Marques Brownlee on Building an Audience and Other Advice for Creators
Marques Brownlee is a YouTuber. He has over 8 million subscribers to his channel MKBHD where he reviews electronics, drives electric vehicles, and interviews people such as Kobe Bryant and Bill Gates.
00:00 – What does Marques attribute his channel’s success to?
2:15 – The early days
4:45 – How does he go about evaluating a product?
7:05 – Features that Marques thought were great that didn’t catch on
8:15 – Peak smartphone?
10:05 – Folding phones and new trends
11:00 – Tesla and the EV market
15:20 – Getting older and staying relevant
16:40 – New kinds of videos and podcasting
22:00 – Does Marques feel limited by gear?
25:45 – Storytelling techniques
27:50 – Tech vs Marques as the star of the show
29:30 – Marco Castro asks – What advice do you have for new creators on YouTube?
30:30 – When did Marques find his voice as a creator?
33:30 – Overcoming perfectionism
34:30 – Gut instinct vs data
37:00 – YouTube comments
39:05 – Austin Ryder asks – In the early years of his channel, Marques took a several month hiatus from YouTube, but then came back with a new video format and seemingly renewed drive. What happened during those months off that led to the channel becoming what it is today?
40:15 – Winston asks – What’s your daily schedule?
42:40 – Ultimate frisbee injuries
43:00 – Amad Khan asks – Are there any problems that you see or face that you really wish engineers/developers would solve?
44:25 – Christian Giordano asks – Any tips on how to engage/work with influencers when you are a very early stage startup with little or no money?
46:15 – The future of creators supporting themselves financially
49:05 – His biggest challenge as a creator
50:05 – Long-term goals
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s Podcast. Today’s episode is with Marques Brownlee. Marques is a YouTuber. He has over eight million subscribers to his channel MKBHD, where he reviews electronics, drives electric vehicles, and interviews people such as Kobe Bryant and Bill Gates. You can find Marques on YouTube and on Twitter @MKBHD. All right, here we go. Marques Brownlee, how’s it going?
Marques Brownlee [00:28] – Good, how are you?
Craig Cannon [00:29] – Doing well.
Marques Brownlee [00:30] – Good.
Craig Cannon [00:31] – I’m curious, I followed your channel for a while, but I definitely did not follow it in the beginning, when you were reviewing software on your laptop. You’ve been doing it for a long time. What would you attribute your success to on YouTube?
Marques Brownlee [00:50] – Well, I do tech videos, so the obvious answer there is tech has been interesting and important for so long that just being in a tech space generally for that long has done a lot for it. The channel itself, there’s plenty of other successful tech channels, but has its own unique style, has a consistent voice. It’s been me for 10 years. If you combine all those factors, consistency plus tech staying interesting, that’s mainly it.
Craig Cannon [01:19] – Was there any particular inflection point where it really took off?
Marques Brownlee [01:23] – No, I get asked that a lot about, can I point to a certain video or date or month or something, like what happened to go from nothing to where it is now. To this day I look back, and it’s mainly just like, you can look at charts, even, that’s just sort of an upward slope from zero videos to 1,000 videos. It’s obviously, when you get to certain points, the reputability, is that a word? The reputability of the channel becomes more significant. You’re more likely to subscribe to a tech guy with a million subscribers talking about something you should buy than a guy with 100. So that’s helped. But I feel like consistency, again, is major.
Craig Cannon [02:06] – I follow a couple subreddits on weird YouTube channels, and there’re people that have 1,000 videos reviewing elevators.
Marques Brownlee [02:17] – Oh, yeah.
Craig Cannon [02:18] – Simple, boring shit.
Marques Brownlee [02:19] – There’s always going to be niche stuff which people will get really into. But I think when it comes to something as personal as a tech product, you kind of want some sort of history to go on or sort of a reputation to look back on when it’s like 1,000 plus, phones are $1,000 now. That’s helped, being able to have a history and stuff.
Craig Cannon [02:39] – Because in the beginning, you were just doing software, right?
Marques Brownlee [02:42] – Right.
Craig Cannon [02:43] – For the most part.
Marques Brownlee [02:44] – Free software.
Craig Cannon [02:45] – Did you start getting phones sent to you in the early days of influencer culture?
Marques Brownlee [02:50] – I remember early days pretty well. It was, I’d started with all this laptop stuff. The first stuff that got sent to me was laptop accessories, a mouse, a keyboard, that kind of stuff. Some paid software, I would get like a key for $30 off a $50 piece of software, and I could have that access. That was awesome. Phone stuff didn’t happen until much later. I remember the first event I ever went to was a Samsung event in New York city, where I met a YouTuber for the first time. That was probably like six years in. It took a while.
Craig Cannon [03:26] – You were in it for a while. I grew up getting pirated keys off of LimeWire and all that kind of stuff. Did you ever dip into that and think, man, maybe I should review Final Cut Pro on my channel?
Marques Brownlee [03:40] – Oh, man, at one point I definitely did a whole Hackintosh thing.
Craig Cannon [03:43] – Oh, you did?
Marques Brownlee [03:44] – Which was definitely not kosher, I guess. But Hackintosh were all, there’s a whole world. I was curious about it. I got into it. I was never really into downloading pirated music or any of that stuff, but I can imagine that was its own world for a long time.
Craig Cannon [04:01] – I was curious, because as a kid you have no money when you’re starting out your channel. And I wonder if you grew up with that hacker ethos, like have you done a teardown video before or anything like that?
Marques Brownlee [04:15] – Not really. I used to be much more into building PCs and taking them apart and upgrading them. I had a Mac, one that had the tower, desktop Mac Pro.
Craig Cannon [04:24] – The G5?
Marques Brownlee [04:25] – Yeah, I did, I was replacing the GPU and then upgrading the RAM and all that. I had an XPS tower I did the same thing to. But I guess I never was really fully into the building process as much as I was the final result, how well that finished product would work for you.
Craig Cannon [04:42] – When I watch your videos now, you’re pretty into the stats of it all. Like, all those hard metrics with the products, right? It attracts you in some way.
Marques Brownlee [04:54] – If you just look at, if you take a huge step back and just look at what the videos are about, period, especially with the reviews, it’s like how good is this product that this company made going to work for you? There’s a whole bunch of different ways to measure that. And I’m trying to measure that.
Craig Cannon [05:11] – What are those metrics? I’ve heard you talk about it before in the context of like, this is a feature that’s going to maybe spark some interest, and this is a feature that I’m going to use every day.
Marques Brownlee [05:23] – Gimmick versus daily, yeah. Yeah, that’s one way. I mean, I kind of, you can pick up a phone and use a really cool feature for two seconds, and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s amazing.” But when you actually buy the phone, are you going to use that feature? I’m trying to evaluate that. There’s all sorts of benchmarks and things people do, like, “How fast is the storage? How much RAM does it have? How fast is this chip?” That stuff is useful, obviously, if you have more demanding needs for your phone. But a lot of it is literally just evaluating, “Is this a gimmick or is this really going to be daily driver material?”
Craig Cannon [05:56] – One thing I was talking about on a recent podcast is how it’s very hard for the market to recognize how good a product’s quality is,j ust that actual feel. When you touch an iPhone for the first time, right? And so how do you go about quantifying that when you’re making a video?
Marques Brownlee [06:19] – Sometimes I see my job as a professional user. Like, I really just have to use it. You get the briefing, obviously, and the breakdown of all the new features and what is new versus what’s not new, and you compare it to things you’ve used before. But at the end of the day, you actually have to use it to figure out if it’s actually useful. There’s all kinds of use cases. They’ll tell me about a new feature, and they’ll tell me exactly, there’s some New York for you. How it, the ideal use case scenario, how it works well. This came up recently, because I did a video with an LG phone that came out, has this feature where you wave your hand over it and do these gestures to open up apps, things like that. It’s called the G8. On the surface, this is cool. This is future-type stuff. But then you actually use it, and you’re like, all right, so I don’t know, would I have stuff on my hands? Maybe I’m cooking, but I just want to open the YouTube app real quick and search for something, like, “Now what?” I have to still type in what I want to search. There’s limits to the usefulness of that. So that, for me, fell in the gimmick bucket, just because using it actually changed my mind.
Craig Cannon [07:31] – But then what about the features where you thought it was great, and it didn’t catch on? Are there examples of that?
Marques Brownlee [07:37] – Well, there’s lots of examples of things that are great to me that aren’t a big deal to other people. I love high resolution, really nice screens. You could hand me a phone with a 1440p, AMOLED, great display, and you could hand me a phone with a 1080p LCD display, and I’d look, and I’d immediately want the better one. But to an average person, a lot of times, whatever, they both look fine to me. One of them’s bigger. I like the bigger one. Sometimes there will be things that I’ll evaluate. I’ll be like, you got to get this, because it’s got a great screen. And it won’t matter to a lot of people. But at least then you can calibrate yourself to what I’ve in the past liked a lot. So in the past, if I keep saying I really like these phones because of their screens and you know from your past experience that screens aren’t a big deal to you, then you can at least say, all right, I’ll discount this point, because screens aren’t my thing.
Craig Cannon [08:33] – I’ve kind of wondered if we’re going to reach a point of complete diminishing returns with smartphones, right? You’re like, “Oh, man, the iPhone 10 or whatever, this is awesome. iPhone 11, is it 100% better?” Unlikely, right? Do you think we’re going to reach peak smartphone?
Marques Brownlee [08:53] – Peak smartphone. It’s a common question. I don’t. And the only reason I don’t is because I’ve heard that question for the past five years of smartphones. And then the next year, I’m like, well, that’s new. It’s mostly because the trends change. There was a thinness trend a couple years ago, where it is like, we got a nine-millimeters thin and then 8.9 and then 8.1 and then 7.9, and holy crap, there’s a six-millimeter thin phone. Have we reached peak smartphone? And then it changed to, okay, now we want these bezel-less phones. So thickness, whatever. It’s just going to be thin. That’s just the way it is. But now, can we get a 90% screen-to-body ratio? Can we get this notch smaller? Can we get 93%, 95? Eventually we’re going to be like, have we hit peak? We got the whole screen. Then the next trend is going to happen. I don’t know what that next trend is, but I feel like because I’ve observed these cycles over the past couple years, it doesn’t seem likely that it’s just going to, we’re going to get this end product of the perfect phone. Maybe we will. That’d be great.
Marques Brownlee [09:55] – But, yeah, I don’t see that.
Craig Cannon [09:55] – I know a lot of people who are holding onto iPhone, basically five, four and five.
Marques Brownlee [10:00] – Well, that’s definitely true. Phones are better, and they last longer. Than they ever did. In that sense, we’re closer to peak smartphone, because your iPhone, if you buy an iPhone 10S now, that phone’s probably going to be good for like four years, like legitimately. iOS has gotten better. It’s true, you can hang onto an older phone longer than you used to be able to. But that’s also something tech companies got to think about when they make their next product.
Craig Cannon [10:24] – What do you make of these new trend, like folding things, like new trends right now?
Marques Brownlee [10:30] – There’s a lot of, folding one is one of those interesting ones, because I’m trying to imagine the future of like, why folding phones matter. At this point, generation one folding phones are like, all right, proof of concept. You can technically fold it. But there’s a big ugly crease in the middle, and these bezels are huge. It’s not really, it doesn’t seem that useful yet. But that challenge is to go eight, nine years down the road, where it’s like, oh, yeah, you can just, you have a tablet and a phone. And you just unfold your phone, it becomes a tablet. In that world, it was worth it. 2019 folding phones were worth it, because we got to that point. So if we get to that point someday, then I think it’ll be worth it.
Craig Cannon [11:15] – I’ve noticed you filmed a bunch of Tesla videos, right? Based on the ratio of types of content on your channel, are you just betting electric vehicles is the next big trend?
Marques Brownlee [11:30] – Partially yes, and partially I just love the thing.
Craig Cannon [11:34] – That’s a cool signal, right? Like I remember people wouldn’t shut up about their iPhones when they got them. And the same thing is true for the Model S.
Marques Brownlee [11:40] – Yes, and that’s a comparison I’ve heard. The Tesla is the iPhone of cars again. It’s kind of just that next wave, and electric does seem like it’s the future. You see all these big companies like, “Yeah, we’re going to go electric by 2028.” Great, someday. I’m a huge fan of the Tesla. It’s kind of a perfect segue into, I’ve always been into cars, but I’m 25. How into cars could I be really? I don’t drive all kinds of cars and stuff. But the Tesla was a perfect segue into cars, because it’s a tech product. It has all these tech features. It’s basically a tech company. It was sort of a natural segue into the car world.
Craig Cannon [12:18] – I’ve just been curious, on the performance side, how much it actually matters, because if you look around, obviously the Model S is nuts to drive, right? But then the Prius is, have you driven a Prius before?
Marques Brownlee [12:30] – Yeah, I have.
Craig Cannon [12:31] – It’s not the most exciting.
Marques Brownlee [12:32] – It works.
Craig Cannon [12:32] – It works.
Marques Brownlee [12:34] – It gets you there.
Craig Cannon [12:35] – Right, and so I’ve been kind of wondering where the EV market will end up going, because a Model 3 is also pretty quick. What’s your impression of like the low-end EV market?
Marques Brownlee [12:49] – The thing about EV is you still get that quick torque. Even though the performance from your 60 to 90 might not be like high-end gas car territory, most of the acceleration and merging and quick things you do on an EV, even a low-end EV is still zippy. You still feel like you’re in that zippy go-cart type of feel, even in like, I drove a Model 3 when it first came out. It was rear-wheel drive. I’m pretty sure their zero to 60 is like five and a half seconds or something, which is fine, but that car felt quick. I’d step on the pedal, and I felt zippy, like I was in a Model S. Even low-end EVs will have that feel. That’s attractive to people. I think a lot of people overrate how much sound matters. In the high-end car market, everyone cares how their car sounds. But for 90% of people who are just like-
Craig Cannon [13:39] – You mean interior or the actual engine sound?
Marques Brownlee [13:42] – Yeah, the engine sound. When I hit the pedal, I want to hear it working for me. That’s a common resistance to the EVs. For 90% of people, or taxis or just commuter vans or just basic transportation, silence is great.
Craig Cannon [14:00] – In terms of features within the car?
Marques Brownlee [14:04] – They tend to be ahead, I think. Maybe just because I’m looking mostly at Tesla, but the amount of things, having a smartphone-controlled app where you can summon the car to you, all these remote start, stop features in gas cars are great, but when you look at the amount of, I mean, Tesla’s a tech company. You see all kinds of tech features in the car.
Craig Cannon [14:24] – You spend so much time reviewing products, both smartphones and cars and stuff, you kind of get an impression of the bleeding edge. But I’m wondering where you’re seeing it going, things that are just popping up where you’re like, “Oh, that’s actually a super cool feature that people aren’t talking about or thinking about right now, in the context of cars.”
Marques Brownlee [14:47] – Going electric, and the number one thing you think about is charging. Where do you charge it? How fast does it charge? How long does the battery last, things like that, those basic questions, the more those big companies think about answering those questions, like Ford and Chevy and those big guys, the more you realize how far ahead Tesla is, but how far there is to go to actually make EVs useful for most people. The basic premise is you’re just going electric. You just put a battery in it, you charge it, and you drive it the same way a normal car drives. But I don’t think there’s any sort of magic sauce to it, other than that. You just kind of have to get-
Craig Cannon [15:32] – It’s more on the infrastructure side, is really important getting it on, yeah, obviously.
Marques Brownlee [15:35] – Which is less flashy and magic feature that’s winning the market over. But that’s what you have to nail to make a good EV.
Craig Cannon [15:43] – Okay, and so now you said you’re 25. Now that you’re 25, do you feel like there’s going to be a point where you have less of a pulse on the new, cool stuff?
Marques Brownlee [15:53] – I’m so scared of that.
Craig Cannon [15:54] – Dude, I’m 29, and I’m like, oh no.
Marques Brownlee [15:57] – Do you feel that at 29? I don’t know, I’m scared of being that old guy who’s out of touch. But at least I think that process would be slower for me, because I am so immersed in it now. With music, maybe I’m already there. New music comes out that… I’ve tried to listen to like the Billboard 100, like whatever the other day, and I was just like, this is objectively bad. I can’t, I can’t do this. I clearly am out of the loop. But I guess with tech, I don’t know. Maybe I’m a little more immersed, so that might take longer.
Craig Cannon [16:33] – Yeah, or it’s just near and dear to your heart, so it really matters that you’re not just a-
Marques Brownlee [16:37] – Well, there’s also hope, because there are plenty of much older tech journalists and tech YouTubers who are doing their thing. If you stay in that world, it’s kind of just part of what you’re doing every day.
Craig Cannon [16:49] – No, and I know plenty of older people who are way more into music than I am and catch things early, but it is this core fear as a creative person, where you’re like, “Dude, am I old-school right now?”
Marques Brownlee [17:02] – Am I out of it? Am I out of it? Yeah, yeah.
Craig Cannon [17:06] – Does that fear motivate you to try weirder YouTube stuff, or are you kind of, this kind of phone video works, and I’m just going to keep banging it out?
Marques Brownlee [17:20] – I don’t know. I’m definitely trying to diversify the breadth of coverage, you might call it.
Craig Cannon [17:28] – Sure.
Marques Brownlee [17:30] – I don’t think that’s out of fear of forgetting what’s popular. I think that’s just because I’m interested in other things, so I’ll use other ways to talk about them. So there’s the reviews, and there’s smartphone stuff, but there’s also the car videos now, which is the Auto Focus series. But there’s also, like I’m into production, naturally, because that’s what I’m doing all the time. I’m doing this whole Spaces series, where I’m talking to other creators and how they use their space. I’m ideally starting a podcast pretty soon where I can just talk with people about things like this. That just comes from all the other things that I’ve become interested in.
Craig Cannon [18:08] – Of course.
Marques Brownlee [18:09] – Through making tech videos.
Craig Cannon [18:10] – Interesting, so what else would be on the podcast?
Marques Brownlee [18:14] – I want to talk to other creators. That’s like, probably the main thing, because that’s not something that is readily available to me. And I think when you get a certain place in this creative world, there’s no longer an article you can go read to figure out how to do something. When you’re starting YouTube, you can figure out, what’s the best DSLR for 1,000 bucks and then buy it, and find the lens that works best with it and then start from there. But when I’m trying to figure out, “Hmmm, how do I best start a new series, given the current uploads and the pace of the way things are moving?” All these nuanced questions that don’t necessarily have answers but that other creative people think about too, just talk with people about that kind of stuff.
Craig Cannon [19:01] – It sounds a lot like just strategy, right? Or like two things can simultaneously be true, but you have to pick one. And that can be a little intimidating, I guess, and helpful.
Marques Brownlee [19:13] – It’s less math, more just, I don’t know, just strategy.
Craig Cannon [19:17] – Strategy and creative insight. Are you going to try and innovate in your podcast in any way? because what I’m kind of fishing for is like, obviously YouTube video, right, like what are the other mediums that you’re testing out to see, “Oh, maybe there’s an audience here. Maybe I can break ground here.”
Marques Brownlee [19:38] – Video as a medium is my favorite by far. So I think, I don’t think about new mediums as much as I think of new ways to do video, new topics, new formats within video. Podcasting being sort of an auxiliary way to also talk, is that Bixby, I don’t know. It is Bixby.
Craig Cannon [20:08] – I’ve never even heard it in real life.
Marques Brownlee [20:11] – I’ve never intentionally triggered Bixby. It’s like the third or fourth time that it’s thought I’ve been talking to it. Where was I? I’m still trying to figure out the whole video thing generally. That might be a battle I never win. I feel like that’s going to be taking up most of my time, is doing different types of videos.
Craig Cannon [20:34] – Have you tried 360? Have you tried VR? Have you tried these new formats?
Marques Brownlee [20:40] – I have, I’ve tried one, I published one 360 video. It’s one that I thought was a really good idea. It was a studio tour. So it would be like you’re sort of moving around the studio, but you can also look around and see what’s behind you and around you. So you sort of feel like you’re in that space. That’s a good use of VR. That was fun. But that was one of those things where I struggled to find other genuinely productive uses for it in my case. It’s awesome for games. I love it for games. I love it for other stuff. But for video, it’s been sort of a head scratcher.
Craig Cannon [21:13] – Well, it’s very, we did a podcast with Jessica Brillhart, who’s a VR creator in New York. It’s a difficult storytelling challenge, because with film, you’re inherently controlling the viewpoint of your audience. And with games-
Marques Brownlee [21:28] – You move, you explore.
Craig Cannon [21:29] – Right, exactly, so very natively fits in. But even just the prep involved in shooting a 360 video, right now there are a bunch of wires and shit dangling all over the place.
Marques Brownlee [21:39] – It’s no big deal when the camera can control that, yeah, exactly. Yeah, that’s another challenge. I mean, the rig we used was really cool. We could have, we had basically like, it’s not literally following me around, but it went from place to place, and we had a couple setup places around the studio so the video would move between these places, and you could follow me around. That to me was like, peak 360. I figured it out. This is the best use of 360 in my case.
Craig Cannon [22:08] – Real estate.
Marques Brownlee [22:09] – Outside of that, yeah, it’s been, maybe just tours in general. A lot of car stuff is hard because it’s such a small space. Maybe getting a smaller rig in there where you can sort of look around as if you’re in the car, that’s tough.
Craig Cannon [22:24] – Do you feel limited by cameras in any way at this point?
Marques Brownlee [22:28] – Only slightly. I feel like I’m not even allowed to complain, because the cameras I use are so obscene. But on occasion I wish the camera had autofocus, I wish the camera was smaller, I wish the camera’s battery lasted longer. But those are pretty minor things, as far as, because I can still get the image I want eventually if I work hard enough.
Craig Cannon [22:50] – You don’t have autofocus on all your cameras?
Marques Brownlee [22:52] – I don’t.
Craig Cannon [22:54] – Really? Is it just the lens or the actual camera?
Marques Brownlee [22:57] – The camera, essentially, it has a really, really poor autofocus system. But it’s a RED camera, and no one uses autofocus for RED cameras, so they don’t really work on it. It’s not good. So it’s manual focus all the time. That has its downsides, obviously, especially when we’re doing car stuff, trying to do fixed focus car stuff when the car moves all the time.
Craig Cannon [23:19] – It’s tricky.
Marques Brownlee [23:20] – There’s a lot of weird things with fixed focus. But we’ve messed with rigs where you can do remote follow-focus stuff and all kinds of other hacks to get around it. That’s one of those weird things.
Craig Cannon [23:32] – Do you do much drone stuff?
Marques Brownlee [23:34] – A little bit for cars. It’s funny because I always wanted to do drone stuff, but for the longest time I was mostly doing handheld gadgets, so it felt like, what do I need a drone for? It’s just going to fly away from me holding an iPad. That’s not compelling. But now that we’re doing car stuff, yes. There’s plenty of use for drones.
Craig Cannon [23:51] – Okay, have you mounted anything to the hood? Like, those giant gimbals, have you tried that out yet?
Marques Brownlee [23:56] – We’ve gone, we’ve gotten a little into that. We have this whole, I guess we’re always trying to make setups for scenarios. The next scenario setup we’re working on is the chase car. How do you shoot a car from any angle you want from another car? You can obviously go out the side, because there’s a window, and you can get a sliding door. We’ve shot out the back. We have the lift gate go up, and we can go hold a gimbal out of the back. But shooting the back of a car in front of you is hard because there’s a sloped windshield, so it’s distorted. Do you hang out the side? But then you’re off axis. There’s kind of a weird problem with shooting the back of a car.
Marques Brownlee [24:38] – That’s one of those things we’re working on. I guess putting something on the hood would be a way to shoot a car in front of you, but then you’re fixed in your height, so you can’t really go low. Then there’s those camera cars that have a jib on top of it, you can go all kinds of angles. So that might be fun. But as of right now, that’s pretty early.
Craig Cannon [24:54] – This is a funny creator problem, because industry people have figured this out. Like if you see professional Tesla shoots, they got it locked down.
Marques Brownlee [25:05] – Yeah, absolutely.
Craig Cannon [25:06] – But Marques, individual YouTube guy, just to fly to LA and film on the PCH, the question is, how do you do that? And so those are the kinds of questions that you’re curious about.
Marques Brownlee [25:17] – Yup.
Craig Cannon [25:18] – There’s not like a YouTuber network where you just call up whatever.
Marques Brownlee [25:23] – There is. There are YouTube friends that also have similar questions. We can talk about it all we want. I’ve had a couple friends who are obviously in LA, because that’s where almost everyone is. But, and we talk about gear all the time and production strategy, in a way, like how do you shoot these things? We’ve collaborated on, one of the last things we did was when we interviewed Elon. We did a factory tour, which was, how do you shoot a factory tour with two people walking through it? Do you just have one person hold the camera while you’re out, or do you have a person next to it? That was a whole thing, where we had to figure out how to do that. Industry’s got it all locked up.
Craig Cannon [26:05] – What a lot of people could get from you is storytelling techniques, because that, at the core of it, obviously the products are cool, right? But you’re a storyteller too, right? When you’re going to go and do an interview with Elon, and most of your interviews are like 10 minutes, 15 minutes long, right? I assume it’s cut down.
Marques Brownlee [26:27] – A lot of it also is because they’re really busy people. That’s just all the time that we get with them and all we have. But yeah, that’s like a happy medium of talking a little longer than a five-minute video.
Craig Cannon [26:38] – Which is a nice format for you, too. Like, we’ve tried both, and I mean, I’m so impressed with Rogan and his three-hour videos and that people are into it.
Marques Brownlee [26:45] – He’s amazing.
Craig Cannon [26:47] – When you think about, okay, maybe we should do a product scenario, right? How do you think about storytelling in the case of a review?
Marques Brownlee [27:00] – Context, so what came before it, what came next to it, what it’s up against, and momentum, in a way. Say a new phone comes out. You naturally compare it to the phone that came before it. And then you compare it to other phones around it and how much those stepped forward versus how much it stepped forward. That right there can be enough of an interesting story for a lot of devices that come out. I remember when iPad Pro came out. That story was like, iPad was already so far ahead in tablets, and then iPad Pro took a massive step forward versus the last iPad. This is obscene how much, there is no other $1300 tablet I would even consider. That’s alone in its category, which is really fascinating. I guess those two things, the context of other products that exist next to it and what came before it.
Craig Cannon [27:56] – Okay, and when it comes to storytelling of you as a person, like expending all the gross words like personal brand and all that stuff… How do you tell your story, and then how do you fit in what your future plans and hopes are?
Marques Brownlee [28:15] – I do less of that because I consider tech the star of the show. I do inject my own personal humor or perspective on occasion just because it’s fun, it keeps it interesting, and that’s its own challenge. But I’ve always considered tech the star of the show. And any way I can, I try to make that the main story.
Craig Cannon [28:43] – Interesting, and so that will just continue to drive future projects for you.
Marques Brownlee [28:49] – The one string that ties everything together is it’s coming from me. It’s always the same perspective. When you see a new car video, like with Top Gear, for example, you know that guy has driven these cars before, so he’s going to think of it in the context of all those other cars. When I do a car video, you know I’m going to compare it to the other four, five cars I’ve driven, which are electric. That’s the difference between a car video from me and someone else. But at the end of the day, the car-
Craig Cannon [29:17] – Is this thing.
Marques Brownlee [29:18] – Is the thing, like that’s what I’m talking about, sharing with people. But I guess I’m probably under-weighting how important my own personal voice is, but I really try to make the tech the star of the show.
Craig Cannon [29:31] – Well, I think it’s a focus in your video. I appreciate the modesty, but there are how many million YouTube channels with people reviewing phones.
Marques Brownlee [29:39] – True, true, very true.
Craig Cannon [29:41] – So you stand out in some way. So you got like 100-plus questions from Twitter.
Marques Brownlee [29:45] – Sure.
Craig Cannon [29:46] – I want to answer some of them. We’re going to skip the middle initial, for 10 million subscribers.
Marques Brownlee [29:52] – Yes, yes, yes, of course.
Craig Cannon [29:54] – But there are a lot of best practices around YouTube. You may have answered these before. But Marko Castro asked, what advice do you have for new creators on YouTube?
Marques Brownlee [30:07] – New creators, new creators being pretty broad, because you can be a new creator in tech or comedy or a new photographer, there’s all kinds of new creators. But on YouTube, generally, like if I was starting over today, I would kind of do a lot of what I’m doing now, which is like, you take your inspiration from other places, but you always have to come back to your own voice and your own perspective. Don’t try to be something else that already exists, or there won’t be any reason to watch it. It already exists. Find your own new angle, your own new voice, your own new way of showing or talking about things. And then get started. And a lot of it just comes to luck, and YouTube’s kind of saturated. Yeah, and consistency is very important.
Craig Cannon [30:56] – When do you think you found your voice as a creator?
Marques Brownlee [31:00] – I think super early.
Craig Cannon [31:01] – Really?
Marques Brownlee [31:02] – I’ve always been, I want crispy video, I want high quality, I know what I want. I think that came at the very beginning, even when I was, oh, man, doing these tutorial videos.
Craig Cannon [31:14] – Yeah, I watched a couple. They were fun.
Marques Brownlee [31:15] – Oh, god, yeah, I’m sorry.
Craig Cannon [31:17] – No, I love going, like, you went through puberty on YouTube.
Marques Brownlee [31:20] – Essentially, yeah. Yeah, I did all these tutorial videos, which are just screencasts, so it’s just my screen and a mouse moving. And I was obsessed with getting the highest frame rate possible and the smoothest motion blur of my cursor on the screen. And that’s so stupid, but I’ve always wanted that production to facilitate the story as best as possible. I want the quality to be as realistic as it can be so that it’s not a distraction. And that’s still the way it is. The whole almost shtick is overproduced, really realistic.
Craig Cannon [31:56] – Filming in RED cameras a lot.
Marques Brownlee [31:58] – Exactly, yeah, overly realistic, but to the point where if you look at this video on your screen, you’ll feel the closest to actually holding it in real life, that’s the goal. So I think that, I don’t know if that’s my voice or just my style. But I found that to be a priority pretty early.
Craig Cannon [32:13] – Well, I think it’s kind of a combination, right, because you have your taste, which I think the world has decided is good.
Marques Brownlee [32:20] – Sure.
Craig Cannon [32:21] – And yeah, and then just your hardened opinion that this is going to be super high quality.
Marques Brownlee [32:24] – Right.
Craig Cannon [32:26] – Right? And so did you grow up with these values given to you, or is it a personal thing you just were born with?
Marques Brownlee [32:34] – I guess it must have been instilled in me in some way. I mean, I’ve always been into tech, and tech has always had an emphasis on, we’re the best, we’re the highest quality.
Craig Cannon [32:45] – But that hardcore, this is the highest quality mentality.
Marques Brownlee [32:49] – That’s a great question. I guess it’s just what I decided I wanted at some point. I never really thought about that. It’s just, it seems like it would be everyone’s goal, when I think about it. Striving for the highest quality production, it was a no-brainer to me. And I guess it’s when you end up in a position where you’re able to use really high-end equipment and you can make more of what you want because of the position you’re in, it’s even more of a no-brainer, because the barrier is lower. But I guess, yeah, that challenge to make the perfect video is, so the air quotes, for audio listeners, that’s always probably going to be a moving goalpost.
Craig Cannon [33:40] – You’re always reaching for it, and it’s always slipping away. But there’s something innate in you, right? A lot of people who are, I wouldn’t go so far as always calling people perfectionists, but to want to do it over again and over again and over again until it’s just right.
Marques Brownlee [33:56] – That’s a thing that creators have to overcome, and a lot of times you don’t want to. If you end up, like I would consider myself borderline perfectionist in some stuff. I remember doing SAT stuff where it was like, “Okay, you have to write this essay, and you’re going to get the topic, and you have to write it right then.” Like, “I want to think about this for a couple days before I actually put a pen to paper.” And you just have to spit out three pages, and hopefully it’s good enough. That’s kind of the way YouTube is. A new phone just came out, go. You don’t get to sit on this for a while. You form the best thing you can, and if it’s 95% there and it’s done, that’s better than 99% there and still working on it. That’s a barrier for me. I wish I could take more time with a lot of stuff. But tech just moves fast, so you just kind of have to evolve your production and ideally make the best thing you can.
Craig Cannon [34:51] – Do you follow your listeners? Do you follow your gut when it comes to making choices? Like, is there a data-driven approach to what kind of videos you’re making?
Marques Brownlee [35:01] – No, I’d say it’s almost no data at all.
Craig Cannon [35:05] – That’s awesome.
Marques Brownlee [35:06] – You get the comments of people who are like, “This part of the video is cool. I enjoyed that.” Or, “You could’ve spent more time on… I wish you’d gone into this more,” or, “I was wondering about this and I’m glad you addressed it,” like certain things like that. The only data it comes down to is, I made a six-minute video on this phone, but I left out these three things. I wonder if an eight-minute video would’ve been watchable? Knowing all the other things that go into YouTube and retention and how long people watch and the attention span of the internet, I guess that’s all data. But at the end of the day, I’m just like, I guess I probably could’ve included that, or maybe I didn’t have to go into that much detail about this new camera. It’s almost the same as last year, like that kind of stuff. “Wow, a 12-minute video could’ve been nine minutes and said almost the same thing.” Information density is my writing challenge. I’m trying to fit as much structurally sound information that’s followable to most people as possible, which in tech is, I don’t know if that’s more or less of a challenge, probably more.
Craig Cannon [36:16] – Well, it’s tough to decide what’s most valuable to people.
Marques Brownlee [36:20] – That’s mainly it. A lot of people, the best comments you get really, or that I get, are from people who’ve never seen the videos before. And a lot of times they’ll say, “Oh, these are videos for the mainstream buyer, not for the hardcore tech person.” But all the information that goes into saying those top-level things the way I said them came from all the depth of using the device and all the hardcore stuff that I left out. So in a way it feels like, “Oh, I should just include everything so that they know that I’m really- Into what I’m talking about.”
Craig Cannon [36:53] – Legit.
Marques Brownlee [36:55] – Yeah, I’m legit, guys, I swear. But it becomes less presentable that way. It becomes verbose that way. I can say the same thing five different ways. But the shortest, most succinct complete way is usually the best way. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
Craig Cannon [37:12] – That’s kind of a mark of someone who really knows what they’re talking about, too. Like, if you can teach it to someone who’s 10 years old-
Marques Brownlee [37:17] – That’s true.
Craig Cannon [37:19] – Then you can explain it. It’s also the selling point of a lot of great companies, Apple being the foremost.
Marques Brownlee [37:21] – Absolutely.
Craig Cannon [37:23] – All right, before we go more into the YouTube questions, dude, how do you deal with YouTube comments?
Marques Brownlee [37:32] – People really hate YouTube comments, and for whatever reason, it hasn’t been that bad for me. Now, I can say lately meme culture has made its appearance in my comment section far more often in the past couple months, for an unnamed reason. I’ll just say it’s Will Smith’s fault. But I think the comment section’s actually been pretty helpful and pretty great for me for the past couple years. And whether that’s, because I kind of, I can also separate the comment section into kind of three categories, hour one of upload, which is useless. It’s mainly just people saying either first or reacting to the title and thumbnail and not actually watching the video or just getting something in to hopefully get a response. The first hour’s not really very useful. Then there’s hour two through 24, which is people watching the video and being somewhat thoughtful for leaving what I’d consider a useful comment. And then there’s people who are finding it in search. This is no longer subscribers. This is people who were looking for something about this device, found this video, clicked it hoping for something, and left a comment based on what they watched.
Marques Brownlee [38:47] – Those are the most useful comments. If you can divide that, like if all you’re reading is the first three hours of comments, you’re like, this is useless. I hate YouTube comments. But if you can sort of stitch those out into what’s coming from what audience, then it can actually be somewhat productive, I think.
Craig Cannon [39:06] – I always struggle with the personal attacks.
Marques Brownlee [39:09] – Yeah, yeah, I think they just kind of get drowned out. And that’s probably another benefit of where the channel is. People just bury that stuff, which is pretty great.
Craig Cannon [39:20] – That’s great, yeah, and you didn’t get it when you were a kid?
Marques Brownlee [39:23] – I definitely did, and I ignored it.
Craig Cannon [39:24] – Oh, good for you, man. I built a thick skin from that. And now it’s just kind of, it probably still exists, and I just ignore it. Austin Rider asks, in the early years of the channel, Marques took a several month hiatus from YouTube but then came back with a new video format and seemingly renewed drive. What happened during those months off?
Marques Brownlee [39:44] – That’s great, very dedicated, very few people know that. That was when I was in high school, and that was my senior year. And I just had to finish, get my grades up, college applications, the last year of ultimate, three days a week practices for hours. That was just, I don’t have time. I want to make videos so bad, but if I do, I’m going to get in that rabbit hole again, and I’m going to try to make five videos a week, and I’m just not going to have the time for the things that matter right now. So that was the end of high school, where I was applying to colleges, going to all these things, interviews and pre-college and all this stuff, SATs, the whole deal.
Craig Cannon [40:27] – Okay, and the renewed drive was just excitement to be back?
Marques Brownlee [40:31] – The renewed drive was like, hell yes, I’m back, five days a week, let’s go. College, no schedule, I’m in it, I’m in it. Yeah, that was a pretty good time.
Craig Cannon [40:38] – Okay, right on. A bunch of people asked the same question. Winston asked, what’s your daily schedule? Because I’m particularly curious because you also maintain a level of fitness for ultimate.
Marques Brownlee [40:49] – Yeah, yeah, I had practice last night. My daily schedule, so I kind of, I would separate it into weekdays and weekends. Weekdays, I guess, are divided again into production days or pre-production, post-production days. Production days are filming, editing, the meat of making videos, and writing, especially. And pre-production or post-production days are more of the inbox, the strategy, the what comes next, the travel, all that sort of stuff. That comes in between the videos. And then there’s nights, which are either the leagues I play in or practice or, so I play for the pro ultimate team for New York. We had practice last night on Randal’s Island. It was cold, so cold. And then weekends are ultimate. I don’t, I’m not going to work on weekends. And that used to be a thing. I would just work in between frisbee. But frisbee happens on weekends. So that’s traveling, that’s playing, that’s resting, that’s disconnected from the internet type stuff.
Craig Cannon [41:59] – And so you train by practicing.
Marques Brownlee [42:01] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [42:03] – There’s no other regimen involved?
Marques Brownlee [42:04] – I have a gym in my basement. Ask anyone who’s around me a lot, I’m usually there at night. But as far as playing a lot, that’s kind of the best training you can get. So that’s where I spent a lot of time.
Craig Cannon [42:17] – So in your gym, what, are you doing squats? What are you doing?
Marques Brownlee [42:20] – I have a bike, I have the treadmill, but then I have a lot of free weights. I believe in free weights. I don’t have that many machines. So it’s mostly just, yeah, the dumbbells and the, I don’t even know what the bar is called.
Craig Cannon [42:32] – Oh, parallel bars?
Marques Brownlee [42:33] – No, you’re standing in it. And it’s just, I don’t know.
Craig Cannon [42:36] – To do dips and stuff?
Marques Brownlee [42:38] – To do squats or to do, dang, I don’t know the names of any of these things.
Craig Cannon [42:42] – Like a deadlift, like one of those?
Marques Brownlee [42:44] – Yeah, like a deadlift, but I don’t know what that bar is called.
Craig Cannon [42:46] – Oh, oh, that hexagon thing.
Marques Brownlee [42:47] – Yes, that thing. Does that have a name?
Craig Cannon [42:49] – So it’s like a dead, uh, I’m sure it does.
Marques Brownlee [42:51] – It probably has a name.
Craig Cannon [42:52] – It’s called a hex bar.
Marques Brownlee [42:53] – Hex bar, yeah, I got a hex bar.
Craig Cannon [42:54] – Yeah, sure.
Marques Brownlee [42:55] – Got some plates. So yeah, that’s some of the time, but then eventually you just have to throw. And I don’t want to get into ultimate advice, but.
Craig Cannon [43:03] – You have a scar on your hand. Is that ultimate related?
Marques Brownlee [43:06] – That is ultimate related. I, in college, went to go lay out to get a defensive play, and I, on the turf, skidded forward and snapped my finger in half. I got a little plate and screws in there now to fix that bone. Strongest bone in my body now. It’s reinforced.
Craig Cannon [43:27] – That’s great, yeah, I got screws in my shoulder. I feel the same way. All right, Ahmed Khan asks, are there any problems that you see or face that you really wish engineers or developers would solve?
Marques Brownlee [43:39] – Engineers or developers, we’re kind on it. They’re kind of on it. A lot of times there’s the beginning, like folding phones, for example, you kind of see the beginning of some potential. You’re like, “Aw, I hope they go all in on that. That could be really cool in the future.” But generally, it’s all being worked on. I wish some of it was being worked on more than it is. I’m reviewing a lot of phones right now whose cameras are just not close to the Pixel’s camera in particular. And I know they could get closer. I know they could put a little more into that. But they don’t. And that’s their own choice and their own priority. But they totally could. So stuff like that, that’s just things that I prefer, and some devices I wish were more of a priority. But generally I think we live in a pretty good world. Nothing really sucks anymore, you know? The tech we use, even at the lower end, just kind of works pretty well.
Craig Cannon [44:36] – It’s very solid. I haven’t upgraded my phone for that reason. It’s just fine.
Marques Brownlee [44:40] – Yeah, it’s great.
Craig Cannon [44:42] – Could use a better camera, but it’s okay. One question was from a startup founder, Chris Jordano. He asked, any tips on how to engage with influencers when you’re a very early stage startup with little or no money?
Marques Brownlee [44:58] – Yeah. My biggest tip would be to offer something that would make it, it’s got to be a win-win for everyone involved. Even if you’re not a startup, even if you’re a company who’s just not into influencer marketing yet, the whole idea of creators working with companies is obviously they need the financial support. But also they want to be able to make something that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make. Whether they’re given access to something or they’re given a behind-the-scenes look at something, something like that. You don’t have to always pay them a lot. But if you can get something like that, that suddenly their audience is really into, that’s a win, too. That’s a win for the audience, because they got a better video. That’s a win for the creator, because they could make something better that their audience now gets to see. That’s a win for the company involved because now your stuff is in front of a new audience. Even if you don’t have the financial means to just dive right into paying for ads, you can always offer something that can make a video better. I also notice a lot that not a lot of research is done. They kind of just have this list of tech channels, and they just sort of blanket, carpet everyone the same email. But if you really want to work with a certain creator for a certain reason, make that clear. Like you’ve watched their videos and you notice a theme and you think there’s some potential for building on something there, that’s worth expounding upon.
Craig Cannon [46:32] – In addition to this kind of influencer marketing, where do you see the future of individual creators supporting themselves as a business going? We get this question most often in relation to podcasts, like how are people going to monetize?
Marques Brownlee [46:46] – It’s even shakier on YouTube, especially lately, just sort of because of where we’re at. And I get it. The easy answer is just, just be PC and be super clean and never push any buttons. But at a certain point, that’s not where you want to be. You kind of want to be able to explore and do different things. You have to diversify your income. That’s the simple answer. At this point, I can use myself as an example, the channel obviously has ads on it. That’s been one version of income as an independent creator. There’s also something called affiliate income, where you talk about products a lot, you might as well share the availability to buy those products. Amazon has an affiliate system, BNH has an affiliate system. There’s also a merch store. This is something not every creator can do. But if you can, why not? I very recently, super late, got into it, trying to make a sort of, people ask me all the time what sweatshirt I was wearing in videos. Figured I might as well offer a sweatshirt at some point. You can turn that into sort of a fashion brand, if you will. And just having different ways of supporting the same thing, would all sort of point back to the same thing.
Craig Cannon [48:07] – What about those paid subscriptions, or even-
Marques Brownlee [48:10] – Oh, yeah, the Patreons, so at a certain point you can ask dedicated viewers who really want to support what you do directly if they want to contribute more. Oftentimes they won’t have a problem with that if they really like your work or if your work isn’t common. A lot of times if they feel like they can just find what you’re doing somewhere else, then there’s no reason for them to stick around or pay for it. But if what you do is less frequent or it’s really high effort or is not something that they’re going to find somewhere else, and that’ll come from you working on your craft for a really long time, then oftentimes they’ll have no problem deciding they want to help you out.
Craig Cannon [48:48] – Cool, and when it comes to you, now that you’re a pretty successful channel, what do those ratios look like? Do you know off the top of your head?
Marques Brownlee [48:54] – Yeah, I would say the, I’m still at a point where the YouTube ads are probably 40 to 50%. I don’t do a whole lot of sponsored stuff. If I did, that number would be much higher. But I think right now sponsored stuff is probably about 20%. So 40, 20, and then affiliate stuff being another 10. We’re at like, what, 70 now? So I guess, yeah, YouTube ads is probably bigger. YouTube ads are probably 50% of what the streams look like.
Craig Cannon [49:31] – You think your biggest problem right now as a creator is figuring out how to do these more difficult things?
Marques Brownlee [49:37] – Yeah. I’m still on that quest of production, like I know my videos can be better. There’s still always a gap between a great YouTube video and a movie.
Craig Cannon [49:49] – Of course.
Marques Brownlee [49:50] – Everyone can tell a YouTube video from a movie and everything, but ideally, that seamless production where I can tell the story I want, show what I want to show, and not have any barriers in the way as far as production, that would be ideal. That’s probably my biggest challenge. And then one of those, I feel like an octopus chopping off one of my arms and handing it to someone, but having other people who can edit, having other people who can do set design and can contribute on things that I’m doing eight things at once. I wish someone else could take the load off me. That kind of stuff is also a challenge for me right now. But that’s something I’m working on too.
Craig Cannon [50:32] – That’s interesting. All right, so I guess my last question for you.
Marques Brownlee [50:34] – Sure.
Craig Cannon [50:35] – Is your long-term goal… What are you shooting for in 10, 15 years?
Marques Brownlee [50:42] – Well, in 10 years I’ll be 35.
Craig Cannon [50:45] – Over the hill.
Marques Brownlee [50:46] – Yeah, man.
Craig Cannon [50:47] – No longer relevant.
Marques Brownlee [50:49] – I guess long-term goal, as much as I, I’ve said before I don’t have long-term goals. But most of my forward thinking is two to three years out, like where I want the company to be, where I want the production process to be. But I guess if you look 10 years out, that’s more of like, media company type stuff. Ideally there’s a YouTube channel, maybe a second YouTube channel, there’s a podcast, there’s a production aspect to it where you can assist with other channels, things like that. It’s nowhere near on its way there yet. I think I’m still so focused on the actual video side of it and making that what I really want it to be that I haven’t really set foot in these other categories yet. But maybe someday soon.
Craig Cannon [51:46] – Are you going to make a movie?
Marques Brownlee [51:48] – It’s funny you ask that. Long-form stuff, long-form being 45 minute and hour-long videos, has been fascinating to me on YouTube because it’s been proven to be not that unreasonable, especially lately, with the Shane Dawsons of the world really hitting it home. I’d like to make a movie.
Craig Cannon [52:10] – Cool. All right, man, thanks for coming in.
Marques Brownlee [52:13] – Thanks for having me. All right, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and video at blog.ycombinator.com. If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.