We’re sitting down with leaders on the business side of the creator economy to get their best advice for creators looking to launch and develop their careers. This week, we spoke with Sean Thielen and Dmitry Shapiro, the founders of Koji.
Koji describes itself as an ecosystem of app developers, creators, and fans. Creators can make a customizable home screen of apps on Koji’s “launcher,” which can be linked in social media bios for fans to access.
We spoke with Koji’s founders about how their passions for computer programming collided, what challenges creators face today, what Koji offers, the future of social media and digital identity, and more.
The founding of Koji
In the early 2010s, Sean Thielen was a college student studying literature, but he was passionate about computer programming.
Thielen was interested in developing apps while in college, so he made a blog post—on Hacker News, a social networking site geared towards technology entrepreneurs—saying he needed some mentorship.
Dmitry Shapiro, a former chief technology officer at Myspace who was a group product manager at Google at the time, was referred to Thielen’s post by a friend. He reached out to Thielen to lend a hand and the pair quickly became friends.
“I’ve worked with arguably some of the best developers in the world. Now, this kid was just blowing my mind with his ability across the board. His vision, his ability to do product work, architectural work, to write the code—at a pace that I’ve never seen anyone be able to operate at consistently,” Shapiro told Passionfruit in an interview.
Soon after the two met, Thielen was set to graduate from college and was considering moving back in with his parents to figure out what to do with his degree. Shapiro then stepped in with a bit of an unusual offer: Thielen could come live in his garage and make apps with him.
Together, they founded a company called GoMeta in 2016—a bit ahead of their time with a metaverse mindset—initially doing some work in augmented reality apps, which educators used to develop personalized digital experiences for their students.
“Koji kind of came out of that. How do you bring people closer to the tools that they can use to solve their own problems as we move into a world where more and more of us are making our livings digitally?” Thielen explained.
Koji’s vision was to be an app store, with a home screen format similar to what you’d see on an Apple or Android phone. However, instead of facing inwards—a home screen of apps only visible to yourself—the home screen would face outwards, and be a place where apps tied to your digital self could be accessed by followers, fans, or friends.
“It’s almost like bringing back the personal website, in a much more modern and interactive way,” Thielen explained.
As the company developed, Thielen and Shapiro noticed that a lot of their traffic was coming from creators, who would link their Koji page through a link in their bio on Instagram and TikTok. Because of that traffic, Koji has carried a reputation as a link-in-bio company.
Anyone can develop an app on Koji for creators to add to their personalized home screen. Koji offers “scaffolds,” or reusable code that developers can use to work off of to make their own apps. App developers then share a portion of transaction fees with Koji.
Shapiro said Koji was originally not intended for creators, and was instead made for computer developers to more easily and quickly design apps from these “scaffolds.” He explained that developers were naturally drawn to building tools for creators to express themselves, monetize their work, and connect with followers—leading the company to start identifying within the creator economy.
Helping the average creator
Thielen stressed that he is not primarily interested in attracting big name creators with millions of followers to Koji. Instead, he’s more interested in providing value to smaller business owners and artists.
“Anybody who is using the internet to build a brand, express themselves, run a business…It’s kind of the next generation of entrepreneurship, the future of work, the future of identity,” Thielen said.
Thielen shared that he thinks one of the biggest challenges creators face, existing in a relatively new career space, is not having standardized, authoritative sources about which tools are best for them. Furthermore, he thinks most companies tend to cater to creators with larger audiences.
Shapiro agreed that creators with different audience sizes, niches, and platforms require different resources and tools. Koji has made efforts to reach out to specific genres of creators to see what is useful to them—for example, partnering with up-and-coming musicians and sharing how they can sell music services like production, mixing, or editing with Koji.
“They might not even refer to themselves as a creator,” Shapiro said, “And then later they might realize, hey people might actually like this. Maybe I’d like to monetize part of this work.”
Fitness enthusiast Kyle Smith (@tastyshreds) decided to sell a digital cookbook on Koji after building a small following on TikTok documenting his weight loss journey. Smith told Passionfruit that Koji’s monetization tools helped him quit his job and pursue content creation full-time.
“You can just get something out there that others can download. It doesn’t have to be a physical product. I think we sometimes think about this brick and mortar world that we live in,” Smith said in an interview. “But really, with digital media, even a four minute e-course you could sell.”
Smith claimed he started out selling his cookbook with only about 10,000 followers, making a few hundred bucks here and there. Over time, he grew to an audience of around 300,000 and is cashing in thousands. He said with passion, as well as advice from Koji’s founders, he now is able to make a living working only 10 to 20 hours a week.
“He’s making a ton of money doing that. He’s not trying to be famous. This is a way for him to express himself, and create a business, and build a livelihood,” Thielen said about Smith.
Shapiro said that Koji aims to support average creators, who are overworked trying to direct fans to individual services like Cameo, Patreon, and Substack. Additionally, both Thielen and Shapiro said they think new in-app features on major social media platforms, like tip functions or personalized video services, further burden creators with the task of managing completely different, ever-changing platforms all at once.
Shapiro and Thielen say this load can be lightened by creating one unified page for creator-oriented apps with centralized analytics, payments, and notifications. That’s where Koji comes in. Koji’s ecosystem of apps include tip jars, newsletter subscriptions, fundraising, paywalled content, a “Cameo doppelgänger,” apps which allow creators to mint and sell NFTs without downloading plugins, and more.
“Creators don’t want to have all these capabilities inside of Instagram, and then also have all these capabilities inside of TikTok and Snapchat,” Shapiro said. “Here, you just configure one global profile. And it can go with you into any current social network, and any future social network.”
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