A few years ago, Adam Dahlberg was a depressed and overweight teenager, standing in line at the local food bank and struggling to find a purpose in life. Today, the 23-year-old has 12 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and a staff of more than a dozen working out of a nondescript Bellevue office. Here’s how he got there.
My 11-year-old daughter is responsible for this article.
A few months ago, she asked if she could write a fan letter to a YouTuber she was fond of. I admittedly had a less-than-stellar impression of the people that create YouTube channels aimed at the preteen demographic, so I told her I’d have to research the YouTuber in question. The channel she was fond of was SkyDoesMinecraft.
A few keystrokes later, I discovered three things:
- SkyDoesMinecraft is one of the most popular YouTube channels on the planet;
- The fellow running the channel has an amazing story;
- He lives in Bellevue.
A bazillion YouTube channels across the globe, and my daughter lands on one that originates 30 minutes from our house. Go figure.
SkyDoesMinecraft was created by the earnest and impossibly polite Adam Dahlberg. When I contacted Dahlberg to set up an interview for this article, he replied, “Sure, man; set it up through my COO.” I couldn’t help but smile. How many 23-year-olds have a chief operating officer? Dahlberg is an excessively rare breed: He is of the tiny percentage of YouTubers who make a living off their channels. And Dahlberg is at the top of that group, too.
He has an action figure.
He’s been in a Lady Gaga video.
Adam Dahlberg is a 23-year-old millionaire.
Sky Media, Dahlberg’s business, is located in a nondescript office building in a hush-hush location in Bellevue. There’s no signage on the door, because anonymity is treasured here. When I arrive, Dahlberg meets me, dressed in all black, head-to-toe like Johnny Cash. I could see my reflection in his dress shoes. “Not how I normally dress,” he says. “I have a thing I gotta do later today. Normally I’d be wearing my Grumpy Cat or I Hate Mondays T-shirt.” As we talk, Dahlberg laughs frequently and easily. He comes across as a man who thoroughly enjoys and appreciates his station in life.
It’s impossible to overstate how popular his YouTube channel is. He has more than 12 million subscribers. According to the statistics website Social Blade, SkyDoesMinecraft is currently the 35th most-subscribed-to YouTube channel, and the eighth most-subscribed to gaming channel.
“People relate to him,” says James Haffner, Dahlberg’s COO and, at 32, the virtual graybeard on staff. “He’s like everyone’s best friend.” Even Dahlberg’s followers have their own nickname, Sky’s Army, and it is growing by the minute. He’s averaging 4,000 new subscribers a day. One of his videos I tracked had received 68,337 views within two hours of posting.
The running of a successful YouTube channel did not live up to my rather jaundiced view. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’m a complete idiot. This is big business.
Dahlberg’s offices are a sprawling 8,000 square feet and populated by 14 salaried employees. “We plan to get around to 23 by the end of 2016,” says Dahlberg. The staff is made up of editors, videographers, IT specialists, production coordinators, and on-camera talent, with an average age of maybe 22.
Do they offer health benefits and a 401(k)? “Not yet,” says Dahlberg. “We’re still a startup. But we’re looking to put that together by the end of the year. I want to make sure my people are taken care of.”
TAKING CARE OF PEOPLE is a powerful theme in Dahlberg’s life, and it’s not hard to figure out why. He says his childhood “was a very toxic environment,” one that “wound up kind of ripping our family apart.”
“I have so much respect for my father,” Dahlberg says, “and my mom; I love my mom a lot. I should say it more often to her. Everybody right now is awesome. I want to emphasize that. But sometimes people go through some issues, and they unintentionally bring others along with them.” Dahlberg’s affection for his parents is palpable. And they are his adoptive parents, whom he’s been with since he was 1 year old.
As recently as five years ago, Dahlberg’s life was in a pretty different space. The then-teenager had a YouTube channel with middling success (11,000 subscribers) called JinTheDemon that focused on a popular game called RuneScape. But he still was living in his parents’ house and working at Subway. And he also weighed 320 pounds and was depressed.
“I’ve been to that point where I had to be hospitalized,” says Dahlberg. “It’s overwhelming, and it’s almost like you feel just complete darkness around you, to the point where you don’t see any light.”
Through the support of his friends and family, Dahlberg was able to find treatment, and maybe more importantly, change his mindset. “I finally came to the conclusion that there’s never absolute darkness. It’s just absence of light. It’s the same thing with your life. There’s always going to be something around you that’s positive,” says Dahlberg.
Dahlberg’s sincerity and staunch belief in this are contagious. He could put a self-help guru to shame. You look in his eyes and see conviction:
“I encourage anyone that if you have any kind of serious depression, do not feel afraid to say something, because that’s the thing you need to do the most. It’s so serious. People need to support each other. If they don’t do that, then what’s the point of being a race? What is the point of being the human race if we’re not even there to help each other?”
Every person has those life-changing moments that arrive innocuously and unannounced. Dahlberg has had his share. One such moment came on a particularly bad day.
“I was so depressed,” says Dahlberg, “It was, like, 12 o’clock. There was some crazy stuff happening at the house, and I just walked out.” He ended up at Robinswood Park in southeast Bellevue, and began walking around the track, trying to clear his mind. The walking became a jog. The next thing he knew, he said, he’d done five miles. “And that is a lot for a 300-pound dude,” says Dahlberg. “I sat there gasping for breath, but at the same time it felt good.”
That night led to an epiphany: “The next night, I did the same thing, and then again; it became a routine.” As a result, Dahlberg lost 30 pounds, then he moved on to the infamous P90X program and lost another 80 pounds. He noticed that his depression became more manageable. The darkness wasn’t quite so dark.
Dahlberg spent the better part of a year mostly away from the internet, focusing instead on bettering himself. When he later returned to his internet world, all his RuneScape friends were gone: “I’m, like, where are all my friends at? What the heck happened?” What happened was they had discovered a new game: Minecraft.
“I was like, all right, well, I’ll give it a shot,” Dahlberg says. He did, and wound up creating SkyDoesMinecraft. “I started doing a couple of commentaries, and from there, the following just started building,” he says.
Back in the day — say, 2011 — Minecraft was like a sprawling virtual Lego world where players would create figures that walked around and built things. That’s about it. But Dahlberg and his friends saw something more. “We could create full-on sets in the game, and we could record them and make little skits,” he says. So they wrote fully developed scripts and had what are called Machinimas — machine cinema. Basically, online cinema.
“It would go from us playing the game and acting like the characters, which is called role play, and then moving into these little skits where if something was happening in the game that we couldn’t actually make happen, we would edit it in,” Dahlberg says. “We would make it look like it’s happening through editing. So as it goes along, the entire story starts building a full arc. I describe it like a television show in Minecraft.”
Eventually, Dahlberg and his friends noticed their commentary videos were getting more views and followers than their skits, so they started slowly switching direction.
At that point, SkyDoesMinecraft had a healthy following, but not much in the way of income. Says Dahlberg: “I started making, like, $100 a month, $200 a month.” In fall 2013, things took off.
“I noticed a lot of other YouTubers would do these things called Mod Showcases. I was, like, ‘What the heck are these?’”
Since Minecraft is an open-source game, users can modify it to do whatever they want. That’s what led to its explosive popularity. Somebody might say, “Man, I’d love to code a giant three-headed dragon into Minecraft.” They code it in, then when they log back into the game, there’s the huge monster. They modified the game. During Mod Showcases, a commentator introduces the viewer to a new Mod and reviews it. “So I’m explaining these Mods for the game, and people loved them,” says Dahlberg.
The community was still pretty new, so he decided to put his own spin on them.
“I did the Mods with comedy, and nobody was doing that. The next thing I know, 5 million views, 7 million views. My videos just started going viral. At this point it went from $100 to $200 to $1,000 to $3,000 to $15,000 (a month).” Dahlberg lawyered up.
“I talked to my dad, and he was looking at these numbers and thinking it was some kind of Nigerian scam: ‘You’re making how much off the internet?’ I was freaking out, and my family was freaking out. The best thing we could think of was to get a lawyer and incorporate so I don’t get slammed on taxes.”
So how does a YouTuber make money from his or her channel? The short answer is advertising. People make a big deal about the number of subscribers a channel has, but the defining number is the number of views. The more views you have, the more advertising dollars you can bring in. Once your channel reaches a certain threshold of views, a little “Monetize” button magically appears on your account — YouTube lets you know that not only can you start making money, but so can YouTube. Ad revenue starts coming in from banner ads that pop up and from the full-screen commercials you have to wait through to view the video you wanted to see. During videos that are more than 10 minutes long, the screen will dim and another ad will play before you can return to viewing your video. Those premium ads can earn YouTubers a lot of money, so many people create videos purposefully longer than 10 minutes. Google, YouTube’s parent company, takes 55 percent of that ad revenue, and the video’s creator gets the rest.
Partnership networks also help YouTubers monetize their channels. For 10 percent of the video creator’s 45 percent take, the networks help protect against copyright infringement and bring brand-integration deals to the table. Say Qdoba wants to do a campaign with your channel. If you post a video of you eating a Qdoba product, and then tell your viewers go eat at Qdoba, Qdoba will pay you.
And branding is everything. Dahlberg’s username, SkythekidRS, and channel, SkyDoesMinecraft, are powerful brands.
Sky Media currently operates eight channels and posts four to five videos a day. Each video is slotted from 45 minutes to an hour. It’s not a slapdash affair; each video requires a lot of prep. Dahlberg’s staff scours the internet looking for trends, brainstorming storylines, writing scripts, testing jokes. There is definite method to their madness, and there is no shortage of madness at headquarters in Bellevue.
One day earlier this year, I watched as four staffers rolled through a recording of a Minecraft video called “The Breakfast Brigade.” Each of the four players is responsible for characters with names like Bacon Man and Hashbrown Hank. Each player is in a separate studio playing the game while voicing individual characters in an assortment of ridiculous accents and spectacularly lame jokes.
John “Barney” Yazici, a 22-year-old who has been buddies with Dahlberg for years, is one of those players. Yazici says he’s living a charmed life. “It’s my dream,” he says. “I get to laugh and make jokes with my friends and get paid for it.” Yazici has his own popular YouTube channel, ThatGuyBarney, that has about 600,000 subscribers.
In another booth sits 21-year-old Michael “RedVacktor” Steves, the lead producer and a popular talent in his own right with his own channel. Steves dropped out of college to join Dahlberg’s crew.
The newbie in the group is Preston Matson, another 21-year-old who a year ago was working at a mom-and-pop gas station in Texas and had no idea what to do with his life. His new line of work: cracking wise over video games. “My friends think it’s totally ridiculous. In a good way,” Matson says.
Emily, who wanted to keep some anonymity and not reveal her last name, is one of the only females on staff. She’s the production coordinator and a Seattle Film Institute graduate. I asked her how she landed the gig: “To the best of my knowledge, I was the only woman who applied for the job who was over 18.”
DAHLBERG HIMSELF IS a product of the most wonderful success stories. He went from waiting in line at food banks to becoming a wealthy and successful businessman, all by the time he was barely over legal drinking age. His charmed run hasn’t been without new challenges — the most recent one coming in the form of a two-year battle with Bulimia Nervosa, which landed him in the hospital earlier this fall. After that, he cut a video and went full disclosure with his fans, yet again putting his personal battles and demons on full display. But as he’s shown in the past, Dahlberg has a way of fighting through his struggles and coming out a stronger man on the other side.
Dahlberg’s life has had a story arc Hollywood writers kill for. The man’s only 23, and he’s buying his parents a house. He has a propensity for saying “dude.” And he has a definite purpose in life.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that my purpose is happiness, but not just my own happiness, but everyone’s happiness,” he says. “I think each person is like a light bulb. Some people’s light shines brighter than others, due to the blessing they were given. I believe that if you have a brighter light, and if you share that light with others, then it will make a larger light as a whole. You can light one part of a room, or you can light the whole room.”
That fan letter my daughter wants to send him? I’ll lick the stamp myself.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of “425 Business.”