Before Eric Triplett, 48, founded The Pond Digger, a California-based, water feature construction company, he got his start in an aquarium store. One day, an eccentric customer who had recently immigrated from Germany came into the store looking for saltwater fish. It was a fateful meeting, as it turned out that the customer, Dietmar Quistorf, now 53, was a self-taught, expert cinematographer and social-media wizard who had been an early adopter of all things internet-related. A friendship was born, and since then, Quistorf has helped to elevate Triplett’s pond business into websites, videos and social media. Today, The Pond Digger’s YouTube videos attract 1.5 million new views per month, and 60,000 pond enthusiasts subscribe to The Pond Digger Channel. Here’s how these two pond enthusiasts, working in their spare time, made smart moves to land at the top of their category on YouTube.
What made you create an online presence?
Eric: Dietmar made me do it. I fought him tooth and nail, because I did not understand the internet at the time. Remember, this was nearly 20 years ago, and the internet was just becoming mainstream. Dietmar hassled me until I finally said yes — just to shut him up! I didn’t think anything would come of it, and I honestly hoped he would leave me alone.
Dietmar: It was at the beginning of the internet, and it was still the wild, wild, crazy west. I built Eric a website that was top of the line at the time, with Flash art and 360 photos — stuff they don’t even use anymore. We also started selling pond kits, just like I said we would.
Eric: Fast-forward to the advent of YouTube, and Dietmar said, “We have to shoot videos.” I didn’t even know what YouTube was at the time. The first video Dietmar shot in May 2008 was a series of four 10-minute videos called “Ponds Gone Wrong.” We were trying to make the public aware of the importance of choosing the right pond contractor. At first, the response was kind of slow, because we were the first in our industry to bring tutorial videos to life. Other videos on YouTube at the time were mostly along the lines of, “Hey, buy my product!” We weren’t selling product; we were teaching people how to do things right the first time — and they began to love us for it.
What has been your most successful video?
Eric: Our most successful video, hands down, is about a $60,000 koi fish. In collaboration with our good friend, Shawn McHenry of Mystic Koi in Upland, California, it shows viewers the attributes of a huge, show-quality Sanke koi imported from Japan. Shawn’s resume includes judging the top koi show in Japan, as well as koi shows in the Philippines, England and across the United States. He knows quality koi. His unique teaching style combined perfectly with mine, creating a fun learning experience that left viewers wanting more.
Dietmar: And now, believe it or not, the video has nearly 3.5 million views.
Eric: It has also been shared by several koi clubs and blogs, including some in Japan. People want to see what a $60,000 fish looks like, so they can look for one of their own!
You both have full-time jobs. Eric runs the pond construction business, and Dietmar works as a videographer at the University of Southern California. How do you fit in these video shoots?
Dietmar: One problem is that we don’t have the luxury of saying we only shoot in the morning or late afternoon, when the light is best. Sometimes we just have to get the project done, and that means shooting all day and into the night, after the sun goes down. We have learned to adapt to all kinds of lighting conditions. We have overhangs to create shade and huge, white, silk sails like you see in Hollywood — known in the industry as butterfly overheads — that help filter the harsh rays of the sun. We constantly adjust them as the sun moves.
Eric: When we are really cranking, we put out videos immediately after we finish the production. We film one weekend, Dietmar edits during the week, and then we release one or two videos the following Saturday. Then, we go out and film more on Sunday. Imagine doing this constantly, week after week. Dietmar would be grinding on the editing, and then I’d come over to his house to write the descriptions for the search engines so our audience could easily find the videos. To put out the high-quality video Dietmar is capable of doing, even for a single, 10-minute video, it takes an hour to get lights and cameras loaded, three hours on location for filming, and an hour to put the equipment away once we finally get home. And then Dietmar starts on the computer, editing all over again.
Dietmar: All this is between regular work. It’s never-ending.
Eric: Dietmar’s getting up and driving three hours every day to USC, and I’m waking up at 4:30 every morning to run my crews. When there’s a holiday, we are grinding early so we can spend the evening enjoying some family time. While everyone else is sleeping in, we are running full-speed. I don’t mean to sound like a cliche, but this is hard work! If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Dietmar: There were some times we put out videos every day for 20 days straight.
Sounds like a recipe for burnout.
Eric: It is! We took almost two years off in the middle of our venture, from 2011 to 2013. At the time, we were pretty dominant on YouTube. Then, streaming video started exploding, and everybody was making videos. Other pond guys were finally understanding the extent of YouTube’s reach. Now we had competition, and Dietmar is highly competitive. He wants to be the best and do the best-quality work. One day he said, “Eric, we can’t let these pond guys catch up to us.” There was one YouTube channel in our category that was bigger than we were. Dietmar would not rest until we surpassed it. I’m competitive, too, so we started filming again, and we were relentless.
Dietmar: We are the now the No. 1 pond channel on YouTube. We have more than 23 million views, and 1.5 million per month in our peak season. About 50 percent of our viewers are international, and Eric has actually helped do-it-yourself enthusiasts install Helix pond equipment in Africa, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Thailand.
Eric: The Helix System build in Africa was the most elaborate pond, with multiple skimmers, filters, jets and external pumps. It was complicated, but through the magic of YouTube and Skype, we were able to help guide our client through the installation process, and he did an excellent job.
How do you two, basically working out of a garage, compete against multi-million-dollar pond supply companies?
Eric: Search engine optimization (SEO) keeps us on top. Dietmar was doing it before Google even knew what it was! If you type anything pond-related into Google, one of our videos will pop up. Whether it’s pond construction, koi fish or water features, you’ll see us on the first page.
Dietmar: I got into web development, programming, the internet and SEO back in 1997. I knew it from the beginning and from the ground up, even back when black-hat hacking was legal. Most SEO companies are all about accumulating views — quantity over quality. Quantity gets you a lot of views, but people come and go, never to be seen again. Optimization is about quality viewers — people who are interested in what you are teaching or selling. Those viewers will stay on your site longer, share it and interact with it. That’s when the magic happens, and your reach spirals outward. One reason other companies have fewer viewers is because there’s so much work involved in it. Knowing how to film — the technical aspect of it — takes a lot of training. Understanding how to tell a story so that viewers want to see the end of the video and don’t prematurely click away is critical. SEO changes constantly. You must research on a daily basis to find the best lead words to represent your videos so that potential viewers can find you.
Eric: And then once the video is up, you have to share it on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest and other relevant social media platforms. That’s my job. We also always answer all comments on YouTube. It’s important for us to communicate with our audience, but it has become harder, because we get so many comments and questions. It used to take me 10 minutes a week to answer comments, and now it takes hours. That’s what led us to produce our “Ask the Pond Digger” series. Many of the questions are redundant, so instead of answering the same questions multiple times, I can suggest one of our five-minute YouTube videos for all the answers they need.
What has your collaboration meant to The Pond Digger’s online success?
Eric: The Pond Digger’s online success started because Dietmar had some crazy dreams. Dietmar is a self-taught genius. When I first met him, he was cleaning pools and dreaming of building websites during the mindless skimming and brushing of pool cleaning. One day, he came to me and said, “I’m gonna build websites.” I replied, “You build websites?” He said, “Not yet, but I’m gonna.” Soon afterward, he did it — he actually built me a website. Then the conversation changed. “Eric, now I’m gonna take pictures of your work,” he said. “You take pictures?” I asked. “Not yet, but I’m gonna.” And that’s how it’s been the whole time. “Eric, we shoot video now,” he once told me. “But you don’t even have a camera,” I said. “Then I’ll buy one!” he declared. In filming the videos, I’m just the on-air talent. Dietmar does everything else.
Dietmar: That’s right. I even call him “the talent.” I’m the producer, director, sound guy, lighting guy, shooter, editor and colorist. We don’t want any copyright infringement, so the music we play is music that I have composed. I do it all on the computer with my friend in Germany, Christoph Kolodziej.
What video equipment do you use?
Eric: In the beginning, our camera was just a little, handheld Canon. Today, we use professional equipment like you find in Hollywood.
Dietmar: I use a big Canon camera now with a positive-lock lens mount, which is what is standard in Hollywood. The lenses are handmade and cost $10,000 each. We were shooting in high definition before YouTube even offered it.
I’ve got lighting, overheads and a boom mic. I have about $40,000 just in the camera and two lenses. So I have nearly $70,000 in it by the time you add it all together.
What have you learned doing the shoots?
Eric: I understand production better now after having worked together so long. Plus, I know how to break down the steps in pond construction that we are teaching in each video. Sometimes if I skip a step or say something that Dietmar doesn’t get, he says, “Cut! Cut! Eric, cut! If I don’t understand, how will our viewers understand?”
Dietmar: It’s not easy to evaluate yourself when you’re in front of the camera, because you have to focus on other things. But when you are behind the camera, you can see what works and what doesn’t, so I can help guide him while he teaches.
Eric: I’ve got to tell you, the more he’s learned about video production, the harder it becomes to please him, the longer things take, the more he yells at me and, ultimately, the better the videos get. People are just starving for quality, do-it-yourself instructional videos. They just want more!
Dietmar: If you do a thing, do it right, or don’t do it at all. But people do yell at us online. They always want to know when the next video is on its way. During one series called “How to Build a Koi Pond,” some viewers got really upset, because if it was too long between video releases, they felt like we were leaving them with a cliffhanger until the next video came out. Some of our fans would call the office, send an email inquiry through the website, text Eric’s cellphone or leave comments on YouTube, begging for the next installment!
Can you make a living off YouTube?
Dietmar: To live off YouTube, you need to get a million views a day. Advertising pays so little on it. And ponds are a niche market, so we’re not there yet, but we are headed in the right direction.
Eric: Currently we’re earning enough to support Dietmar’s film equipment fetish, but my goal is for him to earn a living off it.
What’s in the future for you two?
Dietmar: We are trying to keep to a schedule of doing one video a week.
Eric: There’s a placard that YouTube gives out for having 100,000 subscribers to your channel. I would love to get that placard for Dietmar. We’re more than halfway there.
Dietmar: Even though we’ve made 323 videos, I feel like we’re just getting started. We have so much more to teach.
Eric: Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe to The Pond Digger YouTube channel. We really are just getting started!