Learn Korean with GO!

How The High-Spirited American Educator and Writer Teaches the Korean Language on YouTube.

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November 16, 2020

Who are you and what kind of content do you create?

I’m a Los Angeles born educator who teaches the Korean language through my channel “Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean.” Although I’m from Los Angeles, I visit Korea once every year (except 2020) for a few months, and I consider Korea my second home. I’ve been teaching Korean since 2012, and it’s my full-time thing. Most of my teaching is through videos on my YouTube channel, but I also write books, make games, and recently started tutoring.

My YouTube channel originally started with frustration and boredom. In 2011, I would often try to help other Korean learners online by answering questions to find the same questions repeated the next week by different learners. I quickly realized that the reason for their confusion was that there weren’t very many sources for learning Korean online. Also, a disturbingly large percentage of learners relied on romanization (learning Korean through only the English alphabet), which also caused many other issues by itself. The next year in 2012, I decided to start my small series for answering some of these common questions, just out of boredom while I was unemployed and looking for a job.

People seemed to enjoy my viewers right from the beginning, so I decided to continue the channel as a hobby and a distraction from my slowly diminishing bank account. Months later, when I finally was able to land a typical job, I kept up the channel by filming and uploading one video every week without fail. This eventually led me to today. But I wasn’t always teaching Korean and making YouTube videos full-time. It started in 2014 with my first textbook, “Korean Made Simple.” The small but stable sales of that book allowed me to invest in my YouTube content and create more language-related content that I wanted.

I’ve had a lot of help through the years from other YouTubers who helped bring eyes to the Kickstarter project for my first book, as well as native Korean friends lending me their voices for my ongoing “Beginner Korean Course.” But many people may be surprised to find out that I run the channel and my brand entirely independently. This includes all of the writing, filming, and editing for my videos too. This is a two-edged sword, as doing everything by myself means that I have to do everything. But as I’m still a relatively “smaller” YouTube channel in terms of views, there entirely aren’t enough extra funds to hire anyone full time.

Let's go down memory lane, tell us your backstory! 

Since I was probably twelve years old when my mom bought the family a camcorder, I’ve been making short films - I was perhaps the only person who used that camcorder. So I was used to the process of writing and editing before I started making videos about Korean. For my YouTube channel, I probably spent just two days writing, filming, and editing my first video, including selecting the title music, deciding on a channel name and icon, and putting together the intro graphic (which was just a slow zoom into this image below, with some color changes).

Writing took the most time because I had no idea what sort of style the videos should be. Looking back, it turned out fine. Here’s a snippet of the original script for my first episode (which I ended up changing while filming):

“여러분 안녕하세요! 저는 ‘빌리’라고 합니다. 반갑습니다!” (huge smile)

(pause, as if listening to something off-camera)

“What?!” (shocked) “You don’t speak Korean? Well if you don’t speak Korean, then what the he-” (weirded out) – cut

“Hi! I’m Billy! I heard that you’re interested in learning Korean. That’s great! I’m going to be teaching you some Korean!”

Then it was “lights” (I had no lights yet), “camera” (camcorder ready!), “sound” (a $20 on-camera microphone I bought from eBay), and “action.” And then, I uploaded everything into my editing software of choice, Sonic Foundry Video Factory, from 2001. Funnily enough, the program I still use for editing today (Vegas Pro) was initially developed from that same piece of software.

My videos aren’t the best quality (still), but it’s easy to see improvement over the years. I’m always working hard to improve my videos’ quality, including sound, writing, and editing. Watching other professional YouTubers’ videos also helps inspire me to improve my own videos. I hope that someday soon, I can improve my overall video quality on my own to match what some other small companies YouTube channels are capable of.

How do you brainstorm ideas for your content and your advice in getting the creative juice flowing.

I have a gigantic OneNote book filled with all of my ideas, categorized by the video topic. There are outlines for videos that I’d like to make the next time I visit Korea and even highly specific Korean topics that I can’t make yet but would someday like to. It also includes ideas I have for new books, general concepts, and tips I’ve found related to improving my channel, future collaboration ideas, and even an idea for a new game.

I used to be always unsure of what my next video should be. I had a long list of ideas for Korean grammar topics that I could teach, but didn’t want my channel just to be a storage for grammar lessons - I wanted more variety. Watching other people’s videos - not Korean language videos but only videos in general - helped me get plenty of ideas for different content types. I imagined myself appearing in those videos more efficiently, which helped me filter through my video ideas before filming. Through doing that, I learned my brand had more potential to grow past a “grammar lesson” channel and into what it is today. And I still feel there is a lot of possibilities to expand further beyond where it is today.

So many people showed up to my very first fan meeting today at the Han River!

Something that helped me recently (although I can’t for the life of me remember who I heard it from) is to think of new ideas starting from the title. Just start planning a video using a catchy title, and base the video around that. I used to make videos starting from what content I wanted to show, but more recently decided I’d start by choosing a good title. If I couldn’t figure out a good title, it meant that perhaps nobody would even want to click on the video. If I picked a good title and based the video around that, it also helped me get a better idea of what my viewers would expect from that title. I’m still working on this myself, but it’s something recently I found that I think will overall be helpful to me.

What are the tools and platforms you use to help with your brand?

I’m on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Patreon, and my Discord channel. I use Vegas Pro For video editing, Audacity for audio, and Affinity Photo for image editing. For any effects or compositing, I use Blender and Fusion. But if you asked me two years ago, most of these answers would be different (except for Vegas Pro). I usually use whatever I can get for free when it comes to software to save my money for hardware (my filming gear).

Besides that, I occasionally use FL Studio to make music (for specific videos), Inkscape for editing vector art, Aegisub for subtitling my videos (along with a USB foot pedal), and Pyxel Edit to make animated GIFs.

What were your fears starting out? How did you handle it? 

I wasn’t afraid of what people would think of my videos. I also watch my videos while making them, so I know if I’ve made something entertaining or not before it’s even uploaded. And fortunately, I don’t often get negative comments. It’s usually just a random troll comment or a spam account, which is easy to ignore or delete if I do. Because I focus on education, my videos attract a different viewer - people trying to learn Korean.

But I was afraid of the camera. Although I’d been making short films since I was younger, I usually didn’t star in them. Until about 3 or 4 years ago, I couldn’t look directly into the camera lens while filming a video. Instead, I’d look slightly off to the side or into the monitor. Sometimes a simple sentence - one that I could say without thinking about it - used to take ten to twenty takes in front of the camera to get right.

I wasn’t afraid to be filmed, but it felt like my viewers were judging me - I knew that everything I said on video was permanent. This included my Korean. As soon as I started recording, it became more difficult to speak the Korean words I already knew. As I continued making more and more videos, and once I started collaborating with other YouTubers to make videos together, this fear eventually subsided. Just doing the thing I was afraid of more and more ultimately helped me get over my anxiety.

How did you build your brand to where it is now, take us through your process.

When I was still starting, I remember tweeting to another YouTube channel, asking if they had any tips for me as a new Korean teacher. This was their reply:

I didn’t understand why consistency was so crucial at the time, but I decided I’d do that. Since I first started my channel until now, I’ve always uploaded videos every week. It was one video per week for the first several years, and then in 2018, I started posting two videos per week. This year due to my “Beginner Korean Course,” it varies between three and five videos per week.

When I started my channel, PSY’s song “Gangnam Style” had just gotten popular, and due to the new interest in learning Korean, I was able to quickly reach my first one thousand subscribers. Growth has been slow but steady since then, and each time a new K-pop celebrity or Korean TV show grows in popularity, there are always new fans who become interested in learning the language.

As I mentioned, when I first started, I just had a camcorder and a very cheap microphone with a noticeable hiss. This meant I had to do a lot of audio editing to make the sound clearer. One of my first fans donated his extra Blue Yeti USB microphone for recording my narrations. And since I started the channel when I wasn’t employed, I had no money to invest in myself to buy any more equipment.

Every time I recorded audio, I had to bring the file into Audacity to do noise removal. But instead of removing background noise like air conditioners or cars, I was pulling the hiss of the microphone itself and the sound of the wind blowing over my non-functional windscreen. But the troubles didn’t end there. Because I recorded with a camcorder, everything was on tape - actually, it was all on one single tape (I couldn’t afford a pack of new tapes). Sometimes when reviewing the footage, frames would skip and freeze, or there’d be quality loss. Sometimes I’d re-film, use a different take, or just delete the scene and edit around it.

One day when my channel was still in its infancy, my laptop - with eight videos I hadn’t yet uploaded on its hard drive - decided to die. I was panicking because I had no other way to edit, needed to get a new computer right away, and was worried that I’d lost those videos. Fortunately, I was able to remove the dead laptop’s hard drive, recover those videos, and then build a new computer that costs less than a new laptop. Since then, I have also decided never to leave any critical files on my computer without duplicating copy.

That was my situation from 2012 until 2014 when I finally purchased my first real camera (Panasonic GH3) along with a better microphone, a tripod that’s not made of plastic, and my first set of (budget) lights using $6 can lights from Walmart. I’ve never been able to afford much professional gear or any sort of crew, but I’m always looking for better equipment and learning more about what I have to improve my videos. Fortunately, since then, I’ve once again upgraded everything that I use to make videos and, therefore, now only blame myself for any low-quality videos that I upload.

For someone who wants to get into content creation, what is your advice?

I guess if I were to go back to the beginning, I would’ve spent just a bit more time making the quality of my videos better. I didn’t have anything better than my camcorder at the time, but I possibly could have borrowed a phone (which all had better HD video at the time than my camcorder). At the time, I was luckier, and people were less caring about high-quality videos on YouTube, so I got a pass. But nowadays, I think it would hurt my ability to gain subscribers.

Also, I would’ve spent more time preparing for a video before filming it - and then having to fix it during the edit. My first videos had scripts, but I had no idea what the final product would turn out like because I didn’t sit down and go over them more than once or twice. So I definitely would’ve slowed down a bit and re-wrote some scripts to make them better, including my lesson contents.

Next, this is something I didn’t think much about in the beginning. I would’ve considered my viewers a bit more - what they wanted to see, and where they were with their Korean learning. I was making videos at first that I wanted to make and teaching lessons that I wanted to teach, but there were topics my viewers would have benefited from at the time that I didn’t even consider. I wasn’t trying to put myself in my viewers’ shoes or think about what they would think when they clicked one of my videos.

Another thing is collaboration. I knew I had to reach a certain number of subscribers before I could start requesting collaborations from larger YouTube channels. But what I didn’t know is that there were other channels out there besides the giant ones that I was aiming toward. I did some essential collaborations with my friends while in Korea, but I probably could have met with other smaller channels at the time to help grow my channel (and theirs). It’s possible that even just by connecting with different channels, I could have been led toward even more opportunities down the road.

If I had any other advice for someone who feels their content is stagnating or they aren’t growing, it might be this:

Try to take a step back from everything and look at the big picture.

I don’t necessarily mean taking a long break. I mean to try to think about the channel from a third party’s perspective - someone who’s not already subscribed to you. If you were that person, would you watch your videos? What sort of person would you be if you did watch any? If you wouldn’t watch, then why? How can that person even find out about your content? If they found one of your videos, would they want to watch any others?

The most important ways that I improved were when I answered “no” to these questions and figured out the “why.” In my case, I wasn’t making enough content that was shareable, or discoverable, or even enjoyable to watch. This is what I still am working toward improving.

How did you finally commit to X platform rather than your regular day job?

I’d been doing YouTube for over a year and had just lost my job early 2014. So I had a few months of rent saved up, and I’d been working already (slowly) on a textbook called “Korean Made Simple.” I was tired and frustrated because it took me a long time even to find that job. And I wasn’t eager to start the whole application process over again. So I took a small gamble and decided that I’d work full time on finishing up my book for a couple of months and then look for a regular job.

I mentioned my Kickstarter project above, which was successful. I could afford everything that I needed to finish and print the book and didn’t have to go back to job hunting. The sales from my book for the very first month were just around $2000 - enough to pay my $1350 a month rent at the time (thanks Los Angeles), including my utilities, insurance bills, and some groceries. It was a lot less than I needed to live comfortably, but I knew if I could somehow keep working hard it would be able to work out. After that, I got right to work on the sequel, and then a couple of years later, the third book.

I wish I could say that I’m comfortably living in a mansion near the Hollywood sign, but this educational work often doesn’t pay a large amount of money. However, it is enough to survive on (as well as travel to Korea yearly) and continue investing in my channel. Most of my earnings come from my several books, and then after those a small amount from YouTube ads, my wonderful Patreon supporters, and occasional donors.

Tell us your best milestones in being a content creator.

The first real milestone for my channel was when I hit 100,000 subscribers. Getting the Silver Play Button kind of made everything feel a bit more realistic. I guess I’d always imagined that once my channel reached that many subscribers, I would be making enough money in ad revenue to be self-sufficient. But I learned that’s not the case at all. Several other things started happening around that time. I began to get recognized when in Korea - on the subway or just walking down the street. It felt weird because I’m not a celebrity, but within the Korean learning community, so many people had heard of me or used my materials.

Growing larger also opened up more doors for me to collaborate with others. I learned how to dance from a newish K-pop group (photo below), collaborate several times with the largest Korean learning company TTMIK, hang out with my clone, and even help other Korean teaching channels reach a larger audience.

What are your marketing strategies to grow your brand?

I’ve tried some paid advertising through Google, Facebook, and Twitter, but haven’t seen many great results. I suppose I’d get better results if I were willing to spend thousands of dollars, but I’m not. Instead, the best advertising channel for my channel above anything else has been just making better content. My subscribers are the ones who advertise my channel, when others ask what materials they use for learning Korean. Even the best collaboration imaginable won’t get me a significant number of new subscribers or views if I don’t have good content to keep them around.

I also feel that connecting with similar channels in my niche has been helpful. For me, that means other YouTube creators that teach the Korean language. Even if it doesn’t help me directly with my channel to gain subscribers, at least perhaps it can help them. Or even if we never collaborate, it’s just nice to have some support now and then from other people producing related content. Being a “YouTuber” can be stressful, and it’s important to keep a network of people and friends to help - whether it’s for help related to videos or just someone to stay in touch with.

How do you handle brand deals and sponsorships? 

I’ve never done any brand deals or sponsorships. The closest thing to a “paid” spot I’ve ever done was when I contacted Aputure and RØDE to see if they’d be willing to send any free gear my way. Aputure said they’d send me a couple of small lights if I made a video teaching lighting terminology in Korean and just dropped their name (awesome!). RØDE mailed me an on-camera microphone asking only for a mention in my video. I already used and liked these brands, so it didn’t even relate to my YouTube content otherwise.

In my niche (teaching Korean), I can’t really think of any sort of sponsorships that I’d do, which would match with my channel, so I’ve avoided them entirely. I understand this hurts my ability to generate more money; I’ve been offered to make sponsored videos more times than I can count. If your content would allow that sort of sponsorships, by all means, do that. But it’s just not the sort of image I want for my channel or my brand.

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