If you asked Marques Brownlee ’15 about his biggest challenge as a business student at Stevens Institute of Technology, he would have told you it was running a YouTube channel — really, with 1 million subscribers at the time, it was already an empire — while managing a busy courseload.
Today, his biggest challenge is retaining creative control of the growing MKBHD brand as he hires new talent; breaks into new categories, like cars and TVs; talks tech with Kobe Bryant and Neil deGrasse Tyson; and covers CES and WWDC. And quantity hasn’t come at the expense of quality, as his audience numbers can attest; the channel is just shy of 6 million subscribers and in April, Brownlee was named Creator of the Decade in the Shorty Awards, which recognize the best of social media.
“I still want this to be my brush, on my canvas, but as a one-person team, it’s really difficult to do both more and better,” Brownlee said. “I’ve hired these super-talented video guys, and while it’s tough for me to hand off animation, or special effects, or even the camera work, over the past couple weeks, that’s what we’ve been doing, sharing my eye for the way I want things to look and incorporating all they bring to the table.”
Passion where others are plain
Tech reviewers on YouTube are a dime a dozen. So what makes Brownlee an influencer?
The production values certainly stand out — he uses top-of-the-line Red cameras and is a detail-oriented cinematographer who has a knack for pleasing color palettes. But even in his earliest videos, as just a high school student, Brownlee has radiated an authentic passion for technology. Watching him describe the latest smartphone or drone is a breath of fresh air from institutionalized reviewers, who get lost in spec sheets and technical details.
“One of the things that’s been important to me since the beginning is to make videos that I would want to watch,” he said. “At many points along the way, there are various temptations to deviate from that, but I think we’ve stayed pretty true to that mission.”
“It's tough for me to hand off animation, or special effects, or even the camera work ... but as a one-person team, it's really difficult to do both more and better.”
That passion brought Brownlee to his latest category, cars. It started when he got a Tesla of his own, he said, “and since it’s a really high-tech car and I’m obviously passionate about it, I decided to make a series of videos about it.”
Cars now have a dedicated hub on MKBHD’s YouTube channel, and in one of his breakthrough moments, his video for Project Loveday — a contest to create a commercial for the Model S — took top honors, scoring him an invite to the automaker’s Model 3 reveal. It was a typical MKBHD video, where Brownlee demonstrates the car’s versatility and storage before, in a humorous finale, blowing the doors off a Lamborghini.
“Since that series of videos has started to grow, we’ve had other car companies reach out and say, ‘We make some car tech you might also be interested in, come check it out,’ ” he said. “So we’ve started making more car videos highlighting, but also evaluating, what we’re seeing in all these different cars.”
His most popular segments, though, are phone reviews. Whether he’s taking a knife to a phone to test its self-healing properties or working with other influencers to shoot an arrow into a super-tough iPhone screen, smartphones are the top draw. That may be because of fragmentation in the Android market, or because of the annual hype surrounding the iPhone — but it might be just because of how much he enjoys, or dislikes, each model.
“There’s so many times when you’re watching a video about a product, and you can kind of tell that person doesn’t really buy all of what they’re saying,” he said. “Making YouTube videos isn’t sustainable until you’ve reached a certain level, and you don’t reach that level without being excited about it and really enjoying what you’re doing.”
A hotbed for entrepreneurship
MKBHD is hardly the first business launched by a Stevens School of Business alumnus; the school’s immersion in technology inspires many startups. Brownlee, who will be honored with the university’s Young Alumni Achievement Award in April, said aspiring entrepreneurs should use that technology in doing their homework before entering the fray.
“As unique as your idea may seem, there’s probably at this point something out there close enough to it that has traveled further along that path, and you can learn from that,” Brownlee said. “If your product idea is X plus Y, with a twist, look at the beginnings of X and Y and the paths they took to reach their success, and learn from that. There are infinite resources available from the Internet to do your homework. That’s how I’ve found advice on how to do things better.”
What’s next for MKBHD? Most entrepreneurs who talk about the future are focused on product launches or exit strategies. For Brownlee, it’s the next video.
“My long-term goal is to continue developing this and making it the best channel possible for tech enthusiasts,” he said. “As long as it’s still this much fun, I don’t really see a clear-cut end.”