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[Case Study] NELK Boys: Behind the scenes of their multi-million dollar business

Posted by Jackson Jacobs | Aug 31, 2021

The Beginning

NELK or the NELK Boys (View NELK's CreatorDB profile here) as they are more commonly referred to got their start as a pure prank YouTube channel where the boys would play pranks on the public in a variety of hilarious ways to garner reactions. The original crew consisted of three members: Kyle Forgeard, Jesse Sabastiani, and Lucas Gasparini. They are Canadians from the Mississauga area of Ontario Canada that formed a bond over their love for making humorous YouTube videos. Kyle and Lucas have been friends since childhood and Jesse got involved in the mix early on. In 2010, Kyle formed the YouTube channel called NelkFilmz with his best friend Lucas and two other friends, Niko and Marko Martinovic. Kyle and his crew began to film prank videos on YouTube for the next 3 years as they started to gain some local traction. Around this time in late 2013, Kyle rebranded his YouTube channel name to simply NELK and began upping his game in terms of the quality of his content and the risks he was taking to execute pranks. As a result he made a connection that allowed him to attend the 2014 MTV Canada conference where he met Jesse Sabastiani. At the time, Jesse was filming for MTV Canada doing a country-style, Canadian version of the show Jackass. Kyle and Jesse saw eye-to-eye on many ideas early on so they decided to start filming together and had Jesse officially join the group and leave his MTV Canada career in the past.

At this point in NELK’s journey, their main brand was prank videos with some occasional beer drinking taking place. NELK was working on a very strict budget at this point in time that caused them to have to sleep at the houses of fans as they road-tripped around America to film their videos. This began to pay off as it was an easy way to directly connect with their fan base and it created many opportunities for creating viral moments on the internet, one of their first being their “Coke on Cops” prank in 2015. In this video, Kyle and his crew purposely park illegally and act sketchy as they are approached by a police officer and after some questioning from the officer Kyle blurts out that they have Coke in the back. The boys had a Go-Pro rigged to the top of the trunk so the viewers can see the officer’s reaction as she uncovers a pile of Coke cans. At the time the cop seemed to be somewhat amused, but the LAPD later released a statement stating that they were none too pleased, and the prank was technically a crime. With the boys avoiding legal trouble, this turned out to be their second most viewed video and marked the beginning of their YouTube notoriety. Despite this close run-in with the law, NELK continued to push the boundaries with their pranks with some of their most recognizable ones being their fake employee videos. NELK would acquire a specific uniform for a large corporate store (usually from a fan) and would film videos pretending to be employees at the store and messing with both the customers and staff. These videos would prove to have their consequences though as they were banned from many stores and local Canadian law enforcement started to take notice. However, the boldness and hilarity of their pranks created an extremely rabid and supportive fan base.

The Rise

At this point in time, NELK was beginning to build a cult-like following on the internet which proved to be their saving grace and path to success. A major portion of the early NELK story revolves around their constant battles with YouTube who would constantly age-restrict and demonetize their videos seemingly without cause in certain cases. This type of punishment nearly put the boys out of business as they were no longer able to make ends meet from ad revenue on YouTube alone. It was this combination of a need for an alternative revenue source and their rabid fan base that created the perfect storm for NELK to start making some serious money with their merchandise sales. From the beginning, the NELK boys employed a unique strategy when it came to releasing their merchandise. Unlike most influencers who have an online store with a nearly constant supply of their various merchandise items, NELK has consistently done what they call “merch drops” about five times a year. They also never re-release any of the items in future merch drops. This scarcity strategy has allowed them to always sell out their inventory and also be able to charge continuously more expensive prices as the demand for their items continues to grow by making them more and more exclusive. Another genius creation of the NELK boys was their tagline “Full Send” which is saying that represents going all out for something and in the case of the boys’ brand, partying and drinking. The early and immediate success of NELK’s merch drops propelled them into a higher tier on the YouTube creator ladder. The increase in money and fame allowed the boys to pursue things like travel, collaborations with other influencers, higher quality videos, and a larger team to help support these things. Specifically, NELK was able to relocate to the center of entertainment, Los Angeles. On top of moving locations, the boys were also invited by Faze Banks of the popular e-gaming company, Faze Clan, to move into his influencer-focused house called “The Clout House.” This provided NELK with a group of large influencers within the same living space as them which helped their name and brand to spread across Los Angeles and the internet. Their brand tagline “Full Send” fit perfectly with the LA, celebrity lifestyle and NELK was able to exponentially grow the popularity of their brand through videos filled with montages of parties with alcohol and scantily clad women mixed in with their classic prank bits. It was at this point going into 2019 when NELK truly began their takeover of YouTube and the influencer scene.

In May of 2019, Kyle struck gold when he found a young man by the name of Steve Deleonardis on Instagram who was gaining popularity for his insane drinking, smoking, and eating challenges. Steve was an instant hit with the NELK fans as he fit in perfectly with his crude sense of humor and love for alcohol. His drinking and eating challenges were so outlandish and popular that he formed his own channel on YouTube called “SteveWillDoIt” (View SteveWillDoIt's CreatorDB profile here) in addition to being a mainstay in NELK videos. Steve’s individual fan base grew so quickly that he was able to amass one million subscribers just in the first month of creating his YouTube channel. This move proved to be very fruitful for both Steve and NELK as a whole because although Steve was a later addition to the NELK crew, he was able to form a close relationship with his fans much faster through his own channel. This allowed him to be a hilarious, alcohol-consuming force in NELK videos too as the original NELK fan base quickly understood and accepted what Steve brought to the group. Following the new NELK business model, Steve and the crew were able to immediately capitalize on his addition through their exclusive merch drops as well. Essentially, a whole new brand line was created for Steve-specific merch that ranged from T-shirts and hoodies to a glass boot to drink beer from called “Steve’s boot.” Throughout the rest of 2019, it was reported that the NELK boys would consistently sell enough merchandise to generate seven-figures of revenue on their drop days. At the end of the year, the NELK boys felt like it was time to use some of that money to move to their own space where they could also house their growing team of employees. In February of 2020, NELK officially moved out of the Clout House and into their own mansion (also in LA) which they dubbed “The Full Send House.” The naming of the house may seem simple, but it was very meaningful to the boys as their main goal by moving into their own space was to start to grow the Full Send brand to new heights. They wanted to not only continue to grow the Full Send clothing line into a legit streetwear brand, but also expand it into a lifestyle brand that is recognizable to a wide demographic of people.

The Full-Blown Business

In early 2020, NELK’s growing rabid fan base allowed them to take even bigger business and content risks as their whole operation was being funded entirely by their fans. YouTube had completely demonetized their channel and there weren’t any brands interested in using the group to sponsor their products given the edgy and sometimes controversial nature of their videos. From here on out, NELK was able to get involved in the development and selling of various types of products in order to support their goal of making Full Send a complete lifestyle brand. The boys were still very calculated with the types of products they started to develop by sticking to what they knew. One of their first ventures into a product not involved in their clothing & small accessories line was workout supplements and gear. In late 2019, the boys realized they needed to do something to combat the toxic nature of their constant partying and celebrity lifestyles so they started hitting the gym and lifting weights. Around this time they also started to collaborate with a YouTube workout influencer named Bradley Martin. Bradley soon became a mainstay in many of the group’s videos and vice versa regarding the boys being in some of Bradley’s workout videos. This collaboration was another one that proved to be very fruitful as the NELK boys were now getting exposure amongst a workout-focused demographic which further diversified their fanbase and made their videos about more than just pranks and partying, but a certain way of life.

The NELK boys’ ventures into new products and fan bases came at a great time as the world was about to experience a tragedy that would drive people to greatly increase the time they spent on the internet and YouTube in particular. The COVID-19 pandemic caused governments around the world to enforce stay-at-home mandates and prevent people from going to work which forced many people to spend much of their greatly increased free time perusing the internet. At first, it proved to be a tough transition for NELK as all of their videos require them to be able to interact with the public in some way. However, they were able to weather the storm early on by adapting their videos until they were able to travel to different states around the country that had fewer restrictions as California was one of the most locked down states. Many people took issue with the NELK boys continuing their pranks during a global pandemic but it didn’t matter and proved to pay off as the online demand for new content was at an all time high especially amongst people in NELK’s average age demographic of young adults. This caused NELK’s subscriber total and overall media exposure to soar. Now that the boys had garnered a large amount of mainstream media coverage, they were starting to get noticed by big name celebrities that were fans of what they were doing. One of the most notable relationships the NELK boys formed was with UFC President Dana White. This led to the boys getting invited to fight nights which created amazing content for their videos and to a clothing collaboration that featured a UFC x Full Send t-shirt. This was a match made in heaven as it was another catalyst that helped expand NELK’s fan base and it also fit very well with the already formed workout component of Full Send’s lifestyle brand.

Possibly one of the most important relationships to the transformation of Full Send into a lifestyle brand was a lucky opportunity the boys got through Dana White that was completely unrelated to fighting or the UFC. They met President Donald Trump on Air Force One prior to one of his presidential rallies. The President even brought the boys on stage during the end of his rally to shake hands and be introduced to the crowd. This was the first time that NELK had been involved in anything political and even though they never state their personal political views, the fact that they got to meet and be a part of the sitting President’s political rally showed the world how far past just pranks and jokes the NELK boys and most importantly their Full Send brand had grown.

The year 2020 proved to be huge for the growth of Full Send but it had also clearly taken a toll on the boys as they were constant targets of law enforcement, had to adjust to new COVID restrictions, and traveled across the U.S. and out of the country to find less restricted areas to film content. It was because of this that during NELK’s annual holiday video break one of the founding members, Jesse Sabastiani, decided to remove himself from the content side of NELK to focus solely on the business side of the Full Send brand. He took over everything related to the development of the Full Send brand from designing new clothing items to coming up with new lifestyle items like Full Send skateboard decks, poker chip sets, ashtrays, and many other items that fit the brand’s lifestyle. In addition to this, he started a new Full Send-specific YouTube channel where he documents his life behind the scenes of the business. Jesse taking over the main role for the development of the Full Send brand was one of the most important moves that NELK made in 2021. With his intimate relationship and knowledge of the NELK fan base, Jesse was able to better target the type of new lifestyle items to invest in. Also, Jesse’s separate “FULL SEND” YouTube channel (View FULL SEND's CreatorDB profile here) turned into a huge hit among NELK fans and gave them a new appreciation for the complexity of the Full Send brand.

However, the most impactful move that NELK has made for their brand in 2021 was the release of their own alcoholic beverage which is a hard seltzer called Happy Dad. Although the release of Happy Dad just happened in June 2021, it’s already proving to be a huge hit with most stores selling out of the hard seltzer on the first day of its release. This makes perfect sense as NELK tapped into the ultimate product for the Full Send lifestyle brand because they were able to go back to their roots of drinking and partying, and execute a product that is accepted and consumed more broadly in society. Full Send now produces a product that is both attractive to their cult-like fan base and the general public. Happy Dad seems to have fully transitioned Full Send into a lifestyle brand now that it is able to reach everyday people who aren’t familiar with the NELK boys. In other words, you no longer need to be someone who watches YouTube and is a fan of pranks and crude humor to want to support the Full Send brand. This is the true power of the creator economy or influencers in general, to build real businesses while using their fandom as a huge jumpstart. The only question that remains now is: what product or industry will the NELK boys try to take over next?

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