In September 2017, Ryan Trahan had a meeting that would change everything. At the time, he was a student athlete running track and cross country at Texas A&M University. But off campus, he was a prolific creator and entrepreneur. He had started a water bottle brand, Neptune, and was making YouTube videos on running, integrating his product into the content on his channel. He had grown to tens of thousands of subscribers on YouTube. Business was booming.
But that life-defining meeting wasn’t with investors or partners. It was with administrators at his university. Under National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules, student athletes faced restrictions around how they could earn money using their name, image, and likeness (the rules have since changed). Ryan was given an ultimatum: he could continue as a Texas A&M student athlete or he could stay a YouTuber, using his channel to share running videos while promote his business. But he couldn’t do both.
I view creating as entrepreneurial. Creating something from nothing has always been ingrained in me.
So Ryan dropped out of college, with 30,000 subscribers. He then moved from Texas to Florida with a renewed focus on going full-time as an entrepreneur and creator. The ultimatum allowed him to reflect on his ambivalence about spending four years in school, only to apply to corporate jobs he had little interest in. “I want to work for myself and build something from the ground up,” he says in an early YouTube video sharing his decision with subscribers.
The gamble paid off. Since then, he’s built a community of over five million subscribers on YouTube, where he’s well known for his innovative videos garnering millions of views. His recent “penny to a house” series, in which he started with one cent and made subsequent trades with strangers to acquire a home for one of his subscribers, landed him a #1 spot on YouTube’s coveted trending page. YouTube is Ryan’s core creative platform. But he also creates content for his 1.4 million followers on TikTok and his 566,000 followers on Instagram, where he shares snapshots of his life—from visiting the world’s loneliest house in Iceland to standing in front of giraffes at sunset.
Ryan’s creator journey has been marked by highs (making enough money to build a home for his supportive single father, collaborating with star YouTubers like Mr. Beast) and lows (the burnout that comes with nonstop content creation). But whether he’s found himself in the peaks or the valleys, his entrepreneurial spirit has not wavered. “I view creating as entrepreneurial,” says Ryan. “Creating something from nothing has always been ingrained in me.”
Today, he’s found his footing as a creator. He’s taken a step back to formulate his “why” and define how he wants his career on YouTube to unfold—from the video ideas he brings to life to the brands he’s willing to work with.
The euphoric rise to a million subscribers (and the fall back to earth)
A glimpse at Ryan’s YouTube channel reveals a collection of audacious feats, from surviving 50 hours in 2D to spending 100 days in the metaverse. But Ryan started his journey on YouTube by creating running content, like advice on how to run a faster mile or how to excel at long-run training. But he saw the ceiling of the content he was creating. Compared to other content categories, running videos were niche with a capped audience. He decided to broaden his viewership and create content that might open him up to a bigger audience on the platform.
The path from zero to a million subscribers was wild. But it also was euphoric in a sense, I felt like I just couldn’t stop. I was just growing and everything was going well.
Ryan made the switch to creating commentary videos, providing his humorous perspective on other YouTubers and the wider creator ecosystem. On June 5, 2018, he uploaded his first viral video: a commentary video on fellow YouTuber Loren Gray. The success of the video validated his decision to step beyond the running niche. His channel exploded, from 30,000 to 1.5 million subscribers after just a year of making commentary videos.
Ryan’s journey to over a million subscribers solidified his status as a YouTube creator and cemented his own online identity. “The path from zero to a million subscribers was wild. But it also was euphoric in a sense, I felt like I just couldn’t stop,” says Ryan. “I was just growing and everything was going well.”
I hit a wall around two million subscribers. I lost subscribers some months. I was just failing to innovate and failing to believe in myself.
But the rapid growth eventually gave way to a period of stagnation. His views started to falter, subscriber growth stalled, and the winning formula he thought he understood stopped working. “I hit a wall around two million subscribers,” says Ryan. “I lost subscribers some months. I was just failing to innovate and failing to believe in myself.”
His answer to the conundrum was simply making more videos. Like many creators, he found himself on a content creation treadmill, exhausted by the pace but unable to hit the Stop button. Inevitably, it led to a burnout and a sense of creative depletion. “I was making three videos a week,” says Ryan. “It was this wild velocity that I was operating at.”
Taking even a small step back is scary for creators bound to a regular upload schedule. When it feels like you’re only as good as your last upload, pausing feels unthinkable. But for Ryan, taking time to reflect was necessary for moving forward. From the quiet arose the decision to obsess less about numbers and instead focus on his community of subscribers. The followers who had been with Ryan since the beginning, and those who joined during his upward trajectory, still believed in him—even when he didn’t believe in himself.
Despite feeling like a failure, Ryan was still seeing hundreds of thousands of views on his videos and a steady stream of encouragement on each one. His subscribers told him to keep going, expressed their love for his videos, and shared the impact of his work on their lives.
“There were still people that were so supportive,” says Ryan. “I really try to process that each comment is a human being. And whenever I think about that and the outpour of support on the videos, it honestly gets me emotional.”
To five million subscribers and beyond
Ryan also credits the book Atomic Habits by James Clear with shifting his mindset around creating content. He’s focused on getting 1% better everyday—a principle he applies when sneaking in a few reps on his office pullup bar or when approaching brainstorming for his next video. Rather than work hard, he tries to work smart. Rather than running along that treadmill, he’s stepped off, to find the structure that allows him to thrive personally and professionally.
It’s really been an interesting evolution of my life where I’ve slowed down in order to speed up.
Ryan’s new approach has resulted in epic videos with millions of views and lucrative brand deals. But the day-to-day process actually involves taking small steps to improve each day that compound over time. “If I allow myself to recharge creatively, allow myself to build systems that make my life easier, then my hard work will go 10 times as far,” he says. “It’s really been an interesting evolution of my life, where I’ve slowed down in order to speed up.”
With five million subscribers and a growing captive audience, much of Ryan’s current video style can be summed up as “do something so epic people have no choice but to pay attention.” Some of his popular videos include stunts like spending the night in the world’s tiniest Airbnb, surviving on a cent for a week, spending the night in an abandoned ghost town, metal detecting 100 miles of beach, or spending 100 days in realistic Minecraft.
He’s also known for serialized videos, exploring a topic over multiple installments. His most recent series included turning one cent into a house in a week. The series idea was originally conceived in 2006 by Kyle MacDonald—a Canadian blogger who went from a red paperclip to a home in 14 trades over the course of a year—and has been tried by others, too. But even when adapting existing concepts, Ryan adds his own spin to each video.
I have this philosophy on YouTube: I think all of us, as creators, have something unique about ourselves. You’re the only person that’s you; I’m the only person that’s me. And it actually matters. I think that matters a lot.
“I’m always thinking of universally interesting ideas and asking myself, ‘Could I be someone who takes that and applies my creative vision to it?’” says Ryan. “It’s become a strong brainstorming method for me. I’m hopefully taking my personality and humor and making a new product out of it.”
Rather than simply catering to the YouTube algorithm, he’s leaning into what makes his videos special. Despite respect for his fellow creators, he’s clear on not being Mr. Beast 2.0. Ryan is intent on paving his own path on YouTube.
“I have this philosophy on YouTube: I think all of us, as creators, have something unique about ourselves. You’re the only person that’s you; I’m the only person that’s me,” says Ryan. “And it actually matters. I think that matters a lot.”
Defining success on his own terms
Ryan is leaning into what makes his content uniquely his. That includes avoiding cost-intensive videos that often do well on YouTube but can be unsustainable and feel less relatable to a regular audience. It also means filtering himself less and editing with his 16-year-old self in mind in order to connect deeply with his audience. “Leaning into what makes us unique is so empowering and actually makes for so much better content on the platform,” Ryan says.
Ryan is intent on pacing himself, finding time to balance and recharge. This strategy has already paid off. “I realized in the past six months, I really haven’t been striving. And the results have been the most crazy results in my life in terms of viewership and growth,” says Ryan. “And I think what shines through in the videos is attention to detail and appreciation for your creation.”
He’s prioritizing long-term success over short-term wins, including giving himself the space to upload one video every other week. It means abandoning his second channel, which could generate more ad dollars. It means forgoing multiple uploads a week, which could secure more brand deal opportunities and extra revenue. But it also means making 24 videos each year that he pours everything he has into.
In the age of influencers that often demands a contant online presence from creators, lest they be forgotten, Ryan is taking a different approach.“I’ve prioritized a long-term mindset with YouTube, where I need to set the pace of the treadmill and I can do this for 10 plus years,” he says.
Exploring entrepreneurship as a creator
When he was 14 years old, Ryan started learning how to code in an attempt to build Stream Chat—an app to watch live shows and communicate with friends or strangers in real time. The project was ultimately abandoned, but it was the start of an entrepreneurial streak that defined Ryan’s career as a creator.
Shortly after, Ryan had moved on to selling his Neptune water bottles. He started by selling them to fellow classmates at school for $20 each. While they were popular, he quickly realized there was a cap on sales at his small high school. He took his sales door to door, expanding once more, but hitting a similar wall in his small town. He decided to take his business online, using his YouTube channel to spark interest in his product. This strategy proved successful, broadening the reach of his business across the country, beyond his school and small town.
“It all comes back to creating and focusing on the person who’s going to be experiencing your creation” says Ryan. “I think that’s the most fun thing when it comes to business. You’re actually impacting people’s lifestyles. You can create something that makes someone’s life better.”
As Ryan grew his channel, he started another company, Hydra Collective, an apparel brand. He used the same strategy, embedding his brand into his content. These ventures allowed him to get experience running a business and building a marketing engine. While most entrepreneurs struggle with distribution and getting their brand to the world, Ryan had the perfect go-to-market strategy: his YouTube channel.
While Ryan no longer operates either company, his entrepreneurial streak continues as a creator who very much understands the business side of being a YouTuber. “Some people look at it as more of a business and others don’t,” says Ryan. “But for me, it’s definitely a beautiful dichotomy of business, but also art.”
A lot of the culture on YouTube is to spend $100,000 on a video. I would really encourage other creators to run as profitable as possible, cash flow positive.
One of the critiques of the creator economy is that platforms that reap the benefits of user-generated content often don’t provide creators with enough money to make a living. Instead, many creators seek out brand deals with companies to augment their income. Yet Ryan, always insistent on taking a different path, has not found this to be the case.
“My business is 70% AdSense, 30% brand deals,” says Ryan. “A lot of YouTubers tell me ‘You need to diversify a bit.’ But when you run at such a profit and you don’t spend a bunch of money on your videos, AdSense is able to take care of you.”
While Ryan’s videos are exciting and audacious, they’re also cost effective. He’s conscious of how much he spends, in part because he feels expensive videos can alienate an audience and loves the challenge of building something big from near to nothing. But another part of creating cost effective videos is simply out of his long-term goal to build a sustainable business as a creator. “A lot of the culture on YouTube is to spend $100,000 on a video,” says Ryan. “I would really encourage other creators to run as profitable as possible, cash flow positive.”
Creators controlling their financial destiny
From creator-driven businesses, like Hila Klein’s Teddy Fresh or Emma Chamberlain’s Chamberlain Coffee, creators are using the following they have online to start their own businesses. In a sense, creators building self-owned ventures are seizing their independence and controlling their own destiny—sidestepping the fickleness of the algorithm and curbing a reliance on brand deals. For Ryan, who is working on a new business of his own, it’s also about another thing: leverage and ability to say no.
“A lot of creators will be dependent on that brand deal,” says Ryan. “And if it’s someone that compromises your brand and your viewer, you’re going to have to take the deal because you’re running at a loss.”
Ryan is conscious about the brands he works with and whether they truly understand his content, his audience, and his vision. Often, this can mean turning away the brands that don’t get it. Most recently, he partnered with Shopify to sponsor a series of videos. “I want to work with as few brands as possible, and work with them as closely as possible,” Ryan says. “I’m OK with leaving money on the table nowadays if it means working with the right people.”
For Ryan, entrepreneurship is an itch he needs to scratch, and he has his eyes on his next business venture. “I’m definitely trying to make a big swing,” he says. “We’re excited to try something big in the future.”
Pressed for more, he’s tight-lipped but offers one hint: “Howdy.”
The NCAA guidelines that prevented Ryan from making money through his business and YouTube channel while at A&M Texas University have since been reversed: student athletes can now start businesses. This opens the door for student athletes to make money off their own name, image, and likeness. While the NCAA rule reversal came too late to coincide with Ryan’s time as a college athlete, he’s happy to see the shift.
“You’re going to see sports change. Athletes and creators can go into college and not have to make that ultimatum,” he says. “You’re seeing potential NFL players stay in college for their senior year because they’re able to make some money and support their family, even in college. I think it’s just amazing.”
Ryan has no regrets surrounding his long-term decision. The ultimatum, and his decision to leave college, ultimately made him the creator he is today. For what’s ahead, Ryan is clear eyed with an objective of “restoration” for his viewers. He’s leaving his focus on audience metrics behind and instead embracing the challenge of infusing magic into each and every one of his videos.
“When I upload something, there’s hopefully going to be a lot of people that know it’s going to be good. And it’s going to make their day better,” he says. “And they’re going to leave the video feeling better about themself and their outlook on life. That’s my number one goal.”
Feature Image Courtesy Ryan Trahan
Photo illustration by Niall McClelland