MARQUES BROWNLEE IS a YouTube sensation. The tech-review prodigy has 1.8 million subscribers—more followers than Kanye West, Marvel, or Disney Animation. Under the username MKBHD, he tests everything from cameras and headphones to Google Glass and the latest Tesla. This summer he got his hands on a sapphire crystal display rumored to be for the iPhone 6. In the video, which has gotten about 8 million views, he took keys, his foot, and even a blade to the screen with no result. (Though a follow-up featuring comedian Joe Rogan wielding a crossbow proved it’s not indestructible.) The best part: This gadgetry powerhouse is a 20-year-old kid from New Jersey.
Sitting in his bedroom in Hoboken, N.J., in June, 20-year-old YouTube tech reviewing sensation Marques Brownlee held a secretly leaked iPhone 6 screen up to a camera and began stabbing repeatedly at its supposedly indestructible glass surface.
His outrageous routine and exclusive tidbits about the then-yet-to-be-released iPhone 6 proved to be a potent combo for the highly influential phenom.
Employing a mix of descriptors that come natural to college students – “super high-quality” – and the hardest-core of tech geeks – “zero percent opacity” – Brownlee’s five-minute review instantly went viral, attracting nearly 8 million video views.
Although it contained what turned out to be inaccurate information – Apple never did opt for the never-bend “Sapphire” screen for the new phone — the video was the latest on Brownlee’s channel of buzzy posts that have become a must-see among young tech lovers ardently wooed by Madison Avenue.
Brownlee’s influence is reflected in his online traffic numbers. He has arguably the most subscribers – 1.8 million – among individual YouTube tech reviewers. As of last week, he was ranked top three in the most influential “science & tech” channel rankings by YouTube performance measuring firm SocialBlade, which looks at social media referrals, online traffic and interactions with and among subscribers in its metrics. (Unbox Therapy, a tech product channel run by Lewis Hilsenteger, and CrazyRussianHackers, which runs videos on science pranks, ranked higher.)
His 686 videos have been viewed 158 million times. And last year, Vic Gundotra, a former Google exec who headed the development of Google Plus, called him “the best technology reviewer on the planet right now.” Google “best tech reviewer” and his name floats to the top quickly.
While tech companies once moved mountains to placate influential newspaper reviewers, tech-savvy Millennials now often get the latest from short clips on YouTube, a trend that helped breed a new generation of home-based YouTubers who churn out review videos cheaply and quickly with a mixed bag of motives.
Brownlee’s persona – technical but not condescending; youthful but sophisticated; measured but lively – has resonated deeply among review seekers. Brownlee is also just as eager to reach back and answer questions from his fans, resulting in free-flowing chats on YouTube and Twitter that lend immediacy and incite affinity. With thousands posting gadget videos and “unboxing” shows on YouTube, Brownlee, still a full-time college senior, has managed to emerge from the crowded competition while also giving legitimacy to the medium.
“Marques is in this sweet spot of being a consumer expert,” says Adrienne Hayes,Motorola Mobility’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. “He’s looked at by followers as one of us, and that’s very powerful. His fans are following him and listening to him with a specific purpose. This is very hyper targeted.”
His ascendance in the gadget review universe also says a lot about Silicon Valley marketing that is increasingly coming to grips with a customer segment that is earnest about unearthing product data but eschews conventional wisdom and sources. His ability to boost or deflate sales of a product is no less feared than what may be published in The Wall Street Journal. That he’s an African-American pontificating on the performance of an industry heavily criticized for lacking diversity adds to his mystique.
Like other YouTubers, he’s reluctant to talk about money, but suffice it to say it’s no longer just a dorm hobby. Now an incorporated entity, his video operation – run under the channel name MKBHD (his initials plus “high definition”) – brings in enough advertising revenue to pay for his expensive equipment, the devices he reviews, travel and other expenses, he says.
“I don’t get a lot of sleep,” Brownlee tells me in the cramped room that he rents from a roommate in a two-bedroom apartment. He flashes a rubber bracelet with hashtag #NoSleepTeam. “When I sit down and make videos, my No. 1 thought is that I want to make a video that I want to watch,” he says. “That it’s technical, watchable, easily viewable. There is that challenge of meeting experts and people who are just getting into tech. I definitely think about the intersection of these two groups.”
Academic, athletic, artistic
Brownlee’s interest in technology wasn’t spotted early, but his sense of curiosity and poise have always stood out, say his parents, Jeaniene and Marlon Brownlee, who raised Brownlee and his sister, Simone, in Maplewood, N.J.
From early on, Brownlee’s parents stressed the importance of public school education and maintaining “the three As” (academic, athletic and artistic) to rear well-rounded children.
An honor student throughout high school, Brownlee also played ultimate Frisbee and golf – he has a 9 handicap – as well as the trombone. “We would bring him around to golf tournaments, and I’d see him talking about loft and the degree of elevation. He’s always had a sense of efficacy,” says his father.
Brownlee also excelled at time management, says his mother, who quit her career in financial services to raise kids full time and is his business manager. While appearing regularly on the Dean’s List at Stevens Institute of Technology, where he is majoring in business and technology, Brownlee also plays ultimate Frisbee for several clubs, including a pro team, the New York Rumble of Major League Ultimate.
“He’s made me proud by thinking really long and hard about how he spends his time. He’s not wasting any of it, though I’m not seeing him as much as I’d like,” says Jeaniene Brownlee, who began watching his videos only after her son left home for college. “I’m not a tech person. But I missed him. I’d look at the videos and (say) “Oh, he sounds nasal. He must have a cold.”
While engaging and direct in the videos on his channel, Brownlee is still something of an introvert, says his roommate, Austin Chung. “He’s a quiet guy.”
Mark Watson, a competitor of sorts who has his own tech review YouTube channel,SoldierKnowsBest, recalls a Samsung-sponsored event at which he, Brownlee and other tech reviewers were about to go out for a night on the town. “He just disappeared and went (back to the hotel),” Watson says. “He was all about work. He’s a little shy. He’s 20 years old, and I couldn’t imagine the type of exposure he has.”
Finding his stride
Brownlee’s father was an information technology consultant, so he has had early exposure to the industry. But the idea of making a YouTube video didn’t hit until late 2008, when the 14-year combed through YouTube reviews for a laptop he wanted to buy.
With his new laptop, HP Pavilion DV7, Brownlee tried a “screencast” of his own review – a video showing just the laptop screen, with his voiceover – about the software that came with the computer. He didn’t appear on camera until several shows later, offering his opinion on the laptop’s remote control.
It was all low-tech stuff then, using the laptop’s webcam and microphone. And the self-conscious Brownlee in that video seems more like a middle-schooler in the midst of a summer school project – ditching his glasses quickly as the camera starts to roll, apologizing for the bright window behind him and still sporting the thin voice of a 14-year old. The video drew about a dozen views at the time, though his fans have since gone back and it now has about 65,000 views.
“In my 100th video, I gave a shout-out to the 78 subscribers I had at that point. And I was stoked at that point just to have that many who cared about what I had to say,” he says. “I didn’t tell my parents I was making them. I just put it out there. Their only reaction was to (remind me) to keep doing well in school.”
The growth in his subscriber base has been steady. His uncanny timing of posting videos to match the hot stories circulating online pulls in viewers. Reacting to a viral video by LG touting its G Flex phone’s “self-healing” capability, he tested the claims and uploaded it in November, drawing more than 4 million hits.
Brownlee’s 40-minute Google Plus hangout with then-CEO of Motorola Mobility Dennis Woodside in December was a testament to his arrival in the eyes of the industry. It was likely the first interview Woodside conducted with a journalist whose bed was visible in the background. “I’ve got two kids, a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, who are fans of your reviews,” Woodside told Brownlee.
The chronological sequence of Brownlee’s videos on his channel in the last six years seems like a photo carousel of a boy physically filling out and maturing, but the evolution of his delivery and production quality is just as conspicuous.
“He’s really good,” Watson says. “He has a really good rhythm in his videos. He satisfies both geeks and people who don’t follow every little piece of technology. And he’s bringing a spotlight on all of us YouTube tech reviewers.”
He’s found his own style by avoiding scripts and instead using bullet points to sidestep the common YouTuber pitfall of droning delivery. His segments are tightly edited to cut out umms and aahhs and maintain the relaxed but clipped pacing that has become his hallmark. “(My style) is somewhere between news broadcast and talking to a friend about what phone they like,” he says. “In class, someone will say, ‘Hey, have you played with iPhone 5 and what do you think of it?’ And I can give them three sentences on it, and that’s the kind of language that I’d want to give to anyone who wants to see it.”
The attention he pays to delivery style and persona could well be contributing to his popularity, says Jenna Arnold, who handles public relations for SocialBlade. “YouTube has done studies that personality beats content every time,” she says. “It takes skill, luck and patience. It’s not like the (Hollywood) idol thing anymore. Fans feel like (YouTube stars) are knowable. These guys are so much more down to earth when they talk to you, and they’re pushing out so much more content. It’s not like seeing movies stars every two years. You’re seeing it updated every few minutes.”
With advertising income flowing in, he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars for professional-grade digital video tools, using the cameras from Red Digital Cinema for the “4K HD” look that is largely limited to serious YouTubers. His first videos took less than 15 minutes to make and an hour to turn around. But with more editing involved and his audience now expecting high production quality, he’s slowed down the pace and makes only about two or three videos a week.
Reviews from Brownlee and a select few other reviewers can move the needle. Brownlee was merciless in panning Motorola’s camera in the Moto X phone. Motorola e-mailed him and a few others to seek direct feedback on the changes it should make, Motorola’s Hayes says.
Brownlee and Motorola exchanged numerous photos and documents to update the camera’s software. “I legitimately spent a lot of time trying to fix the camera,” Brownlee says. “One of the (Motorola) people who sent that e-mail later said, ‘Make sure you try the camera.'”
Hayes says Motorola has no financial relationship with Brownlee but says it’s open to a deeper level of commercial connection. “We really like his style. It reflects the brand personality we want to be – open access, down-to-earth and genuine,” she says. I don’t think we’d hesitate to have a transparent and open working relationship with him.”
Business that runs on its own
Brownlee is mindful of the commercial opportunities – like the one Motorola hints at — that are around the corner.
But for now, his business is lucrative enough. Brownlee’s income from advertising shown on his videos – Google does all the back-end work on placing them but takes a big cut — could range anywhere from $117,000 a year to $934,000, depending on the amount paid per thousand clicks, according to SocialBlade, which estimates YouTubers’ incomes using online traffic.
Given that the ads on his videos are generally for tech devices, his rates likely run on the higher end of the range, SocialBlade’s Arnold says.
His popularity has opened doors, and dealing with the gatekeepers of the industry is much easier now. “Now the companies are very open to working with me,” he says.
Until this year, he had to find an affiliation with a written blog to get press credentials for the annual CES show, the tech industry’s biggest event of the year. Next year, he’s going as himself. “YouTubers are not taken as seriously as the written press, which is strange,” he says. “If you have 1,000 views as a blog, you can go in. But if you have 10 million views as a YouTuber, they didn’t talk to you. But it’s changing.”
Not surprisingly, media companies have reached out, hoping to recruit him or be affiliated with his brand or turn him into a TV broadcaster. He’s done several videos with tech news site The Verge, owned by Vox Media. But for now, he prefers to remain a one-man band, enhancing his video skills. “I’ve gotten offers like that left and right, but I love being independent,” he says. “Broadcasting is more scripted, so it’s different. There’s a lot of other skills that wouldn’t be used if I were to hop directly into a broadcasting position.”
His mother hints at expanded career options to come soon. “Wait ’til he graduates,” she says