My name is Dylan Garton, a UK-based video producer, and I created the Skill Builder YouTube channel with builder and journalist Roger Bisby to help professional builders and serious DIYers. We have a mixture of product reviews, how-to videos, behind the scenes views on building sites. We also have a podcast that combines wide-ranging advice and support for tradespeople.
I started working with Roger back in 2003 on training and corporate videos for Worcester Bosch, Jewson, and Bostik. We initially created a channel called ‘Self Builder’ in 2008, but we were both too busy to give it the deserved attention. We eventually decided that targeting the self-build market was a bit limiting, and it was time to have something for everybody in the construction and building industry.
In November of 2013, we launched Skill Builder, but it still played second fiddle to our ‘proper’ jobs. In my case, I was working as a freelance on sports coverage for broadcast television and also seeking commissions for corporate videos, which often meant collaboration with Roger. During this time, Roger was writing for several building industry publications at Hamerville Media, including Professional Builder and Professional Heating and Plumbing Installer magazines. He also got involved in various television shows like Rogue Traders and Dirty Tricks of the Tradesmen.
Most of our ideas come from building projects that we’re working on. At any one time, we might have three construction or house extension projects on the go, and we get lots of inquiries from potential sponsors or power tool manufacturers, and we figure out the best way to blend the products with the project. Being in a collaborative partnership also means that we’re not always enthusiastic about each other’s ideas. Roger likes being on-site filming multi-episode projects, which requires lots of editing time. Still, more recently, I’ve tried to steer us back to content that doesn’t span many months and can be shot, edited, and published relatively quickly.
One precious element that we don’t use enough is a good story. Take, for example, one of our most popular videos, Leaking Shower Horror Show.
This episode wasn’t the first time we’d covered renovating shower rooms, but the story was good. It featured a house that was a relatively newly built, but the plumbing and craftsmanship were genuinely appalling, and this became our first viral hit (by our standards anyway!).
We’ve been using Canon cameras for some time now for stills and video work. Roger has been using his trusty 5D MkII for stills photography and has recently bought a Canon XF705 for his video work. We live 50 miles apart, so when he’s finished filming, he uses FTP to upload all of the footage to my Synology DiskStation file server which is always on. I review the footage and start editing using Adobe Premiere, which I’ve been using since 2001. I know Adobe has its critics, and they’re nowhere near free of technical problems, but I wouldn’t be without a Creative Cloud subscription because I use so many of the apps. If I only used video editing software and started from scratch, I would consider DaVinci Resolve because Premiere is very buggy, and Adobe seems to value new features over stability.
YouTube is our main platform, but more recently, we’ve been publishing our back catalogue on Facebook and Instagram to raise our profile across all social media platforms. It’s tough doing all of this work in a small team, but I want to offer value to our sponsors, and many of them have their preferred platform, so we need a good following across the board. We started a podcast because I love the idea of a format that can be consumed while doing something else like walking the dog, and they’re great for making long drives feel shorter. Another bonus is that you get to appear on all kinds of apps and devices like Amazon’s Echo, and you can listen to the Skill Builder podcast on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, and many other places.
At the start, we had no fear because most of our uploads were videos created for our clients, and they had already been paid for, so the channel acted as a portfolio of our work, so there was no pressure to create extra revenue.
After the initial slow growth, we could see that more time would be needed to make having a YouTube channel worthwhile, not just production time, but we hadn’t even thought about handling the comments and inquiries. We were in a good position, though, because Roger was completely comfortable presenting to the camera, having worked on Watchdog for the BBC, The Terrace for ITV, and the shopping channel QVC without the need for autocue or scripts. I regret that we didn’t publish regularly enough at the start, and we only really got going seriously in 2015.
Roger is a well-known industry figure, so we had an advantage with credibility. We could use the products Roger was reviewing for the publications he worked on for our video content. Fans would often spot Roger in the builder’s merchants, and people would say, “you’re that guy from the magazine!” But as our channel grew, that changed to “Hey, you’re Roger Bisby from the Skill Builder channel.” This kind of recognition encouraged us to create our first product comparison video, something we would later call a ‘showdown.’ We compared loads of different cordless drills, and Roger spent countless hours drilling in his shed to determine the best models.
The drill showdown was our most ambitious project to date, and the first time we had committed to many days of production without knowing if it would pay off. At this stage, Google AdSense has not monetised the channel, so we knew it wasn’t going to put any money in the coffers, but the effort was worth it because it gave us subscribers and lots of fan engagement and our brand was born.
I think the worst thing anyone can do when it comes to starting a YouTube channel, or any venture for that matter, is not going all-in. If you decide to publish a little bit and see if the world approves, you are wasting your time. Imagine that approach in any other business. It’s nonsense. Pick your publishing frequency (once a day or once a week) and stick to it for at least 100 times so that you can collect useful data and get a feel for what your fans like.
Once you’ve decided on your subject and looking at the competition, it’s effortless to be intimidated by an established content creator, even to the extent where you don’t want to start. I like the quote,
Don't compare your beginning to someone else's middle, or your middle to someone else's end.
There will almost certainly be at least ten other people doing what you’re about to start, so you need to bring something different to the table. If, for example, you’re going to review cameras, you are going up against some excellent talent, so you need to add a unique touch rather than try to copy their success. If they make 30-minute in-depth videos, you can make 5-minute overview videos.
Our hand was somewhat forced when it came to committing to working full time on the channel because Roger’s time in printed media came to an end, and my ongoing work in sports coverage fizzled out. However, the timing was right because we had started to get our first sponsorships, and the numbers were good enough to enable adverts on YouTube. We still do other work as freelancers because advertising revenue and sponsorships are unpredictable, and some months the advertising money drops to half of the previous month. I’m working on some projects in a completely different field and jumping back into Skill Builder to keep the plates spinning. It’s tough.
We hit 100k subscribers and got the play button plaque, which is a good feeling, but for me, I like getting a video over 1 million views, maybe it’s because we’ve only got four videos out of 460 that have done this! Getting big brands on board as sponsors is gratifying and remind us of how far we’ve come since 2013, and the hard work has been worth it, but we’ve got a long way to go before we see another plaque from YouTube.
One of the things that helped our growth was getting carpenter and joiner Robin Clevett on the team as a contributor. Carpentry is a hugely popular subject. Robin is very talented and is building his fanbase, so over the last three years, Roger has helped him hone his presenting skills and co-presented in many of our videos. We are now bringing in more people to present videos with a broader range of subjects. We have recently showcased the work of James King from The Supreme Finishing Company, who is working on house extensions and loft conversions, and he’s bringing some new techniques and subjects that help Skill Builder’s growth.
Podcasts are becoming more and more popular, and we’re making changes for season 2 of the Skill Builder podcast, which will now, in addition to topic discussions, merge with our Ask Skill Builder support show. We will also feature interviews, products, and things that aren’t suitable for a dedicated Skill Builder episode but will work as a snippet in a long-form show with lots of variety.
We found that sponsorship offerings and product placement opportunities only started to arrive when we got to around 10,000 subscribers, and many of them we turned down. After all, some brands were looking for paid reviews that don’t work because nobody is going to pay you to criticise their product, and a glowing review in a sponsored video will lead to lost subscribers, respect, and the comments area will be toxic.
We had a well-known retailer interested in sponsoring a series of videos, and it was all looking promising. We showed them our plan for an excellent natural placement. The problem was that this company was used to placing adverts on television, and working with influencers was a new venture for them. They wanted us to say things that were not true and would be damaging to our reputation, and the money on the table started looking dirty.
Sponsors will always say your fee is too high, especially when the deal is through an agency because naturally, they want their cut to be decent. Many of them want you to work in exchange for the product and won’t offer any cash, which is fine if the product has value to you, but you need to make sure the flattery hasn’t gone to your head. I urge you to stick to your guns at your preferred price. Remember that creating a 2-minute sponsor spot will involve emailing back and forth, maybe a Zoom call, then you’ve got to write a script or rough plan. Next will be filming a piece to camera or getting the product in the studio, then editing, then approval, and perhaps re-editing. By the time you’ve finished the piece, I guarantee you will feel frustrated and angry when you realise you’ve been working for less than minimum wage.
Have self-worth and the courage to walk away from a deal that doesn’t suit you, because the time you spend on that cheap advert could be spent on a killer piece of content that attracts a more suitable future sponsor.