Next Avenue: This 66-year-old ended up living in a van 18 years ago. Now, he’s turned his lifestyle into a lucrative video business.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.
Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has become one of the world’s most visited websites, second only to its parent company’s site, Google GOOGL, -1.88%. That’s why it was a no-brainer for “Nomadland” real-life star Bob Wells, 66, to start his own channel there when he wanted to transition from blogging to producing video content four years ago.
In addition to his film fame, Wells is the smiling Santa Clausy bearded man behind the CheapRVliving channel on YouTube where he promotes the “nomadic tribalism” way of life. This influencer’s videos are usually 10 to 20 minutes long, but can range between just a few minutes to over an hour.
In the relatively short time that he’s been a YouTuber, Wells has cannily amassed over 500,000 subscribers and over 100 million views, which gives you a sense of how much his channel resonates with viewers.
CheapRVLiving and Bob Wells
The money comes from ads that play at the beginning of a video. Such advertisements can potentially earn a YouTube creator about $18 for every 1,000 views, according to the Influencer Marketing Hub.
Before launching his YouTube channel, Wells started a website by the same name in 2005, where he blogged about his experiences living out of his van.
Due to economic reasons, Wells was forced to live there in the early 2000s and that’s when he fell in love with the life of a nomad. According to Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland” (the genesis of the Oscar-winning film), Wells worked as a Safeway cashier prior to his life on the road and wound up living in his van due to a divorce and child support costs.
In “Nomadland,” a woman named Linda invites her friend Fern (played by Frances McDormand) to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering for other nomads in Quartzite, Ariz. There, Fern fixates on a video of Wells describing the Rendezvous almost as if it’s a homing beacon signaling her back home.
Wells plays himself in the film and has a central role in Fern’s journey. He shares words of wisdom and comfort, speaking about connecting to community and nature which sparks Fern’s path to inward and outward discovery.
Eighteen years after he began van living, Wells’ love for it has only grown. That passion has inspired him to share his lifestyle with millions of others and led to a pretty lucrative life thanks to his popular YouTube channel.
Advice for people facing financial hardships
The site was a hit pretty much from the start. People engaged with Wells’ writing on everything from van cooking to stealth city parking and peppered him with their questions about van life. Wells started listing dates and locations for gatherings and added a map for recommended campsites, too.
When many Americans found themselves facing hardships in the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, Wells had a pivotal moment with a huge influx of visitors to his site. “The main changing point in my life was 2008 when the economy collapsed,” he told Next Avenue.
At that point, when people searched online for advice about inexpensive and mobile lifestyles, his site would pop up. Some had lost their jobs; others had lost their homes. All of them needed Wells’ advice.
RVs and vans are seen parked on a street in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is headquartered, in 2020.
Wells then realized that he could reach even more people through video. “My goal was to tell as many people as possible that they had a choice. They could have a better life,” he said.
So, Wells started uploading videos on YouTube regularly about four years ago. He originally partnered up with a friend who was already on YouTube and was familiar with video editing.
All went well for a time, but the pair eventually had disagreements and decided to dissolve the partnership. That’s when Wells started his own channel.
The work that goes into being a YouTube star
Making a living from YouTube videos can sound appealing and maybe even easy, but Wells wants to be clear: It’s a lot of work.
Each week, Wells posts two videos on his channel — one on Mondays, one on Fridays.
Monday videos are instructional, focusing on the nuts and bolts of life on the road. A recent Monday upload shows Wells giving viewers a lesson on the cheap and easy way to do laundry on the road.
Fridays are for videos of Wells touring the vehicles of other nomads. These are by far his most popular posts.
“If I think in terms of how many videos I’ve shot that have gotten over a million views, the vast majority are tours,” Wells said.
That’s why Wells has come to see YouTube as a platform for people to meet and make connections. “We make so few connections in real life, I mean deep connections, that we go to video wherever it is to actually get to know people,” he says.
Bob Wells’ advice for YouTube success
For those who wish to start their own YouTube channel, Wells has a few pieces of advice.
“I’d say the most important thing you can do is be authentic,” he said.
Second, Wells recommends looking at your motivation. If money is what you’re after, viewers will be quick to pick up on that and turn away.
Third, Wells suggests, think about what your viewers will gain from your channel. “It sounds like a business phrase, but what is your value proposition? Why should someone watch your channel?” he asks.
Consistency is also key when starting out, Wells notes. He recommends posting at least one video a week, if not two.
Don’t scrimp on quality video and audio, he advises. Wells says the average smartphone should be good enough for quality videos, but it helps to add in professional audio equipment.
Be patient, persistent and professional, notes Wells. That will increase the chances YouTube will help get your videos to pop up when people come to the site.
“YouTube has to push you, and it takes a long time before they’ll see you and they’ll say ‘Hey, this guy is serious,” he explains.
Wells likes to use colorful texts and images to draw viewers in.
If he could go back and do things differently, Wells says, he might have hired someone early on to help him produce high-quality videos. But, he adds, that might not have gotten him the following he has amassed.
“People above all are attracted to authenticity, and when they look at a video of mine it’s authentic,” he says, laughing. “It’s me.”
Having influence and aiming to make a difference
The typical social media influencer tends to be good looking, young and really enthusiastic about a product they’ve been paid to sell.
But as Wells attests, anyone can be a YouTube influencer. Other popular channels featuring older influencers include Doug Schrift’s Eldergym Fitness for Seniors, toymeister Hendrik Ball’s Grand Illusions and knitting wizard Judy Graham’s page, Knittingtipsbyjudy.
Fame and money were never incentives for Wells, though. Rather, he sees his work as a ministry that could help others who find themselves in a bind, like he was nearly 20 years ago.
“I feel like I have a calling to help people in this way, so that’s the motivating factor,” he says.
Emails continue pouring in for Wells, from people desperate for help.
“We keep saying the economy is great, but for the vast majority of Americans, especially older Americans, the economy is not great,” he notes. “There’s a small percentage of Americans for whom the economy is fantastic, but for the vast majority it is not.”
Wells has learned that many people turning to van life for economic reasons find it difficult to live with fewer belongings at first. But they often come to accept becoming a minimalist. Wells thinks van dwelling and minimalism go hand in hand, as many of his videos explain.
“As we get older, I think a lot of us discover that being obsessed with more and more stuff is ultimately not satisfying,” Wells says. “It’s actually empty. It always leaves you wanting more and craving more.”
Looking down the road
Wells plans to make climate change more prominent in his videos going forward. “I don’t talk about this a lot because people don’t want to hear it,” he says. “I offer carrots; I don’t offer sticks. But now the stick is becoming pretty obvious.”
Being a nomad, Wells says, helps a person contribute less to climate change and be able to respond to natural disasters faster by relocating.
Having traveled across the United States, he’s seen how climate change has affected parts of the country. “I was in Oregon last year when the whole town of Phoenix, Oregon just disappeared [due to a brutal fire]. It was there one day and now it’s gone,” he recalls.
As he continues churning out content for viewers, Wells is heading a bit further south for the cold winter months ahead.
If he had to choose, Wells says, he’d spend his spring, summer and fall months split between Utah and Colorado for their mountainous landscape. The rest of the time, he’d soak up rays in sunny Arizona.
“Every winter, I’m going to be in Arizona, because I think it’s both very pretty and the weather’s better. You get a lot of sun,” he says.
Abdi Mohamed is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in St. Paul, Minn. He writes about racial injustice, politics, culture, arts, education and technology.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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