Four years ago, Rob Bliss questioned his professional mettle. He was in the middle of shooting a now-famous Grand Rapid lip-dub video, taking a chance on his creative dreams but uncertain about his professional future, which he feared was headed nowhere fast.
One evening during the filming, Bliss returned home from a date where he was so poor "I paid for it in quarters" to find his modest apartment destroyed after a water main broke and flooded it, swamping his computers and treasured possessions including his guitars.
It went from bad to worse quickly in the "crap" house where as a struggling creative, he'd been been renting on the cheap. The hole left by the flood released a squirrel that had been living in the walls. And it would come out intermittently to eat the little food he had, making a humorous but defeating period in his life.
"I was so poor for so long. A lot of times I did question 'can I really do this, make these events work, have a future?'" Bliss confided, looking back to the days when the community college dropout said his ambition was fueled by his lack of a plan B along with his own sheer belief in his ability to generate cool ideas.
Minus a degree (and after a brief stint working at TGI Fridays) his life philosophy turned scrappy: "I knew I could hit the pavement harder than anyone else, recklessly throw myself into my ideas. I had nothing to lose. I didn't really have a future. I had just he slightest nugget to grab onto when i did my first event. I had nothing to back me up… And I fought like someone who has nothing to lose."
Since then, however, Bliss, just 26, has proved his tenacity to make himself a success, parlaying that early city-inspired music video — which drew 5.6 million web views and earned praise from the late film critic Roger Ebert as "the greatest music video ever made" — into a much-in-demand career as one of the nation's most successful viral video content producers.
"In the past three years alone, we have had over 100 million YouTube views for our content," Bliss shares of his company, Rob Bliss Creative, which has worked for several nonprofits as well as music giant MTV.
Bliss returned to living in Grand Rapids full-time in February after two years in Chicago — his girlfriend was finishing college at Loyola — and after two summers spent in New York City where his creative juices were fueled. His time away was fruitful, broadening his national connections but also cementing his heartfelt feelings about West Michigan as THE place where he needed to hang his hat.
"I have found that I am most in my element in Grand Rapids and it's the best place for me," the soft-spoken Bliss, who went to high school in Forest Hills, said about coming home again.
“There has definitely been a dramatic transformation," Bliss says of his confidence and career. "When I left. what people thought of me at the time was related to all the events I did in Grand Rapids," he said, most notably a 500-foot waterslide, a massive pillow fight and even a citywide Zombie walk, all promoted on then-emergent social media but also leaving him with debts to the city that he says have since been forgiven.
The "American Pie" lip dub, filmed as a 'screw-you' push back on Newsweek magazine, which had named Grand Rapids one of the nation's top 10 dying cities, "finally broke through a glass ceiling in my events," Bliss said of his own tipping point, which seeded his career.
"Before that, I would get tons of coverage and all that in West Michigan, but I could barely get any kind of coverage, let along outside of Michigan. With the video, I just totally blew through that. I saw the power of that medium to supremely express myself."
Now, with his focus entirely on creating viral content, Bliss has become a go-to guy on the subject, appearing on CNN nearly a dozen times, "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show," among many others, where his handsome good looks and savvy presentation hit strong notes as modern and entrepreneurial.
Bliss, who is quiet and thoughtful in person, is modest about his success. But his numbers tell that story for him as eager new clients from around the country search him out for projects that keep him busy.
"To be honest, I don't think we could find a news organization that hasn't run a story on a piece of content of mine," he says to some prodding, noting he is simply supplying market demand.
His brand of content creation for a fickle online audience has become a coveted proposition, he adds. "It used to be all you had to do is fill a newspaper with stories. All you had to do was 24 hours of a news cycle," he said. "Now, there is truly no roof to content in stories and producing content online. There is such a ferocious appetite for good stories and content. It has meant that people are constantly scouring for viral stories like the stuff we create."
And he enjoys making his signature pieces positive. Many may remember the transformation video he shot of a local homeless man who changed before viewers' eyes with a clean-shaven appearance (and a new lease on life thanks to rehab and community support). Others may recall Bliss's 2014 holiday video where one Michigan police department surprised local residents by pulling them over and returning not with a ticket but with the gifts of their dreams.
In a new project called "The Giving Machine" Bliss will send drones equipped with GoPro cameras to the sky to capture reactions after both help and goodies are air-lifted to those in need. "The idea is to take it and fly it around Grand Rapids to anonymously gift to people," Bliss says.
They plan to fly over cars that are stuck on a highway because of rush hour and drop off gift cards, spray flower petals from above over a wedding party, or even spot someone alone outside of a hospital and dip to drop off a teddy bear.
The best part? All their reactions will be captured on film.
“I've never felt more confident in an idea for a video that will go viral," Bliss said of his project, adding that they might even swoop in some warm afternoon to deliver an icy six-pack to a group of boaters. "We can have so much fun."
Bliss says he also hopes to share his fondness for his home city with the world.
"While I may not be doing events here anymore, my goal is to further the narrative of all the good stuff happening here," he says. '"Instead of doing events that maybe 1,000 people come to, I can do a video based in Grand Rapids that maybe 10 million people can see. That is so exciting. I can take that story internationally to show that 'wow, there are cool ideas coming out of GR.' With this kind of content, I can reach a much larger audience."