The Moment Everything Changed at Common Craft ⚡️

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


In 2006, Sachi and I picked up a little handheld video camera while traveling and I learned to edit short travel videos on the road. The videos were not sophisticated or particularly well made, but they left an impression. Using this video camera and computer, I could make amateur videos.

As I was learning to work the controls and edit the footage, the technology world was changing quickly. YouTube was new and growing fast. Social media was starting to become popular and I was fascinated. I started blogging in 2003 and became an early adopter of Twitter and social networking. I had a very strong sense that these tools were going to be big.

Aside from us, these are the main characters in this story: do-it-yourself videos and social media. 

In 2007, Sachi joined Common Craft, which was my one-person consulting practice at the time. My consulting was going well, but we both sensed that we could do more and talked endlessly about how Common Craft could be a part of the social media revolution. Above all, we wanted to identify a problem and solve it. We wanted our work to be useful.

Years earlier, I had developed a series of blog posts that were designed to explain online tools like wikis and social networking. Those posts were popular and I felt at home explaining technology. Looking back over these old posts, an idea emerged. What if we turned the blog posts into videos and shared them on YouTube? It seemed worth a try.

I started creating a DIY studio in our basement. I filmed myself explaining social media with markers while standing in front of a whiteboard. As I quickly learned, this type of video is much more difficult than it seems. I had zero experience on camera, we didn’t know how to light the space properly, and I couldn’t organize my thoughts on the fly. The memory of it still makes me cringe.

The failure of this first experiment was discouraging and caused me to lose faith that we could work with video. Maybe we needed training? Seeing my frustration, Sachi went into problem-solving mode and made a suggestion: what if we put the whiteboard on the floor, pointed the camera down onto it and used only hands, markers and paper cut-outs to explain an idea? By showing nothing but the whiteboard and our hands, the focus would be on the explanation, instead of me. It made sense.

Within a day or two, I had reconfigured our basement studio with the whiteboard on the floor. It was lit by a constellation of bedroom lamps that represented our best estimate of what an actual video producer would do in our shoes. We were making it up as we went along.

Our Second Generation Studio Setup

The first subject we chose to explain was something called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which makes it easy to subscribe to a website and be notified when new posts appear. RSS, at the time, was useful, free, and poorly understood. It was a problem we could solve.

We made the video in an afternoon, edited it the next day and in April of 2007, published RSS in Plain English on YouTube and the Common Craft blog. We thought the video was interesting and might get a few views. We hoped it could lead to more consulting or visibility for Common Craft. It was, after all, an experiment.

I had no idea at the time, but the moment I clicked “Publish” was the moment our lives changed in fundamental ways. From that point on, we started operating in uncharted territory.

Within minutes of RSS in Plain English hitting the web, it started to receive views and comments that flowed faster than we could read them. Bloggers around the world embedded the video on their blogs. Emails poured in. The video went viral and it felt like striking gold. We both lived in a state of shock for a few days. Despite it being poorly produced, the video was popular because it explained RSS in a way that everyone could understand. Watch below:

RSS in Plain English

Before we knew it, we were known as video producers and continued making videos that explained social media tools like wikis and social networking in the same style. Today, those videos are known as the first “explainer” videos of the YouTube era and we became known as the pioneers of that little genre. It seemed everyone had seen a Common Craft video. 

The attention was overwhelming. Common Craft quickly transformed into a homemade video production studio and over a number of years, we were hired to create similar videos for Google, Intel, Ford, Microsoft, LEGO, Dropbox and many more.

We also continued to make our own videos that were purely educational. These videos, what we call our “original” videos, are Common Craft’s focus today.

And it all started with an experiment in making media by two people with no qualifications, very little experience, and a homemade studio. Since 2007, we’ve been on a mission to turn that initial spark into a career and a business that works for us. Today, thirteen years later, we’re still on that mission and as you’ve seen, it recently led us to Orcas Island, where we’ll continue to produce videos.

If you’re curious, we just published a new original video that explains the difference between online and local documents. Watch it here.

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