The $54m king of YouTube who makes more money than Jay-Z: How MrBeast won the internet
One day in January 2017, 18-year-old Jimmy Donaldson from North Carolina sat down in front of a camera and began counting to 100,000.
Over the next forty hours, he went from chipper and alert to exhausted, leaning back in his chair, eyes closed, sometimes rocking back and forth, his numbers slurring into each other. Text labels on screen read "KILL ME" and "I regret this". Finally he made it to the end, allowing himself the briefest of celebrations before collapsing backwards: "What am I doing with my life?"
The gruelling count turned out to be Mr Donaldson's big break. Since posting the video under his stage name MrBeast, he has become one of the world's most prolific YouTube stars, staging a series of wild stunts – including a non-lethal recreation of the hit Korean TV series Squid Game – that have earned him more than 88 million subscribers.
On Friday, Forbes declared him the highest-earning YouTuber of 2021 , hauling in $54 million (£39m) from advertising, sponsorship deals, and an ever-growing empire of spin-off products including clothing, video games, and burger deliveries. The watershed figure was nearly double that of 2020's top star, putting him in the top 40 highest paid celebrities ahead of Vin Diesel ($54m), Jay-Z ($53.5m), and Billie Eilish ($53m).
So how did an internet-obsessed kid who was kicked out of his parents' home for dropping out of university become the king of YouTube?
'I woke up, I studied YouTube, I went to bed'
Jimmy Donaldson, now 23, began making YouTube videos at the age of 12. As he grew older, he became obsessed with figuring out the streaming site's inscrutable automated recommendation system.
He tried many things over the years: playing Minecraft, playing Call of Duty, mocking YouTube drama, mocking other YouTubers. As of 2013, his channel was still called "That-dude".
In 2016 he left university without telling his parents to devote himself to the mysteries of the algorithm. When his mother found out she evicted him, but he kept going, working with a group of friends in daily meetings to back-engineer YouTube's workings.
"I woke up, I studied YouTube, I studied videos, I studied film-making, I went to bed and that was my life," Mr Donaldson told Bloomberg in 2020 .
It was the fateful count to 100,000, that finally crystalised MrBeast's approach to YouTube. He would win viewers' hearts with high-concept stunts that required huge effort and commitment, such as spending 24 hours in a prison.
"The beauty of YouTube is double the effort isn't double the views, it's like 10x," Mr Donaldson said. "The first million subscribers you get will take years, but the second will come in a few months."
Before he turned 19, he was getting 122 million annual views; then, afterwards, 460 million. He counted to 200,0000; tried to stay underwater for 24 hours; imprisoned himself inside a block of ice.
He had an infectious enthusiasm and earnestness, on display last March when he buried himself alive in a coffin for 50 hours and opened his ordeal with a cheery salute: "Welcome to my coffin!"
He also mastered the art of arresting titles – "I Survived 50 Hours in a Maximum Security Prison", or "I Got Hunted By A Real Bounty Hunter" – and preview images showing him gurning or screaming in some horrible or bizarre situation.
Many of his stunts were charitable, involving random acts of generosity to pizza couriers, Uber drivers, Twitch streamers, homeless people, his three millionth subscriber, and his mother, with money gleaned through sponsorship deals.
Among his most expensive videos was a full-dress staging of Squid Game, replacing the final battle to the death with a game of musical chairs. With its elaborate sets and theatrically exploding tracksuits, it cost around $3.5 million.
"Money is a vehicle to do bigger videos and make better content," he told Bloomberg .
Helen Zhu, chief executive of the California-based influencer agency Creator Deck, who has worked often with YouTubers of Mr Donaldson's rank, says his channel "dug into a deep human desire to be a hero or a villain," playing out the fantasies that others can only dream of having the resources to stage.
"Counting to 100,000, playing cool games, robbing a bank, being chased by the military – they are wild and extreme, but really entertaining and surreal... all the things 7-to-13-year-old boys dream about doing in their fantasy world," she told The Independent .
At the same time, she says, she would not want her own seven-year-old son to watch MrBeast's channel.
A multi-stranded business empire
Today Mr Donaldson employs a team of about 50 people to plan, write, produce, set up, manage, and edit his stunts. Yet his business empire now extends far beyond the traditional online influencer fare of advertising and sponsorship.
Emulating his hero Elon Musk, he used his stardom as a beachhead into numerous other industries. He has invested in multiple tech start-ups and helped form a $2 million investment fund (though not with his own money) to offer grants to online creators.
He launched a mobile game called Keep Your Finger On The App, awarding $25,000 to whoever could keep their finger on their smartphone screen the longest (the first round lasted 70 hours), as well as putting money into a video game controller for the iPhone.
Among the most successful was his burger brand , a "ghost kitchen" business in which restaurant owners across the US can make his patties in their kitchens according to his recipe and deliver them to fans while Mr Donaldson handles the marketing.
The business rapidly took off, selling a million sandwiches in the first two months and a total of five million as of Friday, according to Forbes. About 1,600 restaurants currently participate, splitting the profits with Mr Donaldson.
These side ventures exemplify what the venture capital firm SignalFire describes as a new stage of the influencer economy, in which content creators go from monetising their output on major platforms such as YouTube and Instagram to multi-stranded businesses that tap into their fanbase to sell products and services of their own.
Ms Zhu says Mr Donaldson has thrived in making a transition that many online creators struggle with as they try to move from the middle ranks of success up into the stratosphere inhabited by MrBeast.
"When they hit mid-tier, they start to worry about something, which is the longevity of their brand in relation to a platform such as YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok," she says. "These platforms change their algorithms all the time, and if they change their algorithms then these influencers are very vulnerable to losing their viewership and following."
However, it is all too easy for fans to see new lines of business as clumsy attempts to sell out. "It's pretty commonly done, but it is definitely a tricky move," says Ms Zhu.
Others are doing the same. Forbes's number two, Jake Paul, now makes most of his money from boxing appearances after being frozen out of YouTube's payment system due to his and his brother Jake's controversial videos. He has since graduated from novelty matches against other YouTubers to scrapping with hardened, professional mixed martial arts fighters.
Accusations of a toxic workplace
Last year, the New York Times reported that multiple former MrBeast employees had accused him of presiding over an unpleasant, bullying working culture and sometimes of mistreating employees.
Matt Turner, a young video editor, said Mr Donaldson scolded and insulting him almost daily, sometimes leaving him in tears. He also said Mr Donaldson's friends found it easy to be credited for their work, whereas he would often be left in the cold.
Another employee, Nate Anderson, said he had quit after only a week due to Mr Donaldson's rampant perfectionism and unreasonable behaviour. Both men said Mr Donaldson did not do enough to restrain his fanatical fans, some of whom sent Mr Anderson death threats after he posted a YouTube video about his experience.
Mr Donaldson’s media company, Night, and his ocean conservation charity, Team Seas, did not respond to requests for comment from The Independent. A spokesperson declined to comment to the New York Times last year.
Some fans have looked askance at Mr Donaldson for investing in Refinable , a cryptocurrency project designed to make it easy to create, buy and sell non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a kind of financial instrument tied to digital artworks.
When it launched last April, the exchange price of Refinable's built-in currency Fine fluctuated between about $3 and $5, but it quickly crashed to around 20 cents and has stayed there ever since, leaving those who bought into it to eat their losses.
Mr Donaldson has also come under fire for using homophobic language in videos and tweets he made as a teenager, frequently using the word "gay" to mean "bad" or derisively referring to people he was arguing with as "f**s".
A spokesperson previously told the New York Times : “When Jimmy was a teenager and was first starting out, he carelessly used, on more than one occasion, a gay slur. Jimmy knows there is no excuse for homophobic rhetoric.”
None of this seems likely to dislodge MrBeast's crown. His latest video, "Extreme $1,000,000 Hide And Seek", shows him searching through an empty sports stadium for other famous YouTube names including Logan Paul as they hide inside dustbins, crates and freezers. It has so far racked up about 47 million views.
“What works really well [on YouTube] is people who put themselves and put their true thoughts front and centre, and they're able to form a genuine connection with their followers,” says Ms Zhu.
“They are genuinely passionate people; they’re not afraid to fail publicly. It takes a level of talent but also emotional courage to put yourself out there.”
And, after speaking to The Independent , Ms Zhu double-checked with her son whether he watched MrBeast. It turned out that he does, behind her back.