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Vlad, Niki, Diana and Nastya party on yachts, ride in Ferraris and travel the world. Their massive audience of fellow kids can’t get enough.

Three years ago, YouTubers who go by Vlad, Niki, Diana and Nastya were friends cruising around Miami on a 97-foot yacht to celebrate a birthday. Today, they are locked in a fierce rivalry over YouTube supremacy.

They’re not even 10.

The children are stars of three YouTube channels—“Vlad and Niki," “Like Nastya" and “Kids Diana Show." They are the three most popular live-action YouTube kids channels in the world, with nearly 300 million YouTube subscribers between them. Now they’re expanding into everything from streaming shows to branded toys to licensing deals, all worth tens of millions of dollars.

“These kids who came from nowhere have more influence than Mickey Mouse," says Eyal Baumel, a longtime strategist for YouTube personalities, including “Like Nastya."

Across the three channels, the videos play like live-action cartoons in a suburban fantasy land. Kids dress up like superheroes, crawl over giant vegetables and drive around in motorized toy cars. Mom and dad are sidekicks.

The more success the kids have found, the swankier the toys and outings have become. In one video, Vlad and Niki snub mom and the Range Rover she bedecked in fluffy pink boas for a ride in dad’s hot red Ferrari.In another video from this year, the “Kids Diana Show" hits the road, staying in a resort in Maldives where the kids and parents hop aboard a yellow submarine.

Videos feature lots of “oohs," “aahs," applause and minimal dialogue—which makes it easy to redub the YouTube posts, which are mostly in English, into other languages including Arabic, Spanish or Indonesian.

“Kids feel that Vlad and Niki are their friends," says their mother, Victoria Vashketov, of her children, who are 9 and 7 years old, respectively.

Toy makers pay the young celebrities to play with their products. Rates can range anywhere from $75,000 to more than $300,000, according to a person familiar with such deals.

The YouTubers also have exclusive lines of playthings branded with their names and likenesses. There’s a caped Vlad action figure and palm-sized figurines of Diana’s entire family, which can be purchased at big U.S. retailers like Walmart and Target as well as in countries including Sweden and Mongolia, according to the channels’ representatives.

Shenzhen, China-based Zuru Toys produced a specialty line of “Vlad and Niki" toys after entering into a partnership with the family in 2020. The company’s co-founder, Nick Mowbray, says he got into business with the boys because they have appeal globally.

Major streaming services are putting the videos on platforms including HBO Max and Amazon too.

“You can create a global franchise without a major studio," says Dan Weinstein, who represents “Vlad and Niki" under the banner of his company Underscore Talent and has helped other internet sensations cross over to traditional media channels. “I think that’s pretty mind-blowing to think about."

Timing is everything

Around the time that Vlad, Niki, Diana and Nastya were toddlers, iPads were becoming the new babysitters and videos featuring toddlers unboxing new toys on camera were taking over children’s content on YouTube.

Among the young personalities that began influencing consumer behavior was Evan from EvanTubeHD, a toy and gaming YouTuber who started posting videos featuring Angry Bird toys when he was 5 years old and became one of the first kid YouTubers to achieve stardom on the platform. Ryan Kaji—often hailed as the reigning kid king of YouTube—was reviewing popular toys like Thomas the Tank Engine and raking in millions. They created a formula for the kinds of videos that could rack up millions of views: Give a cute kid a coveted name-brand toy, film them playing with it, then post.

The three families leaned into that formula.

Vlad and Niki’s parents started making videos out of their home in Moscow. Sergey Vashketov was a midlevel executive at a food manufacturer; Victoria, a former gymnast. Early videos, which are in Russian, show Vlad and Niki guzzling bottles of Coca-Cola and frolicking with life-size bags of M&Ms and Skittles.

Nastya, whose full name is Anastasia Radzinskaya, comes from Krasnodar, Russia. Her parents say they started posting videos of their daughter on YouTube to show off her speaking skills after a doctor falsely diagnosed her with cerebral palsy and said she might never speak. Some of Nastya’s first videos show her playing with Legos and opening a Disney-themed mystery egg.

Diana’s parents—Olena and Volodymyr Kidisyuk—started making videos out of their home in Kyiv, Ukraine, training their camera on their daughter and older brother Roma, who played with popular toys in videos like Peppa Pig, Hot Wheels and Play-Doh.

Each of the three channels began humbly, staging the videos in basic locations like at the kitchen table or in a local park, shooting with smartphones and employing very little, if any editing. After videos began racking up millions of views on YouTube, the parents saw an opportunity to create a business around them, and they began investing in making more polished videos involving more extravagant locations and toys. The more popular the videos, the more often YouTube’s algorithm recommended their posts to kids.

Eventually, the families moved from Ukraine and Russia to sunnier spots like Dubai and Thailand that allowed for filming outdoors year round. About four years ago, the three families met in Miami and began a friendship, according to Ms. Vashketov. Nastya, who was having a birthday party, invited Vlad, Niki and Diana. Through the years the families have hosted several other birthday parties together, filming their kids playing together while the lucky birthday boy or girl opens mountains of flashy new toys. Birthday videos also perform really well on YouTube, says Ms. Vashketov.

Traveling to amusement parks and going on vacation also often feature in videos. Between them, the three families have filmed and posted videos from places like Thailand, Italy, Hawaii and the French Alps. They’ve also spent time together in Dubai where two of the families lived full time for a spell.

Luck and timing were important. So too were analytics, said Mr. Weinstein, who has been advising digital creators like the Vashketovs for more than a decade.

YouTube helps creators build their audiences by providing data-driven tools that can analyze how their videos perform and help plan their content. That includes knowing what YouTube audiences are searching for, what the creator’s viewers are searching for, when they are on YouTube, other channels that the audience watches and other data points. It allows creators to engage in their own brand of A/B testing, tweaking each nuance of a channel’s presentation to see how it might impact viewership, including the color scheme, titles for the videos and even what types of thumbnail photos impact viewership.

“Sergey and Victoria are voracious students of YouTube and content creation," said Mr. Weinstein.

Today, the families have teams of people working behind the scenes.

“Vlad and Niki" has a film crew of up to five people at a time, including location scouts, camera operators and people to help secure props. They also work with people to help translate videos for their foreign-language channels, a mobile-gaming applications design team and an assistant who helps manage social media.

The Kidisyuks signed with pocket.watch, a company that helps YouTube kids and family creators build franchises around their channels, including additional branding and merchandising opportunities, consumer products, mobile gaming and the development and licensing of additional content. Pocket.watch represents more than 30 kids and family creators, including Ryan Kaji.

Hollywood studios have taken interest too.

Nastya’s team is developing an animated series with Will Smith’s production company, Westbrook. Netflix has shown interest in the series and talks are ongoing, according to a person familiar with the matter.

HBO Max spent seven figures licensing “Vlad and Niki" content for its service, according to another person, who added that the streamer is considering producing two scripted shows including an animated series based on the two boys.

Netflix and HBO Max didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Diana and Roma starred in a promotional video for Paramount’s recent “Paw Patrol" movie and at one point hadcontent available on both Amazon Prime and Roku. The sister and brother duo also have an animated YouTube series featuring Diana’s alter ego, Princess of Play, sparring with her nemesis Boris the Baron of Boredom.

Competition

With such lucrative deals up for grabs, the rivalry among the channels has intensified over the years, causing the families to drift apart, according to people close to the families.

Competition is especially stiff between Diana and Nastya, who both appeal to girls. The two are neck and neck on YouTube. Nastya currently has 102 million subscribers while Diana has 104 million. Sometimes battles erupt between merchandising partners fighting over things like prime shelf space at major retailers, said one person.

Vlad and Niki’s mom says she sometimes will check to see how well Nastya or Diana videos have performed. But Victoria Vashketov plays down the competitiveness: “As parents, we all get along, and all the kids enjoy playing together."

The families also share a brewing dilemma. Soon, their kid stars will grow into adolescents, perhaps too old to be making videos for preschoolers.

Vlad already has an eye on the future, saying he dreams of following in the footsteps of YouTube’s top creator, MrBeast, who regularly produces elaborate contests or challenges he posts to his channel. Additionally, Mr. Weinstein is lining up opportunities for Vlad and his brother to get into the music business, hiring producers and songwriters who have worked with both Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez to help put together some original songs.

For now the Vashketovs are enjoying being settled right outside Miami, something that helps give the boys consistency with school, the parents say. They recently bought a $12.5 million, eight-bedroom mansion located in the swanky town of Golden Beach.

And the Vashketovs say their kids can stop making videos any time they want. “Our inspiration really comes from Vlad’s and Niki’s interest," says Sergey. “If we try to do something that they are not into, it doesn’t look authentic."

As Vlad gets older, his 3-year-old brother Christian may step in. Ms. Vashketov says, even though Christian has appeared in several videos already, there are no plans to create a channel for her youngest son. That also goes for the baby girl Ms. Vashketov gave birth to in September.

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