SALT LAKE CITY – Andrew Hales has a gift. It’s one not many would think of as a positive, but Hales has taken it and run. And now it’s turned him into an Internet star and become his sole source of income.
He is awkward.
Beginning late March, 2012, Hales decided to make money from his gift through videos. He started a YouTube channel named LAHWF, an acronym for “losing all hope was freedom,” which is a quote from the movie “Fight Club.”
A self-proclaimed “naturally awkward guy,” Hales started making his videos for fun.
“I just thought it would be funny to do some of that [awkward] stuff and get it on tape,” the 23-year-old told TheBlaze underscored by a lobby pianist while sitting in a hotel in Salt Lake City. “We finally did it and showed my friends, and they all thought it was hilarious, so I started putting them on YouTube.”
His first viral video, “Holding People’s Hand,” was his twelfth upload, hitting YouTube on June 11, 2012. It now has over 7.5 million views.
So just how did the video go viral?
“It’s a mystery,” Hales admitted, laughing in a pink and purple tank top. “It’s like the weather and stocks. I think Yahoo! posted it on their front page. Then Mashable. Pretty much every big site posted it on their page. I was called into two local news stations to be interviewed.”
From Utah to China
Hales, who attended Utah Valley University (UVU) for three years before taking a break during which he started making his videos, initially did most of his filming at Brigham Young University and UVU in Provo, Utah, a 40 minute drive from Salt Lake City. As his channel increases in popularity – 836,849 subscribers and counting – Hales has started to travel more to receive authentic reactions from people who are less likely to recognize him.
He does admit that the results of shooting outside of Utah may be different due to personality differences in diverse parts of the country and world, but he remains positive.
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem filming it anywhere else,” said Hales after explaining how he evaluates peoples’ facial expressions to assess their mood before approaching them to film. “But, yeah, in Utah there’s definitely more nicer, calmer people in general.”
Hales said he gets comments on videos telling him to do his videos in unlikely places, fans saying things like, “You should do that in the ghetto. You’d get shot.” While he admits there tends to be a more positive spirit in Utah, he still holds that people everywhere are generally nice, and the location shouldn’t make a great difference in the reactions he receives.
“I think whatever the video and peoples’ reactions, it adds to the spirit of the video,” Hales said. “If everyone’s happy in the video, the viewers are usually happy.”
His most recent excursion was to Chengdu, China where he made two videos: “Taking People’s Umbrellas” and “Holding People Hand 3.”
While he couldn’t speak their language, Hales found that when he pointed to the camera laughing and giving a thumbs up, people understood what was happening.
He said 99 percent of the time, he’s sure to ask permission to use footage. About the same percentage of the time, he receives a positive answer.
Turning Awkwardness Into Dollars
Hales, who was raised Mormon but no longer practices the faith, now generates enough income from his videos to pay his bills, earning $2-$3 per thousand views on a video through ads.
“It’s around there,” Hales said, hesitant to place an exact figure on his income. “But it fluctuates, you know, because sometimes people don’t click on the ads, and you get more money if people click on them. Like the ones when it’s skip in 5 seconds – if they watch the whole thing, you get paid more for that, and some people have ad-block.
“I think what initially started it was the money,” said Hales, who now relies on his YouTube videos as his sole source of income. “I knew you could make money on Youtube, and I had some funny ideas.”
Hales, the youngest of five children in his family, now has what he calls the “four hour work week.”
“I used to work two part-time jobs, I was 15 grand in debt, and then I started doing the videos, and then I was totally out of debt,” Hales said. “I don’t really have to worry about money anymore because I’m just a 23-year-old, single male. Yeah, I don’t really work anymore. I just do the videos once a week. Travel a lot now. Yeah, it’s pretty great.”
While there are plenty of videos on YouTube that achieve millions of views, Hales doesn’t look at sheer number of hits on his videos when considering if a video has been successful. Instead, he takes a different approach: He looks at the percentage of his subscriber base that watched the video.
His goal – and the norm – for views of his videos is between half and three quarters of his followers.
“I’ll be kind of disappointed if it’s not even a third or a quarter of the amount of subscribers I have,” said Hales. “If you’re not really parallel with your subscriber base, it means they’ve lost interest, and you’re not keeping them on their toes. So you’ve got to stay interesting.”
The Worst Experiment He’s Ever Tried
With so much success, you may wonder if things ever go wrong. They do. Some of his social experiments can go badly for any number of reasons, whether it’s a poor reaction from an unsuspecting participant or a poorly planned experiment.
“We did a bit where we stole peoples’ cell phones,” Hales said, describing one of the worst reactions to a video. “I would ask to borrow their cellphone and then just walk away with it, and we just taped the reaction. Then toward the end of the video, I would just start running away. We’d have guys chase me. Then we kind of did a sequel to that and a guy […] chased me and it was in February and he just tackled me into the snow.”
Other videos flop because Hales’ idea doesn’t pan out on camera quite as he envisioned. If the first few reactions aren’t great, Hales will scrap an idea and start working on the next. He said he has a phone full of ideas that he documents whenever they come to him.
What Drives Him?
At the heart of his videos is the philosophy he embedded in the name of his channel, LAHWF.
“It’s the philosophy that, you know, you just don’t– you stop caring about what other people want you to do, and, I don’t know, what they think of you, and you just do your own thing.”
Hales admits that when running a business, there is a certain level of need to care what customers may think. To meld his philosophy and his business together, he strives to make his videos relatable to his audience.
“You just try to make fun of the awkwardness; you try to make it entertaining,” Hales said. “You kind of demonstrate how being awkward is what everyone is, and it’s okay to be awkward sometimes.”
So what’s next for Hales?
“I’m going to LA next week actually and talking to a bunch of production companies about shows and stuff.”
While he’s not sure what may be in the cards for him, one thing is certain: we haven’t seen the last of his awkwardness.
TheBlaze’s Jonathon M. Seidl contributed to this report.