Andy Samberg, the 27-year-old breakout star of this season's Saturday Night Live, got scads of attention for "Lazy Sunday," a gangsta-rap parody that has been the funniest thing on the show since Will Ferrell left. Yet Samberg is quickly becoming as celebrated for the story of how he got the SNL gig. He became a featured player on the show in part because of the work he'd done on his own sketch comedy Web site, TheLonelyIsland.com. He and two childhood friends produced their own bits and circulated them online. That helped them land an agent and eventually get hired at SNL.
The Internet has long been a launching pad for creative talent. Aided by an unprecedented assortment of technology tools (blogs, podcasts, broadband video, etc.), Horatio Alger stories like Samberg's are becoming increasingly common. But those who follow in the bushy-haired comedian's footsteps won't have to do as much bootstrapping. A new crop of Web marketplaces lets aspiring creatives show their work and make it easier for talent seekers to find them. In addition, more and more companies are soliciting ideas online from fans and freelancers, opening another path to landing that career-launching gig.
The opportunities aren't just in the entertainment business, either. From graphic design to advertising, a growing number of industries now offer outlets for aspiring talents to get noticed and, often, to get paid while they're waiting for their big break. For example, Threadless is a hipster fashion company that's had great success asking people to upload T-shirt designs that site visitors then rate each week. Winning submissions get printed in limited editions, and the creators are rewarded with $750 in cash and $250 in site credit. Those prizes aren't going to make anyone rich, except maybe Threadless, which can freely reprint successful designs. But it does create opportunities. When the company's founders needed to hire a graphic artist, they didn't have to look far. Ross Zietz, a 24-year-old from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had won eight weekly contests. "They saw what I was capable of through my work for the competitions," says Zietz, who had also been approached to design T-shirts by others who had seen his Threadless portfolio.
Larger companies are starting to get into the act as well. Converse, a division of Nike, has received more than 1,500 video submissions since late 2004, when it invited consumers to send in 24-second shorts inspired by Chuck Taylor shoes and the Converse brand. It has used 40 of the videos as TV spots, rewarding the creators with $10,000 each. The directing team of David Karlsberg and Gary Nardino have had two of their submissions make it to TV. And while the prize money was welcome, the real prize was the attention they captured from potential employers. Last year, the pair signed with commercial production company Two Trick Pony. "To be honest, I probably would have paid $10,000 to have some of my commercials on TV," Karlsberg says. "It really opened up a lot of doors."
Independent sites trying to be mini eBays for creative talent are experimenting with how to showcase submissions and make some money. Revver.com, backed by some of the same venture capitalists who invested in Skype, splices ads onto the ends of posted videos and splits the resulting revenue with the clips' creators. It hasn't had a breakout viral video yet, but based on the number of people who saw hits such as JibJab's This Land!, a creator could make in the tens of thousands on ad revenue alone. Adcandy.com holds contests for ads, slogans, and product ideas, offering modest prizes while trying to sell the ideas on behalf of the participants. Although intriguing, these unproven ideas raise some thorny questions. "Does the Web site serve as an agent for the creators? Who owns the ideas?" asks Joseph Jaffe, author of Life After the 30-Second Spot.
There's no doubt that unresolved issues remain, but "opportunities are starting to take on more momentum because people are being more open to it," says Cory Treffiletti, an executive at digital marketing agency Carat Fusion. He compares the effect to that of the Sundance Film Festival, and sure enough, the folks you'd expect at Sundance are now hanging out at places like video-sharing site Sharkle.com. The Hollywood production and talent-management company Anonymous Content (which produced Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) just established a partnership with Sharkle that lets it mine the site's homegrown videos for ideas or talent in need of representation. "Ostensibly," says Anonymous's Michael Sugar, "the Internet has become one big forum for auditions."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.