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Hidden in this YouTube series is the perfect recipe for startup success

Yes, it’s about eating spicy chicken wings, but the simple ‘Hot Ones’ format illustrates what every startup founder needs to know to succeed.

Hidden in this YouTube series is the perfect recipe for startup success

Hot Ones is a YouTube show from creators First We Feast that’s about eating hot wings. It’s about to significantly improve your startup.

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Hot Ones‘ growth has gone from zero to millions of subscribers and billions (billions!) of views in about five years. It got on my radar in the last year recommended by a tech friend, my aunt, and a guy I just met at the dog park. That’s a crew that made me want to dig in.

It features host Sean Evans and his guest eating 10 chicken wings, each prepared with a progressively hotter hot sauce. The challenge is that over the course of each 30-minute episode, Evans asks celebrity guests increasingly difficult questions while they try to act unfazed by wings with a “Scoville Level” of up to 2 million. (I don’t know what a Scoville Level is, but in the words of my friend Shark from Texas, “That’ll probably make your bull run.”)

Many episodes have north of a million views, which means that Hot Ones—purposely or accidentally—established the perfect framework for growth. A blueprint for evergreen, shareable content.

I know two things about content:

  1. You’re creating it now or regularly beating yourself up because you know you should be creating it.
  2. It’s really hard.

But Hot Ones makes it look easy, especially as the format is so simple. That said, I found a relatively straightforward framework that’s catalyzed Hot Ones‘ growth and can do the same for you.

Know what great is and create a system that guarantees it

There are lots of shows where interesting guests are interviewed by pretty good hosts. It’s tough to say what’s really different between Jimmy Fallon’s show and Conan O’Brien’s show, other than that you may like one host more than the other.

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Hot Ones is different. I’m assuming the creators of the show realized that what people actually want out of an interview show is authenticity from the guest. A good host is nice, but that’s a commodity. A great interview is one where the guest acts differently than they would on any other interview show.

Something unmistakable happens every episode of Hot Ones around wing number four. The guest chomps down on the wing and realizes they’re screwed. This wing is hot as hell, and sh*t, there are six more that are hotter than this. The interviewer/interviewee mold is broken, and the power dynamic is gone. They laugh anxiously and give Evans a look that reads: “How are we getting through this?” It doesn’t matter if the guest was Gordon Ramsay or Shaq or Kristen Bell, it’s now just two people on level ground in a quest to conquer obscenely hot wings. By wing six they’re talking and joking like old friends. The guest is sweating and laughing and telling stories that Fallon couldn’t get out of them in 30 years let alone 30 minutes. It’s an oddly beautiful, authentic connection, and it’s magical.

I’d be remiss to not mention that Evans is the best host I’ve ever seen. For one, he’s eating the wings too, and we’re watching him struggle along with the guest. Second, he only gets to ask 10 questions, and they have to get “tougher” as they go. It isn’t freeform like most talk shows. It builds tension and a narrative.

Products and content are all about authenticity. The customer needs to know that you’re in this for the right reasons. You’re building something to solve a very real problem they’ve got. If it’s not authentic, we’ll sniff it out. But if it is, we’ll shout about it from the rooftops. The tough question to ask yourself: What does great, and different, look like for my customer?

Create clear boundaries and rules

Humans—entrepreneurs especially—are horrible at setting boundaries. Which is a problem, because humans crave boundaries.

Your customer wants to understand, immediately, what to expect from your product. But entrepreneurs often don’t want to come out and say it, because it forces them to make hard decisions.

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Saying, explicitly, “This is what we do, this is what we don’t do, this is who we do it for, this is what to expect,” feels constricting. More than a few founders have told me they need to provide lots of value, then see what resonates with customers and move towards that. This won’t work. It’s the sign of an entrepreneur who doesn’t understand what their customer values.

Hot Ones understands that authentic interviews move the needle, and they know the boundaries to facilitate that value. A show, a guest, 30 minutes, 10 questions, increasingly hot wings. That’s it. If I see 10 seconds of one episode, I know exactly what to expect from every other episode. I know what’s going to happen, which lets me get excited about the parts of the show where I don’t know what’ll happen. I know they’ll eat hot wings. I don’t know how they’ll react. I know it’ll be authentic. The clarity of the boundaries allows me to focus on the magic.

And because the boundaries and expectations are clear, I can share it easily.

The counterintuitive thing about boundaries is how freeing they are. Uncertainty requires immense cognitive overhead. As soon as you put in clear rules, you can relax and be creative within them and create soundbites for growth.

The tough question(s) to ask yourself: What am I doing that I shouldn’t be? What can I remove to make what I do, and what customers can expect, more clear? What trade-off do I need to make?

Consistency creates compound interest

What’s powerful about Hot Ones is that episodes from 2015 are still relevant today. Authenticity doesn’t have an expiration date. When a new viewer stumbles upon Hot Ones, they’ve got nearly 200 episodes to browse through and watch. Each one has an infinite shelf life and continues to build customer lifetime value while decreasing acquisition cost for each new viewer. The growth compounds.

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Growth is a lagging indicator. There’s a good chance a lot of those episodes from 2015 didn’t really create enormous value until 2018. Focusing on the points above: understanding real value, creating a framework to build it consistently, then working tirelessly with an understanding that results will happen in the long term can change your company.

Another tough question to ask yourself: How can I create a system to stay motivated while I create content/goodwill with my customers that will pay off in the long term?

So, is it really surprising that a show about eating hot wings has billions of views? Nope. Did writing this cause me to go to the best wing spot in New York City? Yep.

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About the author

Brian Scordato is the founder of Tacklebox Accelerator, a four-week program in New York City for early-stage founders (many of whom have full-time jobs) to go from idea to validated product. He teaches at General Assembly, writes here, and loves Tar Heel basketball.

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