Michelle Phan, Founder of Ipsy
No.1 Phan with Michelle Phan
Michelle Phan wears many hats. Or more perhaps more aptly; lipstick hues.
YouTube pioneer, mega brand boardroom heavyweight, company founder, creative director, global beauty queen.
Phan has makeup tricks that will make your eyes pop. But the numbers behind her success could make them water. Approaching 8 million YouTube followers, 1.1 billion video views, and over 1 million subscribers to her online beauty community and sampling service, ipsy.
Not bad for a 28-year-old who started touting the perfect pout online as a hobby during university.
But don’t be mistaken, Phan’s success is not a story of luck but one of awesome internet savvy, authenticity and getting there first to opportunity.
Knowing where it’s at
One of Phan’s apparent talents has been her knack for turning online platforms into her own playing field, building quick rapport with users and converting them into her own expertly-groomed following.
It began innocently back in the early nineties when, as a relatively new inhabitant of sunny Florida, Phan found herself craving a connection to her Vietnamese roots. The internet was uniquely able to introduce her to online communities where Asian people her age hung out.
“In 2002-03 it was all My Space and Friendster. This is way back when the internet was truly the Wild West and quite unexplored – the landscape was very different. We had dial up but my family didn’t really get what the internet was, so late at night I had complete access to it. My family came to America after the Vietnam War and I was born in America, and when we lived in California there were many Asian people at my school, so it was easy to integrate. It wasn’t until I moved to Florida that I felt like I became a bit of an outcast. The internet was a place for me to find a community and belong to a group. It happened to be an Asian community and that was kind of perfect.”
Phan soon stumbled across the Asian Avenue social media platform and taught herself enough HTML code to build her own site. It soon became one of the most popular on Asian Avenue. From here, Phan moved on to Xanga, posting vlogs under the name Ricebunny, and she soon gained a major profile.
“I started to get a track record of just learning a space, creating good content and putting it out there – and for some reason I just happened to be really popular. I never did it on purpose, I just focused on the content. When Xanga lost steam I jumped onto YouTube and haven’t looked back.”
Charting new territory
A decade on from YouTube’s inception and the impact of its key influencers has reached a significant point. A 2015 survey commissioned by Variety found that, among US teenagers, some YouTube stars are more popular than mainstream celebrities. Naturally Phan features on the list.
The survey found that YouTube stars scored higher than celebrities across a range of characteristics, the most significant being the high ‘relatability’ YouTube stars have to their audience. YouTube allows them to be very real, and reachable, something Phan worked out a good few years before anyone else.
Although it wasn’t always this way. In Phan’s early YouTube days she was researching, recording, editing and producing her own content without making a dime. It wasn’t until two videos went viral on Buzzfeed in 2009 that opportunities started to open up.
“No one had a rule book on how to create videos back in 2007. I just wanted to try something new and experiment, so I shot my own videos on a web cam, I learned iMovie. For the first two or three years I wasn’t making money, not even a little bit. It was pure passion, pure hobby.
I knew that creating my channel would be valuable to me, because when you’re an influencer and have people following you, it’s always going to be valuable. I was studying Illustration at the time and I knew that if I had a good following and could show that in my portfolio then someone might hire me over someone else with the same talent. I knew it could give me an edge – but I never thought in a million years that could become a multi-million dollar business.”
Once Phan’s YouTube profile exploded, the door knocks came quick and fast. The fact that her audience was virtually every female on the planet was probably of help to her, but Phan skilfully used this momentum to get herself a seat at the table with the likes of beauty giant Lancôme. In 2010, after featuring their products in her videos, Phan became Lancôme’s first official video makeup artist. She is now the face and force behind em Michelle Phan, a line Phan launched two years ago with L’Oréal.
Nowadays Phan isn’t just talking about trends, she’s setting them, spreading her influence much broader than the realms of blushes and bronzers. In 2012, as part of YouTube’s original programming initiative, Phan became a YouTube advertising partner and launched FAWN, a network dedicated to creating interactive content for an online audience. The same year Phan co-founded beauty subscription program ipsy, which delivers a curated range of beauty products to customers each month along with educational how-to videos created by YouTube’s top stylists.
“I don’t know if there is actually a corporate job title for what I do now. I guess I’m a Creative Director, because I’m very creatively involved with a lot of different businesses. There’s still, of course, my YouTube channel – which I don’t consider a job. It’s still more like a side hobby that turned into a job! I’ve continued doing the videos because it was important for me to maintain my style, as a storyteller. But now I need to offset it with help from my team. I also want to find talented editors and help them, because maybe one day they’ll want to create a movie or produce something on their own and this might give them the tools to do it.
I work at em when I come to New York, helping with creative and consulting on the marketing and strategy. Then there’s ipsy, which was a start-up but has since become very profitable. The one common denominator is really just me being creative as this is where I’m in my element – having fun with people, brainstorming new ways to market, creating new products and looking to the future to see what else we can tackle.”
Take in a few of Phan’s YouTube clips and you quickly gain an appreciation for how well she has nailed her niche. The short videos are high quality without seeming overdone, easy to watch, and Phan mixes a soft tone with clear instructions, making the overall effect quite personal.
As a kid who grew up loving books, Phan still reads and consumes everything she can as a way to develop her angles and offer a unique take on popular culture and trends.
“As a child I read so many books I ran out of things to read and started reading the encyclopaedia! So when the internet came along it was amazing for me – it was so much more up to date. With sites like Wikipedia now available I’m always online reading things.
Honestly, I think creating good content is very intuitive. It comes from within and I believe everybody has that talent and uniqueness. It’s like a fingerprint. I think one of my strong talents is knowing how to really package something together that will entertain or evoke a strong emotion. Delivering a great experience. It’s kinda crazy, but I have had a lot of time to nurture my craft, which is really storytelling and sharing, and having a two way dialogue with my audience.”
Phan’s 5 Rules of Content
Be inspired. Inspiration is everywhere, we just have to open our eyes and ears and soak it all in. I’m always on the hunt for it. I’m constantly on the internet – I go into what I call the ‘internet black hole’. I might find some crazy trend in Asia or a street artist from Amsterdam, but I’m just always trying to find amazing content. I also like to unplug too, and go out to experience the beauty of nature and the majestic way that nature is perfectly designed.
Sketch it. I like to get a little book and start sketching out ideas and shapes, listening to music at the same time. It’s like meditation for me – I just zone out and get crazy ideas. Then I share them with my team and they help me to execute and build decisions. I do it every day. I have so many sketch books it’s crazy. They are mostly filled with nonsense, but a few pages have gems.
Know your audience. You have to understand your audience before you create anything. You also have to love what you’re creating. I’ve always believed you have to be your own number one fan because there is going to be a niche market that will love and enjoy the same things you do. It may not be a mass market, but the internet has given people the capabilities to reach any niche market.
Tell a story. Know your underlying theme and vision, and have a strong structure to execute your story – a beginning, middle and an end. A natural storyteller just knows how to tell a story, but if you want to learn my biggest recommendation would be to watch movie trailers. Movie trailers are a great way to learn – they tell an entire story in two minutes!
Making the most out of YouTube
If you’re getting started and want to build a channel and following, again, you need to know your audience. You should also know what content you are good at making, or at least have a starting point. Secondly, keep the content consistent. Anyone can have a viral video but it doesn’t have a lasting effect. There’s no real value in a digital one hit wonder. Finally, be passionate about what you are creating and keep a sense of purpose so the journey is fun and exciting.
- How to develop fresh angles and stories that your audience will love
- Key tips on developing your own personal brand
- The importance of good storytelling, whether it’s video, audio, or written
- How to stay creative and be constantly inspired
- What exactly YouTube is for marketers and the best way to utilize it
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Michelle Phan
Nathan: Arigato, just had to mix up the flirt, guys. Hello and welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan. I’m coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia. Another awesome episode for you, we have Michelle Phan. And she’s the founder of a company called Ipsy, and she’s also an extremely successful content creator in Vlog.
Her YouTube channel at the time of recording this have a 7.9 million subscribers, almost 8 million. And she’s had over 1 billion views on YouTube alone. So what she’s done really, really well is she’s figured out a way to create amazing compelling content for free and then looking at finding a way to servicing that community that she’s built and building a business around it and all sorts of things.
So, Michelle, she has a ton of goal with this, around content creation, her story, how she got started and she’s a really, really interesting entrepreneur. So if you wanna understand this whole YouTube thing, if you wanna understand content marketing, if you wanna understand how to be more creative with your business, and the content you’re putting out there, you’re gonna absolutely love this interview. Michelle’s a really cool entrepreneur. And that’s it for me, guys. Now, let’s jump in.
Can you tell us about how you got your job?
Michelle: Sure, I mean, which job would you like to know about? There’s plenty to pick.
Nathan: I guess the work you’re doing today.
Michelle: I mean, I don’t even know if there’s a real corporate job title for it. I mean, if I had to choose one, I would probably say creative director. I’m very creative and I’m involved with a lot of different businesses. Of course, you know my own YouTube channel. I don’t even consider that as a corporate job, it’s really my side hobby that’s turned into a job. And so for me, it’s a playground. I just have fun and I happen to make a living off of that, too. So I have my YouTube channel that I’ve been updating for the past seven, eight years. It’s kind of crazy actually. So that’s one.
Another is a more corporate job. I work at Em, a brand by L’Oreal, a beauty brand that we launched two years ago to make a brand. Just, you know, I work out of the corporate office whenever I come up to New York and I help with the creators and I help consult with all of the marketing and strategizing on launch dates and all of that. So that’s another job I have.
Third one is Ipsy. It’s a beauty company I founded three years ago and it was a startup. And now, we’re no longer a startup because it’s very profitable. It’s a beauty subscription bag service where we ship out over 800,000 bags a month and people pay $10 a month for this beauty bags that are filled with fun curated products that range from skin care, hair, makeup, and beyond. And they get around four to five products every month full size to deluxe size, along with content videos that we produce at the studio. And so that’s another job.
And the fourth one…like I said, I can keep going on. It’s so many to list. But if there’s one common denominator, it’s just me being freed as I’m just being in my own element and just having fun with people and just brainstorming new ways to market, creating new products and just really looking forward towards the future to see what’s new and what else we can tackle.
Nathan: Yeah, look, you know, my girlfriend is a massive fan of yours. You’re messy with YouTube. Yeah, yeah, she loves you. You’re like her idol.
Michelle: No way, no way. Oh, that’s awesome.
Nathan: So, I was gonna say…
Michelle: I have to meet her. She should come out to one of our events that we’re throwing.
Nathan: Yeah, most definitely. So, can you take us through, like, you’ve got this massive brand, you’ve got these massive following and you’ve created all sorts of videos, and everything’s rocking for you right now, can you take us through your creative process? Like, I’ve watched many of your videos, I’ve read your book, you know, I’ve seen a lot of your art. How do you conceptualize those ideas?
Michelle: Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s a lot. I mean, inspiration is everywhere. I always believe that inspiration is around us right now and we just have to open our eyes and our ears and we have to just, you know, soak it in. So I’m always on the hunt for, like, newness and also oldness, too. I’m very inspired by the past and by the new. I’m constantly opening myself up to just, you know, expand my imagination and creativity. So I’m constantly, you know, on the internet. I go through what I like to call the internet black hole, where others find like some crazy trend that’s happening in Asia or a really cool graffiti artist in Amsterdam. You know, I’m just constantly going online and I’m just finding amazing content and artist’s inspiration, music, sound, textures, everything, things all there online.
And even in the real world, I like to unplug myself and I like to go out into the real world and look at nature. I’m so inspired by nature, just the beauty of it and the majesticness of how nature is perfectly designed, and that inspires me a lot, too. And I also get inspired by my dreams. I am a lucid dreamer, so when I dream, I can actually control my dreams. So sometimes in my dreams, I create like crazy shapes I’ve never seen in real life or colors and I experience things that, you know, that really inspires my everyday life.
So, I mean, I’m constantly finding inspiration everywhere, whether it’s in my dream, online, offline through people. Just, you know, opening myself up to that. That’s the first part for my creative process is, you know, just getting inspired. And after that I like to get a little Moleskine or a sketch book, and I just start sketching out shapes and ideas, and I listen to music at the same time, it really helps stimulate my imagination and creativity. And I kind of just zone out. It’s like meditation for me. And I start coming up with all these crazy ideas and I share it with my team and they really help me execute and build that decision.
Nathan: I see. And how often do you do this?
Michelle: Every day.
Nathan: Every day.
Michelle: I have a sketch, I have so many sketchbooks. It’s crazy. I’ve like a library of sketchbook filled with nonsense, most of it filled with nonsense, and a few pages will have gems.
Nathan: I see. Can you take us back to the early days? You know, just when you started your YouTube. No, even before you started your YouTube channel with Asian Avenue because I read about that in your book and I found…
Michelle: Oh, my God, so you read?
Nathan: Yes, I’ve read the book.
Michelle: Oh, my God. I never get to talk about this to people, so this is nice.
Nathan: Yeah, because, look, I think behind every successful person, there’s a lot of, you know, years of building their craft and owning their craft and, you know, interesting story. So, I’d like to touch on that, before your YouTube channel.
Michelle: Sure. This goes back in, like, wow, we’re going back 2002, 2003, or of Myspace and to Friendster, when the internet was truly the Wild, Wild West and so unexplored. I mean, the landscape was so different. AOL was popular. You paid the internet by the hour. So while I was doing the whole dial-up thing, and my family didn’t really understood…they didn’t really get what the internet was, which was great.
So during this time, late at night, when no one was on the phone and I could have, you know, complete access to the internet, I stumbled upon this social media platform for Asian people because back then, I mean, it was really tough for me to find a community that I could just share my culture with because I was in Florida and I was one of the few, if not, only Asian person. So it was really hard for me to connect with other people of my kind, and not that I’m, you know, I’m not racist or anything, it’s just nice to just meet someone else who’s Vietnamese or Asian so we can share or vent about the same situation that we’re going through with our parents.
Because, you know, my family came here and so I’m, I don’t know how you guys define it, I’m second generation, so I don’t know how you guys define it in Australia. Some people consider me to be first generation. So basically, my family came to America after the Vietnam War. And I was born in America and I had a really tough time relating to a lot of people at my school because when I was in California, there was nothing but Asian people at my school. So it was easy for me to just, you know, integrate myself, and it wasn’t until I moved back to Florida, I was one of the only Asian person in it and I felt like an outcast.
And so the internet was really a place for me to find a community and belong to a group, you know. And that happened to be Asian Avenue so it was perfect. And I signed up for my profile, and it was different back then. It wasn’t like Facebook or, you know, social media sites today. It was still very new. I had to learn how to do HTML. So I taught myself HTML.
Nathan: Oh, wow.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah, it’s crazy. And I built out my Asian Avenue site and it was one of the most popular Asian Avenue sites back then. And after Asian Avenue, I went on to Xanga. I don’t know if you know about Xanga. It was a very, very popular blogging site back in the early 2004, 2005. And I built up my Xanga page and put out really good content. And I was the top most subscribed Xanga person. So I always had this track record of just really learning the space, creating good content, and putting it out there, and for some reason, I just happened to be very popular, and I never did it on purpose. I just focused on putting out good content, and I just happened to be popular.
And when Xanga kind of lost steam, then I jump onto YouTube and then I haven’t looked back since. So it’s kind of crazy, like you said, like it’s true. I really, you know, I had a lot of time to nurture my craft which is really storytelling, storytelling and sharing, and having a two-way dialogue with my audience.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. And that’s something I really want to delve deep on because it’s something you’re very, very good at and content is massive right now. So I’m curious, you said you always created good content, how do you define and how do you know it’s good content?
Michelle: You have to understand your audience before you create any content. You know, you have to love what you’re creating. And I always believe you need to be your own number one fan before anyone else. So creating something that you yourself would love and enjoy and there is going to be a niche market that’s going to love and enjoy what you love. You know, it might not be mainstream or mass, but the internet has given people the capabilities to reach a niche market. And the word niche has evolved, it doesn’t mean something small anymore, niche can mean 10 million viewers. I mean, it can mean massive following but still very niche.
So I think, you know, first and foremost, you know, just be your number one fan, know what your vision is when you’re telling the story. Like, what is the underlying theme? What are you trying to convey? What’s your message? And having a strong structure to really execute that story, a beginning, middle, and end.
So as a child I loved stories, I read so many books. I read so many books to the point where I ran out of things to read up in my own library I had. And so I became really bored and I started reading the encyclopedia. So I always had a fascination to just learn. And when the internet came on board, it was crazier for me because it was more up-to-date than the encyclopedia. And, you know, with Wikipedia now, I’m always constantly on Wikipedia reading new things. So that’s another element of storytelling that’s strong, is just constantly updating yourself and educating yourself with stories from the past, present, and looking towards the future.
Nathan: I see. And you are, yes, essentially a storyteller. Do you have like a rule book or anything that you follow for telling these stories? I know, like, you are very good at making yourself vulnerable. Was that something always that came naturally to you?
Michelle: I don’t know if there’s a rule book. I mean, honestly, it’s very intuitive, you know, it’s like asking a pianist or a painter, you know, like, “How do you do this?” It just comes from within, and I believe everyone has a talent that’s very special and unique to them, like a fingerprint. And I think one of my strong talents is storytelling. I know how to package together something that can entertain someone and really bring out emotions and really put together the elements of visuals and music and sounds and putting something together that can really entertain someone. I was actually very, very good at that at a very young age.
My mom told me when I was very young, and I don’t remember this, I would draw out my own stories and comic books, and she kept them, of course. And at school whenever there was some sort of project that involved PowerPoint, I always won the competition. I was really good at, like, putting together a presentation with music and, you know, just everything, putting together the whole package and delivering a great experience to someone. So it’s hard for me to really say that there’s a rule book. I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot of things you can find, but a natural storyteller just knows how to tell a story.
Honestly, if you wanna learn how to tell stories, like, my biggest recommendation is just watch movie trailers. With movie trailers, it’s a great way to learn how to tell a story. Like, they tell the entire story in two minutes. So that’s one thing I do, I just watch a lot of commercials and movie trailers when I’m bored.
Nathan: I see. And when it came to the early days with YouTube, how long did you spend creating your ad?
Michelle: I still create it to this day. I still edit my own videos and shoot it myself, but back in 2007, no one had a rule book. No one had a tutorial on how to create these videos. I just did it myself and I experimented and I tried something new and I shot my own videos on a webcam and I learned iMovie. And, you know, it’s just something I applied to my own life. You know, I just wanted to try something new and experiment.
For the first two or three years, I wasn’t even making money on YouTube. It was pure passion, pure hobby, just something for me to do on the side because school was becoming so stressful and I needed another outlet to just vent and to express my creativity. And that happened to be my YouTube channel.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right. I’m actually surprised you still do the editing to this day.
Michelle: Well, it’s important for me to still maintain my editing because that’s part of my style as a storyteller. That’s like, you know, that would be like finding an artist and, you know…or Banksy is not even doing his own work anymore. He has someone else doing it, you know. I’m not comparing myself to him or like having a Picasso, Rubin, not painting and having their student do it. But like I said, I’m not comparing this. It’s like the equivalent.
So I’m a master of my own art. And it’s important for me to still create my own art. But it’s come to a point where I might have to offset it and find a team. And I also wanna find talented editors so I can help them. If one day, they wanna create a movie or edit something on their own, they have the capabilities and the tools and resources to do it.
Nathan: Okay. And you mentioned that for the first couple of years, you weren’t even really making much money. Did you ever think that this YouTube thing would take off and you would create this business and you would build a community, and now, you’ve got your other companies and stuff like that? Did you ever think that it would get to that?
Michelle: Well, I wasn’t making any money at all, like zero money for the first two or three years. It wasn’t even little money, it was zero money. In fact, if anything, I was spending money to make these videos. I had to buy all the supplies. But I never would have…I mean, I knew that the internet and creating my channel was gonna be valuable to me because, you know, when you’re an influencer and you have a following, that’s valuable to anyone. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. If you are influential and you have a big following, that’s valuable.
So I knew that I was doing the right thing, and at the time, I was an art student. I was an illustration student, and I just wanted to do something that was creative in the world of illustrations. And I knew that if I had a good following and I could show that in my resume and portfolio to someone who was hiring me, they would probably choose me over someone else who might not have a really big following, and if we had the same level of talent.
So I knew maybe this could give me a different edge than everyone else. So that was my inclination when I was going at this, but I never knew in a million years that it would become a massive multimillion-dollar business. Absolutely not. And still to this day, like, I don’t really do any of this for the money. I mean, money is a byproduct of doing what you love and what you’re really good at. But it shouldn’t be the driver, if that makes any sense. I believe the driver should be your passion and your purpose.
Nathan: One last question, and that’s around Ipsy. You know, what advice or what’s been your biggest learning lesson from starting that business that our audience can learn from?
Michelle: Oh, gosh, I mean, so many. But if there’s one big ultimate lesson that we all learned, is that you can’t be scared of failure. You can’t be scared of failure. And it’s all about trial and error, especially when you’re building a company that’s so new and they’re not following a certain guideline or rule book. I mean, we were doing something different and no one was really doing what we were doing, but we knew that we had to try a little bit of everything to see what would fit. So I really believe in the idea of trial and error and not being scared of failure because failure is really a key component of success. You have to fail to know where you should not be going, and it will lead you in the right direction.
Nathan: I see. And, when it comes to YouTube, any tips or tricks on getting started? This will have to be my last question. Any tips, tricks, anything on getting started to build up your YouTube channel on following? What’s your number one?
Michelle: A big tip of mine is to know your audience. Know your audience meaning know what content you should be making. So don’t just like go on YouTube and do a bunch of vlogs and then the next day, you wanna become a movie director, if that makes any sense, but you have to have a direction, at least a starting point.
When I started I was teaching and I was a beauty guru. And still to this day, I’m still teaching and sharing, but now, I can teach people not just about beauty but everything else, lifestyle. So finding that vision and finding that starting point. So if you’re a comedian, start off with comedy videos or comedy shorts instead of doing, I don’t know, I’m trying to think, like exercise videos, if that makes any sense. So really understanding your audience and knowing what content you wanna put out and what content you are good at putting out.
And the second thing is keeping the content consistent. The whole idea of viral videos was it was popular back then, but now, anyone can have a viral video. And a viral video doesn’t have a lasting effect. It has a very short lifespan, shelf-life. And you can have a video that has like 50 million views, but if all your other videos have less than 100,000 views, I mean, that’s not valuable. It’s just a one-hit wonder. You know, it’s the digital one-hit wonder of music.
And the final thing is that have a sense of passion and purpose. If you’re not passionate about doing these YouTube videos, you’re gonna burn out really fast because people underestimate how difficult making a channel and creating consistent content. They think it’s easy, “Oh, I think I should’ve vlog and just edit this.” Actually, it’s much more than that. You have to, especially when you’re doing on your own, you’re your own producer, editor, shooter, lighter. I mean, you’re doing everything. And it will burn out. You’re gonna burn out so fast if you’re not passionate about it. So really be passionate about what you are creating, and then have a sense of purpose so that the journey is fun and exciting. And that’s it.
- Learn more about Michelle on her website
- Visit Michelle Phan’s official website http://michellephan.com/
- Check out Michelle’s Youtube Channel
- Follow Michelle on Twitter
- Visit Michelle’s Facebook page
- Follow Michelle on Instagram
- Learn more about Ipsy
- Check out Michelle’s book: Make Up: Your Life Guide to Beauty, Style, and Success–Online and Off