be totally different from what their primary focus or talent is.

For creators themselves, deciding if they want to pursue courses as one of their revenue streams, it’s a very open-ended and flexible type of offering. It can be fairly small, it can be very niche, focused on a specific thing. There are entire courses about one synthesizer; I’ve done some of those.

My courses are very broad — a learn how to write, record, and produce your own original music kind of thing. You need to take into account what you feel able to speak on that will be of value for people.

So many people want to become a creator, but they have trouble starting to create. One of your skills is simply coming up with ideas. What advice would you give to someone unsure where to start?

Starting, no matter what, is the key. You will find what is right for you as you try things. Almost any starting point will give you some information about the path that you could be taking.

I would also say that fear or a sense of discomfort is actually a great sign. This is a point that I love making, which is that when you're uncomfortable with something, it usually means that there's something in there that you should be doing. That's why you're uncomfortable about it.

Want more? You can listen to the full interview in Andrew’s episode of The Creator Spotlight Podcast.

Thinking of dipping your toe into course-making, like Andrew? An email-based course is an excellent way to start. Our sponsor this week can show you exactly how to do it (for less than the price of a fancy dinner for two).

“Actionable takeaways within 5 minutes” – Dickie Bush

Package your expertise, build trust, and enjoy unlimited scale with your next great offering:

An email-based course.

Master the Email-Based Course brings you 20 expertly crafted lessons that top creators, marketers, and business owners have used for lead magnets, standalone products, agency projects, and more.

For years, Andrew was single-mindedly focused on growing his YouTube channel. Today, it’s not a priority, nor does it need to be, as he’s sitting comfortably at 2.36 million subscribers and YouTube royalties only constitute about 7% of his well-diversified income.

So, when Andrew was hyper-focused on growing his YouTube channel, how did he do it? It’s actually quite simple — he published new videos twice a week and doubled down on what performed best — but it involves an ingenious framework.

The framework that got Andrew to 1 million YouTube subscribers (and beyond)

On New Year’s Eve in 2014, Andrew checked his phone and saw that his YouTube channel had just passed 200,000 subscribers. It was a pivotal moment for him, as he recounts in his book: “If all this was possible with my disorganized, casual approach […] what might happen if I really tried my best?”

In July 2016, 18 months after that night, with his subscriber count hovering right around 300,000, Andrew began his single-minded growth project. For the following 20 months, he organized his entire life around getting as many YouTube subscribers as possible. To do this, he would need a constant stream of great YouTube videos; to make great YouTube videos, he needed good ideas, which was no issue. Prioritizing which ideas to work on was an issue, however.

Andrew designed a framework (he explains it in this video) to determine which ideas to work on and in what order. The rule? An idea is only worth executing if it fits in four of the five circles. It's not always easy to tell if an idea is "good," but this is a cheat sheet for determining exactly that.

Any idea worth working on should land in the center (where all five circles overlap), or at the very least, in the “star,” where any four circles overlap.

He also began publishing two videos every week — one on Mondays and one on Thursdays. By the end of March 2018, Andrew hit 1.3 million subscribers — a full 1 million increase from where his channel was when he committed to shipping two videos a week. He’d only skipped “four or five” upload days. And then… he stopped.

As he explains in a video from March 2018, Andrew realized it wasn’t healthy to work 10 to 18 hour days nonstop and still go to bed feeling he hadn’t accomplished enough that day. Still, he acknowledges that he wouldn’t have grown so quickly without working so hard and sticking to his brutally consistent upload schedule. To paraphrase, a consistent twice-weekly output meant…

  • His audience knew when to expect a new video,

  • There were more videos out there to discover,

  • He got better at making videos,

    • And so the videos became more enjoyable.

A few of Andrew’s videos from 2018, right after he hit 1 million subscribers. Notice that the more niche educational content has a fraction of the views compared to the more broadly entertaining content.

Andrew's videos are of high production value. It took the vast majority of his waking hours to make enough of them to grow so fast; consistent output requires sacrifice. But the good news is that sacrifice can be less intense, depending on the type of content you put out.

Andrew’s Venn diagram is a useful framework for anyone working on YouTube today — or Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, a newsletter, anywhere. It can become baked into your process; Andrew says it eventually became part of his soul, “an automatic filter for every idea [he] had and every opportunity that came [his] way.”

In addition to his framework, Andrew also uses a “gigantic spreadsheet” to organize his ideas. “Creating a spreadsheet for my YouTube plans was probably the main thing — besides doing the work itself — that propelled my channel during its fastest period of growth.”

Andrew provides a URL to a suite of his spreadsheet templates in the book (and offers a peek in the video where he explains his framework).

Here’s an exercise for you, creator — let’s apply Andrew’s framework to your own work. Grab a pen and paper, or open up a text file, or even in your email app, as you read this, start an email to yourself, and write down these questions:

  1. What do I want to do?

  2. What am I good at?

  3. What makes money? (Note: You could replace “money” with “subscribers” or “followers.”)

  4. What’s trending?

  5. What’s worked well before?

Next write down as many answers to each question as you can think of. Look for connections between your answers to each question. Wherever your answers to at least four of these questions do line up, you’ve got a great idea.

Now get to work!

Content we've been thinking about while working on this issue.

  • This week’s episode of The Colin and Samir Show is called “Why YouTubers are fake retiring.” It’s a good listen. The answer? Most of these people aren’t retiring, they’re just scaling back their output. Putting out tons of content, constantly, isn’t sustainable, especially as these creators start getting older, having kids, etc.

  • Speaking of YouTubers fake-retiring, Andrew made a highly ambitious, deeply layered YouTube rock opera of sorts in 2021, and he kicked it off with a fake retirement video. This is what it means to test the limits of what your audience expects on YouTube.

Thank you for taking the time to read today's issue. If you want more of the story, don’t forget to check out full interview podcast.

On to next week's issue, featuring a creator who fully built and sold his first newsletter in fewer than six months and a dozen issues. Is that a newsletter acquisition speed-run record? I certainly have yet to see it done quicker.

Francis Zierer, Editor

What did you think of this week's issue?

We take your feedback seriously.

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.