Aaron "Alpha.M" Marino is no stranger to adversity, and like many other small business entrepreneurs, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced him to innovate his game to combat a bearish economic climate.
Marino educates his over 6 million YouTube subscribers on the latest men's fashion and grooming trends, proper exercise regimes and — given his social media celebrity and personal story — what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur after starting with nothing, which is a challenge that many Americans can relate to at the moment. According to a recent survey, 7.5 million small businesses are at risk of being permanently shut down because of the global Covid-19 pandemic that has rocked the U.S. economy.
Similar to many other social media influencers, Marino promotes other companies' products in his videos as a way to generate advertising revenue, and sponsorships have decreased by 50% as a direct result of the coronavirus.
"It's my responsibility as a leader to not freak out and to stay calm," Marino tells CNBC. "You need to be flexible enough to change and adapt in this situation. You are fighting for your business' life and your employees as well."
Fortunately, Marino has not had to furlough any of his 20-plus employees, citing low overhead and expenses. Since striking it big on YouTube back in 2013, Marino has created four companies: a hair care company called Pete & Pedro, a skin care company called Tiege Hanley, a sunglasses company called Enemy and a brand-growth company called MENfluential Media.
But staying creative has been a challenge, limited to the confines of his home, Marino says. He has also realized that people are not focused on dating or the latest style trends at the moment. He is focusing on trying to determine what he can do to spark his audience's interests. Recently, Marino produced videos that focus on anxiety reduction and how to have a productive morning routine while being quarantined. And he believes that every business owner needs to be just as hungry if they are going to make it out of this pandemic and thrive.
"Business owners need to look for opportunities where they have not looked before," Marino said. "Your business is not going to thrive if you are a mess emotionally. Find healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety."
In addition to prominence on YouTube, Marino has amassed over 600,000 followers on Instagram and has gained a reputation for being every man's best friend. But none of it came quick or easy.
Growing up on welfare in Center City Philadelphia, Marino was born to two parents who had him in their early twenties. His mother raised miniature donkeys for a living, and his father is a musician and entrepreneur. After graduating with a degree in business from West Virginia University in 1998, Marino moved to Atlanta and started to work as a personal trainer, eventually opening a gym. But a series of failed business efforts culminated in Marino's using a personal credit card to pay employees and, eventually, a bankruptcy filing. At 30 he took a weekend gig driving a mobile beer cart at a country club just to make ends meet.
"This was not automatically handed to me," Marino said. "People see just the success, but they don't realize the struggle and the sleepless nights. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable."
In 2007, Marino — at that time already trying to launch a men's image consulting business — was given a video camera by his wife. He began to produce videos on how men should dress and properly groom themselves. All it took was one gentleman seeking Marino's fashion advice for him to get hooked on the YouTube platform. His consulting firm slowly evolved into becoming his Alpha.M channel.
Marino originally pitched his Alpha.M consulting on "Shark Tank" in the form of DVDs back in 2013, right when his YouTube success was just starting to take form. But each of the Sharks were hesitant to invest, as a set of DVDs cost $300 per consumer. By the time he returned to "Shark Tank" in 2016 seeking a partnership for Pete & Pedro, Marino was offered $100,000 for a 10% stake in his Alpha.M brand by Barbara Corcoran.
After initially accepting her offer, he reluctantly declined, not wanting to lose say over what sponsorships he embraces on his YouTube channel. Marino's company MENfluential Media helps him determine which sponsorships to pursue. Terry Adelman, MENfluential Men's managing partner, said the company rejects 90% of the sponsorship inquiries it receives.
"Aaron is loyal to his audience … and he takes that responsibility seriously," Adelman said.
It's the value that he puts on authenticity that Marino credits for his success, discussing far more than just beard grooming and push-up variations. Marino has broken down into tears in his videos, discussing his bankruptcy, growing up with two abusive stepfathers, combating low self-esteem as a child and now his own struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Everything I do is about making guys feel good about themselves," Marino said. "I am honest. I let people see me cry. And I talk about things that others aren't comfortable talking about, because it could help others."
Marino recognizes the pain and suffering that so many are going through now because that was him 15 years ago — being forced to pivot, not knowing what success would look like, if it would be there at all, at the end of the tunnel.
"When we come out of this, the people who were able to survive will be much stronger," Marino said. "Sometimes we need to be pushed in order to grow."
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.