Apr 24, 2021 - Economy & Business

Content creators as the new startups

Illustration of two piggy banks facing in opposite directions overlaid on top of a dollar bill and a rectangle.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Mat Sherman had several dozen paying subscribers for his online community and newsletter about early-stage startups when he decided to trade that recurring revenue for a cash advance of $4,000 via Pipe, he tells Axios.

Why it matters: As the content creation business matures, a spectrum of financing models are becoming available to these entrepreneurs, who are no longer forced to entirely bootstrap their work.

Non-dilutive financing: Creators with recurring revenue, such as paid subscriptions or established ad streams, can effectively get advances on their future earnings.

  • For newsletter writers, that recurring (and growing) revenue is not all that different from that of SaaS startups, which have been initial customers of platforms like Pipe, a marketplace where companies can sell their customer subscription contracts for upfront financing.
  • In fact, Pipe CEO Harry Hurst recently convinced Anthony Pompliano, a newsletter writer and cryptocurrency investor, to trade those paid subscriptions for a cash advance to further finance a bitcoin buying spree, Pompliano tells Axios.
  • Non-dilutive investors focused on these entrepreneurs have also emerged, such as Spotter, founded by former Machinima exec Aaron DeBevoise, which targets creators like YouTubers.
  • Even newsletter company Substack's own advances to select writers are predicated on the assumption they'll attract enough subscribers, and thus revenue, for the company to recoup that money (and in some cases, even more, as some writers have disappointedly realized).

Equity financing: On the other end of the spectrum are investors who see content creators as ventures themselves — with massive growth potential — and want a piece of the upside. In short: venture capital investing.

  • “We say ‘you’re a young creator. Maybe you have a couple of YouTube channels — you have a following. … We will buy 5% of everything you do for the next 10 to 30 years,’” Slow Ventures partner Sam Lessin, whose VC firm has carved out $20 million from its latest fund to back creators, tells Axios.
  • “I don’t even mind if most of them lose my money, as long as I invest in Jeff Bezos along the way," adds Lessin of his expectation that not all creators will ultimately strike it big or have lengthy careers. (You know, like most startups.)
  • Similarly, Creative Juice, a company building tools for content creators and co-founded by YouTube star Mr. Beast, recently announced it is setting aside $2 million to invest in YouTube creator channels. It plans to set up additional funds geared toward other types of creators, says CEO Sima Gandhi.

Between the lines: “I’m giving you $2 million to build your brand — that brand is why you’re able to make all these other deals,” explains Lessin of the reasoning for creators to sell equity in all their future endeavors to investors like him.

  • Of course, he admits investors like his firm will have to show their deals aren't exploitative or a net negative for the creators they're backing for this approach to be embraced by the industry.

The bottom line: It's clear that there's a lot of money to be made in content creation — and investors don't want to miss getting a piece of it.

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