BuzzFeed is known as a purveyor of news and gift lists for last-minute holiday shopping, and as the undisputed authority in obscure internet quizzes. But among the AAPI community, the media giant has a different reputation as a career launcher. Just look at social media mogul and diva extraordinaire Eugene Lee Yang, who got his start as part of the now-globally famous series “The Try Guys.”
So that’s why it wasn’t the biggest surprise when Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej of “Unsolved” and “Worth It”’s Steven Lim announced last December that they were leaving BuzzFeed to start their own content channel, Watcher. The new channel kicked off on Jan. 10, with segments like “Puppet History,” in which Madej narrates historical events via puppet show, and “Homemade,” a contest between restaurant-quality and family recipes. But don’t worry, the guys will all continue to host their BuzzFeed segments, just on a freelance basis.
Almost two weeks after the big launch, we caught up with the Watcher team in their brightly painted Hollywood office. A dry-erase board on the wall had “200,000” written in bold—the number of Watcher’s subscribers. At the time of publication, that figure has reached over 330K.
Can you guys tell me about your individual experiences in media before you joined BuzzFeed?
Shane Madej: Ryan and I have pretty similar backgrounds. I went to film school for editing. When I graduated there weren’t a lot of jobs, and I worked doing corporate video—a lot of medical videos, instructional videos, glorified PowerPoints, very un-thrilling projects. Then I worked in public access for a little; then I moved to Los Angeles and started working at BuzzFeed, so it was a bit of a jump, but that’s how it goes! Ryan, you went to film school for…
Ryan Bergara: Television production, narrative television. I worked doing grip and electric for a year and a half, realized that it was going to be at least another 10 years of doing that before I could even sniff a camera, so I switched to something that was a little more stable. I worked at this video production company, and like Shane, I filmed professors talking over PowerPoints about Irritable Bowel Syndrome, etc. I figured that wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I re-grouped and came across BuzzFeed—didn’t really know too much about it, applied for the internship just to see. I figured it would be like a three-month stop, tops, and it ended up being the biggest stepping-stone I could have come across. It’s where I met [Shane] and where I eventually met [Steven].
Steven Lim: I’m the oddball out of the group, which is weird, because I feel like I’m the most normal one.
SM: Well, we’ve all got our opinions on who’s the most normal.
SL: [Laughs] I came from a chemical engineering background, worked at Procter & Gamble for a year on Tide Pods, felt like soap was not my passion, so I left and started making YouTube videos. Then BuzzFeed found my content, and wanted to bring me on board. I’d never heard of them before, but it ended up being the best decision of my life. I learned about what it takes to make compelling content that enriches all audiences, and it allowed me to share my story as an Asian American.
In the video about the making of Watcher, Ryan said that the decision to come together and make videos was both natural and horrifying. Can you go more in-depth?
RB: Yeah, we had such a working relationship and shorthand with each other making shows at Buzz- Feed; it was something that we felt very comfortable doing. But that was still making shows with the support of a media giant like BuzzFeed, which comes with funding and infrastructure. So the idea that we would do it outside seemed really cool in theory. But when you’re actually putting that into practice, you’re looking for office space and figuring out what snacks are going to be in the kitchen. [Laughs] The horrifying aspect is that you now have to do this on your own. And that’s something you can’t really conceive of or understand the pressure that comes with that until you’re actually doing it.
SM: Between the three of us, we’re covering as many bases as we can, and everyday we’re learning about more things that we have to do. And somehow, we’ve still made stuff we’re very proud of and are excited to show the world.
RB: That’s actually the one thing that makes the most sense to me, because we’ve always been content first, and that’s apparent when you watch what we’re putting out at Watcher. But with that mindset, there’s so many other things that you have to do to make a sustainable business that aren’t exactly content-informed. And that’s when it comes to ol’ Stevie Lim over here stepping into the phone booth.
SL: No, I’m getting too much credit here. I just push papers and insert numbers into a spreadsheet, and every once in a while make a phone call to somebody, and things just happen. Because we have a great product and a great team.
What were some of your unexpected hurdles or triumphs as you got started?
SM: Oh boy. We’ve got hurdles for days.
SL: Running a business is probably five times more expensive than you actually think it is, so the first element was getting the money to run the business. That meant talking to investors, bringing in outside thoughts and people, and one of our biggest accomplishments was getting those investments. None of us had any business experience, but we were able to find people who believed in our passion and created the infrastructure. And I will say the biggest support for our company has come from the Asian American community. It would be remiss for me not to mention this: many of our investors are Asian American; many of our mentors are Asian American.
RB: Two-thirds of our co-founding team are Asian. We couldn’t go three-for-three, not everyone’s perfect.
SM: I’m Polish! We make good sausages.
SL: [Laughs] But there is something to be said about how supportive the Asian American community has been in helping us start this, and it would not be possible if not for them.
Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. We saw Boba Guys and Neuro are investors, and both Asian American companies. Was that intentional, that you guys specifically sought out investment from our community? And do you think that will influence any of your productions?
SL: So what was intentional was bringing on people who understood our mission, and one big part of that is making sure that we’re a diverse company that represents a lot of different backgrounds. Having Asian American investors has been helpful because they understand that content is more than just about making money, it’s about having an impact. And in terms of our content, we are going to partner with Boba Guys on making a show. That’s later down the line, but we’re very excited for that.
Amazing! So, since your launch a week and a half ago, how has it been going? Any less stressful?
RB: It’s surprisingly less stressful. Getting toward launch week or announcement week, it was like the PSI levels in our brain were at critical level—we hit 100 percent stress capacity. But it’s weird, because you would think the stress levels would amp up once it became a real thing in other people’s minds. For whatever reason, sitting with all the thoughts with just the three of us was more stressful. But now we have a team of people we can lean on, and that has eased up the stress quite a bit.
How does it feel to already have over 200,000 subscribers?
SL: It’s unbelievable. None of us knew what to expect. You could launch and nobody would watch. Well, I knew my mom would watch. But now we have 200,000 people in a week and a half who have committed to saying, “We’re actually invested in what you guys are doing.” And we have a very thriving Patreon community who also are invested in us and our content. It’s a good foundation. We’re just getting started, though!
RB: It makes me very excited to see what the future holds because I know we have so much room to grow, but to be at this level this early in the game is very encouraging. It’s pretty insane. But it is scary, though. Like Steven said, I think any creative’s biggest fear is if people will care about your next thing, especially if your previous one was very successful. So it raises the question, “Were they a fan of the thing you did before? Or were they a fan of you as a creator?” That’s the most vulnerable question you could possibly ask. And it’s something that we essentially asked the ultimate version of by making this company. So it’s nice, it’s definitely nice to see 200,000 subscribers.
Off to a good start, like you said. Steven, you mentioned that your mom would watch your videos. Were your families supportive of your decisions to leave BuzzFeed and do your own thing?
SL: You know, I think she always believes that whatever I make is valuable. And actually, from the very beginning she’s been very supportive. When I first left P&G, she could already see the impact that my content was having on other people, so she knew that if that could be amplified and I worked a little bit harder, it could have an even bigger impact. But she didn’t tell me this until later. A lot of other parents were telling her to tell me that I was crazy for leaving Procter & Gamble. But my parents have broken every Asian parent stereotype. I’m very grateful for it.
And do you guys think that you have any advice for anyone who’s looking to start their own media channel or their own business, after having gone through this process?
SM: All of us were driven to create non-stop for a good portion of our lives. Even me, when I was working jobs that weren’t my dream job, I was always creating stuff on the outside, and that’s what I eventually showed to BuzzFeed that got me hired. And you guys obviously had a ton of stuff when you went to BuzzFeed that reflected how talented you were. So it really is to just follow what you’re passionate about, and continue to make stuff.
RB: ‘Make stuff ’ is the main thing to think about. A lot of creators get bogged down in their thoughts about what’s going to be good or what’s going to be bad.
SL: Yeah. To people who said to me, “I want to be a YouTuber,” I used to say, “Don’t.” But after starting this company with you guys, I’ve realized that you should just do it. You should go for it, and really, what’s the worst that could happen? If you failed, at least you’ve tried and now you know how you feel about it.
SM: And on the business side, obviously, it’s a big chance. You should partner with people you trust, and know that all adjustments in life are uncomfortable. Because when we started this, if you had told me all the things that we would be tackling in the course of this year, I would have had a panic attack. But it’s sort of a slow boil that turned out to be more of a hot tub. It’s like immersion. Over the course of a year, you’re astounded by the things that you now know and are capable of addressing. So nobody’s an expert when they start out. Except for Steven.
RB: Yeah, Steven is like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.” Suddenly turns to the camera and goes, [imitating Neo] “I know kung fu.”
SM: Yeah. “I know business now.”
SL: [Laughs] No comment.
This article appeared in “Character Media”’s Lunar New Year 2020 issue. Check out our current e-magazine here.