Success Stories

Karen X Cheng: Award-winning Director's Secret Sauce to Grow her Instagram Following to 1 Million

Some people know what they want to work on when they reach adult life. Some just go with the flow and find themselves in jobs they’re not too happy with. How do you know it's time to take a different course?

Karen got out of college and started working excitedly with Microsoft soon after. She became a program manager and was part of the Excel team. It was her dream job!

In 2012, she found herself three years in, exhausted and unhappy with her job at the prestigious company. She ran through several ideas of what her next plan would be, where she would go, and what work she would do. Her 9-to-5 day-to-day activities seemed to be sucking the life out of her, and she found herself suddenly trying out different creative outlets.

So she finally decided it was time to leave. She had the idea of creatively sending out her farewell to her colleagues and the company.

She composed a song, following the tune of Don McLean's American Pie, and uploaded it to YouTube so she could send the link to her colleagues. Little did she know, this video of hers would go viral and gain more and more views in the coming days, weeks, and months. She got a lot of comments from random viewers who expressed their support for her resignation.

More news sites started to feature this creative goodbye song to Microsoft, which brought in more viewers as a result.

She was surprised by what happened and found the concept of going viral an interesting one. 

But Karen X Cheng didn’t grow up wanting or expecting to be into filmmaking or directing at all. Viral videos didn’t seem to be something she could make a living off at that time.

She continued to explore what she wanted to do and launched a motivational app called Giveit100 that would encourage users to capture themselves learning a new skill for the next 100 days and then upload it to get automatically stitched together. 

This project failed and was the first major, heartbreaking experience for Karen.

Despite the app's bad business model, Karen filmed herself while she learned a new skill—dancing. She stitched the compilation of videos together and uploaded them on YouTube, but this time with a yearning for validation that she was special.

She didn’t sit and wait for viewers to come across her video. She studied virality, and this time, she made an effort to reach out to journalists through email and also promoted her video on Reddit. 

There it was, her strongest adrenaline rush. She saw that her video had indeed gone viral. 

As of this writing, it has had 12 million views since it was uploaded nine years ago.

She warns that this feeling of getting hooked on being viral and aiming for something to go viral again is dangerous.

She found herself enjoying creating and being creative in her videos, but she wanted to gain a larger audience. 

In 2019, she explored Instagram a little late in the game, but she saw the potential, especially when the reels feature came out. She used that feature to gain the favor of Instagram’s algorithm, and when she knew she had a good video, she reached out to accounts that had a large community following already, like 9GAG.

She observed that the views increased, but her follower growth wasn’t as great. So she asked if these communities that reposted her content could tag her IG handle on the first line every time.

She continued to have fun and experiment with videos, coming to a point where she shared the behind-the-scenes of a video on the platform. This shifted her intent from just “showing off” to something entertaining and helpful for her audience.

She showed her audience some hacks on how to create video effects without requiring a huge budget for camera equipment and accessories like dollies or drones. She shared how simple household items like brooms, mops, and even ceiling fans can take your videos to the next level.

Since she began posting these behind-the-scenes videos, her following has grown to one million in a fraction of the time that others would.

Several brands, including LEGO, LG, Gucci, Puma, and Snapchat, have since tapped her creative genius to take on their promotional videos.

Her word of advice is that it’s not healthy to run on that (viral) treadmill forever. When she hit 1 million followers, she knew it was her chance to stop chasing that goal of more followers and shift her focus to creating videos that she enjoys doing too. She has been able to better manage the energy she puts into her work and her daily life.

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