How Derral Eves founded Creatus, VidSummit, and built the #1 crowdfunded TV series in history
My spouse and I were young and broke when we graduated from college. How many success stories start like this? Well, mine is no exception. After I graduated, I got a “good” job to put my degree to use, but I wasn’t happy. I knew I was destined for something other than a 30-year desk job where I had to answer to someone else. So I talked with my wife, Carolyn, about it, and I quit.
This was around the turn of the century, and Carolyn and I bootstrapped our own advertising and marketing agency. We did a lot of website hosting and design as well. Carolyn kept the books while I was the designer and salesman. We only had one child, our daughter Ellie, at the time, but we knew we needed to figure out something because our tight financial situation wasn’t sustainable—and we planned on having more mouths to feed at our kitchen table.
As the internet became more and more of a “thing,” I started to adapt my game plan around it. I thought for sure our agency was going to be successful in ranking websites for different businesses. The algorithm couldn’t outsmart me! Well, it turned out that I had a lot to learn.
My first lessons in focus and financial diversity
The long version of this story includes highs and lows with clients, algorithms, business lessons, and babies, but I’ll highlight some of the most important pitfalls we overcame and things I learned—things I’d guess entrepreneurs of all career paths could benefit from.
As I said, I had a lot to learn as I built my advertising and marketing company. I was grinding every day only to be set back every time I had to solve problems with clients, or worse, lose clients.
Then, I had a series of conversations with my dad, and he taught me concepts that became game-changers for my career and for my life. The gist was that I needed to follow the old cliché to “work smarter, not harder” if I was going to break free of earning dollars one dime at a time. This is so much harder to achieve than it sounds! Working smarter requires a lot of mental and physical work.
One of the best things I did to work smarter was to hone my focus in the right direction. My dad taught me to focus on the problem rather than the solution. People are solutions- and results-based, but that’s usually the wrong approach in my experience.
My dad taught me that if I really focused on the problems I was trying to solve, the solutions would present themselves. Rather than asking, “How do I fix this?” I shifted to asking, “What is the real issue here? What is it exactly that needs to be fixed?” I was truly surprised at how this shift in focus helped me problem-solve.
It’s a good skill to learn as you try to figure out how to diversify your income. For me, I was offering a product or service that was a one-and-done—design and host a client’s website, check. But now I started contemplating what else I could offer these same clients so I didn’t have to go find new ones every time I needed to pay the bills. What could I offer on repeat or in a sequence to keep them coming back?
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with becoming a YouTuber. Well, I’ll tell you—everything!
Everything I learned from owning my first business became a tool in every single endeavor since. From running dozens of YouTube channels with millions of subscribers to producing the #1 crowdfunded TV series or movie in history, I’ve used these lessons I learned from my dad in my entrepreneurial infancy. Don’t discount any step of your journey as useless or wasted time.
So many things I learned from my first business helped me later in my YouTube business. These practices have converted every time I started a new business venture—I didn’t reinvent the wheel here. I diversified my income, focused on the problem, and figured out how to keep my customers coming back.
Learning to embrace algorithms and the digital age
In the midst of growing my business, I saw a Craigslist ad saying that I could win an iPod. This was in 2005, so we’re talking about the original iPod here! The contest included a push to get more people to use a new website, YouTube. Long story short, I won the iPod, but even better—my eyes were open wide to the potential of YouTube.
I started using YouTube to post videos for my website clients, and their websites started ranking organically on page one of Google because of Google’s recent acquisition of YouTube. Every tactic I had been using to try to “game the system” became useless when artificial intelligence joined the battle.
I had been fighting hard against it, but something incredible happened when I swallowed my pride and decided to play by Google’s rules: it worked. It sounds obvious now, but it was a huge moment for me because it changed the way I learned about and utilized algorithms. Now, algorithms are my jam! Back then, I still had a long way to go.
From that point on, I learned as much as I could about what Google and YouTube wanted so my clients’ videos stayed on page one. Eventually, I knew enough and had earned enough YouTube certifications that I felt confident starting my own YouTube channel on how to use YouTube better. I wanted to help other creators.
My YouTube channel did grow slowly but steadily, and I started consulting creators. In the beginning, I worked with channels like The Piano Guys and Studio C. Today, I work with some of the biggest channels and creators on the platform and even outside of YouTube. My specialty is knowing which metrics to watch and what to do with the data that I see, especially as it relates to audiences.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing from the start. Any YouTuber will tell you that growing a channel is not for the faint of heart. You have to be OK with the possibility that you’ll grind for days, weeks, months, and years and might not ever break out of the vast sea of content. It is the risk of the entrepreneur! I was making educational videos on YouTube for literally years before I hit my stride and saw real growth and success.
One thing I would say I’ve been good at from the start, though, is goal setting. I offer a group coaching system called Channel JumpStart, and most of my students are shocked when they start the 12-week system that we spend a lot of time on goal setting, planning, and research before we ever talk about making better YouTube videos. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your goals are something like “Make more money” or “Grow my audience/client base.”
Again, I don’t see the need to reinvent the wheel when I can just follow what other successful people have done, and this includes goal-setting techniques. My students follow the S.M.A.R.T. goals system that I’ve used for myself over the past couple of decades in my career. When I want to do something, I set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely goals. This age-old model has worked for my businesses, channels, videos, and even parts of videos I’ve wanted to improve.
One thing I’ve become really good at is seeing details and patterns that others usually overlook. I have spent a crazy amount of time in the depths of YouTube metrics and graphs so that I could really understand the data. “The data doesn’t lie” has been my YouTube catchphrase for years, and it remains true no matter how much time passes or how many changes happen. It can be applied to any business.
YouTube literally implements thousands of changes to its algorithms every year (spoiler alert: so does every other online platform), so the best way to stay on top of it is to become an analytics pro. So many people resist this because it’s intimidating, and it is definitely a time commitment. But if people put in the effort to understand their numbers, they would be much better equipped to make smarter decisions and stay ahead of the curve. If that sounds like torture to some of the more artistic minds out there, hire someone to be your data person.
Building a team to support growth
I have surrounded myself with people who can help me focus where I need to. As I added more consulting, traveling, and business-building to my plate, I simply couldn’t do everything myself. It is the good and bad of scale! It’s great to become more successful, but scaling is a tricky business because of the increased risk of failure.
Besides expanding my own business team, I started partnering with big YouTubers and others on more ventures. Jimmy Donaldson, or “MrBeast” as he’s known online, had been a consulting client of mine for a while, and I had helped him grow his channel and his business. His income has skyrocketed to $1.5 billion over the past few years, and his monthly views are a staggering 2 billion. Not only that, but he has started his own companies, including Beast Burger, and he even has his chocolate bars, “Feastibles,” in Walmart.
I had Jimmy come to VidSummit, the conference I founded in 2014, to see what it was all about and so he could meet other YouTubers there. VidSummit is the biggest conference to help creators make better content and become founders of their own billion-dollar companies. So many strategic partnerships have started at VidSummit, including my own. Shonduras, a Snapchat celebrity-turned-owner of many businesses, came as a speaker one year, and he partnered with me in VidSummit from then on.
Then MrBeast came, and he wanted in, too. He bought part ownership, and he, Shonduras, and I will be hosting our 10th annual VidSummit in Dallas in October. I’ve been amazed and proud to see how the conference has changed over the years. It’s a hot spot for brands and creators to connect, everybody lifting everybody. From speakers like Casey Neistat to Gary Vaynerchuk, attendees have learned from the best in our industry and even created their own unexpected partnerships.
"I had a lot to learn as I built my advertising and marketing company. I was grinding every day only to be set back every time I had to solve problems with clients, or worse, lose clients."
Finding my passion project
The big reason I needed to loosen my grip on my YouTube company and VidSummit was because I found Jesus. Well, Dallas Jenkins and Jesus. I’ve been a devout Christian my entire life, so when I heard about a TV series about the life of Jesus Christ, I wanted in. Dallas Jenkins was the writer, director, and producer of “The Chosen,” and I started having conversations with him about how we could get the show off the ground. We became partners, and he and I have been through a lot together as we’ve built “The Chosen” from scratch with the help of record-breaking crowdfunding.
Everything I’ve done on YouTube contributed to my audience development strategy for “The Chosen.” Years of becoming an expert on viewers—what they want and who they are—paid off. “The Chosen” has an extremely loyal fan base, and it’s not just because it’s a show about Jesus, although that helps. We found our audience, we spoke to them, and we continue to value and reward their dedication to our project.
But what really gave the show its wings was our ability to look at things differently. We were disruptive in our approach and our execution. I have helped hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube creators transform their content and start treating their passion as a business. I taught them how to move the needle and break out of the baseline so their ability to put positive content into the world could be increased exponentially.
We took a crowdfunded, privately-owned TV show and turned it into a box-office smash—without a big Hollywood production company. This was unheard of. At the end of 2022, we released the first two episodes of Season 3 in theaters nationwide, and we hit #2 at the box office. We beat out Oscar nods, for crying out loud. How did we do it?
We have a laser-sharp vision and a disruptive execution plan. We knock it out of the park because we understand brand equity, how to create a culture around a vision, where to find the people, and how to get people to take action and support our cause.
Where did we find people? On their phones, of course. We created “The Chosen” app so people could watch from their mobile devices. This was a game-changer and the only way we could envision achieving our goal of reaching one billion people. It’s a long game, but we are here for it, making huge leaps and breaking box office and crowdfunding records as we go.
Writing a book and looking to the future
It was around the same time that I got involved with “The Chosen” that I realized I needed to teach more creators and businesses about growing their own audiences. How could I reach more people than just the high-paying clients and students I already had? I needed to write a book.
I will tell you that getting a book out into the world, even collaboratively with a writer and a publishing company, was a much more difficult and time-consuming project than I ever imagined. My book, “The YouTube Formula: How Anyone Can Unlock the Algorithm to Drive Views, Build an Audience, and Grow Revenue,” has been an amazing way for me to connect with more creators across the world and help them with their own channels and businesses. And, bonus—it’s another way to add customers to my funnel.
It’s incredible to look back over my career and see how many amazing people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, all because I peddled YouTube to my friends to win an iPod. I get to meet YouTubers all over the world, and I’ve seen the influence they can have over their unique audiences. I help people become disruptive. I’m just happy to help them connect and spread their own messages, whether through entertainment, education, or inspiration.
About Derral Eves
Derral Eves has been on YouTube since 2005 and has helped generate nearly 70 billion video views. His book, “The YouTube Formula: How Anyone Can Unlock the Algorithm to Drive Views, Build an Audience, and Grow Revenue,” is a Wall Street Journal bestseller. He was featured on the Forbes list “20 Must Watch YouTube Channels That Will Change Your Business” alongside Tony Robbins, Marie Forleo, and Gary Vaynerchuk.
Derral is the founder of Creatus, a marketing and consulting company, and the founder of VidSummit, an annual video conference. He is also the executive producer of “The Chosen,” a series about the life of Jesus Christ and his followers. It is the #1 crowdfunded television project in history.
Derral wants to help people with influence spread positivity to their audiences. His devotion to creating an enduring legacy that will impact the world for good is exceeded only by his passion and love for his family, who are the motivating sources of his success. He and his wife, Carolyn, have five amazing children.