Our summer cover star is one of YouTube’s biggest ever successes. Joe Sugg tells TenEighty about his journey from the rooftop to vlogging and beyond.
“People ask me, ‘What do you do for a living?’,” smiles Joe Sugg. “It’s hard to put, when you’re doing so many different things. I used to say that I work for YouTube. I say ‘online entrepreneur’ sometimes.” He grins mischievously, and then adds: “It depends how much you fancy the girl, really! Depends how much you want to impress her!”
Gleam Futures, the agency that represents Joe, refers to its clients as ‘digital-first talent’, but Joe feels that doesn’t quite fit either. “I’m a bit modest – I don’t like calling myself ‘talent’,” he frowns. “My ‘talent’ is playing a tin whistle out of my nose on no sleep.”
He cycles through a few more options: “Influencer – there’s a new one,” he acknowledges. “Online entrepreneur, content creator… I’m just an idiot who talks to a camera, but I somehow managed to make a business out of it.”
Joe is one of the UK’s biggest YouTubers, with over eight million subscribers on the oldest and biggest of his channels – ThatcherJoe, which was created in 2011. From there, he’s built a mini media empire – there’s also ThatcherJoeVlogs and ThatcherJoeGames on YouTube (“none of them are actually my ‘main’ channel now – they’re different kinds of content, but they’re all ‘main’ to me”), while offline, he’s the mastermind behind Username: Evie (the fastest-selling graphic novel since records began) and its sequels, joint star of the Hit the Road films, and co-founder of Raucous Productions.
He was creative as a kid, he says; he would draw rather than watch films, and has vivid memories of winning an egg-decorating competition at a village fête in his native Wiltshire (“that was a big, big moment for me,” he laughs).
When his parents first got a camcorder, he and his older sister Zoe would rehearse plays, perform them for their family, and film the results. “So we’ve always been into making stuff for other people to enjoy,” he says. “And now, in a weird way, it’s led to all this.”
But back then, he never imagined that interest would become his career. “I never thought that was even a thing that you could do,” he admits. “I wanted to be an archaeologist – growing up, I was part of a young archaeologist club. Then, for work experience, I went with my uncle and did roof-thatching for a week, and I thought, ‘Right, this is what I want to do’.”
Joe had never felt academic, and thatching appealed because it was learned by doing. “There’s no official qualification in it,” he says. “You have to find someone who is [already working] in that trade. My uncle was my boss, and only he could teach me, so I worked alongside him until he said, ‘Right, okay, you’re pretty much trained and ready to go’.”
But at first, he juggled that training with his A Levels, just in case. “You know – if I ever fell off a roof, I could still go to uni,” he explains. “I’ve always been about having a backup, I’ve always been someone who plays it safe rather than takes big risks.”
By the time Joe left school and started thatching full-time, his sister had become an online sensation. She had launched a fashion and beauty blog as Zoella, which then became a hugely successful YouTube channel. Given their childhood, that was no surprise to Joe. “I’ve got tons of these home videos we filmed that are essentially like vlogging,” he smiles. “I wish I could find them. They’re in a loft somewhere.” He remembers one family holiday to Portugal, which Zoe chronicled on camera: “She was vlogging at nine! Just, like, documenting her day.
“Whereas I was never really into that,” he says. “I was into making Jackass videos – jumping into hedges, trying to do stunts on scooters and bikes, basically hurting myself a lot – with my cousin. And I used to make a lot of skateboarding videos – I’ve got loads of videos somewhere of me doing tutorials, even though I was useless, put to songs by Rise Against. I used to put them on my Bebo in the hope that people would see it, because there wasn’t really a YouTube then.”
Once YouTube came along, and Zoe got big, she and Alfie Deyes suggested Joe should make something for the site. “They were both saying, ‘You should give it a go. You can do it. It’d be funny.’ It went on for weeks and weeks – they’d say, ‘Have you done it yet? Have you made your first video?’, and I’d be like, ‘No, no’, because I was roped in to the whole thatching thing still, and I just assumed that would be my life until I was, like, 70. And then one day, I thought, ‘Right, sod it, I’m going to film’.”
“Part of the job is putting your life out there. The more authentic and real you are to your audience, the more they can relate”
Zoe helped shoot and edit Joe’s first videos, because he felt “distanced from the technological side” of her career by the retro rhythms of his own – “it’s such an old-school job: work all day, finish, go down the pub for a pint with your workmates, then go home” – and was unfamiliar with both the equipment (“she started getting these big cameras, and I was just thinking, ‘Bloody hell, what is it you’re doing?!’”) and the process (“I was used to editing on my old laptop, and she had Final Cut – I was like, ‘Christ, this looks pretty complicated!’”).
But the help she gave him was nothing new. “She was still cutting my hair back then,” he laughs. “I used to get her to do everything. She was a proper big sister.
“I don’t think I’d be – I know I wouldn’t be – where I am, without Zoe and Alfie,” he says. “Even now, anything that I need advice on, they’re the perfect people to go to, because they’ve more or less been through whatever it is a year before I have. And that’s the same for me – there are YouTubers who ask me for advice, and I’m like, ‘Don’t worry, I was in exactly the same position as you last year, I know exactly what you’ve got to do.’ So it’s nice. I feel like it’s a natural gradient of people that can help each other out.”
But it took Joe a while to embrace YouTube as a career. When he got his millionth subscriber, he was still doing five days a week on rooftops, and eventually decided it was time to pick one path and stick to it. “I remember saying to my dad and sister, ‘I want to do [thatching] as a job, but this YouTube thing… Not many people have the amount of subscribers that I do, especially in the UK – it’s quite a rare thing. And I’ve been speaking to people who are in it, and they’re doing it full-time, and I would love to be able to work my own hours.’”
Joe chose to focus on his channel, but he couldn’t find the words to tell his uncle. “I finally plucked up the courage,” he recalls, “and that day, he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a surprise for you’, and he’d got me this van – my own van! I couldn’t tell him then. So I went on for another two months, working for him, with this little second-hand van that was mine.”
Eventually, Joe’s dad spoke to his uncle on his behalf (“and he totally understood,” Joe smiles), and Joe left thatching behind to go all-in on YouTube. “The first two weeks of doing it, knowing that this was now my job, were scary,” he reflects. “I was still doing one video a week, and I remember saying to my management, ‘Am I going to have enough to do for a whole week?!’ I wish I could still say that – now, it’s the complete opposite!”
Looking back on his earliest videos, Joe wishes he’d experimented a little bit more. “The thing is, with me, I always care what people think,” he admits. “Not so much the mass audience – if I get a negative comment, that goes straight over my head, doesn’t faze me. But I’m always conscious of what other people, people that I know, would think of what I’m doing. I wish I didn’t care – I wish I didn’t give as much of a shit, and just went for it, and tried everything.
“No-one knows where it’s going to end up,” he says, of YouTube generally. “No-one knows if it’s going to be around – it could end tomorrow, do you know what I mean? So I wish I’d made the most of those earlier times.” Then he grins. “But I’m still glad it all happened how it did.”
The turning point for his channel, Joe feels, came when he moved in with Caspar Lee, and the two vloggers started a prank war. One early video was featured by LADbible. “Cos I came from that working, thatching background, going after work with my mates for a pint, that was what they were all watching,” Joe explains. “So I was like, ‘This is it. My mates are going to think I’m a legend now, cos I’m on LADbible.’ It got spread way further than my usual reach, so I was like, ‘This is quite good’, and we kept that up.”
Oli White appeared regularly in their videos, “and that kind of tightened it,” Joe observes. “It was just a real, authentic friendship group. It still is, but there’s a lot more of us now, so we’re spread a bit thin! It was three friends travelling the world together, hanging out, having fun. That’s why I watch daily vloggers – cos I’m like, ‘Wow, they’ve got a cool life’ – and I guess that’s why the Kardashians are so watchable. It’s a form of escapism where you basically live your life through watching someone else. It’s cool.”
What’s it like to be on the receiving end of that scrutiny? “I think I’ve made it easy for myself,” Joe replies. “I’m very, very clear on what is okay to share and what is not okay to share. For example, relationships – I don’t share that on social media, so that’s going to be a nice shock for people one day! But part of the job is putting your life out there. The more authentic and real you are to your audience, the more they can relate.
“But I do love my private time,” he adds, “and I do love days where I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m going to turn my phone off and just sit and watch Netflix all day, or just sit in the garden all day and get a bit of fresh air’, which I think is really valuable. I think it’s good to do that.”
The weekend before our interview, Joe went off-grid to attend a friend’s wedding back home. “It was so nice just to think, ‘I’m going to turn my phone off and just completely relax’,” he smiles. “But then, during the wedding, I had about seven or eight people come up to me with their kids, asking for photographs and stuff! So it’s hard to escape that.”
But Joe is known for much more than just YouTube. By the time he started getting offers of work in other media, the precedent for vloggers branching out was well established. “Without sounding like a bighead, it was kind of expected, because it had happened to people that were bigger than me,” he acknowledges. When the offer of a book deal inevitably came, “we thought, ‘Well, I’ve always loved comics and graphic novels, and no-one’s done one of those yet – that can be my thing’,” and the Username series was born.
“Growing up, I’d never been business-minded,” he says, “and so I feel like I’ve had to learn it the hard way, chucked in the deep end. I find it fascinating now. I’m not very good at it, still! But I do find it fascinating.”
Other major projects include the Joe and Caspar Hit the Road films – comedy travel documentaries co-produced with BBC Worldwide – for which Raucous Productions, which is run by Joe, Caspar, and Gleam, was originally formed.
“We were so used to doing five-to-ten-minute videos – that was always our thing – and we were thinking, ‘What if we tried doing something more like a movie?’” Joe recalls. “We gave it a go, and we really enjoyed it. We loved the whole process of it. So we thought, ‘Let’s do more of this’, and we’ve kind of become a production company that specialises in taking people that do short-form content, but giving them a platform, a space, where they can actually make longer-form content.
“We’ve seen, in the past, [producers] taking a social media person and plonking them into a television show, and being like, ‘Yeah, it’s going to work’,” he says. “And it doesn’t. That’s not how it works. Sometimes it does, but the majority of the time, I feel like it doesn’t do as well as people predict.”
Raucous’s approach is to make sure the talent and the concept are well matched from the beginning. “I think that’s what you’ve got to do – you’ve got to bring the right talent, be that social talent or traditional celebrities, and the right idea,” Joe explains. “And that’s what our aim is.”
Another reason those collaborations sometimes fail, he suggests, is that younger audiences find the move from YouTube to traditional media jarring. “Recently I went on Release the Hounds, and loved every second of it,” he grins. “Obviously all our audience came over to watch it, but they were shocked – like, ‘Oh my god, this is the third ad break already!’ The younger generation are so used to watching YouTube videos with one advert at the start, and that’s it.”
Have his experiences on YouTube helped him navigate the world of TV? “It’s an odd area,” he says. “It’s amazing how differently people do stuff. With us, we film a video, put it up, and there’s no-one stopping us from doing that. You haven’t got to get it checked by anyone. You just film it and whack it out.” In contrast, TV is a world of lengthy development and commissioning processes, and the results live or die on ruthless metrics: “There’s all this build-up, and then literally it all comes down to those figures the next morning. It’s why pilot season in America is a terrifying time. The amount of shows that then never get made, and they’ve put all that money and effort into it – it’s quite a scary business. But it’s quite good to be scared sometimes, you know?”
How important is YouTube to Joe, now that he has so many opportunities elsewhere? “It’s weird, as a YouTuber, cos you’ve got this large, hardcore audience that sort of love you as a person, not just your content,” he considers. “Across Snapchat, Instagram, and everything you go into, they will sort of follow you. So it’s almost tempting to be like – and you see YouTubers do it – ‘Okay, I don’t mind giving acting a go’, or ‘I might give singing a go’, or something like that. It’s almost like you can try out anything, because you’ve got that audience that will support you and follow you through it.
“But for me, it’s important to keep that [focus on] those three channels that I run. No matter what I do off YouTube, they’re still like my babies. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else that I’ve done. I wouldn’t have been able to do Hit the Road, I wouldn’t have been able to start the production company, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the books – it’s all come off the back of those three channels. So I always, in the back of my head, have that as my main priority.”
Sometimes, in contrast to the complete control YouTube creators have over their own content, going off-platform can mean placing parts of the process in other people’s hands. Has that been the case for Joe? “Tech-wise, I trust other people,” he says, “but creative control is something that I still pride myself on. I like to get involved as much as possible. With the Hit the Road stuff, we went into the editing suite for weeks afterwards. We were even involved in the grading of it, which was amazing.”
The freedom BBC Worldwide gave him was one of the things that made those films work, he says. “They worked with social talent on something like this before anyone else. They saw it ahead of other companies. Companies now are jumping on it, but I feel like they were more switched-on, and caught it at the right time. And I think they realised we know our audience better than anyone else – ‘Let’s come to a point of reasoning where we’re both happy with it, and then go from there.’”
“No matter what I do off YouTube, my channels are still like my babies”
When his graphic novels began, Joe was very open about the fact that – although he originated the storyline and the characters, and signed off on every page – they were written and illustrated by other people. Is there a baseline level of involvement he needs to have to feel comfortable putting his name on something? “Yeah,” he nods. “With those books, I said to my audience, ‘Look, imagine me trying to sit down and draw it – it won’t be ready until 2020!’ So I said, ‘Obviously, there’s a full-on team involved.’ But then, putting my name to other things, I do like to make sure I’m involved, especially with branded stuff.”
He turns down far more brand deals than he accepts, he says – sometimes because the product isn’t a good fit for him or his audience, but often because they want a direct advertisement rather than a collaboration. “I say, ‘That’s not going to work – it’s got to be organic, it’s got to be like a video that I would put out normally,” he explains. “You’ve got to educate [brands] a lot sometimes.”
He cites a recent prank sponsored by Hewlett-Packard as a brand deal done right. “They were so happy with that, and I’m happy with that, and it works much better,” he says. “And now I’ve built up a good relationship with them through it, and I’m happy to work with them [again], because they were so easygoing.
“You have to believe in something if you want to put your name on it,” he emphasises. “I like to make sure I’m fully involved in it – or as much as possible, anyway. If not, you feel it, and then your audience can see it. They’re not stupid. They’re switched-on people, and they can tell when someone’s put effort in, and done that extra bit.”
That philosophy extends to Sugg Life, Joe and Zoe’s merchandise range, with which Joe’s input goes as far as “me sending out my own clothes to them like, ‘This colour! This is the colour that I meant!’,” he says, laughing. But not every one of his ideas is listened to. “I tried to bring out a Sugg Life shoehorn,” he says, forlornly, “but that didn’t quite make it. That was a weird brainstorming session.”
Shoehorns aside, then, what does the future hold? “There’s a lot of ideas that I’ve gone into production company meetings with, and in the back of my head I’m thinking, ‘I’d rather this go on my channel’,” he admits. “I still love my channel. It’s still doing really, really well. I find it interesting to see how trends change, so it’s still good fun.
“At the moment, I’m really enjoying streaming,” he adds. “I did that 24-hour live stream thing, and it was amazing to see – as like a case study, I guess – how different it is streaming for 24 hours, compared to doing a vlog and just hoping that it does well. I guess it all goes along with how YouTube changes. You’ve just got to adapt to whatever happens and just try and be the best we can be, I guess.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he sums up. “I’ve extended out onto different platforms outside of YouTube, and different projects outside of YouTube, that hopefully, in the long run, will keep me going.
“And if it does end, I’ve always said to myself, I genuinely loved my old job as a roof thatcher,” he grins. “So even if it did all mess up – and there were no jobs going in YouTube consultancy, or anything like that! – I’d have no trouble getting back on the roof.”
Photos by Rebecca Need-Menear. Makeup by Silvija Vil.
Want more from Joe?
Joe Sugg is the cover star of TenEighty’s 2017 annual magazine, which you can buy here. Alternatively, why not check out these exclusive photosets:
- Joe Sugg TenEighty 2017 Cover
- Joe Sugg TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 01
- Joe Sugg TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 02
Read some of our previous TenEighty interviews:
- Rose and Rosie: Open, Loud, and Proud
- Stefan Abingdon: Tongue in Cheek
- Jake Mitchell: Escaping the Echoes
- Connie Glynn: Unapologetically Pink
For updates follow @TenEightyUK on Twitter or like TenEighty UK on Facebook.