Hundreds of thousands of brand new entrepreneurs are flooding into the creator economy, as the pandemic causes a seismic shift in people’s attitudes toward work, and Web3 offers more tools than ever before to monetize art and other talents.
The potential rewards are on the rise. Some people are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars. But average earnings in the creator economy remain low, based on data from payments company Stripe.
There are hopeful signs that the shifts under way will make it easier for people to own the value of what they create, potentially making the U.S. economy more equitable.
“In 2022 the new buzzword is Web3, and the focus will be on how we empower ownership for creators,” says Ben Terry, partner and chief creative officer at Access Ventures, a nonprofit that works to build a more inclusive economy. Last year it launched a VC fund called Hidden Ventures that provides early-stage financing for companies building platforms and marketplaces for creators.
The rise of blockchain and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), in particular, are giving creative people new ways to control their intellectual property, keep royalties and make point-of-sale revenue.
But there are also risks emerging in the new economy, as platforms with opaque pricing structures enter the fray. Though many of the tools of the new economy, such as blockchain or NFTs, are inherently democratic with a small “d,” big companies including Meta and some venture capital firms, such as Andreessen Horowitz, that have been criticized as engines of the monopolistic economy are also looking to shape the market.
Meta is positioning itself as a platform to help hobbyists earn real money. It announced a plan to invest over $1 billion in creator programs in 2022.
“One trend we see is that small creators, not just large creators, can become community leaders and develop successful businesses today,” says Asad Awan, vice president of monetization and public content for the Facebook app, part of the publicly held giant Meta. “They are using a broad range of formats to attract followers including video, audio, long-form articles. It is a reflection of their interests and talents.”
The creator economy transformation is already far-reaching. As they use new tools and platforms, this new set of creative entrepreneurs are changing the way startups are born. Instead of the traditional model of developing a business idea, raising seed capital, and then launching a business, these innovators are first building a fan base on social media and a personal brand. Then they are developing products and using e-commerce websites to serve their own unique communities.
An Explosion at the Grassroots
There is no definitive data on how many people are entering the creator economy – there’s not even a definitive definition of what it is. But there’s little question it’s growing fast. Economic activity in the new sector is estimated at $100 billion, with stratospheric growth expected over the next several years.
When it surveyed 50 platforms for the creator economy, payments company Stripe found 668,000 creators registered there in 2021, up more than 48% over the previous year. The creators earned an aggregate $10 billion, Stripe said. In a single year, that would average out to $14,970 each.
An estimated 50 million people are now independent contractors participating in the creator economy globally, according to SignalFire.
The question of a living wage looms over the creator economy, as millions of people quit their jobs in exhaustion as the pandemic continued, and a significant number opt to try entrepreneurship. Stripe has said that the number of creators making a living is increasing, but the company did not respond to a request asking for a source for its claim. SignalFire found in a survey of 2,000 people that less than half (43%) were making a livable wage of $50,000 or higher.
Nor is it clear whether the creator economy will cannibalize the more established and studied “creative economy,” people working for arts organizations or in occupations such as photography and graphic design, where wages have been fairly high. Research from 2010, cited by Upstart CoLab, found wages ranged from an average of $52,000 in arts professionals to a little more than $75,000 for engineers and architects.
Artistic Expression Takes Shape Online
For many, the journey to entrepreneurship began as an outgrowth of artistic expression. And it’s a diverse group. Alice Loy, who launched the Creative Startups accelerator in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2013, notes that 72% of her alumni are women or people of color. “For years the creative economy has taken a back seat to the tech economy, but now that’s changing.”
Ana Alvarado can attest to that. While an art student at New World School of the Arts in Miami, she started posting comic videos on the everyday exploits of Hondurans in America on YouTube and Facebook and within a week had almost a half a million views. She had uncovered a large underserved Honduran community in the U.S. eager for content they could relate to. After graduation, she developed a merchandise, beauty and lipstick line targeting their demographic. Today, she works with such brands as AT&T, Grey Goose and Nissan who post in-stream ads on her social media accounts. She also has a merchandise line on Shoplipstickfables.com, and she has a live show on Facebook where followers can gift her money. Last year revenues totaled $300,000.
The transition to a “real” company can be rocky, however. Take the case of Alitzah Stinson, who was an influencer on Instagram before she began selling planners through a company she founded, Ivory Paper Co. Sales exploded, but the young company couldn’t keep up, and the Ohio Attorney General got involved to settle customer complaints.
“As the owner and the CEO of this company, it’s my job to do a better job anticipating these spikes,” Stinson told local media at the time. “And that’s really difficult to do, not only in a pandemic, but still, that’s my job and that’s where we dropped the ball here. That is a failure on my part, that I take so seriously, and I’m sorry.”
The company is on track to settle the complaints and has hired more employees, Stinson told Times of Entrepreneurship.
It is a particularly fraught time for creators to transition to brick-and-mortar businesses, or those with a physical presence. A new national survey by Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Voices reveals that 82% want the federal government to provide financial assistance since inflation, the labor shortage, Covid-19 and supply chain problems are having a worsening impact on revenue and operations.
Venture Capitalists Fuel the Explosion
The surge of activity in this booming sector spurred an inflow of about $1.3 billion of venture capital into 100 creator economy startups last year, according to Rockwater. Active investors include Hidden Ventures, the Foundry Group, Next10 Ventures and Atelier Ventures. They are funding upstarts that service the needs of creators in a variety of ways.
Some have launched new platforms in various niches of the market such as: Audioshake.AI a platform for Indie artists to market stems of their songs; and Castiron, a one-stop-shop for independent chefs, bakers, juicers, canners and culinary artists. Others connect creators to other users and brands and marketers so they can collaborate in partnerships and boost distribution. Many – i.e. Karat, Stir and Able — have developed tools to help these entrepreneurs manage their finances and back office operations.
Social media titans including Facebook, Instagram, Snap and TikTok are also pouring billions into so-called “creator funds” that provide capital for entrepreneurs on their platforms as competition in the field heats up. TikTok’s Creator Fund announced it plans to grow to $1 billion in the U.S. over the next three years to help creators make money off of their videos based on a variety of factors including video views and engagement. Last May, YouTube announced its YouTube Shorts Fund that pays creators bonuses that can range from $100 to $10,000 each month, determined on such things as views and audience location.
The new and existing platforms have also rolled out a suite of monetization tools to help these entrepreneurs build a portfolio of products and boost revenue. Facebook and Instagram’s Billion Dollar Creator Program rewards creators for content by allowing them to earn money from their followers or from brand partners.
Among the offerings: Facebook’s Star program, where fans can support creators by giving them Stars, which are worth $.01 when redeemed.
The company’s Subscription program lets fans support their favorite creators with a monthly subscription fee. They also allow them to earn money from in-stream ads and paid on-line events.
To lure video creators, Instagram Reels offers a bonus based on the size of viewership. The platform also has a Shops feature for creators so they can now link their online shop to their personal profile and business profile to sell products directly to fans. Accounts can also be linked with one of Instagram’s merchandise partners.
“Our hope is that these incentives will allow anyone to get started and participate in the creator economy,” says Facebook’s Awan.
The Rise of ‘Influencer Entrepreneurs’
Examples of entrepreneurs who are capitalizing on their creative instincts abound. Some are overnight success stories of individuals who hit it rich on social media and then morphed into building a business. For many, the business launch came at warp speed.
Kat Norton is the poster child of this movement. A former global business consultant, she was 23 years–old when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Instead of traveling she began work remotely in her parent’s house. With more time on her hands, she decided to find a way to help people learn Excel while homebound.
So she picked up her iPhone and created a 15-second video on Excel and posted it on TikTok. It was a topic she loved to teach her co-workers. “I decided to take a dull subject and make it fun. I infused my video with music and dance along with training tips. The polarity of dance and music along with Excel training fueled the algorithm. Within three weeks I got 3.26 million views. Within a month I had 100,000 followers.”
She then began posting her videos on Instagram and found they went viral there as well. That proved her concept had real business potential. So six months after posting her first video she launched Miss Excel, a software training business that now generates up to seven figures a year.
The Role of the Niche Platform
What helped her monetize her videos was developing an Excel course on Thinkific, a platform that enables creators to create, market and deliver their own online courses while providing all e-commerce functionality, payment processing and back office support for a monthly fee ranging from $49 to $99 a month.
Thinkific is an example of the types of new creator platforms emerging to serve specific niches in the marketplace that aim to democratize opportunities. “It used to be that the top 1% were earning 90% of the revenue in the creator economy. It was a matter of celebrity. That’s changing,” says Greg Smith, co-founder and CEO of Thinkific. His company raised $22 million in venture capital before going public last April on the Toronto Stock Exchange. It raised $160 million in the IPO, which pushed the company’s valuation to $1 billion.
“There are more tools than ever before for artists and creators and over time we’ll learn which ones really work, and which don’t,” says Terry. “Right now artists and creators are asking, ‘How do I control ownership over my work? How can I become smart in managing myself as a business?’”
Correction: This story was adjusted after publication to correct Thinkific’s valuation.
SEE PART 2: Accessing Money Tools: How Creators Can Take Advantage of Web3
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