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The Creator Economy 2.0: Creators Become Brands While Brands Become Creators

The Creator Economy is centered around providing creators with new ways of distributing, productizing, and monetizing their skills and passions. Creator-made products and services, and the platforms facilitating their distribution, span a myriad of sectors. Teachable enables teachers to sell digital lessons, Substack enables writers to sell digital publications, and Famosos enables influencers in LATAM to sell digital “shoutouts”, to name a few. Interestingly, despite the wide range of categories being serviced by creators, the bulk of these offerings are digital — versus physical — in nature.

More recently, however, as more and more creators become “brands”, consumer demand for physical product offerings from the creators they follow has reached an inflection point. To support this growing consumer appetite, the last several years have given rise to a wave of products facilitating the creation and distribution of physical products for creators.

Before divining into the current market landscape, a bit of history on the space…

Early Online Creators and Physical Product Offerings

Independent creators selling physical products online is by no means a new phenomenon. Etsy, most notably, has been around since 2005. As of 2020, the platform had over 4.3M sellers, and nearly 40M buyers worldwide (source). While the top Etsy sellers have built brands around their product offerings, such as CaitlynMinimlist, the majority of sellers have struggled to do so. This stands in stark contrast to the new wave of online creators, who are building brands with themselves at the core, and then layering on product offerings.

This perspective may be better explained through examples. When I was in high school, I bought most of my jewelry through independent sellers on Etsy. At the time, if you asked me to tell you who I was buying the products from — either by brand or “creator” name — I wouldn’t have been able to beyond noting that Etsy was my chosen platform for discovery. This lack of association with creators as “brands” on Etsy is evident in the platform’s consumer purchasing journey. Customers land on the site, search for a product type — such as “gold hoop earrings” — and then browse an expansive marketplace of offerings that match the product description.

Fast forward to today, and consumer purchasing behaviors have changed dramatically. Consumers — and particularly Gen Z consumers — want to buy products from people, not “brands”, as we traditionally think of them. (Even I, a millennial, make a huge percentage of my purchasing decisions based on the recommendations of micro-influencers I’ve elected to follow across social platforms). Brands have taken note, and drastically increased influencer marketing spend in attempts to humanize product offerings via leveraging the trust influencers and creators have built with their followings. In 2021, in the US alone, $3.7B was spent on influencer marketing (source). This figure is up $1B from 2020 and is expected to exceed $5B by 2023 (source).

In conjunction with brands increasingly relying on creators vouching for their products to drive demand, social media platforms have introduced suites of tools to make shopping and purchasing via creator recommendations more streamlined and scalable. In 2020, Instagram introduced “Shop”, a specific page within the app where consumers can browse and directly purchase products from their favorite brands and influencers. Shopify — which has evolved from being an e-commerce software platform to a full-featured creator platform — has also built integrations with Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Snapchat, and finally TikTok, as of August (source).

One aspect of sponsored influencer marketing I find most interesting is that disclosing sponsorship has proven to have little impact on whether followers view the recommendation as authentic or not (source). Although most platforms now mandate that creators disclose when they’re recommending a product due to a paid sponsorship, audiences are not put off in the least by this disclosure and the commercial relationship it implies.

This insight about comfort with sponsorship — akin to how consumers react to celebrities and athletes appearing in television commercials — illuminates the massive opportunity creators have to make and sell their own products, leveraging the unprecedented levels of trust, confidence, and community they’ve cultivated with their followers.

The Rise of Creator Brands Launching Physical Products

One of the first companies capitalizing on the trend of creators as “brands”, by enabling them to launch their own products, is Teespring (now Spring). Founded in 2010, the company pivoted a few times before landing on providing a way for creators to embed a crowdfunding campaign for custom merchandise onto web pages in 2012. Like many great digital innovations, Spring’s early growth was driven largely by gamers. In 2014 the company, partnered with Twitch as their official “swag store” for gamer merchandise.

While Spring helped pave the way for creator-led brands, it was arguably ahead of its time. The company nearly went out of business in 2017 as it struggled to expand into merchandise categories outside of t-shirts (source). However, over the last few years, with the rise of social commerce, the company has made an incredible comeback. As of June 2020, non-apparel product offerings contributed to nearly $50M in sales on Spring, and the number of creators successfully selling products on the platform increased by 213% since 2018 (source).

Creator-First Brands, and Physical Products, Expand Beyond “Merch”

The successful turnaround of platforms like Spring did not go unnoticed. Pietra, one of the more notable competitors in this category, launched in 2019 to democratize “access and infrastructure for the creative class”. The platform connects creators with top manufacturers globally, in addition to managing designing, warehousing, and fulfillment, among other infrastructure needs for physical product launches. Pietra raised a Series A this past summer and has aspirations to become the hub for all creator needs (e.g. they’ll likely explore funding or lending opportunities for creators, given their access to ordering and sales data).

Seed Beauty is another noteworthy player in this space. The platform provides the backend infrastructure for creators and influencers to launch independent beauty brands. Notably, they’ve partnered with Kylie Jenner to power the creation and launch of Kylie Cosmetics.

Creators Launching Physical Food Products

As noted, Pietra and others have become the go-to destination for creators to launch apparel, home goods, and jewelry products, among other popular consumer categories. One of the most popular consumer categories, however, has been left out — food. The reason being, to put it simply, is that the infrastructure behind marketing, merchandising, and delivering food is entirely unique. Food is perishable, time-sensitive, and logistically challenging, requiring coordinated consistency across multiple national vendors.

One of the few examples of a creator successfully launching a food product is Jimmy Donaldson’s “MrBeast” Burger brand. Donaldson joined YouTube in 2012 at the age of 13, and rose in fandom via his elaborate stunt videos. He has since built an empire with himself at the core — his Youtube channel currently has nearly 70 million subscribers.

In December 2020, Donaldson announced MrBeast Burgers, a virtual restaurant brand with now over 1,000 locations powered by Virtual Dining Concepts — a company that helps brands leverage a national network of restaurants to launch food products at scale. As the name suggests, MrBeast Burgers launched with burgers and fries as its core products. It’s estimated that the brand made ~$8M (just on burger sales!)

Looking Forward

As the line between creators and brands continues to blur, the ways in which creators productize and monetize their skills and passions will only continue to grow and expand. We’re excited to watch new product categories become unlocked, like food, along with the infrastructure needed to support them. If you’re building something in this space, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to reach out at julia@flybridge.com or on Twitter here.

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Julia Maltby

Julia Maltby

Early Stage Investor @ Flybridge & X-Factor Ventures | GP @ The MBA Fund | Previously @ Underscore VC, WeWork, and Plum Alley Investments | Wharton MBA