Today Nebula crossed 600,000 paying users. That’s users who are, right now, paying to use Nebula. In an amazing coincidence, it was exactly four years ago today — November 27, 2018 — that I sent an email to our creators titled “Standard Streaming”, pitching them the idea for building our own streaming service.
For context, we had been contacted by Vimeo about setting up an over-the-top streaming service for one of our creators. We thought this sounded a little absurd, especially given that creator’s frequency, but I wondered if maybe a single service with all of Standard’s creators might make sense.
[Extra context just in case: Nebula was built by a community of creators called “Standard” — now usually referred to as “Nebula Talent”.]
I thought it might be fun to share some of that first pitch. The only parts I’ve cut out are things that would reveal behind-the-scenes context that is either irrelevant or could give away important internal information. Also one line about an embarrassing subscription box thing we tried and would prefer to forget about.
Vimeo has approached us with a very interesting idea: they’d like to help us launch and run a Standard streaming video service.
The platform would be entirely ours. Our branding, our customer relationships, our money. We could operate the platform however we like, and charge whatever we want per month. They would get $1 per subscriber per month. Functionally it would be like Netflix — a website and app that loads videos from Standard creators, designed and curated however we choose.
I don’t know if this is a good idea. Maybe it isn’t. But I want to walk through it and see if there’s something in there.
How would this work?
Standard creators post ad-and-sponsor-free versions of their videos, and occasionally the service premiers exclusive (at least for some time window) content. Let’s say we charge users $5 per month for this service.
Haven’t other services tried this and failed?
It’s been attempted a few times, and a few creators have made announcement videos that haven’t aged well. I think it would be hard to convince anyone — let alone everyone — to make a big deal about their involvement. If it fails, everyone looks bad.
So, rule number one: nobody is required to promote this.
Normally a service like this would live or die by subscriber numbers. Because our primary revenue comes from sponsor commissions, and because our operational costs are fully covered already, we don’t need to worry at all about the service being profitable. It only needs to not lose money. Standard will not be financially impacted if this streaming service isn’t wildly popular.
We just happen to be in a uniquely good position to pull this off. We have the content, we have a platform partner willing to take on the operational hassle, and we have an organization already capable of managing the process.
How is this better than the NBC/SyFy thing, or YouTube Originals, or…
We get approached all the time about streaming services. I’ve collected pitches in the past for YouTube and NBC/Comcast, but everything we’ve sent over has been met with a dial tone. I don’t read any malice from this. These are very big organizations whose needs and desires don’t always align with independent content creators. And because they’re so big they don’t have to explain themselves to us.
This, in my mind, is why the only way this could ever really be successful is if the platform is owned by creators. We’re a smaller community and we answer to each other. If an idea is turned down or delayed, we can have a direct conversation about it. If an exclusive content idea is accepted, we can work more closely to make it all work without creators having to guess our goals or strategy.
What’s in it for us?
Funding for experimental original content, for one. I’ve been sending YouTube Premium content proposals, but so far YouTube hasn’t replied. Many of these ideas are really great, and wouldn’t be difficult to produce.
Sometimes it’s hard to justify getting experimental on a popular channel because the algorithm may punish you for it. With our service, we control the algorithm and there’s no ad revenue. Experiment away.
Standard thrives on data. This service comes with a fully-baked analytics API; no matter what happens we’ll get first-hand visibility into how audiences perform between shows and individual videos. The more users we attract, the more data we collect. I can’t even guess yet what we’ll learn from that.
I also really, really love anything that diversifies creator income (and Standard’s income) away from Google. And away from advertisements. More than anything, this would be a low-risk experiment in diversification.
What are the downsides?
My primary concern with this idea is opportunity cost. Is this where we should be putting our energy?
But I don’t think it would take much.
I imagine much of the effort from staff will be around making things low-effort for creators. For regular posts, we would just need ad-free cuts of the videos. Anything higher-effort than that would be paid for as exclusive content.
And, importantly, creators would always have the option to post this exclusive content to YouTube after three months (or whatever we come up with) with a sponsor attached. Since we’d be booking the sponsor in that case, we also win when the exclusivity window ends.
I have more calls with Vimeo over the next week or so to talk through pricing and business model details. This is very, very early. It’s entirely possible that my excitement for the potential of the idea is preventing me from seeing a major flaw. It’s definitely worth playing with concepts, and I think that — in this case, now that equity is about to happen — it’s important that I bring everyone into the spitballing process early.
This could be a terrible idea. Or it could be key for our future plans. There’s a lot to think about. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
What came next was a ton of enthusiastic discussion. More than I had expected. Six months later, we were live. (Without Vimeo, by the way. They wanted to own the credit card relationships with our customers, and that was a non-starter.)
It’s amazing to me how well this email has aged. The spirit and philosophy haven’t changed, and a surprising number of the details have survived the years. The part that has aged the worst is the assumption that it might not make any money. Oops.
I’d love to take credit — this is my email, after all — but I think it’s more a testament to how we work as a community. We come up with ideas and we discuss them together. Despite my title, I don’t get to do anything without the creators being in on it. Every project, every decision, we hash things out in groups before taking action. By the time this email was drafted I’d already been through enough of these conversations to have a pretty solid idea of what the concerns and benefits would look like.
I don’t think you could make Nebula without an incredibly thoughtful and empathetic group of creators working together. I’m proud and grateful to be a part of it.
I wonder where we’ll be on November 27, 2026.