Wong Fu Productions co-founder and filmmaker Philip Wang says there is value in taking time away from the day-to-day grind to make something you’re proud of.
8 min read
In this series, YouTube Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular YouTube channels to find out the secrets of their success.
In 2003, Philip Wang was a self-taught filmmaker shooting movies on his college campus. But after graduating from University of California San Diego, with friends and collaborators Wesley Chan and Ted Fu, Wang launched a production company, Wong Fu Productions to hopefully bring their funny short films to a wider audience.
Wong Fu was one of YouTube's most early adopters. “When YouTube first came around in 2005, we actually saw it more as a tool. We were making things and uploading them to our website. And we had bought server space," Wang recalled to Entrepreneur with a laugh.
But what started as a straightforward way to use what funds they had for something a little less prosaic than server space ultimately evolved into a thriving community. Wang, who writes, directs, produces and stars in many of the channel’s offerings attributes the company’s longevity to being able to work within constraints to make something great.
“We write to what we know is available, we write for our limitations,” Wang says. “I think that is something that sets us apart from film school students that come out thinking, ‘I need $ 50,000 dollars to make a short.’ But do you really? You might just need a thousand bucks.”
Today, Wang’s YouTube channel has 3 million subscribers who have viewed the channel’s videos more than 500 million times.
Over the last 15 years, the Wong Fu team has created a wide range of content — everything from the comedy sketches and romantic shorts that gave them their start, to long form series and feature films. In addition to working with big name brands like Google, LG, Panda Express and Skype, the company also has an official store that sells a variety of merchandise like mugs, T-shirts and a line of plushly adorable Awkward Animals.
The company’s latest project is called Yappie, a single camera comedy, available on YouTube beginning June 20. The show is about a group of Los Angeles friends that “explores the social and racial issues related to the contemporary Asian American experience.”
Wang noted that from the get go, Wong Fu Productions has had a large and encouraging Asian American fan base. “Because there's so little representation out there, that whole community came to support us and wanted to start watching,” Wang says. “We're really proud to represent our community but at the same time, we see it as just being ourselves.”
We caught up with Wang to talk about how his approach has changed as the platform has grown, and why YouTube success doesn’t necessarily look like making a video every day.
This article is edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you get your start with YouTube?
Around 2007 and 2008 is when we started seeing that a community was forming. We already had a small fan base around our skits and things from college. People knew our website, but we had never pushed the channel. We realized the community aspect and having this hub was special and unique.
We always tried to keep evolving with YouTube. We were one of the first people to utilize our fan base to go on tour, to sell merchandise. Those are very normal business practices now for YouTubers, but at the time we were trying to innovate.
How do you leverage your YouTube channel, and to what extent do you monetize it?
A lot of what we've done is trial and error. One of our early videos, I wore a T-shirt in it [and ] we had so many comments asking where I got that T-shirt. We realized each video [could be] an advertisement in a sense, and we could put whatever want in the video. We quickly learned that our viewers are our customers.
We now have different levels of participation in terms of if they want to help support us financially. Sometimes those are experientials, like screenings. We started a Patreon page for people who believe in our mission.
How much time do you spend on a video, and what does that entail?
We're one of those channels that does everything from writing, directing, cinematography, editing and distribution. If we have an idea that we like and [think] would resonate with our audience, we'll take the time to write it out, put in the proper pre-production and give it the right production value.
We can make a sketch comedy in one location with two characters and make it with good dialogue for a few hundred bucks, and turn it around in a week and a half. Or, for example, we're about to release our new series. We can create an entire five-episode first season of a show and then walk away for a month and a half to go shoot it and do it the legit industry way. That's one thing that we're really proud of; we've been able to adapt to both. We know when to save money, and we know when to spend it.
What's your content strategy?
The one thing that has helped us continue to engage with the fans, and the biggest thing that I would suggest to creators who are using YouTube, is you need a team.
One of the benefits of being a channel that does not rely on a weekly set schedule is that people aren't surprised if we only have one video a month. We're not really in a rat race anymore of thinking we have to make sure we're in front of the audience every single day. You’ll never be able to win that race. There are always new channels and new personalities that are coming into to fill that space. We're glad to have evolved into a channel where we might post once a month, [but it’s incredible]. We're going to do something you mark your calendars for.
What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
Do it for the right reasons. If you're truly passionate about making people laugh, telling a story or representing a community — that should be your main focus.
If you just want to make money and be famous for a second, all the best to you, but that's not sustainable. There's a lot of narratives about YouTubers [becoming] millionaires or a super-popular person, but they don't ever talk about how to maintain that. That's actually the biggest challenge.
As a channel that's been doing this for over 15 years years, we know what it means [to sustain it]. You need to learn to always keep adapting, trying to better yourself and grow as your own type of artist, rather than trying to always appease the audience. That will serve you better in the long run. The one thing I learned early on is that people don't know what they want, they only know what they don't want. If you want your channel to evolve, you need to believe in yourself.