Toronto ‘Unboxing’ Pioneer a YouTube Celebrity
Lewis Hilsenteger achieved viral stardom by thinking outside the box.
Millions watch the 31-year-old, who owned an Apple technology repair-and-upgrade store near Ryerson University, unpack and test gadgets on YouTube. In one clip, he tries out a breathalyzer that plugs into your smartphone; in another, he attempts to knock over the “unspillable cup.”
He is a star of the “unboxing” video genre, which lets viewers experience the vicarious thrill of unwrapping new products
Today, his most popular clip — seen more than 68 million times as of this writing — remains a 2014 video showing him bend the iPhone 6 Plus with his bare hands. The video was the fifth highest-trending upload to YouTube that year, two ranks above a Budweiser Super Bowl ad. Hilsenteger’s video was the only Canadian-made clip that trended globally in 2014, according to Google spokesperson Nicole Bell.
The Star spoke with Hilsentenger to unpack the appeal of unboxing videos and learn how he went from a small-business owner to a YouTube celebrity with 5.3 million online subscribers. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into this line of work?
I’ve had an enthusiasm for gadgets and technology and cool stuff since I was a kid. I was kind of always looking to get my hands on the latest and greatest stuff. Back then, I had to convince my parents to get it for me. (Laughs.)
I had a business on Gerard St. (and Church) called iUpgrade. Through that business, I started to make some tutorial videos. I published those to YouTube and noticed I was immediately getting traction.
Unboxing was new, but you toldyou told Tech Insider you thought it could be a full-time career. How did you know that?
It was more my awareness of the web in general. YouTube wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is now, but there were people who were publishing frequently and so that, to me, showed there was a reward for these individuals.
I guess at some point a switch went off: Audience presents opportunities to create businesses.
How do you explain the mass appeal of unboxing?
It’s a combination of things. When I started out, I was mostly interested in the concept of consumption by proxy.
The other part of it is the nostalgia around opening a package and not necessarily knowing what’s inside. I think most people can draw on some kind of memory that they have of an experience like that.
(And) just like elsewhere on social media, I think people want to connect with people more than they do with brands.
Do brands try to influence what you do?
How do you deal with that?
Their goal is to have you bend to the way they want you to do things. The way I protect myself is to remember that your real capital exists in the audience and not in any one video, or brand.
What’s a typical day at the office?
I’ve decided to start publishing daily. I spend part of the day researching on the web for the next thing I want to order.
Then there’s the more mundane stuff of dealing with my inbox. I’m getting in the neighbourhood of 500 emails a day from brands and products that want to get on the channel.
Then there’s the actual production: figuring that out, sitting down letting the cameras roll. In my case, nothing is scripted.
(For) the average video, we’ll roll the cameras for somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour. And that entire thing will be chopped down into three or four minutes.
How many employees do you have now?
There’s three of us full-time.
How are you adjusting to being a YouTube celebrity?
As the channel gets bigger, you get recognized more often. It hasn’t happened all at once. There’s a progression to it that makes it easier to digest.
It is weird — don’t get me wrong. Let’s put it this way, when I started this thing, I thought there was an opportunity for a professional endeavour, but did I think it would be on this scale? I’d be lying if I said that was the case.
A lot of people questioned your breakout video in which you bent the iPhone 6 Plusyou bent the iPhone 6 Plus. What was that like?
It was insane. I don’t think I slept for 24 hours. I was doing interviews globally. I was on Bloomberg and CNN. It was everywhere. I got a taste of what it’s like to be exposed to (people) outside your community and what that means for criticism.
How much do you earn in a year?
(Laughs.) There’s certain (non-disclosure) elements to agreements that don’t allow me to talk about that. I will say is there are many tools that exist on the web to try and estimate that figure.
But let me put it this way, this is how I like to explain it to people in traditional media. If this newspaper or TV show was reaching hundreds of millions of people a month, do you think that’d be lucrative. [Note: OpenSlate, an analytics company, estimates that Hilsenteger is making about $1.6 million a year through Google ads. He didn’t dispute that figure in an interview with the Star, saying it doesn’t include other sources of income.]
What’s the item you were most excited to unbox?
I’ve been asked this before and never, ever has an answer come to mind.
Recently, I did this video on this cup that would not tip over. The unspillable cup.
To be able to showcase this alternative universe and be the presenter of this scientific marvel — guess I kind of like those moments.
A lot of the time, my excitement develops through the video. I’m always a little skeptical going into it. Like, is it going to do what they say it’s going to do?
There’s so much stuff that’s scripted, contrived and considered and I think there’s this appetite for raw reaction.
That stuff is impossible to fake.
Other heavyweights in the unboxing ring
FunToyzCollector (formerly DisneyCollector) has tried to keep her identity a secret. But, she’s been identified by some outlets as Melissa Lima, a Brazilian living in Westchester County, NY. Her most-watched video shows her unpack Play Doh spark princess dolls with manicured fingers that have become her signature.
2. Baby Big Mouth
Baby Big Mouth was among the top 10 most-viewed channels on YouTube one week before Christmas last year, according to Bloomberg News. The user has racked up hundreds of millions of views mainly with videos of opening up Kinder Surprise Eggs.
According to the New York Times, Target hired 10-year-old Evan in December to make videos of his favorite toys for the retailer’s website. Evan published his first video four years ago. The stop-motion clip of him playing with Angry Birds stuffies has 2.8 million views as of this writing.
4. Marques Brownlee
The young host of MKBHD: Quality Tech Videos reviews has more than 3.5 million subscribers. In 2013, former Google VP Vic Gundotra called him “the best technology reviewer on the planet.”
5. Jonathan Morrison
L.A.-based Jonathan Morrison is another YouTuber vying for eyeballs in the crowded arena of technology reviewers. In the last 30 days, his channel has received more than 4.4 million views, according to the analytics website SocialBlade.