How many videos does it take to get to 1 million YouTube subscribers?
The secret to overnight success is that there are no overnight successes.
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Last week, the writer Josh Spector published a tweet that I think a lot of content creators should print out and tape above their desks: “It's so much harder to build an audience than most people realize,” he wrote. “You're not failing — you're doing the work. Be patient.”
Spector was speaking to this nagging feeling many creators have at the back of their minds that they’re not growing quickly enough. We compare ourselves to really successful creators and worry that the gulf between us and them is too wide.
But it only seems that way because we often become aware of a creator’s success after they’ve already hit it big. We weren’t there to observe them grinding it out, day after day. We didn’t see them produce content that barely anyone consumed.
In fact, if you listen to any interview in which a successful creative talks about their career, you’ll often discover that they toiled away in obscurity for far longer than you realized. Before that A-list comedian landed their Netflix special, they bombed their way through hundreds of open mic nights in front of tiny audiences. That Marvel action star went on thousands of auditions and failed to land even small roles on long-forgotten TV pilots and commercials.
I interview a lot of successful creators on my own podcast and newsletter, and I almost always ask them how long it took them before they started generating a full-time income from their content. In most cases, it took them well over a year, if not much longer. In the rare cases that it took them less time, it was because they spent years creating content as part of their day job; for instance, a journalist who spent 10+ years writing for The New York Times is going to carry over a sizable audience to their just-launched Substack.
But while it’s always great to hear anecdotes about how successful media personalities put in the work before striking gold, I wanted to find a way to quantify the amount of content a creator would need to produce before they could reasonably expect to generate a full time income. Was there some data set available that would make this possible?
Sort of. There is one platform that publishes enough public audience data to allow one to track a creator’s growth: YouTube.
Not only does YouTube make subscriber counts public, but it also publicizes individual video view counts and the total number of views for a channel. What’s more, it’s very common for YouTubers to upload a video that celebrates when they hit 1 million subscribers.
The 1 million subscriber benchmark is generally used to denote that a YouTuber has “made it.” At that point, one could reasonably assume that they’re generating enough income to at least support themselves, if not a small team.
So I went about designing a way to measure the amount of work a YouTuber puts into growing their channel to a million subscribers. Let me outline my methodology and then jump into the results.
So my methodology was pretty simple and definitely not rigorous. I doubt it would get me published in any peer reviewed journals.
I started by typing “1 million subscribers” into the YouTube search bar and then filtered the search for videos published within the last month. This resulted in a list of YouTubers who had only recently crossed the 1 million threshold.
I then began opening each channel and then counting the number of videos published prior to the video that celebrates the 1 million subscribers. I also noted the length of time the channel’s been around and the total number of views the channel received.
I repeated this process for 10 channels and recorded all the data in the spreadsheet. I then averaged all the numbers together.
Before we jump into the results, let me talk about some weaknesses in my approach.
First, 10 channels isn’t a super representative sample. There are thousands of channels that have hit at least 1 million subscribers, and with only 10, a single outlier could throw the average off by a good bit. If I wanted to be super rigorous, I would have repeated this experiment every month for at least a year.
Second, I had no way of telling whether a channel had deleted any videos. For instance, if a channel had published 400 videos before hitting 1 million subscribers but at some point deleted 50 of them, there would be no way for me to account for those deletions.
And then third, we’re definitely dealing with a certain level of confirmation bias by only focusing on channels that hit 1 million subscribers. There are of course millions of channels out there that haven’t hit 1 million, and most of them never will.
In other words, just because you go to the same number of auditions as Bradley Cooper doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the success of Bradley Cooper. There’s obviously a certain X-factor that goes into becoming a massive success and it can’t be only quantified by the amount of work that goes into it.
Ok, now that I’ve issued those caveats, let’s jump into my results.
The results of my experiment were pretty much in line with what I expected.
It took an average 492 videos for a creator to hit 1 million subscribers. The lowest number in my dataset was 123 and the highest was 1,688.
It took roughly four years for the average creator to hit 1 million subscribers. Two did so in only a year and one creator took nine years to reach that number.
The average channel had 118 million total views. This meant that, on average, a channel gained a new subscriber for every 118 views its videos received. View counts for the channels in my spreadsheet ranged from 55,368,794 to 173,321,643.
What this means for you
So let’s say you’re a video creator who has the magic X-factor, meaning you’re reasonably talented and operating in a niche that isn’t oversaturated. And let’s also say you commit yourself to producing two high quality videos per week, or roughly 100 per year. How long will it take you to hit 1 million subscribers, or at least generate a full-time living on YouTube?
According to my data, it would take you roughly five years to reach your goal. Of course, you could theoretically speed up this process by posting videos at a greater frequency, but then you risk sacrificing quality, which may hinder your growth.
Looking at these numbers, it’s clear why most indie creators fail to achieve full-time status. It’s rare that someone will actually grind it out for five straight years, especially when most of that time will be spent broadcasting to a tiny audience. I remember interviewing a successful YouTuber once who told me it took him much longer to grow from 100 subscribers to 1,000 subscribers than it took him to grow from 100,000 to 500,000.
And while yes, this particular experiment focused on YouTube, the same principles apply to most other mediums, whether it’s newsletters or podcasts. You simply have to produce hundreds of pieces of longform content before hitting maximum velocity.
Part of it is about achieving momentum, but you also learn a lot between when you create your first piece of content and your 500th. You learn what kind of content resonates with your audience, but you also get better at marketing yourself. The first newsletter I sent out back in 2014 looks entirely different than it does now, and my first podcast episode sounds much worse than my most recent.
So the next time you publish a piece of content that completely flops, don’t despair. The secret to overnight success is that there are no overnight successes. Every creator you now look up to was once just like you: grinding it out, one piece of content at a time.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.