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 Steven Galanis, co-founder and CEO of Cameo.
Cameo is a marketplace which allows users to purchase customizable video shout-outs from their favorite celebrities. Alongside professional athletes, actors, musicians, and more, creators have grown to be major sellers on Cameo, gaining an additional stream of revenue and fun method of fan engagement.
We spoke with Galanis about the origins of Cameo, how internet fame doesn’t always equate to monetization, what the economic downturn means for creators, and more.
Many people know and love Cameo. Since its founding in 2017, the company has spurred an influx of iconic personalized video shout-outs, spanning all kinds of niches—TV stars directing their infamous lines directly to fans, pro-athletes wishing aspiring players luck on their next big game, retired movie stars telling their long-time fans to feel better soon, and beloved YouTubers wishing their followers a happy birthday.
When did the idea of a paid, celebrity video shout-out—the Cameo—take root in its founders’ minds? At the time, Galanis was producing movies alongside his friend and eventual Cameo co-founder, former NFL agent Martin Blencowe. Blencowe got his former client, an NFL star, to record a video message and congratulate a friend on the birth of his son, spurring the idea of a modern selfie-style audiograph for the digital age.
The video shout-out idea expanded when the two met up with Devon Townsend, a Vine Star and another Cameo co-founder, who Galanis said showed him the gap between fame and the reality of making a living.
“I had seen first hand how social media and the internet were making people more famous,” Galanis told Passionfruit in an interview. “But I found that for people like Devon there was this gap between fame and monetization. There’s a widening gap between how famous someone is and how much money they can actually make.”
The idea for Cameo, Galanis said, is rooted in monetization woes for all kinds of famous people: pro-athletes who go broke a few years after playing their last game, Hollywood actors dealing with unemployment, musicians who can’t make a living off touring or Spotify revenue alone, and creators who aren’t big enough to take the lion’s share of creator funds or ad revenue.
Today, Cameo has grown to become a massive go-to platform for mainstream celebrities and niche creators alike to earn money and provide a special experience for fans.
“We help creators turn their fans into highly monetizable, rabid super fans,” Galanis said. ”We do that by, everytime a person gets a Cameo, the talent is actually getting paid to become more famous. So if a creator makes a Cameo for you, you like them more than you liked them before. You’re going to share that video on Twitter, on TikTok, on Instagram.”
The company currently has around 50,000 celebrities on its marketplace who applied to join. Although creators need a certain amount of notoriety to join, having tens of thousands fans, or otherwise being a person of note, will get influencers in the door to make some extra cash. Prices for Cameos range depending on the fame of the creator, ranging anywhere from cents to thousands of dollars.
Tay Zonday, the legendary “Chocolate Rain” YouTuber, charges around $35.99 for his videos. In an email to Passionfruit, he said Cameo has been a life-altering income stream for him, and some months has earned him over $6,000. Beyond that, he says he is a huge fan of the marketplace for providing a unique fan-to-creator experience.
“I began making Cameos in 2017. At first, it felt like the digital version of a paid meet-and-greet at a fan convention like Comicon. However, Cameo brings me closer to fans than meeting in person. Yes, I do thousands of happy-birthdays, marriages, new jobs, babies and goodbyes. But because Cameo is private and not in a loud space, many requests are more vulnerable,” he described.
Andrew Fuller, a Netflix Is It Cake? reality-TV star turned social media influencer, shared a similar soft-spot for the unique video shout-out format.
“Oh now listen… I’m not only Cameo talent… I’m a fan as well! It has been somewhat of a new tradition for my husband and I to gift each other and our loved ones Cameos from favorite celebrities… From Drag Race queens to pop culture icons, it’s such a fun way to surprise people, so truly, I leapt at the offer and I still pinch myself that I have the honor to make people smile,” Fuller described to Passionfruit via email.
As his audience grows, Fuller says it can be difficult to grasp the fact that his followers know everything about him, but he knows nothing about their lives. He believes the Cameo format offers a “personal moment” with fans he otherwise might never connect with. Furthermore, he says his love for the format goes hand in hand with growing his platform and increasing his income.
“Honestly, I was so worried nobody would even be interested in gifting or receiving cameos from me. On the contrary, I get to be a little part of ALL SORTS of events and moments. Cameo has been surprisingly lucrative for me and that’s just the coolest thing to me,” Fuller said.
Galanis identifies monetization as “the” problem on creator’s minds today—due to the small amount of money social media platforms end up giving to creators for their content.
“There’s over 50 million people in the world who would love to do nothing more than quit their job and go full-time as a creator. But the issue is that all of the major platforms—YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter—largely allow you to trade for free content for the platform. The platforms largely aren’t paying the talent to make content. The platforms are selling ads against the content creators make. They keep all, or almost all, of that. And creators are basically out there trying to grow a following so they can find another way to monetize it,” Galanis described.
A little over a year ago, Cameo achieved “unicorn” status—meaning it reached a valuation of over $1 billion—after a fundraising round brought in over $100 million in funding. This was during the first heights of the pandemic, when lockdown and stimulus spending was at a high. Cameo has since invested in its newest branch, Cameo for Business, which connects businesses to celebrities who can get paid to make videos for events and ads. It also acquired merchandise platform Represent in 2021, and began investing in Web3.
But despite its growth in recent years, this May Cameo announced the layoff of over 87 employees, including executives like its chief product officer, chief people officer, vice president of marketing and chief technology officer. Other creator economy startups, including Substack and Jellysmack, have experienced similar layoffs in recent months due to a slowdown in investment related to a wider economic downturn.
“To support both fan and talent demand during the pandemic lockdowns, Cameo’s headcount exploded from just over 100 to nearly 400. We hired a lot of people quickly, and market conditions have rapidly changed since then. Accordingly, we have right sized the business to best reflect the new realities. The decision to reduce our headcount was a painful but necessary course correction to ensure that we regain focus as well as achieve the agility to navigate new challenges, the ability to optimize our financial resources, and time and space to nurture newer business segments,” Galanis said.
“This will continue to put pressure on both the consumers that need to support creators and the creators themselves that are struggling to make the same amount of money for the same amount of work they were doing before,” Galanis said.
Despite the economic downturn, Cameo is still trying to provide opportunities for creators to diversify their income. Galanis says the company is remaining “bullish” about its future, plans to recruit more talent for its classic video-shout out marketplace, and is also continuing to invest in its newer ventures.
“The actions we have taken to balance our costs with our cash reserves will best position the company to take full advantage of those growth opportunities… We’re really talking a lot with creators and talent right now about how important and essential it is to diversify their revenue streams at a time of uncertainty like today,” Galanis shared.
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