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Utah Business

James Seo's TikTok account has proven to be a successful business venture, as it nets him around $20,000 per month.

James Seo makes $20,000/month on TikTok

James Seo posts videos on TikTok asking college students in Utah what they’re listening to. Six months ago, one of them went viral. 

“I used to drive around town delivering food all afternoon and make around $60,” Seo says. “And now I’m earning over $20,000 a month. It’s bonkers.”

Most of the money comes from brand deals that Seo negotiates on his own. Some ask for song promotions, others for videos dedicated to a product—all because of his huge following.

This is all new to Seo: he’d been posting TikToks for almost two years to limited success.

“When I started on TikTok, my content was based on trends,” Seo says. “I used whatever audio was popular. I had a few videos get a lot of views, but nothing sustainable.”

What he needed was a niche.

“With short-form content, if you have even a second of fluff, people scroll past,” he says. “People just aren’t as invested in the videos, so you have to be interesting right off the bat.”

He found his ticket to success in a handful of BYU students.

“Asking college students what they were listening to was a trend almost 5 years ago, and it looked like it was coming back up,” he says. “I thought I could be at the forefront of it this time.”

Seo and a friend drove to Provo with a camera, approaching students for an hour. They asked those who stopped to show them the song they were streaming. 

“It was so awkward,” Seo says. “I was carrying this big sign to try and get people to stop. I’d never done anything like that, and it was very uncomfortable for all of us, I think.”

He got enough footage to post three TikToks, and then put the idea to rest. For about… 12 hours.

“They went viral almost immediately,” he says. “A couple hundred thousand views pretty much overnight, and my follower count went up with it. It’s shareable content.”

Now, that video is at over 24 million views, and the rest of the TikToks in that series continues to grow in popularity. 

The sudden demand was overwhelming. Seo had to scramble to meet the new expectations.

“When I’m not doing homework or in class, I’m recording or editing videos,” Seo says. 

His friends drive to the campuses with him and record the footage.

“We have a system now,” he says. “Fridays are for the University of Utah, Monday and Wednesday we’re at BYU, and on Thursdays, we film at UVU.”

UVU is his home base: Seo is studying communications with a minor in digital media marketing. 

“I have pretty strict, Asian immigrant parents,” he says. “It was always an expectation that I’d get a degree.”

There’s another benefit to being in school right now: “I use UVU’s Adobe Creative Cloud to do all of my editing,” he says. “It’s free for students and I totally rely on it.”

While his lectures often apply to his real-world social media growth, he admits that filming and editing get most of his attention.

“It’s become my entire life,” he says. “I don’t hang out or go on dates, much less do all my homework. School just can’t be my priority.”

In the whirlwind, Seo even considered dropping out to pursue his rise full-time.

“My professor talked me out of it,” he says. “It’s so tempting, but I’m close to finishing school. We’re even talking about starting an independent study where I can get credit for the work I’m already doing.”

This sacrifice has paid off in terms of his bank account, but despite all his newfound success (and income), Seo still isn’t content with where he’s at.

“TikTok-fame was never my goal,” Seo says. “I turned to the app because short-form content was popular, and I thought it might be a good stepping stone to a career on YouTube.”

Seo wants to make long-form vlog content like creators Elliot Choy or Casey Neistat. Now that he has a sizable audience, he’s tried to pull them over to his channel.

“I uploaded the older ‘What Song Are You Listening To?’ TikToks as YouTube Shorts,” he says. “No other edits just copied that content over.”

He got 100,000 new subscribers in less time than it took to switch platforms. Then his channel was verified, and he got a YouTube plaque in the mail—a subscriber-based award that’s prestigious on the site.

Then it wasn’t just brands bringing in money: when his subscribers boomed, so did his AdSense cut. All his old videos were monetized, and YouTube paid him a $2,000 lump sum for his Shorts.

“I earn about $1,500 a month from YouTube ads now,” he says. 

He’s also been welcomed into the TikTok Creator fund, but the money he earns there isn’t comparable to his cut of AdSense payments or brand sponsorships.

“I think a lot of those funds are unfair,” he says. “Relative to the number of views me and other creators are getting, it’s like pennies. We’re all kind of relying on the support from brand sponsorships for sizable income.”

But the more branded content you put out, the less responsive your followers become, Seo says.

“In the beginning, I got too excited about the money,” he says. “I did too many sponsored videos and ads. It all started to look fake, and while it was nice to have more money, my personal brand suffered a lot.”

Now, Seo is working to end some brand agreements. But regardless of who’s paying, the money comes with a caveat: he must keep making videos like the ‘What Are You Listening To?’ series – or find something that will continue attracting millions of views.

“I don’t want to be stuck in this box of jump-cut interview videos forever,” Seo says. “But diversification is hard when I’ve built my audience on that specific kind of content. I think it’s all they expect.”

Seo started to slowly integrate different kinds of videos into his existing content, from wider, establishing shots in his interview TikToks to quick vlogs of making breakfast on YouTube. 

“The biggest issue is time constraints,” he says. “I’m already pushing my schedule with the TikTok content, which I can film, edit, and have ready one to two weeks in advance of posting. YouTube is a different story—high-quality vlogs like that take five times longer to put together.”

He’s hoping his audience is new enough to be patient with him as he experiments.

“All of this, the money, the followers, started to blow up like two weeks ago,” he says. “I think there’s room to grow.”

But he also recognizes how far things could fall.

“Most of the brand deals are secured with year-long contracts or less,” he says. “But it’s not just brands that can decide to move on—the people who follow me now may decide that they don’t want to watch my content anymore, either, and then the money from both YouTube and the TikTok Creator fund would disappear.”

If it comes to that, Seo’s ready to stick to his guns.

“I’ll sacrifice views to make more content I like,” he says. “But I still think I can strike a balance of catering to my audience while also doing more videos from my perspective.”

Almost all the money has found a home in his savings accounts. He even kept his apartment, where his bedroom is more of a living room and his door more of a curtain.

“I’m still very cheap,” he laughs. “I was raised to be frugal, and I don’t think that will change, regardless of where my career goes. I mean, all of this could be gone as quickly as it came, and a surefire way to lose it all is to get lost in the money.”

Jacqueline is a Master of Accounting graduate from the University of Utah. Specializing in tax, she's interested in business, government, and the intersection of the two. When she's not studying or writing, she loves to run, play Candy Crush, and read novels.