(First published in the May 3, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Antonio Centeno runs his nationally renowned Real Men, Real Style YouTube channel from a small studio in Wittenberg.
Antonio Centeno runs his Real Men, Real Style conglomerate from a small unmarked building in Wittenberg. He says most people in town have no idea what he does for a living.
Wittenberg is a small town of roughly 1,000 people, near the Marathon and Shawano county border. The high school is shared with nearby Birnamwood, the Ho-chunk Casino is nearby, and the most prominent business is Nueske’s Meats, known for their mouthwatering bacon. It’s quintessential small town America.
Wittenberg is also home to an internationally known fashion guru and YouTube celebrity.
Housed in a small, unmarked building in the village is the studio of Antonio Centeno, founder of Real Men, Real Style, which runs a website, podcasts, and courses on how to dress. From this small studio Centeno creates the videos that make their way to more than 1.8 million YouTube subscribers around the world.
Look at some of the videos on Real Men, Real Style page and it’s quickly apparent why Centeno is such a hit. These easy-to-digest and directly informative videos focus on a subject on which many men are begging for inspiration: fashion.
Videos with titles such as “Brown Vs. Black Dress Shoes | Which Men’s Shoe Is Best” and “What REALLY Makes Men Attractive To Women” practically beg the viewer to click for more.
The YouTube channel is just one part of the picture. Centeno also started the media company Menfluential, a combination of men’s style bloggers, YouTubers and other influencers who he connects with companies that want to advertise. Centeno himself is a fashion contributor for The Art of Manliness website, whose Facebook page is followed by more than 1 million people.
Centeno is such a business unto himself that he now hires “virtual” assistants from around the world—connecting with him online—to help him schedule meetings, help with business matters, answer fan questions, and even produce the final videos (Centeno shoots the videos himself in his studio, then sends them out to videographers for editing).
Scheduling an interview with him meant going through one of his assistants, and it took some time to set up because he spends a lot of time traveling, for both business and family adventures (he and his wife have four young children).
In person, Centeno proved just as warm, friendly, welcoming and inspirational as he appears in his videos. Even in his self-described subdued clothing choice —still well put together for central Wisconsin— he appears an immaculate connoisseur of style.
Centeno is likely the most successful YouTuber in central Wisconsin. If you know anyone more successful, send them my way to be interviewed! But many other local entrepreneurs are trying to carve out some success on the platform. YouTube started off as a way to share video, and somewhere along the way started creating stars who could monetize their content—even when based in the most unexpected places.
From Texas to Wittenberg to worldwide
A first obvious question for Centeno, who’s originally from Texas: What exactly brought him to Wittenberg?
Centeno served in the Marine Corps from 1997 to 2003, and then also worked in the Ukraine, at one point as an election observer. He met his wife there, and became curious about the business of men’s fashion when he had difficulty finding a quality but affordable suit in the Ukraine.
Centeno came to Central Wisconsin to take a job in Wittenberg after completely his MBA at the University of Texas in Austin. “I was promptly fired,” Centeno jokes, as we sit in his studio.
He already had bought a house with his wife, and had an idea for an online business centered around clothing. Wittenberg offered a low cost of living—a nice advantage to someone starting an online business—so he decided to stay.
He and a business partner started an online clothier, A Tailored Suit, in 2008, which sold custom wardrobes. It was a success, as only a few other companies were doing the same thing, and business was good. Until it wasn’t. Larger clothing companies picked up on what Centeno was doing and jumped into the market. Without the resources to compete with the big fish, his business folded.
Failure is a theme that Centeno brings up again and again—he says it provides a lesson greater than any MBA degree. Combining his passion for clothing and style, and his business acumen, Centeno started the website and YouTube channel Real Men, Real Style in 2011. The platforms mainly were meant to promote his online courses, which range in cost from around $100 to thousands, focused on improving style and self-image. The higher range courses include personal coaching from a Real Men, Real Style image consultant.
In 2013, things really took off when he decided to take a YouTube challenge: Upload one video per day for 200 days straight. Up to this point he ran the YouTube channel mainly to drive traffic to his website. The challenge was grueling, but by the end of the 200 days, he had accumulated more than a million views. Ad revenue started to come in, and it became apparent that his YouTube channel itself could be a business.
Apparel companies then started to approach Centeno. One of them sent a pair of shoes for him to review. That video did well, the company made lots of sales off the exposure, and sent Centeno another pair of shoes he could incorporate into his videos.
But that pair sat on his shelf for a while. “I can’t pay my bills with a shoe,” Centeno recounts thinking.
Then a business mentor, lifestyle blogger and guru Aaron Marino told Centeno that if the company really wanted a product review, send them a bill for it. Centeno sent an invoice for $3,000 and “they paid it within an hour,” Centeno says.
Racks of clothing fill his studio, sent by companies that pay to be part of his style advice videos.
That’s just one part of the revenue stream of his business, Centeno says. He also earns money on YouTube and website ad revenue, style-themed instructional courses, and conference seminars. Diversity is the key to his success, Centeno says.
“People see the successes, but they don’t see the failures,” Centeno says about his past jobs and the years it took to get where he is now.
Centeno says he’s learned far more from failure and how to push through it than he learned from earning his MBA. “With the internet, you can teach yourself and in two to three years of hard work become an expert. This is all so new, there’s no college course up to date to take. You need an adventurous spirit and a willingness to fail.”
None of that came easy. In the beginning workweeks ranging from 80-100 hours were too common. But with four young children now, Centeno keeps a balance with family. Using assistants located throughout the world—some on a short-term contract basis, others he hired—he has managed to carve out time for his family.
Other YouTube channels from the Wausau area
Dan Paul at his home studio in the village of Maine. Paul has been on YouTube almost since its founding, and has two channels with more than 10,000 followers. The extra money is nice, but he also likes the thrill of growing his fan base.
Others in the Wausau area are finding varying degrees of success on YouTube, and their experience gives a good sense of the unpredictable nature of the platform and the internet in general.
The biggest local stars—Christopher O’Flyng and Luke Korns—rose to fame several years ago while local high schoolers in the DC Everest and Wausau areas. Their funny and charming videos of daredevil stunts, silly pranks and youthful topics have gained the now 21-year-olds millions of YouTube followers.
Dan Paul of Wausau currently has two YouTube channels with more than 10,000 subscribers. Paul posts everything from toy reviews to how to repair videos, and has been on the platform so long that sometimes when he Googles how to do some repair —he ends up coming across one of his own past videos.
Paul has 12 channels total on YouTube — that was back when YouTube had no limits to who could get paid for advertising. Now, a channel must have at least 1,000 subscribers — it weeds out a lot of the poor content for advertisers’ sakes, Paul says. So Paul focuses on two channels — DANDLINC and ExcelDriveVideo — and uses them for all the different kinds of videos he posts. DANDLINC just hit 10,000 subscribers and ExcelDriveVideo has nearly 17,000.
A retired Air Force colonel, Paul receives a pension but the YouTube channels provide another source of income equivalent to a part-time job. For example, a video he posted in 2014 called “How to start a lawnmower that’s been sitting” has 128,167 views. Paul says that video alone brings in about $25 per month, on average.
For others, such as Jarrod Crooks and Randy Vongphakdy, the medium is a platform for the work they enjoy doing. Crooks, a local filmmaker who produces feature length, martial arts-packed films and shorts, and Vongphakdy, who features videos revolving around parkour and now urban exploring, use the medium as a channel for creative outlet. Both partner on projects, such as a show called Fresh Talk. Neither has more than the 1,000-subscriber threshold needed for YouTube to pay advertising revenue.
Josh Jaeger runs the retro gaming convention LincCon in Merrill. Jaeger’s channel, Gamehuggers, featured him and a group of friends talking about retro gaming in something akin to a podcast format on YouTube. Most of the videos would garner maybe 25 views, Jaeger says. “I woke up one morning and one of them had 10,000 hits,” Jaeger says. “I don’t know what it was.”
Centeno might be the biggest full-time YouTuber in central Wisconsin, but he’s not the only one with some pretty big numbers in Wittenberg. Amanda Hackey, who runs a channel called mandersandpoopoo, has more than 151,000 subscribers to her vlog-style channel. Her videos are short — few are more than a minute — and contain videos titled “How I feel when people ignore my texts” ‘When you get Family zoned” and various dance videos.
Hackey’s channel got a major boost with a shout out from Nicki Minaj on Instagram and Twitter.
And we would be remiss not to mention Maa Vue, one of the biggest sensations in the Hmong music world. In an interview for a cover story on Vue earlier this year, we learned YouTube is a major part of Vue’s business. While her subscriber base of 43,000 pales in comparison to Centeno’s, several of her videos have seen millions of views.
Paul says he went four months without a single subscriber, then got one, then two, then they started coming in. Today, he collects about 20-30 new subscribers to his channels every day. It can be frustratingly slow at first, but as your channel gets more and more attention, “Once you start getting income and feedback, it strokes your ego,” Paul says.
For Centeno, YouTube was a platform for his business. Most of Real Men, Real Style’s videos in the past few weeks have attracted between 10,000 and 60,000 views each. Even though those aren’t huge numbers, the topics and viewers and cross-promotions are so targeted well enough to be money makers. Centeno says he has more than a dozen revenue sources, by design, so that if any one source dries up, others will fill the hole.
And for some, YouTube essentially is like an online portfolio for their video skills. Paul also has a drone photography company, and the drone videos he posts are like his calling card, more so than something that generates revenue itself. Crooks makes commercial videos for a living, and will now work at WIFC, dividing his time between DJing on the radio and producing videos for Midwest Communications.
The bottom line most of the YouTube creators shared is that it takes hard work, planning and patience —just like any business venture or serious hobby.