(CNN) — In the fall of 2016, Jimmy Donaldson didn’t look like a future celebrity billionaire.
The shy 18-year-old had been posting videos to YouTube for five years from his mother’s home in North Carolina without much attention.
His mother urged him to go to college, but he dropped out of East Carolina University after two weeks. Instead of going to class, he spent most of his time on campus editing videos in his car.
“That’s all I talked about at school. I thought it was a freak of nature,” he told content creators and podcasters Colin and Samir in September. “People told me, ‘All you do is talk about YouTube videos. You are too obsessed with YouTube. Get a life'”.
After he left school, his mother was so disappointed that she kicked him out of the house, he said.
But his decision paid off.
Seven years later, Donaldson, better known online as MrBeast, has 167 million YouTube subscribers, more than any other individual creator on the platform.
He has 85 million followers on TikTok and 39 million more on Instagram. And he just became the first person to hit 1 million followers on Meta’s new Threads app, reaching the milestone before CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (He celebrated his achievement with a familiar gesture: giving a Tesla to a random follower.)
At 25, he oversees a fast-growing empire that may be worth more than a billion dollars.
He built it by staging increasingly expensive and amazing stunts, along with generous cash gifts and acts of philanthropy, like funding cataract surgeries for 1,000 blind people and helping them see again.
“I just want to make better videos, period. I don’t care about making money,” she told Colin and Samir. “I just want to make the best videos on the planet.”
He recreated the “Squid Game,” tied up an FBI agent, and crashed a train into a giant pit
Most of MrBeast’s action-packed videos begin with Donaldson breathlessly explaining the setup in the first few seconds before launching into a quick series of stunts, pranks, and challenges.
He’s surrounded by a likable cast of sidekick friends, all dressed in jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies. Donaldson’s scruffy beard and constant enthusiasm set him apart from the group.
In a clip from last year, Donaldson tied an FBI agent to a chair, threw a knife at him and offered the agent $100,000 if he could catch him before midnight. He went on a wild chase that involved a hedge maze, a disguise, and an escape on a private jet.
Sara Fischer, a media reporter at Axios, says Donaldson’s authenticity and accessibility play a big role in the appeal of his videos.
“It’s not him wearing a suit, (it’s) him wearing his everyday clothes. It’s him hanging out with his friends.
“He has the money now and he can take viewers places to see things they would never see,” he told CNN’s Jon Sarlin, citing a video in which Donaldson visits luxury hotel rooms around the world, including one in a castle that rents for $1 million a night.
“That’s an interesting model, because you’re giving video viewers access to something they’d never see in real life,” says Fischer. “Who do you know that stays in a million dollar hotel?”
Some of the videos feature ostentatious displays of wealth, such as one showing a flight on the world’s most expensive airline ticket. Or the recent one where he and his team hang out on huge yachts with comedian Pete Davidson and NFL star Tom Brady.
But despite his growing income and celebrity, he and his friends still act wide-eyed in all their adventures, not cynical or privileged, which makes him relatable, says Miller.
MrBeast got another boost in subscribers last year after he hosted a real-life version of “Squid Game,” the hit Netflix drama in which desperate people compete in deadly contests for a huge cash prize. (As far as everyone knows, no one died in MrBeast’s version.) The clip has been viewed 460 million times.
As MrBeast’s popularity has grown, so have its budgets, which are now heavily priced. In a recent clip, he crashed a full-size train into a huge pit. Donaldson has said that he spends $1 million a week on his videos.
Videos as a unique form of philanthropy
In a January video titled “1,000 Blind People See For The First Time,” Donaldson, surrounded by doctors, vows to cure his blindness to applause. As patients walk out of cataract surgery, some in tears, he hands some a suitcase full of cash.
“Here’s $10,000 to make your day better,” he tells a woman, who falls to the ground and screams. “Is she alright?” asks Donaldson puzzled.
In another video from May, he buys prosthetics for 2,000 amputees.
Some critics have accused Donaldson, who did not respond to CNN’s interview request, of exploiting vulnerable people to generate views and revenue.
However, Vince Miller, who teaches sociology and cultural studies at the University of Kent in the UK and wrote an academic paper on MrBeast, argues that Donaldson has been innovative in the way it leverages YouTube’s revenue sharing model to support charitable causes.
As Miller sees it, Donaldson asks viewers to simply watch his videos and be entertained, rather than donate their time or money. And the more people watch, the more Donaldson earns and he can donate to charity.
“It’s quite powerful to tell a 10-year-old boy who has no independent money and limited agency in his life that he can raise money and help people by watching MrBeast’s videos,” he says.
But the videos can also send a complex message that social problems are best solved through philanthropic giving from the wealthy rather than more systematic government efforts, Miller says.
Miller says MrBeast’s formula for viral success has several ingredients: his everyman good looks and enthusiasm, the high costs of producing the videos and his elaborate stunts, along with wads of money thrown around like confetti.
But Donaldson’s fame comes down to his unique brand of philanthropy, according to Miller. He convinces viewers that by watching his videos and helping him get more views, they are engaging in a form of ethical consumerism.
“The fact that he recycles a good chunk of the big revenue he makes from these videos into even bigger and more spectacular prizes for subsequent videos is one of the secrets to his success. He often uses the income from his previous videos to outdo himself in his next videos,” says Miller.
Through the philanthropic arm of his empire, most visible on his Beast Philanthropy channel, which has nearly 15 million subscribers, Donaldson has raised millions to plant trees, cleanse the oceans of plastic waste and donate clothing to people in need.
In previous interviews, Donaldson said he meticulously studied YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and the statistics of other creators to find a recipe for making his videos popular.
The contest format of many of his videos encourages viewers to watch until the end to see the outcome, Miller adds, leading to increased ad revenue for both Donaldson and YouTube, making the platform’s algorithm more likely to recommend your videos.
“She puts a lot of thought into her content, which is original and engaging,” says Kristen Ruby, social media expert and CEO of Ruby Media Group. “He mastered the art of YouTube.”
Donaldson has become a role model for millennials and Gen Zers who dream of being successful social media creators and influencers, Ruby says.
“She gives off the perception of doing whatever you want, and that’s attractive to people who want to emulate her lifestyle.”
It started with a used laptop and a few hundred followers. He now runs a fast-growing business empire.
Donaldson’s YouTube career began more than a decade ago, when he was 13 years old and using a second-hand laptop.
He initially posted videos of himself playing games like “Minecraft” and “Call of Duty” in his room in Greenville, North Carolina. His mom didn’t know about his YouTube channel for years, until she saw him mentioned in his high school yearbook.
In one of his first viral videos, made in 2017, he sat in a chair in his room and counted to 100,000. The stunt took him 40 hours.
“That’s when it clicked, like, ‘Oh, if I do cool stuff, people will watch,'” he later remarked in an interview.
As he gained a following and began attracting advertisers, he poured his meager earnings into his videos, leading to bigger and better stunts.
“It took me a minute to figure it out,” her mother said in an interview two years ago. “Once I started studying her business model, it made sense. It worked for him, I have to say, I don’t know if it made sense or not.”
Today, Donaldson oversees five YouTube channels that, combined, have more than a quarter of a billion followers. His videos are dubbed into other languages. His sprawling empire includes a snack line, Feastables, and MrBeast Burger, a chain of mostly virtual restaurants that offer only delivery and takeout.
YouTube’s parent company Google declined to comment on how much money Donaldson makes from his content, but Guinness World Records says he holds the record for the highest-earning YouTube contributor, with a reported income of $54 million in 2021.
It now operates out of a sprawling $10 million studio complex near Greenville, with 100 acres of land and multiple warehouses for shooting videos.
Donaldson will even return to college, on his own terms.
In November, East Carolina University announced that it would partner with him to launch a content creator education program on campus.
And in April of this year, he taught a class at Harvard Business School.
“I taught a class at Harvard which is pretty funny because I dropped out of college after only two weeks haha,” she posted on Instagram.
Last year, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
However, Donaldson admitted in a recent interview that his fame may have a downside. He says he can no longer go to the store, or almost anywhere in public, without followers harassing him for photos or trying to follow him home.
On a layover in Chile last year, he says he agreed to take a selfie with a young supporter at the airport. After the fan posted it online, so many people besieged his hotel that he had to hire security.
Even so, MrBeast says that he still has a great passion for what he does.
“I’m going to be 10 years old, and I love it more than anything,” he says. “If you took my channel away from me, I don’t know what I would do.”