Ask Patreon CEO Jack Conte about the momentum the creator economy has seen lately and you’ll get an emphatic “Hallelujah!”
“Finally, everybody seems to be excited about compensating creative people what they’re worth instead of the minimum amount that tech companies can get away with,” Conte says in the latest episode of Fast Company’s podcast Creative Control. “So I’m thrilled that big companies, small companies, startups, venture capital—everybody’s trying to solve this problem of how do we make creativity not just accessible and available for people and ubiquitous and cheap to enter into, but how do we make it a lucrative profession.”
Conte has sought to do his part in that regard with Patreon.
Since launching in 2013, Patreon has become the platform of record for creators to charge monthly or annual subscription fees for access to their content. Patreon has amassed 8 million patrons (i.e., subscribers to creators) and has paid out $3.5 billion to more than 250,000 creators. (It originally crossed the $1 billion threshold in 2019.) The company itself was valued by investors last year at $4 billion.
“When we first launched, the mega pain point that we were solving—and that we solved better than any company in the world—is, I’ve got this awesome online fan base, but I’m making $200 a month in ad revenue, even though I’m reaching a million people a month. That’s fucked,” Conte says. “That was our product in 2013. And since, so much has changed.”
Here’s how Conte is thinking about where Patreon fits into the creator economy today.
Video is coming to Patreon—just don’t call it YouTube
Last year, Conte announced that Patreon was developing the capability to host native video on the platform, videos that would be uploaded directly to Patreon rather than being embedded from YouTube or Vimeo. It’s been an issue for creators, one that was underscored recently as Vimeo raised its prices, which left smaller creators who preferred the platform’s features in a bind. There’s no rollout date yet on Patreon’s video product, but Conte is adamant about what it won’t be.
“Patreon does not serve advertisers. We don’t work with brands. We never have. And that creates a very different set of incentives, a very different set of governance metrics for the business,” he says. “What types of things are we optimizing for? What types of things are we building? How do we prioritize? All those things change when your primary customer changes. Our primary customer is creators, and so the way we’re going to build video ends up being incredibly different from something like YouTube or Facebook and the way they build video.”
“We’re not trying to get billions of people on the platform and be able to build personalized content, recommendation algorithms, and discovery,” Conte continues. “The reason we don’t need to do that is because with just a few million patrons, Patreon is sending a billion and a half dollars a year to creators. Patreon is about depth of connection versus breadth of connections.”
Fighting a winnable war of discovery
Conte routinely notes that Patreon is a creator-first platform. However, one could argue that one major way to support creators would be to enhance discoverability. Being able to browse podcasters, writers, comedians, and other people on the platform instead of knowing exactly who you want to support could be a game changer for smaller creators in particular.
“I’m not saying we’ll never help creators find new audience,” Conte says. “Of course we’re gonna do that in different ways down the road. It’s just not what we’re doing right now.”
Patreon was built as a way for creators to leverage an existing audience formed on other platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. Conte says that if Patreon were to prioritize audience building then it’ll be “going to war with the biggest tech companies in the world. [We’d be] fighting them all at once on the same problem that they’re trying to solve. I’m not sure that’s a war that Patreon’s gonna win right now.”
At the moment, Conte says he’s zeroed in on doing what he thinks Patreon does best: “Our focus is helping creators build their businesses. It’s getting creators paid. It turns out that’s a very different problem than helping creators find audience. They may seem related, and in some ways they are, but they require very different road maps. They require very different skill sets. They require very different types of expertise. They require very different products. And they have very different implications for the business and who your competitors are. It would require 100% of our resources even just to make a dent against those other companies.”
A more holistic middle class
Much has been discussed on the need for there to be a more robust middle class in the creator economy. This issue is certainly what Conte had in mind in building Patreon as a membership platform where creators can earn revenue directly from their audience. Currently, 50% of Patreon’s payment volume goes toward creators earning $12,000 to $120,000 annually.
“That’s the creative middle class right there,” Conte says, noting most creators supplement that income through touring, merchandise sales, and other ancillary revenue. “If you’re willing to put in the grind for four years, you could be making a living as a creative person. It’s more like an option than it is a dream.
“I think people don’t know that we’re living in a day and age where you can have a podcast and be making $250,000 a month and still you go to dinner parties and no one’s ever heard of your podcast,” he continues. “If you want to make media and edit and be yourself and not have a boss and do the thing that lights you up, that is an option now.”
However, thinking about a middle class for creators shouldn’t be solely about financial income.
As more people go full time with their creative pursuits, the need for healthcare and other benefits afforded employees—and the kind of collective bargaining rights afforded workers who unionize—is becoming more apparent. “I believe all of this is gonna be solved over the next decade or two,” Conte says.
He likens solving these issues for creators to the B2B and enterprise software industry, suggesting that there will be a boom of companies developed around the most salient issues facing creators and their businesses. “I’m pretty sure there’s gonna be a marketplace company that emerges that connects creators with postproduction assistance. I’ll be damned if that company doesn’t pop up and become a billion-dollar company in the next 10 years. How about creator healthcare? I’ll be damned if a company doesn’t pop up in the next 10 years that helps ensure that creators are covered and have disability insurance if they get hurt and can’t make a video that week,” he says.
Yet Conte doesn’t see Patreon building these features into the platform . . . yet.
“At the end of the day, we want all of these things to exist. It doesn’t mean we’re going to build everything,” he says. “Some of those things we wanna build. Which ones? I don’t know. That’s our 10-year outlook. But I’m sure some of them will make sense for us to acquire. Or some of them will make sense just for us to partner with.”
The future of the creator economy
Patreon has been an OG in the creator economy. After all, the company was born out of Conte’s own frustrations as a musician not earning enough from views and streams alone.
So where does he see this all going?
“It’s going to a world where being a creative person is normal. Where there are hundreds of millions of us that when we graduate school—or not—we think of being a creator and a podcaster and a video creator like being a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or anything else,” he says. “And we’re pretty close to it. As all these changes happen over the next decade, we’re basically gonna get to a culture where the stigma of the starving artist fades away completely and artists are valued, respected, cherished members of society who are adding value to the world and global production like anyone else.”