By Stephen Armstrong
In January 2024, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos had one thing in common – they both wanted MrBeast. Since December, Musk had been begging the 25-year-old YouTuber to post a video on X. Bezos, on the other hand, went old school – last week Amazon Prime Video reportedly offered the North Carolina creator $US100 million ($152 million) to create a TV show.
If this sounds like an impressive achievement for Jimmy Donaldson, MrBeast’s real name, it’s not even close. According to Forbes, the university dropout earned $US82 million in 2023, largely from his stunt videos on YouTube – indeed, as of May last year he’s the world’s most-followed YouTuber, with 234 million subscribers.
And this, according to Ryan Broderick of tech newsletter Garbage Day, is why Musk in particular needs him so badly. “At the start of January, Musk declared X was a ‘video first platform’,” he explains. “The idea that X isn’t actually a failing social network, but the beginning of a video app that can beat YouTube is just a mad scramble to keep investors from repossessing the site.”
Meanwhile Amazon, which has spent a fortune on shows such as the Rings of Power and Citadel with very little to show for it, has clearly realised that for Gen Z it’s less about imitation Hollywood blockbusters and more about short, fun, phone-friendly content. YouTube and TikTok are outperforming streamers and old-school TV with the under-30s; short of launching a rival platform, buying in the top talent is far cheaper and easier than the $US715 million it spent on the first season of Rings of Power.
And MrBeast is top talent in both a new and old school way. He’s more than just a very popular YouTuber – he’s pretty much a one-man industry in his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina. And with his relentlessly upbeat and positive videos he’s the exact opposite of all the dark corners of the Internet and Twitter/X that advertisers find so unappealing.
“We hear from ad agencies that clients are getting fed up with the online drama and if a site does not deliver sufficient measurable results to make it important enough not to boycott then they’ll just leave it behind,” says Joseph Teasdale, head of tech at Enders Analysis.
In stark contrast to, say, Andrew Tate, Donaldson is almost cartoonishly wholesome and has been dubbed the Willy Wonka of Greenville. He’s built production studios in the town, bought up a cul-de-sac with five houses for employees and friends to live in, and employs a total staff of around 250, according to a profile in Business Insider. (Donaldson himself lives in a “modest” house he reportedly bought for $318,000.)
Josh Lewis, president of the Greenville Eastern North Carolina Alliance development group, says MrBeast has “expanded Greenville’s financial footprint” and now ranks YouTube content creation as one of the town’s biggest businesses, alongside laboratory instrument manufacture, pharmaceuticals, forklifts and fishing boats. Donaldson has monthly calls with Greenville’s mayor, P. J. Connelly, a former pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, where they discuss the more ambitious shoots that may require police and fire engines on hand.
“He brings people here, he shoots videos here, he employs people here, and those dollars that he’s paying out in wages stay in our community,” Connelly said. “They’re being spent in our local restaurants, our local retail locations, they’re buying houses, or they’re renting in our community.”
If this seems a little excessive for someone making YouTube videos, his 2021 spectacle “$456,000 Squid Game in Real Life!” had 456 contestants taking part in challenges based on the Netflix series. Entrants were paid $US1000 a day, with the winner taking home that near half-million-dollar prize. Constructing and shooting the challenge, Donaldson has said, cost $US2 million to build and produce, plus another $US1.5 million in pay and prizes.
And he posts videos like this, on average, once a week, with titles such as I Spent 7 Days Buried Alive, Every Country on Earth Fights for $250,000, I Gave my 100,000,000th Subscriber an Island, and I Built Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory!
Even the most casual reader will have noticed the preponderance of numbers in those video titles. This is a result of Donaldson – then a student at Greenville Christian Academy, a small evangelical school on the town’s rural fringe – spending five years obsessively studying the site after he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. He posted his first video under the username MrBeast6000, a short clip of him playing Minecraft – then made a series of Minecraft videos with a dodgy mic and low-grade commentary.
He helpfully updates his subscriber numbers every birthday with a chart looking back at the previous year. At the outset, it’s fair to say, growth was slow. On his 12th birthday, he had one subscriber. By 13, that had grown to 10. He hit one million just before his 19th birthday in 2017, when his stunts were still pretty low grade – he counted to 100,000 over the course of 40 hours and watched the atrocious hip-hop video It’s Everyday Bro by YouTube star-turned boxer Jake Paul for 10 hours in a row.
Fixating on the mechanics of virality – from optimum titles to the perfect thumbnail image – he also hit paydirt in 2017 with a very undersold moment of philanthropy: he walked up to a homeless man and gave him $US10,000 in a brown envelope. It became a huge hit and set his creative direction. He has recently paid for “1000 Blind People to See for the First Time”, adopted “EVERY Dog in a Dog Shelter”, and “Tipped Waitresses with Real Gold Bars”.
This blend of absurdity, extremity and attention-grabbing philanthropy sent his channel into the stratosphere, overtaking his hero, PewDiePie, who preferred to pay people to hold up signs saying “Death to Jews”. Donaldson gives away millions of dollars a year – whether at random to cheer up service workers, or as reward for his ludicrous challenges: $US20,000 for the last person to leave a pool of ramen noodles, $US50,000 for the last to leave a revolving door, $US1 million for the last to take their hand off a huge stack of money. These generate hundreds of millions of views, which in turn bring in revenue through ads and sponsors, which fund more outlandish stunts, which becomes a curious virtuous circle.
And he’s spawned a small army of copycat MrBeasts who are filling TikTok and Instagram with titles such as man pays poor mum’s grocery bill at checkout or I pay for everything you can carry. Some are more politicial, like Jesus Morales, aka Juixxe, who specialises in helping Mexican workers, and twins Brooklyn and Bailey who posted Visiting ALL 50 States Before My NEXT Period to raise money for charities helping women unable to afford sanitary products.
Although Beast himself is resolutely apolitical, he does incite wrath for, among other things, giving up his Christianity, working with his long-standing friend and trans woman Kris Tyson and – inevitably – handing out all this cash. “MrBeast is turning our children into money-obsessed narcissists,” a recent headline in a liberal newspaper read.
This blend of absurdity, extremity and attention-grabbing philanthropy sent his channel into the stratosphere.
The other person who doesn’t seem happy about this is Donaldson himself. He says he’s not very good at keeping friends, and told the Lex Fridman Podcast the best thing for his mental health was “giving into” his “innate nature to work”. He spends most of his in his cavernous production warehouse known as Studio C, telling Fridman he had left the studio only once in the preceding 20 days.
“All I do is wake up every day and obsess over how to make the best videos possible,” Donaldson said in another interview. “It’s the only thing that’s ever really made me happy.”
He might be underselling himself a little here. Alongside “obsessing over how to make the best videos possible”, he’s also devoted a little bit of time to launching a snack bar range called Feastables – slogan “feast like a beast” – which often feature prominently in his videos. In September, Beast Holdings, the parent company for the business dealings of the YouTube star, applied for a host of trademarks covering cereal fruit, nut and seed-based snacks, as well as candy bars, cookies, breakfast cereals and gummies. There’s a range of splurge guns with Hasbro – the Nerf Pro Gelfire X – and even a fast-food burger delivery chain called MrBeast Burger, which has reportedly brought in $US100 million so far.
As for the money he earned from Elon? He doesn’t seem to want it. Donaldson announced on Tuesday that he planned to give it away, handing out $US25,000 to 10 random chosen followers.
The Telegraph, London
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