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The Creator Economy:

Tien Tzuo
CEO, Zuora

When you hear the words ‘subscription economy’ you know exactly what to think: usership, flexibility, 24/7 access, and the room to grow a service to match the desires of people everywhere. What many have now deemed the ‘Creator Economy’ – a software-facilitated economy that allows online creators to earn revenue from their creations without a middleman – is closely intersecting with the Subscription Economy, and it’s growing faster than ever before. In fact, the Creator Economy’s entire valuation is estimated to be a $100 billion industry. Let’s dive deeper into this industry that looks complicated from the outside looking in.

Recently, I sat down with content creator, journalist, and ZEO, Stefan Etienne, in order to learn more about what Gen Z and millennials are up to with streaming and other forms of content creation, fueling the new Creator Economy. We also touch on the subject of improving subscriptions for content creators, as well as the right and wrong examples of it in the industry. 

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. 

Welcome, Stefan. I’m glad to have you here so we can talk about the Creator Economy and how it interfaces with the Subscription Economy.  But first, not everybody knows who you are or understands the Creator Economy. Help us dig into this a bit more. What is a creator? What do you think drives today’s content creators?

Sure, Tien! Thanks for having me and hosting this Q&A! 

A content creator is someone who contributes information (audio, visual, and/or text) using digital media. YouTubers, Twitch streamers, Spotify podcasters, Substack writers – those are all examples of content creators. 

I believe successful content creators find a good balance between what they like to produce, what their audience wants to see, and what they can realistically deliver consistently. After all, they all want to be seen and heard. To ensure I meet all of those criteria, I always try to make sure I actually enjoy the creative process. It usually gives me that push needed to see difficult projects and ideas through.

Tell us a little about you and what you do. You started at what age? Like, why don’t you have a normal tech job?

Officially, I started writing about tech and hardware when I was just 12-years-old. At the time I was really just focused on creating a technology blog, called LaptopMemo, that was impressionable by a teenager, which at the time, I felt was rare. I picked it up quickly, learning some code, different CMS platforms, and by emailing different journalists. Less than a year into my writing, I started receiving review units — that’s hardware seeded by companies and their PR for testing and reviews; this was the precursor to the brand sponsorships you see every influencer has today. Fast forward years later, after working with just about every major technology company under the sun, including Apple, Google, Dell, and Microsoft, I decided I wanted to pivot and try working for a professional publication. 

I quickly realized that while the professional experience of working with publications was great, I’d be fourth or fifth in line in terms of story priority. When I ran LaptopMemo, essentially as its living representative, instead I’d be first in line. That’s when I realized the importance of social equity. I also realized creators gain strength when they build a platform strong enough to support themselves.

Nowadays, I still write, but I do more content creation on my Twitch channel, streaming video games and discussing recent tech events. I think you’ll get a different response from every content creator –  a lot of them are in it for money, let’s be honest – but for me it boils down to two important things: First, I love learning, using, and talking about new technology. Second, the whole concept of creating original content is fun and challenging for me.

What would you say creators, we could even specify streamers, are most focused on right now? I admit, I don’t watch Twitch too often. What’s the move (as the Gen Z kids say) right now for content creators? Are people joining forces or going lone wolf?

Right now, I’d say monetization and avoiding the censorship of ad platforms that are built into sites like YouTube and Twitch. I see a lot of experimentation from content creators to get around that. For example, if they stream or produce episodic content, they’re splitting up broadcasts between YouTube and Twitch — where it will reach the widest audience — and then offering longer, uncensored, and/or early release versions of their content, at a paywalled service like Patreon, Fanhouse, OnlyFans, or elsewhere. 

This approach allows them to reach the largest audience, while also giving them an opportunity to directly monetize their content with a monthly subscription, without alienating their audience. 

On the other hand though, some people are teaming up, creating entire media and talent management companies, like well-known Twitch streamer Pokimane with her gamer talent agency RTS or Naomi Osaka teaming up with Lebron James to create a media company.

What are a few ways (maybe three?) that subscriptions can improve the Creative Economy?

Well, right now I think subscriptions are doing a lot of good for the creators in the content creation space. Subscriptions allow creators to develop direct relationships with their audiences and make a comfortable living off of revenue garnered through sites like Patreon and Onlyfans. While some creators are using their large fan bases to create and sell merchandise, others use monthly subscriptions to create exclusive fan experiences, like video chatting with your favorite content creator, doing Q&A, or joining a multiplayer game. 

Second, subscriptions give creators the flexibility to experiment and expand their content. For example, episodic subscriptions allow creators the opportunities to experiment with content that goes beyond a singular story arc, stream, or experience. These story arcs would attract subscribers (viewers) for a specific storyline or characters. I think there should be subscriptions dedicated to monetizing those stories, so you can subscribe to a series that your favorite creator is a part of, while not having to watch through their whole channel for the content that you’re actually interested in. 

Lastly, I’d say subscriptions give content creators a lot of autonomy. Between Twitch decreasing revenue splits, OnlyFans almost going against its core audience, and YouTube removing the dislike button, there’s a recurring theme: platform companies have largely ignored the asks and inquiries of the content creators they profit off of, even those with followings of more than 1 million subscribers.

Having creator-specific subscriptions can help give them some of their creative freedom back, instead of adhering to the content policies of their respective content platforms. 

Is it harder to get into the content creation field than it was before?

Let me explain my answer: Compared to when I started over ten year ago? Yes, it is harder. However, the technology and services available today are easier to use and in many cases, free. While it may be harder to build and maintain an audience that cares, I think it’s easier to get started than it was before. Overnight content creator successes will always exist; so will those on a journey to the top, one subscription at a time.

Thanks for chatting, Stefan! It’s been a pleasure learning about what young people such as yourself are doing, as well as getting some insight into all things streaming. 

Thanks, Tien. It was great talking to you. Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to my channel! 

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