Adventures in content and commerce: what we’ve learned building Unboxed.tv and what’s next
The Unboxed team has news to unwrap. Starting today, the team will be moving onto new adventures.
On behalf of everyone at Unboxed, thank you all for your support. It’s been an absolute joy and privilege to serve you. We’ve loved exploring the intersection of media and ecommerce, and look forward to seeing these industries continue to evolve and innovate in the future.
Lessons from Unboxed
In a tradition as old as Silicon Valley itself (the HBO show that is) of entrepreneurs reflecting on their startup and blogging about their learnings, here are some insights that we wanted to share from our time building Unboxed.
We started Unboxed as an incubation within the Kleiner Perkins basement with the simple goal of exploring the wild world of unboxing videos on YouTube. We weren’t sure what we would focus on, but we were so compelled by the phenomenon that was (and still is) unboxing that we felt there was an important business hiding in plain sight there. Some of our favorite unboxing stats over the years that show just how meaningful it is as a content category:
- There are more than 3 million total unboxing videos on YouTube, that generate more than 10 billion monthly views.
- Half of the top 12 most popular YouTube video categories are product related, including the top 2 (Product Reviews and How-tos).
- 60% of unboxing viewers say unboxing videos impact their purchasing decisions.
- The top YouTube earner in 2018 was a 7 year old unboxer (Ryan ToysReview) who made $22 million.
We then embarked on building four different iOS apps, three websites, two content studios, and one YouTube channel. We worked with over a dozen prominent brands and more than 100 of the top unboxing creators in the world. We crawled 40,000 YouTube unboxing videos and creating more than 300 of our own. All to experience firsthand how the ecosystem works.
From those efforts, we learned more than we ever expected, including the following conclusions:
 Unboxing creators are not yet fully valued.
When a video content creator first starts out, they earn money from whatever default monetization option their chosen video platform offers. For YouTube creators, that’s collecting advertising revenue through the YouTube Partner Program. As they develop a larger audience, creators start signing direct sponsorship deals, which are typically brands paying a creator directly to mention a specific product in their videos. Over time, the sponsorship deals usually end up being more lucrative than the default monetization and often account for the majority of a creator’s earnings. But it’s this one-two punch of default monetization plus sponsorships that sustain video creators.
There’s also a third source of revenue for creators, that product creators (the talented people behind unboxings, product reviews, product tutorials, hauls, etc.) are uniquely suited for, which is affiliate fees from purchases. Product creators will include links to the products they are discussing, and when users click through on those links and purchase the product, the creator collects a small commission that in aggregate can account for as much as one third of a product creator’s earnings. Content and commerce coming together in a way that provides value both to the user (they discovered a product they chose to purchase) and value to the creator (they earned money for their work). Makes perfect sense, except that it happens not because of the video platform, but rather despite it.
YouTube and other video platforms haven’t invested in making commerce successful for creators, and easier for users. Creators have instead manually relied on descriptions, comments, and in video instructions to share purchase info. There are some early signs of video platforms experimenting with commerce features, like YouTube’s merchandise shelf. But there’s still so much more that could be done to benefit both viewers of product videos and their creators.
And keeping product creators happy and committed to a video platform is particularly important because of how much value they bring to the platform. Video creators who are publishing ideal brand appropriate material that advertisers love — no one has to worry about anything offensive or objectionable when you’re dealing with a Bose headphones review, or a tutorial on building a gaming PC. From their affiliate purchases, these product creators have proven they drive purchase intent which is a marketer’s dream. And did I mention that product content is amongst the most popular video categories online today? So in every way that matters to a video platform — popularity, advertising appropriateness, engagement, and more — product creators deliver outsized value to video platforms. Now the question is when will video platforms start delivering just as much value to product creators in return?
 The great unbundling of YouTube hasn’t happened yet.
Nearly a decade ago, VC Andrew Parker published a famous blog post describing the unbundling of Craigslist, whereby startups were carving out specific sections of Craigslist into standalone companies. HomeAway taking on the Craiglists vacation rentals section, Etsy taking on arts and crafts, Indeed taking on the jobs, etc. Whereas Craiglists provided tremendous customer value by aggregating different services, these new startups were providing even greater customer value by specializing their features to create the best user experience for a single service.
5 years later, CB Insights performed the same analysis for Wells Fargo to describe how startups were now unbundling banks. Again, a bet on a specialized user experience (i.e. unbundled) providing more customer value than an aggregated user experience (i.e. bundled).
Recently, there have been discussions on whether YouTube might be ready for an unbundling. Fueled by the success of Twitch, perhaps a slew of specialized video service (in Twitch’s case around live game streams) could deliver a better user experience and therefore more customer value than YouTube’s massive video aggregation. Education video services like Udemy and MasterClass have also successfully unbundled content from YouTube. But are those companies all signs of another great unbundling happening? Of a wave of new companies providing more customer value than YouTube through specialization? Our conclusion is not yet.
The challenge is that most video categories are watched irregularly. Twitch has thrived as a standalone service as people do watch video game streams regularly. But other YouTube categories like haul videos, meme videos, sketch comedy, unboxings and more are viewed far more episodically. In between those episodic views, users need other content to consume which benefits an aggregated service not a specialized service. Said another way, the ideal experience for viewers is not to consume a dedicated, standalone standup comedy app or a dedicated, standalone product review app, but rather to snack on that content on YouTube amongst an infinite sampling of other diverse video types that users can cycle through.
Educational video content is also episodic, but has earned success away from YouTube’s aggregation because it is high value content. Users pay tens if not hundreds or even thousands of dollars for educational videos on Udemy, MasterClass, and other places. So even though educational video startups don’t interact with users regularly, they can earn a lot of money when they do because of the value users assign to that type of content. When your customer interactions are limited, you gotta make them count. But just like there aren’t many video categories that fall into high frequency, there also aren’t many video categories that fall into being high value enough for users to pay meaningful dollars for. Twitch, Udemy, and MasterClass are therefore the exceptions — gaming as the rare high frequency video category and education as the rare high value video category — not the norm.
Given the huge size of YouTube, the unbundling of the world’s largest video platform will always be an opportunity worth watching. But we don’t think it’s happening yet. In video, aggregation still has more value for users than specialization.
 While YouTube isn’t yet being unbundled, the media industry is.
One of my favorite YouTube creators is Jake Roper, who is one of the creative minds behind Vsauce. Think of Vsauce as producing new takes on classic Discovery Channel shows like MythBusters, that are filled with science, curiosity, and humor. And the comparisons with the Discovery Channel go beyond just the type of content — like the Discovery Channel, Vsauce is creating a diversified media business. Jake and his Vsauce partners run 4 separate science oriented channels, which collectively have over 20 million subscribers who have viewed their videos more than 2 billion times. In addition to their media properties with its advertising and sponsorship revenue, they also run an ecommerce business called The Curiosity Box that sells educational puzzles, toys, and other merchandise. And here’s the most impressive part: the entire Vsauce team, from onscreen talent to production to distribution to monetization, is only 7 people.
Traditional media for creators has historically been tightly controlled, and strictly separated into distinct silos. The Jake Roper of yesteryear would have taken his content idea to a studio to get it produced, then sold it to a separate network to get it distributed, before being broadcast to an audience he would have no direct interaction with. But media is now being unbundled as new companies have created open platforms that give everyone self service access to the capabilities previously locked up in those old silos. Digital production tools have unlocked content creation, video hosting platforms have unlocked distribution, ad networks have unlocked both monetization and customer acquisition, and so on. To run a media business today, there are far fewer things you need to do yourself because you can rely on an unbundled service to do them for you.
Vsauce is an example of a successful new media company built using services unbundled from the old media hierarchy. The Jake Roper of today can come up with a content idea, produce the videos with Adobe Creative Cloud, distribute them on YouTube, monetize them with AdSense and third-party merchandise manufacturers, and acquire an audience with online marketing — all services Jake doesn’t have to manage himself. And most importantly, the Jake of today now gets to directly interact with his audience, learn from that interaction, and be in full control to improve his next content idea.
In addition to Vsauce, there’s also Doug Demuro and his unbundled version of a car show, to Philip DeFranco and his unbundled version of a news show, to Gary Vaynerchuk and his unbundled version of a business show, to other media formats like Joe Rogan’s pop culture podcast, to Ben Thompson’s business analysis newsletter. All supremely talented creators who have taken their new media directly to consumers by using unbundled services. Even with just a handful of people on staff, these creators are all true media companies because best of all, using unbundled services allows them to focus on what they do best: creating informing and entertaining content in the first place. And fortunately for all of us eager viewers, there will be more of these unbundled media companies going forward.
One of the great benefits of starting your own company is that it often provides for the most interesting work. After all, when you get to pick your subject area you end up choosing projects that truly capture your attention.
Building within an established company often provides for the most meaningful impact as you work on a proven product solving real problems for an existing audience. Even small contributions to products that are at large scales leave meaningful impressions you can be proud of.
But regardless of startup or established company, what’s truly ideal is when you can combine these two factors — interest and meaning — within one opportunity. When you can both explore a market that fascinates you, and then also discover a path to create something impactful within that market. Because the most rewarding work happens when you not only create things you love, but also create things that matter.
That’s what we aspire for, and we hope you will find the next adventure from the Unboxed team to be as interesting and meaningful as we do!