The Battle For The Soul Of The Creator Economy

The “future of work” is dead or maybe it finally arrived in the form of what we are now calling the “creator economy.”

This week Twitter announced that it was going to enable monetization through “super followers” on its platform. It appears to be taking some of the features of Substack, Patreon, and others and bringing them within the Twitter umbrella.

Here’s a preview of the screenshot they teased:

Twitter's new 'Communities' and 'Super Follows' will make it more like  Facebook and Patreon

I’m both worried and intrigued.

Worried because the potential to make a ton of money is going to attract all kinds of people who are not invested in the health of this new emerging ecosystem.

I’m also intrigued because many of the people that do seem to already be succeeding in this world do seem to care deeply about how they engage with the people closest to them.

However it seems as though all of these new opportunities risk blinding people as they get drunk on potential monetization opportunities.

This is a natural result of the narrative around the creator economy which mostly focuses on how to make money, how to scale, how to build audiences and how to invest in the space.

This is all great but to me its a little too much economy, not enough creator.

A lot of the creators I look up to seem to know a deeper secret. That the goal is not to monetize but to find the things they want to do and then build a life around continuing to do those things. If monetization helps with the life design, then its worth doing.

All this is to say that almost no one is talking about the soul of the creator economy.

If the creator economy is to last and offer a meaningful path for people to do the creative work they want to be doing it will have to offer a different environment than the current culture of work. It will have to be about more than enabling high-paid Big Tech employees to quit their jobs and make even more than when they were employed.

For the creator economy to be something more than creating a new uber-elite of rich independent creatives, it needs to ground itself in a culture of creativity, generosity, and mentorship. It will require current creators (including myself) to contemplate important questions:

  • Are we going to reward people based on their existing social capital and connections or actively search for people creating things in interesting ways?
  • Are we going to optimize over making the most money as possible or are we going to use money to fuel a long-term creative journey?
  • Are we going to scale our own operations infinitely or hit pause along the way to bring others along with us, regardless of their background?
  • How can we gift money to other creators without expecting a “return on investment”?

Unless people start getting serious about developing a different kind of culture that goes beyond the default competitiveness and more is better ethic of the rest of the working world the creator economy risks becoming seen as a money grab for the credentialed elite.

I want to highlight two major risks. First the risk of thinking that the solo creator employment identity is one that will universally be seen as something noble, and two, the risk of people tearing each other apart from within the creator economy. I want to explore these issues and also brainstorm what we might do about it. I hope you see this as the start of an ongoing conversation and can add to it and help me move it forward.

First a quick rehash of how I became an accidental creator making money from selling things online over the past five years.

My Journey To Accidental Creator

My first “create in public” post, lol

I had been writing publicly since I started a business school blog in 2010 and before that had always messed around with blogging. I had even made some friends through my writing. It was pretty cool. Yet when I quit my job in 2017 writing never seemed more than something I might use to land potential leads for consulting work. After six months of consulting I earned enough to cover a year’s worth of expenses so I decided to hit pause. If I was more aware of the creative energy inside of me I could have predicted what happened next but I didn’t. Without anything to work on I launched a blog, podcast, and a bunch of other small experiments. I had no intention to monetize any of it. I didn’t think it was even possible.

In the summer of 2018 I ran my first cohort-based course experiment in inspired by Seth Godin’s altMBA. “Solopreneur shift” brought together two things I loved, learning and connection. I loved it and mostly did it because I thought it might help with my long-term goal of potentially teaching at a University. I never thought doing online courses directly could be an aim in itself.

In November 2018 after moving to Taiwan I decided to spend some of my free time (read: I couldn’t find any freelance work) building a strategy consulting skills course. My desire to build this was based on the reactions from several people I had shared a mini workshop version with over the past year: “Wow you need to share this.” So I built it….and they didn’t come. I sold five copies in four months netting about $389. Online learning was a fun hobby where I could create stuff to give away to friends that I would fund through paid work.

When I was in Bali in January 2019 two friends changed my perspective. Jonny Miller told me about Tiago Forte and his STEVEs framework and Jay Dike told me I didn’t know a damn thing about online marketing (he was right).

Tiago’s framework was that the future of online education was going to be made up of Short, Tiny, Exclusive, Virtual Experiences (though he seems to have replaced tiny with massive). This shifted my mindset away from bringing traditional education online and instead creating something completely different.

In 2019 it still seemed early. Tiago and others had bold ambition but were still pricing courses at around $400 and that was after several years of hard work. The paths for outsiders to quickly opt-in to a “creator economy” were not fully legible.

This changed towards the end of 2019 when Li Jin published her article on the Passion Economy. She started:

The top-earning writer on the paid newsletter platform Substack earns more than $500,000 a year from reader subscriptions. The top content creator on Podia, a platform for video courses and digital memberships, makes more than $100,000 a month

This article spread like wildfire through the hustle-centric investor and tech crowds. Immediately I noticed people reaching out to me, especially full-time employees, who were asking for advice for how to leave their BigTech jobs and make a living creating stuff online. After making $16k online in 2019 I told them I had no idea.

In 2020 the internet changed because work changed but even in January before the pandemic it seemed that the creator economy was happening. In January my StrategyU YouTube subscribers exploded from 500 to thousands and I began monetizing my channel. I don’t care about being rich but I have a hard time ignoring money that seems to just show up just like anyone else.

All of these trends were supercharged with the stay-at-home orders and many seemed to use their savings to take online courses. My sales tripled in April and they stayed there for the rest of the year.

For the last year I’ve been making a living from the creator economy. Wild.

In January of 2019 I made money online from five sources with the highest being $60 from Amazon affiliate links. In January of 2021 I made money from 11 online sources, including eight of them over $50 (Gumroad, Teachable, Patreon, Substack, Teachable, Stripe, YouTube, Medium).


The Creator Economy Is Great But Problems Have Emerged

I am optimistic about the internet and its power to let people create. I am the one saying we need 100x more creators. I am a believer in what Erich Fromm said about creativity, that it was a way to find a connection with the world and something bigger than yourself and that this might be a path out to meaning and even love.

The way I think about the potential of creating online starts with two beliefs:

  1. Everyone has an urge to create but a lot of this is hidden because most of our economy still depends on people knowing how to follow rules, maintain order and control others.
  2. The power to create and share online is essentially free and there are no gatekeepers on a majority of the internet. Most people have not adapted to this and people that have made money in traditional ways with the right credential won’t be comfortable with it for a long time. This will be laughable by the time Gen Z is their prime working years

The desire to create and share things has existed as long as humans have existed but in the past five years the technological hurdles and friction to create online have slowly eroded.

With the proliferation of people coming online and experimenting in new ways to make money online I have seen two things that could potentially undermine the acceptance of the creator economy as a positive type of employment.

Problem #1: Being a solo creator does not yet come with the positive halo effect that full-time employment offers. This means the creator economy needs to position itself as a better alternative to traditional employment in order to thrive

As more people have come to the internet to make money it has attracted bad actors who put their stink on anyone trying to sell online. Spend some time on Instagram and YouTube and you will likely be hit with a video ad from a hustlepreneur promising to show you how to make $100k from the beach.

Besides the fact that reasonable people don’t work from beaches, this leads to a negative halo around the whole ecosystem. It’s also why it feels smart for the full-time employee making a good salary to deride almost anyone making a living by selling things online.

Where does this sentiment come from?

Full-time employment is righteous and noble. This is just the way it is, for now. Work a full-time job, even at a place like Wells Fargo where defrauding customers seems to be part of the strategy, and most people will see you as a good, upstanding citizen.

This is not the same with being a digital creator. What do you mean you sell things online? You don’t have to work every day? What are you talking about?

I think part of this discomfort comes from the relative lack of constraints compared to normal jobs. In a normal job your compensation, hours and schedule are constrained. For the self-employed creator you can work 10 hours or you can work 90. You can try to earn $10k or you can shoot for $1 million.

This is amplified by making the private motivations of people public. The greedy and ambitious creator cannot negotiate their bonus in private and instead must share prices publicly and share their vision to an audience.

There are likely many more manipulative, aggressive, and psychopaths among the ranks of respectable companies than people who are trying to make money in the creator economy. However a few bad apples will hurt the creator ecosystem much worse than Jeff Skilling ever hurt the reputations of corporate executives.

Problem #2: The “wrong reasons” trap threatens to poison trust within the creator ecosystem and turn it into another type of employment we hope to escape

As people have started to make real money in the creator economy I have seen some competitiveness, driven by envy and jealousy, creep into the culture. If the creator economy is going to thrive it will be because people both hold each other accountable and support each other.

This is one of the best defenses against distrust from the outside. If we can build a culture centered around support and creativity, it will help to shift the narrative of the good kinds of work worth pursuing in society. Envy and jealous are normal human impulses but are likely just going to undermine your own energy. Helping ten people get started creating or mentoring others is a better use of time than dunking on bad actors.

This needs to be a vital part of the culture of the creator ecosystem. Without it, it will just devolve into the competitiveness and tribal politics that many of us sought to escape when we went indie in the first place.

I’ve seen many offhand comments in private discussions of other’s bad motivations. This is simply the Bachelor “in it for the wrong reasons” fallacy. Everyone assumes they are in it for the right reasons and others are all in it for the wrong reasons.

The reality is that humans are complex and that we are all pursuing various things for a mix of motivations. What separates people is often not their motivations but their ability to disguise their most aggressive and socially unacceptable motivations. I used to consult to c-suite executives, masters at hiding their desires for power and wealth.

To pretend you are not trying to make money is disingenuous but to assume others are only in it for the money or some other less acceptable aim ignores the reality of how most people are wired.

Five Ideas For A Healthy Creator Economy

The early stages of the creator economy have been amazing for people that have been creating online for many years. You have people that have been writing online for ten years that are now able to fund for their writing via an enthusiastic and supportive audience. You have others who have valuable knowledge to share that don’t need to have their dreams shattered by a five-year PhD process before being able to develop their own courses. You have others building interest-based communities that might be better than the network effects of a grad school at only $5 or $10 a month.

I want this ecosystem to thrive and I want it to become an acceptable way to make money while living a respectable life. We live in societies where there is broad political consensus around full-time jobs as the main way to distribute wealth to people. I think tremendous harm is done by this current arrangement mostly because the current labor economy only seems to still work for highly-educated knowledge workers. If we are just trying to save ourselves from moving from high-paid corporate jobs to high-paid creator jobs we are missing the point.

I don’t have a Marshall plan for creators (that’s completely the wrong idea) but I do have some ideas for how we should think about the health of the ecosystem

  1. More creation: The path to getting rid of bad actors is not to spend time trying to chase them out of the ecosystem but to encourage more positive voices. This includes all people. Teach your aunt how to self-publish the book they always wanted to write. Show your uncle that he can learn how to play an instrument on YouTube. Teach your kids how to launch a podcast to explore their curiosity. Reminder: isn’t about making money. The key is to make it about showing people how easy it is to create. My bolder call for creation can be found in my call for 100x more creators
  2. Develop principles: Develop your own set of principles and criteria for how you think about making money and how you decide which platforms to engage in. Don’t just chase every new way to make money because its the latest hot thing. Try to figure out what you are trying to create and cultivate beyond making money for the sake of it. Most people will burn out if they don’t have these deeper principles anyway.
  3. Charity principle: Don’t fall into the “wrong reasons” trap. Default to the charity principle when seeing other creators and fight the urge to dunk on others creating or sharing in public. Most people have healthy motivations but may need coaching or a friend rather than discouragement.
  4. Find others to help as early as possibleAvoid the mistake of thinking you’ll help people once you’ve “made it.” The easiest people to help are the ones right behind you on your path. This ecosystem will thrive if prestige is earned through mentorship rather than money-making.
  5. Embrace “gift economy” approaches: Money is great but you know what is better? Meeting people who are not able to afford expensive things online but will blow you away with their curiosity and determination to learn. Here is how I’ve integrated a gift economy approach into my course. Please steal and copy.
  6. Experiment beyond default economics: There is a large push by silicon valley to invest in the creator ecosystem through traditional venture capital and also framing the conversation around thinking about creators as businesses. ISA’s sound great but we know there is something icky about it all. These default models of investment optimize for unlimited growth and they will crush souls to create profits if they have to.We need to make the hard decisions to say no to shiny offers of money and take the slower but more interesting path of cooperatives, one-off apprenticeships, fellowships, and models that haven’t been invented yet.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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