As George Mavrakis ’19 awaits delivery of his coveted Golden Play Button—a prize recognizing the milestone of 1 million subscribers to his YouTube channel—his mind flashes back to fall 2016.

He was weeks into his sophomore year at Lawrence University when word got out that he had a growing YouTube following for the videos he was making about his saltwater aquarium hobby. He didn’t think 10,000 subscribers was anything to brag about; the economics major from suburban Chicago was more concerned about finding playing time on the Lawrence basketball team.

“When I came to Lawrence, it was just a hobby,” Mavrakis said. “I didn’t tell anyone about it. It wasn’t until after my first year at Lawrence that that secret about me sort of slipped and released into the student population and everyone was like, ‘oh, he’s the fish guy.’ From that moment on, I was George the fish guy.”

Mavrakis kept saltwater tanks in his room. He filmed some of his videos on campus. He recruited others on campus to join the fun. And his YouTube following continued to grow each year, as did his editing skills and his understanding of digital algorithms.

By his senior year, things were moving fast as he balanced classwork, basketball, and aquarium commitments. Midway through the year, he and a business partner, Shawn Hale, launched a live aquarium festival, known as Aquashella, first in Chicago and then in Dallas. The first one broke even; the second one was a money-maker.

By the time he would graduate—and, yes, he carried two fish with him when he walked across the stage at Commencement in June 2019—the fish guy was getting to be a pretty big deal. Subscribers to his CoralFish12g channel had grown to 165,000, and one of his videos had gone viral, racking up millions of views. Mavrakis had come to the realization that, yes, this hobby he had launched into as a 10-year-old and nurtured during his four years at Lawrence could be much more than just a hobby.

George Mavrakis feeds his fish in his Sage Hall room in spring of 2019.
George Mavrakis '19 feeds his fish in Sage Hall during Spring Term of 2019.

So, with a degree in economics in hand and a growing understanding of the YouTube environment, he set forth to build an even larger audience and a carefully designed business enterprise, based in Glenview, Illinois. He has since produced hundreds of aquarium videos—well-researched, informative, often funny, with high energy and fast cuts—garnering nearly 150 million views over the past three years.

And, as of Dec. 21, one million subscribers.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “For me, to have that Golden Play Button on the way, it’s like a childhood dream. It’s really special.”

See more on Lawrence’s economics major here.

Saltwater fish collecting is a niche hobby, but the 24-year-old Mavrakis has found a formula that is as much entertainment as it is educational. You don’t have to be an aquarium buff to enjoy the banter or share in the laughs or appreciate the energy.

“I realized I need to appeal to a broad audience,” Mavrakis said. “How can I make aquariums and marine life interesting and entertaining and educational to everyone? How can I make anyone who just picks up their phone to watch this video be interested?”

He’s traveled to 15 countries to shoot his videos since graduating from Lawrence. He’s sought out interesting people who have stories to share and interesting locales that provide brilliant backdrops. He spent more than two months in Asia shooting dozens of videos because that region of the world supplies such a large percentage of the world’s ornamental fish.

“It’s something that sets me apart from a lot of other creators in my field,” Mavrakis said. “I like to get out there. I like to see and find the things that no one else has seen before.”

Putting his economics background to work, he’s purposefully expanded beyond videos. He didn’t want to be beholden to the ebb and flow of video consumption and advertising. He and Hale expanded Aquashella to three times a year, adding Orlando to the mix. It’s billed as the “world’s premier aquarium festival,” featuring fish, reptiles, and aquatic art.

In December, just as CoralFish12g was about to hit that magical 1 million subscriber mark, Mavrakis launched his own line of small saltwater aquariums, complete with a kit and an instructional video course targeted toward beginners. Pandemic-related shipping delays meant he could only get 50 of the first 200 he ordered, priced at $450 each, but those 50 sold out in three hours. He got another 1,500 emails expressing interest in buying the kit as soon as more become available.

Mavrakis thought it would be fun to deliver a few of the tanks in person, a thank you to those who have been fans of his videos. He didn’t tell them he was coming.

“We got on a plane and went to a few different spots in the United States,” he said. “It was really fun, really cool. And we shot that as a video. Some people were a little awkward because you catch them off guard, but there were a few people who really freaked out. It was so fun. I got to set the tanks up with them.”

Mavrakis has spent much of the past six months expanding his operation. He now has five full-time employees working with him on CoralFish12g. Another five part-time employees work on the Aquashella shows.

The quick growth has been a blessing and a challenge, he said, but he’s establishing an infrastructure that will hopefully allow CoralFish12g and Aquashella to thrive over the long haul.

“It’s hard; creators and creative people in general and small business owners in general experience burnout,” he said. “Managing that is the key. How does this continue to go on even potentially beyond me?”

Mavrakis said his Lawrence experience helped him to prepare for this journey. That includes his experiences as a student-athlete—he played basketball for four years, averaging 9.9 points and 5 rebounds during his senior season. The path wasn’t always easy, he said, but the lessons learned inform decisions he’s now making as a young entrepreneur.

“It was a place that set me up for my future,” he said of Lawrence. “I’m very grateful. It ended up being a place that put me in the best position to be successful.”