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Three Whoa's: A Meditation on Creators
I Was Completely Blindsided 😩
Creators Now Command Attention on a Scale Unprecedented in Human History and They’re Only Going to Get More Powerful
If you could have heard my inner monologue over the past few months (or had the misfortune of being in my business and tech chat rotation), you would have heard the term Creator bouncing around a lot.
Like a whole damn lot.
Creator Economy this. Media strategy that.
Instant distribution. Free Micro-experiments. Content Engines.
User Acquisition Funnels.
CAC Lower Bounds, CPM Reduction, Paid vs Organic reach.
These idea snippets are what my brain has been slowly, then suddenly consumed by since August of this year.
We’re Living in a Weird Time.
I think the world is getting faster and more volatile and will continue to do so at an increasingly aggressive rate (more on this idea thread is forthcoming in an future essay).
This is scary and new and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we don’t really know what this means.
Said another way, we have no idea what happens to this pale blue dot when we start electing world leaders who have shitposted since birth.
Maybe it means more Ukraine style invasions? Maybe it means less fake news?
Maybe it means more fake news?
Maybe it means more memes?
But in a macroeconomic context, we have more people thinking and more people posting and arguing about more things, we have leaders in government, business, and society that have varying degrees of fluency in these digital dark arts, we have economies that are built on globalized supply chains that may or may not persist into the future, and we have governmental structures that were designed by people that rode horses to work to put in a solid 166 days a year to run a country from a context where ICBMs and TikTok weren’t even a whisp of a thought at the edge of a Smallpox fueled fever dream.
(Sidenote - I really do think running any country should be a 24/7 job where one constituency’s vote is split across a small team of legislators [think 6 senators instead of 2 per State] working in rotating shifts so we can operate the government in a permanent session akin to a livestream in order to continuously improve the country and we’re ready to respond to any eventuality that happens on the planet at any time and we’re forced to make legislation more quantized and transparent, but that’s for another time)
Anyway - in the midst of this accelerationism, we are continuing to churn out technologies that dramatically improve the effectiveness of individuals.
We’re increasing individual leverage (if you’re a VC thoughtboi looking for something to tweet about) for work capacity and efficiency.
Said another way…
You, as a single person, can do something to impact planet Earth in a way that was functionally almost impossible even just 15 years ago.
Submit an app to the app store - boom now everyone has a new morning routine.
Release some educational videos online - boom now underprivileged children in Nepal have access to Math.
Self publish an e-book - boom you’ve reignited tens of thousands of people’s excitement about exploring space.
This power isn’t a completely new idea, it’s more like a new-ish idea that hits a lot harder today than even just five years ago.
I like to think about it like this.
We have a concept in the military of the “strategic private”.
It’s the notion where one Soldier doing something dumb (or war crime-y) can end up on their middle school best friend’s phone screen within 15 minutes of it happening (and then it shows up on everybody else’s social feed - oops ☹️).
This concept used to to reference things showing up the next day on the Morning News actually - so now it’s the same problem except approximately infinitely worse.
This mostly brings to mind the really bad stuff kind of outcomes that can happen with the
I N T E R N E T,
(and makes all of the things I point out about government being behind the curve 10x more terrifying)
but an optimistic take is that this means you pretty much have an infinite number of lottery tickets via posts and tweets and things through which you can potentially win a lifechanging outcome… over and over again (as long as you don’t get yourself canceled too hard in the process - although even that doesn’t really seem to be that much of a problem).
Write a Tweet, Change the Planet
I’ve been building a startup for the last 6 months. It’s now venture backed and took a lot of effort just to get things going. In the past few months, I built out an MVP, released multiple updates in quick succession, and have been incorporating user feedback into the releases.
There’s a decent amount of praise for its simplicity and usability by users I’ve onboarded who tell me they definitely plan to use it for its intended purpose (and in truth some actually have done so).
But to be honest the usage isn’t there yet.
It isn’t on track to hitting the J-Curve.
Something big has clearly got to change.
There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that I’ve really struggled to get it in front of people… and then get them to pay attention to it in the sea of chaos and noise and activity that is the internet once I do catch their eye.
I’m not complaining (to be clear) - it’s just a fact that it’s hard to change people’s behavior.
All the while I’ve seen other (in some ways) worse apps and worse concepts (and some outright scams) get much more attention and traction and success.
Of course, there are real issues in clarity, effectiveness, and purpose that I need to solve in order for VF Protocol to be the app I want it to be, but this “screaming into the void” feeling made it very clear to me that product development isn’t the only thing I needed to change going into 2023.
Distribution is crucial.
There’s a running joke in the startup community that “first time founders focus on product, but second time founders focus on distribution” (here’s Justin Kan - Founder of Twitch - saying it) and unfortunately for me it took until the second time around for it to sink in because of how clustered our customer base was at my last startup in the Media Publishing industry.
Once we secured one customer, we had basically secured them all.
But now I get it loud and clear.
So I’ve Decided to Exist Online
I used to be a pretty low digital footprint kind of guy.
No Instagram. No TikTok. I pretty much just had Facebook page with my profile pic from I believe 2015 and a LinkedIn (which I got because business school I think)?
This was partly the result of some Hackernews style pessmism, partly techno-paranoia, but it was mostly your garden variety “I don’t want to be obviously and publicly not popular on the internet” anxiety disguised as lazy virtue signaling.
Then on a whim I wanted to start writing (this blog) about a year ago and needed somewhere to put it.
So boom, I got a little de facto online presence going.
Then I realized pretty quickly there was a bit of benefit from that presence (like my grandfather can now hear my thoughts without me having to visit Pennsylvania - Hey Pop!) and I kept writing mostly because I enjoyed it.
A few months later while living solopreneur life, I needed a way to funnel people to my calendar while also maybe snagging a few more subscribers to my essays along the way, so boom I got a Linktree.
And I signed up right because it seemed neat and Alex is a very cool guy™!
…which turned out to be fortuitous because the tweet was quickly deleted (Alex wasn’t supposed to tweet that link lol).
As I explored Farcaster, it hit me that I had found a little oasis on the internet.
It was filled with mostly builder/entrepreneur types, but also had a ton of super sharp and creative artists, investors, and developers. Imagine a Twitter style interface, but no billionaires trying to earn fake internet points to soothe their constant itch for ego tickles or bots trying to undermine democracy one meme at a time.
Just a bunch of solarpunk techno-optimists looking to build the future.
It was heaven.
Your author, dear reader, immediately became a power user, somehow got embedded into the “recommended follow” new subscriber pipeline algorithm, and rode a serendipitous wave of new user influx to a decent level of visibility on the platform.
I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but within a few months of riding this wave I met a new human being that mentioned they liked my casts in person!
At a real life physical meatspace event!
My digital and physical space colliding got me thinking about social in a serious way.
What could this weird, narcissistic posting thing do for me?
Is there something valuable here?
What had I overlooked?
(***Can you hear that?***)
(***It’s the Digital Media and Marketing folks reading this essay throwing their hands up in frustration at this obnoxious technologist taking credit for discovering something they’ve been saying for a decade 😂***)
So to process these feelings I did what I do best and dove deep into a brand new topic instead of working on things I’m supposed to be working on
Have you Heard of Mr. Beast?
Your kids definitely have.
He’s a fairly uncharismatic 24 year old that is responsible for what I’m pretty sure is the majority of the economic value generated by his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina.
He also planted about 24 Million trees in 2019 - which (depending on what source you believe) accounted for roughly 5-10% of all the trees the largest tree-planting nonprofit in the world, the Arbor Bay Foundation, has planted across all their charitable efforts in it’s entire 50 year history.
He has over 120 Million subscribers to his main YouTube Channel, over 200 Million subscribers when you include his supplementary channels, and his content has been translated into at least 10 languages so far to generate a collective 30 BILLION views on his content.
I like to think of this insane set of metrics as “everyone on Spaceship Earth has probably watched about 3 Mr. Beast videos”.
His entire operation is absolutely insane (in a good way) and I’ll explore it in a future essay, but here’s the part that stuck out to me as an entrepreneur.
He launched a delivery only food chain (in the middle of the pandemic) in December of 2020 with 3 months of prep and proceeded to generate $100M in topline revenue in the first six months of the business without negatively impacting the rest of his content operation.
Now I can hear the “food margins are so thin” and “it was white-labeled” and all the other whinging and gnashing of teeth out there already, but I’m here to tell you this is absolutely mind blowing.
In the midst of a global health crisis, Jimmy created a food & beverage brand out of nothingness with enough energy and momentum to be on pace to take in more revenue than globally recognized chains like Cinnabon in the first year of its existence.
And they did it by partnering with independent restaurants that had spare kitchen capacity and qualifying their cooking through certification courses.
It wasn’t flawless, but it was unprecedented.
There is nothing about pulling off something like this on the curriculum at Harvard Business School.
This is a completely new thing in the history of startups and for a revolution that is completely recorded and uploaded to the internet, it’s incredibly underreported.
I can understand if you think I’m exaggerating.
It’s more hype than Beatlemania.
And it’s for cheeseburgers from a guy who makes YouTube videos.
The Distribution power at play here is incredible.
This is my second Whoa moment.
What a time to be alive.
The Floodgates Openeth
At just a fraction of Mr. Beast’s reach, Creators like MKHBD (16.5 Million Subscribers), Casey Neistat (12.9 Million Subscribers), Emma Chamberlain (11.9 Million Subscribers), Ryan Trahan (11.2 Million Subscribers), StoneMountain64 (2.3 Million Subscribers), and more and more Youtubers with varied and fascinating career arcs still being written started to materialize in front of my eyes.
Each are entertainers and tastemakers and entrepreneurs in their own right.
I started to see clearly the raw power of a distribution channel with direct push notification access to a quantity of people equivalent to the 60th largest country in the world by population.
This is an absurd number to think about, especially in the context of these Creator’s ability to develop communities of likeminded folk.
Honestly, it’s very Network State.
This is clearly a different way to reach and connect with people.
This isn’t just another superbowl ad although the superficial numbers might feel similar.
It is a direct link into people’s brains that they’ve not only voluntarily opted into, but where they actively want you to tell (and sell) them the things you want to say.
And at some point I remembered TikTok existed (lol).
I learned about Khaby Lame (153.4 Million Followers), Charli D’Amelio (149.3 Million Followers), BellaPoarch (92.6 Million Followers), and a ton more. To me, what sets this medium people apart is the sheer tidal wave of content they produce for their fans.
While Youtube videos tend to get posted weekly or biweekly (at the fastest), a TikTok star will generally post multiple times a week and often they’ll do it daily. They might even generate multiple content pieces in single a day to feed the omnipresent hunger for content!
It’s a faster game than Youtube, with quicker feedback loops to rise up, but naturally this comes with the risk of rapid popularity decay as well.
And that’s just the tip of this attention iceberg.
The fact is that every social platform has some version of these Creators that can whisper into the mind of millions of people with just the press of a post button.
Honestly, writing this makes me feel like Bill Gates reflecting on his completely botched call about dismissing the Internet as an unpromising niche use case for computers (told beautifully in his infamous Internet Tidal Wave essay)
What’s the point of all this?
Well, every single one of these Creators exist in a state of raw potential energy amidst an empire they could create if only they chose to stretch boldly into new territories.
There’s a tried and true Creator business model that starts with just earning ad revenues, morphs into brand deals, then shifts to apparel/content syndication/specialty items unique to their fans, but we’re seeing the beginnings of the power of these known quantities embracing an aggressive extension of what they do - like Emma Chamberlain’s coffee brand that just raised $7 million in funding.
Some will go at it by themselves… and many will search for the right operating partner like Mr. Beast.
A ton will fail. A lot won’t.
It’s an incredible experimental time in business building.
Yet with all these exciting ideas something didn’t sit right with me.
It all felt… shallow somehow?
Devoid of substance in some degree?
This was especially salient to the “long form essay writer” part of my soul.
The wrongness hit more clearly in the short form video than the long form, but a lot of things I saw made me feel a hollowness I couldn’t reconcile.
Until I rediscovered a person I thought was pretty obnoxious.
You’ve probably seen some clips of him before (especially if you’re in crypto) and probably brushed him off.
I had dismissed him maybe a year ago basically out of hand as an annoying motivational speaker type (it was a “those who can’t do, talk about doing” type of dismissal - I’ve grown a lot this past year I promise).
And to be fair, it’s easy to dismiss anyone in any field when all you see is a short video of him telling you to do something.
A lot of his content is very DO THE WORK! POST THE VIDEO! FUCK THE HATERS! which doesn’t always hit with me - especially if I’m not in the “buck up and grind” mood to receive it.
It feels super Tony Robbins or something, which isn’t inherently bad, but it just wasn’t telling me anything deep… which, in hindsight, is a ridiculous expectation of a 30 second video clip.
The reality that I missed is that shallow is the point of short form video.
It’s a top of funnel tool to pique interest with a single nugget - nothing more, nothing less.
But once you get through that top of funnel, there might be real gold at the bottom.
Specifically with Gary, I found this incredible video of him that spoke directly to problems at the heart of traditional media companies and he hit executives (and me) with thought after thought of precise, useful, and tangible advice and perspective on digital marketing.
I heard truths that I learned the hard way at my last e-commerce startup mixed in with ideas I had straight up never considered… that could clearly help me work through the distribution of products today — which, for a guy who considers himself pretty perceptive, was really humbling when I realized I had to accept just how wrong I was by writing this guy off completely.
He’s not a wizard and he gets things wrong, but he has some real earned secrets in his talk track rotation which I now respect and try to learn from.
So this churning pool of chaotic possibility and digital content across multiple platforms and people made me wonder about the crossover between this incredible series of things I had missed in Creatorland and the tech world in which I spend most of my time.
And it hit like a ton of bricks when I realized the prototypes already exist for tech and business.
Who else could it be but the Shark Tank judges?
Their strong public presence gives them an asymmetric influence on the shaping of their business and investing career.
Their deal flow pipelines must be incredible.
Or… we could look at Trump perhaps?
I don’t think anyone could imagine such a meteoric political rise without years of tabloid appearances and Apprentice publicity doing the heavy lifting of introducing him as a candidate.
Or we can talk about the final boss of billionaires with social media pull, old Elon Musk.
It’s not crazy to opine that he would’ve accomplished much less in the past decade at Tesla and Spacex if he didn’t have his twitter account to keep his fans (and enemies) apprised of his actions and vision (and controversies).
This cascading avalanche of discovery and ideation and realization is my third and final “Whoa”.
So what now?
I don’t know.
I don’t know where this is going to go and I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get there, but what is glaringly obvious to me now is that (surprise surprise) most people don’t read essays.
They consume content in other ways.
They learn on other platforms.
They engage in different contexts.
The data shows this unequivocally.
Clearly, the attention economy is wide and big and vast.
And to not participate in this economy on the consumer’s terms is to intentionally ignore the tech maxim of meeting users where they are.
I’m not willing to forgo the eyeball liquidity of the majority of the planet.
So… I’m out there (everywhere) now.
The profiles are sparse and the content is… getting better, but these will show more signs of life in the coming weeks and months.
And I appreciate you joining me in this strange land called the Internet as I figure it all out.
I would love to hear from those of you veterans of these terrifying new platforms on what you think works well 🙃
If you think I’ve missed a platform I should pay attention to - please comment below!
You can follow along (and inevitably cringe while I figure out what works for each platform) at these links
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