If you’d like to see for yourself how Marques Brownlee mastered the art of explaining consumer technology in YouTube videos, it’s easy. Just head to his MKBHD channel, click the “Oldest” button, and check out his first tech video, which the high school sophomore uploaded on January 1, 2009. And then just keep traveling through time with Brownlee as he covers everything from relics such as the Zune and Google+ to the new MacBook Pro that Apple announced just a couple of weeks ago. With 1,500+ videos to choose from, there’s plenty to sample.
As I revisited Brownlee’s body of work while working on our new Fast Company cover story, which explores how he became our era’s most influential gadget critic, I was struck by a few things. First, even as a YouTube newbie filming himself with a murky webcam, he was already a likable on-camera presence who knew how to express himself in an efficient and engaging manner. But as he made more and more videos his skills rapidly improved, proving the value of just doing something over and over until you get really good at it.
His yen to improve his technical skills and resources was also visceral from the start. Though some of his early attempts at splashy intros and other frills are more endearing than impressive, they hint at the polished packaging that eventually helped him stand out among throngs of techie YouTubers. Today, his studio and the droolworthy equipment it contains are remarkable for a digital media company of any size—except they aren’t that impressive to Brownlee himself, who is already hatching plans for an even more ambitious production facility.
Lastly, while Brownlee has always come off as a calm, trusty friend rather than a pushy self-promoter, he has also let his viewers get invested in his own success. Less than two months after he began publishing on YouTube, he celebrated his hundredth video by inviting viewers to call him via Skype, sharing future topics he was still noodling on, and announcing his goal of hitting 200 subscribers. He’s continued to let his fans behind the curtain ever since, even spinning off an entire channel—The Studio—that’s like a backstage pass to his main channel. If he’s easier to root for than the average wildly popular media personality, it’s in part because he assumes we might be interested in why and how he and his team do what they do. And we are.
A quick tour of some of the highlights of MKBHD’s first 15 years:
January 2009: A star is born
“Welcome to my first video,” declares 15-year-old Brownlee. “I bought a new laptop.” He uses the HP’s fuzzy webcam to record his impressions of the remote control that came bundled with it. By midyear, he’s posted 200+ videos.
November 2011: Disaster strikes
Hurricane Sandy knocks out power at college freshman Brownlee’s apartment. Eleven days in, he returns to YouTube by shooting video with his phone. Hundreds of commenters express relief that he’s okay.
December 2013: Moto convo
Motorola—at the time, an arm of Google—is eager to shake up its stodgy reputation. CEO Dennis Woodside participates in a livestreamed interview with Brownlee, an early example of a big tech company catering to the rapidly-growing MKBHD audience. Apple, Samsung, and others would follow.
February 2014: The audience assembles
Brownlee’s YouTube channel hits 1 subscribers. “Kind of a ridiculous number,” he comments. Less than six years later, he reaches 10 million subscribers.
May 2015 : Getting to work
Immediately after graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey, Brownlee becomes a full-time YouTuber. His goal: “To make videos that I would want to watch—and I’m excited to put a lot more hours into doing exactly that.”
December 2015: Face-to-face with a giant
Brownlee conducts his first celebrity interview, asking NBA legend Kobe Bryant about his new Nike shoe. In the years to come, he chats with everyone from Bill Gates to Barack Obama to magician David Blaine.
April 2016: A space of his own
Subscribers get a video tour of Brownlee’s new studio—the first that doesn’t also happen to be his home. After expanding into two additional spaces, he upgrades in 2021 to his current 7,000-square-foot facility.
January 2017: Now hiring
“I think it’s time to expand the operation,” Brownlee tells his viewers. “Not to make just more stuff, but better stuff.” He soon signs up Andrew Manganelli—a fellow Ultimate Frisbee player and film-school grad—as employee No. 1. Over time, MKBHD Inc. expands to a staff of 14.
April 2018: Lifetime (so far) achievement
The Shorty Awards, which honor digital and social-media content creators, name Brownlee as “Creator of the Decade.” Though only 24 at the time, he’s already more than nine years into his career as a YouTuber.
April 2019: Big-time nostalgia
For his Retro Tech series—a coproduction with YouTube—Brownlee unboxes and explores an original 1989 Nintendo Game Boy. It becomes his most popular video of all time, with 39 million views to date.
August 2019: Audio expansion
Waveform, a podcast cohosted by Brownlee and producer Andrew Manganelli, debuts. A notable expansion of his media empire beyond YouTube, it’s now one of the most popular tech podcasts.
July 2021: Behind the scenes
Brownlee launches a new channel called the Studio with a tour of . . . his studio. It becomes a playground for others members of his 14-person staff, who often provide quirky glimpses of the serious work that goes into the main MKBHD channel’s higher-profile videos.
August 2022: Back to basics
Brownlee launches Auto Focus, a new YouTube channel devoted to cars. To show budding YouTubers how easy it is to get started, he shoots all the videos with smartphone cameras rather than his main channel’s high-end gear.
April 2023: That’s one expensive phone
In a rare excursion into MrBeast-like stunt territory, Brownlee pays $40,000 for a sealed original 2007 iPhone, then unboxes it on camera. “This brand-new, pristine iPhone is now worth dramatically less than what I paid for it—and that’s okay,” he cheerfully explains.
Also in April 2023: Shoe business
After reviewing products for years, Brownlee helps design one: Atoms’ M251 high-top sneaker, the “251” paying tribute to the 2:51 running length of his first tech video. He makes a video about it. So do dozens of other YouTubers, who unbox the shoe, review it, or just riff on its very existence. Its success leads to a second-generation version in November.