If you’ve had children in the past decade, you’ve probably sat them down in front of a phone or computer screen to watch YouTube clips — maybe you were in a restaurant and needed to settle them down, or there was nothing good on TV. Maybe their favorite show wasn’t even on TV, but rather one of YouTube’s enormously popular children’s channels, like Cocomelon, Ryan’s World, or Like Nastya. 

One of YouTube’s biggest child creators are Vlad and Niki Vashketov, two Russian brothers whose videos have amassed over 181 million global subscribers and 99 billion views, making them the ninth most-watched YouTube channel in the world. 8-year-old Vlad and 5-year-old Niki, along with their infant brother Christian and mother Victoria, make videos geared towards preschoolers: Colorful, cartoony graphics accompany the brothers as they try out new candy, play with larger-than-life toys, or get up to mischief when mom isn’t looking.

The channel began back in April 2018 when Vlad started watching other children making content on YouTube and asked his parents if he could do the same. Their father, Sergey Vashketov, quit his sales job to help grow the channel, by making brand deals and setting up international licensing. Some of Vlad and Niki’s brand deals include Hot Wheels, Paw Patrol, the WWE, and Imaginext.

“‘Vlad & Niki’ is a perfect blend for us as a family,” Sergey Vashketov said. “We get to participate in activities together, creating new interesting adventures for our ‘on-camera’ play. It is fantastic that we get to play while pretending to play with our boys, filming our favorite things to do while hitting that emotional connection with our fans watching.”

Despite the scripted and cartoonish nature of the show, Vashketov insists that his sons aren’t actors. “The most rewarding thing for us is that we are bringing children and their parents all over the world together through our family’s play,” he said. “Vlad and Niki are not actors, they are real kids doing real things on camera and inviting the world to play along together.”

The business of Vlad and Niki

“Vlad and Niki have created this really colorful, robust, imaginative world that kids really respond to,” Dan Weinstein, co-founder of Underscore Talent and Vlad and Niki’s manager, said. “They lean into some of the trends and the hot toys, and they create this escapism for children.”

Weinstein has had his sights on the creator economy since before the word “influencer” entered our vocabulary. He and fellow entertainment veterans Michael Green and Reza Izad founded the digital-focused talent management firm Studio71 in 2007, two years after YouTube’s launch. Studio71 helped clients and partners — including stars from YouTube to Hollywood, from Logan Paul and The Annoying Orange to Will Smith and Dwayne Johnson — build cross-platform brands and business models, a huge component of today’s creator space.

“Vlad and Niki are not actors, they are real kids doing real things on camera and inviting the world to play along together.” - Sergey Vashketov

Weinstein, Green, and Izad have reunited at Underscore Talent, their new creator management company, with a new playbook. Underscore is squarely aimed at leveraging the attention economy to create and develop personality-driven businesses that can reach beyond social media.

“You always have more audience,” Weinstein said. “There are more kids born every day. I think the access to the content is becoming a lot easier. I hate to say it, but parents sometimes leverage YouTube and Youtube Kids as a tool, as a babysitter as it were.”

According to Weinstein, children’s content is among the most popular and lucrative on the platform. While he declined to share Vlad and Niki’s financials, he cited another popular channel, Ryan’s World (the 10th most popular YouTube channel in the world, right behind Vlad and Niki), whose 9-year-old star makes nearly $30 million per year. Meanwhile, the channel makes over $200 million from branded toys and clothing, its biggest source of revenue.

Weinstein was first interested in the Vashketovs because of the sheer number of views their videos were getting, but also sees the channel as a brand, with the opportunity to create consumer products like toys and games. In fact, Target and Walmart will be carrying Vlad and Niki toys this summer, says Weinstein. Then there’s animation. 

“In the case of Vlad and Niki, one of the things that we're working on is, how do we create an animated show where Vlad and Niki don't age?” he said. “Essentially, they could live on forever if it's successful.”

The challenges of being a child YouTuber

While it may seem easy to make videos and find management to grow a YouTube channel, it’s a near-full-time job for parents and children alike. Anne Henry, co-founder of Bizparentz, a nonprofit organization focused on advocating for child actors and influencers, says that parents should take their children’s careers seriously if they want them to become influencers.

“We encourage parents to view the business as a BUSINESS,” Henry said in an email. “The parent is the CEO of this business (the child is the owner), and they add people to their team as their business grows.”

According to Henry, the typical child star doesn’t make money until 1 to 3 years into their career, once they’ve had some experience with things like acting classes, headshots, and some unpaid acting work. Once their career takes off, they seek out an agent, who typically takes 10% of the profits after the child starts working.

"I hate to say it, but parents sometimes leverage YouTube and Youtube Kids as a tool, as a babysitter as it were.” - Dan Weinstein

Despite there being little crossover between child actors and child influencers, the creator economy has changed the landscape in terms of both compensation and safety, says Henry. First off, the lack of regulations for online creators has made it much harder for child actors to make money when influencers do the same work for a fraction of the price.

“Professional child actors, especially in California, had been working on a very strict set of laws that guaranteed education on set, limited work hours, and a slew of safety things including a studio teacher/welfare worker present on set,” Henry said. “Those were hard fought protections (long before any of us!) and now digital creators were willing to throw that away and work without any of it.”  

Starting a YouTube channel with children is simple, but growing and maintaining it into one of the biggest on the platform takes a level of time and commitment that many parents aren’t prepared for. Henry says that people should be more kind to digital creators, however. 

“I am probably sounding like a mom here, but I wish they would realize that those are REAL children,” Henry added. “If they wouldn't say it to their face, they should comment that way online. Digital creators are artists and they are vulnerable. A little kindness would go a long way.”

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