In the summer of 2017, Jimmy Donaldson — now known as MrBeast — was standing in a Walmart parking lot in Winterville, North Carolina, with a wad of cash in a manila envelope. He was feeding a microphone wire underneath his shirt while sporting heathered gray sweatpants and bright-red Calvin Klein flip flops that looked to be about two sizes too small.
His friend Chris Tyson was filming; goofing around, Tyson joked, “He’s probably going to think you stole this money.”
They didn’t know it then, but the video they were making would be a catalyst that would later propel Donaldson into YouTube stardom and turn him into not only a multimillionaire but also a household name — at least, in any household with access to the internet.
The money was $10,000 cash, and MrBeast hadn’t stolen it, of course. He got it as part of his first-ever sponsorship deal after years of producing YouTube videos without earning much more than pennies per day, despite having a million subscribers at the time.
“I remember this vividly,” Donaldson later revealed in an episode of a docuseries called Beyond the Spotlight. A mobile app company, he explained, wanted to sponsor one of his videos for $5,000. Instead of jumping at the brand deal, Donaldson pushed back: “I'm like, ‘no, I want $10,000. ‘I just want to walk out my front door and go give it to a homeless person.’”
The bizarre counteroffer worked. And so he found a stranger who was panhandling on a grassy median by a stoplight. Cash in hand, Donaldson clacked across the intersection in his flip flops and approached the man, who looked highly skeptical. Then he handed over the envelope.
“Yeah, right,” the guy laughed in disbelief after peeking inside.
“I swear,” Donaldson replied. “Pinky promise.”
They locked fingers and then hugged.
Before Donaldson was a well-known philanthropist with more than 115 million subscribers on YouTube, he was a high schooler churning out low-quality videos from his bedroom. He even had to keep the videos a secret from his mom, who wanted him to focus on studying.
At first, Donaldson’s channel was dominated by footage of him playing video games like Call of Duty or Minecraft while talking over the pre-recorded gameplay. His style of commentary quickly shifted from talking about games to talking about YouTube itself; in one particularly prescient video from 2015, Donaldson tried to predict what the streaming platform would look like in the future.
“Ten years from now, I’m going to be famous on YouTube,” MrBeast said in the 2015 video. “You’re going to think to yourself: ‘I remember watching this guy back before he had 3,000 subscribers. Man, did this guy’s content suck.’”
It might have sucked then, but it certainly doesn’t any more. Today, MrBeast is often referred to as the first digital philanthropist. The 24-year-old has built an empire around filming elaborate stunts with massive cash prizes and random acts of kindness.
Forget grainy videos in his mom’s house — over the years, his operations have ballooned. He recently bought a $10 million warehouse in his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, to produce most of his new content. He now employs about 50 people, according to Bloomberg.
For a recent video, MrBeast recreated the sets from every single competition featured in the massively popular Netflix show Squid Game in painstaking detail. Like in the show, he recruited 456 contestants, and the winner was awarded $456,000. In another video, he gave people one minute to spend up to $1 million.
And that’s just on his main YouTube channel.
In September 2020, Donaldson launched a separate channel called Beast Philanthropy, which promises to put 100% of the profits of his ad revenue, sponsorships and merchandise sales toward charitable causes. This channel has already racked up more than 10 million subscribers.
Beast Philanthropy videos feature his trademark generosity dialed up to 11. Instead of, say, simply surprising random passers-by with $10,000, he fills up buses with school supplies and sends them to the nation’s poorest schools. Instead of giving people $100,000 if they agree to swim with sharks, he donates $3 million to Ukrainian refugees.
The theme of giving away large sums of money — either out of charity or as a prize following some kind of elaborate competition — has been a winning strategy for MrBeast. His videos consistently rake in millions of views.
He’s begun to invest outside of YouTube, too. He launched a ghost-kitchen concept during the pandemic called MrBeast Burger that allows fans to order MrBeast-branded fast food on delivery apps in North America and Europe. Earlier this year, he also debuted a food brand called Feastables, which produces candy bars and cookies.
In a way, almost all of MrBeast’s success can be traced back to the $10,000 he gave the homeless man in 2017. That video triggered an epiphany: “I want to use brands to allow me to help people,” he said in Beyond the Spotlight, describing a strategy that sounds almost like a philanthropic Ponzi scheme. He would earn money from a sponsorship, and in his next video he would give some or all of it away. The video would do well, then he’d land another sponsorship, give away more money and so on.
He’s been doing that ever since, changing others' lives and his own.