Marques Brownlee ushers me into his robot room, where I stand face-to-face with Colossus. An imposing yet graceful contraption, the aptly named $250,000 mechanical arm towers over my 6’3″ host, who is giving me a guided tour through his studio in Kearny, New Jersey, on a late-August morning.
Brownlee is YouTube’s preeminent maker of videos about newly released technology, and he acquired the rig to perform swoopy camera pans with more balletic precision than any human cinematographer could muster. The resulting shots have become a signature element of his gadget reviews. “So we built a dedicated set for it,” he explains matter-of-factly.
Located in a rehabbed shipyard that’s also home to a helicopter-tour service and numerous logistics companies, Brownlee’s 7,000-square-foot facility is filled with high-end production gear. Some of the products he’s reviewed recently for his audience, which includes 17.7 million subscribers, are still hanging around—such as a shiny red casket, which he featured in a video after impulsively deciding to review every product pitched to him for a month. (The video got more than 5 million views.)
Also on premises are some of Brownlee’s 13 employees, a young and mostly male crew who talk among themselves about a soon-to-be-released smartphone as Brownlee gets back to work at his own desk a few steps away.
Brownlee, who turns 30 in December, has come a long way since he began shooting videos about tech hardware and software in his family’s suburban New Jersey home at age 15. (He uploaded the results under the nom de YouTube of MKBHD—for “Marques Keith Brownlee” and “high definition”—a moniker that has been synonymous with his own name ever since.) By the time he was in college, he was a phenomenon: In 2013, Google’s then senior VP of engineering, Vic Gundotra, declared Brownlee “the best technology reviewer on the planet.”
Brownlee’s rise reflects a fundamental transformation that has played out in the tech-review ecosystem. In the past, tech critics gained power through their affiliation with major news outlets. But as the old guard moved on—The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg and The New York Times’s David Pogue both left their print perches in 2013—YouTube offered upstart reviewers a platform that no traditional media brand could match, especially for reaching young people who’d grown up on the internet. Today, YouTube is the top social media platform among 18-to-24-year-olds, with 84% usage, according to Comscore; the second-place finisher, TikTok, lags far behind at 61%. And Brownlee has spent the past decade amassing more YouTube subscribers than the Journal, the Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today combined.
His polished, quietly authoritative product evaluations carry a surprising degree of gravitas—a rare commodity on YouTube, where the most popular creator, Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, has attracted 204 million subscribers with no-expense-spared stunts such as feeding a Lamborghini into a giant shredder. Real-life Brownlee isn’t so different from the calm on-screen persona his viewers have bonded with: “He’s just a very—for lack of a better word—chill individual,” says Brandon Havard, who’s worked alongside Brownlee as MKBHD’s creative director since 2018.
Brownlee’s credibility also explains why makers of everything from smartwatches to electric cars crave the attention an MKBHD video can bring. “When a new product is launched, the people who pay the most attention are tech enthusiasts, and that’s Marques’s audience,” says Carl Pei, the cofounder of Nothing, which released a smartphone last July that Brownlee covered in two videos that have accumulated more than 6 million views and 8,000 comments. (Among gadget freaks, Brownlee is so universally recognizable that Pei went so far as to perform a brief impression of him in a recent Nothing promotional video, dressed in a hoodie from the MKBHD merch store.)
All of this has made Brownlee one of the most influential players in today’s tech ecosystem, a position he seems to have set himself up well financially in order to maintain. Even with his growing staff and a boundless desire to top himself, he says that “most of these projects don’t cost as much to make as we can make back from them,” though he didn’t disclose a revenue figure. No matter how fancy the gear in his studio, the crux of his appeal remains the way he shows off new products and talks about them, an inherently economical business model. (By contrast, MrBeast, whose side ventures include a line of candy bars and a franchised burger business, said he recently spent $3 million on a single video—involving the destruction of a train, two school buses, several cars, and a house—and only made $167,000 on it from ads.)
One creator-economy insider estimates that a YouTuber of Brownlee’s prominence might reap $5,000 per million views from YouTube ad sales; Brownlee’s channels have received more than 360 million views in the past 12 months. Sponsorship messages might pay between $100,000 and $150,000 each; the occasional video he makes that’s wholly commissioned by a sponsor, such as those he did for Buick (his “unboxing” of its Encore GX SUV) and Best Buy (back-to-school and year-end product picks), could yield much more. That doesn’t account for other revenue streams, such as his Waveform podcast and the MKBHD merch store, which sells branded products like T-shirts, mugs, hats, and even dog collars.
A decade and a half into his career, Brownlee is still expanding his influence: He’s added 1.4 million subscribers in the past 12 months alone. “He’s only going to grow from here, especially as Gen Z and Gen Alpha become the largest purchasing group,” predicts creator trends analyst Fana Yohannes. An alumnus of Apple’s PR department, she helped get Brownlee invited to the company’s product launch events starting in 2015, once it got its head around the notion of a 21-year-old YouTuber being one of the world’s most important tech experts.
In recent years, Brownlee has begun to parlay his online cachet into other realms. In May 2022, he attended the Met Gala, where he looked snazzy in a Berluti suit—in matte black, his favorite color for tech hardware—and cheerfully told Vogue’s red-carpet reporter that he felt “like a fish out of water.” A year later, he popped up on a Sesame Street special, introducing himself to a new generation by discussing mindfulness with Elmo and Abby. Around the same time, he became the first tech influencer with his own sneaker, designed in collaboration with startup Atoms.
When these kinds of unexpected opportunities come Brownlee’s way, he can hardly turn them down, he says: “They just seem like pretty awesome doors to open.” But unlike stereotypical YouTube influencers, he isn’t chasing fame for its own sake. “I’m just doing videos on stuff I’m interested in,” he emphasizes. “That’s kind of been the thesis from the beginning.”
The mission summed up by the MKBHD YouTube channel’s longtime tagline—“Quality Tech Videos”—remains Brownlee’s obsession.
Growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey, Brownlee and his younger sister, Simone, weren’t exactly immersed in technology. There was a TV in the family room and a shared desktop PC, and that was about it. “No video games,” stresses their mother, Jeaniene Brownlee. “I wouldn’t allow them.” In 2008, when Marques was a high school sophomore, he wanted his own laptop. She was skeptical—even though he promised to cover most of the cost himself.
The laptop he ended up purchasing, an HP dv7t, listed at the time for a hefty $1,299. “I was a high schooler who had just spent a massive amount of his own allowance money on the most precious thing I’d ever owned,” he recounts. “I did a ton of research, watched every video on the internet about it, and eventually made my choice. And then, when I got it, there were a couple of things about it that I hadn’t seen in any of the videos I’d watched.”
So, on January 1, 2009, Brownlee rectified that. He shared a YouTube video of his own, in which he walked through the features of his laptop’s cool little bundled remote control. Then he just kept cranking out more videos, covering products such as Windows Vista, Gmail, and YouTube itself. When he posted a how-to about Apple’s new Windows version of its Safari browser, “I woke up the next day and that video had thousands of views,” he says. “I remember that being a light bulb moment.”
“My earliest memories” of that time, Jeaniene Brownlee says, “would be him sneaking into his room and closing the door. And me saying, ‘Are you doing your homework?’” Jeaniene, who has a Columbia MBA and experience as a financial analyst, eventually helped her son turn those videos into a real business; she has served as its CFO ever since. (Brownlee’s father, Marlon, is an IT consultant.)
A month and a half after making his first video, Brownlee uploaded his 100th, in which he celebrated having 74 subscribers and looked forward to hitting 150 or even 200. Six months in, he’d reached 1,600. His affable vibe and knack for talking about technology were there from the start, but the production quality took time to develop. “My taste for how good I wanted the videos to be was always above my skill level,” he remembers. Even in his first video, he was apologizing for the quality of the lighting.
Brownlee was also eager to earn money from his work, a scenario made plausible by YouTube’s partner program, which gives creators a cut of the revenue from the ads it inserted in their videos. But back then, the idea of the four-year-old platform becoming a hotbed of professional-caliber content seemed ludicrous. “People made fun of you for making YouTube videos,” says Justine “iJustine” Ezarik, one of the few creators Brownlee could (and did) look to for inspiration. He persevered anyhow, even after the platform turned down his application to share in its ad proceeds—twice.
Brownlee arrived at Stevens Institute of Technology in nearby Hoboken in 2011, the year after YouTube finally approached him about monetizing his efforts. He divided his waking hours between studying, making videos, and another of his passions: playing Ultimate Frisbee for the school team. (Today, he’s a member of the sport’s U.S. and world championship teams.) Video by video, he grew more confident on camera and creative in his storytelling techniques. His work’s technical quality took a giant leap forward whenever he upgraded his equipment: To this day, he can identify which camera he used to shoot an old video simply by eyeballing it.
As Brownlee’s YouTube presence bloomed—he began at Stevens Tech with fewer than 18,000 YouTube subscribers and finished with nearly 2.5 million—the tech industry took notice. Brands provided him with products to cover, often before they went on sale. “He had a big audience already, and he was very thoughtful about his reviews,” says former Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside. “He understood the space really well—the differentiation of whatever device we were launching, whether it was a phone or an earbud.”
Brownlee was one of the earliest creators to prove you could build a real media business on YouTube. Still, it took him a while to realize that he’d already found his career. At one point, he says, “I had a professor ask, ‘Why haven’t you dropped out yet?’” Eventually, he scrapped his plans to seek a job in technology marketing. He celebrated his graduation with a video announcing that he was about to become a full-time YouTuber.
When I ask Brownlee when he realized that he was famous, he allows that there are “a lot of people who watch the videos and who enjoy learning about tech, and I think that’s pretty sweet.” But he deflects the question’s premise. “I’m thankful that I’m not an actual celebrity because that seems miserable.”
In tech circles, however, he’s indisputably a star. In early September, when he attended the iPhone 15 launch at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, not only was he the most familiar face among the mingling reporters, bloggers, and influencers waiting to get into the Steve Jobs Theater, but a stream of attendees approached him for a selfie or fist bump. Once the show began—a prerecorded video projected on a big screen—Apple CEO Tim Cook cited Brownlee’s positive review of the latest MacBook Air. It was the first time he’d been name-checked in an Apple presentation.
“To be quoted in the first few moments of the event is . . . quite validating, of course,” Brownlee tweeted later in the day. “Also inspiring to keep improving, keep opening doors, and keep creating.”
Brownlee isn’t the only wildly popular consumer-technology commentator on YouTube, or even the one with the most subscribers. (Unbox Therapy’s Lewis Hilsenteger has him beat by more than 3.5 million.) Yet he’s in a class by himself. Industry insiders aren’t eager to disclose how they work with influencers: My requests for on-the-record interviews with large companies were declined or went unanswered. Off the record, tech executives deride some as “swag hunters”—in the game mostly to score free stuff from the companies whose products they cover. But the same people turn reverential when they talk about Brownlee.
“Marques is an enthusiast,” says one. “He would be doing this even if he wasn’t filming it. It makes a huge difference to all the brands who have the opportunity to work with him, because they know he’ll approach their [products] with respect.”
Though Brownlee doesn’t pull his critical punches, he never resorts to gratuitous snark. Even a recent video titled “This Is the Dumbest Product I’ve Ever Reviewed”—about Dyson’s widely panned Zone headphones, which sport a truly odd built-in air purifier—offers a balanced look at its pros and cons. “It’s important for us to understand what’s working and what’s not,” says another executive. “The fact that he has that experience and expertise, it weighs heavily. We listen, we watch, we want those opinions.”
A half-hour video Brownlee posted in July about the Tesla Solar Roof system he purchased for his home (for $93,000, after tax credits) exemplifies his current work and its impact. In it, he patiently breaks down how the tech functions and does the math on his investment, which he calculates will take 9.6 years to pay for itself. For much of the video’s running time, it’s Brownlee in front of a camera. But the talk never gets dry, in part because it’s complemented with animated infographics and drone footage of Tesla’s high-tech shingles soaking up sunshine on Brownlee’s roof.
As usual, Brownlee made the video because he was interested in the technology. At the same time, it fills a hole in the internet’s coverage of the product; few firsthand evaluations are out there of the pricey solar power system. In a little over six weeks, his review became one of his biggest hits of the year, with 8.5 million views. The 22,000 comments left by viewers are a meaty, civil continuation of the conversation he initiated. The fact that Brownlee reviewed the roof became news in itself: Tesla fan sites and roofing-industry news hubs reported on his report.
CES is the biggest event of the year for the consumer-tech industry, drawing thousands of exhibitors to Las Vegas. Early in his career, Brownlee tackled the show’s millions of square feet of exhibits on his own, while large news outlets deployed entire teams (“I’d end up making two videos and then flying home wishing I saw the rest of this stuff”). In 2017, he made his first hire: Andrew Manganelli, a fellow Ultimate Frisbee player who happened to have a film-school degree. MKBHD Inc. has gradually staffed up since, not with sales or business development types but with creators whose backgrounds and YouTube savvy mirror Brownlee’s own.
Along with doing camerawork, video editing and more, these staffers star in the Studio, a YouTube channel spun out from the main MKBHD channel. Its videos are looser, sillier, and more insidery than Brownlee’s own. One recent installment chronicled the trek seven employees made to California to cover the iPhone 15 launch, complete with a mandatory pilgrimage to In-N-Out for burgers. (Brownlee is a bit player in these videos: Watch this one carefully, and you’ll spot him fleetingly, chowing down.)
But Brownlee’s own MKBHD videos remain his primary focus and the place where he continues to protect his most precious asset: fans’ trust. “Ultimately, Marques won’t make stuff he’s not interested in,” says Manganelli, sounding resigned yet respectful. “I’ve tried to get him to look at some gaming things—I don’t push him, like, ‘We should do this.’ I go, ‘Hey, I think you would be interested in this.’ And if he’s not, we don’t do it.”
Given Brownlee’s success, his pickiness about the projects he tackles shows that even on an internet obsessed with huge numbers, quality can triumph over quantity. “He’s really controlled his presence on YouTube,” says Rene Ritchie, a creator liaison at the streaming giant (and a sometime tech YouTuber himself). “He never launched 800 things at once. He hasn’t stood still, but at the same time, he hasn’t exhausted himself.”
When Brownlee and his team have made decisions that have moved the business in new directions, Brownlee says, “The ideas are usually pretty organic.” In 2019, for instance, he and Manganelli realized that the spontaneous conversations they had around the studio could be pretty interesting. They decided to channel that spirit into a podcast called Waveform. Now one of the most popular tech shows on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, it’s also a real business, with sales, marketing, and distribution handled by Vox Media, the publisher of The Verge and New York magazine.
As for the marketing plugs in Brownlee’s videos—such as his 80-second digression about Eight Sleep’s smart mattress cover during the Tesla Solar Roof video—they’re few in number for a YouTube creator, clearly disclosed, and consist of him talking about his own experience with the product rather than reading ad copy. Even rarer are the videos he creates for a single sponsor. “I would assume, knowing how the business works, that Marques has left millions and millions on the table every year,” says fellow tech YouTuber Jon Prosser, who recently created a video celebrating Brownlee’s exacting approach to his work.
In 2017, when Brownlee signed on with WME, the talent agency knew that its new client was going to reject most of the opportunities that came his way. For many YouTube influencers, “brand deals are the strategy; the goal is the brand deal,” says Ben Davis, Brownlee’s agent. But as Brownlee has demonstrated, “That’s backward. Brands come as a result of good strategy.”
His most notable brand partnership to date—working with Atoms to create a high-top sneaker called the M251, with the “251” referencing the 2:51 running length of his first video—isn’t a mere cash grab. Approached by the company, he was intrigued, in part because the idea reminded him of his favorite video among the 1,500-plus he’s made: his 2015 conversation with Kobe Bryant about the NBA legend’s Kobe 11 Nike sneaker. He still looks slightly dazzled recalling that encounter, his first celebrity interview. “Him being an icon and being so generous with his time, that sticks out to me.”
Brownlee, who wanted to make a sneaker for comfy everyday use—not just collecting—weighed in on matters such as the M251’s materials. For Atoms, the collaboration is a byproduct of his current popularity, but also a bet that his brand has more room to expand. “I think this guy, in coming years, is going to be really, really big,” says CEO Sidra Qasim. An update to the original shoe launched in November.
If anything could stand in the way of Brownlee’s operation continuing to grow, it’s that the MKBHD brand is symbiotic with his own high standards, charismatic presence, and reputation as a tech expert, all of which can be scaled only so much.
On YouTube, “your product is fundamentally yourself,” says Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of tech-news site The Verge. “Marques is one of the very few YouTubers who has managed to scale himself without burning out or falling into controversy or chasing whatever is popular in the recommendation algorithm, in a way that I think is deeply admirable.” But once creators max out their ability to produce more videos, Patel adds in a cautionary note, “they start selling merchandise like shoes, which Marques has done.”
Of course, the advantage of Brownlee being his own product is that he gets to make the rules. “I kind of go along with whatever he tells me to do,” says Jeaniene Brownlee, his mom/CFO. “That’s hard to do as a mother because 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 that his business is entirely his creation.”
That vision, Brownlee emphasizes, isn’t about his media empire getting much bigger than the team he’s assembled. “Because of how well we work together, we’re able to make amazing things,” he argues. “Adding more people wouldn’t necessarily make them better.” Instead, he’s sticking to a goal that’s motivated him from the beginning: upgrading the tools at his disposal. “We rent this space inside of this building, so the last step would be to own our own dream video studio, and that’s something we’re working on,” he says. “Once we do that, I can’t really think of any more things I’d rather do.”
Whatever comes next, Brownlee’s community of fans may be his most potent asset. Skim the comments on any random MKBHD video, and you’ll immediately see that his viewers aren’t merely seeking the kind of generic buying advice that’s available all over the web. They’re there because they see him as a trustworthy friend. If he cares about something, they do, too—even if it’s not what they thought they came for.
In August, Brownlee recorded footage for a video at 3DPets, a startup that makes prosthetic legs for dogs and other animals. As the company 3D-printed one for Cleo, a rescued beagle-pit bull mix, Brownlee captured the entire process, ending with her gamboling about on her new limb. It’s a moving story, but the very fact that it tugs at the heartstrings makes it a departure from typical product-centric MKBHD fare. “I asked him about that,” says 3DPets cofounder Adam Hecht. “He basically said, ‘I want to show not just the tech but the purpose, how it’s being used.’”
When I leave Brownlee’s studio, he’s editing the Cleo video at his standing desk, where slant boards on the floor help him stretch his calves as he works. Making it “is just a fun, random thing we get to do [because] there’s tech involved,” he tells me. Plus, he points out, “we got to hang out with a dog.”
The next morning, the video—“How 3D Printing Changed This Dog’s Life!”—is on YouTube. A day after that, it reaches its first million views. The river of comments from viewers proves that when Brownlee goes to new places, his people will follow. “Of all the tech videos made by MKBHD, this one actually hit me in the feels,” writes one fan. “And it’s crazy how it’s not, like, out of place on this channel. It works. And I’m here for it.”