Confessions of a YouTuber: behind the scenes with world's most popular car vlogger
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32-year-old Tim Burton's YouTube channel celebrates its 10th birthday this month. At a rate of about one video per day, Tim – known to the internet as Shmee150 – has spent the past decade producing and uploading videos of cars, road trips and garages, weaving a compelling narrative for the complete strangers who want to consume it. And there are plenty of them; he has almost two million subscribers on YouTube alone.
Tim is what we call a YouTuber. His Shmee150 persona has more fans than most celebrities do, and most of these followers are highly engaged. And at a time when the former powerhouse of Top Gear is feeling a bit tired, Shmee150 is both a staple of automotive entertainment and a growing phenomenon. Tim's videos have roughly 706 million views to date, which equates to significant revenue, and the brand is growing.
“Starting a YouTube channel, like opening a shop, is a business decision,” he says. “If you just have a creative side on YouTube you’re probably not going to be able to turn it into a business. Making videos is a small portion of running the enterprise.
“There's a big misconception that all a YouTuber does is pick up a camera and start recording and it all ends up on the internet. It might be designed to look easy but it’s a full-on business.”
Shmee150 videos tend to feature supercars, including Tim's own large and ever-changing collection, which include iconic modern-day hypercars such as the McLaren Senna, Ford GT, Ferrari GTC4 Lusso, and Mercedes GT R Pro. The purchasing and collection process for each of these vehicles, as well the modifications and maintenance that Tim undertakes, are all filmed and put on YouTube for the enjoyment of fans. It's an access-all-areas approach to supercar ownership, allowing some 1.94m people to enjoy the fast lane through their screens.
But Tim builds an entire narrative based on these real-life events, which are simultaneously entertaining and informative. What kind of paint protection does he use for his most expensive cars? What are the real life running costs of a four-seater Ferrari? How do you look after and transport expensive machinery? What does this button do?
“Every video is like a mini-movie. You need to pull up emotions, you need to keep interest till the end, end on a cliffhanger so they come back. You have to build it up; it’s not an accident. Nothing really happens by mistake.”
“When I’m creating videos you build a story around it. It’s not a mistake, it’s all planned. When I go down these avenues it’s all very much worked out and scripted by our teams before it’s filmed.”
The process is surprisingly calculative. He and his team first look for opportunities to make several videos on a particularly interesting topic, and then buy the relevant car. Of course none of this comes across in the videos, as his naturally nonchalant on-camera presence makes us believe he is doing it all for himself.
“With a car added to the garage, I’m thinking: will the content opportunities in terms of the outright revenue generation from the videos I create, along with potential sponsorship opportunities around it, justify the depreciation and running costs of the vehicle? I always make that calculation.”
“Let's say I’m choosing between two cars, and one manufacturer is quite open to making lots of videos along the story and the other manufacturer will just deliver me a car and that’s that. I’m probably going to choose the one that allows me to make content.”
As well as a running storyline of his own garage, he also makes travel videos on visits to other private collections or to try particularly unique cars around the world. For all of this, he says, there needs to be a return on investment.
“You see me off on a jolly without realising that in order to drive that car there’s a ton of emails about setting it up, there’s a ton of learning to actually have all the information, there’s the scripting, the planning of the video before it’s shot. What’s the title? What’s the thumbnail going to be?
“And then when it’s actually shot, assuming nothing’s going wrong with the camera gear, travel plans or flights, then there’s the editing stages, the verification and checking stages, the actual publication, engagement with the audience. It’s not just a video on the internet, it’s a full business like any business.”
Which raises the question of how exactly the Shmee150 brand makes money.
YouTube allows its creators to monetise their video content by serving ads before, during or after the video plays. A percentage of the earnings is passed on to the video creators and with roughly 3,880 videos uploaded in 10 years, Shmee150's revenue will have been significant. He also features sponsorships and brand deals to bring in more revenue. Facebook videos and Instagram posts can be monetised due to the sheer size of his audience. It doesn’t stop there – there’s merchandise sold in the Shmee150 shop, from clothing to wall art.
But Tim also works at a consultancy level with automotive brands and manufacturers –as an experienced supercar owner and enthusiast with a large audience, his input has become valuable enough to help brands decide which way to steer the ship.
As big and profitable as it is now, Tim never imagined or set out to achieve this when he uploaded his first video on his YouTube channel a decade ago. It was a 40 second clip of a few supercars in London parked outside a Top Gear awards event. It managed to snag a few thousand views which was a fantastic achievement back then.
“So I thought hey this is quite cool, people are enjoying my video – what else can I go and film? I went more out of my way, based my evenings and weekends around working to go film more videos”
“It grew from there. Got a few thousand subscribers then a few manufacturers started being like ‘hey this is interesting’. Nobody really knew what it was.”
The first month of monetisation earned him a whole £0.60 – hardly a reason to quit your main job. But the hobby aspect of what he did motivated Tim to continue. That 60p became £3, which then turned into £11. It took a few years for him to turn a profit, but that led him to leave his job and become a full time YouTuber. With growing numbers, he started catching the attention of global heads of PR and automotive brands which earned him invitation to events and launches alongside bona fide automotive journalists.
“I remember the first time somebody asked for a selfie, the first time somebody asked for an autograph, the first line of people queuing to meet me, the first time I couldn't get out of an event. Because it's grown at a steady rate I’ve been able to understand it, learn from it and work out what I need to do, where I need to be careful. I can’t stay everywhere I want to be because I need to park these expensive cars in a public car park. I can’t be annoyed at the end of the day. I feel very lucky of where this has gone.”
The audience isn't as young as some people would have you believe. And there's a lot more real-world automotive interest than you'd expect. Tim says his audience demographic peak is around 25 to 45 years old.
“Of course I got lucky in the way that I joined YouTube when I did, but it’s taken a lot of perseverance and a lot of sleepless nights.”
“I’m also aware as quickly as my platforms have grown, a new generation or a new platform could appear. The problem with working in social media is that five years ago it didn’t exist as it exists now. In five years time – who even knows.”
Tim's understanding of this volatility is what drives the ongoing success of Shmee150. He has managed to consistently grow for 10 years and make a comfortable living out of it, but that does not mean the future certain in any way.
“By the time I have kids and they reach 17 – are they even going to do a driving test? I don’t know.
“Gas-guzzling V8 and V12 engine cars are probably not going to be the content I’m filming in 10 years. I’m sure they’ll still exist as a boutique niche in the way horseriding and show jumping are still activities as opposed to methods of transport”
“The business plan is more one of a mindset of being ready to evolve and change as required.”
His next project is finding a garage – somewhere his cars can be presented, as both a film studio and a monument to what he's been able to achieve in the past decade. It would be, he says, the “ultimate dream” to have his own site. And as ever – regardless of where he goes and what he does – the process will be uploaded to the Shmee150 YouTube channel for the world to watch.
- Telegraph UK