Amazing Grace

Published in Collective Hub issue 28, December 2015 and online.

She threw in her contract with a multi-channel network, but going it alone turned out to be vlogger and YouTube phenomenon Grace Helbig's smartest move yet (just ask any of her 2.7 million subscribers).

YouTube sensation Grace Helbig knows a thing or two about bypassing the gatekeepers. Nearly two years ago she left her post as a daily vlogger for multi-channel network My Damn Channel amid speculation about contract disputes involving revenue and ownership of content. Now the YouTube channel she built in its wake, It’s Grace, has over 2.7 million subscribers, and her first book, Grace's Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up, debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. In December she's bringing her stage show, #NoFilter, to Australia with two more of the internet's favourite funny women, Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart (who we are 99 per cent sure are not related). She sacrificed a lunch break to chat with us.

Your videos are incredibly snappy, with lots of rapid-fire editing. How can other people make engaging videos?

The piece of advice that has really stuck with me is to create content that you’d want to watch yourself. I consume as much content as I create and I try to put myself in the minds of audience and think about, ‘What would I want to see? What genuinely and organically appeals to me?’ I think that’s really important.

Do you create a story for each video?

I’ve found, a lot of the time, the storytelling comes out in the editing. A lot of times I will speak 15 minutes of nonsense into a camera that doesn’t really feel like it could be anything, but if you take some time to try and edit it you can kind of find something to create there that you might not have seen when you were speaking into the camera.

So what's going on behind the scenes?

For the most part, ti's the same way it's always been: just me by myself with the camera, and hope. I have a producer friend that I create the podcasts with so there's a team there, and someone working the audio to make sure that it works well. But for the most part, if you see me by myself in a room talking to a camera, that's usually exactly what it is: me by myself in a room talking to a camera, and then my by myself in front of a computer, editing me by myself in a room talking to a camera.

Do you have people who help you strategise?

No, I don’t. But YouTube gives you a wide variety of analytic tools on the back end of it. If you really want to ruin your day, you can find out exactly at what point in the video someone stopped watching. That’s how specific they get, but it helps inform you about who is watching, which is really important to think about when you create content.

You want to make sure that you know your audience, and it helps you form what you do. What I’ve found that has really helped me build my brand is I’ve been continuing the two-way conversation with the audience, really asking them across all different social media platforms: What do you want me to talk about? What are you interested in?

You successfully created a whole new brand for yourself. What's key to rebranding?

Authenticity is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but it's thrown around because it's really true that authenticity is a very powerful tool. Having a genuine tone to your content really goes a long way. I think about all the people that I find entertaining and engaging on the internet, and their personalities have a very authentic voice and a very unique point of view on the world.

So what led you to leave My Damn Channel?

I realised that I was viewing the internet wrong. YouTube is an amazing, amazing platform, and a wonderful opportunity for creative entrepreneurs to build something for themselves. I had been in New York auditioning for TV and films, and you’re held against so many gatekeepers. The internet allows me to do anything I could imagine.

Once I started talking to other content creators in the space, and heard their stories of their own personal brand-building journey, I realised there is opportunity in this wild, wild West of the internet to create the opportunities for yourself that the traditional media and so many of the gatekeepers keep you from. And I realised that I was being held back. I thought if I didn’t leave and try something on my own, that would be doing my brain a disservice, so I took a risk and it paid off really, really well.

Leaving was a gutsy move. Were you nervous about it?

The few moments it was happening I wasn’t nervous about it because it felt like the only option.

What did you learn about negotiating and knowing when to cut and run?

One thing that I’m still learning in my life as an entrepreneur is don’t be afraid to ask friends or colleagues questions. The internet is such a huge space for entrepreneurs. And ask yourself questions as well: what do you want from what you’re doing? Why are you doing it? That’s been important for me, and like I said I’m still trying to take my own advice.

Were the early days of the rebuild hard?

No one likes change and I wanted to make it the most seamless transition for my audience that I could, so I tried to stay true to what I had already been building. The last couple of years have been quite an evolution for me in figuring out what I like talking about and feeling the freedom of not having to answer to a company or a corporation the way I had been before. It's still a learning curve for me, but I just want results and as long as I'm enjoying what I'm doing, then I know I'm doing something correct.

Looking back, what mistake stands out the most?

I think one of my biggest mistakes in the past was not asking questions. I worked at My Damn Channel for four years before I realised the possibility of not working for them. Now I try to sit, slow down, pause, assess the landscape of everything I’m doing and check in with myself and make sure that this is what I want to be doing and if something doesn’t feel right, how do I change that? Because everything is fixable and figure-out-able.

Having written a book about pretending to be a grown-up, what do you pretend the most?

For myself on a personal level, I do absolutely pretend that I know what I'm doing in any sort of business construct, like just paying my tax bill. I thought about this the other day – if I ever got a flat tyre I would have no idea of what to do, so in any practical area of adult life I am absolutely terrible. I know how to wear a onesie and lay in bed all day and eat chips – I'm a professional at that – but if it comes to, like, paying my taxes, well, I'm screwed.

You’ve got your fingers in a lot of pies. How do you decide what ventures to jump into?

I’ve never had a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, a one year plan. Everything that’s happened has been really organic. It’s come from a process of saying yes to projects that I think are fun, that I would be jealous if I weren’t a part of, and people that I think are great to work with and make work not feel like work. Having met Hannah and Mamrie and being able to create a professional opportunity for ourselves has been the best experience of my life.

The three of you are working together on the #NoFilter show. What do you like about stepping out from behind the screen?

We’re really excited to come to Australia. Mamrie and I come from a live comedy background, so when we get to go on stage and feel an audience responding in real time it’s a really exhilarating, wonderful feeling. The show should be really fun, really dumb, really loose and feel like a very unique moment in time for that audience. That’s really what we try to do – make every show feel different. Unlike making videos that you can share and watch again and again, we want the people who make the effort to come to our shows to feel like they’ve experienced something that existed only in that moment.

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