If you’ve ever watched a funny video on Facebook, whether it’s a grandma singing, a footballer crying, or a dog falling over, you’ll have heard of UNILAD. The internet sensation has an audience of over 15 million people and the videos they post get 2.7 billion views a month. The platform has grown from one person blogging, to a 65 strong team led by Liam Harrington and Sam Bentley. Now, as well as sharing the latest soon-to-be viral content before anyone else, they’re also working to create positive change in areas like homelessness and mental health.
We caught up with 24-year-old CEO Liam, to find out how he built a social media empire, and how we can too.
Hi Liam! How did UNILAD get started?
“UNILAD used to be one man and his blog and no one could really take it anywhere. At that time, Sam Bentley and myself had a little merchandising business. We used to print t-shirts and that was our passion, but we knew that social was the way forward. We kept trying to start lots of social media pages to push our business off and kept creating this portfolio. Then this opportunity came up to take over UNILAD and we were like ‘right, we’ve gotta jump on this! Or give it a go at least’. With a little bit of hard work, determination, and luck as well, we turned it into what it is now. Everything had to be changed about it. We changed the naming, the branding, literally started from scratch again.”
So how did you get to this point, did you go to uni?
“Sam Bentley went to university. I did not, it wasn’t really for me. I didn’t like the idea of debt. I think I would’ve enjoyed the learning and educating myself more, but the money issue really worried me.”
“I’m 24 now, and it weirdly started when I was about 15-years-old and getting into the GCSE years. My attention span was decreasing and I was really worried about how I would fare doing my GCSEs because I didn’t have it in me to want to revise. I wanted to do loads of things, I wanted to go out and play football, I wanted to try and earn some money, that was just what my nature was, it wasn’t sitting in front of a book and learning. I was always a kinetic learner.”
“At the time I was very much into my art as well, so I said to myself: ‘I’ll go and do my GCSEs and hopefully by the end of that I’ll have a better idea of what I want to do’…I didn’t have a better idea of what I wanted to do, so I went to a sixth form college in Harrow which was one of the best in the country and tried to do Maths, Psychology, History of Art, and Art and Design. The only two I enjoyed out of that was History of Art and Art and Design, but obviously you can’t just say ‘I’m only gonna do two’. You have to do four and then cut it down to three, so the decision I made was to leave sixth form.”
Scary! So what did you do next?
“I was one of the youngest in the year, so I left the whole system when I was 16. That’s really scary for a 16-year-old, it was a real down point in my life. I know my parents were really annoyed at me because I wasn’t really doing anything for six weeks, I was just bumming around the house, waking up late, and trying to figure out in my head what I wanted to do and it wasn’t happening for me. Then one day something clicked. I don’t know whether it was boredom or just endless repetitiveness, I just wanted to get out of it, so I went and joined a recruitment company for about nine or ten months until the new educational year started. At that point I’d had enough time to think about what I wanted to do, so I went and did a BTEC National Diploma in Art and Design.”
“I grafted my way through that and came out with a pass, which meant I left with the equivalent of three A Levels. Having just finished, I was in another position in my life where I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do. Here you have to make decisions and you have to make them quickly, otherwise you might end up falling behind. One of the things I took from the BTEC was that I wanted to do art and I wanted to earn some money from it, so that’s when I thought ‘let’s start a little merchandise business and see how that goes’. I gave that a good go for about two years, and after that I got involved in UNILAD.”
So would you encourage other people to find an alternative route into work?
“Yeah, I think one of my biggest things is: try and take a moment, just breathe and relax because you’ve got more time than you think. I really don’t like the way the educational system pushes you to make decisions that might not be right for you. The amount of people that I know now that say they wish they hadn’t gone to university, there’s too many of them. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to university at all, because I am an advocate for people who are going to do vocational courses. People who become doctors, you have to go to university for that, but I do question the people who are going to university who might want to get involved in media, for example. Media is something that is always changing, a lot of it can’t be taught, and in the three years that you’re at university you could be in a company getting a lot of experience and knowledge from there.”
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
“Last month we were live broadcasting The Homeless World Cup and that was so, so good because we knew what we were doing was making a change and that’s what myself and Sam set out to do with UNILAD. The Homeless World Cup only had 6000 people watching it live last year, meanwhile, we got half a million people watching one game. It was unreal. They were so grateful as well and that’s all we want!”
As a brand by Gen Y for Gen Y, do you feel a responsibility to represent young voices?
“100%. Yeah, completely. I’d feel so guilty if I didn’t do anything. I’m such a caring person about what goes on in the world and how we are reacting to things that are changing. Right in front of me now I have a platform that I can help with!”
Do you think young people should value their digital skills more?
“I think we know how to use it, but I think we’ve all got a lot more to learn. We’ve got to realise that we are still very early on in our journey as well. Facebook’s only just 12 years old now, and it’s only just really started to go through the gears and start smashing it properly. I think we’ve got a lot more to learn, but we need to be teaching kids more about how to use it, it should be brought into the curriculum.”
How did you start learning when you were starting off at UNILAD?
“I think I read a lot on the internet, but when I was starting there was absolutely nothing to teach me! I had to try and fail. You’ve got to remember that we grew up with social media, so we didn’t have anything special about us, we didn’t have experience because there was no such thing as experience. We learnt with the development of the product. With Facebook we were learning a bit as it was learning as well. I think because I was in there from day one, I genuinely believe I know a lot about social media and how it operates, how to work it, and how to community manage. So that massively worked in my favour.”
So how do we build a digital empire too?
“Patience and long hours. A lot of people say they do the long hours, but trust me, they don’t do the long, long hours. There are many days when I’ve been up at six in the morning and I’ve only gone to bed at four because I’ve wanted to get the servers of the website up and running properly, or I wanna make sure that we’re doing breaking news and breaking stories.”
“Make sure you’re doing something you’re passionate about, because when you’re passionate about it, it will not feel like work, and it will not feel like a job. It will all happen naturally.”
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