It’s A Wonderful Kaji World
Making fun YouTube videos is the family business for Ryan Kaji, star of Ryan’s World, and his ‘ohana, who have turned this practice into an entertainment empire.
It’s Ryan’s World and oodles of children are continually glued to it — nearly 34 million subscribers at last count — as they play and learn along the way. The popular YouTube channel features 11-year-old Ryan Kaji, who along with dad Shion, mom Loann, and 6-year-old twin sisters Emma and Kate, have turned simple videos of him unboxing toys into a family-friendly entertainment empire. Collectively, their efforts have resulted in a production company that manages nine YouTube channels (which garner more than 50 million subscribers and 1 billion views per month combined), as well as a line of toys and consumer products.
“Our core principle for our brand is a combination of entertainment and education,” explains Shion, noting that the target audience is keiki ages 3 to 7. “We used to focus on just entertainment, but we got so inspired by the educational part, too …
“This is a place where we want kids to come and feel like they’re on a play date with Ryan. We always look out for the authenticity, and the No. 1 priority is that Ryan is having fun in the videos.”
These days, the fun takes place right here in Hawai‘i, where the Kajis have called home since April 2021. The family moved from Houston to Honolulu during the pandemic, seeking sunny skies that allowed them to be outdoors more, especially during a time of remote learning and lockdowns.
“I felt the teachers were trying their best to do what they could do but it was very hard,” notes Loann, a former high school chemistry teacher. “And because I had the privilege to stay home, I thought it was better for my kids if I just homeschooled. So, during that full year, I homeschooled Ryan and part of the curriculum was that I wanted him to have PE.
“It was hard to do that in Houston. We wanted an environment where we could have easy access to outside, where we’re not, hey, can we go outside today? Is it too hot? Is it too cold? Is it rainy? We have a pool at home (in Houston) and we use it for only several months a year versus here. We’ve been here a year and a half, and they’ve been using it all year-round. It’s just been really nice to be able to do that.”
“Also, Ryan easily gets recognized when he’s in public and before he gets too old, I wanted to find a safe community where everybody could watch over him, essentially,” adds Shion. “When we first came to Hawai‘i, we felt like it’s got a very welcoming community, everybody helping to raise kids together and supporting the senior citizens, too.
“It’s been great. The kids have been able to find new friends. They hang out all the time and their parents are really nice, too. They’re always like, ‘Oh, Ryan, you can call me Auntie and Uncle.’
“We feel everybody is so much nicer here. I mean everybody in Houston is very nice, but Hawai‘i is on a whole different level.”
Shion, who is Japanese, and Loann, who is Vietnamese, say Houston is still home base for them. It’s where their families live and their company is headquartered. But they’re also enjoying life in paradise, creating new memories on and off the camera.
“When we decided maybe we should go to Hawai‘i, we actually took Ryan with us here to check out the place and see if he likes it,” says Loann. “He ended up loving it. He loved hanging out at the beach. He was trying to surf, and I was like, ‘What do you think about moving here?’ He was like, ‘Oh, that means I can go to the beach all the time,’ so it just worked out.”
Currently, Ryan, Emma and Kate attend the same school. In his free time, Ryan swims, plays tennis, enjoys rollerblading and started going to the gym with his friends (yes, he’s growing up). He also has been taking “circus class” for the past couple of years, learning juggling, card tricks and magic tricks.
Emma has jumped into karate, and together with Kate, they do swimming, gymnastics and piano lessons.
They also all serve as creative directors for the family’s production company, Sunlight Entertainment.
“We always get the question of how Ryan balances his time,” notes Loann. “Since we moved to Hawai‘i, we only film 1-2 hours a week, and mainly on the weekends so he’s able to have a lot of time doing extracurricular activities that he enjoys and hanging out with friends. That’s our No. 1 priority: education and making sure that he still has a childhood.
“A lot of our videos, he’s in the beginning part or it’s an animation or a compilation of his previous videos, so the cadence of us actually producing new content really is once a week, and because our videos aren’t scripted it doesn’t take too long to make.”
Recently, Forbes listed Ryan in its 2022 Top Creators Earnings at $27 million. In 2017, he became the youngest person to ever make a Forbes top earners list with $11 million. And just two years before that was when Loann posted that very first video on YouTube of an adorable 3-year-old Ryan picking out a toy at Target. Initially called Ryan ToysReview, the channel was renamed to Ryan’s World and evolved from videos of Ryan opening toys to a mix of fun things like science experiments, music videos, challenges and more.
“It was about four months after that (first video) we felt, OK, this is really big, we have to get support,” recalls Shion, who worked as a structural engineer. “We were getting a lot of exposure around the world and a lot of kids just waiting for new videos …
“We found it fascinating because we didn’t have any equipment or any editing skills … but somehow it captured their minds.”
Shion and Loann started researching ways to improve video quality, but they didn’t have a budget back then. They used a green tablecloth against a wall for a green screen, and put a shower curtain over the table to make it white.
“There’s one video where we tried flashlights as studio lights,” remembers Shion. “We’re flashing the flashlights on Ryan’s face and only his face is lighting up.”
Now, the Kajis have a team of over 35 employees working at Sunlight Entertainment, which they formed a year after launching their YouTube channel.
“We film (on our iPhones) in Hawai‘i and send it to them and they edit,” reveals Shion. “That’s why we’re able to move here. We realized a lot of editors can just do it remote. There are a lot of new staff members we hired outside of Houston, some of them live in New York, California, Colorado … we were able to recruit a lot of good talent from all over the place.”
There also is the Ryan’s World brand side of the business, producing toys, video games, clothing and more, as well as collaborations, such as a toothpaste and toothbrush with Colgate, cereal with Kellogg’s and sneakers with Skechers.
“We have a lot of new exciting projects for next year that we cannot say in detail just yet but there are a lot of projects in connection with Hawai‘i,” shares Shion. “Now that we moved to Hawai‘i, we’d like to contribute to the community here, and there are many projects that we’re right now working on that has to do with Hawai‘i.
“We are working together with a company based in Hawai‘i,” he adds. “We’d love to help promote the culture and community and bring more awareness of how great Hawai‘i is.”