The Preteen's Guide to Getting Rich Off YouTube
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 29 - April 05, 2021
Ryan Kaji’s video empire makes most of its revenue from merchandise, not ads
Lucas Shaw and Mark Bergen

Ryan Kaji is one of the most popular YouTube creators in the world, with a main channel that’s drawn 29 million subscribers interested in watching the 9-year-old open new toys, exercise, or do crafting projects. For Ryan and his family, that audience has translated into millions of dollars in annual ad revenue, the traditional form of income for YouTube celebrities.

Shion and Loann Kaji, Ryan’s parents, have also struck sponsorship and merchandising deals with Walmart and Target and signed on for TV shows with Nickelodeon and Amazon. This year the Kajis are adding a footwear line with Skechers USA Inc. In total, products bearing Ryan’s World branding generated more than $250 million in sales in 2020, according to Chris Williams, whose company PocketWatch Inc. handles the family’s licensing business outside YouTube. The Kajis’ share of those sales represented 60% to 70% of their $30 million of annual revenue—making it the first year their licensing business has surpassed their YouTube ad revenue.

For three years running, Ryan has made more than any other YouTuber, according to estimates from Forbes. The Kajis’ operation, which consists of eight separate channels and the corresponding merchandising business, is serving as a model for others, showing that the most successful YouTube operations see ad revenue as a diminishing proportion of their overall business.

The YouTube influencer merchandising boom has been growing for several years. Early pioneers included Michelle Phan’s Ipsy makeup service and PewDiePie’s catalog of hoodies, hats, and yo-yos. In just the past few months, video blogger Emma Chamberlain created a cold-brew company, Chamberlain Coffee, and stunt artist MrBeast started a hamburger pop-up, BeastBurger, that’s “the most important restaurant chain in the U.S.,” according to one trade magazine. Influencer Logan Paul recently said his Maverick clothing line brought in $30 million in its first year.

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