On the first day of 2007, John and Hank Green started Brotherhood 2.0. The idea was simple – send each other video blogs back and forth every day for a year. The mission was simple but heartfelt: deepen their bond through the power of new media. When the year ended, they kept making videos, dubbing themselves the Vlogbrothers.
Little could they have known that this was the beginning of the world’s friendliest business empire. Far stranger still, how could they have known they were going to one day be considered pioneers in the now-$100 billion industry that we now call the creator economy?
Part of why we write Weird Marketing Tales is because we want people to know just how many options there are to make a living. The world of small business is vibrant and thriving, especially if you look at the many people making a living directly or indirectly because of YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Kickstarter, Patreon, and other strongholds of online creativity.
But what if I told you that the modern method of building a career in the creator economy basically traces back to John and Hank Green?
Never heard of Vlogbrothers? You probably still know who these guys are.
I’m not going to mince words: the Green brothers have had influence and career wins whose depth and scope has not been rivaled by any other YouTuber. Sure, PewDiePie and Mr. Beast have tons of subscribers and are both really rich. But when you talk pure impact and influence, I still think the Vlogbrothers beat them hands-down. Here’s why.
The Vlogbrothers channel has been active and thriving for almost 15 years.
Wikipedia describes John and Hank Green as “American entrepreneurs, social activists, authors, and YouTube vloggers.” That plain statement of fact is stated so neutrally that it understates the sheer breadth of their accomplishments. If you’re anything like me, reading that phrase makes you wonder, “well, how did two pretty regular guys from middle America manage to do all that?”
It all traces back to the Vlogbrothers YouTube account. While their business and charity successes are the result of hard work and good intent applied over more than a decade, the most consequential action they took – in terms of their own careers, not their goal of “decreasing world suck” – was starting Brotherhood 2.0. That gave them a platform.
Funny things happen when you build a big enough platform. Regularly producing content that people enjoy builds a community. With a thriving community, you have the backstop of power and influence you need to do just about anything you want for good or for evil. Brotherhood 2.0, and its direct successor, the Vlogbrothers channel is, to this day, the heart and soul of their community.
And let’s talk about that community! The Vlogbrothers have been sending each other video messages on with remarkable consistency on the internet back and forth since 2007. They manage to be goofy, heartfelt, and really well informed at the same time, and this has led to a massive community known as the Nerdfighters, who are collectively called Nerdfighteria.
Nerdfighteria is not just built around star power, although both brothers are very charismatic in a distinctly geeky dad sort of way. Rather, their community is built around a desire to make the world a more educated, loving, kind place to live. (I’ll get to specifics in the following sections!)
They invented Crash Course & Sci Show.
If you’re reading this article, there’s a very good chance you have watched Crash Course on YouTube. Sporting 13.6 million subscribers, the channel was started by the brothers in late 2011. It started as a YouTube-funded project which later partnered with PBS Digital Studios, then the YouTube Learning Fund, and then eventually Arizona State University.
- World History
- U.S. History
This is just scratching the surface too. Crash Course has covered over 50 subjects and has aired well over 1,000 episodes. The quality of the curriculum is really high, the research is immaculate, and even the animations are done in a beautiful and engaging way. There’s a reason why Crash Course has been played in so many classrooms.
And it’s all free!
But the Vlogbrothers’ commitment to education goes beyond just making excellent free courses. They also have kickstarted a bunch of channels designed to teach people new things without the commitment of watching full courses. SciShow is one of the most popular, boasting 7.2 million subscribers as of the time of writing.
Why have their educational programs been able to catch on so much? Well, obviously, they have a huge platform and they’ve done a great job of making very high-quality content. But the explosive popularity of these channels tells us that they met an unmet need. And, I’ve got to be honest – even with my pretty good education, Crash Course is still honestly better than at least half of college courses I’ve taken…and I didn’t need a lottery scholarship and side job to afford it.
They started VidCon, the world’s first major online video influencer conference.
Both brothers are also huge promoters of new media in general, and have been since well before it was popular to do so. In addition to helping many channels get started, they also started VidCon. If you’re into YouTube, or for that matter TikTok, you’ve probably heard of VidCon. It’s a major convention for online influencers, and was the first of its kind, starting in 2010.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at VidCon today, both the Green brothers started it in the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles with just 1,400 attendees. This alone is an enormous achievement. Even getting 100 people in a room takes a ton of work, and this was a really strong place to start.
VidCon continued to grow from there, eventually getting acquired by Viacom. As of 2021, TikTok became the primary sponsor, replacing YouTube who started sponsoring it in 2013. It’s going to soon expand into Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Mexico City, and São Paulo.
Now again, those are just the plain wikiable facts. In addition to having millions of subscribers on their channel which has been running 15 years and in addition to starting a company that has made an unfathomable amount of educational content, they have also created one of the largest conventions in the world (see these for comparison). VidCon is a hugely important cultural touchstone for video content creators.
Again, this is another instance of the brothers creating the perfect service to meet an unmet need. When you make something people really, really want and have a big platform to launch it from, this is what can happen!
Before Patreon was really known, they created DFTBA and Subbable to help creators monetize their work.
Another funny thing that happens when you have a thriving community: people will tell you what they think. The Vlogbrothers no doubt knew there were a ton of content creators out there who were trying to do what they were doing, but just couldn’t monetize it.
In 2008, Hank created DFTBA Records, which is now known as DFTBA.com. It stands for “don’t forget to be awesome” which is a catchphrase that the brothers have used on Vlogbrothers as well as other properties like Crash Course.
DFTBA allows content creators to sell merchandise, and in the early 2010s, was one of the better ways to monetize your work on YouTube. So much so that a lot of other YouTubers you may know such as CGP Grey and Kurzgesagt use DFTBA, at least in part, to fund their channels.
In 2013, Hank Green created Subbable, which was a crowdfunding system inspired by Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The idea was that entertainers and educators could use Subbable to receive payment for their content on a steady schedule, like paychecks. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the model used today by Patreon, who acquired Subbable in 2015.
In other words, the Vlogbrothers were hugely influential in making online content creation a steady job for a lot of people.
Their charity, Project for Awesome, is actively making the world better since 2007.
If all they had done for the world was make charming videos, publish good educational content, and accelerate the growth of the nascent industry of online content creation, that would be enough to make them Certified Good People™.
But they are also known for their charity work, in particular, Project for Awesome. The idea behind P4A, as it’s known, is that it is a 48-hour event where YouTubers create videos to promote their favorite charities. It’s a charity livestream, not unlike the telethons of yesteryear. The events are held once a year, every year, and have been since 2007. Cumulatively, almost $3.25 million has been raised for charity.
These funds go to the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, which despite the funny name is an honest-to-God 501(c)(3) organization that passes money along to a bunch of other charities.
Which charities you might ask? You can see a full list here. You’ll see everything from UNICEF to animal rights organizations, the National Park Foundation to Feeding America. It’s a long, long list.
Between them, they’ve written a ton of books, including The Fault in Our Stars.
Even if you managed to avoid every little bit of their online content, you probably have still come across the work of John and Hank Green in the bookstore, or honestly, even your local Walmart or Costco. Some of their books are that widely distributed.
Hank is a science fiction author, known for An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor. He also, remarkably, even wrote a foreword for Pride & Prejudice. Yes, that’s right – the Jane Austen book from 1813.
They’ve had a lot of luck creating boutique subscription services.
The Vlogbrothers’ idea of a pandemic project is apparently inventing subscription services! One would think this is a way of cashing in, and not even a bad one, but somehow, these guys managed to not only make profitable businesses but moral ones too.
In November 2020, they started the Awesome Socks Club. Sign up and you get beautifully designed socks made by custom artists for a reasonable price. As of this year, they have 45,000 subscribers and counting.
The business so far has been very successful, generating over $700,000, all of which has gone to charity. They’re using socks to not only employ artists but also reduce maternal and child mortality in Sierra Leone. That’s a pretty remarkable business model!
They’ve also very recently launched the Awesome Coffee Club. It’s too early to tell whether it will be successful (though it probably will). Their goal is to make really good-tasting coffee, delivered every month or two weeks. Every bean is sustainably and ethically sourced. Not only are they making sure the coffee farmers keep money in their community, but they’re also making sure the coffee is made without deforestation. Oh yeah, and all the profits are going to the same cause in Sierra Leone.
They’re even able to future-proof themselves by breaking into TikTok despite being in their 40s.
John and Hank Green are both in their 40s now and their online communities are going strong. They have hobbies and passions, families, and good careers. They don’t need to innovate or change their model to take care of themselves or even the world.
Yet they are masters of branching out and relentlessly productive creators. That’s why you can find both of them with millions of subscribers on TikTok, reaching out to a whole new younger target audience. Turns out that TikTok isn’t necessarily a young man’s game if your message is eternal, like the Vlogbrothers’ message of kindness and charity.
5 specific reasons why the Vlogbrothers have been so successful in business
The Vlogbrothers’ career has been so prolific and impactful that even stating plain facts with minimal analysis, as I have above, tells a story. When you really stop and pay attention to the good things they do, and watch their videos to see them speak, it’s not hard to see why people like them and gravitate to them.
But you might still wonder how they found the time and the money to do all this work. How did they manage to launch so many businesses and succeed? We like to think of entrepreneurs as being tough, often mean people who will do anything to get the job done. These guys just seem really, really nice, and it feels like that’s rare in the entrepreneurial world.
And to be fair, I think entrepreneurs have a PR problem. Meet most of them in person and they’re actually pretty nice. But more to the point, the brothers are successful for a lot of reasons that are not strictly sentimental and which you can imitate in your own life.
1. Their community is built around a clearly defined purpose and every project they take on reinforces it.
If you want to build a community, you have to build it around some kind of emotion. Emotion, after all, is what drives people to buy things or even just watch videos or read blog posts. The Vlogbrothers built their community around love.
No, I’m not being corny. Love is a powerful emotion to put at the center of a community, as they have with Nerdfighteria. It’s also kind of uncommon, as fear, hate, frustration, and envy can be used to make communities with a lot less effort. But that’s not the way they decided to do things – they made non-romantic love of their fellow human beings their brand.
I’m not stretching here – they’ve even said it plainly. This is the message behind Esther Day, the holiday they made in honor of a young cancer patient who died and whose personality served as inspiration for the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars.
Love is the foundation of their community. They live and die by the ideas of “decreasing world suck” and generally doing good. Their educational videos, creation of VidCon, creation of Subbable, empathetic works of fiction, ethical subscription services, and charity work all stem from that.
Their consistency of message got them an audience. The audience they built reaches out with fresh ideas and open hearts. Then the Vlogbrothers listen and create projects based on what they feel needs to be done.
2. They work really hard and publish regular, fresh, high-quality work.
If there’s one thing that can reliably used to predict success, it’s sheer volume of work produced. If you make enough blog posts, videos, books, or gadgets, something you do will sell. It’s just a matter of sheer probability over a long time.
Well, the Vlogbrothers churn out content like nobody’s business. I honestly could not even find a count of how many videos they’ve made, and I bet you they don’t know either. Between them, they’ve made several books, several companies, and likely tens of thousands of videos. Their list of accomplishments is long because they are pretty much always publishing something good or launching something new.
Always. Be. Launching. That’s about the best modern advice anyone can give you in business.
But, of course, anyone who’s gotten into hustle culture knows the problem that can come with keeping a relentless publication schedule. You inevitably burn out. It’s exhausting to work all the time.
That’s where I think love comes in again. These guys can keep cranking out work because they fundamentally believe in what they do. They have a community that they feel truly emotionally connected to and they are genuinely proud of their work. That makes it easier to stave off burnout.
And even with that, they still sometimes take breaks, not being shy about taking paternity leave when they need it.
3. They basically defined the creator economy career arc by spotting opportunities and taking them.
When I set out to write this article, I didn’t think I would be saying, “the Vlogbrothers basically invented YouTube as a career.” But alas, that’s the conclusion that I just keep coming back to. How many classic YouTubers can you look back to who have been in the game since the mid-2000s and who have built empires?
Rhett & Link maybe? I can’t think of anyone else.
The Vlogbrothers had early success in 2007 and were able to build up their community. Because they were so connected to their fans and so willing to listen to them, and so open to change, they ended up developing really keen career instincts even though that likely was not their primary goal. That led them to create educational content before that was really big on YouTube and to create Subbable before Patreon was Patreon. That led them to create merch stores while YouTube was still figuring out how to use ads.
“Let’s send each other videos back and forth for a year.” That was their big plan at the beginning. The rest of what they decided to do was chosen either because they later spotted the opportunity and knew it would be good or because they wanted to do it for a long time – like writing – and had an audience to support them.
“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower.
4. Their projects often address deep societal need.
Product-market fit. If you read us enough, you’ll come across that phrase in nearly every article. That’s because the basic concept – you have to make something that people want – is so obvious and yet so powerful. Our egos can cause us to ignore this rule.
But think about the things that really worked for these guys. Crash Course took off like a rocket because it was something a lot of kids – and adults – with substandard schooling needed. Subbable got acquired by Patreon because it did much of the legwork needed to give this whole new economic class of creators actual paying jobs for their work. Their books, especially John’s, have been really good at connecting with teenagers because of their empathetic prose. These are just a few examples.
Even VidCon, which has evolved into something really different these days, started from this ethos. They knew creators would need a way to meet up, so they made it happen.
5. Plain and simple: they walk the talk.
I was honestly afraid to look these guys up because it seems like just about every superficially decent person on the internet is embroiled in some awful controversy. But not these guys – they seem to genuinely be as charitable as they present themselves to be.
In the world of philanthropy, a lot of rich folks give away massive sums of money to immortalize their names or to bully some institution into doing what they want. There’s a lot of ego involved. Yet I just don’t see that with these guys. It’s absent, or at least evades my detection, and for my cynical self that’s exceedingly rare.
They could be rolling in money from their subscription services alone. And yet they’re giving away their money because they feel it’s the right thing to do. They could probably both be centimillionaires before the decade is up if they wanted to be, but that just doesn’t seem to be what they want to do. They really want to help.
People may not be rational, but they are smart. And they can tell who’s fake and who’s not, so make sure you really do believe in your mission. If you don’t, then find another mission.
The Vlogbrothers’ massive success and sheer impact was a surprise, but it not a fluke. Their brand is founded on brotherly love, and that idea gained them audience. That audience gave them a platform. They used that platform for good.
Whether your ambition is to build a company or be as generous as possible, you would do well to learn from these guys’ career arcs. Find something worth building a community around, keep creating beautiful things, and keep looking for opportunities. Pay attention to what people need and always keep your promises.
And, to pass on some wisdom from the brothers themselves: don’t forget to be awesome.