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SPI 503: From Med Student to Passive Income—Ali Abdaal’s Incredible Success Story & YouTube Tips

Has this ever happened to you? About a year and a half ago, I discovered a six-minute YouTube video about note-taking, by someone named Ali Abdaal. After I finished watching it I thought, “Whoa, I really like this guy.” So I watched the next video, which was about iPads. (I had recently bought an iPad Pro and also wanted to learn how to make the most out of it.) Thanks to the way Ali taught, and his easy-to-listen-to accent, I started binge-watching everything on his channel.

Ever since I started paying attention to Ali, things have been really taking off him for him. His brand and community have grown tremendously and he’s even released his own online course. And we’ve become good friends! I knew I had to ask him to come onto the podcast to share his journey from med school student to creating a YouTube channel, and how he’s grown it to nearly two million subscribers, with passive income now coming in from multiple sources. We’ll unpack the strategy behind Ali’s impressive rise—and if you’re interested in YouTube yourself, we also dive into some tips to help you with the algorithm and taking advantage of what YouTube can offer in terms of driving traffic and finding new customers.

Today’s Guest

Ali Abdaal

Ali is a Cambridge University medicine graduate, and on his YouTube channel he creates content that helps people lead happier, healthier, and more productive lives with the aim of helping people do more of what matters to them. He also has a series of online courses, writes a weekly email newsletter and blog posts on his website, and has run a series of successful businesses as a young entrepreneur.

Ali Abdaal on YouTube

Part-Time YouTuber Academy

You’ll Learn

SPI 503: From Med Student to Passive Income—Ali Abdaal’s Incredible Success Story & YouTube Tips

Pat Flynn:
Has this ever happen to you? This happened to me about a year and a half ago, and this is exactly why we’re talking about this, because this has led to having this person come on the show. So here’s what happened. I discovered a video on YouTube; it was about note-taking. And I just was curious about how different people take notes because I was going to be writing an article or talking about note-taking. Anyway, I discovered this video, and it was by a man named Ali Abdaal. And I watched this video, it was about six minutes in length, and then I was like, “Whoa, I really like this guy. I’m going to click and watch the next video,” which was about iPads or something. And I had just recently bought an iPad Pro and I wanted to learn.

And the way he taught, his easy-to-listen-to accent, I just started binge watching everything, to a point where I even forgot to write that article because I had just gotten so absorbed with everything that Ali was doing. And ever since I started paying attention and watching him, I’ve just been noticing the rapid growth in his brand, in his community, his business expertise popping up in terms of him releasing a course. And I just had to ask him to come on because he and I have now become really good friends. We’ve chatted several times.

Man, this episode is going to blow you away, because we’re going to talk about Ali Abdaal’s journey from how he got started to go from med school student, literally, and why he even created a YouTube channel in the first place, and how that progressed into what he now has today, which is a YouTube channel of nearly two million subscribers, passive income coming in from all different kinds of angles. We’re going to unpack and talk about all of that and the journey and the strategy. And if you’ve ever had any interest in YouTube or creating video, we also dive into some tips to help you with the algorithm and taking advantage of what YouTube can offer you in terms of finding new people, new traffic, new customers, students, etc.

We’ve got a lot to uncover today. Let’s hit the intro.

Announcer:
Welcome to the Smart Passive Income Podcast, where it’s all about working hard now, so you can sit back and reap the benefits later. And now your host, if he could invent anything, it would be a way to switch on focus like a light switch: Pat Flynn.

Pat:
What’s up, everybody? Pat Flynn here and welcome to session 503 of the Smart Passive Income Podcast. Today, we’re chatting with Ali Abdaal, one of my favorite YouTubers. I’ve been binge-watching his stuff. And I’m at the point now where any new video that comes out, I almost drop everything I’m doing and I watch it. He’s that good, and I highly recommend you listen to this and then go subscribe to his channel, A-L-I A-B-D-A-A-L. Let’s just dive right in because this stuff is good. This stuff is good. You’re going to love it. Here we go.

Ali, welcome to the Smart Passive Income Podcast. Thanks for joining us today.

Ali Abdaal:
Thank you so much for having me. This feels really, really surreal because I’ve been listening to your podcast for years and following your stuff. And so now that we’re here, it’s like, “Just follow the methods of SPI,” and here we are.

Pat:
Well, I follow you now too. And you’ve grown this amazing YouTube channel with some very entertaining, very educational content. And I want to get to know how you got to that level. You’re over a million subscribers now, you are very proficient with your productivity and how you do what you do, and I want to get into all that. But I want to go back to the start, your origin story. I know that you didn’t set out to become a YouTuber or an influencer or an authority in the online space; you set out to do something different. Where did this all start?

Ali:
I think the original origin story was when I was around 12 years old, and I was in the computer room at my school, and I saw some kid who was just one year above me, so he would have been 13. And he was on the Google home page, and he right-clicked and clicked View Source. And I saw all this code coming up, and I was like, “Oh my God.” That was the switch for me. And I was like, “Okay, I need to learn how to code.” But while I was in school, when I was right about 12, I started learning how to code, and very quickly that led to an obsession with, “I need to make an online business to make money on the internet.” I went down this whole rabbit hole where for years, I was doing like freelance web design, freelance graphic design, trying to set up all these different businesses, which all ended up failing.

But then when I was in medical school like seven years later, after a string of failures under my belt, I set up a business, which was the very first one that I set up that actually worked. And so really, I started off my journey as a kind of wannabe passive income entrepreneur and eventually ended up being a YouTuber.

Pat:
Was starting a YouTube channel the business idea that—is the one that worked, or was there another thing between?

Ali:
In my second year of med school, so I would have been about 19 at the time. It’s weird, because I’d been scammed out of my life savings because I bought a dodgy Macbook off of Craigslist. And I thought, “Okay, I need to recoup this, like, £1,000, $1,200 that I’ve lost.” And so I started brainstorming ideas for things that I could do. And I landed on teaching courses to help people get into med school, which I know is something fairly similar to your background as well. And that was the business that succeeded that I ran, that’s still running to this day, and I was very heavily involved with it for the first five years or so.

Pat:
That’s interesting. So the secret to success is to teach other people how to pass exams, essentially?

Ali:
That’s what it seems like. Yeah, you’ve got to teach what you know.

Pat:
I mean, there is something to that, right? There was an inherent need for this information. There perhaps were other resources out there, but none that taught in the same way you did. And it kind of came about. What was that business like exactly? Was it a website? And how did that make money?

Ali:
Initially, I thought, “Okay, I need to make back this £1,000 that I’ve lost.” I made a list. I still have the evident document from like 2011 where it’s like, “What are the things I’m good at?” And on that list, I put, “I’m good at taking exams.” I was pretty good at applying to med school, and I was pretty good at teaching. And so I thought, “Okay, cool. Let’s combine these three things, and let’s try and teach a one-day course for people taking this exam.” And so I started off by teaching it to like two people that I knew, two friends of mine, and they said, “Oh, this is really good. You’re really good at this stuff.” And then the following year, I thought, “Hang on. If I can teach two people, and I know how to make websites, why don’t I just make a website and try and market this course around the country?”

And so that year, I brought some friends on board; we ran five classrooms up and down the UK. And that ended up making like a few thousand pounds just in one summer. And I was like, “Damn, I’ve recouped like five times the money I’ve lost just from this one thing.” And then the next year and the next year and the next year, they just kept getting bigger and bigger. And that guy who scammed me out of a MacBook has ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Pat:
You know, I say the same thing about when I got laid off. It takes sometimes these hard moments for us to have either the courage or just the drive to do something that normally we wouldn’t have done. And I know you’ve taught several people now. I know you have your own cohort-based course now; you’ve helped other people start YouTube channels. What do you feel is the common factor for people’s success? No matter what it is they choose, it seems like there are certain characteristics of those who actually do plow forward and actually find some success in the life that they want.

Ali:
Yeah, I think from what I’ve seen, I’ll caveat that, it depends on your definition of success. I have friends whose definition of success is working a 9:00 to 5:00 job as doctors, coming home and spending time with the kids. That is absolutely fantastic. Good for them; they’re living their best life. That’s not really what I wanted for myself. I definitely wanted to go down the entrepreneur path. And so, for people who do want to go down the entrepreneur path, the thing that I’ve seen, you guys you know and as your listeners will know, is just consistency. I think Marques Brownlee, a fellow YouTuber, a celebrity, said that the secret to success is to just pick something and work on it for 10 years, and I’ve definitely seen that as true.

And I have a spiel that I give to my students in the YouTuber Academy, which is that, if you can just make one video every week for the next two years, I guarantee that your life will change. I can’t guarantee a subscriber number or a revenue number or anything like that. I can 100% guarantee that your life will change in really interesting ways that you won’t be able to imagine. And the people who stick at it for two years are the ones whose life gets changed, and the ones who don’t, the ones that fall off and decide that it’s not for them, their life doesn’t. So really, it’s just all about the consistency.

Pat:
And I love that tangible thought of, okay, one video per week for two years, that’ll change you. Why does that work?

Ali:
What does that work? That’s, that’s a good question. Okay, so when you commit to doing one video a week, and you have to do it for two years. It’s kind of easy to do one video a week for like a month. Right? We all have at least four video topics within us. We can think, “Oh, I can make four videos,” once we get beyond that first step of struggling to put ourselves out there online. But if you’re doing it for two years, you have to be able to add value consistently on a week-to-week basis. I think if you can just do that, things just magically work out. The really cool thing about YouTube… the best and worst part of YouTube is the algorithm. And so there is literally this algorithm that is designed to surface the right video to the right viewer at the right time.

And so if you’re consistently adding value in whatever way you want for two years, it’s inevitable that the algorithm will start putting eyeballs on you. And whether by the end of it, you have 5,000 or 50,000 or 500,000 subscribers, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, you will have explored your own horizons, you will have figured out what you can add to the world, you’d have made friends through Twitter and other YouTubers. And all these interesting things that happen beyond the numerical goal of hitting a certain subscriber count.

Pat:
I love that. I’d love to learn about your YouTube channel and the origin story of that because you came from medical school to then teaching other people how to get into medical school, and that business still is up and running today. But when did the YouTube channel start? Why did it start?

Ali:
So the YouTube channel started about four years ago. It was the summer of 2017. And you know, this med school admissions business had been going all right. And every year, we kept on increasing revenue. And then around 2016, we got to a point of plateauing, and it was starting to stagnate a little bit. By this time, I’d lost interest. I was kind of doing the same thing. I was looking for the next thing to do. And so I thought, “Hang on, this is a great source of revenue. Why don’t I actually double down and try and make this succeed?” And I landed on content marketing as being the answer.

This is something that I know that you teach a lot, so I followed your playbook to a large degree for this, which is that, if you create free decent educational content and put it out for free on the internet, then people will see that free stuff and think, “Oh, this person knows what they’re talking about. Let me sign up to their paid course.” And this is just the playbook that all course creators now go by. And so the YouTube channel was initially a content marketing vehicle for my medical school admissions business. So the first 10 or so videos were tips on how to do well in the BMAT exam. This was the thing that I’ve been teaching, I’d made videos about it.

And I enjoyed making the video so much that I… And around that time, I discovered the world of vloggers, like Casey Neistat, Peter McKinnon. And I realized that there was this gap in the market where not many people were doing life as a medical student or life as a doctor in the UK. There were quite a few people doing it in America, and it seemed to be working for them. For some reason in the UK, there just weren’t that many people doing it. So I thought, “Hang on, I enjoy this content marketing thing. I can make content about how to get into med school. And at the same time, I can vlog my journey through med school. Which in a way actually hits my target audience of people who want to get in, because the people who want to apply to med school will be watching that sort of content.”

And so there was this perfect storm of variables that meant it made so much sense for me to create content around medical school. So I did that for about six months. And then slowly, the content started transitioning into less about med school and more about tech and productivity and education, these other things that I care about.

Pat:
How did you feel when you were starting to integrate more of your life as a vlogger, transitioning from just answering questions essentially? Was that easy for you? How did that feel?

Ali:
It felt really, really weird initially, because I was so worried about the judgment from what my friends would think. I was literally carrying a camera around university, vlogging lectures and stuff sometimes. People would be coming up to me like, “Ali, you put the camera away. Ali, have you got consent from all 300 people in this auditorium to put them on the internet?” And I’d be like, “Oh, go away.” So there was a lot of fear around that. The thing I told myself, whether which is a line from Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work! is that as long as your thing is helpful to at least one other person in the world, it is worth putting out there.

And I told myself that me documenting life as a med student is useful to people who want to be med students, and so that’s how I convinced myself that there was educational value to it rather than just narcissism and self-absorption on my part.

Pat:
Now, filming a video, editing a video, that in of itself is really tough, let alone making sure the content is great. Did you do all that yourself? How did you learn how to do that?

Ali:
I just learnt on the job, really. Followed YouTube tutorials, followed people like Peter McKinnon, Googled how to use Final Cut, how to use Premiere Pro. Took a Skillshare class in Premiere Pro, ended up switching to Final Cut because I have a Mac. I very much just learned on the job. But I think my model for this, which another YouTuber at the time who I was watching at the time who is now a friend of mine said, is that, “Your first 50 videos are going to be absolutely terrible, and so the sooner you can make those first 50 videos, the better you’ll get.”

And so I really had this in my mind. I even told myself, “Okay, that’s Simon Clark. He’s really good. Maybe his first 50 videos are terrible. My first 100 videos are going to be terrible. So let me make those first 100 videos, and in the process of doing so, I’m sure I’ll learn something about how to film and how to edit videos.” And so I just made 100 videos, and made two or three videos a week for that whole year, and just slowly tried to get better at each one. While I’d be having my lunch or my dinner, I’d sit on the computer and watch tutorials on how to edit or how to do this transition, or how to add that animation. And those things just added a little bit of production value to my content over time.

Pat:
That’s so cool to hear, because over time, I’ve noticed that you have now become somewhat of an authority in the world of how to make YouTube videos. And to hear your story of just like, the first 100 videos were bad and you were just learning as you go, it really is inspirational to those of us who are at the start. One thing that you taught me, I have to give you credit too, is a B-roll library. And I just want to like side note or asterisk this because this was a huge tip for me. Anybody shooting video, would you mind sharing what that actually is?

Ali:
Yeah. So when you’re shooting video, there’s A-roll, and then there’s B-roll. So the A-roll is like the footage of me talking to the camera. And then if let’s say I’m reviewing an iPad, the B-roll would be the nice fancy shots of the iPad, the closeups, the slider shots, the movements, all that sort of stuff. And generally, you want a combination of A-roll and B-roll to make a video engaging. The problem is, it’s really annoying having to shoot B-roll every time you do a video. And so about two years into my YouTube journey, I realized, “Hang on, if I have a shot of me like typing on my keyboard, I can actually reuse that shot on like 100 different videos. Anytime I mentioned productivity or writing or working, I just chuck in a shot of me typing on the keyboard.”

And it’s more interesting than stock footage because it’s obvious that it’s me and it’s obvious it’s my keyboard and my desk. And then I thought, “It doesn’t just have to be me at a keyboard. If I get a shot of me getting out of bed or me making coffee or me making tea, or me reading a book or me reading this book or that book, all of these are shots that I really should save in a Google Drive folder so that I can just chuck them into any video that I want.” And now, we’ve been just building up this B-roll library that now has like literally thousands of like 5- to 20-second clips of me doing various things, reading 50 Shades of Grey, reading Twilight. If we need to add some humor to a video, reading Harry Potter on the iPad, on the MacBook, on the Apple Watch.

All these different things that I now almost never need to shoot B-roll because I know we’ve got this whole library, and that just looks really pro. So I think that’s a really easy way of making the process of making videos more efficient.

Pat:
That’s so smart. And I’ve implemented that myself, and we go to back to those all the time. They’re useful in all kinds of videos, and it really, really makes it start to look professional. And your videos now are, I would put at the level of similar to people like Casey and Peter. It’s not as “cinematic,” but it’s definitely, you can tell there’s a higher production.

Ali:
Oh, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.

Pat:
Oh, you’re welcome. How would you help a person who’s like, “I want my videos to look that good right from the start”? Do you think that’s a smart idea? How do we progress toward that?

Ali:
Honestly, the main thing that dictates the quality of a video is just having a big light and having a nice camera. And if you spend anything more than $500 on a camera, you’re fine, and if you spend anything like $200 on a light, you’re fine. So just “big-ass light” is what I call it on my YouTuber Academy. A big-ass light plus camera with a somewhat decent lens. Like, the setup you’ve got is really great. You’ve got a pretty okay camera, you’ve got a lens that has decent depth of field, it gives you that blurry background. That is the thing, it’s the blurry background and the lighting that people associate with good production value.

And those things are pretty easy to get, provided you just have a slightly nice camera and a slightly nice light.

Pat:
And then you can upgrade and get the slider and all these kinds of things. On my Pokémon channel, I bought this thing called a jib, and it’s all automated. And it literally is like a crane. I can set position one, set position two, on my app, I go, “Okay, go from A to B in this amount of time.” It’s just like, oh man, it’s juicy. I love it.”

Ali:
Yeah, that sounds great. I don’t have a jib. I’ve been thinking of buying one, but I keep on thinking I would use it once and then I would never use it again.

Pat:It’s good for B-roll too, actually. That being said, I have a friend who also created a B-roll library. I actually told him your idea, and he loved it so much that he just hired a production crew to just come over one day and just take hundreds of clips that he now uses all the time. So you could go down that route too if you don’t want to…

Ali:
Yeah. That’s what I did on day one of my B-roll library, I hired a film guy, came up, rocked up with a cinema camera, and we just spent the whole day shooting loads and loads and loads of B-roll. It was great.

Pat:
Okay. So going back to the start of the YouTube channel, it transitioned from how-to, to do more blog-type stuff. And then it started to transition from medical specifically to more productivity, education, technology. When did you feel things were… Because I know it doesn’t always, and for most people, you start a YouTube channel, it’s a grind for sure. And it’s always going to be a grind, but when did momentum start to happen? And what really do you feel allowed that to happen other than patience and time?

Ali:
It took me six months and 52 videos to get my first 1,000 subscribers, which is quite a lot. I often get comments from people being like, “Oh, I’ve made five videos and no one’s watching.” And I’m like, “Mate, make 55 videos and then come back to me and we’ll see if no one’s watching.” So that felt like a grind, but at the same time, it didn’t really feel like a grind because, again, the nice thing about YouTube is that if you’re making stuff that people want to watch in whatever capacity, you do see the numbers slowly, slowly, slowly ticking. In the early days, I’d be refreshing my YouTube Studio app like eight times a day. I’d be like, “Yes, I’ve got 62 subscribers now.”

And then it would be a case of, a few weeks later, I’d be like, “Yes, I’ve got 212 subscribers now. I jumped up 10 subscribers today. Oh my God, that’s never happened.” And so YouTube is great because it feeds you those morsels of attention, the likes, the comments, the views. And that often—for me, at least, that really sustained the momentum. That, plus the fact that I genuinely enjoy the process of making the videos. To an extent, it was a grind in the early days. And I think the real momentum came—I did a collab with a YouTuber who was quite a lot bigger than I was at the time, right place, right time. I really lucked into it.

But then when those eyeballs were on the channel, I followed the advice of our mutual friend, Sara Dietschy, who had something similar happened to her channel when Casey Neistat shouted her out. And she said that you actually don’t want to go viral unless you have a backlog of really good content on your channel, because when you get eyeballs on it, you want people to see, “This person is legit, I want to subscribe.” And so I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to try and make some viral videos and I wanted to do a collab with this guy, but I knew that I didn’t want it to be video number one or video number 10; I wanted it to be video number 101, because then I had the backlog.

And so it worked out surprisingly well. We did the collab. It did really well, and I got lots of eyeballs on the channel. And then I was like, “Okay, the channel’s got momentum.” And I hustled for like a solid week. I skipped my med school placements—I probably shouldn’t say this out loud—just to be able to film and edit two videos that I was like, “Okay, these videos are like the culmination of everything I have ever learned about how to study for exams. And if I can make these really good, this could pop.” And then those videos did really well.

And so this was in my mind as soon as I started YouTube that I want to do a collab with this guy and I want to make this potentially viral video, and grinding to that point where nine months later, I did the collab and I made the viral video. That was the thing that really made the channel take off.

Pat:
A big shoutout to Sara Dietschy, rhymes with “peachy.” I love her stuff and her podcast and her videos. This collab sounds very interesting and like a big moment. I love the idea of creating just, “Hey, we want videos on the backlog first before we go viral.” But this collab, I know collabing is very important in the world of YouTube, and it’s a give-and-take and take-and-give situation. What was this collab like? What was that video? How did that all go down?

Ali:
At the time, I was on about 4,000 subscribers. So I’d been doing YouTube for about nine months at this point. I had 4,000 subscribers that I’d been making mostly medical school content. There was this other guy called Ibz Mo who, he’d been doing YouTube for a year at that point, and he had like 60,000 subscribers. So I was like, “Whoa, this guy. I’m never going to hit 60,000 subscribers, but I really want to do a collab with him.” And I actually met him at a university event. It was the Pakistan Society annual ball a few months before we did the collab.

And I was thinking to myself, “I really want to be friends with this guy, but I don’t want to mention the YouTube thing, I want to build a relationship and not have it feel transactional.” And so I spoke to him and I was like, “Ibz, I really love your stuff. It’s so good.” And he actually said, “I’ve been watching your YouTube channel for a while. It’s really good.” So he brought up the YouTube thing. And then he’s the one who suggested, “We should do a collab.” And I was like, “Oh my God, all my dreams are coming true because I didn’t even have to suggest this, and this is the thing that I was angling for.”

And then a few months later, he actually DMed me on Instagram being like, “Hey, do you want to do that collab?” And I was like, “Oh my God. Hell yes.” And then we made it happen. So it was just a Q&A video on my channel, a study tips video on his channel. And that ended up getting loads of eyeballs on my channel, so I’m forever grateful to him for that.

Pat:
Did you film in-person for that? You guys were together in the same video on both channels at the same time or was it-

Ali:
Yeah, that’s right? So it was very convenient because we were both at the same university, and so he lived like 10 minutes away from me. So I went over to his place, we set up the lights, the camera, and we filmed two videos back-to-back, one for my channel one for his, and released them at exactly the same time.

Pat:
Okay. That’s perfect. Thank you. Let’s keep going with the YouTube stuff because now that you’ve been in it for a while now and you have an idea of how the algorithm works. All of your videos do extremely well, some better than others, of course. And same thing with me: some are hits, some are misses. But for somebody who is brand new to how YouTube works and wants to know how to do it right, what would you recommend we pay attention to, and how do we approach a video so that we give it the best chance, at least, to ride that algorithm wave?

Ali:
The algorithm is interesting because a lot of people talk about how you can optimize your video for the algorithm. Back in the day, the way you would optimize your video for the algorithm would be to stuff keywords and tags and all these SEO-related things. But these days, the way the algorithm works is that the only real objective of the algorithm is to keep people on YouTube for as long as possible, and more recently, to make those people have a good time while they’re on YouTube. But broadly, the way the algorithm works, it keeps people on YouTube for longer. And so the way you optimize your video for the algorithm is by optimizing your video for keeping people on YouTube for longer.

That means three things. That means number one, getting them to click on your video. Number two, engaging them through the video so that they actually want to watch it. And number three, at the end of your video, they feel like they want to watch more videos on your channel. And those are the three keys, the first two being probably more important than the third. And really that just means, A, you need to make a video that people will click on, or a title and thumbnail specifically that people will click on, and B, you need to make the video actually good so that people actually watch it.

And those two things are far easier said than done, but all of the YouTube advice converges on number one, make a video that they’ll click on or make them click, and two, keep them watching. There’s not much more to it than that. There are all sorts of different techniques that you can use, all of the stuff that people have talked about online about what makes a good headline, things like in the title of your video, if you’re making an educational video, you sell the result rather than the process. So often a mistake people make with titles is they describe the content of the video.

But that’s actually not what gets people to click. What gets people to click is the promise of something that they want. So I could make a video called the spotlight effect and no one would watch it because the only intriguing thing there is like, “What is the spotlight effect?” But if I made a video about “How to stop caring what other people think,” that’s an interesting title because that delivers a promise. And then in the video, I talk about the spotlight effect.

So this is different things around optimizing your titles, but it’s not about thinking about the algorithm as a machine. It’s about thinking of the algorithm as basically just an expression of what people want, and what people want is videos they click on and the videos they watch. So that’s a high-level overview of how the algorithm works without being particular helpful.

Pat:
That’s such a great reframe. Thank you for that. When it comes to creating video ideas, are you in the camp of, I have this idea, you’re feel it, you do it. And then you create the title thumbnail, which is what I used to do forever? Or are you actually on the other extreme, what is a good title and some that people would click on, let’s go film that video? Where do you lie in that spectrum?

Ali:
I was very much at the former end of that spectrum at the start, but over time, I have gone away towards the other end of the spectrum, where at the start it was like, “Hey, I want to do this video.” And then the videos uploading them, like, “All right, what’s the title and thumbnail going to be?” Nowadays, someone comes to me and says, or anyone says to me, “Hey, you should make a video about X.” And the immediate reflex is like, “Okay, but what’s the title going to be?” Because it all rests on the title. And now we do not make a video unless we have a good title for it. And if we can’t think of a title, it’s not going to be a good video and therefore, we don’t even bother doing it. I know basically all of the big YouTubers go on that end of the spectrum where title first, content second.

Pat:
I’m trying to train myself to think that way too, but I still find myself getting struck with inspiration and then just turning on the camera without yet thinking about, “Well, what would get even a person to click on this?” And that’s really important. Can you share maybe one or two of your most popular videos, and maybe we can analyze the title and even thumbnail if we can describe it for people.? Just a couple, maybe, that you might want to highlight for us.

Ali:
I hate the word “clickbait.” And the word “clickbait” has a lot of negative connotations, but really what we’re trying to do is make a title clickbaity. And clickbait just means it makes people click on the video, but clickbait is bad if the video does not deliver on the promise that was made in the title. There’s one video in particular I did a few weeks ago. It was initially called “How Writing Online Changed My Life.” “How Writing Online Changed My Life.” And this was a video talking about how I started a blog in 2016 and how it changed my life in all these different ways.

And it completely tanked. It was 10 out of 10 on the analytics. For people that don’t know, YouTube Studio, the app, gives you a ranking of your video compared to the previous ten. And so if a video is 10 out of 10, it’s doing the 10th worst out of your last 10, the worst out of your last 10 videos. If it’s one out of 10, it’s doing really, really well. And so that video was a 10 out of 10. I completely bombed. And I changed the title to How Writing Online Made Me a Millionaire. And all of a sudden, that video jumped up to one out of 10.

Pat:
Wow. Just the title change?

Ali:
Just the title change. That was the only thing that changed. Thumbnail was the same, just how writing online changed my life, going to how writing online made me a millionaire. I felt a bit dirty about this because I don’t like putting the word millionaire in titles, but I knew, “Okay, it’s a bit more clickbaity. Maybe that’s going to work.”

Pat:
Yeah. I mean, clickbait is okay in my opinion, if you are servicing and helping your viewer. If they don’t click, you’re not helping them. Where it’s a problem for me is “clickbait and switch,” that last part where you switch it up, like you said, you don’t deliver on the promise. So clickbait and switch is no good; clickbait is actually fine. You need to get people to watch, especially if you’re trying to be helpful, but it is a very negative connotation for sure. So there’s a line, of course, and same thing with the thumbnail. You can put some person, maybe not wearing as much clothes as they should just to get people to stop scrolling and click, but then there’s a lot to it, and it takes practice.

Okay, in that video, I’m curious, how do you, because this is really important, how do you hook people? How do you get people to get engaged, then sit around and watch the rest of it?

Ali:
Oh, interesting. There’s a few different theories around this. What MrBeast famously says is that your hook should literally just repeat the title of the video. And that’s what he often does. And he says that-

Pat:
“In this video, I’m going to give my credit card to kids and they’re going to spend as much money as they can in one minute.”

Ali:
Exactly. And his title would be, “I gave my credit cards to kids and they spent as much money as they could in one minute.” So his theory is that if your title—if you wouldn’t repeat your title as the hook, then it is not a good title, and you need to go back to the drawing board. That’s one way of doing it. We do this about half of the time. The other half of the time we follow the hero’s journey story structure. People who write stories, there was this guy called Joseph Campbell, who back in the day did analysis of all of the different stories that we love throughout time.

And he came up with this hero’s journey thing, which is the model that all good stories follow. And the way we simplify it for YouTube is basically saying, who is the character? What do they want? Why can’t they get what they want? What are the stakes? Who helps them get what they want? And then how are they transformed as a result? There’s lots of different steps to it, but the simplified version is, in the start of the video, I will say, “Okay, I used to be like this, and then I discovered this thing, and now my life has changed.”

So these three steps: this is what I used to be like, and then I discovered this, and this is how my life has changed, and I’m going to tell you all about that in this video. So for example, we did a video the other day about, or rather I’m filming a video tomorrow called something like, “How I Became a More Confident Public Speaker” or something like that. Maybe we’ll try and come up with more clickbaity title, but the hook for that video is going to be, “Right, guys. When I was young, I used to be really, really terrible and really shy at public speaking. I had a stutter, I still do have a stutter, and I never wanted to give a public speech in class.”

“But over time, I’ve picked up a few different tips and tricks that I’m going to share with you in this video. And now at this point, I think I’m a pretty good public speaker. So let’s talk about tip number one.” So it’s really showing what the problem was and what the transformation was. And often the way that I do it is, I don’t say, “All right, guys. In this video, you’re going to learn about how to be a public speaker.” I tell a story about myself, and I’ve found that that works best, because when we tell stories about ourselves, the audience doesn’t actually care about us; they’re putting themselves in those shoes.

And I just find like, “Here’s how you can be a better public speaker,” just sounds a bit too bit class, Whereas, “Guys, here’s how I became a better public speaker,” it’s more of a guide rather than a guru. And that’s the vibe I try and go for.

Pat:
I think both of those work, and the Mr. B strategy, just to get right into it, especially for a YouTube audience which has a very low retention rate typically. And then so telling this right up front, what you’re going to get. And of course, his videos, I know for a fact that he doesn’t publish every single video that he also films either. I mean, he’s a good model to follow in terms of, he’s just got so much data at hand that he knows what to do with and we can follow suit. A lot of videos that I’ve created have told some kind of story.

And it doesn’t have to be some heartbreaking story or massive life transformational story. It could be a really small story with something like you said, at stake. There was a video I did on my Pokémon channel, where in the world of Pokémon, you can get your cards authenticated or graded, which means they put them in this plastic case and then they’re sealed in there. However, they shake around a little bit. And so in this video, I said, “Hey, if I shake this too much, can I actually damage the card that is meant to actually protect it? Let’s find out.”

And then I created this whole thing about how I just shook it for 15 minutes, and then I built a thing out of Lego to shake it automatically, and then I put it on a power tool and then it just kept leveling up. So you have to keep sticking around. There was always an open loop I was creating. It was like, “Okay, we did it by hand, no damage, but what if we did it this way?” And then it’s like, oh, it’s almost like a reset. Pattern interrupts and open loops like that are important. How much of that do you plan in the video? And when you’re planning a video, is it scripted?

I’d love to know how you plan to keep people watching all the way through, or is just the hook enough for that?

Ali:
I love how you had—I can imagine this video, like the open loops going throughout, that’s a really good way of doing it. I’ll be honest, we don’t really do that very much. We want to do a better job of doing it. So really, I don’t use any tactics at all for keeping people watching. We do do the pattern interrupt thing. So we think about this thing that we call the ten-second rule. I don’t know where I first heard it. Something needs to happen visually every 10 seconds at least, whether that’s cutting to B-roll, whether that’s zooming in, whether that’s text appearing on screen.

So we try to stick to that. But even then, a lot of the video’s me just talking. And part of me thinks we should have more sophisticated ways of doing this.

Pat:
Sometimes it’s baked into the topic, because one video that we were talking about before we hit record was when you had experimented with trying to learn how to rap. And you were like, “Hey, I’m not a great rapper, but I’m going to learn. And here are these guys that are going to help me.” And then we see your progression along the way. I have to watch till the end to see how good you get. The video in and of itself is a huge open loop. But within that, and I don’t know if this was intentional, but you were like, “Hey, now I have a session with my trainer or my coach. And then I’m gonna flow at the end of that and see how we’re progressing.”

And you actually split up the video by like week one, week two, week three. Inherently, that just included that, but there are other ways that maybe we can all think about a video ahead of time to go, “Okay, how do we keep people at minute two to stick around to minute five? And at that moment, what comes next? “But wait, there’s more!” kind of thing.

Ali:
Yeah. That’s a good point. We thought about it very consciously for the rap video, like, “Okay, let’s try and turn this into a story.” The rap video did not do well, no one cared. And partly it’s because the topic was a little bit different; it was unusual. It’s not just productivity advice from me. I think for me, the main thing about keeping people watching is that I try and do it by making the content as valuable as possible and not really worrying so much about the storytelling elements beyond the hook. And I know that that’s bad. I know that anytime I’ve spoken to like a YouTube growth coach or anything, they say that, “If you added more story elements and more open loops and stuff, your videos would be better.”

And it’s something we’re working on, but it’s something that we’re very bad at. So it’s always a work in progress.

Pat:
And I appreciate that honesty. And it also shows you don’t have to master everything, yet you can still grow, and you’re at, I don’t know what subscriber number you’re at now, it’s like one point something crazy now.

Ali:
Yeah, definitely. I think often the concern about the storytelling, it actually holds people back, especially if they’re beginners, because it’s hard enough putting yourself in front of a camera and talking and being comfortable and editing. And if you add to that that you have to tell a really compelling story, that’s a lot for anyone to think about. I don’t like to think about it, either. I think that’s the gold standard of being a pro YouTuber.

Pat:
One thing I think you do very well as well, and I want to give a shoutout to your roommate for this, is that she is a recurring character in your videos. And that’s something that I love about your channel. And I know that this is something that is happening on many other channels I follow. There’s not the main character, but somebody on the side who just comes up every once in a while. I get excited when I hear about them or I see them. There’s this one travel channel that I follow, Be My Travel Muse, and her boyfriend just shows up, but he’s got like a super dry sense of humor.

And he doesn’t like have a lot of emotions, so then she makes fun of that a little bit. It just brings joy to see that back and forth when he pops up. Tell me about your roommate and how she’s gotten involved in your channel.

Ali:
Yes. It’s pretty weird. I’ve had female roommates for the last three years, and everyone, like, the comments always love it though. Anytime I post an Instagram story, I get 500 replies being like, “Oh my God, are you guys together? When are you getting married?” All that sort of stuff. And so with all of my roommates, we play this up and do a Q&A video, that sort of thing. With my current roommate, she’s a very good sport and she’s totally okay with being in the background of videos, and in a way, acting like the sarcastic other side, who’s making fun of the things that I’m doing, because I’m taking it really seriously.

Pat:
Oh, she always makes fun of you. I love it, because she’s seeing what we’re all thinking.

Ali:
Exactly. What the hell is he doing? Why is he doing this rap thing? When’s he going to stop? Please make him stop. Please make him stop. That sort of stuff. And that’s all fun and games, but since living with me for the last eight months or so, she’s actually started her own podcast and her own YouTube channel and is now past 10K subscribers. And the fact that she’s lived with me has “normalized,” she says, for her has normalized making YouTube videos, whereas before, she just hadn’t considered it. And when she had considered it, it just seemed like this big black box, like, “Oh my God, how do you be a YouTuber?”

But then having seen me do it for the last eight months, she was like, “This is actually not that hard.” And now she’s killing it.

Pat:
That’s incredible. As far as the YouTube channel, actually, would you mind giving her a podcast shout-out and her channel just we could find her?

Ali:
Yeah. Absolutely. Her name is Sheen Gurrib, and her podcast is called a Dream, Girl. So she is very interested in women empowerment and improving access to education for women in developing countries and all this cool stuff. So her channel is sort of themed around that; her podcast is very much themed around that.

Pat:
Thank you for that. As far as your YouTube channel goes, as far as business and monetization and such, can you enlighten us a little bit, as detailed as you want to get, with regards to how it’s generating an income?

Ali:
At the moment, it’s doing the best that I’ve done, which is often the case with YouTube channels. I think this month we’re on $40,000 of AdSense revenue. The vast, vast majority of that came from just one video that’s about passive income, because whenever you talk about money, then your ad rates go absolutely through the roof. Normally, we get around about $2 per 1,000 views. And so normally, until this passive income video came out that week a few months ago, we were doing maybe $12,000 to $15,000 a month in AdSense. Brand deals, I can’t really comment on for various reasons, but generally, the figure is around about $15 to $20 per 1,000 views on a sponsored video.

But actually, the bulk of our revenue comes from our courses; about a third of it is from Skillshare, which has actually been incredible. These days, we’re making like $70,000 a month off of Skillshare classes, which is really bizarre.

Pat:
So those are courses you put onto Skillshare, and when people sign up for them, you get a majority of the income?

Ali:
Yeah. Or even a minority of that income. So I’ve run the numbers on this, and we get paid, I think like five cents for every minute of watch time. So if someone watches a class for 10 minutes, we’ll make 50 cents off them. If they watch a class for 100 minutes, we’ll make $5 off them. Skillshare also have their built-in affiliate program, where whenever someone signs up to a free trial, we make $10. So that adds up to about $70K a month, which is utterly absurd. That’s like more money than I was making in a year as a doctor in one month of pure passive income off Skillshare, which is absolutely, absolutely unreal.

So that’s about a third of our overall revenue. And the other two thirds comes from our Part-Time YouTuber Academy, which is our live cohort course that started at about six months ago.

Pat:
Yeah. And I remember when you were starting that and how different that was for you. Tell us about what that is, how you launched it, and how it’s working.

Ali:
Part-Time YouTuber Academy, which you have featured in a few times, thank you very much for that, it’s a six-week live online course where we take a few hundred people through this life cohort of becoming better part-time YouTubers. Initially, I knew I wanted to make a course about how to do YouTube, and I had this idea around about August of 2020. And then I was thinking I’d do the standard online course thing, I’d pre-record the videos, make it into an evergreen course, run ads, charge a few hundred dollars for it. You know, the standard affair for online courses.

But then I spoke to two internet friends of mine called Tiago Forte and David Perrel who run their own cohort-based courses called Building a Second Brain and Write of Passage. And I’d taken both of those courses and paid several thousand dollars for them. And I thought they were really good. And they said to me that, “Look, consider doing this as a live cohort.” And so initially I thought, “Ugh, it’s a lot of work doing a live cohort, a lot of imposter syndrome. I don’t know if it’s going to be useful. I don’t know how much to charge.”

And what they said was like, “Just try it once or twice. And at the very least you’ll get good real-time feedback, and you can just make the prerecorded course a bit better.” And so initially, we were like, “All right, cool, let’s run a live cohort,” and intended to do a validation series where we’d get 5 or 10 people in and we’d take them through the course and get feedback. And in the end, 400 people signed up to this thing that was supposed to be 5 to 10 people. All of a sudden, this thing took a life of its own.

And so we felt, “All right, this was meant to be the validation cohort, but we have to actually do this properly.” And so we put in stupid amounts of time and effort into making this a really good experience. And the first cohort was in November 2020, and it did really well. Second cohort was a few months ago, and third cohort we’ve just kicked off this week. So we’re recording this in June. So yeah, as of—Monday was the first session, we’ve got the second session tomorrow, and we’ve got you doing a guest workshop in a couple of weeks’ time.

Pat:
Yeah. I’m excited. And you know, we are now doing our own cohort-based courses now. There’s just something special about taking people through the content live. Can you explain the difference or the benefit of having a cohort-based launch and course versus a prerecorded one for those who are listening?

Ali:
I think the real benefit of cohort courses is that they give you accountability and they give you community. And people might say, “Why would you pay $3,000 for a course when all the information is on YouTube for free?” Or if it’s not, it’s in some dude’s $200 course. And yes, it is, but information is not the problem. For a lot of people, information is not the bottleneck; the bottleneck is actually doing the thing. I hold my hands up and say that we teach absolutely nothing on the course that people can’t find out through YouTube, or through your podcast, or through video creators, or Think Media, or these other people that make YouTube videos about YouTube.

But the point is not the information, the point is that when you’re in a cohort with a group of people and you’ve got the accountability, you’ve got the community, you’ve got like small group sessions, it feels like you’re in this together with other people. And that is the thing that moves the needle in terms of making people start or grow their YouTube channels or whatever the thing is they want to do. And it’s similar to how, I’ve had a membership to a gym for 10 years, but it’s only in the last few months that I’ve started actually making gains because I’ve got a personal trainer.

And the personal trainer, he does nothing that I couldn’t already do. And my mum is, you know, Asian mom, she’s always like, “Why are you wasting money on a personal trainer? Can’t you just get the information for free?” And I’m like, “Well, yes I can, but the information was not what was holding me back.” And I think often I’ve found like anytime I mention YouTuber Academy on YouTube, people get very, like butt-hurt about it. They’re like, “Oh my God, how can you possibly justify charging several thousand dollars?” I have to remind myself that generally the people that comment on YouTube videos are kids who don’t have money and who can’t appreciate why anyone in the world would pay $2,000 for a course when the information is there for free.

But the people we’re actually targeting are adults, professionals, who’ve got well-paying jobs, who’ve got their own businesses. And I really had to detach myself from thinking that the people who comment on my videos are representative of my total audience. When I put it out on Twitter, I was really surprised at how many people signed up. And now whenever I speak to people who are thinking, “Oh, I want to make a course, but I don’t want to charge too much because what will the comments say?” I remind them that, “Look, the sorts of people who have time to comment on YouTube videos are probably not your target audience, so don’t worry about the comments.”

And it’s easier said than done. And every time I get a comment saying, “Oh my God, Ali Abdaal is selling snake oil because you charge five grand for a course,” I think, “Okay. I have to detach myself from that.”

Pat:
That’s such a huge realization. When you see these comments on YouTube, especially, you start telling yourself these stories and you start believing them sometimes. And I think that’s such an important distinction. Thank you for that. I think that’s going to be game changing for a lot of people. The final question I have here, and this has just been amazing, Ali. I think that you and I could literally chat for hours, and we should, we should go out sometime and have a dinner or a coffee or something whenever that can happen. But selling the cohort-based course, from my experience is a little challenging because it happens at a specific time of the week, and the nice thing about a DIY course is you can fit it in when you can fit it in.

How do you help people rationalize paying, not just that much money, but spending that much time, perhaps even moving other things aside for what it is that you’re offering?

Ali:
I think the fact that it is cohort based and therefore the live sessions are at a certain time. I mean, obviously we record all the live sessions and then we edit it nicely and put it online for people to watch. But beyond that, I think the constraint actually makes people take it more seriously. If I were to sign up for a course where you were to teach me affiliate marketing or something, and it was a cohort-based course, I would clear my calendar to make sure I can make it at like 1:00 AM UK time or 5:00 PM US time. And I would reorient my life around the fact that I’m taking this course.

And I think that is an interesting model for online education. If I was taking a course at the medical school about anything, I wouldn’t be thinking, “Hey, I need to fit this into my own schedule.” I’d be thinking, “I’m going to rock up when they tell me to rock up.” That mentality is the shift that makes people take it seriously. Whereas if it’s an online course, it’s like… You know, I’ve bought 500 medical textbooks. I’ve never read any of them, but if there’s a live lecture happening, I’m not going to miss it. So I think that’s the vibe and that’s the mindset of approaching cohort-based courses.

I feel like we don’t have to sell why you should do it because the people who want to do it recognize the value of it, and therefore, they show up.

Pat:
I agree with that. We didn’t have an opportunity in college, for example, to choose when certain classes were going to be; they were at certain times and you showed up because it mattered and you were paying for it, or somebody was paying for it at least, or you will pay for it, is maybe the better thing.

Man, this has been incredible. The YouTuber Academy that you do, where can people learn more or get ready for the next one in case they’re interested?

Ali:
Oh sure, yeah. If you just Google Part-Time YouTube Academy, our domain name at the moment is Academy.AliAbdaal.com . But I think if you type in youtuber.academy, it’ll forward. I haven’t done a very good job with the SEO or branding side of things, but it seems to do okay mostly based on Twitter word of mouth and stuff. So just Google “Part-Time YouTuber Academy” and you will find it, and we’d love to have you on the next cohort.

Pat:
We’ll give you the links to the show notes, everybody, in case you want to get those direct links on SPI. Anyway, Ali, thank you so much. Make sure to follow Ali on YouTube. Again, all the links are on show notes, I’ll mention the link in just a moment. But thank you so much for coming on and sharing all of this. I’m inspired. I’m ready to start filming some more videos after this. And look out for some more clickbaity titles!

Ali:
Perfect. Thanks so much for having me. It is a real honor. And I’ve said this to you before, but your stuff has genuinely changed the course of my life through all of the advice and everything that you do on the podcast. Your book, Superfans, absolutely incredible as well. So 100% recommend all of these things to people who are listening.

Pat:
Thank you, man. I appreciate it.

All right. I hope you enjoyed that interview with Ali. And man, Ali is just such a kind-hearted person. He actually, and truly, you can feel it, genuinely cares about you, the listener, his students, his subscribers. And I feel it when I watch his videos too. Just so easy to listen to, I love his story, and I’m so, so stoked to be able to call him a friend. And I hope that you enjoy the episode. I hope that you’ll subscribe to his YouTube channel as well. There’s a lot more that I’m sure he and I are going to be doing together in the future. So look out for that. And all the links and the resources mentioned here in this episode will be available at SmartPassiveIncome.com/session503.

Once again, SmartPassiveIncome.com/session503. Check it out. Thank you so much. I appreciate you for listening in, and I look forward to serving you in the next and upcoming episodes, including a Follow-Up Friday coming. If you haven’t subscribed yet, make sure you do because every Wednesday, we have these amazing interviews. Every Friday, it’s just a quick 15-, 20-minute chat, you and me, to talk further and deeper about the topics covered during the interview. And we’ve got that coming up for you soon. So hit Subscribe. See you on the next one. Cheers. Peace out. And as always, Team Flynn for the win.

Thanks for listening to the Smart Passive Income Podcast at SmartPassiveIncome.com. I’m your host, Pat Flynn. Our senior producer is Sara Jane Hess, our series producer is David Grabowski, and our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. The Smart Passive Income Podcast is a production of SPI Media. We’ll catch you in the next session.


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with Pat Flynn

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