Freelancing, filmmaking, podcasting, and finding success on YouTube.
Matt D'Avella is a filmmaker, YouTuber & podcaster that explores what it means to live a good life. Matt directed Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, which was acquired by Netflix in 2016. His YouTube channel has nearly 3 million subscribers, and his videos have been viewed more than 175 million times. In this episode, we talk about his experience creating the Minimalism documentary, managing his creative energy, crafting a good story, and how Experimentation has helped him find success on YouTube.
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Jay Clouse 00:00
Hello, my friend. Welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. My last re-air before I'm back from my honeymoon. Thanks for hanging with me. Today, I'm re-airing my conversation with Matt D'Avella. This episode originally aired as episode number 21, all the way back on August 18 2020. I'm re-airing this episode because Matt is an OG creator. You may know him from his YouTube channel, which today has more than 3.3 million subscribers or you may know him as the director of Minimalism, the hit documentary on Netflix. You may even know him for his podcast, The Ground Up Show, which he no longer creates, but is still serving as content inspiration for video podcasters all over the world. I was just listening to an episode of Colin & Samir and they said that they hired one of Matt's old video podcast editors to work with them on their video podcast and it's still ripples through the industry today. So if you enjoy this episode, tweet @mattdavella. He's @mattdavella on Twitter, let him know that you enjoyed it, I would love to have him back for a round two. And we'll get to that full episode, right after this.
Matt D'Avella 01:06
I've read everything you could on entrepreneurship and building and growing an audience and I'm like, I know all the things. I need to actually put it into action now and just give myself two to three years and say, Okay, I'm just going to dedicate myself for this period of time, no matter what.
Jay Clouse 01:22
Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show.
Jay Clouse 01:48
Hello, my friend. It's great to have you back here today on Creative Elements. This is a fantastic episode and an incredible guests that I cannot wait to share with you. But first, I have to tell you a story. Last summer, the summer of 2019, I produced a full length documentary now a year later that sounds like such a bizarre thing that I can't believe I'm saying. And it feels like it was a lifetime ago. But I did it. That documentary really came out of my other podcast called Upside, which studies startup communities across the country. It's called Test City, USA. And it's a film about the startup community here in Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus, Ohio, Test City, USA. For the past two decades, American business has tested more of its products in Columbus than in any other major American community, or through the years industry has discovered that what happens in Columbus today will be happening all over America tomorrow.
Jay Clouse 02:50
Through a bunch of lucky breaks, we were able to work with an Ohio State University student athlete over the summer named Kyle Skinner, who wanted to be a filmmaker. So we put him to work directing a film for us over the summer. And long story short, we filmed, edited and even aired this documentary in September 2019 at a film festival here in Columbus, Ohio, it's 94 minutes long, it won an award. And it was one of the most difficult, fun and fulfilling creative projects I've ever made. And that's after more than a year of podcasting and several years of writing. Now, you may be thinking, alright, Jay, what's the point of all of this? Well, today I'm talking with Matt D'Avella, Matt directed, filmed and edited a full length documentary once himself. And if you haven't seen it, I'll bet you've heard of it.
Matt D'Avella 03:36
I teamed up with a couple bloggers that I had met named Josh and Ryan, who ran a website called The Minimalists. And we decided to just hit the road and just get started, interview as many people as we could that we're experiencing the benefits of this thing called minimalism. And so that was really when I think back to it, the first original piece of content that I created.
Jay Clouse 03:59
Not bad for the first original piece of content that he created. That film was called Minimalism, a documentary about the important things, and it was acquired by netflix in 2016. And I'll be honest, it was a lot more successful than Test City, USA was.
Matt D'Avella 04:16
We went trending on Netflix. Number one on iTunes. You know, obviously Netflix doesn't give the numbers away. But apparently it looked like millions of people were watching this film and we just heard from people all over the world. It blew all of our expectations away like to that's put it lightly because it was a one person crew, it was largely myself shooting and editing, I'm saying 99% of this thing. I got some friends to help. And I was lucky to have some really great friend color grade it and do the sound mix on it. But other than that, it was my responsibility to bring this thing to life. And so you know, I think a lot of people have this expectation. When they see something maybe that looks polished and it looks like that reaches a platform like Netflix like oh, there was 300 people working on this thing and it was this whole elaborate production and like no, it was just me in my bedroom, you know, clacking away my keys and putting 12 hours a day eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and drinking coffee every day.
Jay Clouse 05:12
That documentary helped to put both the minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus on the map, and it kicked off Matt's career as an independent creator as well. Matt D'Avella has a minimalist website and a minimalist personal bio on that website. He calls himself a filmmaker, youtuber and podcaster that explores what it means to live a good life. He started making videos for YouTube after completing the documentary, and his YouTube channel now has nearly 3 million subscribers with videos that have been viewed more than 175 million times. You may remember an audio clip from one of his videos and episode nine with Jason Zook. In this episode, we talk about his experience creating the minimalism documentary, managing his creative energy, crafting a good story and how experimentation has helped him find success on YouTube. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen. You can put them in our creative elements list group on Facebook will also be sharing some of my favorite videos from Matt's channel throughout the week. And of course, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram @JayClouse. I'd love to hear from you. But now, let's hear from Matt.
Matt D'Avella 06:27
I think when I look back, it was a little bit of a sloppy road to get into creating my own original content. I know that it was something I always wanted to do. I was always the person trying to start the blog and then wouldn't make a post for three months and then come back and say, Oh my god, I'm so sorry that I haven't like posted in a while. Even though my mom was the only one that actually read my blogs at the time. I was always a fan. I always like enjoyed reading blogs. I wasn't as much into YouTube videos, but just like the original content creation game, I was just always a fan of it ever since like 2010 even a little bit earlier, but to really make a living to pay off 100,000 dollars in student loan debt, I really poured myself into my freelance filmmaking career. And that's really where I invested all my time, energy and resources in the beginning. It's kind of hard not to when you have to make ends meet. I think I was also lucky in the fact that I really love filmmaking. I love the craft of it. I love freelancing. And so I worked on some really not so glamorous jobs and projects like every Freelancer has to so the weddings, bar mitzvahs, local television commercials, and that's where I got my chops, and I got a lot better. And then eventually, I got to this point where I was ready to take a risk. And I had at the time paid off a majority of my debt, I think maybe like 60-70% of it. And so I was feeling more confident like I was ready to take a risk. I'm definitely risk averse, and I'm definitely very conservative when it comes to taking those risks. And so I like to make sure that I'm really ready for it. But once I do make that leap, I just go all in. And so for me, that meant making my first feature length documentary. It was probably a two year three year process of making that film. It was very, very long. And so I was still doing freelance during that time, there was a little bit of back and forth between doing the freelance work and then pausing for a week to work on this film. And then we released it, and it blew all of our expectations away. And so that was amazing. And also on top of that, I was able to actually, we were made it made a profit, I made the $10,000 back that I put into the film, as well as some runway for me to take a step back and think about what do I want to do with my life now that I've, you know, put out my first original film, I don't need to I probably have, you know, expenses for a year, maybe two. So I don't have to actually work my freelance projects. And that was when I started thinking about Okay, what do I want to do next? Where do I want to invest my time? And do I want to go all in with original content creation.
Jay Clouse 09:02
That opens up so many doors and I want to go down and we actually watch the documentary last night.
Matt D'Avella 09:06
Oh, wow. Thanks.
Jay Clouse 09:07
Mallory and I was trying to put myself back into the shoes of 2014 through 2016 when you guys are filming this, because you're interviewing guys like Sam Harris, who I imagine would be very difficult to get ahold of now, I didn't realize this is your first original piece of content. So, you know, I was telling you before we started recording, I respect you as someone that has high intentionality for how he spends his time for you to say, I am still in debt. But I want to embark on a year plus of creating this documentary with these guys. How did you decide that that was the opportunity that you wanted to take a risk on and really invest that kind of time into with the obligations and constraints that you already had in front of you?
Matt D'Avella 09:47
Yeah, well, it's this is gonna sound really corny, but three months before we made this film, I made a bucket list. And at the top of the bucket list, I said make a documentary about something I care about. And minimalism was something that had impacted and changed my life back in 2010 when I graduated college, Like I said, I had about $100,000 in student debt. I was living in my parents basement, my filmmaking career wasn't going really well. And I still felt like I needed to prove to everyone else into myself that I was successful. I need to have all these symbols of success, like the house, the cars, the tech gadgets, and all that. And it was finding minimalism that helped me to question all those assumptions. And it helped me to really think about the direction that I wanted to head. And so I think that was really the precipice for wanting to make a film about it, because it impacted and changed my life. And then, you know, is crazy, like three months after I made that bucket list, I got an email from Josh, who ran the Minimalists. And he was like, Hey, we're about to go on tour, you know, as for a new book, and we really want to, you know, do a tour documentary. And then I was like, Oh, that's, you know, that's interesting. Like, I don't want to do a tour documentary. Like I love you guys. Like you know, they eventually became great friends, but a tour documentary to me is not very compelling. Like I was thinking a little bit bigger. And I was like, What if we just, we, you know, dive into the movement. And like being a fan of all those blogs. You know, Sam Harris was obviously a great catch. And it was like, it wasn't something that was easy to get. And I still believe at the time like, he's big now. He was big back then. And like, at the time, I was like, Oh, I don't like getting Sam Harris would be really difficult. But Josh is like, really, really good. He spent, you know, years and years in the corporate world. And so he's like, very good at email language and pulling people in and winning people over and so he did a great job of landing a lot of the interviews for the film. But, you know, for me, I think, you know, obviously love Sam Harris, but some of the people I was most excited about were people likeLeo Babauta. Again, he ran a website called Zenhabits.net. It was a blog that was really inspiring and influential to me. There was Joshua Becker, Cortney Carver, all these other people who had lived this minimalist lifestyle. And so yeah, that was definitely one of the most exciting things to me, but yeah, we certainly didn't know where what was going to go from the moment we started.
Jay Clouse 12:10
Were you prepping the questions and conducting the interviews as you're shooting them?
Matt D'Avella 12:14
I think is a bit of back and forth. So Josh Milburn was he was one of our co producers. And he was one of the, you know, the main guys in the film. He conducted most of the interviews when we were together. It was a process of three years. And so we did a lot of those interviews on the road. When we went on tour with them for their book tour. This ended up being the through line of the film, it was like the story of Josh and Ryan and how they went from suit and tie corporate guys to minimalists. And now they're just talking about and spreading this message and like watching this movement and the message grow. Josh did a lot of the interviews while we were there, although we both kind of collaborated on questions that we would ask. And then, you know, when it comes to an interview, where it's going to be cut down, you kind of are thinking in your head, what are the elements that you want to get? What are the responses you're going to get much similar to a podcast, although if it's a long form conversation, that's very different than saying, Okay, well, we won't actually be able to play pull something out of this, and you're not going to hear my voice. And so there are certain questions you need to ask and framing and reframing and asking the same question twice in a different way. Because maybe that first response didn't really give you exactly what you needed to edit into the film. So we have to think about all those things. That's why it's great to have somebody else asking the questions like Josh or a producer or whoever, that way I can sit back especially since it was me filming everything. You know, a lot of times if you have a bigger issue, you have a dp and all these other people helping out but since I was filming everything, I wanted to be able to sit back digest it, watch it from a third person perspective, versus being in that one on one conversation. Sometimes that's, at least for me, I know my skills are better in contemplating thinking sitting back and then responding once I've taken the time to think about it, as opposed to being off the cuff, responding and having this dynamic conversation with this person and leading it where you want it to go. And so a lot of times after Josh would finish, you know, a 45 minute interview, I might interject in the middle every once in a while if I'm like if I see somewhere where it could go, but usually at the end, I will kind of take over that conversation and add a few more questions.
Jay Clouse 14:11
So after this reached the success that it did, and you're credited with being the director, you're on the first, you know, page of Netflix when you look at the documentary, and then you have this runway you're talking about, and you're saying, What do I want to do next? How did you think through that and not just go down the line of another documentary or another feature film? You know, what was that process like?
Matt D'Avella 14:32
That's a great question. I understood then, what it meant to have self reliance today, like in the digital age, and I knew that a large, large part of the success of the film, obviously amazing filmmaking, right. But then on top of that was, it was the fact that Josh and Ryan had this audience, and I, you know, you couldn't look past the fact that they had an audience that were excited and willing to pay to view their content. And I knew that there were other films I wanted to make outside of Minimalism, and I didn't want to be reliant on anybody else's audience to be able to make a living and to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. And so that's where I started to think, Okay, I know that I need to build an audience. It seemed like the most impossible thing to do in the world. Like, truly, I was like, you know, it just seems so unrealistic. But every time I had done that, in the past, every time I had pushed against my doubt, and I had tried something that I thought was impossible, like getting out of debt, starting a freelance film career, making a documentary, it worked out because I put myself into it fully. And I said, Alright, I'm just going to do that with this project of building and starting an audience. And also, like, I just got so much great advice personally, and also through reading blogs and books, and I read everything you could on entrepreneurship and building and growing an audience and I'm like, I know all the things. I need to actually put it into action now and just give myself two to three years and say, Okay, I'm just gonna dedicate myself for this period of time, no matter what through the face of failure, doubt and all the other like negative things that happen during those early periods of time, and just push through, and kind of just look towards that finish line as opposed to looking at those short term failures.
Jay Clouse 16:20
When we come back, Matt talks about how he began building his own audience on YouTube, right after this.
Jay Clouse 16:28
Welcome back to my conversation with Matt D'Avella. After the massive success of minimalism, Matt took the opportunity to step back and think about what he wanted to do next. And in looking at the success of the film, he realized that a lot of credit went to the fact that the minimalists had already been building their own audience. So Matt decided that he was going to start building his own audience, and he started by putting his filmmaking skills to use on YouTube.
Matt D'Avella 16:54
There was certainly a lot of experimentation in the beginning, and I tried, you know, vlog format, just simple talking head I tried riffing to the camera, which turned out wasn't the best approach for me. I definitely found that I was much better when I planned and scripted and wrote out my videos and really thought about the story I wanted to tell the humor that I wanted to add into it. Yeah, I definitely think that there's two style of creators today, there's the freestylers, and those that write kind of like hip hop or somebody can freestyle, something amazing off the top of their head. That's not me. If I got up on stage, I can hit my pants. So I'm the guy that's like reading from a poem on stage. And so you kind of like have this ego I think in the beginning to that, like you watch a Gary Vee video and you're like, Oh, I could do that. And then you just try to like, you turn on the camera start riffing, and you're like, I'm an idiot. And so that was, you know, I learned through that experience, and I adapted my approach. And I think after maybe 10 videos or so messing around on YouTube, obviously not seeing any kind of results. I kind of leaned into podcasting. That's when I started the ground up show again, it was like telling stories in the beginning, realizing that wasn't working then going into Interview format and starting by chatting with friends and I had a plan of growing the YouTube channel of being like, okay, obviously the way to grow this thing is to get big guests on the show. So then they share it with their audience I knew leaning into high quality video, which at the time really wasn't done that much. I mean, at the time, people that were doing video podcasts, it was Joe Rogan. And his video was just awful, and you know, obviously amazing podcast, but like the production quality, the video just wasn't good. And I think Lewis Howes was doing it but he had like those headsets. And it was like it just it just seemed like distracting. I'm like, why you doing that?
Jay Clouse 18:43
It's so interesting how when people started doing video podcasts, they they regressed on what they thought good video was, they're like, well, because the podcast we need to make it clear visually. That is a podcast.
Matt D'Avella 18:54
Exactly. It's such a strange thing. And like, I think when you're doing a podcast and it's in that format, you have some creative liberties. Like obviously you can put a microphone like the ones we're using now in front of your face, and it looks fine. Oh, it's a podcast and you get it. But still like I wouldn't do something that didn't look good. I wouldn't do something that looked like I was, you know, an insurance salesperson to Lewis Howes credit he switched, and now he does wireless microphones. But I think at the time Yeah, like a lot of people didn't really think about it that way. And so I saw an opportunity, I was like, Oh, I can lean into this high quality, lean into the visuals, one that just creates some validation. People see that and they Oh, like this is this must be high quality. He's invested time and energy into this production. So i'll invest some time and energy into listening to the episode. And then on top of that was, if I created these little excerpts, these takeaways that were cut and carved from that main episode, like this is so obvious now and so many people do it. But it's like it was taking these short videos 30 seconds, a minute long. And then after I did the episode with somebody who maybe had a much larger following than me, maybe 10,000 followers on Instagram, I could then share like five different clips with them, making them look as brilliant as possible. Like never pressuring them saying hey, you know, if you want to share this would absolutely love it. If not, that's totally cool you being on the show was good enough was, you know, obviously worth the time. And I obviously appreciate you doing that. And so that was like my growth strategy. And it was like interview friends to begin with create a teaser for this thing, so then I can sell it to other experts and people who have a bigger following than me. And then hopefully, eventually, a few of those people will share it, and then I'll be able to grow. And that's exactly what happened. I mean, rich roll, ultra endurance athlete podcaster. He has a, you know, huge following, and he was just, you know, gracious enough to come on my podcast at everything around 30 episodes in. And he, you know, I think in part and this is the same thing when I do whenever I you know, coming on a podcast like this or anybody else's podcast. It's not about the audience size as much as it is about respecting the person and the platform and what they've created. And like you obviously put a ton of time into building a beautiful website and setting this whole thing up. And so I think that's really what I look at is like, has a time been invested and I think that's what rich right? So, so I should, you know, share some clips with him. He shared it on his Instagram. That was the biggest spike I went from, like 1000 downloads a month to 8000 downloads a month. And it's that's that snowball that momentum that can start building. And I did see it from the beginning, but it certainly took a lot of experimentation and playing around to find my place.
Jay Clouse 21:24
As Matt was experimenting with the video podcast format on YouTube, he was managing a lot of creative output. For any given video, there's the scripting, the shooting the editing, creating a title making a thumbnail, not to mention putting the podcast up on audio players, writing a newsletter, running his own social media channels is just a lot. So I asked Matt, how he was able to manage his time and creative energy while maintaining such a high level of creative output.
Matt D'Avella 21:53
I'm very good at batching. And so I mean, it took a little while to learn this lesson. But I think when I hit my rhythm, it was kind of paying attention to where my energy goes and where my energy gets drained the most and conducting interviews certainly drains my energy like nothing else, you know, because you have to plan this interview and then there's pressure and stress on you to get the interview, right, you know, this lik , dude, it's like, I don't think a lot of people realize what actually goes into it. But like, especially when you care about something, there's obviously people who don't care about the work, and then they're just like, it's a conversation, whatever. And I don't think that those people unless they're an amazing freestyle, or like, unless they're like they have maybe a celebrity advantage or whatever. I think that like you really have to put in the work if you want to get really good at something and you have to actually prepare and like the actual interview itself and like obviously, you battle with like self consciousness and like overthinking yourself and you know, when somebody else's answering question, you're like, this is getting very meta, but like, then like, you're thinking about, like, what are what like, what should I say next, and like, it really drains me. So I would try to batch like, two to four interviews over a couple days. And then I would go through and final cut and edit like the entire episodes like back to back like four episodes in a row. Row because there is, especially with a podcast and element of like structure like you create the intro, you record the intro so I can record for intros at once for outros at once, you know, I had copy and pasting effects and all this stuff over from one to the other. Like, dude, I really, like I'm starting to work on courses and stuff. And I think I really want to get into more creative style courses and teaching filmmaking because I think the huge advantage I had, I'll tell you the two most important skills that I've personally learned that I've put into is like video editing and writing. And so like with the video editing, it was really just putting 10-15 years into like editing in Final Cut and putting in the time and I like learned shortcuts. I learned how to edit quickly and like I could get to a point where I could just by looking at the waveforms and like splitting the edit in a certain way. I could edit one hour podcast in about 15 minutes. And yeah, and like but that's also like, you know, to me, it's like using shortcuts and like seeing the waveforms. I see that I'm talking, he's talking, i'm talking, she's talking and then this part, we're both talking at the same time. So I'll go to the wide angle shot, and I can just fly through a full edit in 15 minutes, obviously, then I would want to do another pass. You know what I mean? Like being the perfectionist I am and making myself sound smart and getting rid of like some arms and ahhs and false starts where you start asking a question, and then you eventually rephrase the question down the road, and I would just clean those things up. But I think it was putting all that time into editing that I had gotten skilled enough where I could do it much quicker than I would have 10 years earlier. And so I think that is kind of just batching and then, you know, investing my time into my skills was really how I was able to produce as much content as I was, especially during those early days.
Jay Clouse 24:54
Matt's podcast, the ground up show was beginning to build a strong following on YouTube and on the audio platforms too. And even though it was growing with an assist from guests like Rich Roll, Matt was still expected with other ways to grow on the platform.
Matt D'Avella 25:10
In the beginning, I experimented a lot. And then I was like, alright, it's gonna be the podcast that's what I'm doing and then I just poured everything into that and this is what I think is great about YouTube in general is that it's so easy to look back at creators and see how they got successful like if you want to be a great youtuber now and you want to build a sustainable YouTube channel go back and look at some of your favorite YouTubers look how they started see the first video that took off for them you know see how that video was crafted the title the thumbnail all those things like we can look back at all these people and I love doing that for people like Joe Rogan.
Joe Rogan 25:45
Dead air bad Rogan...where's Goldie? Yeah, we just started this. It's not very good. It's that person probably. No, it's not. He's this guy right here. More red see. Good sound quality. Yeah, the video and oh, it's a different guy. This guy's tweeted his tweet tweets not coming through. Oh, that might be that might be something that We're fine. I was I was talking about that where they said, The Sound of video snowflakes falling are a bit annoying. Come on, it's Christmas. When make video and sound are okay, the snowflakes are annoying. Does everybody feel like the snowflakes are annoying is just one dude, that's kind of anal about what he looks at on the screen. Come on, man. It's beautiful snowflakes.
Matt D'Avella 26:30
Like that gives you so much inspiration. He started out, just live streaming, there was animations in front of the screen. Like if you look at it, you'd like there's no way this guy is gonna be the biggest podcaster in the world. And so it starts from again, sloppy beginnings. And so you know, for me, it was I got into this groove, which can be a good thing. But I wasn't seeing results like I saw that result from the ritual episode, but then again, it plateaued. And I was seeing some growth but not enough growth that I can make a full time living from it. And so it took me about another year to really start to experiment more and really step outside the box of the podcast. And it was about a year to a year and a half after I initially started this whole thing. It was March 2018. I, you know, saw people making videos about minimalist apartments. And I was like on YouTube, and they had a lot of views. And I was like, put two and two together. I'm like, I could do that. Yeah, I could do that. Like, I'm a minimalist, I have an apartment, and I'm a filmmaker. What I was so hesitant to do originally, was to invest my time and energy. Because a video like that, when I'm really, really trying hard, will take about a week. That's a lot of time when I'm writing the video. And then I'm planning out the shots and then I'm shooting the video and then I'm editing it even if it's a three minute video, it just takes a lot of time. And when you don't have an audience, you're kind of hesitant to want to put in that time because it's a big investment. Yeah, it's a huge investment. You put it up there and then the most likely scenario is that nobody watches it. And so obviously that could be crushing if you really invest the time and energy into it, but it was a lesson once you know I got through that that like that's actually what you have. Do you have to put in that kind of hard work? And it's what I did with the podcast, I just didn't really think about it from the perspective of the YouTube channel. So I made a video called my minimalist apartment. And it was really cinematic, you know, was color graded nicely, I added some humor and personality into it. I really tried to finesse the editing the best I could. And then I uploaded it. And I think within a couple, like maybe a week, it got like 20,000 views, which was like, more than any video I'd ever uploaded. And then it just kept going and going and going. And I remember, like our mutual friend Jason Zook, he was like messaging me be like, dude, I've never seen anything like this, like, What the heck's going on? Like, oh, a huge wake up call. I should edit. Like short, well thought out YouTube videos and like about minimalism, and then maybe later on about self development and about the things that I've learned. And that was really what shifted, it was that response that made me realize, okay, this is where I need to focus my time and energy on and not so much on the podcast.
Jay Clouse 29:04
The experimentation you're talking about here is structural in the format of the show itself. And experimentation, I'm sure has taken a ton of different forms for you even down to like, the headlines and the style of the thumbnail. So if I'm pretty early on creating content, how should I think about experimentation and, and how to approach that in a way that I can get real useful insights versus endlessly chasing the next shiny object?
Matt D'Avella 29:33
I think it comes with self awareness. And it comes with being able to objectively look at your work and understanding like, what's the best direction to head and like, you know, you have to look at feedback. I think a lot of people are really resistant to look at feedback. They think that every comment is a troll like every like and every negative piece of feedback is a troll and it's not actual legitimate criticism. It's not easy and like I know firsthand that you could look at 100 good comments, positive comments. And then one negative comment and that one negative one just sticks with you for like a week. It's just that deep sinking pain in your stomach. Being open minded, being thoughtful about how you take in that feedback and understanding that not all of it is on a level playing field, like what my mom thinks of my videos, like, it's amazing that she loves my videos, but you know, it might not change my perspective in terms of what I'm going to do. But if I see an overwhelming amount of people say like, oh, man, like in Matt's podcast, like he really talks a lot and it's videos like he just needs to let his guests speak, then either. Okay, let me think about that. Is that true? Am I speaking too much? Am I talking about myself? Why am I talking about myself? And like, in those instances, I'm like, well, like a lot of times I'm trying to make this feel as conversational as possible. And by me opening up they open up and but I also understand that might not come across that way to a listener and so like being open minded understanding, and then again, like using the experimentation, tweaking, maybe trying a few episodes, were like, Okay, I'm gonna try to be the best Bam listener in the world on this episode, you know, and to your point, it goes along with creating thumbnails, titles, everything, like seeing what other people are doing, see what's working for other people, and then doing what feels right for you. Because I think a lot of times, it's not just about maximizing your reach. And you know, when I think about YouTube videos, there's so much that you could do to maximize your reach on the YouTube video, in terms of creating it more sensational, more edgy, more viral, like you could definitely tweak these things. But then you start to lose trust in your audience. And even if you do get more views in that video, I don't think it's worth it. And so, there have been like instances where I've harped over a single word in a title for like, days where I'm like, should I go? Should I do that? Why should I do this one? And you kind of always do at least on YouTube, you often come to this line where you're like, is this clickbait or not? I've had a couple videos that were I wouldn't say well question well, because I certainly questioned them when I was making them, you know what I mean? But then I realized, like, Okay, I think it's actually clever like, one is like this productivity system will save your life was the name of the video, it sounds crazy sensational. But the video was about checklists and how airline pilots and doctors used them to save lives. And so, again, at first glance, it looks sensational. And certainly a lot of people think that it is, but I think that it actually returns on the message of returns on the promise that I made in the title. And I think as long as you're fulfilling that promise, you can kind of play with the lines. But again, you have to live with it. You have to feel good about yourself. And if you keep doing it and you keep pushing that line too far, you may not feel good about yourself and your audience may start to lose trust in you.
Jay Clouse 32:50
At what point did you feel like you really had a handle on who your audience was? And when did that start to drive the type of content you're creating?
Jay Clouse 32:53
After the break, Matt dives deeper into his video making process today, what he's learned about crafting a good story and how he protects himself from burnout. So stick around because we'll be right back.
Jay Clouse 33:05
Welcome back to Creative Elements, when I think about creators like Matt, who have literally millions of followers is hard for me to even fathom. In Episode 10 of the show, Amy Landino talked about creating all of her videos for her made up avatar Charlotte. And since then I've been thinking a lot about my audience and what I know or think I know about those of you listening. So I was curious how Matt thought about his own audience.
Jay Clouse 33:31
I don't think I do perfectly. I've again, I have a pretty good,
Jay Clouse 33:38
Talent, I didn't know.
Matt D'Avella 33:45
Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, honestly, like, I think that's like, certainly a big, big takeaway is that, like, I still have tons and tons of doubt. And I don't, you know, I talked about this with Jason Zook a lot where it's like, there's to me, at least in my own experience, there has been no feeling change from 15,000 subscribers, the number that I thought was going to be like the end all be all to 300,000 to 3 million like it really like inside I don't feel like a different person at all I you know, still put the same amount of energy and effort into my videos, I think I just focus on making the best videos I possibly can I and I kind of internalize the feedback, the response and I have to take that in like everything else, like my wife is super supportive. And she watches so many of my videos and I'm often like asking her for advice, what she thinks, did I go too far with this? Is this joke appropriate or not? Am I gonna get in trouble for saying this? And then she'll give me her opinion. And then I take that in and like, okay, is that should I do that? Or should I actually, you know, push it on this one? Or should I scale this back? And so I think like, my understanding of my audience continues to evolve and change. But at the end of the day, it's like I have to continue to make the best videos that I can, trying to add the most value as possible. I think a big lesson for me was leaning into experimentation versus being an expert. And that was tough for me in the beginning because I think the misconception is that if you're talking about something on YouTube, you need to be an expert. And so I wanted to come from a place of like, Hey, guys, I'm just like you like I'm going through this stuff. I struggle with procrastination and habits and everything else. And this is what I'm working on. This is what I'm learning about, or this is what I've learned in the past about this. And I think that perspective, one, it opened me up to a whole bunch of other content. And to it allowed me to just like, just be myself as opposed to pretending to be somebody that I wasn't.
Jay Clouse 35:38
On return to this topic I had of doing really, really good work. You've mentioned a couple times just the amount of time that goes into even writing for some of these videos. I think a lot of people will look at mediums that aren't explicitly written mediums and think that there's not a ton of writing involved. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about when you decide you have enough reason to do a certain video versus not because I'm sure you have some multiple of ideas versus how many Do you actually end up making a video about? So how do you know that there's enough thought and intention behind an idea before making an actual video about it?
Matt D'Avella 36:14
Yeah, that's a great question. I think first, is the idea of something that's interests me, is it something that I could sit down and write about for a couple hours? And I would have plenty to say about it. And I think that's like the first thing because it interests me. You know, I don't know if I would say that I'm deeply, deeply passionate about procrastination or habits. I am deeply passionate about filmmaking and storytelling, and, you know, telling those stories and so I think like, it's combining my passion with my interests. And so finding things that I would be interested in talking about and exploring and learning more about and I think that is like the very baseline. I used to think that there was it was bad to think about the title before you made the video. I don't know why I just think like maybe like it was integrity thing. It's like well, I'm not gonna.
Jay Clouse 37:01
Think isn't pure.
Matt D'Avella 37:02
It's yeah exactly like not pure art. But then but then, especially as my audience already to grow, I was like, if I can't think of at least a somewhat compelling title, almost like an elevator pitch, like, how could I tell this and this idea in one sentence in, I forget how many characters like it's like 45 characters or whatever, there's 100 character limit before it starts to get cut off on YouTube, I like to keep most of my videos within about 45 characters in terms of the title. And so that just kind of like keeps it on two lines. It's like, what is the substance? What's the message that you're trying to get across? Why would somebody click on this video? And so I think that becomes important when you're trying to serve an audience and when also you're trying to create a sustainable, thriving community. You know, if you if you didn't do a good job of that, then, you know, less and less people would show up to your videos, you'd be able to help less and less people. And so I do think about there's a topic interest me then is there a compelling title there that I can work together and I try to just find one to start and that's enough and I'm like, Okay, great. Like if all else fails, I go with that one. But then usually as the process of writing goes along, I might come up with new ideas for that title. Or what often happens is at the end, once I'm finished writing the video, I will workshop 10, 20 different titles, I will just, you know, on that same document where I'm writing out my video, I will try every single title and variation, even if I know it sounds like shit. I'm like, Okay, well, okay, what if I were to like that? What if I were like that? What if I swapped this word out, and just getting a vibe for what feels right? There's actually a great website called Thumbsup.TV, Thumbsup.TV, you can just go there. And it allows you to drag and drop your thumbnail and put your title in. And it shows you how it will show up on every YouTube UI. So from Apple TV, to your desktop to the sidebar, or the homepage on YouTube. And I found that to be pretty helpful when I'm stuck. And when I'm like, I want to see what this would look like on YouTube's platform. Because again, this is like the marketing side of things. I think there's the content, and then there's the marketing. And I think you should put 80% to 90% of your time working on the content and making the best film you possibly can on YouTube specifically, and then 20 percent of your time working on the title, thumbnail and all that stuff. And that's really how how you're going to improve your reach?
Jay Clouse 39:14
What's the lead time on a video for you? You know, you're talking about all these different steps. Are you working on this week's video? You know, right now or right now you working on a video that's gonna release four weeks from now.
Matt D'Avella 39:24
So that's changed over the years, like, I mean, I had, like, I've been in a spot before where I have five videos done. And that is a glorious feeling. Like, honestly, that's where I want to be right now in my life, because it's just like, the stress and the anxiety start to like, decrease and you I see like, just like you want to financial runway when you're starting anything creative. Having you know, the next four videos or four episodes done in the can helps to like create without fear, because there's always that fear that you're gonna run out of an idea or the next video you make out it's gonna be terrible and people are gonna stop watching it.
Jay Clouse 40:01
Or you burn yourself out doing four videos in a row and then just take four weeks off and you're right back in the same spot.
Matt D'Avella 40:06
Yeah, yeah. Oh my God, dude, I've totally done that where I've, you know, that happened last year where I, you know, we took my wife and I took a long trip, we were going to a wedding and then spending time in Italy and rip travel. And there was like four or four weeks, I think that we took off. And so I had videos planned for all those four weeks, and then I got back and then I didn't have any video plan for when I got back. And then it's just like, it's like all that break and the relief of being on break, it was kind of a little bit corrupted by the fact that I was anxious knowing when I got back, I would be like back in the same boat and starting over from scratch. I think this is like one of the endless battles of a creative and knowing when to just like, allow yourself a break and to not put out a video this week and take it take a couple weeks off to get back on your feet. So yeah, ideal world I would have a few weeks out two to four weeks. I think in these times with the pandemic and everything going on. I realized that I actually wanted to create week to week I actually pushed a couple videos I was gonna upload a little bit later because it didn't feel like the right time. And I was like I actually need to respond to the moment of what's happening right now. And so creating last week was actually helpful. In most cases, I think it's great to have some runway there. I think from right now where I'm at is, it's Wednesday and my video for next week, I have it written, but I haven't filmed it or edited it yet. So I'll do that by the end of the week. And then I'll have my Tuesday video done. I'm actually I'm working on a couple other big side projects, that including a feature film. So you know, it's tough to juggle all these things. And so letting the runway go is one of the things that I had to do.
Jay Clouse 41:40
With such a large channel. There's super wide variants video two video of how one performs. So how do you look at the performance of your channel over a period of time to know if, like, how would you know if your quality was starting to slip or you were just starting to not hit the message that your audience has come to expect?
Matt D'Avella 42:00
I think that that question hits on a fear that almost every YouTuber has and it's something I've talked with many, many others other YouTubers who have just as large or larger audiences, I don't think that fear goes away completely, you will always have this this kind of, like in the back of your head being like this could be it like this, like this is we talk about all the time, like this video could be the one where everything starts going downhill and then all my, my audience abandons me and leaves me. And that might be true. Like that might happen. And I think preparing for worst case scenario isn't such a bad thing. I think that at the end of the day, like you'd have to do something really dumb to really lose your entire audience. And for me, it was, again, going back to that 15,000 number. It was about being happy with what you already have. And knowing that I mean, like, obviously, for me, like 3 million like, I don't need a fraction of that to actually do what I love to do, which is make films every day. And I always think about worst case scenario like alright, you know, if YouTube exploded tomorrow, and I lost everything. I would just start making videos for freelance again, because I love making films and I'm sure maybe there's another influence or something So that I can partner up with to make a film. And so that gives me comfort in and lets me to relax, when the numbers aren't consistent, and when there's highs and lows when you put out one video that has like, half as many views as what you're used to seeing, and then one video goes viral, and it's like, being able to deal with those swings, I think, really important. And then just being able to also understand that, you know, nothing lasts forever. And am I going to be 60 years old making YouTube videos about procrastination like, I don't know, maybe, but I imagine there's going to be many iterations and I'm going to continue to evolve and make new things and pursue new projects. And so just kind of having that self awareness and understanding about what the future might bring certainly helps with the ups and downs.
Jay Clouse 43:52
Between directing minimalism more than 100 episodes of his podcast, the ground up show in the highly produced videos on his YouTube channel. I knew Matt has learned a thing or two about good storytelling. So I asked him what lessons he's learned for crafting a good story.
Matt D'Avella 44:09
One big lesson comes back to freestyle versus writing. And I think that even people who are great free sound off the top of their head, I think everybody can, will be able to tell a better story. If they take a step back, they plan it, they write out as much as they can. Now your writing process might look different than mine, you may not write the entire thing all the way through, or you might, you know, just write bullet points about where you want it to go. Because I'm always thinking about how do I make this story engaging and compelling and keeping people interested throughout? There was this amazing breakdown, somebody did have like, the kind of how my videos are structured in terms of like a roll B roll when you see me on camera, when you don't see me on camera, what are the different elements that I use to keep people engaged, which is kind of like a, you know, as much as I live and breathe it every day. It was interesting to see somebody else break that down for me to take a step back and think Oh, that's interesting that they noticed those things, but it's like, you won't see me on camera typically for more than 30 seconds, especially early on in the video. There's obviously exceptions. That rule, but my pacing is is rather quick, even though a lot of people will say like, wow, like your videos are so calming and slow and But still, that's because I think I don't do like wacky transitions and sound effects. And like, you know, a lot of times on YouTube, there is a certain style that is pretty prevalent. But I like to think about, okay, the opener, how do I make it really interesting and compelling? How do I hit on again, I know this is very YouTube specific as well. So hopefully people can translate it to other platforms. But how do I make it kind of follow through with the expectation or what they thought they were going to click on, they thought they're going to click on a certain kind of content. And so I want to, like reassure them. Hey, that is exactly what you clicked on. Like, you're gonna learn about this. The worst thing is clicking on something. Again, this is where clickbait comes in, where it doesn't fulfill that promise. And so, letting the viewer know early on figuring out a creative way to hook them. And then thinking about pacing throughout, knowing when to play a music track when to let the music speak for itself and to dominate the you know, the film. When to let it just sit in the background and have it so you don't even notice it when to cut it completely and live in silence. That's something I think a skill A lot of people don't really take advantage of where they think they have to score every single second of their video. I think letting that moment of silence speak for itself can can add some drama, some interest and actually pull a viewer in in a way that music can't do. And then I think Yeah, adding like sketches and humor, it's something that I love to do. And it's something that actually brings me a lot of joy in the videos that I make, where sometimes the most fun is like my wife and I shooting a sketch back and forth and just bantering and riffing and having fun. And then when I add that to the video that comes through, and I think people enjoy those little breaks in the momentum and so not trying to take yourself too seriously. I think that it it takes a lot of time and energy and like years and years to really develop as a storyteller, but you find it oftentimes in the edit. So as much as I write and plan my videos, things change when I'm shooting it, especially like there's like impromptu moments and like times where I riff just because like, I think that might create, like a natural, funny element. There are certain things that can't be scripted, obviously. And then beyond that, it's just, you know, realizing that once I get into the editing, once I'm sitting down, I realized, Oh, that sounds corny. Oh, my God, like, I can't believe I wrote that. Like, why would I say that in a video and then I'm changing it and I'm recording new voiceover because I think it's better for the video and I'm restructuring it and I, what I thought was going to be opener actually ended up being in the middle of the video, and then I changed what the opener was going to be or I had to reshoot some footage. And so perfectionist tendencies in there, for sure. But I think really, it's about trying to get it right and trying to make the most interesting, compelling story out of what you have and also what you can create. So you kinda have to open yourself up to not being held to. This is the way I wrote it. This is the way I originally planned it. So that's the way it needs to be adapted. and changing and kind of going with your gut. And I think honing that intuition is really what's going to help you tell great stories.
Jay Clouse 48:13
One last question. And you can make this as brief as you want. I really respect the very apparent boundaries and balance that you have with technology despite being deeply ingrained in technology for like your life force, you know, or like we are sustaining income. What types of systems do you have in place now that you would recommend even somebody getting started out who doesn't have nearly the amount of inbound I'm sure you do? create enough balance and boundaries for themselves to maintain some creative space?
Matt D'Avella 48:44
Yeah, I think boundaries is really a key word there. And I just did a video on this recently where I talked about like just the three ways to add boundaries into your life. And you could add boundaries into your day, your weeks and on a monthly or bi monthly basis. For me rules have been just absolutely essential. Maybe it's the way I think, but I know certainly a lot of other people resonate with creating rule rules, which really are boundaries, to make sure that you don't do that thing that you know that you shouldn't. And we're all guilty of this. And as much as I try to set boundaries, I also break them. You might set rules like no screens in bed, no screens two hours before bed. I'm going to stop working at 6pm every day, I'm going to set a certain time when I start working each day, especially now that most of us are working from home, I think those rules can be even more important because we're not coming home from the office or from the CO working space to come home on a weekly basis. You know, it's respecting weekends. That's something that's as a creative as people who are super ambitious and fired up about what they're doing will work weekends, like we'll work like 20 weekends in a row, like as we rush towards a project, I will just do we'll just finish up this one podcast here. We'll just like write this newsletter in the morning or check this email Sunday night and then it turns into a seven day workweek. I think taking your rest just as seriously as as a part of your productivity as anything else is super important. So respecting the weekends like again another rule I would have is no work Saturdays. And again, that's giving me especially when like times are busy so to work the Sunday here and there to do a little bit of writing on Sunday, but to make sure that we take those days where we don't focus on anything at all. And then I think on the monthly basis is this is something that I really started to find much more value in over the past year or so. But it's getting away from the house especially for me getting away from the city that I live in and just being out in nature which I'm so often deprived of and enjoying the quiet the solitude and just completely cutting off all screens all work everything and just doing nothing but you know, reading books listening to audiobooks, obviously there's a screen screen there so I'm a little bit of hypocrite but but but for me it's like more about consuming, interesting content that has nothing to do with entrepreneurship creativity. It has an do it Oh, let me like listen about history or let me read a fiction novel. And so those kinds of breaks really allowed me to recharge. And also, I think the biggest thing is it gives me perspective. It allows me to realize, am I really focusing on the right things with my work? Am I happy with the amount of work that I'm currently doing? Am I doing this for the right reasons, I find that those kind of breaks four or five days away from everything every month or two, have really, really helped and shifted my perspective.
Jay Clouse 51:45
This was such a fun episode to record and edit. Matt's work is such an inspiration to me, and it's easily some of the most well produced video content on all of YouTube. I really love Matt's perspective that we heard at the very top of this episode. He knew that he had read and learned enough about how to start building his audience. It was just time for him to start putting it into practice. Too often we tell ourselves that we need to learn more or that we aren't ready. But in reality, it's through trial and error through experimentation that we truly learn the most. Matt's focus on experimentation continues to this day. A quick look at his most popular videos will turn up titles like I quit caffeine for 30 days, I counted every calorie for 30 days. I meditated one hour every day for 30 days, and I took cold showers for 30 days. I've learned a lot from that in this episode, and I really hope that you did too. You can follow Matt on youtube at youtube.com/MattD'Avella, or on Instagram @MattD'Avella. Links to that will of course be in the show notes. Thanks to Matt for being on the show. Thank you, Emily Clouse for making the artwork this episode. Thanks to Brian Skeel for mixing this show and also creating our music. If you like this episode, jump into our Facebook group by searching Creative Elements listeners on Facebook. Let me know what you thought. You can tweet at me @JayClouse, and let me know. And if you really want to say thank you, please leave a review on Apple podcasts. I'll keep saying it week after week. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you next week.