How This Former Ballerina Became a Top Host and Producer at Leading YouTube Brand Smosh
In this series, YouTube Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular YouTube channels to find out the secrets of their success.
As a professional ballet dancer in her mid-twenties, Mari Takahashi worked odd jobs to supplement her income, but she thought dancing would always be her main gig. That is, until she met Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, the co-founders of the sketch comedy YouTube channel Smosh.
Shortly after joining the Smosh brand, Takahashi wrote, produced and edited a series on her own, called Smosh Pit Weekly, learning on the job. As the years went on, she helped launch a network of additional channels (which, along with the original Smosh channel, are now owned by Defy Media). One of these is the video game-focused channel Smosh Games, which was founded in 2012 and today has 7.1 million subscribers.
Takahashi is still a host and producer at Smosh, now working with a team of about 50 under the brand. She wears many hats, helping to create new shows, series and channels, attending writers’ and creative meetings and serving as a Smosh Games host and producer. Smosh Games won “Best Gaming Channel” at the Streamys online video awards in 2014 and 2017.
She also oversees many of the brand’s marketing efforts, having worked with motion picture studios such as Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures, gaming brand Assassin's Creed and snack brand Totino’s on branded content and more. For the game Assassin's Creed: Origins, she helped lead the development of a three-part “digital travel series” in Egypt that garnered more than 2 million views.
After a career change, more than seven years with a top YouTube brand and even a stint as a contestant on the CBS reality show Survivor in 2016, Takahashi has a succinct piece of advice for aspiring YouTubers -- or entrepreneurs in general:
“Remember to enjoy your work,” she says, “and expect nothing and everything at the same time.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with YouTube?
I had been working as a professional ballerina in the San Francisco Bay Area for several years up to that point. My career trajectory as I saw it was, dance ballet until I needed to get hip surgery, and then teach ballet until I died. But as a starving artist, you take any opportunity and any gig that comes through. For me, that varied from handing out flyers at a convention to being a magician’s assistant to signing up for a YouTube sketch comedy gig out in Sacramento that paid $50.
That is when I met Ian and Anthony of Smosh. This was back in 2010. We got along on set, and the next step was asking if I could produce a show. I had never produced a show, written for comedy, talked in front of a camera or edited videos before. None of it. But I saw it as a chance to learn something new, and I jumped on it. I didn’t foresee YouTube being a career path for me, but it was an organic path that opened up for me.
The early days consisted of me producing and being a one-man show of a series called Smosh Pit Weekly, in which I wrapped up some of the most prominent news stories or memes that occured on the web that week.
When I first started with the Smosh brand in 2010, it was three of us cast members and two channels. It became really clear that we needed to scale and create channels that supported our eclectic interests and expand our talent and cast members. Smosh Games was a channel that started in 2012 as a conglomerate of six people. Other than our irreverent comedy, the one thing that we all enjoyed doing was video games. Now we have several channels and 11 cast members. We lean into topics that resonate with us cast members and our audience.
2. How much of your time do you spend on a video and what does that entail?
Over the years, we’ve realized we’re a content creating machine. We’re acrobatic to a degree, where we can shift from doing something straightforward like gameplay videos to having an international production team take our cast members and create a three-part series in Egypt.
We’ve been able to be quick and malleable in creating the types of videos that we want. So it can be a one-day turnaround if it’s a video that we’re really, really excited about. Or it could be a few days, weeks or months of us throwing ideas on a wall to see what sticks. The ideation part of our videos is still really scrappy and organic to a degree. It’s still just a lot of creatives in a room spitballing ideas of our biggest and wildest dreams. I think in some ways, we love that, because YouTube is a reflection of just kind of having ideas. Not striving for perfection, but getting the work done.
We have monthly brand meetings, in which our entire team of about 50 people come together in a room. We celebrate our highs and we talk about our lows, and we have a talk about what we can do better and how we can continue to innovate. When creativity hits, it’s in your shower at 7 a.m. or in the middle of the day. It’s kind of like putting Post-it notes all over the wall, but sometimes that comes in the form of texting each other, or walking into our creative director’s room and saying, “We want to do this. How do we make it happen?”
3. What's your content strategy? How do you decide what and when to post?
Our audience consists of young people just trying to get through life. We all experience extraordinary and bizarre things as we grow up, and I think that is a baseline that resonates with all of us. We ask, “What would we want to see?” “What are the topics that we would want to talk about?” “What’s important to us?” We lean in on things that excite us. As a business, we see opportunities and take chances. We take risks on programming. If we believe in it, we’ll get our gears going so that it will be executed.
“If it wasn’t a job for us, would we still be doing it?” is a huge question that we always ask ourselves. I think that's something that's really important to continuously ask yourself as YouTuber, as a creator and as a business owner.
I think something that’s distinguished Smosh as a brand across our channels is that we’ve run programming much like television. Our audience can expect a certain show on a Monday or a Thursday. It’s kind of a handshake with our audience saying, we’re going to be here, you’re going to be here. Every weekday when we have a video upload, there’s communication and trust that we’re going to be there.
I think YouTube will always be our home and we’ll always be loyal to our home, but we’re able to grow beyond and be on several platforms. And I think that’s something that’s important for creators to remember: to be agnostic to many different platforms.
4. How do you leverage your YouTube channels and to what extent do you monetize them?
I think one of the best things about the Smosh brand is that we’re able to diversify amongst our many channels that we have. Working with brands, we’re able to cater to their needs.
Let’s say we’re working with a gaming company. Perhaps they want a straight up gameplay review or video. Perhaps they want a sketch talking about the game, or something themed around the game. The fact that we’re able to be kind of a chameleon in the space is something we’ve used to our advantage. We have the ability and the desire to create custom content for brands that we’re working with. For example, Assassin’s Creed was coming out with a game in Q4 last year, and we pitched, how about we play the game, and then we go to the location where the game was prominently located? That was Egypt. Taking gameplay and applying it to real life is definitely something that we want to continue doing -- for brands and for ourselves.
It goes back to having a team and having a complex group around you. We make eclectic content. In that sense, we’re not linear. And I think that’s why we’re able to be agile and adapt. We can leverage the fact that we’re not just actors, we’re not just gamers, we’re also personalities, we can create content on just that, our personalities. I think any content creator has the ability to tap into all of their talents, and not just lean on one. That allows you to diversify your content. You’re not a one-trick pony, but instead, you’re able to throw in, well, I’m also a singer. I also create comedy content. I’m a drama actor. Bring in all of your talents, and the talents of the people around you, to create content that is always a roller coaster and an adventure not only for yourself but for your audience. I think that’s how you create longevity.
5. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
I think it’s always important to surround yourself with people who take you to the next level of your creativity, but also call you on your bullshit. Whether you're a vlogger and you have a good network of colleagues and friends around you -- they may not appear on camera with you -- or you may have an ensemble cast like us and continuously build out teams. Regardless, I think it's always really important to be mindful of the people in your network. And as you expand your team, be mindful of that, too.
6. What's a misconception many people have about YouTube?
There might be misconceptions that YouTubers don’t have a team around them. I think it’s easy for audience members and aspiring YouTubers to assume that many of the channels that they watch are done singlehandedly. And although it’s possible -- like I said, I was a one-man team producing videos -- it’s possible, but it’s also extraordinarily important for your longevity on the platform, as well as for your mental health, to give yourself the time that you need in order to reset. The first recommendation is to expand your team. Find an editor. Find a collaborator. Find somebody to help with your camera shots. I think a lot of the time we as creators forget that collaboration plays an extremely important role in creativity.
Click through the slideshow to see five of Takahashi's favorite videos.
'Something that really struck conversation.'
“This is a video that we did for Drug Awareness. It was a piece of branded content, but it also really spoke not only to our audience but also to our cast members. They had a makeup team come in and give them each a makeover of what it would have been like if they’d each been on a different drug for a number of years. The impact of our cast members seeing themselves that way, and seeing their reaction was something that really struck conversation, spoke to our audience and really resonated with all of us.”
Have real-life adventures.
“Our three-part Egypt series was something that, I think as gamers, was a very important thing to portray to our audience. Although the gaming culture is really rooted in sitting in front of a screen and playing for hours and hours, it’s important to take what you enjoy on the screen and apply that in real life. Go out there, adventure, travel, go to museums, learn new things. Communicating that to our wide audience -- our young and impressionable audience -- was something that was really personally important to me.”
'Friends at the core.'
“Another thing that resonates for us is our annual Smosh summer games. This past summer, we went bigger than ever before. Our entire cast and crew spend a week in a certain location -- almost as if it’s like camp. We’re all in the same location, and we have fun activities, but they’re all made into videos. We put out anywhere between 14 and 30 videos per summer games event. There’s a competition aspect to it, and we create content around the enjoyment of being together.
“The thing that is always a highlight for us as colleagues is that, yes, we’re cast members. Yes, we’re on video together and work together. But when the cameras are off, we are friends. We hang out. We go to each other’s homes on the weekends to play video games together. We’re friends at the core of it.”
'Survivor' meets 'Minecraft.'
"In celebration of my time on CBS's Survivor, Smosh Games and I produced a six-part reality-TV-style show set in the world of Minecraft. We built a comprehensive Survivor-esque island and created rules, obstacles and challenges. And of course, the series was chock full of confessionals, drama and sweeping shots of island landscapes."
A sense of humor and something in common.
"With almost 15 million views, this is one of Smosh Games' most popular videos. Because we’re a part of the Defy Media family, we get to work with other brands tied to Defy, one of which is ScreenJunkies. We worked with them to produce a spin-off of their insanely popular Honest Trailers franchise, but for gaming. It’s our way of throwing in our sense of humor and nodding with our audience about the video games we all enjoy playing."