Hey guys. I’ve launched a new weekly newsletter called “Chief Content Officer” – a weekly advice column about the new media, creator economy, and making sure your content doesn't suck.
I don’t know yet what it’s going to be. The idea was to create a high-quality outlet for me to share my thoughts, ideas, and insights from working with early-stage startups on content creation + sharing what I know about creating content in 2021 and beyond.
It’s going to be a paid newsletter but I’ve decided to make the first few months free. (I’ll explain in it later why I think most content should be behind a paywall.) The first post is already live (and reposted below). Please subscribe and let me know what you think!
About nine months ago, I wrote a series of articles for Medium that spoke about content creators as businesses.
My thesis in all three was simple and encouraging: Content creators are businesses. The world doesn’t realize it yet.
Needless to say, they all went viral. My first article received somewhat like 12,000 claps (and counting) and has made me several thousand dollars on Medium, alone. The follow-up articles were less popular — as the case with all sequels — but they performed well nevertheless.
Of course, the performance wasn’t the point. I didn’t care or think that these articles would be accepted the way they were. But the fact that they were is clear evidence that I am unto something. A topic worth discussing. An idea worth spreading, as the TED motto goes.
When writing those articles, I was busy working as Head of Content for an intentional startup — my first English-speaking job ever and my first serious job at a funded startup.
Before that, I had attempts of my own, and even a business — but it was all in Moscow. As I told a startup-founder from India recently, “What happens in Russia, stays in Russia.” The same for most parts of the world, excluding Europe, the USA, and the UK. Sometimes it feels as if the world revolves around these three areas and the rest of the world lives in its own micro-bubble. When you start working in the western world, you start from scratch, regardless of how successful you were in your own country. (Clear evidence: even the top-grossing actors of Russia, i.e., Leonardo DiCaprio level, start as supporting actors in shady TV shows in Hollywood.)
As Head of Content, my job was to do my favorite bit of every business I’ve launched before: create and manage our content. I wrote on Medium on the side, made a few bucks here and there, published a few eBooks on Amazon, but mostly I was watching and learning. I was curious to understand what the content ecosystem looks like in the English-speaking part of the Internet since it differs greatly from what I was used to in Russia.
It was then that it hit me: content creators are businesses. Bham! I remember the exact moment when it happened.
I washed what looked like three days' worth of dishes and felt the warm water running through my hands. The softness of the sponge. The citrus smell of Fairy washing liquid. Ah… Sometimes you want to drink that shit. (Or is it only me?) For some reason — perhaps, because I just finished recording a podcast interview with some Amazon expert for my company and had this question on the list — I was repeating Peter Thiel’s ‘contrarian question’ in my head, on a loop.
What’s the truth few people agree with you on?
Suddenly, the sponge stopped rubbing the plate. Part of it was still covered in hummus, but I didn’t care. I stared at the wall.
‘Shit,’ I said. ‘Content creators are businesses.’
I finished the dishes in a trans-like state, turned off the water, and rushed to my computer. Then I sat down and wrote three articles in a row, two of which became the most viral articles I’ve written to date.
Knowing that it would be cool to do something with this idea — except merely writing about it — I decided to launch a startup in the creator economy. I asked myself, ‘If content creators are businesses, what are the implications…?’ And came to a stunning conclusion that content creators, like other businesses, need funding to launch.
Let’s create a VC fund for creators! I thought. Then I bought a domain name and spent the whole day creating a landing page.
Long story short, the fund didn’t go.
I realized that I had no track record, and managing a fund at 22 was too hard. Then I had another idea: why not create a fintech startup in the space? After all, I was in London (the heart of the fintech world), and it only made sense that I combined something I was passionate about (media, content) with something practical, like finance.
I came up with an idea of a ‘bank for creators.’ It would underwrite loans based on the creator’s engagement rate, audience growth rate, other relevant metrics. The details didn’t matter! Investors, here I comeeee!!
What can I say? That didn’t go too well either.
I started with customer development — as all startups should.
But I cheated. Because I had an audience already (thanks to my viral articles!), I wrote up a blog post outlining my idea and asking to interview people — and received about 150 emails in the first 48 hours. (Fun fact: Nine months later, the emails keep coming.)
At the same time, I leveraged my LinkedIn, Draper University, Babson College, and my dad’s Stanford GSB network to talk to some of the world’s best-known entrepreneurs and media executives (one of which worked at Buzzfeed) and fintech entrepreneurs to get feedback on the idea. They all said pretty much the same thing.
‘It’s a cool idea, I see where you’re coming from, but it’s hard to do. Really hard. Perhaps try something non-fintech?’
Instead of listening, I decided to make the product a bit sexier.
What’s sexier than a bank for creators? I thought. Oh, right.
A credit card for creators.
After a bit of browsing, I’ve learned that a guy from Instagram met a guy from Goldman Sachs and started something called Karat — literally, a credit card for content creators. I emailed them, saying what a cool idea they had and proposing we catch a call sometime soon. And they emailed me back saying thanks.
Hundreds of emails and dozens of calls later, I was still nowhere close to understanding what I was doing or why. I had no finance background. My potential partner (who works at McKinsey) was too preoccupied with his soul-crushing job to volunteer in a shady startup he understood nothing about.
Here I was, 22, ambitious, knowing something other people didn’t (that content creators are businesses!) — and not knowing how to proceed.
So I stopped. I quit.
Quickly, life got in the way. I moved to my home city (Moscow) for a few months and forgot about the project or creators. I even stopped writing on Medium. The idea was (and still is) sound, but I decided to postpone it until better times. Around the same time, I broke up with my girlfriend, whom I dated (and lived together with), for 3.5 years, and the creator economy was the last thing on my mind.
But recently, as I recovered and came back to London, the idea came back to me again.
Slowly, I started answering emails that keep coming from people building startups in the creator economy, and during these calls, it dawned on me: I got only half of the puzzle right.
You see, the whole idea that “content creators are businesses” is based on the assumption that the world doesn’t realize it. Hence, we must create “banks for creators,” “Uber for creators,” “laundry for creators,” whatnot.
While the emails I received from creators around the globe all went around the same idea, “I have a great idea for content I could be creating, but I am just too scared to quit my job to do it.”
Back then, I didn’t know how to respond to that. I felt empathy. After all, I was a struggling creator myself, having to juggle two jobs while writing on Medium daily to keep myself fed in overpriced London.
But now I know the best way I should have responded.
“Oh really? That’s too bad.”
And if you think that’s harsh, keep reading.
You see, the “content creators are businesses” thesis still holds. It’s true.
But six months ago, while I was researching this area, I assumed that the only stakeholders who fail to realize this are institutions — banks, colleges, brands, etc.
The truth is, content creators themselves fail to realize this too.
The fact that content creators are businesses — literally, media startups — is obscure not just to the establishment but to the very people who want to become content creators.
Phrases like “I am scared to quit my job to become a content creator” are evidence of this.
The world doesn’t really change. It just walks in circles.
Content creators assume (falsely) that if they make money on content, they show the Universe a middle finger. “Fuck you, gravity!”
Not so fast.
The laws of physics still apply. If you want to make a profit, you have to find a niche (a decent idea) and solve someone's problem. Then you’ve got to work. Oh, and you’ve got to take on risks. Oh, and 90% will fail.
It’s just like in startups.
The startup world is already mature. That is why when we hear phrases like “Oh, I am too scared to quit my stable job to go work on my idea,” we don’t rush to give these people cash. Instead, we say, “Well, that’s life. Do something about it.”
Either save up or take the risk or find something part-time or enroll in something like YC. It’s your call.
With content creators, it should be exactly like this.
I am currently actively looking for creator economy startups to advise and help fundraise. And on a recent call with one entrepreneur from Asia, we discussed how untechnical most creators are. They don’t care about their revenue streams, and they are not too analytical. True. But to build a profitable business (and being a creator means being a business), you’ve got to be analytical. No excuses just because you’re an artist. Just like in startups: if you can’t do something, find a partner, or assemble a team to complement you.
While I no longer chase the dream of building a startup that would hand out money to creators, I still care about making the creator economy. (Or, ‘passion economy,’ as Li Jin from Andreessen Horowitz calls it.)
Currently, I see three gaps, or “whitespaces,” in this domain:
1. Lack of guidance.
This includes not just mentoring but education, building a network, and, of course, funding. The most important thing for a creator is to create an audience. That’s what separates them from freelancers. Freelancers sell time, while creators have an asset — their audience. How do you build an audience? Fuck knows. But you can learn from those who have done it. If someone created YCombinator for content creators, they would become insanely rich.
2. Lack of capital.
It’s hard to blame banks. They are so slow. They still perceive global SMEs as “high-risk.” I bet they don’t even know what the word “influencer” means and would attribute it to the same class as drug-dealers, online casinos, and porn. But as time goes by and creators become first-class citizens of this economy, funding will become an issue. In the next 5–10 years, we’ll see startups created in this space.
3. Lack of legal structure.
This one is the most important. Like companies providing “company-formation services” — like accounting, bookkeeping, opening bank accounts, registering LLCs, getting incorporated, etc. –for creators to be accepted as businesses, there needs to be a legal framework around them. Somebody needs to take their balls in their hands and service creators by helping them incorporate. This is the least sexy startup you can create in the creator economy, but at least it's addressing a particular need. (Although back to the point mentioned in the beginning, customer development is essential.)
I don’t believe that we need to create more income streams for creators. There are enough. At some point, looking for “a new income stream” becomes procrastination and laziness in disguise.
Creators today have three general income streams. They can make money from platforms like Medium or YouTube, which pay you for the attention you capture. They can make money from fans directly via Substack or Patreon and the like. And they can build content-related businesses like online courses via Teachable, Podia, and Udemy.
You don’t need anything else. Pick one and go.
So if you’re working on a startup that creates yet another income stream for creators, you’ll probably miss out. Because these guys (mentioned above) have been doing it for the past 5 years, better think about what’s going to be relevant 5 years from now.
If you’re working on an idea related to the creator economy, hit me up, I’d like to talk to you.
If you’re a creator seeking advice, hear this:
You’re a business.
Be the first to realize it. You’ll have to take risks, and you’ll have to treat yourself like a startup.
The bad news: You can fail. (So that you know.)
The good news: You’ve got all the tools at your disposal. All you need is to figure out how to build an audience. Monetization is easy. It’s the same as with startups — once you figure out the product/market fit, making money comes naturally.
Just do it. All you can do is iterate. Try. Experiment. And fail. Apply the Lean Startup methodology to your content creation, and you’ll succeed sooner or later.