August 09, 2022
Thomas is a YouTuber, podcaster, and author who helps people become more capable and productive.
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Thomas is a YouTuber, podcaster, and author who helps people become more capable and productive. His main YouTube channel has nearly 2.5 million subscribers and more than 160 million views!
In 2020, Thomas began producing a lot of content about how to use Notion, a popular project management and note-taking software. But instead of publishing those videos on his existing channel, Thomas created a SECOND channel called Thomas Frank Explains, which itself already has nearly 80K subscribers and almost 3 million views.
So in this episode, we talk about Thomas’s YouTube journey, why he built a second channel for his Notion content, how he’s thinking about short-form video like Shorts, and how intentional he is about all of the details that go into building his business.
Full transcript and show notes
Subscribe to Thomas Frank on YouTube
Subscribe to Thomas Frank Explains on YouTube
Follow Thomas Frank on Twitter / Instagram
00:17 - Today’s guest
01:01 - When Thomas took YouTube seriously
01:49 - Thomas’s early inspiration
02:38 - What we learn today
03:39 - YouTube vs Wistia
05:27 - Why don’t Thomas’s old videos suck?
06:36 - The “true” start of Thomas Frank
07:14 - Using Reddit to grow on YouTube
08:23 - Thomas goes viral
10:26 - What changed after the viral video?
11:41 - How Thomas was making money to focus on YouTube
12:32 - Thomas didn’t turn on AdSense until 100k subs
15:40 - Creator self-doubt
16:53 - Thomas’s approach to criticism
18:09 - What took 2200 subs to 2.5 million
19:25 - Importance of platform discoverability
21:35 - YouTube podcasts
22:15 - How does Thomas think about his business today?
23:13 - The Notion Arc
26:18 - AdSense + Brand Deals vs Direct Monetization
31:18 - Why make a second YouTube channel?
32:58 - What’s the plan for the main channel?
34:41 - How does the YouTube algorithm work?
36:50 - How to think about short form video
39:20 - Looking at content through the “Jobs to be done” framework
41:39 - Why Thomas makes everything FREE
45:45 - Thomas’s skillshare hack
48:50 - Team Thomas Frank
51:15 - Every creator should hire an editor sooner
52:20 - Art vs Ego
53:19 - What is currently frustrating Thomas Frank?
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Thomas Frank 00:00
But I do actually know the literal guy who runs the YouTube algorithm. His name's Todd. And he's told me a lot about how it works. And it's not secret arcane information. It's actually about as obvious as you would think. If you didn't overthink it.
Jay Clouse 00:17
Hello, my friend welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. Now, I gotta tell you, I'm really enjoying learning a lot about YouTube over the last few weeks, and my natural inclination is to meet and learn from a bunch of other YouTubers to shorten my learning curve. Which brings me to today's guest a couple months ago, my guests on episode number 102, Thiago forte introduced me to Thomas Frank Thomas Frank is a YouTuber, podcaster and author who helps people be more capable and productive. His main channel, Thomas Frank has nearly two and a half million subscribers, and he has more than 160 million views on that channel. Now Thomas has been on YouTube since 2006. But he tells me that he's been serious about it since about 2014.
Thomas Frank 01:01
For people who don't know me, I got my start as a college success blogger when I was in college, and I had a blog called College Info Geek still online today. And I would basically write blog posts and eventually did a podcast on how to be a better student and excel in college.
Jay Clouse 01:15
College Info Geek started in 2010 as a blog, and today, that website is one of the most popular college advice websites with more than 400,000 monthly visits. Now Thomas wasn't actually satisfied with just pure knowledge transfer. He didn't want to have your standard How to videos on that channel, he wanted more high production. And as a result, when you watch videos on Thomas's channel, they almost feel cinematic. That level of production and care in videos on YouTube is really, really rare. So I asked Thomas, where that inspiration actually came from.
Thomas Frank 01:48
I started watching YouTube videos from people not necessarily in the college niche, there actually weren't a whole lot of people in that niche making videos, but I was following your Pat Flynn's and your fizzle guys and all those people who you know, five, six years ago were really really big in the online business space. And they were starting to get into video, which I was watching and sort of wanting to mimic. And then I was also sort of just spending like lunchtimes and free time sometimes watching YouTubers who did like video game content. So a couple that come to mind for me are cat acuris, he still makes videos that are like insanely well edited. They're very silly essential. Drake's was a video essays at the time, who was making these really thoughtful think pieces about game design and how games affect society. So I was watching that kind of stuff. And from both angles going well, I kind of want to do this as well, like, I want to try it out.
Jay Clouse 02:37
One last thing you should know about Thomas and 2020, he was producing more and more educational content on notion specifically, which is a task management. And note taking tool. An interesting decision that he made was to create an entirely new YouTube channel for that content under Thomas Frank explains, that channel has nearly 80,000 subscribers already, and nearly 3 million views. So in this episode, we talk about Thomas's YouTube journey, why he created a second channel for his notion content, how he's thinking about shorts and other short form video content, and all the details that go into his business. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter or instagram @jayclouse, or leave a comment here on YouTube. I'd love to hear that you're listening. But now let's dive in. Let's talk with Thomas.
Thomas Frank 03:40
I didn't set out to become a YouTuber, I set out to create video content that would be sort of like a way to shake up the content on my blog. And I remember specifically like spending a ton of time designing a new post template in WordPress that would have the video be the featured image at the top of the blog post. And then when I got to actually hosting the video, I wasn't sure if I should put it on YouTube. Or if I should put it on Wistia which for people who don't know Wistia is a paid hosting service where you have to pay for the bandwidth who use so the more successful you are, the more you pay doesn't have an algorithm discoverability but I didn't know about the algorithm back then nobody knew about the algorithm we all thought over we're building through Twitter and LinkedIn and Pinterest and SEO on Google hopefully. So I was just like, I need a video hosting service. And Wistia has some cool features like you can capture emails on the playa, which is pretty cool. But you know, it cost money and no algorithm. So I'm like, Well, I don't want to pay. So I'm gonna go with YouTube. And you know, that's in hindsight, one of those pivotal decisions, I would say.
Jay Clouse 04:43
It's insane to think about like what would have happened if you made the other like very reasonable decision to host on a platform that's optimized just for hosting videos.
Thomas Frank 04:52
I think I would have eventually come around to YouTube. And I can look at people in my industry who did this very thing. I mean, the physical guys were hosts doing their stuff on Wistia. And they were actually one of my original inspirations to do this because they had taken snippets of their courses that were in their paid community and turn them into videos that were like little blog post header images, essentially. And they were hosting them on Wistia. So that was sort of like my Northstar, like I want something like that. But I don't want to pay for Wistia and they eventually got into YouTube, Pat Flynn eventually on YouTube. So I think, you know, I wouldn't have never gone to YouTube, it just would have been a little later.
Jay Clouse 05:27
One of my favorite things to do is to go to a YouTube creators videos and sort them by oldest and look at their first videos. Expect them to be trash your videos, your first videos aren't trash. It's so frustrating. How are they so good out of the gate that you delete some things this?
Thomas Frank 05:39
The first one is like, the first one is me like pounding nails into my college dorm room wall and putting up Christmas lights. So that one's pretty trashed. Actually, a lot of videos have been deleted or taken down. I've had my youtube channel since 2006. So how would i i would have been 15 at the time, and I started that it was I mean, YouTube started 2005. So we were on YouTube really early, the channel was originally my brother and my place to just like dump stupid videos, we're making our backyard. So it was like that at first. And then I volunteered to be the AV guy for my school's Battle of the Bands. So all the band videos were on that. And then when I was doing College Info Geek, like, occasionally throughout my college career, I would make a video, but it was never serious. It was like, Oh, I'm gonna review this webcam that I got. Or, like we I had a review of a fighting game fight stick that you could plug into an Xbox 360 Like it was a dumping ground. And I had like 90 subscribers. So I count my true start on YouTube as August 2014. When I made that video called, it's like a four step process to more productive day or something like that. That was the one where I was like, okay, I want to give YouTube a try. And then I started publishing weekly, immediately after that.
Jay Clouse 06:49
What did growth of the channel look like then? You know, you're posted on the blog, you were thinking about being a YouTuber? When did that change and why?
Thomas Frank 06:56
So for the first few videos, I thought I was actually going to grow faster than I did, because I already had the blog audience. So I thought naturally, everyone's going to come over from the blog and subscribe to the YouTube channel. And that didn't happen then I hit upon a strategy that was actually fairly effective for like numbers that would be impressive to somebody who has 90 subscribers, and that was actually promoting via Reddit. And this is interesting because most people who have tried to promote via Reddit quickly find out that people on Reddit hate self promotion really banned for the first time you post one of your videos on Reddit. Yeah, you're perma banned. And they're just like stop self promoting. But I found a way to do it. Right, I found this subreddit called Get studying. And it was a small one, I think it was like 30,000 subscribers. So usually like, not even 100 people online at any given time. And the first thing I did was I'm like, Okay, I don't want to be coming in here just like spamming my stuff and not providing value. So I would spend like an hour a day, answering people's questions as detailed as I could. Because I was a college blogger, I'm like, I'm here to help people in college, why not just be in his community and help make it better. And then I would start linking to videos. And finally I would start submitting them. But then everything every single time I did, I would put in the comments a summary of the video. So I'm like, if you don't want to watch the video, if you don't wanna go to YouTube, here's exactly what I cover this videos on test anxiety. This video is on how to triage reading assignments, here's exactly how to do it. And people really appreciated that. And I started actually watching and then video, I believe number eight was a video that I didn't intend to make, actually. But it's the one that went viral and sort of blew my channel up. So it's called, I don't feel like it is a mindset for amateurs. I don't feel like it is a tragically common phrase for people who are students and for people who work in creative fields. And it's really something that limits your potential. And that limits your productivity when you're trying to get things done. Here's the thing about I don't feel like it, when you say it, when you think it when you feel it, it doesn't change what you can do next, it does nothing to actually limit your decisions going forward. So when you say I don't feel like it, you're simply giving yourself an excuse not to do the work that you know you need to do. It doesn't actually prevent you from opening your laptop and typing a paper. It doesn't actually prevent you from opening a book and studying for a while. It just lets you give yourself an excuse to not do those things. And the reason I made the video is I had put myself on a once per week publishing schedule every Friday, I even had a tool called Beeminder setup that would actually charge me money if I did not get a new video into my RSS feed for the little bot to see it. And that week, I had planned on making a video about 8020 The Pareto principle, and my outline is very funny to me now because I look back and the outline was not that big at all. But for the time the outline was huge. And I went It's Wednesday, my dudes. I cannot make this video this week. So I stand in front of my camera. And I'm like, I don't feel like making a video but hey, that's a good idea. If I don't feel like it doesn't mean I can't do it. It just means that I want to and I can put Just past that, so I made that video. And I didn't submit that into Reddit, someone else did. And it got on the productivity subreddit, which has a lot more people and went sort of viral I think was like 40,000 views in one day took my channel from around 100 subscribers to 2200. Overnight. Wow. And that was the moment where I went, Oh, I should be a YouTuber first, not a blogger who does YouTube on the side?
Jay Clouse 10:23
So how did that change your approach? What did you immediately change or soon thereafter change to lean into YouTube more?
Thomas Frank 10:30
Well, when I think back on it, I have like a lot of recorded material on my process here. I don't think it changed a ton. Because I was already in the middle of a couple of projects. First and foremost, I was having a ton of fun with videos. And with every video is like, let me try something new. Maybe I can like keyframe and make an animation on this one. Or maybe I can light myself a little better. And I call it the 1% rule get 1% better. Every time I post on a schedule, you have all these little tiny improvements all the time regularly. And I also promised my audience that I was going to write this like 5000 word PDF on how to get better grades. And it was supposed to be like my little email bonus email, this bonus signup thing that everyone was doing back then, well, that ended up ballooning into an entire book, which I called 10 steps to earning awesome grades, it was supposed to be a 10 step listicle. But it turned out to be like an actual book, it's over 100 pages, still give it away for free. But now I was like, Okay, I'm gonna take what I've learned from blogging, and I'm just gonna apply it to YouTube, I'm gonna make a video every week, I'm going to make it as good as I can, because I'm having fun. And at the end, I'll do the same thing I do with blog posts, I will say sign up to my email newsletter, and you'll get the free book. And that was pretty much my business model for the next like two years just cranking away and making videos. One bit of context that is useful for me is when I was a senior in college, I wrote a post on how to build a WordPress website and I got signed up with the web post I was using at the time, they had an affiliate program that ended up ranking very highly on Google. So I had like a pretty decent passive income source for a while. And instead of trying to go super hardcore into like WordPress tutorials to grow that I was like, that is my ticket to be able to make all this content on academic success without having to sell a course. Because I just want I want this to exist in the world, I want there to be a great YouTube channel that's like Vlogbrothers, or crash course quality on how to study. And I don't feel comfortable selling like a $500 course to students or whatever. So it was sort of like this beautiful, chaotic thing that happened. That that was just like able to make money. And another funny thing, I didn't turn on AdSense until 100,000 subscribers. So I was making $0 from YouTube, like the first time.
Jay Clouse 12:40
Why not AdSense? I mean, I get the not selling to your users part because even if you were comfortable selling a $500 course this college students like they don't have it. But AdSense you could turn on, right? So why not?
Thomas Frank 12:52
It wasn't an ethical thing. It was it was the business thing. So I come from a blogging background. And when you come from blogging background, it was all about what can you do on your website to optimize email opt ins for your list. The funny thing was, I wasn't selling anything. So I don't even know why I was trying to build a list. I just knew that I was super interested in it. And I was reading Smart Passive Income and Social Triggers. And Derek Halpern was like, Oh, if you make your buttons purple, you'll actually increase your conversion rate by point 5%. So that's the mindset I came into with YouTube. And I'm like, Well, if they see an ad, at the beginning of the video, fewer of them are gonna get to the end, and sign up for my email newsletter. So I'm gonna keep AdSense off. And then I remember having a conversation with my friend, Sean Davis in San Diego, he bought me a peanut butter beer, only peanut butter beer I've ever liked. I love peanut butter, can't remember what it was called. I've had a few others, and they're just not that great. But this one was fantastic. And then he's like, I watch all your videos. And I watch Crash Course. And I watch all these other channels to let me tell you, Tom, when I see an ad on YouTube, I don't think that jerk Thomas Frank turned ads on. No, I think YouTube is showing me an ad and I'm going to skip it. And I'm just used to seeing them on every video. So there's, it does absolutely nothing to how long I choose to watch a video. It's just like part of the platform. It's not something that I felt a crater for. So I went Hmm, that makes sense, turned on AdSense and was making like a couple of grand a month overnight.
Jay Clouse 14:16
After a quick break, Thomas and I talked about the growth of his channel and how he has structured his creator business today. And later we talked about why he created a second channel for his notion content. So stick around and we'll be right back. Welcome back to my conversation with Thomas Frank. Before the break, Thomas was telling us about his delayed decision to turn on monetization for his channel. Now Thomas is not the only creator to delay turning on monetization for fear of how their audience would react.
Thomas Frank 14:42
There's a lot of like self doubt that I think creators have that I have lived through on you know, thinking the audience is going to hate you if you do anything. Oh man. I remember. I took my book, which was a free PDF. And people were like, please make it a print book, please. I want to buy it in print. So I signed up for an Amazon Createspace get that figured out at my own book. And I make it as cheap as possible. So I think it's like $8. Sometimes Amazon changes the price themselves. And then I'm like, well, I might as well make it a Kindle edition to just, you know, in case people want it there. And I remember having so much anxiety because you cannot make a book perpetually free on Kindle. They won't let you. And I was like, what if somebody pays $1 for my book on Kindle, because they didn't know about my blog, and then they find out later, it was free, and they get really mad at me. Not a single person. Not a single so relatable, though, eight years, no one has ever complained. so relatable. I think a lot of creatives are empaths. So you start to like, think about what is the backlash that might happen for this thing. And even though it's even anecdotally if it does happen, and it's like one or two people, versus 1000s, who said nothing or didn't care, we just feel that so viscerally. And so then I try to live by like, sometimes people will criticize you. But you have to realize like, well, the way you're doing something, maybe you could improve it. But there's also a reality where like, if you did it the way they did it, you wouldn't have done it at all. Recently, I saw a tweet somebody like this was their kind of hard with this take they were like recording a loom is inherently a selfish act. Whoa, because anytime people want to reference the information, they now have to scrub back through it. And I'm like, that's an interesting take. Here's my alternative take loom makes it very easy for me to explain complex processes on a computer in a way that I could not do in the same amount of time if I were taking screenshots and writing it. So there are many, many, many answers. And many, many customer support threads that I wouldn't have never answered in the first place scorching, so it's not selfish. It's you're creating resources that otherwise would not have existed because the speed of creation is so much faster. Oh, my gosh, and what I like an AI tool that turns that into a blog post eventually, heck, yes, I would. But you know, we use the tools we have.
Jay Clouse 16:50
Even auto creates captions for you. It's pretty great.
Thomas Frank 16:55
And it auto creates a transcript that you can, I believe, click on to zoom the video immediately to where it is. So like, it's pretty good.
Jay Clouse 17:04
Yeah, that's, that's a pretty strong take will help me understand, you know, you had this this video that went viral on productivity, Reddit, brought your channel from 120 200 subscribers, you say, Oh, wow, I'm gonna go in on this, that's still a far cry away from two and a half million. So what started moving the needle, what has moved the needle over the years, to really grow the channel into the behemoth that it is now.
Thomas Frank 17:26
I mean, it's very gradual. I've been making videos for a long time, I can think back to a few things that are probably catalysts for growth when I look back on them. But honestly, that viral spike was really the the one honest, like the one viral spike, I can remember most of my other videos. And I could be wrong if I go back into the catalogue. But most of my other videos like have done well have some done, you know, exceptionally well. So I've done bad, but a lot of them have kind of grown over the years. And when you go to my most popular videos, like if you sort by most popular, none of those videos were super viral hits. So a lot of the stuff on the channel has been slow burner kind of stuff. And I kind of like that I have this philosophy that like the human brains not built for gigantic perceived jumps in progress, because there's always a come down. And that causes anxiety. And a lot of times you don't know how to handle the new normal that is brought about by this huge jump. It's why lottery winners often are so sad.
Jay Clouse 18:25
That's what's so compelling to me about YouTube and why I'm so frustrated with myself for not taking it more seriously as a platform earlier because I focused on email and podcasting to platforms with inherently no discoverability. whatsoever. And the back catalogue, while valuable just needs someone to direct it, direct them to it for it to have any play.
Thomas Frank 18:49
Jay Clouse 18:49
There's no search.
Thomas Frank 18:50
And with email, do you even have a back catalogue? Like do you publish newsletters?
Jay Clouse 18:53
I basically publish every newsletter as a blog post. So if if that was optimized in a way, where those were answering questions more than me talking about something that I think is valuable, then it could have some evergreen value there. But I don't structure my newsletter because I go newsletter first, instead of blog posts first, I don't structure my newsletter, I was like, I'm gonna answer a question. So there's not a lot of search value in that either, which just makes me look back on years of work and say that was not very efficient.
Thomas Frank 19:24
But it teaches you lessons, it helps you be strategic in many ways. Like it's not, you know, it's not like you wasted it. It's just like, be Yeah, there, you definitely start to realize, oh, this platform doesn't have discoverability which Yeah, I remember like watching certain people put out, you know, content saying like, Oh, you have to start a podcast this year. It's like the number one thing to make. And I'm like, no, because you're putting out an hour of material that can only be taken in through the linear sense. We have hearing, you know, digital sensors, very scan based, and there's just no way Need to discover there's no way to share it like you. I guess if you want to go through the work of creating little snippets, you can. But you know, people like watching a heck of a lot more than a dude sitting at a desk doing a podcast snippet, like watching Real videos with, you know, scripting and skits and all kinds of fun stuff. So that's what discoverability is totally. And then what I think a podcast is, is an a relationship deep inner 100 Because the one thing a podcast does have is an uncanny ability to have people pay attention to you for a very long time.
Jay Clouse 20:30
How familiar are you with video based podcasts? I don't even call them podcasts if they're on YouTube, that are long form that are doing really well. You know, you have like the Joe Rogan example you have Lewis Howes, right? How many of those are you aware of beyond that?
Thomas Frank 20:47
H3, impulsive. Back in the day there was that one that the max mofo was friend was on? Matt Devi? I don't know, they talked for a while. Oh, yeah, Matt did it for a while, too. Yes. But there's a common thread among all of those they are. And I'm trying to think if there's an exception, they are guest based. And they grow because they're interesting guests on, or they're sorted by celebrity.
Jay Clouse 21:14
When you think about your overall business now, like what are the projects or buckets? Do you think of it as one entity? Do you think of it as multiple entities because you have all these different elements to it now?
Thomas Frank 21:27
For a very long time, I saw my business as this two pronged thing where there's the College Info Geek side, and then there's the Thomas Frank side, and the College Info Geek side. And Thomas Frank were once merged. Once my youtube channel was like, every video had a companion blog post on College Info Geek. And then I started realizing, I'm like, 30, I shouldn't be number one, limiting my audience by saying, Hey, I'm a college blogger, you know, number two, limiting my topics. So I started to slowly split those off. And today now I have a head writer who does all the writing in College Info Geek, I am completely hands off on it. And then for the longest time, it was it was really just like the Thomas Frank YouTube channel was my main gig and most income was coming through sponsorships, we still had some affiliate marketing, book sales, stuff like that. And then recently, there has been the notion stuff. And that started late 2020. Because I was getting really into notion having a lot of fun building my own systems and templates. And I was like, Well, I kind of want to see about, you know, building a niche channel on this just to see, can it grow? Can this become an opportunity. And at the time, the intention was, at some point, maybe I'll do a course or a template or something. And it'd be like a cool little side project. And it would be a nice little side income as well. I was thinking extra three grand a month would be amazing from this project. And so I started Thomas Frank explains it 2020. And then I made videos off and on, I didn't really have a crazy publishing schedule on it just whenever I had something interesting to share, I would do it in between videos on the main channel. And then this year finally put together my premium template ultimate brain. And I guess last year, I did also put out a template. So I should probably go back to that last year, took my YouTube and blog and podcast content planning system, turn that into a template and released it and started making like two or 300 bucks a day going, Whoa, people are buying this holy crap. So that was really interesting. And I'm like, let's, you know, start scaling systems and building stuff up. And then this year in April, I relaunched I launched ultimate brain, and now it's making over 100k a month.
Jay Clouse 23:28
Wow. Yeah. So far beyond the three KPIs that you're looking for.
Thomas Frank 23:33
Yeah, it's like, it's like the everything I've ever done has been very slow evolution, like, from blogging to podcasting. That was, you know, dipping my toes in, then going to YouTube to feel like dipping my toes in. And I kept doing the blog and the podcast and kept spinning the plates. With this. It's just been so fast. And I think like, I'm realizing like, there's this huge pent up demand. And this huge cultural interest around these no code tools that allow us to make bespoke workflows in a way we couldn't do before. So when I was doing this as sort of a side project, I was like, I'm just going to have this as a side thing, I'm going to keep making my YouTube videos, because the majority of my income comes from sponsors. And you know, that's where all my work goes. And then this just like, blew up. And secondly, and I'm having a lot of fun with it. A lot of fun with it. I did a sponsored videos full time for five years. And you know, eventually got to the point where I'm like, Why No, every video I'm putting out is helpful. But what exactly am I building now, just a bigger channel, is there like a thing I'm pushing towards? So I kept trying to find like, something I could really get into and go deep on. And for a while, I was like, maybe I'll do personal finance content, or maybe I'll do fitness content. And I couldn't really land on something that felt like it was the thing I was supposed to be doing until I started getting into this stuff. And I'm like, it's very niche. It's hyper niche. So there's a part of my identity, it's like, well, you're never going to pull the same amount of views on that. You should be worried about that. You know, this video only got 3000 views, but the it's sustained. Bull as a business and the way I feel about it every day when I work on it doesn't lie like I just have so much fun. So I feel like the majority of my business is sort of evolving along this sort of hybrid video creator approach where I'm not just making content all day, I'm actually making products and doing customer support and stuff like that, too.
Jay Clouse 25:17
This seems like a trend I've found amongst YouTubers who've been doing it for a while the monetization models seem like it is AdSense and partnerships slash brand deals, and selling directly to their audiences was not, I don't know if it was not culturally a thing, years ago, or if it just didn't work, or they didn't weren't thinking about it. Because I've always been the opposite. It's always been digital products first, and now I'm starting to get into sponsorships. But I have kind of a ambivalence towards it. Because when you have an obligation to a sponsor, because they've purchased inventory in something that you've made, you no longer have the optionality of not making something, which is not why I got into making stuff to begin with. How do you feel about that? Do you feel as in general?
Thomas Frank 26:01
Oh, I definitely feel tension. Um, and for me, it was like sort of a blessing and a curse, the fact that I work with and I will say this wholeheartedly, I work with the best agency that exists on the planet, which is standard, full disclosure, I'm a part owner, because the CEO lets any creator buy equity in the company, oh, wow, as a way for us to have ownership. And as a way for us to be able to vote on things that happens, like he literally sold his equity, so he couldn't be the sole decision maker. So that's my full disclosure out of the way. But part of the beauty of working with standard over the past few years is PJ, PJ is like he's been the talent manager for a very long time. And anytime I'm like, PJ, I'm super stressed out, and I'm burned out and I cannot get this video done this month, he'll be like, I'll take care of it, and he'll move it. And as a person who is prone to perfectionism, and getting interested in rabbit holes that take up way too much of my time, I've done that more times than I care to admit. But there's always been like this guilt, like supposed to get this video done for this sponsor, but I really want to take like an extra two weeks to go to the mountains and film drone footage for it or I really want to like make this cool aside resource. That's another thing like, I think a lot of creators are very much content to make video, and then go on to the next video. And that's totally fine. But like, the video that I have planned next for TF explains, requires me to write I believe 50 articles for a side resource to make it into what I want to exist in the world. Like I know it'd be helpful as a video. But if I release it with this cool resource as well, it'll be so much cooler and grander. So that kind of got at odds with the sponsorship model. And now it's kind of beautiful, because when I was working for sponsors, like it was honestly sort of a step backward in terms of what I wanted for my business in terms of the way to set it up. Because with affiliate marketing, you make a post, and it makes you money over time, as long as it keeps getting traffic with sponsors, you get paid up front. So it's almost like a job. And I didn't complain much because it made my income go way up. So it's like, you know, I can't complain that it's making me a lot more money than affiliate marketing did. But, you know, from a workstyle point of view, it was like your book for this much you make the video you get paid. And then the video, it does continue to generate value for you over time through the AdSense and through the building of your channel. But if I make a video selling my own product, or getting people into an email list that eventually brings them to a funnel, if they're the right fit, like it's a very different thing, it becomes an asset that just works over time, instead of being a one time payday. And I think that just suits my personality a lot better.
Jay Clouse 28:45
When we come back, Thomas and I talk about his decision to create an entirely new YouTube channel for notion tutorials, versus publishing to his existing channel with millions of subscribers right after this. Hey, welcome back. Now that I'm on YouTube, I'm learning a lot about YouTube channel architecture, how you actually set up and design your YouTube channel, I see a lot of creators who actually decide to have entirely different channels for things like their shorts, or even certain types of clips or certain themes that are happening within that channel. And so I asked Thomas to explain to me his decisions around YouTube channel architecture, and why he made an entirely new channel for his notion tutorials.
Thomas Frank 29:24
When someone discovers your channel, you want them to binge your channel. Great example recently, I found this guy, Spencer Cornelia. He talks about fake gurus and scammers and stuff like that. And I found one of his videos and then I'm like, Well, I want to watch another one. So I just start going through his channel. And then the YouTube algorithm picks that up, and will recommend me a lot of his videos, but I'll also go through his channel and click click click. And so I thought about that from the perspective of my own channel, and I know that people have been interested in Knowshon videos, but those are very broad videos like I've got one on the note taking system and I've got the big one, which was my original one, which goes through my YouTube content planning system. Um, I thought my among us gametracker would be a smash hit viral video and it was like super underperformer. But I realized, like, if I'm gonna make the channel for notion education, number one, if it's on my main channel, it's like half my videos or more coming out are going to be his hyper niche hyper technical videos and people who come for more general productivity content are going to start to realize, like when Tom publishes most of the time, it's like, here's how to replace HTTPS and your URL handler with notion like, really, really nice stuff. The other thing is from the notion side, again, when somebody finds my video, I want them to go, what is this channel, click on it and go, this is literally the channel. And that's like, that's how I think, How can I make the go to resource? How can I make thing where people go? How do I learn about that thing? Oh, you go to Thomas's channel, that's what it is. So for productivity, that's what Thomas Frank channel is supposed to be. For notion. That's what Thomas Frank's plan is supposed to be.
Jay Clouse 30:55
So what's your plan for the main channel at this point? Is it just on pause while you do these notion things?
Thomas Frank 31:02
It's a littlebit on pause. But I do see a lot of strategic overlap between notion and specifically the products I'm selling, and then what I can make on my main channel that would also be very valuable on its own. So one of my core philosophies and ethical tenants on my content is it has to be valuable on its own. So for that reason, I will never do a video where the sponsor is like needed for the value of the video to sink in, I often try to actually not have the perfect sponsor as the sponsor for a video. So like, I remember one year, I had, like a study tips, video planned, and a resume video planned. And I believe, like I had, I put Skillshare on the study tips one, because I was like, Oh, this is too close, this is too close. And that might have been a bit a little bit overboard, but you kind of get the idea. The other thing is, I don't want to make a video, it's just an ad. So even the video going over ultimate brain, it's 48 minutes long, not to be a 40 minute ad but to literally show every part of the template because I wanted people to be able to go and build it themselves. They didn't want to buy it. It's like, yeah, you can buy it, I'll pitch at the end. But otherwise, let me show you every part of it. And with like the whole second brain thing, there's a lot of information people can learn. How do you efficiently capture information that comes in via Twitter or books you read? Or the internet? How do you capture your own ideas? How do you sift through and review your own ideas, there's all these great concepts that I don't have either don't have videos on, or there are videos that are better than ones I already have out that I can go make. And there's a lot of synergy there. So I could I could easily push people over the notion channel if they're interested in notion, but they'll also be able to learn if I do a video like GTD or para or whatever it is.
Jay Clouse 32:38
How does that pushing over work? Does it require you to just do call to actions and your videos that you're putting out? Or does YouTube know like, Hey, these are related channels, because he's linked them. And so we will recommend, more often the TF explains channel to his regular Thomas Frank subscribers.
Thomas Frank 32:56
Yes, both. I will not claim to be an expert for the algorithm. But I do actually know the literal guy who runs the YouTube algorithm. His name is Todd. And he's told me a lot about how it works. And it's not secret arcane information. It's actually about as obvious as you would think. If you didn't overthink it, the algorithm. In the words of my agent Dave is like a puppy that just wants to make its owner happy. And in this case, the owner is the audience. So it brings with thinks the owner wants and that's what I taught always says like, don't try to think about the algorithm try to think about the audience was the audience want. And if YouTube perceives with all of its machine learning knowledge that a certain person in the audience is really interested in personal knowledge management and second brain stuff and productivity and happens to interested in notion, you can bet Thomas Frank explains it's going to show up in their home feed, even if they were originally watching a video on Thomas Frank. And you can verify that for yourself by going and watching a couple of my videos and seeing just how quickly Matt D Avella or Ali Abdol or Nathaniel Drew pop up in my feed or Karma medic those people aren't me they have different channels but you're gonna see on them.
Jay Clouse 34:07
So it doesn't even have to literally be linked as my other channels on YouTube. You're saying it's just they understand, like a look alike audience so they understand like the type of content a person's looking for.
Thomas Frank 34:17
Yep, you're honestly like so I won't say your titles don't matter. Your description doesn't matter. But like Google auto transcribed your videos, they have a graphical machine learning AI that scans every frame of your video and attempts to pick out objects and tag them alike. So anything you upload to YouTube, they're going to catalog it, tag it and then tie that to their user data metrics. So if you're watching stuff on like, recently, I've been watching a lot of One Piece content I'm gonna get a ton of One Piece channels, not just Grantland review the one that I've been watching the most.
Jay Clouse 34:47
Another interesting thing I saw on looking at your channel is you've posted like four total YouTube shorts one on the TF explains channel I think three on your main channel and they've all done really well seemingly they Have a lot of use obviously not a big part of your strategy. So how do you think about YouTube shorts? And if that extends into short form vertical video, generally I'd love to hear it.
Thomas Frank 35:10
I would like to do more notion focused shorts content, I would not like to do more general shorts content. So I tried those out. They did okay, there was one that did pretty well, I think it was like the if you're procrastinating right now do this, or watch this, that one did over half a million. The other two actually, were pretty much underperformers. And you know, was no sweat off my back because it didn't take much time to make them. But everything I do involves an opportunity cost. And I like to make big, huge, very valuable resources. And that takes a lot of focus a lot of time. So if you're doing a lot of short base content, you're basically saying I'm going to split my attention up into a ton of different slices. Instead of focusing all my attention on one big thing, and I just would rather focus my attention on one big thing. The caveat there is notion stuff, I think it'd be great on tick tock could be great on YouTube shorts. And the model I look at there is this woman who goes by Miss Excel. She was on the decoder podcast last year with Neil Patel. And she was making like six figures a month. I think she even had a couple of six figure days. And her whole marketing model is she makes Tik Tok videos, where she dances to pop music while showing like a pivot table transform in Excel. And then her Lincoln bio is like a signup form for a webinar. And people show up and she does these webinars, and I'm not sure but I'm pretty sure they're pre recorded. not totally sure yet, though. And then people buy our courses, you know, and you can buy her course bundle for $1,000 to get you all of them, or I think like the cheapest course is 300 bucks. So she's got this massive audience on Tik Tok, that are being funneled to her courses. And so whenever anybody says like, oh, I made a short and I only got paid five cents for 10 billion views. This is such a rip off, I think you had 10 billion views. And you didn't direct him anywhere. Yeah, like he got to think of your content as a marketing vehicle. And it's the most beautiful, useful marketing vehicle that has ever existed in the history of humankind. Because 30 years ago, if you wanted an ad that would reach a million people, you would pay probably a million dollars for it to be on the Superbowl, right?
Jay Clouse 37:19
So as you think about your potential shorts future, if you think that notion stuff would do well on shorts, are you thinking that the plan is to direct them directly to the templates or do you think of that as a growth and discoverability lever for your existing YouTube channel?
Thomas Frank 37:39
It depends on the individual piece of content. So it's important to think of content as a worker, that you're employing every piece of content has a job to be done. I actually got into a little Twitter debate about this the other day, because there was a person who was saying, oh, on my blog, I have some posts that are like lists of the best X product in this niche and their affiliate posts, like their entire point is to drive affiliate conversions and make me money. And then I have other posts that are educational posts. And I noticed that on my educational posts, people are signing up for my newsletter a lot more than on my affiliate posts. So what can I do to bring the affiliate post email signup conversion percentage up to match the edu and I like that you're looking at it all wrong. What are the jobs that you are assigning to these pieces of content, educational content, free educational content, your a CT or your call to action CTA is to have people engage with more of your content, and maybe eventually down the line, buy something or support you. But you know, you want them to sign up for email newsletters, so they keep following you. But if you make an entire post for affiliate products, and the entire point is to make conversions. Sure, it's great if people sign up for your email list, but the point of that piece of content is to drive conversions. So when you make a video, you got to ask what's the job I'm assigned to this video? If it's 10 cool tricks you've never heard about notion I want you to sign it or to subscribe my channel watch more stuff if it's here's how to manage a second brain inside of notion I want you to buy my template but I have to make that decision on a per piece of content basis not on a per channel basis because the viewer doesn't think about the channel the viewer thinks about the topic and why they clicked.
Jay Clouse 39:16
Yeah, so good. I love thinking about jobs to be done framework when when it comes up it's you can boil so many things down to that even like product strategy, you know, or why people would join your membership why they join your community. You know, what is the job that that community is doing for it love breaking that down on a content by content basis. I've heard you say before that you have this habit that you kind of speak to as not your favorite thing, but I think it might be one of your favorite things, which is making everything free that you can or making like so many things free instead of making them paid things. How do you sit with that today? Where's your head at on? When to make a product or a resource free versus a paid product?
Thomas Frank 39:57
Jay Clouse 42:16
I think this is the opportunity for so many creators, but you got this like chicken and egg problem, because information does want to be free. So if you make something amazing, and you make it free, that can be really, really good for you in the short and long term. But so many people getting started. They don't have the blog post that's earning enough affiliate commission to give them the time and headspace to do that. That's what's so hard for people when they're kind of in the starting state I feel.
Thomas Frank 42:42
But like so yeah, I think you have to be strategic. Because even in the beginning, I was like, I want everything to be free. But web hosting is not free. And it's like it gets to that point where you're like, Okay, if I make 90% of the things free, what's the one thing I can have that isn't free? And is it a thing that I don't think is like, super essential. So like I never wanted to charge for academic success stuff, because it was like, in my opinion, stuff that should have taught in school. Even with my Skillshare course, my Skillshare course was the first course I ever put out that was technically behind a paywall. And I did it as an original Skillshare. And there was a big, cool strategic hack behind that that we can talk about. But the reason I picked Skillshare was they had a free trial. And every sponsor spot I've ever done for them has been like one month free trial or whatever, they're running two weeks. And that means if you want to take my course and you cannot afford it, you can use a trial. And I will not be mad if you cancel, because they know most people cancel. So go take my course for free. And if you find it valuable, keep paying for it.
Jay Clouse 43:42
What's the big strategic hack behind it that we can talk about later?
Thomas Frank 43:45
Okay, yeah, this is a big one. This is the big one. I don't know if it still works anymore. There's like this thing in business. They say like, if a business leader is telling you their secrets, it's already too late. Like maybe it is actually too late. I'm not sure. Let's find out. It might not listen or to find out. Yes. So here's what I did. Skillshare had what they call it originals at the time. And this was I think it was 2017. At the time, no YouTuber had made an original. It was like Aaron draplin draplin design guy. I think Seth Godin had one which has been pulled down actually, Gary Vaynerchuk had one. But like, no, like, you know, full time YouTuber had done an original. The other thing I really so that was the first thing is, if I do an original, it's a way to differentiate myself. And it's a way to add value to my sponsors. So I'm like, let me just do that. Because I think that's going to help me build relationships that might open doors like and I actually gave up something pretty big on it. I gave up intellectual property rights. The course when you make an original, they own it. If you just upload your own courses, Skillshare you know, they're just hosting it. So I'm like, Yes, I'm giving up this. I'm doing work, but I think it's going to separate me but the other big thing is when Skillshare sponsors you as a YouTuber, you have to recommend a course I'm on Skillshare. And do you know what courses they will allow you to recommend originals and staff pics. So I went, if I do an original, I don't own it. But there are other YouTubers out there who may see it in the list of courses that they're allowed to promote, and they're going to promote it. And now I get calls from friends sometimes like I was just watching this a Minecraft YouTuber, and I saw your face and my video like what's going on?
Jay Clouse 45:27
So when you're saying that you wanted to differentiate yourself, you're talking about on the Skillshare platform from other courses?
Thomas Frank 45:33
Yes, in fact, when I made the first decision to do the original, I did not know about the sponsor thing that drove my decision to make my second course and original. But the first time I was like, if I do an original, they're going to see as a piece of their flagship content because they helped make it their one of their originals. So it might end up on the homepage might end up in advertisements. downline, I don't know. But it's a way for me to not just be a YouTuber promoting the service, it's a way for me to be a part of it. And that's kind of been like something I've tried to do with every one of my sponsors, if I could is like, How can I put a bit of me into it. Because the audience just wants more of you. If they get to the end of your video, your sponsor spot is what they've signaled, they want more of you. So like, that's the reason that I did an audiobook version of my audiobook because I was like, if I do an audible spot, I can be like, hey, my books on audible, and you can use my code down there to get it for free. Check it out. I have classes on Skillshare. It's not just thing I'm promoting. And I haven't been able to do that for every single platform, like brilliant doesn't do user generated content. And I'm not an engineer. Anyway. So they shouldn't have me writing the chemistry course or whatever it is. But wherever I've had the opportunity to really add value and become a part of my sponsors. I've done it.
Jay Clouse 46:46
We were talking before we started recording, you said you were the only full time employee of your company right now, right?
Thomas Frank 46:53
At the moment, yes. By the time this is out, it might be different.
Thomas Frank 46:55
Okay. Well, I'm interested to hear if you were to make a full time hire, what position would you be filling?
Thomas Frank 47:01
Well, I mean, I have people on my team who who work like equivalent to full time, we're just in the process of ICIC hiring full time. And when you get into business, you realize like this is a hard thing to do. You got to figure out unemployment insurance and payroll and like, so what I've learned is contact a bookkeeper who could do this for you, your job will drop when they give you the price quote, and then it's probably worth it anyway.
Jay Clouse 47:26
So what is the, what is the Thomas Frank team look like right now?
Thomas Frank 47:31
There is Martin who is my best friend. He's been my best friend since college. And he does kind of anything that needs to be done. He is a learning machine who can hyper focus on anything for a very long period of time. So for a long time, he was my podcast co host, he was the editor of my podcast, he has designed every version of College Info Geek since 2012. And now I just put him on hard programming problems. Like we we wanted to figure out how to do proper recurring tasks on notion and he's the one who wrote the insane set of formulas to make that work. And like basically had to rediscover how awful it is to work with time zones with programming. Okay, so yeah, he mean, he's done that he's done like some crazy website optimization. So he's like, kind of like special ops, I guess. Tony is my editor and also anything video. So he's, whether it's like walking on a frozen lake filming me for a video or it's, you know, helping me with set deck or it's editing or animation like that's all he does. Alex, we just hired he is our support guy for the notion templates, and he is absolutely kicking butt in our community. I feel very lucky to have found him because he wants to do community support. It's like his thing. So it's amazing. It's been great working with him. So far. I've got a personal assistant, her name is Amanda actually worked with her through a company called double. So she's not strictly part of my team, I actually pay with a credit card.
Jay Clouse 48:55
That's okay. I just didn't like all of these
Thomas Frank 48:56
But she seems like part of my team.
Jay Clouse 48:57
part time contract type people trying to just get a feel for the breadth of it.
Thomas Frank 49:02
And then there's a ransom and he's the guy who runs College Info Geek now. So that is mostly writing new content, updating old content and doing some business development with affiliate partners.
Jay Clouse 49:11
Who or what type of position do you wish you would have hired for or outsourced for sooner?
Thomas Frank 49:17
Jay Clouse 49:17
Thomas Frank 49:20
Every YouTuber, every creator should hire an editor way sooner than you think you should. Let me tell you every I felt this. I have a unique editing style that nobody can replicate. And it's the secret sauce to my channel success when I put this 16 frame, quadratic AST in curve to this cool title card that I made. That's why my audience subscribes to my channel. Now because I'm interesting and charismatic and I have good research. Nope, it's my editing and nobody else can do that. This is false. And let me tell you how much stress I have removed from my life, because I don't have to edit every single video now. It is beautiful. And Tony loves to edit. That's his thing. He loves editing. And I grew out of it.
Jay Clouse 50:11
I heard you say in another interview, I think someone passes on to you, what is your art versus your ego? I took a note of that. I was like, That's so good.
Thomas Frank 50:19
Yeah, that was Charlie from Charisma on Command. I think there was like VidCon 2017. He told me that, what's your art? What's your ego? What's thing you're doing, because it's propping your ego up. And because you're not willing to challenge your assumption that somebody else could do just as good if not better than you. And that's the thing, like when you're an entrepreneur, you have to realize, like, what you can do at the absolute peak of your capabilities is probably not what you're actually going to output because there are so many plates for you to spin. So even if you are a fantastic editor, if that's not what you want to be doing, there's something else where you can create more value, or you get more fulfillment. Even if somebody currently is not at your level of editing skill, they're gonna do just as good if not better than you would do at your diminished capacity while you're trying to spin all the other plates. And then if you foster them, and provide them resources, provide them feedback and help them to get better, and they want that they'll eventually become better than you ever were.
Jay Clouse 51:13
So good. This is exactly what I need to be hearing right now. What's frustrating for you, or what's hard for you right now, as a creator?
Thomas Frank 51:19
Honestly, the biggest frustration for me at the moment is still feeling like I should be putting out more content, even though I want to sort of like hole up in a cave and make really cool things that take months and months. I think this is like this is every creator struggle every day, you go on Twitter, and you see yet another person who just had a viral thread or just made $100,000 or whatever it is, and you're like, dang it, I should be tweeting these fire threads 10 times a day. So my Twitter can hit 100k followers, or I should be selling all this stuff. And it's like Dude, no, every single one of those people, they were actually hermits in a cave for six months. And that's why they're successful now. So if you're currently in hermit stage, just keep being a hermit. You can't do it for too long, because eventually you just like fade into obscurity. But it does take a long time to make really good really valuable things and you have to just remind yourself of that.
Jay Clouse 52:15
This was an incredibly helpful conversation for me as I'm still in the early stages of building this YouTube channel and I hope it was helpful for you as well. You can see why Thomas has been so successful in just how intentional he is about all the details in his business. To learn more about Thomas you can visit his website thomasjfrank.com or you can find him on YouTube at Thomas Frank or Thomas Frank explains for his notion content. Links to all that are in the show notes. Thanks to Thomas for being on the show. Thank you to Conor Conaboy for editing this show. Thank you to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you'd like this episode, leave a comment on YouTube, subscribe to the channel or if you're listening on audio be sure to leave a rating or review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you next week.
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