2013 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW major: Journalism, Business Certificate
Age: 37 • Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Head of Programming Strategy, YouTube
Taking his UW-Madison education viral, Ben Relles uses his talents to help others bring their ideas to life. As the current head of programming strategy at YouTube, he instills his Wisconsin values as a leader and innovator of online video and digital media.
Relles, who earned a degree in journalism and a certificate in business administration, says that "both the School of Journalism and the School of Business at Wisconsin were exceptional and impact how I approach work every day."
While Relles was still a UW senior in 1997, he started his first company, MarketVision, which focused on direct and online marketing. The company grew for four consecutive years.
"I ran that [MarketVision] with two partners until 2002," he says. "The support and advice of professors in the UW business [school] turned out to be extremely valuable in helping us incorporate and get our business off the ground."
In 2007, Relles decided to embark on a second business venture. Following up on an idea he was passionate about, he invested his own money to start a company in a space he believed was about to explode — online video.
And explode it did. Known as Barely Political, Relles's online network took off shortly after its debut of the now-famous political satire "I Got a Crush ... on Obama" (popularly known as "Obama Girl"). Barely Political has been featured on CNN, NBC, ABC and other cable news outlets, while the network's videos have been viewed more than 1.6 billion times, making Barely Political one of YouTube's most-watched channels.
Since joining the YouTube team in 2011, Relles empowers a wide variety of film creators on a daily basis. As the head of programming strategy, he helps videographers from all around the world to better understand the impact of online video. Recently, he appeared on Anderson Live, Anderson Cooper's TV talk show, where he helped aspiring young YouTube creators discover ways to maximize their audiences.
Relles also makes it a priority to share his talents through charitable efforts. Using innovative ways of thinking strategically, he advises various nonprofit organizations, such as Donors Choose — an organization that provides materials to schools in need — about how to expand their online presence.
"Regardless of where my career takes me, I want to take the values of Madison and the UW along with me, and to [hold] integrity and compassion for others as my most important personal metrics," he says.
In his own words
What advice would you offer to graduating seniors?
Enjoy your last few months in Madison. And whether you have a job lined up or not, I'd advise graduating seniors to use the next few months to reach out and set up conversations with UW alumni in the industry where you are exploring a career. These are great phone calls and meetings to have while you're a student, and a bit tougher to line up once you have a job. Make it a priority. There's a lot of wisdom to be gained from someone with 20 or 30 years' experience in the field you want to enter.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
My dad (UW '68) often tells me to "keep the number one thing, the number one thing." I like this advice — focus is important.
What's your favorite quote?
"Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering." — Arthur C. Clarke
I hope the most creative people in the world will continue to use YouTube as the home for their videos and their stories. The technology will continue to improve over the next five years — more people will watch YouTube on their TVs, on their mobile devices and on whatever new kind of paper-thin screen is invented that we can't even imagine yet. But what excites me is that regardless of the technology, more and more creators will take what they're most passionate about and build their own loyal fan base around it on YouTube.
What was your first job?
In high school I sold soft pretzels at baseball games and parades.
What five items would you take to a desert island?
A giant helicopter. Four books on how to fly giant helicopters.
If you could trade places with any person for a week, living or dead, real or fictional, with whom would it be?
I guess someone in the year 2300 or so. I wouldn't Google "Ben Relles" or anything. I'll let that play out on its own. But I'd really like to spend a week in the future and research how the 21st, 22nd and 23rd centuries unfold. I guess as long as I'm picking someone, let's make it a baseball closer, so I can also live out my dream of shutting down a team in the 9th.