It was an inauspicious beginning: 15 minutes of grainy video footage showing a cute kid picking out a Lego train set at the store, then taking it home to open the box and play with it. “Why do you want this?” his mother asks. “Because I like it!” he replies.
Uploaded in March of 2015, that earliest video on Ryan Kaji’s YouTube channel, filmed when he was just 3 years old, now has more than 49 million views—an impressive figure that nonetheless pales in comparison to the number of people watching Kaji’s most popular uploads, which sometimes surpass one billion. What started as an unlikely enterprise has earned Kaji and his family $26 million in the last year alone, making him the single biggest earner on YouTube. Welcome to Ryan’s World, a place that mesmerizes children and mystifies adults. Try not to step on any toys as you wander around.
Today, Kaji divides his time between making multiple videos a week for his YouTube channel Ryan’s World (wherein Kaji unboxes and reacts to new toys), starring in his Nick Jr. TV show Ryan’s Mystery Playdate (which has Kaji and his parents completing challenges and solving puzzles), and, you know, going to school. The production value of his videos has increased, but the content hasn’t strayed far from the original concept of a cute kid opening and playing with toys. Now 8 years old, Kaji is a grizzled industry vet compared to the guileless toddler of those first clips. “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate has a big crew working together and I love to see the teamwork,” he says via email, describing the differences between his two main gigs.“Ryan’s World videos are special, too, because I film them at home with my mom and dad, and they’re pretty fun to be around.”
Research suggests that the earliest memories we carry into adulthood form when we’re around the age of 7, meaning that Kaji might grow up not knowing a time before multimillion-dollar success and stardom. But for now, he still remembers making that original train-set video, which will live in profit-generating perpetuity even as the original memory fades. “I remember going to Target with my mom and she bought a Lego Duplo train set,” he says. “When we got home, she recorded me on her phone, just so my grandparents could see me.”
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