Jeaniene Brownlee says that she wasn’t paying that much attention when her son Marques began making YouTube videos in the family home as a high schooler. She wasn’t even instinctively impressed by his love of technology. But as he kept at it—and his gadget reviews became wildly popular—she became a cheerleader, as any mother would. When he turned his talents into a real business, she leveraged her background in finance to provide guidance. Fifteen years into his career, she’s still helping him run his company, MKBHD, Inc.
After spending time with Marques Brownlee for our new Fast Company cover story about his sweeping, still-growing influence on the consumer tech industry, I spoke with his mother about his rise to fame, how he handles his celebrity, and what he’s like when the camera isn’t rolling. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your earliest memories of Marques doing videos.
You know, my earliest memories would be him sneaking into his room and closing the door. And me saying, “Are you doing your homework?” It was a hobby. My husband and I were actually fairly cautious. We were like, “There’s some not-so-great folks out there who might use this information [from his videos] in not such a nice way.”
And all of a sudden, we’d have packages being delivered, maybe a little something he would review. Even his high school classmates started knowing what he was doing before I did. I really wasn’t really following his his craft at the earliest stages.
People sometimes wonder if Marques grew up in a house with lots of technology, and he was just tapping into that. And the truth of the matter is, it was the exact opposite. We had one television. It was in the family room. We’d rent a movie from Blockbuster on weekends. There were no video games—I wouldn’t allow them.
We made sure our kids were involved in art. We made sure they were involved in athletics and academics. The art for Marques was that he played trombone. He played it in band, he played it in orchestra, he played it in jazz ensemble. And he still plays Ultimate Frisbee. That is the love of his life,
I love the fact that a lot of this started with the fact he bought a laptop with his own money when he was in high school and then started making videos about it.
When our children wanted something, they realized it had to be negotiated. He sat us down in the living room. He had to have his presentation together. He explained how much it cost and why he wanted it. Because we weren’t really into that. We were like, “Okay, we have a regular monitor and a tower that you could use for homework if you need to.” He had to prove his point. But he was very effective at it.
And did he indeed spend his own money on it?
The majority of the money came from him. We made sure our kids had bank accounts, so between his birthday money and grandparent money and all that good stuff, it was his decision and his choice.
I watched his earliest videos and was struck by the fact that he was already really comfortable on camera and good at explaining things. Did that come out of anywhere?
Marques has always been very detail-oriented. Even when he was three years old, if he was trying to build something with Legos, it had to be perfect. He’s just very laser-focused in how he takes in information. The good news is he’s able to articulate it to audiences that’s easy to understand. I think he really has a gift in that respect.
Off camera, is he pretty much the same person people think they know from his work?
The wonderful thing about Marques is he’s always been laid back, even from birth. His sister was always energetic, always “Rah, rah, rah!” Marques is reserved. He’s intense. He’s very much a thinker. On camera, he’s very comfortable, but he’s not somebody who you would even know was in the room when he was in high school. I don’t think he puts on a different face when he’s in front of the camera. But Marques is just a very laid-back kind of person. You feel that when you’re in his presence.
But he also is a person who made 280 videos in the first year he was doing this, which showed a lot of dedication to his work.
My husband and I feel like he takes after his grandfathers, both of whom were not college educated. They were small businessmen who worked incredibly long hours and had exacting standards. If you worked in my father’s store, if you worked in my father-in-law’s shop, you needed to have things done 100%, because this was their business. And I feel like my son takes after that. He has a certain vision when he does his videos, and he spends incredible amounts of time and effort creating them. He wants to be proud of them when they finally air.
Was there a particular moment when it dawned on you that he was kind of a big deal?
I guess it was back when YouTube asked some of the YouTubers to ask questions of presidential candidates [in 2016]. I didn’t know that he was going to be featured. And I’m watching the debate, and all of a sudden, they show him on him on the screen. And everybody in our community started calling our house: “Did you see your son? Did you see your son?” I don’t want to say that was the moment, but there are experiences like that when you realize it’s a little bit bigger than him doing a little video.
I talked to him about how you helped him make this business into a real business and remind him that he had to run it like one. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I think in retrospect he appreciates it, but at the moment he probably didn’t so much. Prior to being being a mom, I spent 10 years in financial services. I worked for commercial banks. I worked for American Express. I have an MBA from Columbia in finance and marketing. So business is something I am familiar with. And when he was in college, all of a sudden the money that he was making started growing. At first, it wasn’t very much.
So when he started actually making something that I considered to be . . . I don’t want to say substantial, but something that more than just dollars, I sat him down and I explained the difference, in terms of taxation, if you’re a sole proprietorship, an LLC, all that stuff. I actually helped him to structure it. And I still keep the books for him.
I asked Marques if his dream was for the company to be five times as large and make five times as much money. And he said, no, he’s not motivated by that. Does that line up with your discussions with him?
You’ve been getting some really good insight into his future. I kind of go along with whatever he tells me to do. I’m his Girl Friday. That’s hard to do as a mother, because as a mom, you almost feel like you want to be doing a little bit more guiding. But I have learned to trust that he has a vision and his business is entirely his creation. He’s not excited abou being famous, even though that comes with what he does. Yes, he wants to see growth in terms of what he’s earning. But the goal is making the videos. And I think if he makes the kind of videos that he really feels passionate and proud of, then he knows the money will follow.
There are a lot of people who would like to be the next Marques Brownlee, but he’s still Marques Brownlee. And if you ask somebody to name somebody who does what he does, he is almost certainly going to be the first name that springs to mind. Are you at all surprised by his longevity?
I’m not surprised at all. It was funny, my husband and I moved down here to Florida. And my next-door neighbor has a son who’s in high school. I really didn’t think anything about it until one day he kind of put two and two together. He was like, “Ooooohhhhh!” I’ve been able to get him some swag from Marques, and it’s delightful to make someone so happy just because I happen to be the mother of Marques Brownlee.
If I go any place with him that’s in a metropolitan area—and actually maybe not so metropolitan—we could just be eating somewhere, and someone will kind of give him that kind of wink. I’m eating with my son, and a woman will come up to sit and say, “Oh, I had to take a picture. My boyfriend won’t believe this.” That I find a little intrusive. But he knows it comes with the territory.