Grant Thompson, perhaps better known as the King of Random, built a YouTube empire around his endeavor to learn how the world works. From pyrotechnics to napkin folding, Thompson has delved into, tinkered with, and mastered a vast array of subjects and disciplines, and he’s shared his journey with millions of subscribers along the way.
As the channel’s grown, Thompson’s made some key changes to how he approaches learning and sharing his projects. We caught up with him at VidCon to discuss how being a top YouTuber changed his life, what he’s learned, and what’s next for the King of Random movement.
How did you start creating on YouTube?
My basic life story is: bullied at school, went off on my own, learned how to do extreme sports, got into flying, became an airline pilot. I worked as an airline pilot for 11 years. Then I got into real estate and bought and sold houses. I had 11 houses that I rented out. I had enough money coming in that we kind of like semi-retired.
Then I just started tinkering and learning about how the world works, which was inspired kind of by the idea of the Great Recession from the housing collapse. I was learning about things. I started making videos on YouTube showing people what I was tinkering with and what I was coming up with. It turned into a big enough movement that I shut down my real estate business, I quit the airlines, and now it’s all YouTube.
When did you make that switch?
I quit about a year and a half ago, so it’s pretty recent. I carried YouTube through most of my airline career. I only let it go about a year and a half ago because it didn’t make sense to go to work anymore. It cost me money to go to work. So I finally cut the cord, which is hard to do because once you leave the airlines you can’t really go back.
When did you realize that your YouTube channel could be a big success?
In 2010, I created my channel, and when I created my channel, I needed a username. And none of the usernames I wanted would work, they were all taken. So I just entered the date and the time, which was 01032010814 and it was just this random number, but I just needed a place to upload stuff, so it didn’t really matter to me. I started making videos about how to start fires using water bottles and random things like that because I thought it was cool to share, and hundreds of thousands of people started watching them.
After about a year and a half in, I ran into someone who had a business in social media and I was talking to him about what that means and he said, “If you use Google AdSense you can actually make money by posting videos.” So I started looking at the videos I posted and thought, “If those were monetized, I could actually be making a couple hundred bucks. And if I posted enough videos and I got enough views, I could actually make a lot more than that.”
That’s when I started really getting serious, right about the end of 2011. I thought I could probably make this a business because the things that I know and the things that I want to share, nobody else is doing and there’s a need for it. So if I made 100 videos and they all got 100,000 views, then that would be worth it.
That’s a very tactical approach.
It was. I thought, “I’ll do that experiment. I’ll make 100 videos and see how they do and if it’s worth it, I’ll keep going and if it’s not, I’ll stop. But in the process, I’ll learn and share all of these things that I’m out to learn for myself anyway.”
You describe yourself as a cross between MacGyver, James Bond, and the MythBusters.
When I came into it, I didn’t have the skills. I just look at MacGyver and James Bond and the MythBusters and those are the kind of people I’d like to be. How do you go from knowing nothing to being like those guys? This is my own personal journey, one step at a time, learning how different things work, to become MacGyver or become a MythBuster.
When you plan your content and you go about learning new things and sharing new things, is it driven from within or do you have some sort of planned goals for hitting things like woodworking or welding?
It’s really just random based on what I’m interested in at the time. I notice my interests go in random phases. Sometimes I will be interested in welding, sometimes pyrotechnics, sometimes it’ll be folding napkins and making apple swans. It’s just whatever I’m interested in, I’ll spend a little bit of time on that topic and then I’ll weave into something else so it’s just this constant flow back and forth.
My videos trend in cycles, but overall, my projects are really random — from building rockets to making arc welders to starting fires with sandwich bags and everything in between.
What’s been the most notable change since you’ve become YouTube famous?
I feel like it’s made me a lot more confident about myself. I felt a little insecure in our society because I didn’t know how things work, so when you don’t know something, you’re kind of dependent on the system and I feel like now I’ve broken through to the point where if there was some kind of collapse I could probably be okay on my own.
Now you’re the go-to source.
I think that’s another part of this change. Now people look to me as a source of inspiration and people are actually willing to try new things for themselves because I’m leaving a trail for them to follow. Getting out and meeting people, having fans come up and telling me their experiences has really shown me that it’s a movement that people need.
It’s not just me showing things that I’ve made, it’s people being empowered, getting through hard times, getting through suicidal periods, and it’s even about parent-kid relationships that are dysfunctional and now they’re doing projects together and they have a tight relationship that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The only problem with making videos is that I feel like it held me back from my own progression. I started learning how to do everything, but when I started making videos it was all about making the videos and serving the content, so I really was limited on time to tinker. It’s been this battle. What I really want to do is just play, but then nobody knows about it. And if I take the time to let people know about it, then that takes all my time and I have no time to play.
Do you tinker the most on the weekends?
No, I just go all day, every day. But what I’m doing now is building teams. I just hired some employees, I finally figured out how to train people and be more of a leader in business and how to treat this more like a business.
I think the hard thing for creators is when you develop something and it hits really well, you’re the one who does it. It’s you, it’s your face, it’s your mind, and it’s your project. So it’s really hard to get somebody to come in and take that over. How do you hire that out?
What are some things you’ve learned about that process about trying to get people aligned with your goals?
I’ve learned that it’s expensive. You can find people to do it, but it’s expensive. It’s really about creating systems. Figuring out all of the heavy lifting that you’re doing and systematizing it and giving that workload to somebody else. Of course, it takes an infrastructure that can support that.
We’re finally at a place now where we’ve built a pretty good machine that I think looks really promising. We’ve got the platform, we’ve got the content we produce every day, and so now I’m bringing in the employees that can spend all day tinkering and prototyping and playing.
What are the long-term goals or projects that you want to tackle in the next 3-5 years?
Taking the movement and getting myself out of the way so that it’s scalable. King of Random might build camps where people can get together and make things together and maybe I’m there to walk them through it or I have somebody there to walk them through it. Seminars or courses, books, maybe subscription kits or project kits that people can do at home, or they go to schools and schools could do in class.
What are some of the channels that you look up to?
As a creator, why do you come to VidCon and what do you get out of it?
I came out to VidCon for the first time last year and I realized that there was a whole world that I’d never been a part of, with connections. Even though our channel has 6 million subscribers and our videos are known all over the internet, nobody knew who I was. I’d meet people and they’d just have no clue until I mentioned a video or mentioned the King of Random.
I also noticed a lot of smaller channels showing up YouTube events or being at YouTube Rewind or being included, and I was never included in anything, so I realized I just had to start showing up, start showing my face and start talking. I think with business in general, a lot of it is who you know, it’s connections, it’s networking.
It’s amazing that we’ve done what we’ve done all by ourselves in the basement without ever coming out of the house. It just made me think, “What would happen if we came out in public? Maybe it would be more beneficial to all of the people who are watching the videos and growing if I actually did step up and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to get out of the way, I’m going to let this movement go on. I’m not going to hold it back by my fear of what I can and can’t do. I’m just going to get myself out of the way and let it grow.’”