Rooster Teeth cofounder Michael “Burnie” Burns has been making video for the internet for longer than just about anyone, and years before YouTube sprang into existence in 2005.
Burns made his name with “Red vs. Blue,” a sci-fi military comedy series that started in 2003, and is now in its 15th season. “Red vs. Blue” pioneered using video game animation in narrative shows, and was one of the first series to go viral on the internet. Burns told Business Insider that while the first episode of “Red vs. Blue” got 3,000 views, the second, just one week later, got 250,000.
It was as close as you could get to an overnight success, and the internet had made it all possible.
Since then, Burns has built his company, Rooster Teeth, into a video studio that employs over 250 people in its main Austin campus, and has thrived through many shifts in the online media landscape, primarily by employing an ever-changing variety of revenue streams, including a 200,000-strong subscription business (at $5 per month).
What has allowed Rooster Teeth to continued to grow for a decade while other viral sensations have quickly flamed out?
Burns explained that while some aspiring video creators seek to anchor their following around a cult of personality, his key to building a successful online video business was in doing the opposite.
Don’t wear them out
“The quickest you get tired of something is getting tired of a specific performer, of a personality,” he said. The trend among many YouTube stars is to name their channel after themselves, and to try and make everything personal. Burns thinks that can be limiting. While there are people who can build businesses around their image, Burns, from the start, had a different view of how to build an enduring video brand.
“We didn’t name [the company] ‘Red vs. Blue.’ We named it Rooster Teeth.” Even in 2003, Burns envisioned “Red vs. Blue” as the first step in a long process, in a catalogue of shows that wasn’t tied completely to any one individual. Now Rooster Teeth produces 1,000 hours of original content a year (25 hours weekly), ranging from animated to live action, comedy to drama, and even talk shows, podcasts, and reality shows.
“We took things that worked from the old media world,” Burns continued. “NBC is called NBC, not The Seinfeld Channel … When I first got started, at 29, [on a] gaming-based show ‘Red vs. Blue,’ I already feel like an old man. No one will want to watch a 35 year old play video games.”
The question of how to evolve beyond being a one-hit online show is particularly relevant at this moment, when many personality-based YouTube stars are trying to expand their reach beyond the platform, into services Netflix or HBO, or to books and movies.
Can these stars continue to find and cultivate new streams of revenue and expand their audience?
Choice is key
One thing Burns stressed is to never throw away potential sources of revenue. In 2003, the medium of online video might have been new, but Rooster Teeth didn’t jettison the old ways of making money. It sold merchandise and DVDs, even “years after people told [us DVDs] were dead,” Burns said. At the time time, it experimented with subscription and pre-roll ads.
This all comes down to a central thesis of building a video business in the current landscape: You have to give people as many options as possible.
“You can’t tell people how to [financially] support you,” Burns said. “You make as many opportunities to support as possible.” Give them tiers, give them the option to watch ads, give them the ability to buy a tee-shirt. If you are loyal to your audience, and give them ways to support you, they will be loyal to you, Burns said.
You still have to be constantly engaging, at the fast pace of the web, and unfortunately that is easier said than done.
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