One evening on a chilly night in Idaho, Colette Butler filmed her husband Shay as he pranced around their home in one of her old leotards. Although a mindless action with the sole purpose of capturing her husband’s obscure behavior, this turned out to be the moment that changed her family’s lives forever. After hearing about a relatively new website where you could upload your own videos, Shay, who has never been one to take himself too seriously, decided to throw the clip online and share the hilarity with whomever happened to stumble across it. So, with a few minutes of processing and one swift click of the upload button, the ‘Shaytards’ were born.
Part of the appeal of the daily vlogging channel from the get go was that the Butlers represented the everyman family. They weren’t jet-setting across Europe in private planes, driving ferraris, or lathered in diamonds and Chanel. They were real and from your first introduction to them, it felt like you knew them. They were the family you’d see at neighborhood barbecues, or town-wide football games, or at the local swimming pool. They were such a stark contrast from the reality show zombies that dominated entertainment that you couldn’t help but fall in love and want to keep up with them.
Eight years and 4.2 million subscribers later, Shay and Colette Butler are now seen as one of the founding families in the world of YouTube. As pioneers for this new frontier of entertainment, the two, alongside their group of their close Internet friends, have paved the path of what it means to be a vlogger. Over the years, the family has had to decide what, and how much, to share with their quickly expanding audience—a decision that, even to this day, is always changing.
It must be strange though, right? To have millions of people know all about you having only known one another through a computer screen? You would think it would present a sort of odd dynamic when the opportunity to meet in person does arise.
“I met a girl last night named Samantha and she said she’s been watching for seven or eight years and she supported us in all our endeavors,” explains Colette, as we sit across from each other in a lower Manhattan hotel room. The room is emptied of all bearings that would make it resemble anything other than maybe the set of a talk show. It’s professionally lit and decorated modestly, with only a Tribeca Film Festival backdrop as part of the press junket for their new film, Vlogumentary, which premiered the night before. “She started getting teary eyed when she told me how she lost 70 pounds watching Shay going through his weight loss journey and it’s just like I know her. I didn’t need to know more than that to know her.”
“You can’t understand it, unless you’re in it,” continues Shay, jumping off his wife’s point. “YouTube is weird, man. For outsiders, it’s like, ‘Who are these people that are putting their lives online and why are other people invested in them?’ You can’t understand it unless you take the step to upload a video, or make your first comment, or follow a creator for more than one video.”
“But it works both ways,” Colette adds. “Like when we meet people like our friend Molly, from Make-A-Wish, and she tells us we inspire her. Watching what she is going through, it’s like no—you inspire us! The connectivity to the amount of people and stories that we have is just amazing to me.”
In the near decade that they’ve been at this, their lives (and YouTube) have transformed dramatically. What used to be a small and tight-knit group of people has grown exponentially into a large community with seemingly endless avenues. Still, growth can be scary and a recent debate between long time YouTube fans is that the community, as a whole, is starting to dissolve and it is now nothing more than another big business.
“I mean, [the YouTube community] is fragmented, maybe,” observes Shay. “But, I look at it like a family and yeah, as it gets bigger, it’s harder to stay connected, but that’s just like any family.” Seeing as there are more than 2,000 channels with over 1 million subscribers and 300 hours of content being uploaded every minute, of course it’s impossible to keep up with it all.
“You know, that happens all the time. I’ll meet someone and it’ll be like, ‘You have a million subscribers? And I’ve never heard of you before?’” continues Shay. “That’s what is so great about the YouTube community, how diverse it is and how unique people are found within it. Even so, I think the community at large is still there. There are still community heads that people look up to, like the Vlog Brothers or Phil DeFranco, people who have been doing it a while. I’m so proud of the community; I feel like I want it to be strong.”
While many kids these days fantasize about getting to hang out with their favorite YouTube stars, that’s an everyday reality for Shay’s kids, who are featured regularly in the vlogs. “I don’t think they really ‘fangirl,’” says Shay. “If they met Taylor Swift, I’m sure the girls would freak out, but they definitely have their favorites of who they watch. Gavin watches The Wassabi Brothers and Emmy watches NerdyNummies all the time. We’ve been to Vidcon and they’ll be like, ‘Dad, Dad, Dad!’ It’s interesting to watch my kids become fans of YouTubers.”
Over the past two years or so, YouTubers have reached unprecedented levels of success, both offline and online. The rest of the world has seemed to catch up to this phenomenon and new doors have continued to open up; between the book deals, TV appearances, movies, and billions of ‘secret projects’ and ‘exciting meetings,’ it’s incredible that creators even have time to breathe.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” laughs Colette, as we think back about all the crazy experiences the family has had because of their channel. They’ve been invited to the White House, started a clothing company, and became best-selling authors, to name a few.
“When people say, ‘You can do anything,’ I’m like, ‘I know, because I can’t believe the stuff we’ve gotten to do already,’” agrees Shay, smiling proudly. “The ‘pinch me’ moments happen a lot more in the beginning. You just kind of wander around like, ‘Can you believe this?’ It’s been so overwhelming and the opportunities just keep coming. Now, it’s sort of like, ‘How can we take it to this next level?’ I don’t know. It’s just that ‘always wanting to grow’ mentality and I think the secret is not finding happiness in those achievements.” Shay clarifies, explaining that he doesn’t mean that he isn’t grateful or excited by the unpredictable moments. Rather, he feels those moments should just be part of the ride, not the measurement of success.
Over time, YouTube has continued to transition into an industry, and more and more money has gotten involved. Alongside the experiential perks, there are also some pretty lofty financial gains from being a successful YouTuber. For instance, Shay and Collette were the founding talent partners in Maker Studios, which sold to Disney for $675 million. And no, they didn’t get all of that.
“The day that Maker sold to Disney, Colette called me and I said, ‘Have you seen our account? Go check our Wells Fargo!’ There was one moment of ‘Oh my gosh!’ and then, the next minute it was like, ‘Okay, so, what’s for dinner?’ People think once they get rich, they’ll be so happy, but nothing changes,” says Shay, the atmosphere of the room shifting ever so slightly.
Still, just like any other relationship, once money gets involved, awkward strains can develop between creator and viewer—something Shay and Colette had to face when various news outlets reported on the details of the sale. So, how do you stay relatable to your audience, but also truthful to the reality of your life and business?
“I’ll be honest with you: it’s hard,” admits Shay. “Now that we have more money, it sort of feels like some people have turned on us. It feels like we can’t express to our audience when we’re going through hard times because they will be like, ‘Whatever, you’re rich. You can’t complain. You’re rich.’ But that doesn’t change anything; we’ve learned that money really doesn’t bring happiness.”
“I think what has changed the most, is that now people know,” adds Colette, grabbing hold of Shay’s hand. “I mean, we were doing fine before that. Honestly, people finding out almost made it worse because all of a sudden we were not ‘relatable.’”
“Maybe we should share that more?” Shay questions aloud, the thought hanging in the air. “I think that people would understand that. It’s just hard to talk about. You get that weird feeling any time money gets brought up. The only solace I have is that people have been watching us for eight years,” he says. “They know where we come from; they know I’m not some stuck up rich guy. We were broke. We were living on food stamps. Our kids were sleeping on the same mattress on the floor; we couldn’t afford box springs for our freaking three kids. So now, it’s sort of like, ‘Look, you can make it, too!’”
He continues, “It just takes time and hard work and all that bull crap stuff you learn in kindergarten, like, ‘Never give up. Keep trying. Have a good attitude.’ All that stuff that seems like clichés, that’s the secret—that’s the secret sauce to life. It takes twenty years to become an overnight success.”
Although being a YouTuber is technically his job, a term Shay says he uses loosely to describe what he feels is a calling, and with the sale of Maker, he no longer has to do this. “It’s a secret temptation of mine,” he admits. “I have this great desire where I want to disappear in the mountains and delete all my accounts. For now, I want to make the vlogs my priority again. For how long we’ll do them for, I don’t know. It’s the biggest question in my life.”
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YouTube’s The Shaytards Talk Vlogging Success: Photographed by Kallie Porter