Meet Susan Wojcicki, Connie Chan, Hamish McKenzie, Telfar Clemens and the other stars of the $100 billion creator economy.
When you hear the term “Creator Economy,” perhaps you think of that group of lucky, often improbable people who’ve gained near-instant fame on platforms that didn’t exist a mere decade ago, but who now constitute an estimated $100 billion industry worldwide. The archetype for this class is Khaby Lame. Born in Senegal but raised in a small town in Italy, Lame was working in a factory when the pandemic hit in early 2020. He discovered TikTok, and after a few false starts, hit upon a world-beating formula: he samples the life hack videos that proliferate on TikTok, and silently mocks them with a stock set of facial expressions and hand gestures. Recently he became the most-followed person on TikTok, surpassing Charli D’Amelio, with 149 million people following him, more than the population of Russia.
While this list is an indirect homage to the millions of people who now earn at least a partial living in the Creator Economy, we are also trying to make a different point: the ascendance of creators is also one of the most disruptive forces since the mass adoption of the Internet itself. TikTok, whose founder is profiled below, is a prime example; its irresistible algorithms have allowed it in a very short time to supplant not only older social media sites, but also to affect far-reaching industries from television to book publishing.
In his classic 1942 work Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described a crucial dynamic of capitalism as “creative destruction,” the process by which the incessant drive for profit and productivity is constantly destroying an old order while creating new ones.
And thus, with a nod to Schumpeter, this list highlights the “creative disruptors,” the people and the platforms that underpin the Creator Economy. Some are household names; others will be less familiar but still make up a vital part of one of the most dynamic parts of the world’s economy. We hope you will find it as illuminating and as fun as the creators themselves.
The Creator Disruptors 2022
Substack: Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, Jairaj Sethi
- Cofounders, Substack
Substack is a fairly small company, but if you don’t think it is a disruptive force, just ask the traditional media publishers about the battles they’ve fought to retain writers who are tempted to set out on their own. Launched in 2017, Subtack hit 1 million paid subscribers at the end of 2021. “We launched Substack because we believe that great writing is valuable and what you read matters,” cofounder Hamish McKenzie told the Observer. Writers from Roxane Gay to George Saunders are inclined to agree. Backed by Andreessen Horowitz, the company grew leaps and bounds until recently, when layoffs were announced. But the firm is undaunted. “The subscription model has proven to be incredibly powerful for independent writers, and we’re excited about a future in which anyone has the chance to start their own media empire,” McKenzie said.
YouTube: Susan Diane Wojcicki
- CEO, YouTube
In September 1998, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page incorporated Google, they set up their “office” in a Menlo Park garage that just happened to belong to Susan Wojcicki; she charged them $1700 a month. Not long after, Wojcicki became Google’s employee number 16, as its marketing manager. She rode the revenue rocket that was the development of Google’s AdSense, and in early 2014 she became the CEO of YouTube, which Google had purchased in 2006. At that time, about a billion people a month were actively visiting YouTube; today, it’s 2.6 billion, and YouTube earns about $15 billion a year. Wojcicki was pushing the creator economy even before the term was used; estimates vary for how many creators sell their content through YouTube, but it’s clearly in the millions. Wojcicki celebrates creators on her Twitter feed almost every day: when they hit a video milestone, when they are covered in the press, or when they win awards. “Creators are coming to our platform to share their lives, to make a living, and to shape the world around us in meaningful ways,” she wrote earlier this year. “They’re bringing us together to do good in the world. “
Splice: Steve Martocci
- Cofounder and executive chairman, Splice
Even if you’ve never heard of Splice, the chances are good that you’ve heard songs that have been made using it, including hits from Dua Lipa and Justin Bieber. Slice has created a low-cost, easy-to-use platform that puts the resources of a top-notch recording studio in almost anyone’s hands, and allows remote collaboration in the cloud. When the company was unveiled in 2013, Martocci—who cofounded text message service GroupMe and quickly sold it to Skype—famously quipped that “I’ve always been the guy who’s never been talented enough to make music, but know how to support musicians.” (His cofounder Matt Aimonetti currently works at Microsoft.) Probably Splice’s biggest innovation is a searchable database of song samples that musicians and producers can use royalty-free for a tiny subscription fee.
Kajabi: Kenny Rueter
- Cofounder and executive chairman, Kajabi
In 2009, Kenny Rueter, then a software engineer, built a sprinkler toy from PVC pipe for his children to play with. It inspired queries from neighbors, and he briefly considered becoming a manufacturer. But he figured an easier, more effective route would be to create a video showing how to make it, and if he could sell that online. His efforts with YouTube fizzled, so he decided to create a company that would provide knowledgeable people with a way to reach a paying audience. The demand was clearly there; thousands of people signed up within months of Kajabi’s 2010 launch. “This was before people talked about ‘creators’,” Rueter explains. “Many of them were attorneys, business coaches, teachers.” The platform took off: Kajabi says more than 100,000 businesses have been built on it, earning nearly $4 billion. That got investor attention, and last year Kajabi raised a whopping $500 million in a round led by Tiger Global. Rueter, who has since stepped down from day-to-day management but remains executive chairman, predicts that the creator economy “will only get more and more mainstream.”
Variant: Li Jin
- General Partner, Variant
In July, Variant raised its third fund of $450 million, which will support startups across the Web3 world. In its past funds, Variant has invested in popular Web3 innovators Mirror, Polygon, and Uniswap, among others. Jin’s vision of the future includes mainstream adoption of crypto, which she believes her company can help materialize. “Web2 was digital feudalism, and Web3 is digital capitalism,” she told Fortune. “Web3 is a paradigm shift, in that it introduces capitalism to the internet. It introduces the ability for people to actually own capital and become capital owners of their own output.” Jin has advocated for creators’ rights, including a universal basic income to provide creators with a minimum salary to live on.
Cameo: Martin Blencowe, Steven Galanis, Devon Spinnler Townsend
- Founders, Cameo
As a National Football League agent, Martin Blencowe was always on the lookout for off-the-field opportunities for his clients. He asked Cassius Marsh, then a Seattle Seahawks rookie, to congratulate a Nike executive on having a baby. “I’m sure if he gets your athletic ability,” Marsh said in the video, “he’ll be playing for the Seahawks one day.” Blencowe and longtime friend Steven Galanis saw the potential of this interaction on a large scale and developed a product with engineer and co-founder Devon Spinnler Townsend. “It’s the new version of a signed autograph,” Galanis told the Observer.
With Cameo, the gap between celebrity and fan is shortened, allowing entertainers to make genuine connections with their fanbase. Celebrities also rely on the additional stream of income, especially in industries like sports where an unexpected injury can end a career. Like may tech companies, Cameo has struggled recently; it laid off about a quarter of its staff in May. Cameo is expanding into business advertising, where companies pay celebrities to advocate for their brand in videos, which will then be posted on social media. This business service removes the middleman of talent agencies, making influencer marketing more accessible.
SuperRare: Charles Crain, John Crain, Jonathan Perkins
- Founders, SuperRare
There are still people who will smirk if told that nonfungible tokens should be taken seriously as an art medium. But the three founders of SuperRare seem to want little more than to be an art magazine. Backed by Marc Benoiff and Mark Cuban, SuperRare is a highly curated NFT marketplace that allows creators to sell the digital art they produce.
The founders John Crain, Charles Crain, and Jonathan Perkins—brothers and cousin—went into business together in 2018 using the money they made from night and weekend jobs.
“It was challenging at first because the market hadn’t caught up with the excitement of the space yet,” said John Crain. Still, since day one, Crain said there was a small but passionate group of artists from around the world who helped the business take off.
The company has now contributed to $680 million earned by artists and an additional $101 million in secondary sales. It was the first NFT platform to give royalties to artists in this secondary market. In Aug. 2021, it launched SuperRare Spaces, a network of galleries which promotes different groups of emerging artists.
SuperRare is interested in “building a social experience around content,” Crain said, while giving digital artists a way to support themselves. “What Spotify has done for music,” he said, “is what SuperRare will do for digital art.”
Recently the site helped Gucci dip its toe into the world of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), in conjunction with a new gallery featuring NFT artists including Trevor Andrew, a Canadian snowboarder and artist who often incorporates Gucci into his work.
Karat: Will Kim, Eric Wei
- Founders, Karat
Will Kim and Eric Wei created Karat in 2019 with the understanding that creators can become businesses overnight without knowing how to handle their finances. “Creators have asked me if they have to pay taxes,” Wei told the Observer. Worse still, banks have no idea how to handle content creators, which leaves the internet celebrities with low credit card limits if they’re allowed to get cards at all. Karat is building the financial system for these creators, taking social statistics into consideration for their credit cards’ terms, limits, and rewards. Karat represents some of the biggest internet stars, including Josh Richards (25M TikTok), ZHC (24M YouTube), and Nas Daily (21M Facebook).
Karat is starting to bookkeep and do these creators’ taxes. It will continue expanding its pipeline into bank accounts, business capital, and mortgages. “These are not a few people among hundreds,” Kim said. “They are a sample from millions around the world” who have not been catered to by the traditional banking system.
Raised In Space: Shara Senderoff
- Founder, Raised In Space
At 20 years old in the mid-2000s, Senderoff worked alongside film legends Steven Spielberg and Mark Gordon. She developed a digital division under Gordon before most people knew what Instagram was, and she created content based on their movies to track audience engagement, save money on test screenings, and get people into theaters.
Around 2015, Senderoff became obsessed with the idea of blockchain. She started to look at how record labels could scale audience, connect with fans, and use technology to bring music to life – all things she had practiced in the film industry. She began consulting for labels and connected with record executive Scooter Braun four years ago to create Raised in Space, a fund bringing blockchain and Web3 into the music and entertainment industries. Senderoff has invested in around 25 portfolio companies focused on blockchain and Web3, including Altered State Machine, a protocol to put AI into NFTs.
So what does she see as the next big thing? Whether or not you like it, she said, it’s the metaverse. “The metaverse represents a new layer where an entirely new world can be built upon,” she said. “To me, that is one of the most exciting things that I could ever be a part of.”
Roblox: David Baszucki
- Founder and CEO, Roblox
It’s easy to dismiss Roblox as something that only children use, but for the record: it’s *a lot* of children. The company claims that over half of all Americans under the age of 16 play Roblox. Baszucki and a colleague got the idea for Roblox from an animated physics lab they created at an earlier company and morphed it into a 3-D gaming platform that rewards the creators who make new games and landscapes. The company went public in 2021, and while its stock has suffered with most of the tech sector, Roblox had nearly $2 billion in revenue in 2021. And it has made Baszucki a very wealthy man; Forbes estimates his net worth at $2.6 billion. He particularly likes a Roblox environment called Natural Disaster Survival, in which players are hit with typhoons or meteor showers every three minutes. Roblox has been at the forefront of several innovations in the metaverse era, from letting developers acquire and spend an inhouse currency to staging live music events on the platform and enabling musicians to easily sell virtual merchandise.
Andreessen Horowitz: Connie Chan
- Partner, Andreessen Horowitz
In the world of established venture capital, few firms have bought into the Creator Economy as heavily as Andreessen Horowitz, and at that firm, the most active partner is probably Connie Chan. She joined A16z in 2011, and has been dubbed “Silicon Valley’s China Whisperer.” One Chinese trend she noticed was livestream shopping, or “shoptainment,” which led to her investing in, and joining the board of, Whatnot, a somewhat chaotic marketplace—imagine 100 Home Shopping Networks all at once—where creators and collectors sell everything from NFTs to handmade pottery. “The platform delivers on entertainment and connection, and sellers are thrilled with the results,” she said when her firm’s investment was announced. “They’re building followings—which helps them continue to sell products, again and again.” Another Chan investment was Cider, a fast-fashion site that quickly became a TikTok rage.
ByteDance: Zhang Yiming
- Founder, ByteDance/TikTok
When Zhang graduated from Nankai University in 2005, he took an engineer job as one of the first employees at a travel booking startup called Kuxun. Within a year he found himself in charge of a team of 40 or 50 people, which didn’t suit him; “I lack some of the skills that make an ideal manager,” he told Reuters. He and a friend founded a real estate search engine and then began building an app that would arrange news stories according to readers’ preferences, which evolved into Toutiao. ByteDance, founded in 2012, put heavy resources into artificial intelligence and, after a series of mergers and acquisitions, found itself in charge of what would become TikTok. The AI investment paid off, as TikTok’s algorithms addictively match videos with viewers. Despite multiple rejections from venture capitalists, TikTok skyrocketed; in 2019 it became the most valuable private company in the world. Currently there are more than a billion active TikTok users, and the company is said to be valued at about $300 billion. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing; a planned IPO was put on hold, and the company has faced repeated charges that it collects user data on behalf of the Chinese government (the company has acknowledged that some employees can access “non-sensitive” user data, but denies passing that on to Chinese authorities). But the very private Zhang, who stepped down as CEO, can legitimately claim to be one of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs.
Koji: Dmitry Shapiro and Sean Thielen
- Cofounders, Koji
Shapiro and Thielen didn’t start out trying to create links for people to put in social media bios. They were trying to make it easy for gaming programmers to copy and modify bits of code, what they call “subtractive development.” Developers were encouraged to build things on their platform, “and they made a bunch of weird games because that’s what developers make when you give them free range to do things,” Thielen recalled. They ended up building a platform where even people with limited technical skills can remix software and apps, but watching what people used and needed, they realized that the Link in Bio was the killer application for their tools. “What they’re doing in two years is gonna look radically different than what they’re doing today.”
Printify: James Berdigans
- Founder and CEO, Printify
You may not think of Riga, Latvia as a hotbed of Creator Economy entrepreneurship. But that is where Berdigans was born and where he launched Printify in 2015.
Throughout his career, he tried to create and sell consumer products but often fell short. His biggest hurdle: the high cost and risk of mass-producing items that weren’t guaranteed to sell. Rather than remain in this loop, he developed Printify, a platform that automates the supply chain and manufactures items on demand.
Printify serves online creators like Hustle Ninja (150K YouTube followers) and Sketchy Mandy (55K TikTok followers), but also anyone who wants to start their own merchandise brand. The company’s catalog has over 680 products, and its wide manufacturing network allows most items to be made near where they were ordered, which cuts down on shipping costs and time.
“Mass manufacturing has been around for hundreds of years, but it is ineffective, as you never know how much of something you will sell,” Daiga Zimele, a Printify representative, said in an email. “Print on demand is the future of more sustainable manufacturing, and our vision is to transform e-commerce, eliminating excess stock and reducing environmental waste.”
Berdigans is a devotee of meditation and passionately believes that the Baltic countries are ideal for setting up tech companies.
- Founder, Telfar
Telfar Clemens began his fashion brand Telfar in 2005 based on ideas of gender fluidity and inclusivity. The world is finally catching up.
In 2017, Telfar won the CFDA Awards / Vogue Fashion Fund top prize of $400,000, but his brand really took off when the pandemic hit. Clemens had long rejected the traditional elitist formula for fashion success by instead integrating his diverse audience into Telfar’s promotional material and keeping his products affordable. Clemens also relies on direct-to-consumer sales rather than wholesale, giving him more control over his unisex clothing brand. “So when Covid came,” Clemens told the New York Times, “rather than knocking us down like everyone else, we just rode that wave.”
The queer Liberian-American began circulating his products around his Pace University community made up of queer people of color. Inspired by his surroundings, he sought to integrate his products into day-to-day streetwear before they were printed in magazines. His success has produced copycats, which sparked conversations on social media about how some major fashion companies steal ideas from small designers. Now, Oprah Winfrey and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez have been spotted with Telfar’s faux-leather bags.
VSCO: Joel Flory, Greg Lutze
- Cofounders, VSCO
Flory and Lutze spent their early careers working as, and with, creative photographers and art directors. “Our world was a community of creators,” Flory recalled. “But we were always saying ‘What if we don’t love Adobe products?’” In 2011, they set out to create tools that would not only make visual artists’ lives easier, but that they’d also be willing to pay for. They tried to raise money from venture capitalists, but “good luck with that, they were not interested in photography then.” They set up a workshop to show off their photo editing tools, and by the time their product was available to sell, they made $250,000 in 48 hours. Soon enough the VC firms came to them; the company raised $90 million in 2014 and 2015, and has millions of paying subscribers. In 2019 a somewhat mocking meme about “VSCO girls” went viral; Flory says he doesn’t know how it took off but “it wasn’t started by us.” He argues that the stereotype is a tiny percentage of VSCO users, and that regardless, helping people express themselves visually is a good thing. “Creativity has a positive impact on mental health,” he says.