Finance and Investments

The Plain Bagel

How A Portfolio Manager Put Fun And Flair To Finance, Economics, & Investing In His Content Creation

Finance and Investments
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May 28, 2022

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

My name’s Richard Coffin and I’m based in Ottawa, Canada. I am the creator and host of the finance YouTube channel “The Plain Bagel”. The channel is focused on educating viewers about investing, economics, and broader personal finance topics.

 

I actually work full time as a registered portfolio manager where I research stocks, advise clients, and invest their money for them. In a way, The Plain Bagel is just another medium for helping people with finances, albeit with more dumb jokes and flair than in my day job. I do everything from scriptwriting, to filming, to even animating myself, and while I started the channel as a hobby (and still treat it as such given that I work a 9-5), it’s become a pretty successful side hustle.

I get asked a lot about the channel name. Well, it comes from something a professor of mine said during a lecture on business law at the university: “If you can’t afford the cream cheese, get the plain bagel.” It was a bit of a weird idiom about frugality, and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but after spending a few days trying to think of a channel name (I really didn’t want to go with something like “Finance Guy” or anything that explicit), it popped into my mind. I felt that it perfectly summed up what I wanted the channel to be: a simple, laid-back, not-too-fancy explanation of boring (but successful) investing. 

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

The idea for the channel came after a few friends of mine asked me to run them through the basics of finance and investing. At the time, we had all just graduated from the university and were finally earning salaries that covered more than rent, instant noodles, and a few nights out a month. 

Most of them knew that it was time to consider investing but had no real idea where to start. So I offered to explain the basics to them since I had studied finance in university, actually worked a teaching role through my undergrad, and was at the time working for a mid-sized financial service company. While I was still working towards my Chartered Financial Analyst designation and wasn’t yet a registered portfolio manager, I knew enough to explain the fundamentals. So, I started this thing where I’d go and grab a beer with my friends at a local pub and spend two hours covering everything from what a stock was to the difference between a broker and an advisor. My goal wasn’t to tell my friends what stocks to buy, but just to explain all the options out there and let them decide for themselves which ones best suited them. 

After a few of these meetups, I realized there was some demand for this sort of content, and I decided it would be a fun side project to start creating videos and posting them on YouTube. It seemed like the perfect combination of my interests and skills: I had experience teaching, was passionate about finance, and oddly enough, had done a fair amount of video editing in high school to help promote school events. 

So I (somehow) convinced my at-the-time girlfriend (now wife) to let me transform half of our one-bedroom apartment into a studio so I could film some episodes on my iPhone. I didn’t know what I was doing, and didn’t even bother to watch other finance creators in the space; I really just figured this would be more for fun than anything else, and that the videos would maybe, just maybe, be helpful for a few friends.

When I started, I committed to creating at least 10 episodes, but by the end of my initial series, the channel was starting to see some momentum. I really enjoyed the whole thing, so I decided to keep going, and 5 years later…here we are with half a million subscribers.

How do you brainstorm ideas for your content and what is your advice in getting the creative juices flowing?

My videos these days focus on pretty niche investment topics; one video I recently put out was on whether stock splits boost stock returns. I’ve also started to cover more recent news items like how the war in Ukraine would impact markets, and from time to time I’ll do a more entertainment-focused piece, like reacting to bad financial advice from TikTok. 

Some of my inspiration for topics comes from my day job, where I keep a close eye on the news and hear directly from clients what people are interested in, and what investors are worried about, but whenever an idea pops in my mind, I add it to a brainstorming list of mine that now probably has over 100 video ideas on it. When I start writing a script, I first look for something more relevant to the current news cycle, and if there’s no important subject worth covering, I’ll usually just pick one of the ideas from the list.

I don’t find brainstorming ideas particularly difficult, but scriptwriting can be tough. Not only is it one of the longest steps (for me, anyway), but I frequently run into writer’s block. Lately, to avoid spending hours trying to perfect a single paragraph, I’ve taken to writing out the whole script with blunders, incomplete sentences, and all just to write out everything I want to cover down and to give me a rough outline. I find going back and smoothing things over once you’ve had a chance to put everything in one place saves a lot of time.

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

To edit and animate my videos, I use Adobe Premiere Pro, which is really the gold standard of all YouTube editing software, but everywhere else I try to make do with programs already on my computer, or that is free to download. I use a free image editing program called GIMP to create my thumbnails, and I actually draw a lot of images on Microsoft PowerPoint. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, but it does the trick for me!

I post all of my content on YouTube and share my videos on Twitter, Facebook, and my own website, although I am trying to be more active on Discord. Outside that, I really just use Google Docs for scriptwriting and a handheld agenda to keep track of my to-do list.

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

Fortunately, I’ve always been an extroverted individual, so being in front of a camera was never a problem for me. I also gained a lot of public speaking experience in university through certain extracurriculars. That’s not to say I was a particularly good presenter when I started the channel, I still look back at my early videos and cringe sometimes. But I wasn’t all that worried about putting my content out there when I was starting. I also had a really encouraging audience that gave a lot of genuinely constructive feedback - I, fortunately, haven’t had to deal with any real abuse online, perhaps a benefit from focusing on financial education.

How did you build your brand to where it is now? Take us through your process.

One benefit of naming your channel after a plain bagel is you can get away with pretty basic designs and make it seem “on brand”. I’ve been able to grow the channel on pretty crude animations and drawings, and it’s worked because the channel’s brand was “plain and simple.” I did have some friends help early on, however, a good friend of mine (who himself went on to be a successful YouTuber) helped film my first videos for me and taught me a few animation styles and design tricks, and I’ve polled different people for input on thumbnails and what not. Other than that, however, it was really a trial-by-fire process building the brand. I’d post something, get feedback from viewers, and try to improve based on that for the next one. 

Fortunately, the channel had some early success - I remember seeing one of my very first videos shared on a personal finance Reddit and getting a thousand views on it, which I thought was crazy. 100 subscribers came easy (was mostly friends at the time), but the channel really took off when I decided to create an animated 5-minute history lesson on the Great Depression. I knew I wanted to cover historic financial crises, but figured that a fully animated piece would be a fun project, and would likely draw more viewers. It was my first fully animated video, and while its early success was moderate by today’s standards (it got me to over 2000 subscribers after a few months), people continue to watch it to this day and it is one of my most-watched videos, with over 2 million views.

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

My advice is to just go for it. So long as you have a decent camera (an iPhone worked well for me early on), a microphone, and some basic lighting (worth spending a few hundred dollars on), then you can start putting out watchable content. I know that a lot of people feel that you need to get things perfect when you start, but I’ve only recently gotten to a point where I feel my videos are high-quality, and I only got there after years of putting out videos and getting viewer feedback. And on that note, viewers are the best source of video ideas and improvements, just ask them what they’d like to see from you and I guarantee you’ll get some good ideas.

That all being said, make sure you’re making videos for the right reason.

YouTube can be lucrative, but if you don’t enjoy making videos, it’s not going to be any different than a regular job, and you’ll probably find the money isn’t worth the effort - it takes a long time to make anything meaningful.

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

Interestingly, even though I’m now at a point where I could do YouTube full-time now, I have no intention of leaving my day job. I love what I do. I get to help people accomplish their financial goals, and my YouTube channel has always just been an extension of this passion of mine. The two also nicely complement each other - I get a lot of ideas from the work I do, and I feel like it adds some credibility to the channel.

Tell us the biggest obstacles you have experienced in your content creation journey. And how did you bounce back?

Time is definitely the biggest obstacle for me. It’s hard for me to cover more recent topics because, between the full-time job and the amount of research I like to put into my scripts, it can take me up to four weeks to put out a regular video. Lately, however, I’ve been turning to less scripted and less editing-intensive pieces where I research a subject, take notes, and then present the subject off the cuff without writing a formal script. Fortunately, viewers have actually enjoyed the more “personal” pieces, because personality shows through a lot more when you’re having a casual conversation rather than reading a script. I’ve also started working with another editor to further clear up my schedule. I haven’t fully transitioned to no-script videos, and I still edit a lot of my content myself, but whenever I’m falling behind, these two things have helped me catch up.

Tell us your best milestones in being a content creator.

I never started my YouTube channel with the objective of making money. It really was just a creative outlet that I hoped would help a few friends, but I remember when I started making $5 a day and how great that felt. Sure, it wasn’t career-changing, but all of a sudden I thought “Wow, my YouTube channel is paying me one fancy Starbucks coffee a day to do something I enjoy. That’s awesome!” 

I actually rarely go to Starbucks but it was a fun thought! Another awesome milestone was having the opportunity to work with another YouTuber I actually followed, Coffeezilla. Meeting people is something I’ve really enjoyed about the whole thing - even though it's all been virtual, it’s nice to connect with other creators.

What are your marketing strategies to grow your brand?

Growing the channel was tough, I remember thinking that I had no real strategy for doing so outside of encouraging friends to share the videos with people who wanted help with their finances. I tried a few things, such as Facebook ads, and my brother would go on different finance Reddit threads to share videos he thought people would like. That helped a bit, but the animated history video I did was probably the biggest help for getting things going. It got shared a lot on social media and helped spread awareness for the channel. It was a lot of work to put that video together, but it was well worth it.

Fortunately, I never had to “sell out” to get things going. It was important to me that I kept things ethical and relatively professional, not only because I wanted to genuinely help people tackle their investing without selling them anything, but also because my boss was going to see a few of these videos…I obviously wanted to make a good impression!

How do you handle brand deals and sponsorships? 

My first sponsor reached out to me directly, and shortly thereafter I was getting offers from all kinds of different companies wanting to work with the channel. I eventually set a policy to only work with sponsors who offered education or business-focused products and services, and I completely avoided anything directly related to finance. Not only because I technically worked for a finance “competitor,” but because I felt it was important to avoid any conflict of interest. 

These days, I sort of cycle through a few companies that I believe offer a great service (which, for a few of them, is completely free to viewers) and that I have a direct relationship with, and I haven’t been too active in looking for other partners. But the finance arena is full of shady sponsors; I’ve been offered money to illegally promote stocks and crypto projects without disclosing it to viewers. I’m also always getting offers from different crypto start-ups asking that I join their Telegram; just the sheer volume of these raises a big red flag for me.

I have learned through the years that negotiating sponsorship arrangements is a must; you’ll get absolutely fleeced otherwise. I’ve had to hardball a few companies to get what I believe the channel partnerships are worth and even then end up with lower-than-average rates at times. But I feel good about the arrangements I have, and I truly believe the companies I work with support the brand of the channel.

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