You don’t pick up 16.4 million YouTube subscribers and more than 3 billion views by sitting around hoping. And you sure as heck don’t get there overnight. Just ask Marques Brownlee, who, like Michael Jordan missing the varsity basketball cut in high school, was rejected from YouTube’s partner program … twice. More than a decade later, he’s evolved into MKBHD, one of the most prominent and popular tech personalities in the world.
Brownlee has now lived so much of his life on YouTube that it scrolls like an accelerated autobiography — New Jersey teen casually uploading webcam clips of his golf swing grows up to be a worldwide influencer producing the internet’s slickest tech videos with the help of a $50,000 camera mounted to a $250,000 remote-controlled robot arm.
Wearing many hats — creator, interviewer, podcast host, instructor, Ultimate Frisbee player — the 28-year-old has shifted perceptions of what a tech authority can be and what the success of a digital innovator can look like. His laser-focused but often humorous observations, combined with deep knowledge and passion, have helped him appeal equally to diehard tech fans and mainstream viewers. And as a truly independent editorial voice with a level of cred that now rivals vaunted tech publications, he has inspired a generation of young upstarts.
But that’s not all. Brownlee also cohosts Waveform: The MKBHD Podcast. His New Jersey–based studio runs multiple YouTube channels, including the just-launched Auto Focus, spotlighting electric vehicles. He recently launched a MasterClass Session. Oh, and he’s interviewed Kobe Bryant, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Gates, Barack Obama and Elon Musk, among other icons.
Naturally, we felt compelled to flip the script and start asking some questions ourselves. So we grabbed a big ol’ chunk of Brownlee’s precious little free time. Here are the highlights of our wide-ranging chat about methodical growth, online fame, down time, future tech, why he likens the life of a YouTuber to that of an octopus and so much more.
What has it been like for you to progress from making your first videos in your teens to where you are now?
Looking back, it’s felt like a slow and steady growth for this entire time, which I think is a good thing. I’ve described it as a gradient, but also there’s some pillars I can point to along the way. Probably the first milestone was just starting to make tech videos. I made two golf swing videos back in the day, which were like, just a kid discovering that he can upload a video to YouTube. Then making those first few tech videos and getting a couple comments from people was interesting, and then making a bunch of videos and getting more and more feedback.
Another milestone was getting a camera for the first time. I was shooting on a webcam before that, so if I wanted to show the keyboard, I’d have to point it at the keyboard, and that was the video. My first camera was the Sanyo Xacti CG10, which was this little pistol-grip camcorder with a flipout screen. It had a good minimum focus distance for macro shots of stuff like buttons and keyboards. I remember every single camera we have used since — nine cameras — but the first one was a big deal.
Is it true you were originally rejected from the YouTube Partner Program?
I was in high school and doing this as a hobby when the [YouTube] Partner Program became a thing. I was pretty early to apply for it, I was not accepted, then there was this like six-month waiting period [to apply again]. So I waited and I applied again and I got rejected again and then waited again, but eventually at some point late in high school, I got accepted to the program and started making money, which was cool. So that was a milestone, actually making money from making videos.
Probably one of the last milestones was graduating from college and this becoming my full-time job. I went to Stevens Tech in Hoboken, and there are a lot of great tech companies in the city, so a lot of students will go intern at the tech company that they hope to work for. And it got to my opportunity to intern for one of these companies and I was like, “Actually, no, I’m just going to spend more time making my videos. This is actually perfect. This is what I know I want to do.” So that was a solid milestone for realization.
Was there a “made it” moment for you, or is it just sort of a continuum?
I think one of the best things that’s never happened to me is having one video blow up and go viral, and then the whole channel explodes. And then you’re like, “Oh, this is the moment where I realized it’s a career.” Like, that’s never happened. I do remember when the channel hit one million subscribers — that was in college — that was a pretty crazy moment. But even when that happened, I’d been making videos and seeing the subscriber numbers grow, and I saw the trajectory and I knew it was going to hit a million subscribers at some point. It’s continued past 10 million subscribers, which is another ridiculous number that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s still really cool and I think we’ll continue to evolve.
You use the word evolve, and it seems like evolution of content is something that is, whether conscious or subconscious, a big part of what you do.
Yeah, we definitely — I say we because it’s a team now — but I’ve always been into video production and the gear and the technology that we use to make the videos. So, as we get better at using these tools, it’s like playing a sport; you find new moves and new creative combos and you try to get better. Even though the fundamentals haven’t changed — I’m still making a video about a product — you find new ways to do it, which is fun. And why not try to make the latest video the best one, every single time?
With your MasterClass Sessions, you are imparting some of what you’ve learned to a bigger audience that wants to not just consume your content but emulate it. Are there a few key tenets that have guided you, or big things you’ve learned along the way that really stand out?
As a creator, I find myself in a position where I get to talk to a lot of other creators. And two main [tenets] come to mind. One is … I’m making videos that I would want to watch. And the other one is … I always say you can view being a creator online, especially making YouTube videos, as kind of like being an athlete. Pick a sport, like basketball, where you can just play for free in the park. All you need is a basketball, the barrier to entry is almost zero.
But if you want it to be your job, that does require an extra level of not just dedication and skill but a little bit of luck and a little bit of talent. All of that goes into potentially making it your job someday. And there’s a huge gap between just playing pickup in the street and professional basketball. So, if you want to turn it into your job, you have to be very comfortable with making videos for a long time and never making any money. And if that is you, then I can say you’re on the right path.
Where does fame exist to you in your world? Like, where are the places where you go and get mobbed? And where are the places where you’re totally anonymous?
It’s funny, I know my audience very well and I know where we go, which is tech events and CES, things like that, but I’m pretty fortunate that I don’t have this type of awful not-being-able-to-go-anywhere fame. Like, I remember — so there’s a thing called the YouTube Creator Summit that’s roughly once a year. The top hundred or so creators all go to a hotel, where the CEO of YouTube and a bunch of executives will talk to us directly about what we’re liking and what we’re not liking. And they always tell us not to post on social media so fans can’t find out where you are, because they might come and we wouldn’t want that to happen to you guys.
But every year, it inevitably happens that somebody posts an Instagram story and their fans find out where they are. And I remember being at the door of the hotel, about to Uber back to the studio, and there’s 75 screaming 13-year-olds outside. Like, Oh my God, we know he’s inside, and they’re like waiting for somebody. I saw my Uber pull up, and I opened the door and walked straight through the middle of them and none of them even blinked. None of them had any idea who I was. And I was like, That’s perfect.
Do you have any thoughts on playing a role in shifting perceptions on what a tech reviewer can be?
I’ve thought about that more in the last few years. I was one of the first creators to do a bunch of different things, which shifts perspectives. I don’t know if going to the Met Gala means anything for being a creator, but things change, and when you ask a lot of the older generation about product reviews, they do see independent product reviews in the form of like a columnist writing for a publication.
And I do see an opening of doors for even more independent creators to do completely independent videos, with truly independent thoughts about products, and I think that’s a good thing. So yeah, I don’t know if it’s strategic. I don’t know if there’s any specific choices that move that needle more than others. But I do feel like [more independence] is a thing that’s happening, which is good.
I was wondering what the role of Ultimate Frisbee is in your life. Is that the way you get away from screen time?
Yeah, 100 percent. That is like the left brain, right brain thing. Luckily with working in tech and making videos, it’s weekdays and normal working hours. And then Ultimate Frisbee is very much after hours, practicing on nights and weekends. So, it’s a perfect flip-a-switch type of thing. It’s definitely my competitive outlet. Obviously, it’s an athletic endeavor, so it’s also an outlet for that. But really it’s team building and camaraderie and experiencing leadership and strategy in different ways, and trying to work towards a really difficult goal, which is sort of what I’m into I guess. So we have a good time with that and then when the weekend’s over, I just flip that switch again and then that goes away. But yeah, that’s the longest time I spend without a screen for sure.
What do your parents think about all of this?
I think it’s grown on them. At the beginning it was a hobby, but it was good for them to know that I had hobbies that were, you know, fairly positive. And then for it to turn into something that I actually enjoy doing as a career is great. My mom is now a heavy part of the operation. She worked for a bank in the past and now she does finance for our team, so yeah, it’s legitimized now.
When you started out, you were doing everything: shooting, on-camera and editing. Have you had to pare down to just the on-camera operations? How much of the other things do you still have time to do?
I have likened being a YouTuber to being an octopus. Because an octopus has eight arms and can work them all independently, and a YouTube Creator also has a bunch of different jobs that they do. You’re a camera person, you’re an editor, you’re a writer, and you’re also a social media content strategist. But you’re also in the inbox, reading contracts and doing ad deals, and you’re also the finance person. You’re doing a lot, and building the team here has been an operation of chopping off one arm at a time and handing it to someone who can do that full time and do it better than I ever could.
The other weird part of the analogy is that an octopus has three hearts. And so I’m trying to find what my three hearts are — the things that I still need to be a part of that I don’t have to cut off. Being on camera, testing the gadgets, writing and content strategy seem to be the things that I enjoy the most and that are really the core of what we do.
The people who you have interviewed in your career are exciting — from Kobe Bryant to Neil deGrasse Tyson to Elon Musk to Barack Obama. Who has been the highlight?
I just threw myself straight into the fire — Kobe was literally the first in-person interview I ever did of any human, which is absurd. But that was obviously a highlight, not just because it was Kobe during his farewell tour in his final season with a new shoe coming out and wanting to talk to me about it, but it was some of the things he said. That he only really involved himself in things that he was really passionate about, which is pretty inspiring, and the level of detail he was able to speak to about a product.
At this point, I’ve realized that when I get an opportunity to do an interview, a lot of times it’s connected to some PR run this person is on. They had a publicist who was like, “Oh, you have a movie coming out, you should talk to A-B-C-D and MKBHD, that’s our plan.” But it’s cool just talking to people candidly about tech who have interesting perspectives on it. And Kobe was the best possible intro I could have, so yeah, he stands out for me as a highlight all-time anything.
What are you most excited about in tech over the next few years?
The tech of the future will probably always be a surprise, but I think the obvious one for me is electric cars. So many interesting things are happening there, and I’ve been paying a ton of attention to the electric car world, and the transition that the world needs to make, and all the complex steps to get there from where we are now with gas stations and gas cars to the question mark number of years in the future with EVs everywhere and electric car charging everywhere.
How long does it take to get there? What are the steps to take to get there? What sorts of things need to happen? What types of cars need to come out? Does inflation and chip shortages affect how we get there? There’s so much happening but then also there are crazy cool EVs left and right just popping up that are very fun to place on this timeline.
There’s a video today someone made of the new electric Dodge Challenger SRT. It has a super loud fake noise that it makes that sounds like revving an engine, but it’s just a fake sound pumping out. And seeing that just got me thinking about, when we look back in 50 years, are we going to be like, “Oh yeah, there’s a brief period where electric cars tried to act like gas cars to get people to switch?”
Considering Brownlee has reviewed thousands of products, we were curious what he’s always got on him. Here are six essentials, in his own words.
"I’ve tried other backpacks, but this is the one I always come back to — I carry this thing every day and can fit everything I need into it."
"I've had it for a decade and it's still my favorite fast wide zoom. I use it all the time."
"It's a USB-C cable with a little screen that shows you how much power is going through it — such a nerdy thing, but I use it for everything now."
"Anytime I travel, I need noise canceling and wireless, and AirPods Max pairs well with the Mac ecosystem."
"I don’t carry a lot in my wallet."
"Disclaimer: I’m an investor in this company but I really believe in it. And for the amount of video calls that we’re on, I get a lot of use out of it."