Meet The Internet Video Stars: Hak5 & TechnoBuffalo

There was a time when YouTube - and all of Internet video - was dominated by cat videos. dumb stunts and crotch kicks. And while we'll never be free of such lowbrow gems, the genre has grown to accommodate decidely more sophisticated content - particularly in the technology arena.

While websites have traditionally dominated this space, thanks to YouTube, Revision3 TV and their competitors, a new breed of video content producers are building careers. Though YouTube's turbulent relationships with talent have been widely publicized, other video makers tell a different story - one that sees the online medium as a critical component to their professional visibility and ultimate success.

For more insight, I sat down with a couple of top content creators: Jon Rettinger, known by his legion of followers as TechnoBuffalo, and Shannon Morse, Linux aficionado and co-host of Hak5.

Where It All Began

Between them, their fans number in the millions, but it took years of hard work to get there.

Shannon Morse Shannon Morse Tech geekdom for Morse began at home. The theater and choir club enthusiast grew up watching her father build computers - and he helped her build her first machines. When she didn't make it into the theater program at college, her love for all things entertainment never waned. On a whim, she traveled with friends to Toronto to watch a live performance of Pure Pwnage, and met the cast and crew. Several return trips later, she met the talented guys at Hak5 and had an epiphany. As Morse puts it, "Talking about tech tied together my entertainment and geeky technology sides."

For Rettinger, it was addressing a market niche that wasn't there. "About 6 years ago, my computer broke and I thought about switching to a Mac. When I couldn't find any videos on YouTube that talked about how to use a Mac, I figured it was a good excuse for me to document my own experience." Those initial YouTube videos, produced while he held a full-time job running a marketing department, quickly attracted lots of viewers. He knew a business idea when he saw it.

Soon, Rettinger joined the YouTube partner program, at a time when he had about 8,000 subscribers. Still in search of funding, he pitched the idea for TechnoBuffalo to a venture capital firm - and was promptly laughed out of the room. But one of the VCs took pity on him, pointing out that he was inexperienced and suggested he get an MBA. Rettinger signed up for school and during his first semester, he pitched his idea again to a private equity firm and landed the funding he needed to launch the TechnoBuffalo website.

Jon Rettinger Jon Rettinger

Growing An Audience

TechnoBuffalo launched in 2010 and focused on strategically incorporating social media as a business tool. Today, the website has seen seven consecutive months of traffic growth - with a combined 15 million page and video views in October. "By trade, I'm a marketing guy, so I was able to quantify social media effectiveness," Rettinger says. He used social media to get people involved and invested in the content of the site. He gave previews, incorporated feedback and essentially crowd-sourced the launch.

Morse grew her audience organically. "When I first started, I didn't know a thing about growing an audience. I just decided to be myself and talk to people. Being friendly was actually a key component to my growth in Internet media."

Both talk about the importance of maintaining that connection to the audience. But they warn you need a thick skin to deal with some of the trolls.

Revision3 TV Enters The Picture

Hak5 started in 2005, around the same time as Revision3. After three years of operating independently, Hak5 co-host Darren Kitchen ran into Revision3 co-founder Jay Adelson in a Tekzilla IRC chat room. As luck would have it, the pair were invited to a Diggnation taping in NYC.

After just a few meetings with CEO Jim Louderback, they had a new distributor and network. Kitchen and Morse still produce the show themselves and it is the longest-running show on the Revision3 TV network.

Rettinger's initial discussion with the Revision3 didn't end in an immediate deal, but when he ran into Louderback at CES in 2010, things resumed moving forward. "They gave me the freedom I wanted," he recalls. "Which was a really big deal for me."

The benefits of working with Revision3: their network, industry connections and reputation for growing and nurturing talent.

What's On The Backend?

In addition to writing and hosting, Morse runs the Hak5 webstore - so if you have any order problems, you know who to turn to.

Throughout the day, she's researching, plugging through emails and writing show notes. In the studio, the co-hosts do a quick rundown of the episode and set up the shot. Paul Tobias - cameraman and editor - handles the technical aspects, using Panasonic cameras and a slew of wireless microphones. Recording takes about an hour and then it's off to prepare for the next episode while Tobias edits and sends the finals off to Revision3 for distribution.

At TechnoBuffalo, the setup is simple. Ralph Liernas does all the filming. They shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II, use a Zoom H1 and Rode microphone for audio. Rettinger does all the video editing himself with Final Cut Pro. He's got this down to a science: filming to editing to upload in just 1.5 to 2 hours.

The Nitty Gritty - Compensation

So how much do these folks make? The compensation model is pretty much what you'd expect. With Revision3 as their exclusive advertising and distribution partner, the Hak5 team gets a cut of ad revenue. Additionally, their fans support the show through their purchases at the Hakshop, where the duo personally make and sell hacking gadgets.

For TechnoBuffalo, there is also ad revenue both from the website and videos. So ad clicks, page views and cost-per-action (CPA) deals - where for example, they get a cut if viewers sign up for Netflix (or other partners) using a special code linked to the show. A salary from TechnoBuffalo, sponsored videos and featured content on the website round out the revenue stream.

Is there still room to succeed in this crowded field? Rettinger and Morse say yes. While professionalism is important (minimizing the um's and like's), Morse says, "Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself in front of people. They'll laugh with you and appreciate your work."

Rettinger, who is a bit miffed that he chose the twitter handle @jon4lakers, adds, "And please, please, pick a good name."