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 Aron Levin, the chief marketing officer and co-founder of Willa.
Willa is a fintech company founded in 2019, which allows creators and freelancers on its app to cash out early—for a fee—from “Net 30+” contracts with agencies and brands. Net 30, 60, and 90 brand deals are common in the creator-brand partnership landscape, and require brands to pay creators 30, 60, or 90 days after sponsored ad work is completed.
Willa also recently launched a debit card, which comes with a certified public account to complete a card holder’s 2022 income taxes—so long as they spend over $10,000 on the card in 2022 and qualify as a “sole proprietor, LLC, partnership or corporation.”
In addition to its financial services, the company recently launched a controversial airline which allowed a select group of creators to fly for free to Coachella in a luxury private plane—including complimentary post-trip IV drips, a “detox” juice bar, and a “champagne breakfast equipped with adaptogenic beverages,” according to the Willa Air website.
In an interview with Passionfruit, Levin discussed his experience in the influencer marketing world, how it informed the creation of Willa, the downsides of Net 30+ payments, his advice for creators raising rates amid inflation, and more.
Willa was founded by four tech gurus—chief executive officer Kristofer Sommedstad, chief product officer Peter Blom, chief technology officer Stefan Pettersson, and chief marketing officer Aron Levin. Three of the co-founders—Sommedstad, Blom, and Levin—worked at Spotify in its early days. Another three—Blom, Pettersson, and Levin—co-founded an influencer marketing company called Relatable back in 2016. Relatable worked with high-profile brands like Adobe, Spotify, Uber, Samsung, and Lego. It was eventually acquired by tech company Bambuser in 2021.
Levin told Passionfruit his time at Relatable greatly informed the founding of Willa—as he and his co-founders knew first-hand that creators and freelancers were struggling to get payments from brands in a timely manner.
“We realized that the world is built on this idea that you either build a business, or that you go work from 9 to 5. You get a paycheck every two weeks, but there’s this massive group of talented individuals that are neither corporations or employees—the future of work, the freelance economy, the creative economy,” Levin said.
Levin said he believes agencies and brands too often treat creators and freelancers as corporations, which can typically afford to wait to receive payments. Meanwhile, creators frequently deal with financial insecurity—caused by ever-shifting algorithms, sudden changes to platform monetization policies, and fickle, confusing payment processes with brands. According to a 2022 study by another automated payment company, Tipalti, 87% of a pool of 750 creators said they have experienced “being paid late, being paid the wrong amount, or not being paid at all.”
“Net 30 doesn’t really work when you have bills to pay and you’re unsure when your next job is gonna come through,” Levin said.
On the Willa app, after applying for an account, U.S.-based creators can enter their information for brand deals and freelance work—including money owed, a short description of the work done, and an email contact for their client—and the app will spit out invoices, vendor forms, and tax forms for record-keeping. For larger payment amounts, the system may trigger a request for a signed agreement or written confirmation from a client to protect from fraud.
After information is provided, Willa will then contact and follow up with the client to ensure payment. The service is free. If a creator decides they want all or some of their payment before their client sends it to Willa, they can “cash out” early for a 4.5% fee. Payments of all kinds, whether cashed out early or not, take 1 to 3 business days to reach your bank account. To have an “express withdrawal” and receive the money right away, the service will incur an additional 1.5% fee.
Levin said Willa attempts to address the time creators lose each week on “boring stuff” like paperwork and ensuring timely payments from companies. He said Willa has found its user base of creators and freelancers spends about four hours per week on these payment-seeking tasks—after using Willa, he said users report spending only an average of one hour per week.
“The process is broken. There’s paperwork, back-and-forth, getting you set up in vendor systems, filling out forms, speaking to finance departments that sometimes don’t even know who you are and the kind of work you’ve done. That part is actually equally frustrating for both parties. You shouldn’t really have to go through that complicated process to claim $1,000 or $2,000 or $3,000 dollars,” Levin said.
Levin said many creators who have developed a business and grown an audience seek out a talent manager to help them negotiate rates and seek out new brand opportunities. However, hiring a business manager to handle finances and paperwork is less common.
“The talent manager doesn’t really help you with managing your paperwork or your business expenses or the financial side of running a business… Going on to higher end assistants or a business manager, it’s quite a commitment. One of the biggest challenges is still that unpredictable income. So you see a lot of creators hesitating in the commitment to something that will be a fixed expense,” Levin said.
As previously covered by Passionfruit, many talent management firms have added business management services for their clients, and some larger creator brands have hired CEOs to spearhead business strategy and operations for their channels. Still, many agents and managers primarily handle the acquisition of bigger and better brand deals for creators.
Creators on Twitter and TikTok have discussed Willa’s services, and many seem excited by the idea of a software which can make the brand deal process a bit easier. Beauty and fitness creator Justine Cuenco (@cococuenco), who has over 146,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok, told Passionfruit she was introduced to Willa by her husband, who works freelance as a photographer and videographer. She said she was impressed by the premise of Willa, and ended up doing a paid digital ad for the company.
“What a genius idea to solve one of the biggest hurdles of business for freelancers…Net ANYTHING is a nightmare experience from start to finish. Every brand or agency accounting department always seems to be the busiest people in the world and invoices tend to get lost most of the time. You’re lucky to get paid in 90 days on a payment term of Net 30,” Cuenco said.
Dallas Hart (@dallrulz), another influencer and an actor with over 434,000 followers on Instagram, told Passionfruit many companies are “the worst and don’t care at all about paying creators on time.” He said he’s been using Willa since right around the time the company launched.
“I use them anytime I do a collaboration, which is weekly, and have also partnered with them as well. I filmed some commercial ads with them which you can find online. I also flew to Coachella on Willa Air which was my first private jet experience (and a very legendary one as well),” Hart said.
In 2022, Willa announced “Willa Air”—a luxury jet experience that invites influencers to travel to well-known events with perks like black car transfers, IV drips, detox juice bars, and champagne breakfasts. In April, Willa Air’s first experience awarded 12 creator applicants who use Willa frequently a luxury experience flying to Coachella. The news of the launch drew some controversy from critics who saw the private jet experiences as excessive in wealth and environmental impact. Meanwhile, many influencers commented with interest in the flashy perks of the plane ride.
“The way I thought about Willa Air is not so much as a PR stunt, as it is a marketing platform. So, some companies will go and launch, you know, podcasts or newsletters. We launch an airline and the reason we did that is so we now have this platform activate whenever there’s something of cultural relevance to our audience,” Levin said.
Levin acknowledged Willa Air was meant, at least a “little bit,” to provoke a response from critics. However, he said the experience was designed to be “really attractive and appealing” to its desired audience.
“It’s meant to be a little bit provocative for sure—to the wrong audience. And that’s exactly what happened. The creators that are going to Coachella, 99% of everyone, they absolutely loved this. And then there’s people that are outside of the creator economy that obviously thought, ‘Hey, just what the world needs, another perk for influencers,’” Levin said.
Levin said the experience also tied into Willa’s underlying value proposition.
“It’s this super fast way and hassle free way to get to Coachella, just like when you use Willa to get paid for work… It plays off the promise of our core product in a way that is quite interesting… You shouldn’t be stuck in traffic, you shouldn’t have to wait for your money,” Levin said.
Levin said he encourages creators to consider looking at tools, whether from Willa or another company, that can save them time which they can devote to their true passions.
“Most creators and freelancers are not using any tools and services to simplify their businesses. A lot of people do their work manually, because I think they’re not interested in finance and they think it’s the way it has to be done… I really encourage people, find the tools that can save you the time,” Levin said.
Amid record-high inflation this year, Levin also advised creators and freelancers to not shy away from increasing rates along with the cost of living. He pointed to a study by Fiverr, which found 86% of freelancer survey respondents have not lost any business after increasing rates due inflation.
“I found that to be actionable and incredibly relevant to our audience…. Although it’s not really financial advice, the overwhelming majority expect to have more worth in the next quarter or so. They’re expecting to have more work and charge more for their work,” Levin said.
The final piece of advice Levin shared was a classic: multiple revenue streams.
“Find more revenue streams. There’s 24 ways we’ve identified that creators use to monetize their audience, their work, and their skills… Don’t rely on a single channel,” Levin said.
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