A YouTube stuntman buries himself alive for 24 hours in a box stuffed with provisions—and a camera. On IGTV, a globally revered musician hosts an intimate concert. A gamer on Twitch streams a battle royale to thousands from her bedroom. And a writer leaves their role with a major publisher to launch on Substack and self-publish a book.
This is the creator economy, where stars are self-made in suburban living rooms and millions of fans peek through the curtains.
A little more than a decade ago, a few large media companies, music labels, and publishers owned the creator-to-fan pipeline, deciding who and what audiences see, and wielding total financial power over those creators and their content. Then came the resistance.
A new, digitally native playing field allowed creators to become their own publishers. Monetization tools soon followed, and the audience-first business was born. The top tier of these personas-cum-moguls now carry massive influence, with platforms wooing them with funding, brands clamoring for partnerships, and devotees gobbling up any product they promote.
While creators now have countless tools to build and access audiences, for the most part, they don’t own them.
The easel to this canvas is yet another group of entrepreneurs—the tech founders building the tools that scaffold this economy. Platforms like Twitch, Patreon, and TikTok emerged to democratize distribution and allow creators to reach audiences directly.
On the surface, this evolution is a net positive for creators, as they can reach legions of fans at the push of a button. But it’s come at a price. While creators now have countless tools to build and access audiences, for the most part, they don’t own them.
Still asking for permission
Trading independence for influence may seem like a bargain, but as countless examples show, it leaves creators at the mercy of unforeseen policy changes, algorithm updates, fickle users, and shuttered networks. Without reason or warning, what you’ve built can vanish in an instant.
“The permissionless internet that we all celebrated has reached its limits,” says Hugo Amsellem, VP of Creator Accelerator at Jellysmack and former founder and angel investor. Web 3.0 promises a true permissionless future, with more control in the hands of creators. For now, creators with staying power are those who can protect their independence.
So, how do creators retain what they’ve built? Ownership. Anchoring their brand to owned channels allows creators to build communities that are platform agnostic. And with lines between the creator economy and entrepreneurship blurring, these independent creators are having a moment.
The creator economy: A brief history
The phenomenon often called “the business of influence” has been growing for more than a decade, but its roots can be traced back even earlier. In the late 1990s, Web 2.0 ushered in an era of user-generated content and interactivity, and the rise of mobile contributed to always-on internet consumption. Blogging platforms came first, evolving from online diaries to one-person media machines, feeding these “extremely online” audiences.
“Real people” began to appear in major ad campaigns, replacing traditional celebrity endorsements, and the early signs of modern influencer marketing emerged.
The arrival of monetization options like ads and brand sponsorships allowed some to live on blogging alone, amassing audiences that rivaled major media publications. Huffington Post and BuzzFeed were some of the first to adopt the spirit of the blog as a formal media property. “Real people” began to appear in major ad campaigns, replacing traditional celebrity endorsements, and the early signs of modern influencer marketing emerged.
Reality TV accelerated the trend, catapulting the unknown into celebrity status overnight. And as YouTube launched to the public in 2005, aspiring stars no longer needed production deals to gain viewership. The next decade would welcome a wave of new social platforms and, in the past few years, creator incentives like YouTube Shorts. Progress happened slowly, and then all at once.
Today, an estimated 50 million creators, curators, and community builders make up the creator economy, including influencers, bloggers, social media personalities, comedians, activists, podcasters, videographers, artists, musicians, and athletes. They range from side hustlers to full-time entrepreneurs, micro-influencers to massive stars.
But that number is exponentially bigger if we consider the entire ecosystem. “People look at a very successful creator and don’t realize how many team members are behind them,” says creator Samir Chaudry, one half of the filmmaker duo Colin and Samir. These behind-the-scenes roles are key to helping creators transform personal brands into mature companies.
The future arrives early
While the pandemic’s impact on small businesses was severe—in many cases, it forced businesses to close, sometimes for good—a surprising trend saw business formation rise in the US in mid-2020 that’s continued into this year. Entrepreneurial spirit rose as many out-of-work creatives sought alternative, independent sources of income.
Remote work increased everyone’s screen time, and the creator economy was bolstered by our collective isolation and need to connect. It was the perfect storm for creators to build the one-to-many relationships online that define them. “If you have a phone and an internet connection, you can tell a story,” says Samir. “On TikTok, that was happening. We were all having a relatable experience and we were able to express it with a very low barrier to entry.”
Entrepreneurial spirit rose as many out-of-work creators sought alternative sources of income.
The world took notice. What young people recognized naturally and the rest of us picked up on slowly—that maybe a streamer is as interesting as the silver screen—came to the forefront of conversations about modern culture. One unfortunate side effect, though, was that an elite group captured all of the attention, leaving an important class of creators overlooked.
The creator economy’s middle class
Top earning influencers paint an unrealistic picture of the creator economy as a whole. This small fraction monopolizes the broader conversation around the creator economy while funding lavish lifestyles on ad revenue and promoted content—some earning upward of $1 million per sponsored post. The truth is, creators require massive audiences to make a living on ads alone.
For the rest—the “middle class” of the creator economy, as Li Jin writes—a mix of income sources is the reality. Creators can monetize social audiences directly on-platform in multiple ways, like ads, subscriptions (say, Patreon), sponsored content, shoutouts (think Cameo), and tips.
The bridge from content to commerce gets shorter all the time, but many creators have yet to cross it.
But an emerging class of creators with staying power are moving their audiences to less volatile spaces—spaces they own. Through an owned property, like a website or online store, creators can grow communities and trade value for a closer, more direct relationship with their fans, giving subscribers access to exclusive content or virtual events, selling fan club subscriptions or branded products (like merch), and creating sponsored on-site content for partner brands.
Though many creators have already realized the benefits of diversified income, one survey found that only 5% of creators reported their own brand as their primary revenue stream. The bridge from content to commerce gets shorter all the time, but many creators have yet to cross it. If you’re reading this, you’re already ahead of the curve.
Samir predicts that the next phase of the creator economy will focus on developing deep relationships with audiences. “As a creator, you have to make sure that you are building a community,” he says. “Because if you’re building a community, they will come with you.” True fans often clamor for ways to support their favorite creators beyond “hitting like.” Branded products and owned communities are a gateway for audiences to spot and connect with fellow fans, all while strengthening relationships with their favorite creators.
It’s a shift that can’t happen soon enough. For all the upside, maybe the most important aspect of creator-controlled communities is the protection they offer from sweeping platform changes. Because when the rent’s due, it’s the landlord who calls the shots.
Platforms are the new landlords
Last month, membership-based platform OnlyFans announced it would place rigid restrictions on sexually explicit content. For a site most commonly used for this purpose, the news was a blow to its more than two million creators. OnlyFans initially blamed tightening restrictions from payment processors, though rumors abound. Days later, it retreated, announcing the changes would be “suspended.”
Social platforms can shift at any moment. And we just have to plan for that. That’s a part of the game that we’re playing.
Whatever caused the platform’s yo-yoing, this isn’t the first time creators felt exposed to the whims of big banks, bottom lines, and moral panic. These “landlords” of the creator economy are running businesses, too, Samir reminds us. We should have seen it coming.
Swinging to a new Vine
At its peak in late 2015, Twitter-owned Vine boasted more than 200 million users, catapulting its top creators to stardom. The platform’s most popular user, KingBach, had more than 11 million followers. Then, in 2016, Twitter sunset the app’s uploading feature, abruptly ending the party for millions of users. “Social platforms can shift at any moment,” says Samir. “And we just have to plan for that. That’s a part of the game that we’re playing.”
There is a big fracture in trust between institutions and individuals. And as soon as something becomes a little bit big, it starts to behave like an institution.
Platform royalty, like KingBach, managed to rebuild elsewhere—others dreams’ of stardom died on the vine. By 2016, competition was already at the door, welcoming displaced creators with open arms. But trust, overall, had been eroded. “There is a big fracture in trust between institutions and individuals,” says Hugo. “And as soon as something becomes a little bit big, it starts to behave like an institution.”
Apps like TikTok rely on creators, though, who produce 100% of the platform’s content—the basis of the entire business. With more competition, platforms are learning from the likes of Vine and actively investing in retaining talent. Many have, in the last two years, announced significant funding to programs that incentivize their top creators. YouTube, SnapChat, and TikTok have pledged millions since 2020 to bolster the best content.
Power to the people
It would seem that creators are gaining agency, as platforms all go full-stack. “The fact that platforms have to compete on every single feature means that the creator is winning, right?” says Hugo. “Really, only 0.1% of creators—the stars—still have the leverage. The question is about the middle class. Because they don’t get to choose.” There are some uprisings taking hold—OnlyFans creators finding alliances, Twitch streamers going on strike this month—and only time will tell if it amounts to real power.
While dedicated funding and creator protests are a step forward, interestingly, creator power has actually diminished over time, because risk has increased. In the days before social networks, bloggers retained ownership of audiences, building mailing lists that were portable.
As tools emerged to make it easier for creators to reach fans through more formats like live and short-form video, the tradeoff was that apps retained control of followers, tying them to the platforms themselves. Despite new features or dedicated funding, tools make it easier to catch the wave, but they can just as quickly pull you under.
Every creator is an entrepreneur
Flipping the typical path to entrepreneurship, creators have, even before launching, solved one of the biggest pain points afflicting traditional founders: capturing attention. The success of the creator economy rests on these built-in buyers, hungry to own a piece of their idols.
Creators are already entrepreneurs in their own right—sometimes without being aware of it. They are self-starters who build and scale personal brands. Their persona is their product. “A startup is an organization that scales. A creator is an individual that scales,” agrees Hugo. “It’s the same DNA.” Samir has been in the creator game for a decade and never questioned entrepreneurship as his business. For him, the terms are synonymous.
A startup is an organization that scales. A creator is an individual that scales. It’s the same DNA.
The barrier to entry for traditional entrepreneurial pursuits is lower for those who have acquired a business education by osmosis. Creators are, by necessity, experts in marketing, customer (audience) retention, brand building, and brokering deals. Many—dancers and athletes and comedians alike—who never considered themselves business people, figured out some of the hardest parts on the fly.
The creator tech stack
Low-code and no-code tools—online software requiring little to no technical talent to use—have simplified this transition even more.
A study carried out by London Business School’s Gary Dushnitsky and Bryan Stroube found that smaller brands using low-code tools like Shopify have realized substantial growth and returns on investment while requiring less capital upfront. This may have the potential of empowering a more diverse generation of entrepreneurs. In a follow-up conversation, Gary expanded on the value of low code tools for the creator economy. “A decade ago, creating an online presence called for substantial upfront investment,” he says.
But cost isn’t the only factor. Increasing access to the creator economy is also a benefit. “Many creators may be based in locations that limit their access to capital or technical know-how,” says Gary. Low code tools have had a levelling effect, giving access to a group who previously lacked opportunities to financially benefit from the creator economy.
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“These tools can be stacked and expanded to serve the needs of a focal business,” says Gary. And for many creators, commerce is the ideal way to turn content into cashflow long before they reach seven-figure follower counts. Sonja Detrinidad, TikTok’s plant mom and founder of Partly Sunny Projects, is one such entrepreneur who’s grown her business in lockstep with her fandom.
Shopify recently announced a partnership with TikTok, closing that gap even more by enabling in-app purchases. It’s another way that we’re building access to the channels where your audience lives, while helping you retain control through your own store—the best of both worlds.
Meaningful partnerships have their place
But money isn’t the only indicator of independence. The state of ownership also encompasses the less tangible. Many authors, musicians, and artists who took their own paths in the early days of the creator economy did so for creative freedom.
Independence from institutions allows creators to make their own rules, rather than bending to content guidelines and policies that can dampen their voices. Creators can, for example, choose their own partners. But even some brand partnerships require creators to use specific language or imagery that departs from their own brand. It’s important for creators to balance these factors with the value the partnership brings.
The best brand for creators to endorse is their own.
A well-placed promoted social post with a relevant creator can send a brand’s product into out-of-stock status. Creators cash in on this partnership, generally through a one-time payment per post, but the value for the brand can extend beyond the lifetime of the partnership. Creators urge their audiences toward a brand’s owned property, where that brand can capture them as an email subscriber—or better yet, a paying customer for life.
Creator influence should not be underestimated—or undervalued. In one survey, 45% of buyers reported that they are eager to purchase products promoted on social media by creators, and 73% said that a creator’s in-depth knowledge about a product increased trust. The takeaway? The best brand for creators to endorse is their own.
The whole business is storytelling. When we started telling our story properly, relevant advertisers came to us.
If done strategically, though, brand partnerships can provide long-term value for a creator, says Samir: “It’s a good relationship when the advertiser becomes a character in your universe.” Colin and Samir have focused on symbiotic partnerships that last beyond a single paid post.
While many content creators focus on telling their stories to audiences, Samir suggests putting in equal effort to tell your story to the market. “The whole business is storytelling,” he says. “And what we saw was, when we started telling our story properly, relevant advertisers came to us.”
“Audiences will always pay more than brands”
Brand partnerships may always be part of a creator’s monetization mix, but Colin and Samir have held a longtime view that audiences will always pay more than advertisers. It’s a sentiment they repeated with the news that Moment House—a platform that manages ticketing and streaming for live virtual events for creators—recently announced its plans to expand after raising $12 million.
In what world are we getting 800 views on a post and getting $80,000 [from advertising] in exchange?
“It doesn’t mean a single audience member is paying you 50 grand,” says Samir. He explains that when the duo launched an online course, 800 people paid $100 each to take it. “In what world are we getting 800 views on a post and getting $80,000 [from advertising] in exchange?”
Making the most of the “attention phase”
Social platforms are and always will be a key part of this ecosystem, even as creators diversify income and migrate audiences. They are, first, the springboard, the place for emerging creators to capture attention and grow audiences. For the established, they will always serve as a pipeline to funnel new audiences into owned channels.
Diversification across these non-owned channels is another insurance policy to consider while in what Hugo calls “the attention phase” of the creator lifecycle. Most creators find their groove with one platform, whether it’s the format or the audience that jibes, but will reach a threshold where expanding into new channels makes sense. Basically: pick a lane, but don’t stay there.
Case study: The accidental influencer
Yin Qi Xie entered the back door of the creator economy. “I’ve had Instagram since I was 12 and there definitely has been a point where I had wanted to be an influencer,” she says. Instead, the college student stumbled upon an untapped market: boxing gear for women. She took to TikTok with her idea and, encouraged by her growing community, launched her brand, KOStudio. “I would hate to actually be an influencer now,” she says.
But as the face of her brand’s 112,000-follower TikTok account, she has entered influencer territory, building value for audiences-turned-customers who are not only buying boxing gloves but a piece of Yin. Now, after TikTok success, she’s diversifying by revisiting an old friend: Instagram. “We’re building a separate audience on Instagram,” says Yin, who adds that the platform is catching up as a top driver of sales.
The approach not only mitigates platform risk (algorithm changes, for example) but also lets creators uncover new audiences. “Different people use different platforms,” says Hugo. The audience overlap for creators on multiple channels, he says, is in the range of 10% to 20%.
Influence to ownership
The instability of the systems that underpin the creator economy is balanced by promising trends toward more independence for creators. The increase in adoption of remote work and polywork, the emergence of decentralized cryptocurrencies and NFTs, and the slew of features and tools that accelerate the creator-to-founder lifecycle are all cause for optimism.
Literally just create—that’s who you are. Keep making and you’ll find your path.
The creator economy’s bright future is best exemplified by the success of underrepresented creators, historically victims of bias and tokenization at the hands of institutions. Many are now accessing equally underrepresented audiences hungry for faces that look like theirs and content that reflects their lived experiences.
Early in their careers, Colin and Samir pieced together multiple opportunities to build their career as creators—designing stickers, building websites, making content for others. This hustle eventually bought them freedom to choose projects that bring true value to their brand and audience. “Do whatever it takes to make stuff,” says Samir. “If someone’s going to pay you to make stuff, do that. Literally just create—that’s who you are. Keep making and you’ll find your path.” And, as your influence grows, make sure your independence grows with it.
Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
Additional contributions by Greg Ciotti