How a kid from Minnesota conquered YouTube.
You can wear Connor Franta, drink Franta, read Franta, and you can listen to Franta-approved music.
Oh, and you can also watch Franta, the 23-year-old YouTube mogul who’s made big business from being himself.
The concept of turning fame into lifestyle branding is hardly new—ask the Kardashians—but for most YouTubers their trajectory often goes from successful video creation to garnering corporate interest, then maybe a book or movie deal, rinse and repeat. Franta has cherry-picked his favorites from that career ladder, but he’s no web star chasing Hollywood spotlights. He’s something like Oprah, a trusted and true guiding light for the converted.
Franta grew up in small-town Minnesota, in a Roman Catholic family with two brothers and one sister. In high school he ran cross country, landing at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He only made it through two years before decamping to Los Angeles. He already had a YouTube account when he left for college, uploading his first video in the fall of his senior year at La Crescent High School. It was a Harry Potter-themed birthday video where he imagined himself getting his long-awaited Hogwarts letter.
It sets the tone for Franta’s presence online, the boy next door who’s just weird enough, gets you, and you’d want to confide in—he’d meet you for coffee and help you figure out your life. He says he’s not the planner, and not the jokester, but always the welcoming ear. Today he’s wearing a casual striped shirt with a singular puzzle-piece pin near the chest pocket. It’s not his own design.
“I’m definitely the therapist, the go-to for deep conversations,” says a relaxed Franta over tea in West Hollywood, where he’s lived for the past two years. “The one who will drive to you at one in the morning if you need someone there for you. I’ve recently become the type where I’m down for anything. If you want to go out on a Tuesday, why not? If you want to go to Malibu right now, let’s go.”
That kind of attitude has infused his career choices as well. He’s quick to embrace his passions and make them his livelihood. He attended VidCon—the hallowed, annual gathering of digital stars in Anaheim, California—as a fan instead of invited guest his first year, with only 20,000 subscribers supporting his channel at the time.
“I bought my own pass, I bought my own hotel, I was waiting in meet-and-greet lines,” says Franta of his first trip to the festival. Now he goes as one of the top creators, shuttled from place to place by security. “It’s changed because it’s gotten a lot bigger, but it’s still such a great experience. It reminds me of my roots. This was the turning point for me, I went home and I thought, ‘I want to be a YouTuber, I want to pursue this full time.’”
Franta quickly joined forces with Our2ndLife, a group of five vloggers who shared a channel. It was a boy band without music, a group of dudes who could garner the same sort of reaction as One Direction within the world of YouTube fandom. The collective began posting in July of 2012, shortly after meeting at VidCon, and moved in together—first to a one-bedroom in Westwood, then to a house in Encino.
“It was exactly like college, with energy all the time,” Franta says of his time in the 02L house. “You always have a friend there, you always have someone to bounce ideas off of. But then after a while I realized how different everyone’s personalities were. We weren’t all meant to live together.”
Franta describes himself as needing quiet, as opposed to the other guys who were the type to throw a party at any hour, to scream in the middle of the night. Those kind of distinctions in personalities work well in the boy-band structure, so adoring fans can pick their own favorite—the quiet one, bad boy, older brother—but not as great living in close quarters. Franta was also harboring a secret, and the stress of that combined with the stress of his video work, brought him to his breaking point.
“I told O2L I was leaving the group and I was gay, all in the same day,” Franta chuckles, explaining that he felt better to have it all out there at once instead of calling two separate meetings and prolonging the stress. Their response, as he predicted, was positive. “I have never had someone that I’ve come out to that’s been negative. They all literally surrounded me in a group hug. It was so cute, I wish we had it on tape. It was so tender.”
Still, Franta felt he was taking on too much with the group, and was still under the stress of keeping his sexuality secret from his biggest audience, the fans. His departure from 02L in summer 2014 spelled the beginning of the end. (The group formally disbanded in December 2014.)
It took him six months to finally open up to fans with a coming-out video, posted to his channel in December as well.
“This is it, I’m me,” says Franta of the clip, which boasts 10 million views. “Everyone knows.”
Today Franta cherishes that he can be authentic in every situation, from what he talks about online to going into gay spaces without worry of his secret getting out. Only a year and half out of the closet, Franta is getting used to it. This year was his first Pride event, and he’s adjusting to getting swarmed not just by YouTube fans, but by his LGBTQ+ ones.
“I was just walking by a gay club in London and I swear to God I had a meet-and-greet, they just swarmed out,” laughs Franta. “I’ve become comfortable more with gay events in the past year than before. It’s been nice to be able to go and be welcomed so warmly.”
‘Can I post this?’
Franta’s openness didn’t hobble his growth as a digital star. On the contrary, since being home and honest with his fans about his identity, Franta’s kicked his social presence into high gear. This year he won the People’s Choice Award for favorite YouTube star, and he’s been nominated for Teen Choice and Streamy awards. He’s climbed to 5.5 million YouTube subscribers, 4.8 million Twitter followers, and 5 million Instagram fans.
After the first million, he stopped thinking about growing subscribers and started thinking about what the hell he was actually doing here.
“Now more so than ever before I am choosing what I want to share,” he says. “How can I share my insight and experience better with my community, usually in a way that’s progressive and helpful toward them? Not just, ‘I had tea and it’s yum!’”
He sticks to his core five platforms—YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter—and manages how he approaches each based on what they achieve for his storytelling. His Instagram is a purely creative outlet. His YouTube is the branding breadwinner, but Franta notes that when he’s describing things in his own life he casually gives away a lot of free advertising. Those organic mentions often translate into sponsorships.
“If I’m truly super passionate about it, I’ll of course do it for free,” says Franta of his approach. “If it’s charity work, I’m more than happy to promote. I think I should use my platform for good.”
However, he does want to set a precedent that values digital creators as highly as their traditional entertainment counterparts.
“You wouldn’t ask an actor to do it for free,” he says. “It’s a little insulting. It’s like, ‘You need me clearly more than I need you. Don’t treat me like a kid. I’m a 23-year-old man who’s the CEO of three companies.’”
One of those companies is the core, Franta brand that’s built on a steady YouTube presence. He usually makes videos on the weekend, waking up at 7am for a run before settling in to film and edit. Throughout he sends social media missives, from promotional daps to personal thoughts. Recently on a trip to the Philippines Franta posted a shirtless picture, in a fogged mirror with his towel slung low, captioned “idk man im feeling confident.”
“I texted a friend like, ‘Can I post this?’” he says of the picture. “I’ve been a pescatarian for two months now and I’ve been working out every day, and I finally feel like I want to go to the beach and take my shirt off. I can post this, I’m body positive.”
That’s exactly the distinction, too. Franta says he isn’t selling sex, but positivity. He’s quick with a smile and a smolder to be sure, but he’s just the sandy-haired, fashion-forward guy who wants to listen to you. His voice online is the voice of his fans, figuring himself out in real time and sharing that with an audience. But despite the transparent nature of his daily existence, he also keeps things private. Specifically what he calls his “super personal life,” including his family and his love life. He’s not inclined to go there, although he notes that there will obviously be a point where he will want to share those things.
“I will get to a point where I’m dating someone and I’m going to marry them and the world can know that,” he says, but explains that it’s a line for him to draw, not his fans. “It’s interesting when they do catch on because they feel entitled in a way. I don’t owe you information. When I want to share it, I’ll share it. It’s mine, it’s not yours in any way.”
His approach to his personal life can also influence how he chooses to deal with social media. Snapchat, one of the biggest platforms, is consciously absent from what Franta says he likes to focus on, and for good reason.
“I don’t like Snapchat because you have to show what you’re doing in that very moment,” Franta explains. “I don’t want to expose them to the judgment of others or throw them into a world they didn’t choose to be into. I like to keep that relationship to me. I get why people care because I share so much, but they have to realize I’m not going to talk about a lot of things.”
What he will talk about, however, is his bustling career. Like most YouTubers in his position of influence, and with proven on-camera skills, the offers to transition to a movie career are out there.
“I get people that offer me movie roles all the time, and I don’t want to be an actor,” he says. “If you have followers, you can be in a movie and it doesn’t matter if you have talent or not.”
Franta thinks he can act though, if he was so inclined. I tend to agree based on his effortless charisma and soaring self-confidence.
“It isn’t a passion of mine,” he says. “I firmly believe I could be good at anything I want to be, and I don’t want to be.”
It’s that kind of assuredness of direction that sets Franta apart, and what he thinks is the mark of a successful creator.
“The smart ones are the people who don’t take everything that is brought to them,” he says.
‘It looks cool, it sounds cool’
These days Franta is fully immersed on the business. His key lesson for fellow digital stars: Don’t go traditional.
“Everything is slowly pieced together to be a lifestyle brand,” explains Franta. “I taught myself Photoshop, I’ve been more into style recently so I decided I wanted to make clothing that isn’t traditional merchandise.”
That’s Common Culture, his capsule collection of shirts and hats that could fit into a mainstream shop, not just a fan’s closet. He Googled words until he found a combination he liked to describe his own tastes.
“It looks cool, it sounds cool… a unified culture anyone can enjoy,” he says.
He also produces a subscription coffee line under the same moniker. That wasn’t particularly calculated, either. Franta loves coffee, and he wanted to share that love. (He’s drinking tea during our conversation, and his genuine enjoyment could just as easily launch a tea-based side hustle. He’s also a fan of whiskey. The possibilities are endless.)
“It’s really just me shooting in the dark, trying things and see what works,” Franta says, laughing off the militant, meticulous lifestyle operation. He developed Common Culture while working on another project, a record label that produces compilations from well-known digital talent.
Heard Well, formed with his manager Andrew Graham and business partner Jeremy Wineberg, was the progression from just Franta-centric playlists to involving other creators, like former O2L member Jc Caylen and vlogger Lohanthony. They’ve turned people away from the label that Franta doesn’t think are really in it for the music. Heard Well compilations have landed in the Billboard Hot 200.
“You have to authentically like music, because all the music I put out and all the music our clients put out is actually music they listen to,” says Franta. “It’s not music we’re paid to promote.”
They do, however, have relationships that help them license the music, and it’s what keeps other upstarts working through Franta and his team to develop the compilation market.
“It’s like Now That’s What I Call Music, but the new-age version,” laughs Franta, although he doesn’t limit its impact to just that. “[Heard Well] could be a traditional music label, it could sign people, it could throw music festivals.” They’ve already branched out to scoring films, partnering with Gayby Baby, a documentary Franta loved about the experience of growing up in a same-sex family from the child’s perspective.
He’s done all of this without a college degree. But there is some undergrad influence in his work today—back in school Franta majored in both business and art.
“It was kind of a cop out that I [majored in] business and it turned out I was really good at it,” he says. “I realized slowly that I like art more, but I found a way to pair that with business. If YouTube wasn’t a thing, I feel like I would have worked for a marketing team, running someone’s brand and helping with design.”
Instead, he just does that for himself. Despite a growing team that’s supposed to be helping, Franta describes himself as a control freak.
“Everything is all me, it just gets sent to a different person who has to figure out different things behind the scenes that isn’t the creative,” Franta says. “I still edit myself, I still shoot myself.”
He has a tendency to coldly release his work, instead of teasing it out to his legion of supporters.
“For Common Culture, people don’t realize I’ve been working on the next collection for the past two months,” Franta says. “I like to wait until [a project is] real before I share it with anyone. My book, I didn’t share it until a month before, right when it was basically done being written. I don’t want to talk about things until they’re real, until I’m proud of them and they’re as great as I’d hoped they would be.”
His memoir, A Work in Progress, climbed the New York Times best-seller list, just another of Franta’s many achievements. He’ll also host a summer camp for aspiring creators this year in partnership with Camp17.
As for his circuit of fellow YouTubers, Franta is quick to diffuse any notion of rivalries or jealousy.
“I’m not even competitive with my friends, I just see them doing great things and I want those great things,” he says. “It pushes me more to achieve. When I see them do something no one has ever done before, it makes me realize that anything is possible. I truly believe I can do anything, it’s just a matter of when is it going to happen.”
Franta is optimistic that he can continue on the hybrid businessman and artist path he’s carved out, keeping himself hands-on in his ventures while also working behind the scenes.
“I could be the CEO of a company and still help with the creative,” he says. “I love writing, I love photography, I love curation. If I can find a way to make front-facing content and make it cohesive, it would be amazing. I am in a place where I love everything I am doing right now, nothing is stressful.”
A stress-free Franta is a far cry from just two years ago, when the secret of his sexuality and pressures he’d put on himself as a creator came to a boil. Now Franta’s focused on making sure the world knows that he and his fellow YouTubers are more than just that noun.
“The one thing people still don’t understand is how serious YouTube is,” he says. “The more my friends grow in the space, everyone is finding their own niche and YouTube is such a great catalyst. It’s not the only thing they do. I’m a filmmaker, an author, a CEO. I am a lot of things, I am not just the one with a couple bullet points below it. The sooner people grasp that, the sooner they can be welcomed into the 21st century.”