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Marques Brownlee firmly falls into the “OG” YouTuber category. The tech reviewer, also known as MKBHD, first started posting tech videos to YouTube in 2009 as a young teen, sharing software tutorials and webcam-shot reviews of hardware like the remote that came with his HP laptop.
Thirteen years later, Brownlee has one of the most popular tech channels on YouTube with 15.8 million subscribers and is a respected voice in the industry. In addition to reviewing the latest tech releases, Brownlee has brought on top executives like Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk for interviews on his channel and podcast.
As the creator industry has expanded into new mediums and seen an influx of influencer brand deals, Brownlee said the majority of his revenue still comes from ads on YouTube, allowing him to be pickier about the brand deals he does accept. But he has also spent time growing his audience on platforms like Discord, where he and his team host a server and recently launched a paid premium tier for $2.99 a month for superfans.
Sitting down with The Hollywood Reporter, Brownlee reflects on the rise of TikTok, why the lifecycle of a digital creator is similar to a pro athlete and why he maintains confidence in YouTube’s “stature” as a video platform. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How has the creator industry changed since you first started?
I feel like there’s different prototypical shapes of a creator arc. A lot of them start with a spike, maybe something goes viral, and they try their best to sustain it. A lot of people start by making a bunch of stuff and then something hooks, and then it’s like a shelf. Mine has just been like a steady ramp — nothing too crazy. Nothing really blew up in the beginning or anything like that. But the pandemic was interesting because we had this wave where everyone had a bump because more people were at home watching content, so it’s been fascinating to watch what everyone’s post-pandemic activity looks like.
I hear from a lot of creators who say, “Diversify your presence. You need to be on more [platforms] than one.” How have you been thinking about that, given that you got your start on YouTube and that’s probably still your bread and butter?
Right, definitely still the bread and butter. But I do think diversifying is evergreen good advice for pretty much any creator looking to turn [this into] their job. But it’s not just diversifying, that’s the end of it. You want to find the best ways for you to diversify. So for some creators, they teach a lot of stuff, so a lot of them will make their own course or do something along those lines. I just did one with David Blaine, who’s kind of like an online creator now, which is cool.
Discord is another one where we have this community that’s super, super enthusiastic about tech and wants to talk about it all the time, so we have these Discord channels and this premium section of our community.
For creators, it’s important to find your niche and figure out what you’re good at, but there is also the sense that it’s not necessarily sustainable to stick with one thing and just do that over and over again. You’re in an interesting place because, broadly speaking, you’re a tech reviewer and one could argue that is sort of like doing the same thing. How have you been thinking about scale and bringing in new audiences as you build out your business?
It’s funny that you say it’s tech, which is good, because that’s what I want it to be. But it started as an even narrower thing. I just made software tutorials for, like, 300 videos and then it was like, OK, enthusiasts like hardware a little bit. And then smartphones had this big boom, and it kind of got a little more broad as we went on. Now, anything with an on button is game because tech is everywhere now: electric cars are tech, TVs, headphones, travel, smartphones are still a thing. I am interested in a lot of things because tech is everywhere.
That’s not even necessarily scale, though. We are building a team. We want to make more, better stuff.
What does that look like?
I’ve described it as an octopus. As a creator, your job is a bunch of different stuff at once. You’re the camera person, you’re the editor, you’re the writer, you’re handling the inbox, you’re doing finances. All your eight arms, all doing different things. Building a team was like cutting one of these arms off and handing it to someone who can, by themselves, do it way better than I ever could.
The other dumb analogy is octopi have three hearts. Fun fact. So you need to find what the hearts are because that’s the stuff you can’t really chop off and hand to somebody else. I know I’m a content strategist at heart, I’m a tech reviewer at heart. That’s the stuff I’m going to keep doing.
Going back to YouTube being your bread and butter, when you saw TikTok start to take off and YouTube have Shorts, did you feel pressure to have to start transitioning some of your content to short form to meet that demand or to meet what these platforms are pushing?
No, but that’s only because I have such confidence in YouTube’s stature as a video platform. When I go to search for the new iPhone [and] I need to watch a video about it, what do I do? I go to youtube.com and search for the thing. If that ever changes, if I go, ‘I want to see what the new phone looks like’ and I go to TikTok — a small amount of people are doing that, but I think it’s actually a new audience popping up instead of people taking away from YouTube. It doesn’t feel like a pressure so much as it’s just me dipping my foot in a new pool.
We found a little bit of success and some fun things to try in the short form world. But the bread and butter still is very much tech videos helping people, longer form stuff, and that’s what we’re still focusing on.
Do you think that short form is a fad and people will go back to long form?
No, I think it’s new and I think it’s here to stay. I think they can exist alongside each other. There’s always going to be a sit down, 10-minute video, especially when you’re making a purchase decision. Like, OK, I got $400 dollars to spend on a pair of headphones, I really want to make the right choice here. But just as far as entertainment goes, short form really found its footing and I think it’s here to stay.
As for other formats that people are experimenting with, I’ve seen a lot of live shopping. You seem like a natural fit for that as well. Is that something you’d want to focus on?
It is kind of a different skill, live stuff.
You don’t want to be like QVC, but…
It’s a balancing act for sure. No, I’m willing to try stuff because, like I said, I feel like I speak best to people who are about to make a purchase, and it’s kind of a unique thing for a creator to have a specific audience that I talk to like that. Things like live shopping are curious for me. I don’t know if that’s something I’m diving full into right off the bat, but it’s always worth experimenting.
Have you felt a change in the way that brands are approaching partnerships with creators?
I’ve definitely seen a lot more of them just paying more attention to how they do it. This [perspective] comes from years ago in the earlier days — especially because I’m so entrenched in tech — how tech creators were treated compared to traditional tech media.
Whether that means they spend more or less or decide to invest more in connecting to those audiences or not varies across the board, but they’re all at least paying more attention.
Does that translate to more deals?
Generally, yeah. It hasn’t, to be honest, been a huge focus of mine. [It’s a] super lucky position to be in [because] I started this so long ago that it’s been a well-oiled machine and we get to be really picky about what sorts of deals we go into because they make the most sense.
When it comes to being a digital creator and having success, how do you contend with careers that seem fleeting or short-lived?
I compare it to being an athlete. A lot of people want to be a professional athlete. But when you look at it, the life cycle of a professional athlete in most sports is fleeting and small. You get, like, five years of your prime. If you’re lucky, you play for eight, nine, 10 [years]. If you’re literally LeBron James, you play for 20 years. That’s a short career in most fields.
Even if we do think the lifecycle of a creator is relatively short, I think there’s a lot of potential for great stuff to be accomplished and for really cool things to be done. And for the occasional 20-, 30-year career to exist, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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