The Great War is a phenomenon.
From July 28, 2014 — the centennial anniversary of World War I — to today, the Great War team has published a weekly video chronicling a week’s worth of WWI history.
The results are posted to YouTube, and viewers get to experience the Great War — week-by-week ‘in real time.’
There are so many ways that a channel based on coverage of World War I could fail.
But the team that came up with the idea — Indiana “Indy” Neidell, Spartacus Olsson, Astrid Deinhard-Olsson, and the Berlin-based team around Indy and show producer Flo — made history come alive to their 800,000+ YouTube subscribers using a mix of solid research and footage from British Pathé.
As their four-year, ‘real-time’ journey through the Great War draws to a close, they face the question every creator (and company) knows too well:
What should we do next?
The answer — at least for Indy, Spartacus, and Astrid — was World War II (based on overwhelming feedback from fans).
(Note that if you’re interested in watching their WWII series when it launches this fall, you can keep up with their ‘Between 2 Wars’ series, which covers the intervening years between WWI and WWII.)
That would mean six years of weekly videos to make WWII come alive to audiences in real time, just like the WWI project.
To fund a WWII documentary project, they could have continued their relationship with Mediakraft Networks, the company that Spartacus and Astrid co-founded and subsequently sold.
Mediakraft is an online TV group that funds and produces a range of media content. Much of Mediakraft’s funding for new shows comes from investors.
But Spartacus wasn’t keen on the idea (hint: it has everything to do with creative freedom… more on that in a bit).
As Spartacus told us when we interviewed him recently, he and the team:
- Wanted to preserve the reputation they’ve earned in their community for unbiased, globally relevant history shows.
- Wanted the freedom to pursue meaningful projects in a socially responsible way without any strings attached.
- Felt they needed a budget sizeable enough to do their subject matter justice.
Investors, of course, are a source of money.
But not the only source.
As they learned by gaining 4,000+ supporters and over $17k per month on Patreon for The Great War, people are willing to back a project like theirs.
Could that audience provide the entire budget they needed to tell the story of WWII and — potentially — other stories from history?
They believe the answer is yes.
To strike out as an independent team funded by their fans, they needed a new brand.
That new brand is now TimeGhost.
And this is the story of its creation (so far).
Note: Want creative freedom for your own project? Go straight to your community on Patreon.
Turning Three Negative Statements Into a Direction for TimeGhost
When Indy, Spartacus, and Astrid sat down to discuss their future, they started by agreeing on what they didn’t want to do next.
As it turns out, eliminating what they didn’t want made what they did want crystal clear.
1. They didn’t want to be dependent on a media network.
Media networks can be a great asset if you’re just starting out. They help you fund and distribute your content to your target audience.
In fact, Spartacus recommends them for small artists looking to grow a brand.
But dependence on a network comes with some very real drawbacks:
- Successful creators aren’t often given an opportunity to build upon their success.
- Networks have to act in their own self-interest. Hedging their bets with other programming is how networks have learned to succeed in the cutthroat world of entertainment.
- Investors follow the mantra, “I pay; I say.”
It’s simply the price of receiving funding.
Spartacus and the team could have found a media network as a partner, but — for TimeGhost — it didn’t seem worth it to give up control of the channel’s creative direction.
“We did not want to stay dependent on a network where we don’t have the decision making in our own hands. We want to reinvest the money we do make into content for our audience,” he explained.
The natural conclusion was to build an independent channel supported by their audience.
2. They didn’t want to compromise their global relevance.
Many channels drive rapid growth and audience retention through national programming.
The History Channel, for example, is always looking for content that appeals to American audiences.
In Germany (where TimeGhost is based), most TV caters to German audiences.
But The Great War team built something that would appeal to a global audience.
Fans from around the world subscribe to the channel for the very reason that it offered an impartial take on an event that affected the entire world.
“We wanted to make sure that we stay unbiased with a global perspective of what we’re doing and that we’re doing it in the most responsible way possible,” Spartacus told us.
Therefore, TimeGhost would have to produce more of the unbiased, chronological content the Great War audience grew to love.
3. They didn’t want funds to come up short.
With the funding options they had immediately available, failing to hit necessary financial goals was a real possibility.
It’s a problem faced by anyone creating content online: you have to put money up front to build something. And that something may never gain traction.
“With The Great War, we started off with an asset that is going to have zero income at first and we didn’t know if it would be successful before it was successful,” Spartacus said.
“We’re facing a double challenge. One, there’s no available money for upfront investment, and two, it takes a long time and you have to build the community around the program before it starts really financing itself.”
For TimeGhost, one of their goals is to create an infrastructure that could continually fund content (new and old) as needed.
Making the decision to do so was relatively easy.
Actually doing it?
That’s the hard part.
Creative Freedom: Funding a World War II Sized Project
TimeGhost will be handling several projects concurrently.
They’re doing a weekly show on little-known villains (cheekily named the World DicKtionary), a sixteen episode deep-dive into the Space Race, and chronological examination of the Black Death.
And they’ve already started making episodes of Between 2 Wars, which covers the time between WWI and WWII as they gear up for their coverage of WWII.
Much of their material is from earlier ideas that “didn’t survive the fight to keep them financed by my investors,” Spartacus said.
But their main endeavor is their World War II channel.
They know there’s an audience for the material (“Literally tens of thousands of people have asked Indy to do World War II,” Spartacus recounted).
But chronologically covering World War II would take six years… and all their time.
“We realized we would not be able to do World War II on our own, because then we’re going to be doing World War II for the next six years and nothing else with our lives. We also do like other parts of history and we like to sleep and eat and sometimes take a little bit of vacation,” he chuckled.
That led them to pursue the largest YouTube documentary video collaboration in history.
“That in turn gave rise to another interesting challenge, which is how do we get these people to work together and share their income in order to fund the program?” Spartacus recalled.
They believe Patreon is the solution.
In 2015, the Great War team created a Patreon account despite fierce opposition from investors who thought it was a waste of time.
But Indy, Spartacus, and their fans got the last laugh.
When the YouTube “adpocalypse” (which you can read about on Reddit) hit the Great War, their Patreon account exploded to $17,000+ in monthly revenue.
Concerned fans flocked to Patreon, eager to ensure the continuation of the Great War channel after Indy announced their situation.
Now, the TimeGhost team believes those fans are the key to making a channel like theirs everything it could be.
Other methods — like YouTube ads, sponsorships, and Kickstarter — have all proven insufficient for their primary income stream.
The Problem with YouTube Ads
Over the past four years, the Great War went through four phases of YouTube ad revenue:
Phase one: “Not enough money to do anything at all.”
Phase two: Up to $4,000/mo, after a scare during which Google turned ads off completely.
Phase three: Real growth in subscribers and revenue; at its height, about $9,000/month.
Phase four: Post adpocalypse, $2,000/mo or less.
Even before 2017’s adpocalypse, Spartacus had to fight to keep the Great War monetized.
Apparently, ‘documentary renditions of acts of war’ was a touchy subject.
Fortunately, Google sided with Spartacus and reinstated ads for the Great War, admitting that the channel was educational in nature.
In current times, they have to submit each video for approval before ads can be turned on.
Since that process takes several days, they miss out on revenue from the bulk of their audience.
Ad revenue was slashed to about ⅕ of its previous level.
In other words, even if TimeGhost and its partner channels have ads enabled on their content, it will never fund the project.
And having ads enabled isn’t guaranteed forever.
“First of all, we are apolitical and when we do content about the war, we are not doing content about the war because we want to promote war. We’re doing it out of a historical perspective where we believe it’s important to learn from history and not fight wars.
Nevertheless we are covering things like guns, death, mass murder and all of the things that happened. That puts us at the risk of being demonetized on YouTube, of having our content blocked, or at least of having it restricted in different ways,” Spartacus explained.
The Problem with Sponsorships
The right businesses can thrive with the support of sponsors.
TimeGhost is not one of them.
“The broad group of advertisers that go into sponsorships and product placements are not going to want their brand associated with the Holocaust, the breakdown of the Hindenburg line, or the death and carnage on the Eastern front,” Spartacus explained.
And even if they do find willing sponsors, TimeGhost isn’t going to accept just anyone.
Sponsorships and product placements must be non-intrusive and can’t involve a conflict of interest.
It’s simply not worth jeopardizing the trust of their audience or the quality of each video.
That said, they’re happy to take the support of the right sponsors.
For example, the Great War collaborated with the Guam Visitors Bureau for a special episode on Guam (as it related to World War I, of course).
It gave them a chance to cover the first shots fired by Americans in WWI, along with covering the history of a sunken German battleship that can be accessed by visiting divers.
But even if they do find successful partnerships, it won’t be enough to run TimeGhost.
“These are topics that are just so loaded that they’re very difficult to find enough sponsors to cover the costs as they are. That really does leave us with a model like Patreon in order to work together with our audiences,” he said.
Could Kickstarter Cut It?
TimeGhost actually ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2017.
It was a bit last minute, but it brought in over 50,000 Euros — enough to get things started.
Kickstarter wasn’t their first-choice method for raising funds, however they needed quick money to start TimeGhost on schedule.
Since Mediakraft (not TimeGhost) owns the Great War, TimeGhost doesn’t have advertising rights on the channel.
In other words, it will take some time before that audience learns of TimeGhost.
Ramping up the TimeGhost Patreon page will take time.
“That put us in a bit of a jam because we invested quite a lot of money ourselves — as much as we could — and we needed fresh money quickly in order to take things to the next level,” Spartacus explained.
Kickstarter eased the pain temporarily.
But Kickstarter isn’t their end-game.
“We decided to do a Kickstarter campaign to get the money that we needed in order to create our infrastructure,” Spartacus explained.
“Kickstarter is great if you want to do something really quickly and get a certain amount of money upfront. But that doesn’t create the sustainability that we get with patrons.”
It’s sustainability they’ve seen and tested first-hand.
Why Patreon is a Solution for TimeGhost’s Permanent “Infrastructure”
“The Patreon system is a sustainable and calculable way of generating revenue for your channel,” Spartacus stated.
Compared to the other models they’ve investigated, “it fits better into the operational structure that we’re working on.”
The hope is that Patreon will provide the means with which they can consistently refinance their programs (and add new ones when revenue allows).
As they continue to improve their new website, start the World War II series, and ramp up Patreon activity, that number should continue to grow.
In the meantime…
If YouTube ads never make another penny for TimeGhost, it won’t be an emergency.
If sponsors never come calling, it won’t be the end of the world.
And if investors want to fork over cash in exchange for creative control, the TimeGhost crew will laugh and say, “No thanks.”
But Spartacus’ favorite reason for choosing Patreon has nothing to do with money.
“The beauty of Patreon is that it’s tied to the real success you have, which is not actually how many views you generate on a platform that can then sell your ads. The real success that you create is the community that you build.”
And through that community, Spartacus and Indy can finally maintain creative control, free of outside influences.
Now, they’ll take feedback from the only other people who matter: their fans.
Note: Want to make a living doing what you love? Sign up for Patreon.