The enormous media company you've never heard of
Complexly has 55 million social media subscribers and over 5 billion views on YouTube alone.
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The enormous media company you've never heard of
It would be impossible to quantify the number of successful media businesses out there, especially if you include all the creators who have built sustainable incomes on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Substack.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot. And yet, when it comes to coverage in the mainstream business press, very few of those businesses get written about. In fact, media industry reporters tend to focus most of their attention on a few companies that fit within three main categories:
Legacy behemoths: These are the very large media companies that existed pre-internet. Examples include The New York Times, Conde Nast, WarnerMedia, The Washington Post, etc…
VC-funded digital upstarts: These are the high-profile digital outlets, many of which have raised tens – or even hundreds – of millions of dollars in VC funding. Examples include BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, Axios, Bustle Digital Group, Dotdash, etc…
Indie darlings: These organizations are either bootstrapped or have raised a very small amount of investment. They usually employ a handful of high-profile journalists and are therefore much more likely to attract media attention. Examples include The Texas Tribune, The Information, Defector Media, and Pop-Up Magazine.
If you’re a longtime reader of my newsletter, then you know that I delight at finding successful media companies you’ve never heard of before. Peruse through my case studies and podcast episodes, and you’ll find interviews with plenty of entrepreneurs who haven’t received any mainstream coverage. There are few things I enjoy more than accidentally stumbling upon a thriving media business.
And that’s what happened a few weeks ago. I was watching a YouTube video from a well-known creator in which he referenced a media company he runs. Curious, I did some Googling and found myself looking at an organization that spans across dozens of channels, tens of millions of subscribers, and billions of views.
The name of that organization? Complexly.
What is Complexly?
Complexly is an educational media company run by the brothers Hank and John Green.
“Wait a second, Simon,” you might say. “I’ve actually heard of Hank and John Green. I follow them on social media, have heard interviews with them, and even read one of their novels. How can you say that they aren’t covered by the mainstream press?”
Well, sure. These two brothers do get featured a lot in the media, but it’s mostly for the content that they personally create, either through their Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, their social media accounts, the podcasts they host, or the books they write. Articles that reference this content almost never mention that the two brothers are also media moguls that oversee a pretty vast publishing empire. Do a search for “Complexly” on Google News, and you’ll find very few results, almost all of which merely mention the company in passing.
But Complexly is much, much bigger than just the Green brothers. Its about page lists 51 full-time employees, most of whom work in some form of video production. And if you include Hank and John’s channels in the mix, the company operates around 22 separate verticals, with the most emphasis placed on YouTube as the primary form of distribution. Here’s a small sampling of the channels to give you a sense of what they produce:
Description: “At Crash Course, we believe that high quality educational videos should be available to everyone for free! … The Crash Course team has produced more than 32 courses on a wide variety of subjects, including organic chemistry, literature, world history, biology, philosophy, theater, ecology, and many more!”
YouTube subscribers: 13.2 million
YouTube views: 1.6 billion
Twitter followers: 170k
Facebook followers: 232k
Instagram followers: 38k
Total followers: 13.6 million
Patreon subscribers: 6,554
Description: “SciShow explores the unexpected. Seven days a week, [we] delve into the scientific subjects that defy our expectations and make us even more curious”
YouTube subscribers: 7 million
YouTube views: 1.5 billion
Twitter followers: 125k
TikTok followers: 663k
Facebook followers: 427k
Instagram followers: 31k
Total followers: 8.2 million
Patreon subscribers: 4,800
Description: “Join hosts Kallie Moore, Michelle Barboza-Ramirez and Blake de Pastino as they take you on a journey through the history of life on Earth. From the dawn of life in the Archaean Eon through the Mesozoic Era — the so-called ‘Age of Dinosaurs’ – right up to the end of the most recent Ice Age.”
YouTube subscribers: 2 million
YouTube views: 343 million
Twitter followers: 11k
Facebook followers: 177k
Instagram followers: 19k
Tiktok followers: 224k
Total followers: 2.4 million
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to subject you to endless scrolling. I went through every single channel, and here are some of the stats I totaled up:
Total social media followers: 55.2 million
Total YouTube views: 5 billion
Total Patreon subscribers: 17,294
Complexly is a private company, so I couldn’t find any revenue figures, but given that it operates in a family-friendly, brand-safe niche, and that most of its media consumption comes in via video, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s able to demand a fairly high price for sponsorships. It’s also impossible for me to calculate its valuation, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that it could sell for a price in the low-to-mid nine figures.
BuzzFeed’s current market cap is only $659 million. And yet it and its other digital-media cohort receive much more attention than Complexly.
So why doesn’t Complexly receive much coverage?
I think there are two answers to this question.
The first has to do with the fact that legacy media, in general, isn’t very good at covering creator-led businesses. Wikipedia contributor Catherine Yeo wrote recently about how difficult it can be to erect Wikipedia pages for famous creators due to the platform’s “notability” requirements. This has resulted in creators with absolutely huge social media followings having their pages marked for deletion:
It is frustrating that the existence of creator biographies will require waiting for mainstream news (the sources that Wikipedia considers “reliable”) to discover, catch up, and then cover outstanding creator talents and voices, particularly for underestimated groups.
But when reliable sources choose to cover a toast sandwich and a lonely pig over Bella Poarch’s rising domination of TikTok’s user base or Kkatamina’s record-breaking achievement, we have to question the system and contemplate how creators fit into the future of our documentation and history.
In fact, there’s now a thriving platform that exploits this lack of media coverage: Famous Birthdays. In a recent interview on the Rebooting podcast, founder Evan Britton explained how he realized that millions of people were searching Google for basic biographical information about famous creators and coming up empty. So he started establishing direct relationships with those creators in order to obtain all that information, and now the site generates tens of millions of visits a month, mostly from Google searches.
This is something I experience a lot myself. I’ll stumble upon a huge YouTube channel, then Google the creator’s name to find out more about them, only to come up empty. For instance, I like watching videos from a bodybuilder named Will Tennyson. With over 1 million subscribers, he has a larger audience than most daytime MSNBC and CNN anchors, and yet I couldn’t find a single interview with him in a mainstream outlet. Meanwhile, Ben Smith’s new media venture hasn’t even launched yet, and it’s already received four write-ups in The New York Times alone. It just boggles the mind.
I think the other reason Complexly hasn’t received much attention is because, like most creator-led businesses, it’s completely bootstrapped. Journalists tend to use VC raises as a benchmark of success, hence why it’s pretty common for a press release to go out after each fundraising round. Without the fundraising, there's no news hook to drive a new round of coverage.
In fact, Hank Green pretty much confirmed this as the case. Last week, I tweeted about Complexly and openly wondered why no one has paid attention to it. Green must have been monitoring his mentions, because he tweeted this at me a few hours later:
Well, Hank, I’m sorry to report this, but you’ve officially attracted my attention. And if you ever want to open up about Complexly’s history and business model, my email address isn’t very hard to find.
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There’s a good chance I’ll attend this conference, so hit me up if you’re planning to go and we can meet for coffee.
Example #5,434 of why you need to diversify your content distribution as much as possible. [NYT]
Five years ago, it was unthinkable that a creator with only 40,000 followers could make this kind of money. [Business Insider]
"There is a battle brewing and traditional podcasters are not going to like it. By the end of the year, it’s going to be essential that podcasters are creating proper video versions of their shows." [Matt Deegan] Yep! I'm planning on rolling out a video version of my podcast this summer.
"[Native advertising] doesn’t scale, I’m always told. Crazy idea: Maybe it doesn’t need to scale. There are lots of high quality, expensive products in the world that aren’t scaled." [The Rebooting]
YouTube is licensing more and more premium TV and film, and then monetizing that content with advertising. This will certainly help it become more of a destination for connected TV viewing on platforms like Roku. [Variety]
The Verge writes about SiriusXM’s podcast struggles following its Stitcher acquisition. [The Verge] If you have the cash, it's relatively easy to acquire another company. It's much, much harder to actually integrate that company into your corporate strategy.
Some new insights into Spotter's $1 billion creator fund. This is the company paying upfront advances to gain the monetization rights to YouTubers' back catalogues. [Fast Company]
LendIt Fintech charges brands thousands of dollars to sponsor its weekly webinars.
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