A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
How did Sarah Penna create one of YouTube’s most successful networks? Consistently working 14-to-16-hour days had something to do with it, along with a service-oriented mentality built upon a foundation of integrity.
You can watch Sarah tell her compelling story in the following 15-minute excerpt from her recent UC Santa Barbara talk. Note: I am indirectly a micro-investor in Big Frame through Rincon Venture Partners sponsorship of Launchpad LA.
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As noted in YouTubers Come Of Age, YouTube has progressed from its initial incarnation as a repository of random videos to a number of vertically focused, professionally managed networks. Sarah is a Co-Founder of one of the most popular of these networks, Big Frame, which boasts some of YouTube’s biggest stars, including: MysteryGuitarMan, Peter Chao and DeStorm.
Sarah began her talk by explaining that she has always had a service orientation. “When people would ask me when I was a little kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would tell them ‘a waitress,’ much to my mother’s chagrin. What I really liked was serving people, I really liked helping people, and in my little seven-year-old mind, that meant being a waitress. It was that love of serving people that led me on my long journey of starting a company.”
A Foundation Of Honorable Service
Sarah continued her story by describing her life growing up in an entrepreneurial household.“I actually come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My mother and father started a little hardware company in Price, Utah and they turned it into a very, very successful construction company. I used to get up at 5:00 in the morning with my father and go to construction sites. From that young, very impressionable age… the one thing they always emphasized to me was integrity.
I took that lesson of integrity and brought it with me when I started my company. The fundamental backbone of Big Frame is integrity and that resonates throughout the people that I hire, the person I chose to co-found my company with and also the kind of content we work (with) and create.”
From “Me At The Zoo” To Zombie Blood
Sarah then showed the students the first video uploaded to YouTube, entitled Me At The Zoo. Despite the fact that it only lasts for 19-seconds and is utterly boring, the video has accumulated nearly 10-million views and has been awarded over 68,000 “likes.” According to Sarah, “It’s not a very good video but it’s a harbinger of things to come. That video is… what started it all.”
In 2007, Sarah joined Current TV. Although she enjoyed the experience and gained television production skills, which she still uses today, the lack of viewership at Current was de-motivating. In Sarah’s words, “I started reading a lot of articles… in 2007 (and) 2008 (and I realized) there is all this online video being consumed and it’s not being consumed on Current. Where are all these people watching online video? I uncovered this world of YouTube and it blew my mind.”
After leaving Current, Sarah did a stint as the Director of Distribution for a television production company. During her tenure, “A director came into our offices and pitched us a web-series idea. He said, ‘I’m directing this thing for this YouTube channel called The Station, you should come check it out.’ So I went and wound up being a zombie in the very first video that went on The Station… which evolved into the biggest YouTube network, called Maker Studios.
There I met the biggest YouTube stars; Shane Dawson, Phil DeFranco, KassemG, Shaycarl… I went back that night, after cleaning all the zombie blood off my face and… these guys, even in 2007, had tens of millions of views. I was just blown away and I knew immediately that this was something big and massive and it was only going to get bigger, and I wanted in.
At the time, Phil (DeFranco) was the fifth most subscribed YouTuber in the world. He had just gotten a small grant from YouTube to start another channel and he needed a Producer. I got hired, broke up with my boyfriend, moved out of my apartment and quite my job, within 24-hours. I was very committed to making this work… I realized that I needed to… commit to it.
(Phil’s channel) was called ‘Like Totally Awesome,’ which is a great thing to have on your resume, people really take you seriously. That’s why I had to start my own company, (because the) last thing on my resume was, ‘Like Totally Awesome.'”
Million Dollar Inaugural Year
Sarah went on to explain that her experiences producing shows for Like Totally Awesome inspired her to start her own company. “Originally, my company was called ‘The Cloud Media.’ I started it on my own and instinctively felt my way through the first six months. I am an English major, not an MBA, so… I had a lot of support, a lot of people guiding me through the first six months.
I started signing clients and that was a really amazing feeling. I started cold calling… people and saying, ‘I know you don’t know who I am, but I have done these things (for other YouTubers)… trust me… I won’t lock you into a long contract, just let me show you what I can do.’
Those first six months were about… building my reputation, which to me is very, very important. I am very meticulous about my reputation. You can get so much more done when you have peoples’ respect. That, to me, feels like success. When a client wants to sign with me because they know that I am going to take care of them.
In the first year (at The Cloud Media), just me alone, I did over a million dollars in brand deals. That was all (from) incoming calls… but I needed to scale… and I couldn’t do it alone. For me, the version of scaling came from creating a network.”
In addition to changing the company’s name to Big Frame and taking on accomplished Co-Founder Steve Raymond, Sarah also received assistance from the startup incubator LaunchPad LA. “Now my company is 28-employees, we closed a round of three million dollars in May (2012).
Five Tips For Emerging Entrepreneurs
Sarah then discussed five areas of advice. She began by noting that, “I think that our generation is very, very scared of failure. For me, the thought of failure was almost unbearable. But when I accepted (that) I might fail… that freed me up to… take these huge risks. A certain amount of doubt is useful… but don’t let doubt cripple you. You will fail if you doubt so much that you paralyze yourself.
Another really important piece of advice that I got was setting goals… give yourself attainable goals, that are short term. When I first started, I would say, ‘Okay. I am going to give myself six months to keep this business going. I want to hire somebody in three months. I want to get incorporated in four months. I want to have payroll set up in five months.’ Giving yourself very, very distinct set of goals that are … month-to-month… helps you get up in the morning and know… this is exactly what I am going to do with my day.”
Keep a journal… because, I go back and read those (early entries and say), ‘Oh, Yes. I remember when I was in that place.’ In the beginning, the mistakes can feel catastrophic, but being able to look back and reflect is really a useful tool. Also, when you become super, super successful and you want to write your book, it’s helpful!”
Ms. Penna closed her remarks by emphasizing the importance of maintaining a balance between one’s personal and professional lives. Her advice was pragmatic and realistic, reminding the students that, “It is a lot of work to start a company or to work at a startup, even if it’s not your own company. But keeping a balance (is crucial). Sometimes I’ll take meetings and I’ll say, ‘Let’s go on a hike’… because I need some exercise, I haven’t been out of the house in a week. Starting a company is more of a lifestyle, it is not a job. It is your life, but if it’s something you love, it won’t feel like (work). I do 14 to 16-hour days, but I have been able to get balance in my life.”
On a number of occasions, I have echoed Sarah’s closing sentiments, telling my students, “It ain’t work, if you love what you’re doing.” After spending some time with Sarah, it is clear that she truly loves her integrated and balanced life of work and fun.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about my trip to the zoo or that killer burrito I just ate.