In the fall of 2016, Jimmy Donaldson did not seem like a future celebrity multimillionaire.
The shy 18-year-old had been posting videos on YouTube for five years from his mom’s North Carolina house without much traction.
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 ever talked about at school. I thought I was a freak of nature,” he told content creators and podcasters Colin and Samir in September. “People would tell me, ‘All you do is talk about YouTube videos. You’re too obsessed with YouTube. Get a life.’”
After he quit school, his mother was so disappointed that she kicked him out of the house, he says.
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 reach 1 million followers on Meta’s new social app Threads, hitting the milestone before CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (He celebrated his achievement with a familiar gesture: by giving a Tesla to a random fan.)
At 25, he oversees a fast-growing empire that may be worth more than $1 billion.
He’s built it by staging increasingly expensive and eye-popping stunts, along with generous cash giveaways and acts of philanthropy – such as bankrolling cataract surgeries for 1,000 blind people to help them see again.
“I just wanna make better videos, period. I don’t care about making money,” he told Colin and Samir. “I just want to make the best videos on the planet.”
He has re-enacted ‘Squid Game,’ tied up an FBI agent and crashed a train into a giant pit
Most of MrBeast’s action-packed videos start with Donaldson breathlessly explaining the setup in the opening seconds before launching a fast-paced series of stunts, gags, challenges and throwaway jokes.
He’s surrounded by an agreeable supporting cast of buddies, all of them dressed down in jeans, T-shirts and hoodies. Donaldson’s scraggly beard and constant excitability set him apart from the group.
In one clip from last year, Donaldson tied an FBI agent to a chair, tossed him a knife and offered the agent $100,000 if he could catch him before midnight. A wild chase ensued involving a hedge maze, a disguise and an escape in a private jet.
Sara Fischer, a media reporter for Axios, says that Donaldson’s authenticity and accessibility play a big role in his videos’ appeal.
“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 is able to bring viewers access to places to see things that they would never get to see,” she 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 would never get to see in real life,” Fischer says. “Who do you know that gets to stay in a million-dollar hotel?”
Some of the videos feature ostentatious displays of wealth – like one showcasing a flight on the world’s most expensive plane ticket. Or the recent one where he and his crew pal around on massive yachts with comedian Pete Davidson and NFL star Tom Brady.
But despite his growing income and celebrity, he and his pals still act wide-eyed at all their adventures – not cynical or privileged – making him relatable, Miller says.
MrBeast got another spike in subscribers last year after he staged a real-life version of “Squid Game,” the Netflix hit drama in which desperate people compete in deadly contests for a large cash prize. (As far as anyone can tell, nobody died in MrBeast’s version.) The clip has been viewed 460 million times.
As MrBeast’s popularity has grown, so have his budgets, which now come with a hefty price tag. In a recent clip, he crashed a full-sized train into an enormous pit. Donaldson has said he spends $1 million a week on his videos.
His videos are a unique form of philanthropy
In a January video titled “1,000 blind people see for the first time,” Donaldson, surrounded by doctors, pledges to cure their blindness amid applause. As the patients emerge from cataract eye surgery, some in tears, he hands some of them a suitcase filled with cash.
“Here’s $10,000 to make your day better,” he tells one woman, who falls to the ground and screams. “Is she OK?” a bemused Donaldson asks.
In another video from May, he buys prosthetic limbs for 2,000 amputees.
Some critics have accused Donaldson, who did not respond to CNN’s request for an interview, of exploiting vulnerable people to generate views and revenue.
But Vince Miller, who teaches sociology and cultural studies at the University of Kent in the UK and has written a scholarly paper on MrBeast, argues that Donaldson has been innovative in the way he leverages YouTube’s revenue-sharing model to support charitable causes.
As Miller sees it, Donaldson is asking viewers simply to watch his videos and be entertained, as opposed to donating their time or money. And the more people watch, the more Donaldson earns and can donate to charity.
“It’s quite powerful to tell a 10-year-old kid who has no independent money and limited agency in their life that they can raise money and help people by watching MrBeast’s videos,” he says.
But the videos also can send a problematic message that social problems are best solved through philanthropic gifts from the wealthy as opposed to more systematic government efforts, Miller says.
Miller says MrBeast’s formula for viral success has several ingredients: his Everyman appeal and enthusiasm, the videos’ high production values and their elaborate stunts, along with wads of cash tossed around like confetti.
But Donaldson’s fame comes down to his unique form of philanthropy, Miller says. He convinces viewers that by watching his videos and helping him get more views, they’re engaging in a form of ethical consumerism.
“The fact that he recycles a good portion of the large income he makes from these videos into even larger and more spectacular prizes for subsequent videos is one of the secrets to his success. He often uses income from his previous videos to outdo himself in his next videos,” Miller says.
Through the philanthropic arm of his empire – most visible in his Beast Philanthropy channel, which has almost 15 million subscribers – Donaldson has raised millions to plant trees, clean the oceans of plastic waste and donate clothes to needy people.
In past interviews, Donaldson has said he studied the YouTube recommendation algorithm and other creators’ stats meticulously to come up with a recipe for making his videos popular.
The contest format of many of his videos encourages viewers to watch til the end to see the outcome, Miller adds, which results in higher advertising revenue for both Donaldson and YouTube, making the platform’s algorithm more likely to recommend his videos.
“He puts a lot of thought into his content, which is original and engaging,” says Kristen Ruby, a social media expert and CEO of Ruby Media Group. “He has mastered the art of YouTube.”
Donaldson has become a role model to millennials and Gen Zers who dream of being successful creators and influencers on social media, Ruby says.
“He gives off the perception of doing whatever you want, and that is attractive to people who want to emulate his lifestyle.”
He started with a used laptop and a few hundred followers. Now he runs a fast-growing business empire
Donaldson’s YouTube career started over a decade ago, when he was 13 and using a hand-me-down laptop.
He initially posted videos of himself playing games such as “Minecraft” and “Call of Duty” in his bedroom in Greenville, North Carolina. His mother didn’t know about his YouTube channel for years – until she saw it 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 kinda clicked – like, ‘Oh, if I do interesting things, people will watch,’ ” he said later in an interview.
As he gained followers and began to attract advertisers, he poured his meager profits back into his videos, leading to bigger and better stunts.
“It took me a minute to grasp it,” his mother said two years ago in an interview. “Once I started studying his business model, it made sense. It worked for him, I should say – I don’t know whether it made sense or not.”
Today Donaldson oversees five YouTube channels which combined have more than a quarter of a billion followers. His videos are dubbed in other languages. His expanding empire includes a line of snacks, Feastables, and MrBeast Burger, a chain of mostly virtual restaurants that offer delivery and takeout only.
YouTube 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.
He now operates from an enormous, $10 million studio complex near Greenville, with 100 acres of land and multiple warehouses for shooting videos.
Donaldson is even going back to college – on his own terms.
In November, East Carolina University announced it will partner with him to launch a content creators’ education program on campus.
And in April 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 going for two weeks haha,” he posted on Instagram.
Last year Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
But Donaldson admitted in a recent interview that there can be a downside to his fame. He says he can no longer go to the store, or almost anywhere in public, without fans mobbing him for photos or trying to follow him home.
On a stopover in Chile last year he says he agreed to take a selfie with a young fan 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 he still has tremendous passion for what he does.
“I’m going on 10 years, 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.”