Here's Exactly How Michelle Phan Became One Of The Most Successful YouTubers Ever

26 October 2015, 17:09 | Updated: 17 July 2017, 12:11

We the Unicorns

By Hollie-Anne Brooks

Everything you've ever wanted to know.

Nearly a year before Zoella set up her YouTube channel and three years before Shaaanxo started hers, Michelle Phan was busying herself crafting make-up tutorials and editing away on this video site she'd stumbled upon. Nine years later, she has a global empire, 8 million YouTube subscribers and is often regarded as one of the best business minds in the YouTube sphere. So, how did she do it?

Michelle Phan gif

Surprisingly, Michelle didn't graduate from school (although she was later given an honorary degree).In 2005, Michelle ran a beauty blog and was inspired by comments from her viewers to start recording video tutorials so she could give more detail and insight into the looks she was showcasing.

It was 2009 when things really took off for Michelle and she's used some of those key factors throughout her career today. Switched on to trends and insights within the YouTube sphere whilst giving audiences the quality beauty content they want, Michelle has led the way for every beauty YouTuber out there.

Here's the key factors that helped her achieve success around the world.

Knowing what the audience want: 

It might sound simple but it's harder than it seems. Having been creating beauty content for four years, 2009 was a real big turning point of Michelle's career; it was this year that Buzzfeed picked up on her Lady Gaga tutorial and the same year her romantic Valentine's look sent social media ablaze. Michelle's talent was not only her make-up ability but also knowing what her viewers would want to see before they even did. These days, we'd be gobsmacked if our favourite beauty gurus didn't do seasonal looks but Michelle was one of the first to pick up on their potential and see real traction.

The desire for celebrity inspired, dramatic tutorials - which helped Pixiwoo and Lauren Luke become YouTube sensations - was another early factor of Phan's success. Cosplay and character art has also been a huge part of Michelle's channel with early videos seeing her create looks based on Sailor Moon, Barbie and Snow White. Michelle's Lady Gaga Bad Romance video was also featured on the YouTube homepage which helped it achieve over 1.5 million views in the space of two weeks and become one of YouTube's most viewed videos of all time.

Michelle Phan gif

Hack and DIY videos have also been a continuous theme throughout the past seven years. In the beginning, Michelle would upload videos showing how to make a DIY face mask, how to stretch shoes and how to make your own coloured lip balm. These "how to" videos transformed the simple Google search into something all the more visual and gave viewers skills they could literally take away and use for life- even if those skills were how to make body scrubs in your kitchen and how to get ride of acne with a crushed up aspirin.


Media coverage and brand recognition 

As previously mentioned, the media took to Michelle as early as 2009 with Buzzfeed and other sites including her in lists of beauty gurus to watch. As social publishing grew and more and more articles were being shared on Facebook, these seemingly small features gained Michelle thousands of subscribers and helped rack up the views.

So it's no surprise that brands soon clicked on to Michelle's social media influence. One of Michelle's first big breakthroughs with brands came from Lancome who made her their official video make-up artist having seen both her skill and her growing audience. The role with Lancome lead to the biggest names in the fashion and beauty world sitting up and realising that not only was YouTube a valuable source of influence and promotion for their own work but these up-and-coming digital bloggers and vloggers were now the new supermodels and celebrities of the 21st century.

Michelle Phan gif

It was in 2010 that Vogue - the biggest fashion publication in the world- recognised Michelle's talent and featured her alongside other Internet stars. At the time, Michelle said: "Vogue has never done anything like this, this is their first time featuring bloggers and vloggers like myself."

It was this rapid growth and finical and emotional support from brands and publications that allowed Michelle to experiment more with her channel and start to take entrepreneurial  steps that would secure her place in YouTube history.


The entrepreneur stages

In early 2012, after around five years on YouTube, Michelle founded a collective Multi-Channel Network called FAWN (now known as ICON). In its early days, FAWN saw Michelle collaborate with others on travel, food and beauty videos. In just over three years, FAWN has rebranded to ICON and has a UK arm which includes videos from the likes of Melanie Murphy and SunBeamJess.

Just before Michelle founded her series of Multi-Channel Networks, she clicked on to the rise in beauty subscription boxes and set out to use her YouTube influence and media recognition to create her own. Now known as ipsy, the monthly subscription service is estimated to be worth $500 million. Seriously.

Sitting alongside the likes of Birchbox and Glossybox, the service costs $10 and gives subscribers around five sample size products. The key to its success over its rivals, however, has to be put down to Phan's own influence. With no spend on traditional advertising, it's Michelle's digital influence alone that has helped her business rocket.

Michelle Phan gif

But things don't stop there; there's also a make-up line with L'Oreal and the inevitable book deal. Launching in 2013, Phan released "em" - a cosmetic line everything from lip balms at around $14 to large palettes at $59. In October 2015, L'Oreal dropped em and prepared to sell it to ipsy after it failed to make the impact the cosmetic giant had hoped for; many had claimed this was down to high price point that was too expensive for Michelle's average viewer.

Despite this, Michelle was recently named as the 7th richest YouTube star by Forbes with only more success to come.


So, what's next?

In a recent video, Michelle claimed she was eager to step away from video content on YouTube and take on the challenge of covering other subjects including "career advice" and "trend reports". 2016 will also see more information regarding the purchase of Phan's cosmetics line by ipsy and we're predicting it'll undergo a slight overhaul having received some flack from fans.


Regarding new projects, Michelle has spoken of a comic book as well as mentoring the growth of new digital talent through ICON and teaming up with a virtual reality company to potentially offer 3D beauty tutorials.

Not bad for a girl who was turned down for a job at a make-up counter...

So, are you a fan of Michelle? And what do you make of her success? Let us know in the comments below.