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How I’m Crushing It

Daniel Markham, What’s Inside?

IG: @whatsinside

It’s fitting that a science project was responsible for shifting Daniel Markham’s career from pharmaceutical sales rep to half of a world-traveling father-son duo devoted to cutting things in two. Decades of testing, experimentation, and life experience led to his and his son’s “overnight success.”

Growing up, Dan had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but upon graduating from college with a young family, he applied his degree in global business and finance to a position as a pharmaceutical sales rep. The money was good, but for years he put up websites and dabbled in side hustles, or, in his words, “little random small businesses that totally failed,” in the hopes that one would take off and allow him to leave his steady job. When YouTube came along, he put up videos of his kids and wife to share with the rest of his family, who didn’t live near him in Utah. He’d always monetized his websites with Google AdSense, throwing up little pop-up ads, and he did the same for the YouTube videos even though he’d never made any money this way. No one was watching.

One day his son, Lincoln, came to him for help with his second-grade science project. The assignment: to ask and answer a question of his own choosing. The year before, he’d asked, “Why do we have boogers?” and had stuck a giant nose stuffed with green goo on his poster-board presentation. This year he was interested in finding out why humans have earwax, but Dan felt that was too similar. So after thinking about it, Lincoln decided that since he loved sports, he’d like to find out what was inside a sports ball. With his father’s help, he started cutting balls in half and putting together his project. Dan decided to film the process, posting the results on one of his YouTube channels that he renamed Lincoln Markham to make it easy to identify. The idea was that after making his presentation, Lincoln could share the name of the channel with his teacher and classmates, and they could go watch it on their own time. Dan had already monetized about eighty videos by then, including the previous year’s booger video, playing around with the titles and tag words to make them more appealing, He added this one to the lot. It was January 2014.

Almost a year later, on a winter day in December 2014, Dan got an AdSense notification that he’d earned four dollars. He checked his analytics. It hadn’t come from his websites. He checked YouTube. Someone was watching, enough someones to generate income. Inexplicably, YouTube had decided it liked his video and had started suggesting it when people were watching videos about baseball. People were clicking on it, and some were commenting, offering suggestions for other types of balls Lincoln could cut open. “Maybe this is it,” Dan thought. He showed Lincoln what was happening and asked him if he was interested in doing some more videos. Together, they decided to go all in.

They hid the other videos on the channel, changed the name to What’s Inside? and started cutting. They’d spend four or five hours together every Saturday, using Dan’s phone to film videos of themselves cutting open various types of balls, and Dan would throw them up to the platform. As they learned more about how the YouTube algorithm worked, they continued to film on Saturdays, even when they were traveling, but they released only one video per week. The videos got better and more polished as Dan taught himself to use Final Cut Pro and enhanced the storytelling elements of the videos. For example, when they cut up a football, they opened with footage of themselves throwing a football around. They learned even more by attending video conferences and networking with other YouTubers. It was at one of these events, the first CVX Live, that Dan heard adventure-and-extreme-sports videographer Devin Graham, aka devinsupertramp, announce that the way he made money on YouTube was 10 percent from AdSense, 20 percent from licensing content, and 70 percent from sponsored videos. “It just completely blew my mind. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you can make money from brands that would wanna put their stuff on there?’ That was new to me.” It was summer 2015, and Dan scored his first brand deal by making a pitch on a website called FameBit, a marketing site where brands post offers to pay creatives to promote their products. He got paid around $250 to cut open a Rubik’s Cube, and then $1,000 to cut open a mattress. “I thought we had it made. A thousand dollars, and we’re just cutting open a mattress!”

A few months later, he met Shaun “Shonduras” McBride (see Chapter 9), who told him that with their channel’s reach—they now had almost one million subscribers—they should be pitching the advertising agencies that run big influencer marketing campaigns. “Back to the hustle. I had my day job where I was selling drugs and I was traveling to eight different states. And I would sit there at night in hotels looking up the people who spoke at VidCon, the biggest video conference in the country. Anybody who looked like they were from an advertising agency, I would Google them and find out what company they worked for, and reach out, either by e-mail or their Contact Us page.” One of those agencies responded. Dan explained that if they were looking for creative ideas for their brands, he and Lincoln would love to work with them. “‘We are family friendly and we cut stuff open. It’s like an unboxing channel on steroids.’ And they said, ‘Well, why don’t you sign this NDA and we’ll talk.’”

It turned out the agency represented Bill and Melinda Gates. What’s Inside? and a few other YouTube channels were chosen to bring attention to their annual letter outlining their position on current global issues and challenging people to work for positive change in the world. The theme of that year’s letter was “Two Superpowers We Wish We Had.” Dan, who was born in the Philippines, spoke Tagalog, and had served two years there as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), decided that his superpower would be to bring clean, drinkable water to the developing world. His idea was to bring Lincoln to the Philippines to show him why the lack of potable water was such a serious issue.

This was their first “big brand” deal, and it was an important moment. “We needed to keep hustling and trying to find brands that we liked and that we wanted to work with that would make sense for our channel. We don’t want to align ourselves with a brand that we don’t support ourselves.” This meant turning down deals, sometimes extremely lucrative ones. Dan is proud of Lincoln for talking sense into him when he had his head turned by an advertising agency that offered them something in the $30K-to-$50K range to do a video of them cutting open a toy. There was one problem.

It wasn’t super interesting. If we cut it open, people would think, Why did I watch this? But honestly, I was going to find a way to do it. I told Lincoln about it. I was a little apprehensive, but it was good money, like a quarter of my annual salary from my day job. And Lincoln said, “No, Dad, absolutely not. We would totally be sellouts if we did that. Our audience would hate it.” And as soon as he said it, I was like, “You’re totally right.” At the time he was ten years old.

They didn’t do it. Instead, they posted a different video they were pretty sure would also disappoint their viewers. It was of them cutting open a rattlesnake rattle. They had traveled to the Phoenix Zoo to film the cut as part of the opening about three months earlier, but they’d never posted the video because Dan knew from his research that it would be anticlimactic—there’s nothing inside a rattlesnake rattle. But they had no other videos for that week because they’d been on vacation, so they decided to edit the ending for that purpose, even though they were tired from their road trip. It was a Saturday night. Dan spent about seven hours editing and published the video a few minutes before leaving for church the next morning.

That post became the third most viral video on all of YouTube in 2016, racking up forty-two million views in its first seven days. An entire new audience arrived, many of whom were significantly older than the demographic Dan and Lincoln had appealed to before. Among them were people who worked at advertising agencies and brands. Now instead of hustling until three a.m. to find and reach out to big marketing players, the big marketing players were coming to Dan.

He quit his sales job in July 2016.

The generation that’s my age, they don’t understand social media at all. And then you put in my parents, who are even older. For me to say I’m leaving a really good job that took me a long time to get to where I am, to step away from that to make YouTube videos, they were definitely scared, even when I told them the numbers. Those conversations were hard, because you don’t want to feel that you’re letting people down or that people are worried about you.

His wife, who had always been supportive but liked her full-time job working for a Fortune 100 company, quit when it became clear that the family balance that was so important to them couldn’t be sustained with both parents working such intense hours. And Lincoln? Lincoln still makes videos with his dad, but he also goes to school, plays golf, and hangs with his friends and sisters like any normal boy. Dan is adamant about protecting his son’s childhood, and his daughters’ now that they’re running a family channel, too. He keeps a healthy perspective about the magical ride his family is enjoying.

I want Lincoln to feel like he is still a kid, not like he has a full-time job. I’m looking at a pile of twenty things that would be awesome and timely and good to cut open right now, but I want Lincoln to get home from school and go play with his friends today, so I’m not going to do that. It’s a tricky balance.

Nike e-mails and says, “We want Lincoln to be one of the top global influencers for this campaign.” Whether or not Lincoln is a top global influencer—and I have a hard time thinking that he is—the fact that Nike thinks he is is something Lincoln has on his résumé that will never go away. I’ve done a lot of talking about brand deals and hustling to get those brand deals, but at the end of the day, meeting Bill Gates for that first video . . . forget about the money. It will forever go down as something that we’ve done as a family. This is all stuff that if YouTube went away tomorrow, has been amazing life experiences.

You never know what is going to take off in life. Definitely nothing is going to take off if you are not consistently working hard and trying different things forever. I never thought that I’d be cutting things open, but if I didn’t try and fail at all these other things for all those years, this would never have come about.

Dan Markham and his family are practitioners. They did their research, they paid attention to all the little details, and they stayed true to their brand. It’s exciting to me to see a family doing so well because they put in the work—and executed.

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