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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Beast mode: Jimmy Donaldson thrills millions with creative videos and heart-warming charitable projects

The American dream changes with every generation. One generation found opportunity on trans-Atlantic ship. Another laid claim to a new land. For those willing to explore, opportunity still exists. It’s not across continents, but it connects them; it’s the internet. Greenville’s 24-year-old Jimmy Donaldson, better known as MrBeast, has actualized this new American dream. 

Tens of millions around the world subscribe to his YouTube channel, leading to $54 million in revenue in 2021, Forbes estimates. He is widely viewed as among the highest-earning individuals on the Google-owned platform.

When asked to imagine a YouTuber, one would picture a boyish dude inhabiting his mom’s basement, sporting pizza-stained sweatpants and an immature attitude. Others might envision a bleach-blonde dancing to Billboard’s Top 100, vlogging her Starbucks drink of the week.

Well, that’s kinda wrong.

After hours of interviews and research, I have ascertained only ironies in the world of YouTube. MrBeast is the poster child of this paradox. To be successful in the business, you must be persistent, creative, driven, and smart.

Donaldson started uploading videos under his screen name, MrBeast6000, in 2014. He has a high school diploma from Greenville Christian Academy and relies heavily on four other 20-something guys to film and take part in many of his videos. With his multimillion-dollar income, Donaldson could live anywhere, but chooses to stay in Greenville.

He told podcast interviewer Sam Parr last year that he resides in his Greenville studio. “I like money because I can hire more people and grow a business, but not so I can increase my lifestyle.”

With 128 million subscribers and more than 21 billion page views on his channel, MrBeast is an internet force. His subscribers maintain a loyalty that cable networks such as CNN and Fox News and streaming services like Hulu and Disney+ would love to match.

Donaldson racks up hundreds of millions of views by creating both crazy challenges and over-the-top philanthropic giveaways to his fans and those in need. Cited as YouTube’s biggest philanthropist, his videos are wholesome, controversy-free, and targeted at a wide range of viewers.

A participant won a $2.5 million Hawker 800 jet in MrBeast’s video, “Last to Take Hand Off Jet, Keeps It.” The 15-minute video, which debuted last November, attracted more than 132 million views as 11 contestants did what the title says. Donaldson began the challenge with only one rule: No pushing.

MrBeast’s `I Survived 50 Hours In Antarctica’ on YouTube has received more than 100 million views in two months.

In his most viral video, “456,000 Squid Games,” Donaldson spent $3.5 million recreating Netflix’s hit series about a South Korean survival drama involving post-apocalyptic children’s games. He gave away almost half a million dollars to the winner and $1,000 to each of 456 participants. The video, which didn’t contain the savagery of the Netflix show, launched in November 2021 and garnered more than 380 million views.
By comparison, this year’s Super Bowl drew 113 million viewers.

MrBeast’s popularity comes from both his creative content, and his extreme altruism. In January, he paid for cataract surgeries that improved the vision for 1,000 people, some of whom had been blind since birth. The emotional video of thankful patients scattered all over the world had more than 120 million views as of mid-March.

CASHING IN ON CLICKS

Understanding MrBeast’s business strategy requires an understanding of the intricacies of the internet. “It’s a way for individuals to share their unique experiences with the world. There’s nothing like it. It’s the first of its kind,” says Tate Stephenson, 22, of Winston-Salem. 

He’s a prime example of the genre’s creativity as he directs one- or two-hourlong productions for a survivalist video game called “Rust.” Under the screen name Stevie, he uploads gaming and commentary videos that often offer a touch of comedy. He has
1.1 million subscribers. 

Though Stephenson didn’t go to college, he has made a successful career in content creation. 

How successful? Enough to have bought a 2022 Stingray Corvette. 

What makes the industry special is that most YouTubers don’t start with a monetary motive. “It starts with a passion to share,” Stephenson says. “A passion to create. But actually making money on YouTube takes a lot of hard work.”

He describes two ways of making a career out of YouTube, namely through clicks and sponsorships. YouTube requires creators to have more than 1,000 subscribers and report at least 4,000 hours of channel traffic in one year before becoming eligible for monetizing videos through advertisements. The clicks can pay off, typically using the “cost per 1,000 impressions” metric, or CPM.

“But the first year, you’re not going to get views,” Stephenson says. “The road to 1,000 subscribers is grueling,” and is forged by YouTube’s complex algorithm that determines how videos will appear in Google search results.  

Considering that 30,000 hours of videos are uploaded every hour, the chance of viewers stumbling along a video is slim to none. 

To achieve success that meets the algorithm’s standards, Stephenson says a solid, persistent work ethic is vital. “Video releases need to be consistent — at least one to two videos per week — and every video needs to have something better than the last,” he says. “That’s the only way to chip your way into the algorithm.”

Donaldson has somehow figured this out for a decade: The dude owns the algorithm. Despite the endless options on the internet, millions flock to MrBeast.

Industry bloggers estimate that MrBeast earns about $20 per 1,000 views. That would suggest potential revenue of $2.6 million for the hand-on-the-jet video that has drawn 132 million clicks. 

That success has led to sponsorships, which MrBeast has scored mainly from software services such as Quid, CSGO Lotto, Honey, and TikTok, the Chinese social media giant. “The more you grow, the more views you get, the more watch time you have on your videos, the bigger deals you’ll get from brands,” Stephenson says. With an upward of 500 million views per month, MrBeast is attracting considerable corporate interest.

Quid, a San Francisco-based data organization software service, sponsored a video in which MrBeast walked around Greenville with $10,000 in cash and handed out increments of $1,000 to homeless people.

Talent agent Reed Duchscher, 33, helps arrange MrBeast’s brand transactions. He’s the founder of Night Media, and considered a pioneer in assisting successful YouTubers in building their businesses. His clients include popular video gamers Preston Arsement, Leah Ashe and Ian Stapleton, who goes by the name of Ssundee.

GREENVILLE ROYALTY

Given MrBeast’s success, one might think of him as a big, boisterous personality. With that nickname, and someone who handed $500,000 to the winner of a tag game, surely he’s a flashy party animal.

“He’s pretty quiet, actually,” says Andrew Roth, who finished second in MrBeast’s Circle Challenge video. During that event, 100 participants tried to outlast each other by staying inside a circle drawn in a warehouse. After 12 days, with the circle continually narrowing, 10 contestants remained. They then played a 48-hour game of extreme tag at Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway. 

“Jimmy is a really good businessman. He is strategic and insightful,” Roth says, always thinking about his next move. During the challenge, Donaldson told him, “Don’t do anything you’re not proud of. If you’re doing something, and you’re not 100% in it, drop it.” If MrBeast was unhappy with a video after spending millions of dollars on production, he would scrap it rather than present a flawed product.

Before Donaldson was consulting Night Media, however, he was asking a Greenville business owner for advice.

Photo by Bryan Regan

Bret Oliverio owns Sup Dogs, a downtown pub that has won the Barstool website’s “Best Bar of the Year” three times in the last four years. On a typical Saturday, “people line up to get in at 11 a.m. and we are kicking them out at 3 a.m. We’re always packed,” he says. The bar was so successful, Oliverio expanded to Chapel Hill, claiming a prime location on Franklin Street.

“I remember around 2017 getting a call from Jimmy’s mom,” says Oliverio. “We had
a long business conversation when he was just taking off. She was asking me about how
we hire in the community and who we use as charity.”

MrBeast has been a big winner for Oliverio’s restaurant and Greenville. “Everyday people come to Sup Dogs because they’ve seen us in one of Jimmy’s pictures,” he says. That includes reporters from Rolling Stone magazine and a YouTuber from Brazil. “The amount of people who come to Greenville in hopes of stumbling into Jimmy is crazy.” 

When Donaldson posted a picture in front of Sup Dogs, the restaurant’s Instagram account gained 6,000 followers.

While becoming an international presence, Donaldson has stayed in his hometown, where he has remained close with his family. His mother, Sue Donaldson, often appears in his videos, including “Giving My Mom $100,000 (Proudest Day of My Life.).” His stepfather, Tracy, is operations manager, Rolling Stone reported in a story last year.

His brother, CJ, has 4.35 million subscribers to his CJTheseDays channel. His nickname is MrBro.

Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly calls MrBeast a great partner. He meets periodically with Donaldson to discuss how to make the city more attractive to content creators. Donaldson recently partnered with East Carolina University to develop a credentialing program for students  training in video production skills. They hope to meet growing industry demand. 

Donadson bought an old Greenville church for $1.3 million, then spent $10 million on renovations, he told YouTube influencer Arun Maini in a July 2022 interview. Then he added $2.9 million of high-tech equipment, Maini estimates. Then there’s the estimated $4 million a month that Donaldson typically spends producing videos, according to published reports.

“He has invested in our community. He is exactly the type of business leader we need,” Connelly says. “His team has ambitious goals to grow.” 

Our repeated attempts to seek an interview with MrBeast didn’t pan out. He’s rarely quoted in the press.


MAKING BEAST A BRAND

Apart from YouTube, Donaldson has turned his content creation into a multipronged pursuit.

His first venture was converting a former Burger Boy location in Wilson into “the world’s first free food restaurant.” He paid people to eat there for a video, ultimately giving away thousands of dollars worth of burgers and fries. 

Now, MrBeastBurger sells food in more than 300 cities with burgers and chicken sandwiches made by local “ghost kitchens” and delivered by DoorDash or Uber Eats. Restaurants split the revenue with MrBeast. Fans have ordered more than 1 million burgers, MrBeast officials have said.

Donaldson isn’t stopping there. He’s selling a collection of chocolate bars called Feastables. The products are sold at Walmart and on Amazon, priced at $29.99 for a 10-pack of “deliciously creamy” bars. More diversification is likely for MrBeast, who has said, “I really want to be Elon [Musk] one day.”

What’s most impressive, however, may be his charitable streak.

“That’s how I know him. He’s more than just a YouTuber, he’s a philanthropist,” says Hunter Burnette, 54, a Greenville native who lives in Raleigh. The construction company executive doesn’t represent Donaldson’s main viewership demographic of males aged 35 and younger, though he is well acquainted with MrBeast.

While Greenville’s economy benefits from East Carolina University and ECU Health, more than a quarter of the city’s population have incomes lower than the federal poverty level, according to Census Bureau data. “Outside the city, there’s a lot
of poverty,” Burnette says.

He and others stress that MrBeast has made Greenville a better place by sponsoring a food bank and donating to the Boys and Girls Club and other nonprofits. Donaldson launched Beast Philanthropy in 2020 with a Thanksgiving feast that provided more than 50,000 meals to families in need. “I remember when he rented out the fairgrounds in Pitt County,” Mayor Connelly says. “Vehicles lined up for almost three miles to get turkeys from MrBeast. His outreach is incredible.”

In the past 20 years, the American dream of rags to riches has become harder to come by. According to the World Economic Forum, those born in the 1950s had an 81% chance of earning more than their parents. For the Gen X cohort of the 1980s, the percentage has slid to 45%. This decline is predicted to continue into the new generations.

Fortunately, the internet is presenting unforeseen opportunities for some shrewd operators. The World Wide Web is the wild west. MrBeast is showing the way in how to capitalize off this new sphere.


BEAST BUDDIES

It takes a village to build an internet empire. MrBeast has four friends who are most associated with his work, gaining a touch of stardom in the process.

  • Chris Tyson, 26, is a childhood friend of MrBeast who has appeared in many of
    his videos. He and his wife, Katie, have a son, Tucker. His YouTube account has
    2.7 million followers at @chris_Thememegod.
  • Chandler Hallow, 24, met MrBeast while working as a janitor before becoming
    a crew member. He is married to Cara Davis. His Instagram account shows
    3.7 million followers.
  • Karl Jacobs, 24, has been part of MrBeast’s videos since 2020. His YouTube
    channel has 3.95 million subscribers. He is a North Carolina native and attended a
    community college in Oregon before meeting MrBeast.
  • Nolan Hansen, 24, is originally from Nebraska. He met MrBeast while dating
    his sister, Anna. His first video for MrBeast was “I Spent $1,000,000 on
    Lottery Tickets.”

Another key figure in MrBeast’s universe is Darren Margolias, who has
been executive director of the affiliated Beast Philanthropy nonprofit since 2020. The group has participated in many charitable endeavors, but mainly provides food assistance. It has given 4.1 million pounds of food to more than 245,000 people, according to its website.  

Margolias is a South African native who sold his real estate business to focus
on his passions for rescuing animals and helping charities thrive. 

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