How Mark Rober became the Willy Wonka of engineering

By Devin Gordon long Read

This story is part of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 2022. Explore the full list of innovators who broke through this year—and had an impact on the world around us.

Picture the coolest, most ridiculously awesome room you can imagine. Maybe it’s got a golf simulator and a billiards table, or radiant-heat floors, or polychromatic India Mahdavi furniture, or meticulously cultivated hygge. Whatever it is, whatever you’re envisioning, it would be even better if it had a secret door leading to another room.

And of course, a secret door has to reveal itself in some sick way, like how you run through a wall to get to track 9 3⁄4, or wade through a coat closet to get to Narnia, or turn a bronze eagle on a bookshelf, or push the correct button on a soda machine. It can’t just be a switch labeled secret door, though that’d be kind of funny. That kind of meta humor would be very on-brand for Mark Rober, except that Rober would rig it so that when you flip that switch, you’d get hit with a glitter bomb. Roughly 60 million people watch Rober’s monthly videos, though, and every single one would sniff out the trap. A dedicated fan already would’ve guessed, would’ve assumed, that there is a secret door somewhere in this room, and they might’ve even worked out where it is and how to activate it. Rober, though, possesses two magical powers beyond science and engineering—a frictionless access to his boyhood mind, and the instincts of a born storyteller—and that is what enables him to conceive of something we can’t, something even cooler than a room with a secret door.

A second secret door.

Rober is 42 years old, and he has a graduate degree in mechanical engineering from USC. He worked at NASA for nine years, seven of them on the Mars Curiosity project, and then another five at Apple on advanced VR for autonomous vehicles before quitting to be a full-time YouTube creator, and he and his wife have a 15-year-old son, all of which seems impossible because Rober himself seems 15. The decal T-shirts, the backward baseball caps. Everything is frikkin’ this or stoked about that. He does that millennial entrepreneur thing where he ends every sentence with the same rhetorical question, right? He grew up in Southern California, just inside the northern border of Orange County, the youngest of three kids, “and compared to my brother and sister,” he says, “I feel like I remember what it was like to be a kid better than they do. Like, I remember that so well.” He knows when he’s hit upon a video idea that will excite his 22 million YouTube subscribers, he says, “because it’s still exciting for me.”

If you’ve got kids and don’t know who Mark Rober is, go ask one of them. Even if you don’t, chances are you’ve seen a Mark Rober video without realizing it, and chances are it was either “Backyard Squirrel Maze 1.0—Ninja Warrior Course” from May 2020 (96.2 million views) or “Backyard Squirrel Maze 2.0—The Walnut Heist” from May 2021 (61.4 million views), which are two of the most popular videos on YouTube, because they are objectively delightful. The “Backyard Squirrel” franchise chronicles the ongoing misadventures of four very persistent squirrels, Phat Gus and friends, who keep infiltrating the bird feeders in Rober’s suburban San Jose backyard, even the feeders that were marketed online as “squirrel proof.” Impressed by their derring-do, Rober decided to see if he could outfox the squirrels by luring them through an elaborate obstacle course with a bounty of walnuts. The squirrels triumphed, making them famous. Then they triumphed again in the sequel, and they will surely triumph once more this October when Rober drops “Backyard Squirrel Maze 3.0.”

Taken in two doses, the squirrel mazes are the perfect gateway into Rober’s engineering emporium. “Those videos are very well loved in my home,” says YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who has raised five Rober fans of her own. “I see him using the platform in new ways to transform how we think about science education. We see that inspiring people all over the world to love science, to change the way they think about it, and how they can do good [with] it.”

Rober’s videos are epics by YouTube standards (around 20 minutes long, nearly sitcom length), and they tend to be funnier, less frantically paced, and far more inventive than anything else on the platform, or on plain old television. He’s wholesome but never corny, boyish but not puerile, and he’s cultivated a repertoire of trademark bits, like his “20-second build montages,” which collapse hours of workshop time into hyperlapse eye candy. The video titles may sound like standard online high jinks—”World’s Largest T-Shirt Cannon,” “EXPLODING Glitter Bomb 4.0,” “Robot Piano Catches Fire Playing Rush E (World’s Hardest Song)”—but the stunts, he says, are just the bait. They’re science class and social purpose in disguise. He’s teamed up twice with MrBeast (aka Jimmy Donaldson), one of the few YouTube creators who’s even more popular than Rober, on a pair of viral crowdfunding projects, #TeamTrees (“Using Drones to Plant 20,000,000 Trees”) and #TeamSeas (“This Robot Eats Trash”). Together they rallied tens of thousands of fans around the world to plant 20 million trees and clear 30 million pounds of garbage from the world’s filthiest riverways. Even more critically, though, he makes pulling trash out of dirty water into captivating, illuminating content. He makes saving the planet seem fun. They hit their $20 million goal for #TeamTrees in two months, and their $30 million goal for #TeamSeas just as fast.

“People think I’m a good engineer,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re so good at building things!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m okay at that.’” He grins like he’s about to spill a secret. “But I am a pretty good storyteller.”

[Photo: Ulysses Ortega]

When YouTube creators get as big as Mark Rober, they’re supposed to churn out more content, scale up their brand, extend their empire. Rober, though, refuses to budge from his one-video-per-month approach. Whatever empire-building he’s doing has only happened thanks to the prodding of his close friend and self-appointed career mentor, Jimmy Kimmel.

“In the best possible way, he’s the opposite of so many people you see online nowadays,” says Kimmel, who has grown so fond of Rober, and so confident in his gifts, that he invited him to guest-host Jimmy Kimmel Live on July 14 while he was on vacation. “These are the videos you want your kids to be watching.” When he first got to know Rober, Kimmel recalls, “I thought, ‘We’ve gotta get you a real TV show!’” He laughs now at how oblivious he must’ve sounded. “I’ve learned more from him than he’s learned from me. Even just me saying ‘We have to get you a real show’—you know, I’ve certainly come around that my way of thinking is outdated, and that his way is the present and the future.”

All the same, Kimmel and Rober are teaming up on a real TV show this summer for the Discovery Channel, called Revengineers, in which they’ll use science, hidden cameras, and stunt comedy to patrol public incivility. Kimmel also cajoled Rober into launching his first Mark Rober–branded retail venture: the Build Box, a monthly builder-kit subscription aimed at children ages 8 to 12, or anyone who’s ever been a child aged 8 to 12. A motto on the box reads “Build Test Solve Play,” and each kit features a simple fun build—a disc flinger, a coin spinner, a booby trap—that illustrates a core engineering concept, such as ratchets and flywheels and momentum transfer. The introductory price for a 12-month subscription is $299.40, or $29.95 to go month to month. Rober funded the initiative himself, investing somewhere in the low seven figures, and according to Jim Lee, a Google veteran who’s now Rober’s chief of operations, they sold out five months’ worth of inventory in less than a week.

“My whole business,” Rober says, “is making engineering simple and fun.”

Rober’s more ambitious YouTube videos often require six-figure budgets, but his favorites are the ones he makes with junk lying around his workshop. He loves Popsicle sticks and PVC tubes. He likes it when his viewers can do the builds, too. He isn’t trying to teach kids to be creative, because as he sees it, kids are born creative. He’s teaching them not to stop.

Rober’s new headquarters—dubbed CrunchLabs, as in “crunch the numbers”—is another sly bait and switch. He needed a bigger workshop about 10 million subscribers ago, but he also can’t have all those millions of fans knowing where he’s holed up. So this neighborhood in Mountain View, California, a few blocks from Y Combinator, a mile down the freeway from LinkedIn, is perfect because every block looks the same: warehouses with Teslas parked out front as far as the eye can see, like an establishing shot for an episode of Silicon Valley. “Security through obscurity,” Rober says. They’ll never find him here.

CrunchLabs is still under construction. When it’s finished, this anteroom will be restored to appear as if it’s still the traveling-salesman office it used to be. “Super old-school,” Rober says, tour-guiding through the debris. “We’re keeping this carpet, keeping the cottage-cheese ceilings. Coffee makers. Old worn leather chair. Frikkin’ taxidermied animals. The whole thing.” Now imagine a cheap bookcase against the back wall, he says, sounding downright giddy. The bookcase isn’t installed yet, so Rober mimes pulling an invisible object from the shelf. “And then whhhoooshhhh“—he supplies his own sound effects as an imaginary bookcase slides aside—”and literally, like, fog—kshshkshsksh—comes up through here.” Once the fog clears, it’ll reveal a long narrow corridor, like a birth canal designed in CAD, that spills out into Rober’s vast and glistening new workshop.

But in your zeal to charge down the birth canal, you’ve played into Rober’s hands. You’ve missed secret door number two, lurking in the far-right corner in the form of an old soda machine. You put in your quarter, then press the correct button (Diet Pepsi), and the machine slides aside to reveal another secret door. This time it opens onto a shaft with a ladder to the second floor, where you emerge “into one of those claw machines, like from an arcade,” Rober explains. “We got it from Denny’s.”

From an engineering perspective, none of the whizbang features at CrunchLabs are all that complicated. They’re nothing compared to the automatic bull’s-eye dartboard, which took him and a colleague from NASA three years to perfect, or combustible like the world’s largest elephant toothpaste volcano. Elephant toothpaste, in case you’ve never had the pleasure, refers to the erupting foam geyser that results when you mix the proper proportions of hydrogen peroxide with dish soap and a few drops of food coloring. Rober is like elephant toothpaste in a human tube.

One of Rober’s recent videos was a glossy version of this exact tour, only the secret doors were installed, the claw machine had been stocked with Phat Gus dolls, and the fireman’s piston was fully operational. Sorry, fireman’s piston: “We wanted a way to get from the second floor down to the first floor”—he means besides the stairs—”and fireman’s poles . . . they’re cool, but they kinda suck. Like, when you go down it’s like squeak squeak squeak.” The fireman’s piston operates instead via a pulley system, using pistons filled with viscous fluid for soft landings.

This video, in other words, was the nerdiest-ever episode of Cribs, except that each of Rober’s outrageous flourishes represents an engineering marvel. And the advertising revenue alone from the video, he says, will cover the entire cost of construction. His grand ambition is for CrunchLabs to become “Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but for engineering,” he says. “Kids will want to come here.” Parents and grandparents, too.

Just like Wonka’s factory, though, you can’t get in without a ticket.

Rober first appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2016 for a segment about using simple engineering to pull off April Fool’s pranks. Kimmel liked him so much that he kept inviting him back. Then he started inviting Rober over to his house in Los Angeles, and then he started inviting Rober to crash there whenever he was in town, and now he’s a regular overnight guest. “We’re really tight,” Kimmel says. “We’re in constant communication. I think he’s a very, very good person.”

The day after a livestream benefit they held last spring called “Color the Spectrum,” inspired by Rober’s autistic teenage son, which raised $1 million for autism research in a single night (and more than $3 million overall), they were hanging out in Kimmel’s backyard, exhausted, and Kimmel told him, “You should really have some product—you should sell something beyond your YouTube stuff.” “And I gave him the same line I give everyone,” Rober recalls, “which is, like, For what? More money? Because people are always like, You should write a book! You should go on tour! You should do a podcast! And I’m like, why? And it always comes down to: so you can make more money. But, like, I have enough money.”

Frequently used items await their turn under what is, at over half a mile, the world’s longest Hot Wheels track. [Photo: Ulysses Ortega]

Rober often says that his dream is to be a high school physics teacher, which sure seems within his grasp, but his original dream job was working at NASA, specifically the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Working on the Mars Curiosity rover was an experience of a lifetime, but it was also seven years of his life devoted to one small part of a large, complex vehicle. His dream job had gotten kind of dull. He quit in 2012 shortly after going viral with a Halloween costume how-to video in which he used two iPads to create the illusion of a gaping hole in his torso. He was already a bona fide YouTube star in 2014 when he went to work—secretly—at Apple for five years, and he still beams with competitive pride that their skunkworks lab keeps updating the patents filed under his name.

But how can incremental advances on shoot-the-moon technology compete with building your own Wonka factory? Rober keeps getting all of these very grown-up jobs doing very serious work, and he keeps quitting them to make the world’s largest Super Soaker and design mechanical coin spinners. By the time he quit Apple, he was making more money from his YouTube videos, and Apple pays a lot better than NASA.

Mark Rober’s workbench. [Photo: Ulysses Ortega]

“I just want to keep tapping a microphone once a month and reaching like, you know, 60 million people. Like, that’s enough for me,” Rober says he told Kimmel that afternoon in the backyard. Kimmel shrugged and dropped the subject. The next morning, Rober goes on, laughing at the memory, “Jimmy came back down and he’s like, ‘. . . but you’re not always gonna be this popular.’” Kimmel suggested a line of builder kits called Rober’s Robots.

“And I’m like, ‘That’s a terrible name, Jimmy.’”

He hated the name, but he was tickled by the notion of a compliment to his videos that empowered kids to be like Mark Rober. For years, he explains in his June video, parents have asked him, “‘What’s the first step?’ And I’ve just never had a great answer for that specific situation. Until now.” The Build Boxes, which launched earlier this summer, aren’t just fun builds; they cohere into a kind of mini-curriculum. “The promise is, I can help teach you to think like an engineer, think critically, and that makes you a better soccer player, and a better piano player, because part of engineering is sticking with it,” he says. “Failure is okay.”

He gave a TED Talk about this in 2019, calling it “the Super Mario Effect“: When kids are playing a video game and their character dies, they don’t give up. They keep playing until they beat the game. In the real world, solving Mario’s problems—throwing large shells, smushing killer plants, plumbing—is what engineers do. His year-old partnership with, a MasterClass-style education platform geared toward creatives, in which he walks students through his design process over the course of a monthlong video series, simulates the direct engagement he craves, but the course isn’t really aimed at kids. As an on-ramp for budding engineers, it’s a bit too much, too fast.

While CrunchLabs was being built, he and his team developed the kits across town in an anonymous strip mall, a 10-minute drive in Rober’s Tesla S, behind a small storefront labeled “Optical Shoppe.” Another secret door. This time, though, the “security through obscurity” worked a little too well, and people kept wandering in to get their glasses fixed, so now there’s a handwritten sign on the door that reads “Not an Optical Shop.” So far, so good.

On a table just inside the not-an-optical-shop, Rober’s team has arranged a display of six months of fully built Build Boxes. A handheld motorized mini-Frisbee flinger (month one). A trip wire that pelts victims with a small Nerf ball. (“This is just so delightful. I love cranks.”) He plucks the coin spinner off the table (month two) and explains the build as he demonstrates it. “Again, kids aren’t good at spinning coins,” he says, as though everyone knows this. “The max they can spin a coin is like four seconds, if that. But with this, if you ratchet it up. . . .” He squats to the floor, pulls the trigger, and with a delectable snap, a coin fires out and spins for 15 frikkin seconds. The box comes with two coin spinners, plus a bowl-shaped arena, because coin spinners are fun, sure, but coin-spinner battles are even more fun. (“It’s like Beyblades!”) All of the Build Box materials are sustainable, and all of the instructions are illustrated—bright colors, no words. And lest we forget, each box comes with a QR code linking to an exclusive new Mark Rober video.


Rober stops mid-sentence. His eyes bug out. “I forgot to tell you the coolest thing!”

He zips back over to the table. “Do we have the platinum ticket here?” he asks, rooting around. “Yes!” He holds up a pair of oversize metal tickets that clink when he drops them on the table. “One kid a month,” he says with a gigantic grin, like he’d rather be the kid than Wonka himself, “will get a platinum ticket. And if you get the platinum ticket, you get to come out to CrunchLabs and hang out with Mark Rober and design with his team for a day.”

CrunchLabs could’ve easily been a soundstage—the YouTube video production studio of his dreams. But that’s not his dream. This is. “Technically, I could make three videos a month,” he says, “but for me it’s always been really important keeping it special and small and something I’m stoked about. Because at some point, if you scale up, you’re no longer an engineer doing cool builds. You’re a manager. And it’s, like, you lost the thing that got you [here] in the first place.”

Not all of his stunts pan out. His plan to open a recent Super Bowl by dropping a football from the International Space Station got scuttled at the last minute by NASA. Months of work designing a ball that wouldn’t pop in space or disintegrate on entry went poof in the atmosphere. Rober’s team had actually figured it out—they built the space football!—and it was all packed up and ready to go. But at the last minute, NASA seems to have balked at the fact that the ball bore Rober and Discovery’s logo and yanked it from the cargo. Boo, NASA.

I’ve Got a HUGE Secret Behind This Door” was the title of the video that Rober posted on YouTube in mid-June, which functioned as the grand unveiling of both CrunchLabs and his branded Build Boxes. Within 24 hours, the 17-minute video had been viewed more than 6 million times. Subscriptions for Build Boxes began pouring in—tens of thousands, according to Jim Lee. “He’s combining a physical product with a video, and I haven’t really seen that before,” says YouTube’s Wojcicki. “He’s leaning into education, he’s leaning into science, but he’s not doing it in a traditional way, and that’s what’s interesting about him.”

Rober seems to grasp that his own joyful reinforcement is a crucial ingredient in his formula—that kids are more likely to stay creative, to hold onto that part of themselves, if they see how it delights the adults in their lives. His capacity for self-replenishing enthusiasm might spring from the fact that when he’s off camera, he’s all the way off. Despite his fame, Rober has managed to avoid doing interviews and rarely shares details of his private life. His fans didn’t even know he had a child until 2019, when he posted a YouTube video about his son’s autism. He was being a protective parent, to the point that during an early Jimmy Kimmel Live appearance, he didn’t correct Kimmel on air when the host mistakenly told his audience that Rober had no children. He grew up in a Mormon household, which led him to Brigham Young University, where he met his wife, but he never mentions his faith in his videos. His late mother, who died of ALS in 2011, and who grew smitten with his son’s ingenuity from the moment 5-year-old Mark fetched swim goggles before chopping some onions, remains a driving emotional force in his life. She died shortly before he began posting videos on YouTube. She never got to see any of them, and a decade later, this thought still shatters him.

Kimmel believes Rober has Oprah-level potential, which sounds absurd, and it probably is, but consider that Rober has been at this for more than a decade now, conquering demographics on two fronts. Lots of kids who grew up on his videos will soon begin having kids of their own, and the cycle will continue until the generation gap is gone. “I think he’ll wind up doing something that none of us has ever thought about,” Kimmel says. “Including him.” Yet the bigger his following grows, the more he seems to yearn for a more direct connection with his young fans. The YouTube videos are a one-way conversation. The Build Boxes bring him a step closer. And if that’s still not enough, if that yearning doesn’t subside, there’s always high school physics.

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Devin Gordon