In September 2022, we held our annual future of work Worklife Next Summit–a full-day event that spotlighted the founders, technologies, and trends that are transforming the way we work. At our summit, we discuss ways to make the world more accessible, flexible, creative, and human-centered, with the goal of creating workplaces that reflect the future and enabling everyone to tap into their creative potential. If you couldn't attend the summit, don't worry – we're bringing the best of it to you. In this session, we discussed the key to building a profitable creator business with three incredible leaders of creator economy startups:
- Jarae Holieway, Creator & Creative Director
- Joe Albanese, CEO & Co-Founder of Stir
- Tala Akhavan, COO of Pietra
Tapping into the creator economy is a high-growth opportunity for individuals and businesses alike. The creator economy is driven by the rise of digital platforms and tools that enable anyone to share their skills, talents, and ideas with the world. This has led to the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs, influencers, and freelancers who can build successful businesses and careers on their own terms.
By joining the creator economy, you have the potential to access global markets, scale your business quickly, and build a brand that resonates with your audience. Moreover, the creator economy is driven by a strong sense of community and collaboration, which can help you connect with like-minded individuals and access resources to grow your business.
So what does it take to build a sustainable, profitable creator business? In this session, we talk about:
- Connecting with a community of creatives
- Finding your niche
- The importance of trial and error
- Knowing your audience
- The future of traditional brands
Meet the Worklife Next Summit Panelists
Before we dive into all the great things we discussed in our session, let's get to know the awesome panelists who shared their insights and experience!
Jarae Holieway, Creator and Creative Director
Jarae Holieway is a self-proclaimed creative powerhouse–and we tend to agree! Not tied to one single company or platform, Jarae is an independent creator and creative director who has worked in the fashion industry for over a decade.
"I started out modeling and styling, then got into graphic design, producing, and creative direction," says Jarae. "Now I'm adding fashion designer to my list of things and have a shoe that I'm dropping with Jeffery Campbell!"
Jarae is the type of person that looks for any opportunity to plug into something new in the industry and watch it take off. She has a knack for bringing people together to make a creative project happen and has a lot of advice for creators looking to build a profitable business! Needless to say, we were jazzed to have her perspective on the panel.
Joe Albanese, CEO & Founder of Stir
Joe Albanese is the CEO and co-founder of Stir–a platform built to help creators collaborate to grow their businesses together. It's one of the few creator economy tools focused on financial empowerment. With Stir, creators can share the workload and split the profits.
"Our one-sentence tagline is: 'we're creators running together,' and our core belief is 'nothing great is made by one person,'" says Joe. "The future of the creator ecosystem is more multiplayer than single-player."
Stir enables automated, transparent revenue sharing so creatives can work together and thrive together.
Pretty cool, right?
Tala Akhavan, COO of Pietra
LA native Tala Akhavan is the Chief Operations Officer of Pietra–a creator platform that empowers individuals and small businesses to turn their passions and skills into successful and fulfilling careers. They can help any creator or entrepreneur launch a retail product line from start to finish.
"You can go to our platform, sign up, and work with manufacturers and suppliers all over the world to produce a custom product," says Tala. "Not just merch, but any sort of idea that you have. You can customize that prototype, order inventory, have it sent to our warehouse, and hook up your Shopify to our system and start selling."
Pietra handles all the logistics of launching a retail business, so creators can focus on what they do best: creating! Under Tala's guidance, Pietra has become a leading platform for creators, empowering them to turn their ideas into successful businesses.
Finding a Creative Community with Creator Economy Startups
With all these incredibly successful creatives hailing from LA, there's a clear pattern. Is LA the place to be for creatives? We asked the panelists their opinions about the best way to find a creative community.
The consensus: creators are everywhere!
"We actually have creators from all over the place–even outside of the U.S.," says Tala. "Our company is based in LA and New York, and we find that proximity to some of the creative or creator-centric cities has been helpful. But I would say creators are everywhere!"
One of the unique things about the creator economy is that it's become a global phenomenon. In the past, other industries often felt geographically siloed. But thanks to technology, content creators have gone global. Creator economy apps like Upwork, Fiverr, and Discord connect creatives with like-minded communities ready to collaborate.
"It doesn't matter where you're based," adds Jarae. "If you're passionate about what you do, you can take it to the whole world."
As a creative entrepreneur, it's important to surround yourself with a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support, encouragement, and a sense of belonging. In addition, a strong community can provide a sense of accountability, which can be crucial for staying motivated and on track with your goals. It can also serve as a source of inspiration and new ideas, as well as a place to get feedback and advice on your work.
How Smaller Creators Can Find Their Niche in the Creator Economy
Our operators are pretty big players in the creator economy, but what about smaller creators just getting started?
First thing’s first – you need to find a niche. This means identifying a specific area of interest or expertise that you’re passionate about and think about the things that set you apart from the crowd. Do you have a unique approach to your craft? What quirks can set you apart from the rest?
Don’t be afraid to be specific - the more niche your content, the more likely you are to attract a dedicated following. And if you think it’s too niche, just look around at the many successful creators making waves in every industry.
Teachers are making over $100,000 a year sharing their classroom tips for extra cash. If you’re a book worm, think about monetizing your book reviews. If you have a green thumb, start a plant interior design business.
These days, the more niche, the better!
We asked what advice they'd give to a micro-influencer who is building up a small following on TikTok or Twitter and wants to start a side hustle while working full-time.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
There's a lot of appeal to going viral on TikTok, but you don't have to wait for that silver bullet to start making money. As Joe astutely said: "There are riches, and there are itches."
He says you don't have to have a massive global audience before you can start making money. Shooting for that kind of goal is a great way to burn yourself out.
"If your goal is to increase your audience size as large as humanly possible, your content might lose authenticity, right?" he adds. He has two pieces of advice:
- Find the thing you're uniquely passionate about.
- Use your background to give you a unique perspective.
Being authentic can help you to stand out in a crowded and competitive market.
Authenticity is vital for building trust and credibility with your audience, which is essential for any creator looking to thrive in the long term. It’s especially important if you’re in a niche space. If you’re not sure how to frame who you are and what you stand for to drive that authentic focus, journaling is a great way to self-reflect and come up with new ideas.
Here are a few prompts that can get you started:
- How do you start your morning? What’s your 5-9 PM routine?
- Who do you call outside of work? Are you a family person or do you have a tight knit group of friends?
- What do you eat for lunch? Are you a creature of habit or always looking for a new local restaurant to try?
- What part of your work day gives you energy? What drains you?
- What trends or topics get you excited to talk about with your peers?
By taking a step back and observing yourself, you can speak more confidently about what makes you unique.
Invest in Yourself and Build Your Portfolio
As a creator herself, Jarae has another important perspective to consider: know that you're going to invest a LOT of time. From putting in extra hours to finish a project to fine-tuning a skill or learning something new, creatives need to remember that an investment in themselves is an investment in their business.
"In this day and age, people are looking for that instant gratification–going viral and it just happening–and that does happen. But I would definitely say looking at the bigger picture, you have to truly understand that this is a long game, and you have to be willing to put in the time and effort if you want to see something come of it."
You reap what you sow!
Of course, investing in yourself and your business takes time and effort, but the rewards are well worth it. By making these investments, you'll set yourself up for long-term success and position yourself as a leader in your field. So don't be afraid to put in the work – it will pay off in the end.
Working with other creators in your community is a great way to build up your portfolio and learn from others.
"Tap into the resources you have around you and the people you have access to," she adds. "As a creator, model, and stylist, I've tapped into my friends who are photographers and videographers. I used to think I couldn't get started on a project because I didn't have the finances, but I have so many people around me that are so valuable and have so many talents."
What Happens When a Launch Doesn't Go As Planned?
As a creative entrepreneur, it's important to embrace trial and error as a natural part of the process. Creativity often involves trying new things, experimenting with different approaches, and learning from mistakes. This can sometimes be intimidating, but it also allows us to grow and improve as creators.
Embracing trial and error means being open to new ideas and approaches, even if they seem risky or uncertain. It means being willing to take risks and try new things, even if there's a chance of failure. And it means being resilient and persistent, even when things don't go as planned.
We asked our panel their thoughts on how creators can determine if a business idea makes sense for their brand. Here’s what they shared.
It's All About Building a Sustainable Business
As a creator, it is essential to build multiple streams of income to diversify your revenue sources and increase financial stability. This can be especially important in a constantly evolving creator economy where income can be unpredictable.
By building multiple streams of income, you can reduce your reliance on any one particular source and protect yourself against potential setbacks or downturns in any one area. There are many ways to build multiple streams of income as a creator, such as:
- Offering a range of products or services
- Monetizing your content through advertising or sponsorships
- Building a membership or subscription model
At Pietra, anyone can set up a platform to start a business–whether you're an influencer or someone with an excellent idea. Tala says knowing your audience is the key to success on the platform and building a sustainable business.
Understand Your Audience & Yourself
"Right now, you see a lot more micro-influencers coming up. You see these awesome, interesting highly-engaged niche communities cropping up, and it's really about understanding what it is that makes your community different or engaged in a unique way," says Tala. Tapping into what makes your audience unique and engaged is the best way to ensure your product will be what they're looking for.
Ask yourself: is it authentic to your identity? That's what she sees leading to big wins on the platform.
But what happens when your own interests change? Can your community shift with you? We asked what advice they had for creators trying to evolve over time.
"It all goes back to 'what am I doing this for?' For me, I want to create the world I want to see, and hopefully, people resonate with it, or hopefully, people will be inspired or can see themselves," says Jarae. Brand authenticity is key!
She says trial and error is a crucial part of the creative process. It's what allows us to push the boundaries and create something truly unique and innovative. So embrace it, and don't be afraid to make mistakes – they're an essential part of the journey toward success.
Where is the Creator Economy Going?
It is difficult to predict exactly where the creator economy is going, but it is clear that it will continue to grow and evolve. The rise of social media platforms and online marketplaces has made it easier for creators to reach a wider audience and monetize their work, and this trend is likely to continue. There is also expected to be continued growth in the use of AI and automation in the creator economy, which could make it easier for creators to produce and distribute content at scale.
Look at what's happened with NFTs. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are a type of digital asset that use blockchain technology to represent ownership of a unique item or piece of content. They have gained popularity in the creator economy as a way for creators to sell and monetize their digital content, such as art, music, or writing.
Check out the 10 NFT creators to watch and learn from!
Some experts predict that the creator economy will become more integrated with traditional industries as more companies look to collaborate with and leverage creators’ expertise and influence. There may also be a trend towards more diversified income streams for creators as they explore various ways to monetize their work and build a sustainable career.
Collaboration & Equity
So what are our panelists seeing in the creator economy in terms of trends and channels that are working for creators?
Joe has been in the creator economy space for two and a half years with Stir, and his biggest takeaway has been the growing importance of collaboration and equity. As a result, more and more talented individuals will be able to take ownership of the work they put out and reap the financial benefits.
Stir's concept of a shared upside isn't new. It's been a common mindset in the music, television, and film industries as royalties. But the idea was less common in smaller creative spaces like YouTube.
"What we've seen is once you give people this tool, it creates closer-knit teams, and more things can happen that couldn't before," says Joe.
He provides an example of a creator that needs to hire an editor but doesn't know how they will pay the person. Maybe they aren't making enough money to start paying someone a salary. With the concept of a "shared upside," creators can tap into the equity of creating a successful YouTube video. With Stir, creators can offer a percentage of revenue over time instead of an upfront amount for the cost of the work. This opens up a new world of possibilities for creators who want to work together while sorting out the financial concerns.
"Because they were all bought in so much earlier, and now because they've had this win, they've built something much bigger than just that one creator could have on their own," says Joe. "It's an exciting shift because I think there are only so many people that want to be in front of the camera, and there are a lot of people that need to be behind the scenes to build this scalable business."
Bringing people together as a team, in front of and behind the scenes, is a great way to create better content and build more sustainable businesses that can reach new heights.
Increase in Creative Entrepreneurship
What excites Tala about the creator space is the growth in entrepreneurship opportunities for creators.
"We're seeing more and more creators doing drops and starting their own lines," says Tala. "We're seeing people want to go beyond merch and create something that's more authentic to them."
And the demand is coming from both sides of the marketplace between consumers and creators. With the growth of mission-driven consumerism, followers want to put their money behind someone or something they believe in.
"More and more creative ideas are cropping up in terms of what people want to make–whether it's a skin tool or different types of food and beverages. So the trend that we're really seeing is that the sky is the limit in terms of what you want to make!" she adds. From Emma Chamberlain's Chamberlain Coffee to Issa Rae's Sienna Naturals, we see this trend all the time with celebrity brands.
Pietra is seeing creators make upwards of six and seven figures. This is because the platform provides them with all the tools and logistics to get started, from printing shipping labels to dealing with manufacturers. "It's pretty awesome to see someone who never envisioned themselves being a business owner now having a million-dollar business."
Are Traditional Brands Dead?
With all of this upheaval in the creator economy, what happens to traditional brands?
A16Z co-founder and General Partner Marc Andreessen boldly stated that traditional brands are dead and creators are the future of business. We asked: does this resonate with leaders in the creative economy?
"Consumers want to put their money behind a mission-driven leader, person, or influencer," says Tala. "I think we're starting to see that the power dynamic has shifted between creators and traditional brands. So now you see brands approaching individual influencers or creators to partner with them."
Jarae agrees. "I'm really excited because this has been a long time coming. And finally, being in this place where brands are tapping into everything I do is really cool." This mindset of brands tapping into creators' niche communities allowed Jarae to work with popular shoe brand Jeffrey Campbell.
Joe also agrees with the shift from traditional brands having all the power and influence, but thinks that to be sustainable, there needs to be some change in the following areas:
- The monetization model
- The dependence on algorithms
- The focus on creators who only shine in front of the camera
"There needs to be more sustainable monetization models. Right now, 80% of every dollar that moves through the creator space is just through brand deals. Creator businesses are not marketing companies. They need to create their own products and have more ways to do that."
(Shoutout to Pietra and Stir for making that possible!)
He also worries about the overreliance on algorithms for success. Algorithms skew who can be successful, and decrease the number of creators that can make a living through brand deals. This is where leaning into brand authenticity, community building, and generating multiple income streams can help.
Finally, Joe wants to ensure the creator world remembers those behind the camera. "There's a finite amount of attention in the world, which means there's only so many in front of the camera type folks that can be successful. I think that means we need tools and more accessible to people that can help contribute."
Without changes in these areas, Joe fears there will be a lot of creative burnout and churn in the industry. He challenges creator economy startups to be the answer. Through technology, creators can connect and create together.
So there you have it, folks! Top creator economy apps like Stir and Pietra are providing the tools and infrastructure needed to build a profitable creator business. As creators begin to take on the power of consumer influence, the key to success will be tapping into your network of creative resources–from tools to fellow creators.
At Worklife, we're investing in a new era where work is more creative, and anyone can start something great. We invest in companies that connect creators, empower technologies, and help every hustler maintain a positive work-life balance. And we can't wait to see what the future holds!
Did you love the insights from our panelists? You can check out our other sessions from Next Summit below: