Up until 2016, it wouldn’t have taken much for Brian Kennedy to have committed himself to a life of climbing the corporate ladder. As much as he fancied himself a dreamer who enjoyed spending time outdoors, he’d also always been practical. He was in his mid-30s, and an achievable path into a management role would’ve been a welcome portal into a comfortable future.
He had spent the previous few years as an online content coordinator for a small newspaper in Northern California and then as a web developer for a cookware retailer’s website. At almost any point during his time working those jobs, had Kennedy been given any reason to think his talents were needed in a grander role for the company, he would likely still be rolling his office chair everywhere from the printer to the breakroom, like millions of other working stiffs. He says he “would’ve been a dedicated soldier.”
Yet by the end of 2016, Kennedy was rolling on different sorts of wheels full time, placing his creative and professional energy into ascending some of the rockiest and most scenic mountain bike trails in the world. He’s doing it all for BKXC, his own YouTube channel.
“The luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” the 41-year-old Kennedy says over a video call from his Vallejo, California, home’s workshop, “is that none of my bosses or the people around me at any of my jobs thought I was anything special. I believed I was special, and I figured I could put my heart and hard work into something for myself. The greatest gift I got was that nobody saw enough of anything in me to say ‘Hey, Brian, we really want you to be here.’”
With over 480,000 subscribers to his channel, Kennedy is one of the most popular influencers in the growing world of mountain bike YouTubing. That such a thing exists may be a surprise to some, so for the uninitiated, YouTube personalities have become a new type of multimedia mogul in recent years. What once seemed to be a domain dominated by basement-dwelling video gamers and juvenile pranksters has become serious business for not only major national advertisers seeking inventive ways to reach consumers but also budding entrepreneurs hellbent on authoring their own rulebook.
“YouTube isn’t all that different from Netflix or Hulu, really,” says Seth Alvo, 36, the web developer-turned-YouTuber behind Berm Peak, arguably the most popular mountain bike YouTube channel in existence, with more than 2.3 million subscribers. “It’s now mainstream on-demand entertainment.”
Based near the mountain bike-mad lands of the Pisgah Forest in North Carolina, Alvo’s a recognizable celebrity around town, adored for his array of videos featuring bike reviews, torture tests, backyard trail building and “bike hacks,” which offer creative tips on how to trick up a bike, make repairs and more.
“People appreciate the creators who stick around, stay consistent with producing content,” Alvo says. “There are also a lot of people who think I just walk around with a camera all day and then click ‘upload’ and then I’m done, but that’s so far from the truth.”
In Kennedy’s case, his BKXC videos are the result of taking what was being done by others and crafting something new from it. He found inspiration in videos made from a few various creators, but he kept finding himself feeling as though he would’ve done things differently, if not better. But there was a process. He didn’t become BKXC the moment he created a YouTube account.
Before he began recording his mountain biking exploits across the U.S.—as well as in Africa, England and the Czech Republic—he tried his hand at reviewing smart residential sprinkler systems and assorted garden-related tech, of all things. He found that creating videos for high-dollar items meant he could make decent money from affiliate links: If a viewer clicks on a product link from the video, and then purchases that product, the video creator receives a percentage of the item’s sale price.
But his recreational interests were also aligned with another high-dollar item, an item he spent countless hours on for free. Softer a few months of sprinkler videos, Kennedy made the leap into filming mountain biking videos. There were already some creators in that space, but no one doing what he really thought needed to be out there.
By using a GoPro camera, a camera stabilizing accessory known as a gimbal to prevent shaky video and his own friendly commentary to fill the time he’s riding the trails, Kennedy created POV-style action videos that many other mountain bikers clearly yearned for. He also left out the corny stock rock music clips many creators stuff their clips with. As a result, his subscriber count began to increase into the thousands after only a few months of bike-related uploading.
“I found that there was room in the mountain bike YouTube space for storytelling and adventure, and just being a friend,” he says. “That’s a huge part of YouTube for me. Is the person you’re watching someone you want to listen to and hang out with every day or every week?”
But leaving a steady job with benefits for the unpredictable wild west that is the influencer economy isn’t as simple as just deciding to do so, is it? Kennedy admits that as a single man at the time (he is married now) who had long held fast to living within his means, he was well-suited for such a tectonic-plate-shifting transition. But he also did something many people just don’t have the internal fortitude to do: He just did it.
“It’s not as complicated as we make it out to be,” he says. “I had made this goal of quitting my job only when I hit 50,000 followers, but as I got closer to that number, I just felt like I was ready then. I thought, Why not just get started with traveling around and making the videos I really want to make? So I did that.”
Whether it’s rolling along the most daunting slick rock formations in Moab or braving the famously daring mountains in British Columbia and Japan, Kennedy wears a smile and isn’t afraid to show off his goofy side or the occasional crash, while bringing viewers along for the ride.
He’s found that the ad revenue from his channel would need to be supplemented for sustainability, regardless of how many thousands of viewers tuned in. He set up a Patreon page, a common avenue for YouTube and podcast creators. By offering perks such as early video releases, extended-cut videos and podcasts for $3 per month, Kennedy has built a reliable base income that’s grown with each year his channel has been running. Plus, for the past couple of years, Kennedy has been a paid spokesman for Ibis Cycles, a deal that also provides him with complimentary high-dollar bikes to ride.
This year, Kennedy’s got more than just adrenaline-pumping, bucket-list treks on the horizon. He recently introduced his viewers to a pair of new ventures made possible by his YouTube success. With the help of MTBing Adventures, another YouTube channel, he’s building Everstoke, a mountain bike park on a wooded piece of mountain land in California. And his partnership on a new line of bike components, Trail One, continues to roll out fresh products, including handlebars, fenders and valve stems.
Just about any mountain biker fantasizes about building their own trails or designing their own parts. But for Kennedy, these newest endeavors are calculated steps toward building a future that’s less dependent on amounts of video streams. He isn’t yet anywhere near ready to stop filming videos, but Kennedy’s practicality means he thinks about life after the filming stops.
“If you think about entertainment, TV shows come and go,” he says. “And I think of myself as a TV show on the internet, and that type of entertainment can be fleeting. There’s a razor’s edge to balance on and so many possibilities that might happen and make it all fall apart. What happens if suddenly, I’m out?”
With sponsorships from Diamondback Bikes and Box Components under his belt, Alvo has been diversifying his offerings as well. He recently opened the Berm Peak Ranger Station, a vacation rental home in Brevard, North Carolina, that he purchased then renovated during a painstaking, monthslong process documented on his channel.
Berm Park in nearby Canton is a free public bike park he raised money for and oversaw the building of in 2021. There’s more to come from Alvo, but viewers will need to stay tuned in to find out.
Of course, an eager mountain biker seeking content will discover far more online than just Kennedy’s and Alvo’s productions. Along with a plethora of YouTubers adopting a similar approach as BKXC and Berm Peak, popular outlets such as Pinkbike and Global Mountain Bike Network occupy a separate, more formal and corporately backed corner of the mountain bike entertainment space.
In other words, there’s room for it all. As long as it’s good enough to connect.
“The world has an infinite appetite for stuff that’s entertaining,” Kennedy says. “Whether it’s standup comedy or moves or mountain bike videos. If it’s good, and you make people feel something, people will find it, people will watch it. Millions and millions of people are out there, and you can reach them if you’re fun enough.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by Trevor May/courtesy Brian Kennedy.