How a kid cracked YouTube’s secret code
In the fall of 2016, Jimmy Donaldson dropped out of college to try to solve one of the biggest mysteries in media: How exactly does a video go viral on YouTube? Donaldson, then 18, had been posting to the site since he was 12 without amassing much of an audience. But he was convinced he was close to unlocking the secrets of YouTube’s algorithm, the black box of rules and processes that determines what videos get recommended to viewers.
In the months that followed, Donaldson and a handful of his friends tried to crack the code. They conducted daily phone calls to analyze what videos went viral. They gave one another YouTube-related homework assignments, and they pestered successful channels for data about their most successful posts. “I woke up, I studied YouTube, I studied videos, I studied filmmaking, I went to bed and that was my life,” Donaldson recalled during a recent interview.
Then, one day, he was struck with an idea for a video that he was sure would work. It was as simple as counting. Donaldson sat down in a chair and, for the the next 40-plus hours, murmured one number after the next, starting from zero and continuing all the way to 100,000. At the end of the exhausting stunt, he looked deliriously at the camera. “What am I doing with my life?” he said.
It was an oddly mesmerizing performance, the kind of thing every kid in elementary school thinks about but never tries. The resulting video — entitled “I COUNTED TO 100000!” — was a viral smash. Since its debut on Jan. 8, 2017, it has earned over 21 million views.
The video helped give rise to one of the unlikeliest success stories on YouTube. Over the past four years, Donaldson‘s channel, MrBeast, has amassed more than 48 million subscribers. In the last 28 days, people have spent more than 34 million hours watching his videos. On Dec. 12, MrBeast was named Creator of the Year at the Streamy Awards, YouTube’s equivalent of the Oscars.
The consistent success of MrBeast’s videos has gotten the attention of the YouTube establishment. Last year, every video he posted eclipsed 20 million views. Such consistency is unparalleled, even among YouTube’s biggest stars. “He lives on a different planet than the rest of the YouTube world,” said Casey Neistat, a filmmaker turned YouTuber.
Donaldson, now 22, has a baby face and a patchy goatee. He speaks with an aw-shucks modesty and doesn’t do many interviews. But the restraint quickly fades away when he starts talking about YouTube. “Once you know how to make a video go viral, it’s just about how to get as many out as possible,” he said. “You can practically make unlimited money.”
“The videos take months of prep. A lot of them take four to five days of relentless filming. There’s a reason other people don’t do what I do.”
Unlike many first-wave YouTube stars, who were actors, screenwriters, models and singers hoping someday to break into traditional industries, Donaldson has only ever aspired to YouTube stardom. He wakes up every day thinking about the perfect videos, with an exactitude that borders on monomania.
At age 12, he created his first two YouTube channels. In one, he filmed himself playing the video game Call of Duty. In the other, he played Minecraft. He named both channels using a riff on Beast, his Xbox playing handle. Over time, he grew increasingly curious about the site’s economics. At one point, he filmed a series of videos estimating the earnings of top creators, starting with PewDiePie, the long-reigning king of YouTube.
Donaldson’s first check from YouTube arrived when MrBeast crossed 10,000 subscribers. It wasn’t a windfall. For the first few years, he filmed every video on his phone. He lacked a microphone and his laptop crashed frequently.
After high school, Donaldson went to college briefly at the request of his mom, who’d raised him and his siblings on her own. But he soon dropped out without telling her and turned to his preferred pastime: making YouTube videos. “I didn’t have much money, so I wanted to do something big,” he said.
The success of the counting video taught him an important lesson. While many of his friends were interested in getting the most views with the least effort, he wanted to convey to the audience how hard he was working. His stunts grew more extravagant. He watched a fellow YouTuber’s rap video on loop for 10 hours. He spent 24 hours in a prison, then an insane asylum, then a deserted island.
The views on his videos, which are YouTube’s primary currency, started to snowball. In his first six years on the site, he had generated just 6 million views. But at the age of 18, with his full attention on YouTube, he earned 122 million annual views. At 19, he attracted more than 460 million. He now generates 4 billion views a year. “The beauty of YouTube is double the effort isn’t double the views, it’s like 10x,” he said. “The first million subscribers you get will take years, but the second will come in a few months.”
Over time, he deduced more of YouTube’s mysteries. Make a clip too long, no one watches or wants to watch another. Make one too short, people won’t linger. Use a bad thumbnail photo or title and no one will click. Donaldson typically makes videos that are between 10 minutes and 20 minutes long. He picks a concept that is easy to communicate in the title — “I Adopted EVERY Dog in a Dog Shelter” — and then uses the first 30 seconds to establish the stakes.
His videos often blend three popular YouTube genres. There’s the outrageous challenge, such as staying inside a block of ice for a day or being the last one to leave a vat of ramen noodles. There’s the celebrity guest appearance: Donaldson often works with other marquee YouTubers, including his favorite, the scientist Mark Rober. And there’s the reaction video — MrBeast has a posse of blundering childhood friends who participate in his stunts and generally play the role of hype men.
Donaldson denies having a true formula. The majority of his views don’t come from new clips, but from people who stumble on older footage that the site’s algorithm has recommended. His real secret, he said, traces back to the video of him counting to 100,000. Viewers are attracted to displays of sheer willpower.
Donaldson now generates tens of millions of dollars in advertising sales from his social media feeds, which include his main channel, a gaming channel and pages on other social media sites. He invests almost every dollar back into his business. In recent years, his average cost of making a single video has climbed to $300,000 from $10,000. “Money is a vehicle to do bigger videos and make better content,” he said.
To date, his priciest video cost $1.2 million. In it, he promised to give $1 million to the contestant who could keep his hand on a stack of cash for the longest period of time. In the end, he felt bad for the three people who didn’t get the $1 million, so he gave them some money too.
These days, many of his stunts have a philanthropic angle. He has given away money to homeless people, to his subscribers, to users of the popular video site Twitch, and to people he met on the street.
He also likes to spend money on ambitious logistical feats. At one point, he wanted to gift an entire island to the winner of a series of challenges. So his team went out, bought an island and refurbished it. Initially, there was no sand, so his employees imported 5,000 pounds of it and created a beach. They also paid someone to build a pier. “Most YouTubers who make a couple grand buy a Lamborghini,” said Reed Duchscher, his manager.
Donaldson employs about 50 people, most of whom specialize in logistics and production. “The videos take months of prep,” Donaldson said. “A lot of them take four to five days of relentless filming. There’s a reason other people don’t do what I do.” One of his dream videos — staging a basketball game in the stratosphere — has so far eluded him.
MrBeast has inspired plenty of imitations and helped give rise to a new, popular aesthetic, which one YouTuber dubbed “junklord.” Along the way, Donaldson has aligned himself with a prominent generation of young YouTube dudes who love sophomoric comedy, video games and escalating dares.
In 2019, he staged a series of stunts to help PewDiePie maintain his crown as the YouTube channel with the most subscribers. PewDiePie had created an online campaign to compete with T-Series, an Indian media channel set to dethrone him. Donaldson rigged office fax lines, purchased billboard advertisements and even went to the Super Bowl to support PewDiePie. The tagline “Subscribe 2 PewDiePie” was later used by the perpetrator of a mass shooting in New Zealand, one of several problematic associations in PewDiePie’s recent history.
But Donaldson remains a loyal fan. “He’s just really authentic, and it doesn’t seem like it’s ever gone to his head,” Donaldson said of the elder YouTuber.
Duchscher, who has also worked with the YouTube standout Dude Perfect, is pushing Donaldson to invest his money in areas beyond YouTube, preparing for a life after streaming. On Dec. 19, Donaldson announced a new venture called “Beast Burger.” He is partnering with more than 300 restaurants and kitchens across the country that will make burgers based on his instructions — a model known as ghost kitchens.
Over the weekend, the MrBeast Burger app soared in popularity. As of the morning of Dec. 21, it was the second most popular free app in the entire iOS store. Donaldson and Duchscher plan to double their footprint by the end of next year. Customers can order on delivery apps like Postmates or Grubhub.
A MrBeast consumer line is in the works, and Donaldson, an avid gamer, has also talked about wanting to own an esports team. In just seven months, his side channel devoted to gaming has racked up more than 11 million subscribers.
Yet, try as he might, he can’t shake his primary obsession. “I can’t envision a world where I’m not making YouTube videos,” he said. “In a perfect world, I live and breathe this, working 12- to 15-hour days until I die.