What can we learn about the Gen Z approach to leadership from Jimmy Donaldson (AKA. MrBeast)?
MrBeast is an American YouTube personality known for devising entertaining philanthropic and endurance stunts that have earned him millions of fans from around the world – by Sally Percy
Videos on his YouTube channel show him giving away large sums of money (between $10,000 and $1 million) to people who succeed at an array of imaginative challenges, such as being the last to leave a revolving door or staying in a circle painted on a field for 100 days. In addition to his challenges, he is famous for carrying out random acts of largesse, such as giving a waitress or a pizza deliveryman a $10,000 tip.
As of September 2023, MrBeast’s YouTube channel – @MrBeast – had more than 180 million subscribers globally, making him one of the five most popular channels on the platform. He is the most-followed individual on YouTube, popular with both adults and children, and his videos have attracted billions of views.
Who is the real MrBeast?
The real-life individual behind the larger-than-life persona of MrBeast is Jimmy Donaldson, a fresh-faced member of Generation Z. Born in May 1998, Donaldson is the younger son of a single mother who worked in the military. As a child, he moved around a lot and spent many evenings on his own since his mother worked night shifts. He first posted videos to YouTube as a 13-year-old in 2012, using the handle ‘MrBeast6000’. His early efforts were comedic tutorials of online games, including Minecraft.
In 2016, Donaldson dropped out of East Carolina University to become a full-time creator, devising stunts such as wrapping himself in toilet paper and food wrap. His mother, not wanting to encourage him, told him to move out of the house. In a tweet published in 2019, Donaldson defended his mother’s action, explaining that she loved him and had only wanted him to be a success. Ironically, of course, he has turned out to be far more successful than she probably ever dreamed.
When Donaldson landed his first brand deal in 2017 – securing $10,000 – he went outside and gave the money to a homeless person, with the gesture filmed on camera. The video went viral. This led him to adopt his now trademark influencing strategy of giving away cash. Later, he said that it ‘felt good’ to ‘take 10 grand and light it on fire and make 20 grand’.
Over time, Donaldson’s stunts have become progressively more ambitious. His outlandish – but carefully planned – endeavours include counting to 100,000 (a feat that took him 40 hours), spinning a fidget spinner for 24 hours, being buried alive in a coffin, spending 50 hours in solitary confinement, and camping out in the midst of Antarctic blizzards, naturally with a camera to keep him company every time. While Donaldson is the frontman of the act, MrBeast is very much a team effort, with much of the entertainment arising from the way he interacts with his crew.
Building a brand
Donaldson makes his videos in a secret 100-acre compound in the US state of North Carolina, spending millions of dollars on each one that he produces. As well as his primary YouTube channel, MrBeast, Donaldson now has several other YouTube channels (including MrBeast Gaming and Beast Reacts). His channels earn Donaldson’s studio millions of dollars in revenue from advertising, as well as sponsored content. It is these valuable brand deals that enable him to give so much money away.
Donaldson’s choice of YouTube as his preferred channel for content creation is instrumental to his success. YouTube is the world’s second most visited website after Google, with more than 2.6 billion monthly users. Through the YouTube platform he is able to reach a vast international audience that enjoys his distinctive brand of stunt philanthropy and endurance challenges.
More recently, Donaldson has branched out from the online world of YouTube into the offline worlds of restaurants and confectionery. He started a delivery-only burger chain, MrBeast Burger, as a joint venture in 2020, and it quickly became the fastest-growing restaurant brand in the United States. In 2022, Donaldson launched his own chocolate brand, Feastables, made with organic cacao.
MrBeast is fundamentally a positive, feel-good brand. Nevertheless, Donaldson’s ‘nice guy’ image took a hit in 2021 when some of his past employees told The New York Times that he made unreasonable demands and created a hostile work environment. They also criticized him for being a perfectionist and for changing his demeanour when the cameras were not around. Previously Donaldson had attracted controversy over homophobic tweets he posted as a teenager and that he subsequently took down. Donaldson’s representative did not comment on the accusations about workplace conditions, but said the content creator had now matured into someone who did not use homophobic rhetoric. Donaldson also came under fire in 2021 for promoting and investing in a cryptocurrency scheme in which his fans lost money.
Donaldson is often referred to as ‘YouTube’s biggest philanthropist’ although he has occasionally faced a backlash for his efforts. In 2023, he paid for 1,000 people with severe cataracts to receive eye surgery so that they could see again. But he incurred criticism after posting a video of patients getting their bandages removed following the surgery. His critics argued that he was exploiting vulnerable people for the purposes of generating content. In response to this criticism, Donaldson promised to give away all his money before he dies.
Despite these controversies, Donaldson’s star continues to rise, and it’s clear that his career still has a long way to go. Forbes named him on its 30 Under 30 North America list for 2023, with the provocative headline: ‘Could MrBeast Be The First YouTuber Billionaire?’ The magazine described him as the ‘world’s top-earning creator’ and estimated his worth at $500 million.
Secrets to success
As he’s proved, Donaldson is far more than just a bunch of whacky ideas, a goofy smile and a towering height (he is six foot, four inches tall). Not only is he a creative genius, he is also an astute businessman who is acutely conscious of the opportunities to monetize the MrBeast brand through channels such as video games and further food products.
In an interview with fellow YouTuber Casey Neistat in 2019, Donaldson shared some of the secrets of his career success to date. He described his content as ‘me being an idiot’ and ‘spending lots of money’, revealing that he had dreamed of being a YouTube sensation from an early age, while never believing that it would actually happen. But he kept posting videos, despite having no money and no audience, and kept reinvesting the profits he did make. ‘As I made more money, I was just like, now I want to spend it on videos somehow,’ he said. ‘That was just my mindset.’
Donaldson loves the process of making videos – and that is ultimately what drives him. As he said to Neistat: ‘I’ll be making videos until YouTube’s literally not a thing.’ In fact, he was so obsessed with the idea of becoming a successful YouTuber that he was prepared to sacrifice his teenage years to achieving that ambition.
Donaldson also wants to challenge the idea that negativity is the secret to getting clicks on social media. He believes that when it comes to YouTube, ‘positivity is just as much clickbait as negativity’. As far as he’s concerned, being kind to people doesn’t have to be boring; it can actually be great entertainment.
The audience is front of Donaldson’s mind when he’s planning a video as he likes to create content that people can’t wait to see. ‘I want to give people what they want,’ he says. His advice to other would-be YouTubers is to put days into their videos when other people put in hours and to ‘go above and beyond’ so that they are not like anyone else.
Philanthropy is one of Donaldson’s core values, as well as being the basis for his business model. ‘I like helping people,’ he told Neistat. ‘Even when I didn’t have much money, if I had money in my wallet I’d just give it away to homeless people.’
Through his phenomenal success, Donaldson is directly challenging the perceptions of millions of parents around the world who advise their children that being a YouTuber or another type of social media influencer is not a viable career option. He has shown that you can build a career through being a fantastic entertainer and content creator, with YouTube being his platform of choice.
‘A lot of people still see YouTubers as a subclass of influencers,’ he told Forbes, adding that people underestimate the influence that a lot of creators have. His own influence is such that he will undoubtedly be the inspiration for a whole new generation of content creators who succeed in monetizing entertainment via YouTube and other online platforms.
Leadership lessons from Jimmy Donaldson
- Develop original business models. Capitalize on online platforms and emerging technologies to find new ways of generating revenue.
- Continually nurture and explore great ideas. Use creativity to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
- Never stand still. Only by pushing the boundaries of what is possible will you keep your brand fresh and relevant.
- Ignore the doubters. There will always be people who don’t believe in what you are doing. Don’t let them stand between you and the success you deserve.
- Be philanthropic. Develop a business model that allows you to profit while doing good for others.
This extract from 21st Century Business Icons by Sally Percy © 2023 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.
Sally Percy is an experienced business journalist and editor, specialising in leadership and management. She is author of ‘21st Century Business Icons: The Leaders Who Are Changing our World’ (Kogan Page).
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