James Brathwaite is a 17 year old rising high school senior in real life, but on TikTok he’s Jeb the Boxsmith. And in about ten weeks, he turned his love of building things out of boxes into over 60,000 followers on the platform. That wasn’t his plan, but the plan has now changed because of the success he found in such a short amount of time and only twelve videos he posted on the platform – with one of those videos capturing over 900,000 views….and counting.
Recently I spoke with Jeb and his father (my friend Jeff Brathwaite) to learn how his passion for building things led to immediate success he found on TikTok, and to see what lessons could be learned for folks who would like to leverage the platform to connect with the audience they want to build a relationship with.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player below to hear the full conversation to check out all the ways Jeb has built a community in such a short amount of time.
Brent Leary: How did you get started with TikTok?
Jeb the Boxsmith: It was a few months ago. Basically, one of the requirements for my school project regarding starting a business is that I had to reach a certain amount of followers on social media. And I tried my luck at Instagram with moderate success, but then by suggestion of my dad, I decided to branch over to a TikTok. I hadn’t really used TikTok much at the time, but I decided why not? I knew that you had to hook and deliver something kind of like a skit very quickly. So I was experimenting with different types of skits in that nature until I finally made a video of me practically slapping together something out of cardboard, and it got like 2,000 likes and followers. I was like, oh wow, I might have something here. So, yeah.
Brent Leary: And you were able to do that and you didn’t have a big following at the time. So you created this video and even without a big following, you got 2,000 likes. That’s pretty amazing.
Jeb the Boxsmith: Yes.
Brent Leary: So, how many videos did it take you to get to that point? Was it like right out of the gate? It didn’t seem like you had to wait too long before you started seeing some real success here.
Jeb the Boxsmith: That’s true. And that I just give it to God because I see no other logical explanation for how something like that happened. I had posted two videos and then the third one was the one that was most like what I’m famous for now. I realized with that third video that I had something there, and I just took off with that.
Brent Leary: That’s pretty amazing. And you talk about the interaction that you have with the folks who watch the videos, was there an immediate connection that you saw with folks just gravitate? I mean, when you get 2,000 likes out of the gate, that’s pretty amazing. What kind of folks have gravitated to your videos? You have a lot of entertainment value in it, it’s not just about creating things out of boxes, you do it with a flare, you do it with your own style.
Jeb the Boxsmith: I’ve always been a very expressive and animated kind of person. So it wasn’t too great of an adjustment applying that to box, to apply that to my TikTok content. As for the question about the kind of people in my fan circle, I use a lot of hashtags and I think that’s what will help me get to…I think that’s what helped to accelerate me to a level of success a lot quicker, because a lot of this stuff that I do, the first video that I did that blew up was me making something from Mortal Kombat. So I know that, for me, at least personally, a lot of the cool stuff that inspires me are things from like anime or video games and movies and things of that nature.
I think the most intriguing instance of this happening is that my most popular video is me making this over here, this chain and sickle that was inspired by Ghost Rider. And I was initially asked to make Ghost Rider chains. And on its own, I didn’t think that was particularly interesting because Ghost Rider chains are literally just a pair of chains. So I looked at some reference material and realized that Marvel had receded a crossover with the video game, Fortnite, and Ghost Rider was a part of that crossover, and his chains had a much more visually appealing sickle attached to them, so I used that as my reference material.
And if you don’t know, Fortnite has a very mixed reputation in the video game community. Some people love it, other people absolutely hate it. So by using Fortnite as a reference and tagging Fortnite in my post, I got a lot of, controversy is probably the right word for it, but that typically has like a negative connotation these days, I got a lot of people from the Fortnite community saying, “Why would you use Fortnite?” “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with him using Fortnite.” A whole lot of discourse from there which just made the algorithm post my video even further for more people to see it, to a point that last time I checked that video has like almost one million views, we’re at like 900,000 today.
Brent Leary: Wow.
Jeb the Boxsmith: So I think that was interesting.
Brent Leary: So when you made that video, you didn’t go into it with that, if I do this, I’ll get this kind of reaction. You just did it because it was interesting to you and you were looking for ways to make it even more interesting for the video?
Jeb the Boxsmith: Precisely. I could not have predicted that happening, but in a way I’m glad it did because it helped boost my following considerably, so.
Brent Leary: Do you feel like you’re just turning the camera on and being yourself as you do these things, or do you feel like as you go on, you start to add things that you think might create a little more interest that goes beyond what you would have done just if you were throwing it out there just for yourself?
Jeb the Boxsmith: A lot of my process is throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. The content that I make today is, in my eyes, a very successful rough draft. I intend to keep at this and perfecting until I get better and better at it. So, yeah.
Brent Leary: Nice. So how long have you been doing the TikTok videos?
Jeb the Boxsmith: I have been doing TikTok videos for, let’s see, I posted my first video May 4th because I was celebrating Star Wars Day. So since May, it’s now July, so about two-ish months, I believe.
Brent Leary: That’s kind of amazing. How many followers do you have on TikTok now?
Jeb the Boxsmith: I’m hovering around 60,600 followers.
Brent Leary: 60,600 followers. And how many videos have you made?
Jeb the Boxsmith: 12 total to date.
Brent Leary: 12, okay. So we’re talking two and a half months, roughly 12 videos, and you have 60,000 folks and counting. Are you surprised by your success on this?
Jeb the Boxsmith: Absolutely. It’s not everyday something like that happens, so I feel very blessed to have acquired such a following so fast and I intend to do great things with it and continue to grow and nurture it. So, yeah.
Brent Leary: To be able to get that level of followership in such a short amount of time and really with a relatively small number of videos, there must be a lot of engagement between you and your community.
Jeb the Boxsmith: I like to ask my fans to send me suggestions of what they want to see me make next. That’s actually how the Ghost Rider chain was made in the first place, because it was suggested by a fan, same thing with the Blades of Chaos. I’ve got one hanging up. I’ve got another one, it’s actually behind me on another table. So yeah, my fans influence a lot of my work, so several things that you see here were actually suggested to be made by my fans. So that’s a large part of the community engagement.
Brent Leary: Are you starting to look at potential sponsorship and monetizing what you’re doing here?
Jeb the Boxsmith: Yes. I can’t legally monetize my content on TikTok, even though I meet the other requirements like followers or traffic because I’m currently a minor and they kind of have terms of service laws against me putting in my parent’s name right now so got to wait a couple more months before I can monetize my TikTok, so I’ve had to get creative and find other ways to make money. Primarily speaking, I recently reached out to a video game company called Doborog, which makes one of my favorite games, Clone Drone in the Danger Zone. I asked them if they want to do a sponsorship for me to advertise them, releasing the full version of their game, Clone Drone in the Danger Zone. So that’s something I’m working on right now. That’s what I’m being paid to make here. So that’s super fun.
Brent Leary: Tell me what your big plans are for the future for expanding on the community, monetization. What’s the future for you with this?
Jeb the Boxsmith: I have several ideas per se. Well, it’s kind of a thing I’m excited for and a thing I’m kind of worried for, part of the reason I’ve been able to accelerate my success so significantly is because I’m currently out of school because it’s summer vacation. But I start my senior year later this year. I’m curious how much boxsmithing I can slide in with the rest of my day being in school again. It absolutely won’t decrease to zero, but I want to figure out a way to do both efficiently.
In addition to making TikTok videos, making YouTube videos; with my TikTok videos relating to the same thing most recently, like I did with the Blades of Chaos. Production is taking a bit longer than it used to, where I used to be able to crank out something every week per se. So I want to make more in-between content for my TikTok, just appetizers for the bigger stuff that will slowly but coming.
So I’ve been thinking of different kinds of things I could do for that. I experimented with live streams yesterday trying to live stream me drawing plans for the hammer. That had moderate success. So it was so interesting, you can make drawing stuff on your own per se, but you live and learn. I wanted to think of a way where I could make little tips and trick videos where I could show people different wisdom for boxsmithing, like the most efficient way to cut cardboard, how to make small mini projects, more like an actual DIY kind of stuff, a bunch of ideas I uploaded on my brain that I would like to use my age-old method of throwing up a wall and see what sticks. So, yeah.
Brent Leary: Nice. How long does it usually take for you to do a video?
Jeb the Boxsmith: A video can take anywhere from several days to several weeks, depending on many factors. For instance, this sword, which is modeled after Megatron’s Sword for Transformers: The Last Knight and the Crucible from Doom Eternal. These took about two weeks to make and post, while this one, the Blades of Chaos, while smaller, took closer to around a month because I was still figuring out how to efficiently make it for a TikTok video and a YouTube video. So it was kind of like a construction project. A lot of the time and effort went into the foundational stuff. Then once all that foundational stuff’s done, building up the actual tower takes no time at all. So that’s kind of my process.
Brent Leary: So do you include the making of whatever you’re making as part of the video creation process, or you make it and then you start thinking about, how do I make this video work?
Jeb the Boxsmith: I film everything, like key frames or different scenes that you see in…
I kind of think to myself, these would make a good scene, so I grab my camera and film me doing that particular step and then stop because I’ll save editing and battery power later. And I’ll work a little more and say, this will make another good key frame, take a video of me doing what I’m doing there. So I essentially record everything I do, and then I just take that large pool of footage, I have something of an outline of a story off my brain of how I want it to all fit together, and then I fit it together like that.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.