APPLETON — While George Mavrakis awaited delivery of his coveted Golden Play Button — a prize for reaching one million subscribers to his YouTube channel — he returned in the fall of 2016.
He was in his sophomore weeks at Lawrence University when it was learned that he had a growing number of subscribers on YouTube for the videos he made about his saltwater aquarium hobby. He didn’t think 10,000 subscribers was something to brag about; the economics major from suburban Chicago was more concerned with finding playing time on Lawrence’s basketball team.
“When I came to Lawrence it was just a hobby,” Mavrakis said. “I haven’t told anyone about it. It wasn’t until after my freshman year at Lawrence that this secret about me kind of slipped through and came out to the student population and everyone was like, “Oh, that’s the fish guy. . From then on, I was George the fish guy.
Mavrakis kept salt water tanks in his room. He filmed some of his videos on the Lawrence campus. He recruited others on campus to join in the fun. And his YouTube audience continued to grow every year, as did his editing skills and understanding of digital algorithms.
In his senior year, things were changing rapidly as he balanced classroom assignments, basketball, and the aquarium. Midway through the year, he and a business partner, Shawn Hale, started a live aquarium festival, known as Aquashella, first in Chicago and then in Dallas. The first has reached the break-even point; the second was a money maker.
By the time he graduated — and, yes, he was taking two fish with him when he walked across the stage at Commencement in June 2019 — the fish guy was becoming a big deal. Subscribers to his Chain CoralFish12g had grown to 165,000, and one of his videos had gone viral, racking up millions of views.
Mavrakis realized that, yes, this hobby he got into at age 10 and nurtured during his four years at Lawrence could be so much more than just a hobby. time.
So, with an economics degree in hand and a growing understanding of the YouTube environment, he set out to build an even larger audience and a carefully crafted business venture based in Glenview, Illinois. . Since then, he’s produced hundreds of aquarium videos — well-researched, informative, often funny, with high energy and quick cuts — garnering nearly 150 million views over the past three years.
And, as of December 21, one million subscribers.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “For me to have this Golden Play Button on the way is like a childhood dream. It’s really special.
Collecting saltwater fish is a niche hobby, but 24-year-old Mavrakis has found a formula that’s as entertaining as it is educational. You don’t have to be an aquarium enthusiast to enjoy the jokes, share the laughs, or appreciate the energy.
“I realized I had to appeal to a large audience,” Mavrakis said. “How can I make aquariums and sea life interesting, entertaining and educational for everyone? How can I interest someone who just picks up their phone to watch this video? »
He has traveled to 15 countries to shoot his videos since graduating from Lawrence. He sought out interesting people who have stories to share and interesting places that provide brilliant backdrops. He spent over two months in Asia shooting dozens of videos because that region of the world provides such a large percentage of the world’s ornamental fish.
“It’s something that sets me apart from a lot of other creators in my field,” Mavrakis said. ” I like to go out. I like to see and find things that no one else has seen before.
Putting his background in economics to work, he deliberately expanded beyond the videos. He didn’t want to be beholden to the ebbs and flows of video consumption and advertising. He and Hale expanded Aquashella to three times a year, adding Orlando. It is billed as the “world’s first aquarium festival”, featuring fish, reptiles and aquatic art.
In December, when CoralFish12g was about to hit the magic million subscriber mark, Mavrakis launched its own line of small saltwater aquariums, complete with a kit and an instructional video course aimed at beginners. Pandemic-related shipping delays meant he could only get 50 of the first 200 he ordered, priced at $450 each, but those 50 sold out within three hours. He received another 1,500 emails expressing interest in purchasing the kit as soon as more became available.
Mavrakis thought it would be fun to deliver a few tanks in person, thanks to those who have been fans of his videos. He didn’t tell them he was coming.
“We got on a plane and went to different places in the United States,” he said. “It was really fun, really cool. And we shot that on video. Some people were a little awkward because you catch them off guard, but there were a few people who really freaked out. It was so much fun I have to install the tanks with them.
Mavrakis has spent much of the past six months expanding his operation. He has five full-time employees working with him on CoralFish12g. Five other part-time employees work on the Aquashella shows.
The rapid growth has been a blessing and a challenge, he said, but he is putting in place an infrastructure that will hopefully allow CoralFish12g and Aquashella to thrive in the long term.
“It’s tough; creators and creatives in general and small business owners in general suffer from burnout,” he said. “Managing that is key. even potentially, beyond me?”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University.