What it takes to build a YouTube empire

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Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla have mastered the art of YouTube.
Image: defy media

Long before teens were lip syncing songs on musical.ly and celebs were battling it out on Lip Sync Battle, Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla were recording their own musical showdowns from their high school bedrooms.

Their first YouTube video a Power Rangers theme song recording went viral 10 years ago, launching the beginning of their digital entertainment careers as the comedy duo SMOSH.

Now, SMOSH has seven YouTube channels, a combined 40 million subscribers, 39 million social media followers and 118 billion YouTube views. And they aren’t stopping anytime soon.

SMOSHs second channel is officially rebranding into “SMOSH Pit” this summer, and will launch new comedy shows, Mashable has exclusively learned. Also part of the expansion: SMOSH Games is adding one new cast member and SMOSH is launching Summer Games an event that pits two SMOSH channels against each other later this year.

“Things are so different now we’re a full-blown company, this is our job,” Padilla said in an interview while on set shooting one of SMOSH’s most recent videos.

“It’s weird because it’s become simultaneously less work and more work at the same time,” Hecox added.

But what’s most interesting about SMOSH is that unlike countless other YouTube creators many who experience just brief internet fame Hecox and Padilla still haven’t fallen out of the internet’s favor. Ten years in and that’s saying something: viral stars don’t often survive their fan’s short attention spans.

Most say there is no real formula to making it big on YouTube, but it seems the two have figured something out.

Building a brand

Image: defy media

Hecox and Padilla, Sacramento natives, didn’t know making videos could result in a career. Back then, Hecox was making money by working at Chuck E. Cheese’s part time (his experience there later inspired one of SMOSH’s shows) and uploading videos with Padilla on the side.

“I’d wake up at 11 to Ian calling me every day and he’d say ‘hey want to get lunch?’ we’d go to a fast food place, spitball ideas, joke around … and then write something up,” Padilla said of their early days.

They averaged about one video per month, which Hecox said would be “YouTube suicide” today.

Still, the extra hustle paid off. Then-Disney executive Barry Blumberg, who oversaw franchises including Kim Possible, was interested in building future digital stars. He was a fan of SMOSH videos and reached out to Hecox and Padilla to meet. He convinced them that being a YouTuber could indeed be a career.

Blumberg wasn’t wrong. As SMOSH became more of a digital force, it caught the attention of even more people in Hollywood.

Defy Media (formerly Alloy Digital), a Los Angeles creator of digital content geared toward millennials, eventually acquired the brand for an undisclosed sum in 2011. The company, which has investors such as Viacom and Lionsgate, produces, distributes and promotes content. It raised $70 million in September, as it looks to continue expansion of production and creating content that reaches far beyond YouTube.

Blumberg served as Defy’s chief content officer until March, when he announced his exit.

SMOSH remains Defy’s biggest brand, and the one it is expected to flaunt at its New Fronts presentation in May.

And with Defy’s investment, Hecox and Padilla added cast members and built their own team of collaborators. The two went from doing it all to managing a team of people who help them do it all.

“If you want to create something bigger than just two dudes with a camera, the only way to do that is to grow the team, grow the production and in turn grow the business that supports that production,” Hecox added. “It’s all part of the goal of being able to create good stuff.”

Shayne Topp is part of the on-camera cast tapped by Hecox and Padilla.

The actor, who started out doing linear TV shows and movies, joined the SMOSH family two years ago after his friend Noah Grossman also in the SMOSH cast recommended him.

“Ive been an actor for a long time, and Ive gotten to do a lot of cool things, and when I first joined Smosh I was honestly a little skeptical,” Topp said. “[I worried] that it wouldnt be the right move, but its turned out to be the best move Ive ever made in my whole life. I love being a part of this.”

In January, Topp was among the cast members on set filming a sketch for SMOSH’s main channel called “Am I A Bad Boyfriend?”

The sketch centers around a guy (Padilla) meeting his girlfriend’s friends for the first time. He is surprised to find everyone’s significant other is an electronic device, but Padilla’s character is the only one who thinks it’s weird.

Topp, Hecox and Padilla could barely hold back their laughter in between takes.

All grown up

Much has changed since Padilla and Hecox’s first video.

For starters, the two are both now 29, and far more experienced with writing, editing, shooting, producing, acting, and now leading.

They are also now famous enough that they were the first digital influencers to get their own Madame Tussaud’s wax figures. Forbes estimated the duo made $7 million in 2016.

The two describe SMOSH’s brand as a mix of MTV and Comedy Central “it’s for teens but at the same time it’s a little edgy,” Padilla said.

And while the SMOSH brand maintains its comedic tone, the type of content they put up expands and evolves constantly.

Since 2015, SMOSH has experimented with a variety of formats. They have released two Saturday Night Live-esque live sketch shows called SMOSH Live, two seasons of a sitcom (Part Timers), and launched eight new shows (including the popular Last Blank Ever series).

They have also launched two movies, which have completely different tones.

The first film Smosh: The Movie had more of a YouTube-centric premise. In it, the two teleport into different YouTubers channels in order to delete an embarrassing video of Padilla.

Ghostmates has a buddy comedy feel. It follows socially awkward Charlie (Padilla), who moves into a furnished apartment where Eddie (Hecox) also lives. Eddie is obnoxious, self-involved and a ghost, one that only Charlie can see. To get rid of Eddie, Charlie agrees to help him get to heaven.

While they dabble with all types of programming, the two have never really “sold out,” as fans would say. There has been somewhat of a divide between OG YouTubers and those who became overnight famous via vlogging. The latter of the two groups tend to use YouTube like a stepping stone rather than a place to hone their craft.

Tons of YouTubers have moved on from vlogging to write books, take roles in films and TV shows and go on nationwide tours. Others have juggled doing content on multiple platforms including Instagram and Snapchat at once to maximize their audience reach.

But for SMOSH, YouTube remains their primary home. Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms serve more as ways to promote their YouTube videos.

“Other people that started YouTube later than us thought ‘this is a great starting point to do other things,'” Padilla said.

“And you’ve seen Hollywood actors start channels but you can tell their heart isn’t in it, they aren’t really creating it, they are just kind of a face, and I think people see through that,” Hecox said.

SMOSH has many things going for it, but two pillars stand out: They were early to the YouTube game and they have stuck with it, without abandoning their YouTube fans to test other platforms. YouTube fans are fickle and their outrage swift.

Joe Bereta, creative director of SMOSH, attributes the brand’s success to something he deems “the Jackass factor.”

Jackass wasnt necessarily successful because they risked life and limb whilst buck-naked (although it was awesome),” Bereta explained. “It was successful because you just wanted to hang out and have fun with that crazy group of guys. I think thats what we [at SMOSH] offer up now, except we have girls in our group, so we win.”

WATCH: How To Be Youtube Famous

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/04/16/the-rise-of-smosh-anthony-padilla-ian-hecox/

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