As we stop to take a photo of Parker Nirenstein standing next to his car, a group of women emerges from the adjacent parking lot. They all want their pictures taken with it.
“Is it like that everywhere you go?” I ask.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he admits, matter-of-factly. Nirenstein is an engineering student at the University of Michigan with an unusual hobby: When he’s not studying for exams, the 21-year-old spends his off-hours, weekends, and breaks driving exotic high-performance cars and criticizing them. Using multiple cameras — including one GoPro he attaches to his face to create point-of-view driving shots — he records himself and posts the videos to his YouTube channel, Vehicle Virgins, which has gained more than 200,000 followers and generated millions of video views in the last year alone. That, in turn, generated enough revenue to enable Nirenstein to buy this dream car — a lightly used bright yellow Lamborghini Gallardo — and lease a 2016 Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Collecting cars is usually an expensive hobby, but in Nirenstein’s case, it pays for itself. On 20 March of this year, Vehicle Virgins neared a milestone when it generated $996.25 in a single day. We caught up with the college senior in his adopted home of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to find out exactly how he’s done it.
In some ways, it turns out, it’s what he’s not doing. Nirenstein is decidedly unlike most college students in that he doesn’t spend much time partying, playing video games, or just hanging out. That makes room in his schedule in which to shoot and edit lots and lots of videos. The subjects of the videos are typically automobile he borrows from local dealers or private owners, but increasingly, manufacturers such as Hyundai and Toyota have begun sending him their latest cars to test out for a week at a time. “Jaguar won’t let me borrow anything until I’m 25,” he explains, “so I’ll just borrow a Jag from its owner if I want to drive one.” Some enthusiasts loan him cars directly; three Nissan GT-R owners showed up at a local airport runway one lazy Sunday to let him do his thing. (A video of one of the GT-Rs entitled “GTR Snow Launch Control Flamethrower” went viral when he filmed it doing donuts in a parking lot during a snowstorm.)
Jaguar won’t let me borrow anything until I’m 25, so I’ll just borrow a Jag from its owner if I want to drive one.
According to Socialblade, a statistics website that tracks YouTube channels, Vehicle Virgins generates anywhere from $3,300 to $27,000 in revenue per month. For context, that’s roughly four times the revenue consumer magazine brands Car and Driver and Road & Track make on YouTube — combined. You begin to see how traditional media companies are increasingly competing not just with other magazines, but with their own readers, for attention. At this rate, Socialblade predicts that Vehicle Virgins will surpass Car and Driver in total subscribers by May of next year. That’s because despite its relatively small scale, Vehicle Virgins is producing more engaging content than most of its closest competitors.
The key, Nirenstein says, was discovering what makes videos go viral. “In December of last year, the month of January of this year was just some massive, massive growth, when I went from 8,000 views a day to two months from that, over 100,000. So it was over ten times growth. Previously, my most-watched video was a ‘How to drive a manual’ tutorial [which currently has nearly 3m views].” With every car he reviews, Nirenstein now creates separate positive and negative videos.
“The love and hate videos are just me figuring what I love and hate about the car when I’m driving it for the first time with no preconceived notions,” he says. “It’s kind of just raw opinion. Then I do a review that’s more cinematic. I spend a lot more time on that, get a lot of nice shots, do a lot of research on the car.”
People used to advise him to intern for Motor Trend. “I could do that, but I kind of already have my own Motor Trend,” he says.
BBC Autos: How did Vehicle Virgins start?
Parker Nirenstein: Originally, it was just advice for first-time car buyers. Kids came to me in high school because my friends and I were always talking about cars and reading car magazines. They’d say: “Hey, my parents said they’d give me thirty-five-hundred bucks to buy a new car. What should I get?” So that’s where that came from: first-time car buying. That was kind of our initial audience. Recently, it’s been gearing away from that.
BBC: When did things begin to take off?
PN: It wasn’t doing much for a while, and I’d say about a year ago was when it started picking up. At first I was making the videos primarily for fun. As the traffic grew, I was able to drive cars that I wouldn’t just normally be able to drive. You can’t really go to a BMW dealership and ask them to give you an M4 for six hours without someone in the car, without having a reason. So I didn’t care it didn’t make any money at all. It wasn’t like I made an app and then got lucky and it exploded. It’s like, no, this took two and a half years of producing videos, and it just naturally started gaining more and more traffic. I guess hard work eventually pays off.
BBC: To get the cars, you just give dealers a plug?
PN: Exactly. I say: “You can buy this car and such-and-such dealer at this location.” And I always thank them and add links to their websites, or whatever. And that works for them because they get free exposure, and they don’t really lose…anything.
A lot of humorous videos do very well. That’s what makes Top Gear so successful; cars are almost a secondary part of it.
BBC: What makes a video go viral?
PN: How-to videos seem to be really popular because they have a large audience; people often go to YouTube to learn things. A lot of humorous videos do very well. That’s what makes Top Gear so successful; cars are almost a secondary part of it. I mean, for me, I love cars, so that’s a huge part of it, but some of their best episodes, in my opinion, they don’t even drive cool cars. They just do funny stuff and laugh together. So that’s one step that I would like to take to grow my audience larger than the automotive sector. But the other type of video that does well is anything negative. My Ford GT “hate” video got a natural amount of traffic at first — then Jalopnik shared it, and then someone else shared it, and then it really blew up and got a ridiculous amount of subscribers, and traffic just kind of took off.
BBC: And what makes negative car videos so appealing?
PN: There are so many people reviewing cars. For example, a bunch of journalists just drove the new NSX. But nobody made a video about the five things that they hate about the NSX. I might see Motor Trend’s video, and I could read Car and Driver’s review, but then, this one’s totally different, so I’ll click on that. Another example: I didn’t drive it, but they had a Lykan Hypersport at Pebble Beach. Everyone kind of hyped it up because it was in that “Fast and Furious” movie. It was three and a half million dollars and had diamond headlights. But we were the first ones to say: “Alright, three and a half million dollars. You could almost get all three hybrid hypercars for that. It’s slower than a 2006 Veyron, yet costs way more. Someone could steal the diamond headlights — just take an axe to it. The interior is like a Nissan GT-R.” A lot of stuff just didn’t make sense to me. So that video just blew up.
BBC: Is there room for more growth?
PN: My limiting factor right now is time. I’ve got car dealers calling me up saying “Hey, we got the new ATS-V in, do you want to drive it?” Of course I’d rather go drive the new Cadillac ATS-V or CTS-V than sit here and do engineering homework. I haven’t yet had a period of time when I was doing nothing but the reviews. Every summer, I’ve been getting an internship to build my resume, but if I wasn’t doing either of those things [school or internships], I could probably review seven to fourteen cars in a week, and you’re not going to get seven or fourteen press cars all at the same time for one person.
BBC: Why’d you buy a Lamborghini? You’ve said you visualized it. Can you explain that?
PN: The car came out when I was ten. All the pictures were that color, with those wheels. I guess something about it really captivated me. I had the phone background since the first iPhone came out. I still have a poster on a wall in my room. I guess what visualizing did was give me the motivation to work harder when stuff was difficult. Like trying to work 40 hours a week and get an engineering degree at a top school sucks up a lot of time. But if I could visualize what the outcome could be… When I first told someone I wanted the car, I was in, like, tenth grade in high school and I didn’t know how I was going to do that or what it was going to be. Right after I graduated, I came up with the idea for Vehicle Virgins, and at first, I wasn’t quite sure how I could monetize it or how that would really work, but I was pretty sure that that would be something I could put effort into and make a career out of. And make money. I guess the visualization allowed me to work hard, and stay in on nights when all my friends were out drinking and I kept saying, “Yeah, this sucks. Why am I working so hard, because for a year and a half or whatever, I didn’t make really any significant amount of money.
BBC: Now that you’ve attained your dream car, what’s next?
PN: My new struggle is trying to figure out what I want to visualize now. Because I kind of just did what I wanted and attained a dream. So I need to figure out what that next goal is. At first I said my next goal was hitting a million YouTube subscribers. The number is cool, but it doesn’t really fire me up. It doesn’t seem as exciting and something I really want to work towards, even though obviously I would love to get there. So I’ve just gotta figure out what the heck to do next.
My new struggle is trying to figure out what I want to visualize now. Because I kind of just did what I wanted and attained a dream. So I need to figure out what that next goal is.
BBC: The University of Michigan’s College of Engineering has a Center for Entrepreneurship. Is that what motivated you learned to start your own company?
PN: No, I just did it on my own. My dad started a technology company with his friends. I guess growing up in Silicon Valley, everybody who lived around me was a business owner. They didn’t work for big companies, or maybe they did for a little while, but then they’d start a startup business. After the initial crazy amount of work they had to put in, they enjoyed their job because it’s what they created and liked doing and everything about that seemed more appealing to me. I’m getting an engineering degree; as of now, it’s like a big safety net. Because I’ve got a high GPA, and a bunch of internships under my belt, so if what I’m doing doesn’t work out, I can go work for Ford if I want to.
BBC: So you’re studying automotive engineering?
PN: For undergrad I wanted to do mechanical because it’s really broad and I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. I picked Michigan because it’s a top-two program. The only one that’s better is MIT, and the car culture here compared to MIT is just not comparable.
BBC: And you’ve worked for car companies?
PN: Over the summer I worked 40 hours a week at Ford and then probably an additional 40 hours a week after that on Vehicle Virgins. I did the exact same thing the year before and the summer – 40 hours a week at Toyota, 40 hours a week at Vehicle Virgins. During school it depends on how much homework I have. I’m a senior, and this semester is really, really hard, so it’s unfortunate that I can’t work as much as I would like, but I still have a goal that I try to put out three to four videos per week.
BBC: Does consistency pay off? What’s the recipe for success?
PN: That’s a huge thing for people who want to build a YouTube channel: Consistency, and frequency of uploads. Sometimes I’ll analyze competing channels to see whether they have less subscribers or more subscribers. Having a target has helped me be motivated when I’ve lost track of – “Oh, I’ve already got this many views, why do I need more?” I look at how many subscribers someone has versus daily views. How many videos a week they’re producing. And how I compare to that. If I see someone and they’re producing one video a day, and they’re consistent, and they just keep cranking it out, I’m pretty positive that their channel is going to do well. And if it’s a bigger channel that’s doing two or one video per week, they’re probably going to start slowing their growth. They might still be growing in subscribers, but instead of adding a thousand per day, it might start to slow, because the more videos you make, the more people randomly stumble upon it. The more opportunities for it to be shared. And it’s compounded growth; you have more videos, that brings in more subscribers, then more subscribers means when you produce the next video, more people see it. Then it really explodes because YouTube search engine optimization gives preference to videos that get a lot of views really quickly.
I remember a year and a half ago I waited a week and a half to send my A8L review to Audi Ann Arbor to where it got 1,000 views. And I was like, “Oh, I’ll show them now, it’s got a thousand views.’ And now I’ll get a thousand views in like the first three minutes after posting a video. And when a video gets 50,000 views in one day, it’s better positioned to then continue that growth and keep going. Versus sometimes when a channel just starts, you might post a video and it kind of just gets lost in the sea of millions of YouTube videos. Some of my original videos might be getting two views a day versus some of the newer ones might be getting 10,000 a day, continuously.
BBC: How much revenue does that generate?
PN: A hundred thousand views a day is anywhere between $200 and $800. So it’s like a formula. If I keep making more videos, the ones I make don’t go away. The “How to drive a manual” video has been consistently generating something like $1,000 a month since I posted it. So if I’d made a hundred of those videos, I’d just be loaded. That’s why I’d really like to finish school and put 80 hours a week into it and produce one or two videos every day: Because I really enjoy doing it.
BBC: What are you using to produce them?
PN: Right now I use two GoPros for the in-car video. And I hooked one of the GoPros up to a shotgun microphone that is normally attached to a digital SLR camera. I duct-taped it to a suction mount and stuck it against the windshield. GoPro’s stock audio is pretty bad. And the options are limiting because if the camera is in front of you and you don’t want the cord showing. I tried a wireless setup and it was too complicated and sometimes I’d get feedback. So this kind of jerry-rigged setup is working. And for all the exterior shots I’ve got a Canon 5D and a tripod and a slider. I can do some pretty cool stuff with that.
BBC: Why YouTube? Why not run your own separate site?
PN: I had my own site, but it was just an extra step to keep it updated. For one thing, there’s no startup cost on YouTube. You don’t even have to have a Canon 5D; there are other, cheaper cameras you can use to start with. A lot of YouTubers have tens of millions of followers, and they were vloggers first; people just film their daily lives, and somehow they make millions of dollars. It wasn’t like I made an app and then got lucky and it exploded. It’s like, no, this took two and a half years of producing videos, and it just naturally started gaining more and more traffic. Hard work pays off.
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