The new cornerstone of the burgeoning creator economy came from an idea and a dream
The creator economy is a more than $100 billion industry, supporting an ever-expanding number of people as more and more of us dip our toes in the world of being a creator. Whether you’re on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube or elsewhere, one of the major pinchpoints for creators is getting paid for your work.
It’s an issue that Aron Levin, who ran Relatable, an influencer marketing agency for five years, knows well. He saw the shift towards creators first-hand, but also saw the struggles they faced from simple things — like getting paid. “We realised the real problem, and an interesting opportunity, is to not only solve that problem for people we work with, but to solve it for everyone,” says Levin. “That’s how the idea for Willa was born: having seen the problem close up in our own business, and realising that we needed to put this in the hands of every single freelancer, not just people we work with.”
Levin worked with his friend of more than a decade, and former colleague at Spotify, Kristofer Sommestad, and two other co-founders to launch Willa. “Kristofer is one of those rare individuals in that he knows how to write code in pretty much every language, knows how to code iOS apps and complicated backend solutions and web design… he’s a full-stack engineer, but he also understands business and people,” says Levin, who jokes that together, they work at 125% brilliance: Levin 25%, and Sommestad 100%.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to build products,” says Sommestad. “I started out building websites when I was nine.” Sommestad was inspired by his father, an early internet-era entrepreneur, to build and design. He spent a decade in the gaming space, thinking about user experiences constantly. “I think about experiences a lot in my everyday life,” he says. The duo met at Spotify, where both worked to improve the user experience in music, and then Sommestad went freelance — where he also found himself tussling with the same experiences creators do. “I realised it was a pain,” he says. “I had to set up a business. I had to figure out how to do invoicing, agreements, and then when everyone’s happy I was about to get paid, but I had to wait 30 days to get paid.”
Willa launched in 2019, and now employs 70 people, roughly half of whom are based in Europe, and half in the United States. “We’ve organised ourselves very deliberately in a way that people that do events are on the west coast, while we have finance and operations closer to the east coast, and in Stockholm we have product, engineers and designers,” says Levin.
It has grown by looking explicitly at problems, and figuring out how to solve them. Willa initially surveyed creators and drilled down into the data, finding payments were the biggest bugbear. “We realised we are the perfect middleman,” says Sommestad. “We create this incredible experience for the creators, and an incredible experience for the clients who pay them.” Sommestad compares Willa to a translator, speaking different languages — one creator-facing, one business-facing — and translating what each side wants and needs in a way that means as little pain as possible for both parties. The Willa app launched in 2020 as an invite-only service, to test the waters, and found that those who used it loved it. “Now we’re on a journey to move to a place where any type of creator anywhere in the world should be able to use Willa, and they should be able to get paid super-fast,” says Sommestad. “We should be the only financial service they ever need.”
It’s a lofty goal, but one that EQT Ventures saw and supported financially in June 2020, soon after the app launched. “I’ve known Aron for 12 or 13 years,” says Lars Jörnow, founding partner at EQT Ventures. That longstanding relationship, plus the obvious requirement that the product offered an industry on the rise, made it a no-brainer to invest in. “They were seed stage, pre-product when we invested,” he says. “We were the first money in. When we invested, the cap table was four founders, and we invested and were the fifth on the cap table.”
EQT’s investment enabled Willa to build out their team and launch the product, which in turn took them to raise a Series A funding round from a US-based specialised VC fund called FinTech Collective. “Now they’re two years in, and a team of 70 people helping thousands of creative freelancers with their financial problems,” says Jörnow.
One of those biggest problems is delayed payments. Willa differentiates itself by providing instant payments — which comes with its own product challenges for the team. “People haven’t believed that it’s true,” says Sommestad. One of the first quotes that Willa received from a happy user was that “Willa seems like magic money, the money just appears,” says Sommestad. That sounds good, but it also meant that some people were hesitant to get started for real — something that took six to 12 months for Willa to overcome with their users.
And that’s not the end. “We’re building the world’s largest bank for freelancers, without coming out and saying: ‘Hey, we’re a bank’, because nobody wants another bank,” says Levin. “We’re going to start by solving actual money problems actual people have.” One of them is the hassle of running a business. In Willa’s world, the future will look quite different. “We’ll get to the point where we’re taking care of all the businesses for all the creators,” says Sommestad. “They shouldn’t have to think about running a business. You should be able to live your life on your terms. Be happy, get a mortgage and a family, buy a house and travel — whatever you want to do. And we’ll take care of your business for you.”