What does it take to become a YouTube star?
First off, talent—big talent. Some video production skills (or a friend who has them). A community of followers who loves you.
But, as Sarah Penna discovered, it also takes something—well, someone—else. Musicians, actors, and other entertainers often enlist a manager to get them to the next level, to support them with everything from audience development to brand deals and monetization. So why shouldn’t YouTube stars, too?
During her successful career in the media world producing reality TV shows for Discovery, HBO, Oxygen, and Bravo, Sarah was introduced to the YouTube talent community. She saw the opportunity to help new stars manage their careers, and she decided to grab it. And in early 2010, she founded BigFrame, an agency that provides up-and-coming YouTube influencers with marketing and production resources.
As a new entrepreneur in a totally new field, Sarah has had a non-stop learning experience. We sat down with her and got her advice on staying ahead of the curve, working with the right team, and always following your gut.
What’s it like working in an industry that’s constantly changing?
There isn’t a track record or legacy in place for us to follow! In order to stay ahead of the curve, I have to keep my ear to the ground and listen to the trends from my talent and from the industry as a whole.
As an entrepreneur, what has been your most rewarding experience?
Watching this crazy idea I had two years ago grow into a full-fledged company with employees and capital. I came up with the idea when I started noticing brands coming into the digital space. I was so enchanted by the talent that was making content with no budget on YouTube—and I wanted to be a part of it and help nurture that talent in any way that I could.
And what about the most difficult experience?
Making big decisions on my own before I had a team. When you’re doing it on your own, there’s no one to blame but yourself when things go wrong. I had to navigate some pretty difficult situations on my own, and I just had to trust my instinct.
For example, I had to make a decision on how I wanted my contracts with my talent to be. I didn’t have a template, so I went with what I thought was fair. In the end, it wasn’t too far off of what we have now—but we did have to shift things, and that was a really hard experience. Now, I have a lawyer and people who I can bounce things off of to make sure I’m doing the right thing.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Hire slow, fire fast. Hiring and firing is one of the hardest things about running a company. You have to make sure it’s the right match. It takes a long time to find the right person, and time is the most valuable resource in a start-up.
Early on, I had an employee who wasn’t really working out that well. I should have fired her—but I didn’t know how to find someone else and convince him or her to work with me, so I kept her. In the end, it was a bad decision for a lot of reasons, and I regretted not trusting my instinct.
Any other advice you wish you had received when you were starting out?
I wish I had been told that every company goes through extreme lows. It’s normal. It’s how you come out of those lows that determines the strength of your company.
Early on, we had a lot of offers to make strategic partnerships or join with other companies. We decided to remain independent—but it was a hard experience to go through, and it took a lot of time. But, it made the team stronger and more motivated for it.
Who are your career idols?
I really admire Sheila Nevins, who is the President of Documentary programming at HBO. She was one of the first really powerful women who I ever met, and she’s kept me going and helped me believe that women really can rise to places of power.