Lance Podell founded one of the earliest multi-channel networks, called Next New Networks. After YouTube acquired the startup in 2011, he became director and global head of what is now the YouTube NextLab, which includes oversight of Spaces—four production studios in Tokyo, Los Angeles, London and soon-to-open New York in which YouTubers can develop higher-end content. Podell talked with Fast Company about his original vision for online video programming, and how creators can break through the crowded platform.
What were you trying to build when you started Next New Networks?
The idea of the name of the company was that there was television, and then there was cable, and then next was video on the Internet—on YouTube. What had changed was this world of micro-niches; everybody could find something compelling and interesting to them. There's a two-way dialogue now, and the viewer becomes so engaged in the programming that they actually want to help you to evolve the programming to meet their needs.
So once you were acquired by YouTube and became the YouTube Next Lab, how did that vision evolve?
When we were Next New Networks, we had a model for how we guided programming—channels, brands, whatever term you want to use—to turn brands' thousands of views and episodes into millions of views and episodes. And it was working! So when we came here, YouTube said, "Okay, you're doing something great, now help us do it for all creators. Come here and teach everybody."
Who do you expect to be using Spaces the most? Do you actually get the Matt Damons of the world coming in to produce and teach there?
Anyone who has a YouTube channel that's interested in learning and growing, we have classes for you. We have very basic classes on audience development strategy, like using social media, but we also offer the YouTube Pro series, where really successful YouTubers like Freddy Wong might come in and talk about crowdfunding. Matt Damon is actually a real example. He came into the L.A. Space, and he wanted very specifically to work with a number of YouTubers to get out his point about his Water.org project. We also offer a program we call the Labs, where we bring in a group of related creators—say, in the beauty, comedy, or geek categories—and let them work on a project for about a month.
Talk to us a little bit about the Space that's opening in New York. On the website, it looks like it's already up and running and that things are already happening there, but it's also listed as still coming …
So you're right on both fronts: It is still coming. In the fall of 2014, we will be opening Space NYC, as part of the YouTube office in New York City, over in Chelsea Market. But right now, what used to be Next New Networks is still in our original offices, so in the interim, we do have some studios in our current office space, and we have room to train and teach programs, and we have a lot of the core team in New York. So rather than just wait, we're using the old Next New Network's offices that are now the YouTube Next Lab offices, as a way to begin working with creators in New York.
How would you characterize the cultures of the different creator communities in those cities?
Well, in L.A., we've built what looks and feels a lot like a soundstage. The way you might imagine, people go to L.A. to get involved in Hollywood. In New York, you have a lot of the larger media companies and you get a lot of the news organizations, so you see a lot of live shows, a lot of news-style shows in that YouTube community. We want to try to build that into the architecture of what we're doing in New York. And in Tokyo, we see people really create for the Japanese market, so there are lots of nuances in our educational program that we have to change a bit or evolve a bit to the culture of that market. That probably sounds completely clichéd, but we really do think and act locally.
We've been talking with a lot of content creators on different platforms, including YouTube, about how, as every platform scales, it becomes incredibly difficult to break through and get discovered. How are Spaces and Next Lab helping those people who don't have a huge brand behind them learn how to break through?
The YouTube product team continues to make searching, branding, sorting, collecting, and viewing videos easier. We have marketing, which includes our Destination Moments program, where we do callouts for very specific events like our Comedy Week, and our Geek Week. But we know, and I think so do Twitter and Facebook and others, that when you're as vast as we are, it really requires the programmer to take matters into their own hands. It's really simple to say, "Oh, you're not promoting me." It's a lot smarter to say, "I'm not going to sit around and wait for you to promote me. I'm going to make sure I'm visible."
If you could offer one or two pieces of advice for programming their content so that they can do exactly what you were just describing, what would you tell them?
Number one is knowing your audience. Pay attention to them—read their comments, include them in the programming. Number two is, programming strategy matters. Are you following the tentpole events in your particular niche? Are you releasing on a regular basis? And number three, which might surprise you a little bit, is this: YouTube is full of incredible tools and analytics. The better YouTubers learn how to use them into their story, and they learn what the data and the tools are telling them. They learn that you don't just use every tool because it's there, but you put the tools together that help your programming brand come to light in a way that somebody else's might not.
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[Image Courtesy of Youtube Space NYC]