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An Entrepreneur Who Found Freedom, Fame, and Fortune on YouTube

By Adrienne Burke | Small Business

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Lindsay O’Connor, known to his 66,000 YouTube subscribers as Yogaduke and TexasHighDef, is living proof that there’s no limit to the ways innovative people can leverage the Internet. His 200-plus videos of calm-inducing scenes and sounds have been viewed more than 60 million times by fans on every continent but Antarctica. “Yes I make a living from putting people to sleep with my videos,” he says. “Who ever thought that would be a good thing?” 

By phone from his Austin home, Duke, as he’s known globally, recently spoke with Yahoo Small Business about his venture. Here’s his story in his own words: 

“I grew up on Cape Cod and ran away from home at 15. I didn’t graduate from school. I lived in a Dodge Dart in the woods. That was my start in life.

I’ve been in Texas since ’78 when I helped my family move down here. I worked for 35 years as a home remodel contractor, specialized in high-end remodels. I made a decent living and worked in the finest homes in the city, but I never wanted to do that. My father was a custom homebuilder; I was born into it. It’s hard to work at something that’s not your passion, even if you’re good at it. 

Still photography was what I wanted to do. I had been a still photographer in the ’80s, but had never touched a computer or digital camera because I’m dyslexic. 

I started doing yoga in 2000, and in 2002 I started teaching yoga. One day in 2007, the local news was going to do a story on a day in my life. I had the camera guy with me all day long and was talking to him about his equipment. He told me the prices of high definition video equipment had dropped dramatically. 

Earlier, I had been talking with a yoga student about what makes a successful teacher. I believe it’s not how much money you make; it’s how many people you touch. 

I set a goal to buy a camera and use it to touch 1 million people in a positive way. The next day I went to the computer store and said, ‘I’ve never owned a computer, but I want to make high definition videos. Build me a computer like you’d build for yourself to do that.’ 

I knew nothing about computers. Once I got mine, I spent half the month talking to India. It was a nightmare. I finally got online and found the camera I wanted, but I was so computer illiterate I couldn’t figure out how to order it through the computer. I had to call them up.

The camera had 84 buttons on it. I started slowly learning how to use it. By 2008 it was still very overwhelming to me, but I put out a few little videos. I would shoot a yoga class and cut in a piece of music to make a yoga music video. Then I made some meditation videos. I made a video of a waterfall, and I made one in my car parked in front of the garage when it was raining—it was just a video of rain from inside the car.

I put it on YouTube and a new mom who had been having trouble getting her premature baby to sleep wrote to thank me—the video had put the baby right to sleep. Something clicked. I started making more and more sleep videos. At that time you couldn’t make any money from it, but it wasn’t about that. 

Then YouTube started doing things with partners—you could get revenue from ads placed next to your videos. You had to apply, and it was hard to get in. They said I was too small and turned me down. I waited a year to reapply and they accepted me. 

That was a big pivotal point. I thought, ‘I can make some money at this.’ The first month, I earned $5.32. I came up with a five-year plan to put up two videos a week and learn as much as I could about YouTube. Nowhere is it written how it works. I went to YouTube forums and after a while started gaining more knowledge. When people in the forums asked questions, I could give answers.

A year later I got a weird letter from Google that said, ‘We’re very impressed with your knowledge and we’d like to make you part of our external experts group.’ They made me one of their “Top Contributors” and gave me direct access to YouTube staff. There were 150 million users at the time, and I was one of 12 they selected for that first experts group. What are the crazy odds of that?

When they brought me to Google headquarters the first time, I had to stand up at the head of a conference table and tell them how I thought they could make Google a better company. I think part of why they selected me is that I was the Average Joe. I was the first one to be in their expert program who came up on their own to become a partner. They bring us to headquarters every other year. In the off years we do regional meetups. I’m going to Chicago next month.

That helped me gain more and more knowledge about what I could do. It also gave me a little bit of a heads up about what’s coming down the pike. It’s nice when you know what the weather may be. I started focusing more on my videos and they started to grow.

Now my YouTube channel gets 50,000 hits a day and the average retention time is 30 minutes. My channels put out 2 million minutes of content a day. 

You’ve got to think outside the box and off the wall. I shot a 45-minute video of bacon frying. Thousands of people have watched that. I went to Wal-Mart and bought a $9 box fan and a $49 bonnet hair dryer. There have got to be 3 million hits on videos I made with those. I made an eight-hour video of a “the sound of a black fan.” It’s had more than 200,000 views. I went to the beach at Galveston for a week. I made a video of the air conditioner in the room at Howard Johnson’s and it paid for the entire trip and then some.

People who play the videos to get to sleep are just a fraction of the users. Probably more people use them to drown out noise. People use them to study. Someone told me, ‘I never would have made it through my dissertation without you.’ People with tinnitus have to find the certain tone that cancels out that ringing in their ears. I made a video of trucks and bulldozers digging 50 feet down to build a skyscraper in downtown Austin. Little kids sit still and stare at it for 30 minutes, and their parents write to say, ‘thank you.’

I make videos for pets too, to keep them company. You’ve seen all these cat videos, right? I’m making videos for cats. One I made close up of birds eating birdseed has 400,000-some hits right now. 

The craziest of all is that at least 10,000 people from around the world write in saying ‘good night’ from their location—even from central China where YouTube is supposed to be blocked. I put up a video two weeks ago that I shot from my boat under a bridge on the river while it rained. A person wrote in, ‘Good night from Palestine.’ I wrote back, ‘Thanks, and stay safe.’ Then another comment comes in from Ukraine. If only the world could be half as peaceful as my channel.   

The pennies come from heaven, and the more pennies that come from heaven the more it sets me free to go shoot more videos. When I came up with my five-year plan, part of it was to take every single penny I made and buy better equipment. I’ve invested heavily in all kinds of microphones and at least a dozen cameras. If you’re going to do a quality product, you’ve got to have quality tools.

Being a yoga teacher helps me with going with the flow. Being a contractor all those years taught me how to start the project and stick with it. I haven’t found the cure for cancer, but I’m able to bring some peace to people. 

I have a friend who is a concierge for the kids at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. We started talking about my relaxation videos. I donated them to the hospital so they could play them on loops for the kids. I went for a tour and saw terminally ill kids walking around with cameras making their own My Last Days videos. I’m breaking up just talking about it. So last year I set up a charity to raise money to buy equipment for them. All my YouTube connections came together and raised five figures. Every child at that hospital was given equipment to make videos. 

I’ve made in the six figures, total, so far from my videos. I’m not at seven figures yet, or six figures a year, but I’ll get there. For 30 years I had to be at the job site at 7:30 am. This is freedom to me. I take my little boat and go for a ride and make a video. 

It would be nice to team up with a sponsor, like a bedding company, so I could touch even more people. But if I hit the lottery tomorrow I would be doing exactly the same thing I’m doing today. To me that’s being successful.”

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