Mike Chen: Here's what it takes to become a YouTube star

Mike Chen is a YouTube star with more than 5 million subscribers to his five channels. This is how he made it happen.

Mike Chen. Photo by Stephen Parkhurst.

Mike Chen, whose five YouTube channels collectively boast more than 5 million subscribers, has managed to blend his love for food, travel, and mysterious phenomena into an online juggernaut and a dream career. While most people likely know him for his Chinese food-focused “Strictly Dumpling” channel, he also streams on Twitch and has large followings on Instagram and Twitter.

Chen’s job is one plenty of people would love to have. In fact, roughly one-third of children say that they aspire to become a professional YouTube personality, according to recent survey data.

In some ways, becoming a star — or at least, developing an audience — has never been easier. But because it’s become so easy, all of those would-be influencers are now fighting for our attention on every social media platform.

How do you rise above the competition, then? Chen has figured out the right moves.

How Mike Chen makes a living on YouTube

The path to YouTube

Chen was born in Xi’an, China, but grew up in the American Midwest.

“I went into nonprofit [work] because I practiced Falun Gong, a Chinese meditation exercise that’s been banned in China. So I wanted to do some human rights work to bring some awareness to what’s going on over there,” Chen tells Grow.

That passion for exploring his cultural roots and his love of cuisine gave Chen a new outlet in the form of videos. “I didn’t have to buy anything. I started doing [videos] on cellphones,” he says. “My first video was filmed on an iPhone 4.”

Reality check: Chen’s a rare success

Watch Chen’s channels “Strictly Dumpling,” “Pho The Love of Food,” or “Eat With Mikey,” and you could easily come away with the impression that he spends his days enjoying amazing food. But what you don’t see is that he puts in hours and hours of filming, editing, traveling, and strategizing to bring those videos to life.

That effort helps Chen keep pace in an increasingly competitive space where very few people make a living.

There are 1.9 billion monthly active YouTube users around the world, and 30 million of them use the platform daily, a YouTube spokesman tells Grow. But those views, and the revenue they generate, aren’t distributed evenly.

Only 3% of YouTube channels gobble up 85% of all views on the platform, according to research by Mathias Bärtl, a professor at Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany. To be among that top 3%, a channel would need to rack up at least 1.4 million views per month.

Even among those top channels, Bärtl found, earnings could add up to less than $17,000 per year from sources like sponsorships and advertising revenue via programs like the YouTube Partner Program.

So, what’s the secret to reaching that upper echelon of YouTubers? There’s no magic formula. But for Chen, his ability to explore culture from a foodie’s perspective has earned him fans around the world.

“You can’t have culture without food,” he says.